Robert Davis MBE DL - Former Deputy Leader of Westminster Council

Posted on 22 June 2020

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the world of real estate and the built environment.  We are currently recording the podcast digitally so please do bear with us if the sound quality isn’t up to our usual studio standard. 

Today I am really delighted to welcome Robert Davis.  Robert Davis was an elected councillor on Westminster City Council for over 36 years and its longest-serving councillor.  For ten years, between 2008 and 2018, he served as Deputy Leader, he also chaired the Council’s Planning Committee for seventeen years.  He was Lord Mayor and also served as Chairman of the London Mayor’s Association and he is one of Her Majesty’s Deputy Lieutenants for Greater London.  He was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2015 for his service to local government and planning.  Amongst many initiatives Robert conceived the idea for and produced the annual award winning West End Live in Trafalgar Square.  This showcase of the West End’s musical theatre is now in its fifteenth year and each year has raised £400,000.  Now widowed, in May 2007 Robert entered into a civil partnership with the late Sir Simon Milton, former Deputy Mayor of London.  So, now we are going to hear from Robert Davis MBE on his career in local government and his role as part of the power couple with the late Sir Simon Milton. 

Robert, welcome to the digital studio. 

Robert Davis

I am delighted to be with you today.    

Susan Freeman

You were a Westminster councillor for 36 years, you are also a solicitor although I have it on good authority that you wanted a career on the stage, so what happened to the stage career and how did you get started in local politics? 

Robert Davis

Well they say that all politicians are failed actors and that was the case with me.  I realised pretty early on at university that I really wasn’t going to be as good as some of my contemporaries there like Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry so I quickly diverted to politics.  I came down from Cambridge and decided that I was going to become a solicitor, at that stage I decided that law was the future for me and I wanted to share a flat with a friend of mine from Cambridge who lived near the College of Law because to become a solicitor I had to spend a year at the College of Law which in those days was in Lancaster Gate and so a friend of mine had just bought a flat in Paddington and was looking for a flatmate and I said I would love to become a flatmate because it was very close to the college so it was perfect for me.  And I went to live with my friend, sharing the flat, and his mother came for dinner one night and she said, “What are you interested in?” and I said, “Politics” and she said, “I am on the local council in Westminster, why don’t you become a Westminster councillor?” and to be honest I had no idea what a councillor really was and she said, “Come to a meeting” and so she dragged me off to some meeting and it was my first council meeting I went, sat in the public gallery and, as you say, the rest is now history and I got excited and got stood.  And what happened was that I tried to become a councillor for a safe Conservative seat, tried several and got rejected, one guy who beat me for the nomination for the councillor candidate in Hampton 3.44 ward was Francis Moore, another one was Michael Forsyth, both went on to become senior cabinet ministers in the government, 3.54 I think major governments and I ended up winning in the marginal seat, Bayswater, which we didn’t expect to win, it was… this was 1981, Thatcher had been Prime Minister for two years and most people thought that she was awful and that she wouldn’t win the next election and then something happened that just changed my life and Mr Galtieri invaded the Falklands in the March of ’82 and from knocking on door one day where people said to me, you know, tell me where to go because I was Conservative to, as you know, the Fleet was going down to save the Falkland Islands, people would come up to me and I would say I was a Conservative and they would kiss me and tell me they would definitely vote for that amazing Margaret Thatcher and I romped home as a young 24 year old with a big majority and never looked back. 

Susan Freeman

So, you joined Westminster Council in 1982.  I mean, what was it like?  What was going on?

Robert Davis

1982 when I joined the council was really very much the old fashioned way of running local government.  Our leader was an elderly gentleman who was a solicitor, senior partner of a law firm.  He did it what is called part-time, he’d come for two hours a week and sit in the Chief Executive office and sign off things there and was never seen again.  The first thing I was told is not to expect promotion to become a Vice Chairman but it was a 5.12 committee now days we had committees, nowadays we have 5.14.  In those days it was committees.  Not to expect to become a Vice Chairman for eight years, not to expect to become a Chairman of the committee for twelve years.  I was not to speak at any meeting for my first year and when I asked to see the Chief Executive because I thought well, you know I’d push myself in and say I would meet the Chief Executive and say, “Hi, I’m Robert Davis, pleased to meet you”.  I wrote to his… to him to say could I meet him and have a coffee with him and I got a response from his secretary which says, “The Chief Executive does not meet new councillors.”  I never forgot that so when I achieved Westminster Deputy Leader later on in my life, I always made the Chief Executive, however new they were, I always used to say, the first thing I used to give them and say to them, “One thing you must do is get to know, have a coffee with all the councillors, both parties, backbenchers, frontbenchers, you cannot take that attitude it just does not work.  So I learned and have changed things as a result of that but it was a very different council, Shirley Porter was then the Chairman of the High Risk Committee and she was revolutionising the way we dealt with cleaning the streets, up until then, cleaning the streets was never seen as a serious or high priority service that we provided and she took it seriously and she made sure we had signs everywhere saying ‘Pick up your litter’, she even dressed up as a Red Indian with a brush and went round sweeping the streets and she had this big campaign and she invested in modern equipment to make sure that it became top priority and she got recognised for that and she recognised as a force that the leadership was in another generation and we had to change and she challenged 6.49, she stood for Leader and I was part of her campaign and she 6.54 she became Leader and she almost overnight threw out all the old guard and put in the place of all the senior chairmanships, all of her young brigade and I was made within a year, having been told for expecting vice chairmanship, I was made Chairman of the Leisure Committee within a year of becoming a councillor and I was put in charge of libraries and leisure centres and made Chairman of the Westminster Council Sports Council, now for people who know me, the last thing I usually do is sports and there was me, Chairman of the Sports Council, but I learned, I supported the sports 7.30.

Susan Freeman

So, you were Deputy Leader of the Council from 2008 and Chairman of its Planning Committee for seventeen years and I know sort of various other roles along the way so, you must have instigated quite a lot of changes, are there any sort of particular achievements that stand out as important?

Robert Davis

Yes, of course, the other thing is to say is I was actually Deputy Leader for ten years but before that I was Chief Whip which is number 3 in the hierarchy, for eight years and because the Leader at the time was my personal civil partner, I wasn’t actively running with him so either formally or informally I was Deputy Leader for eighteen years and so right at the centre of council for that lengthy period at the time when most people just did four or five years in the cabinet, I spent rather a long time there and as you say, for most of that time I was cabinet member for Planning and I am very proud of some of the things that I started but one of the things I would say is, one of the things that I am very proud of goes back a year before that, in fact to the Shirley Porter days when she made me Chairman of the Environment Committee in 1990 and I introduced something that was called the Westminster Initiative and that was introducing into Westminster into all walks of life, the greening of Westminster, I introduced recycling, major recycling campaign, the greening of the city by putting flowerbeds and planting.  The planting, the red planting all down Park Lane was one of my initiatives, the planting round Marble Arch was my initiative, around St John’s Wood roundabout was my initiative.  We did a lot of that, being more environmental air quality, noise and nowadays you think well every council does that but you have to put in context, if you go back to 1990, it was very rare that local government was interested in those issues so we were pioneers in all those areas which are now taken for granted and as a result, I would go round the country speaking and talking to other councils at conferences about all the initiatives we undertook at that time.  As I said, we were pioneers in that, it’s something that’s now regarded as normal.  But the things that I am extremely proud of include work I did on the public grounds in Westminster, that will be some of my long-term legacies, I was very much involved in the two-way of Baker Street and Gloucester Place.  A lot of people criticised that and still criticise it but I was there yesterday, I think it works extremely well, it’s calmed down both streets instead of having two motorways, one going one way in the mornings and one motorway the other way in the evenings, it’s now a two-part street.  I worked with the 10.11 introducing the public grounds team in Bond Street which is now 10.14 Bond Street and fabulous, first class street.  The two-way in Piccadilly was one of my initiatives and the two-way in Mayfair, in Brook Street and some works in Berkley Square that are going on now, all some of the initiatives and one that hasn’t happened yet but will happen because we made the plans, is the major public ground works that will happen in Hanover Square when Crossrail eventually opens, it’s all triggered by Crossrail but of course it all planned to happen while I was still in office for Crossrail to go in, until the delay, and then if I may move on, the other proud initiative I have is… relates to my love of theatre, I am a great, great fan of theatre, I think it is the big asset and maybe we can talk about it in a minute but I sadly fear that theatre is dying as a result of Covid-19 and when the theatres will re-opened is not known and there’s a big issue but let’s go back to my legacy with regard to the theatre and put back the clock a few months and say that I was very supportive of theatre, until then very few politicians, although they may enjoy going to the theatre, really were not prepared to go out of their way and support theatre in the way that I did, that stemmed from what Cameron Mackintosh writing a very critical piece about Westminster Council in The Standard in about the year 2000 and saying that Westminster didn’t support theatre and the streets outside the theatre were looking quite dirty and not very nice and the then Leader, Simon Milton, asked Cameron to come and see him and asked me to join and we said, no we did support theatre and we all would be in charge of working with you and planned to improve relationship and then invest in supporting theatre, which we did and I used my ability as Planning Chairman to negotiate new theatres in Westminster, something that was so important to us and yet so difficult to bring new theatres.  So the first new theatre was, well I was very crucial in bringing to Westminster, is now called The Other Palace, or that used to be called St James’ Theatre, just behind Victoria, which was… it hadn’t been a theatre for many years but then burnt down and was left decaying for about ten years before it was bought by a developer who wants to put a block of flats there and we insisted that he put a theatre in there.  The best one I think was the development at Charing Cross Road where Derwent, one of the most respected and responsible development companies had a site, it was a former theatre in Charing Cross Road and it hadn’t been used as a theatre for very long to be honest, it had been originally a pickle factory and then it had been a dance hall - my late grandmother used to go dancing there in the twenties – and it was a theatre, it was the Astoria, people will remember, it was a theatre in the fifties and sixties and a bit of the early seventies and then it became a disco home and eventually G-A-Y, the gay disco and it was being demolished to make way for the Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road and he came to see the people who ran Derwent.   John Burns, in particular came to see me to say that they were starting to think about what to build there once Crossrail had finished with the site, they built underground, the station underground, but they give you the surface back and you can build what you like on it.  He wanted to discuss with us planning and I said to him when he showed me this office plan proposal, I said “Well, where’s the theatre?” and he said “What theatre?” and I said, “Hold on a second, there used to be a theatre here, I want a theatre in this development.  You are not going to get a planning permission without a theatre” and he got his colleagues and I said, “I am afraid you need a theatre” so he came back a few weeks later with this little hundred-seater, little studio and I said “I am telling you now, that doesn’t work.  To make a theatre viable, you have to have at least three hundred seats” and I knew that because that’s three hundred seats is what the St James’ Theatre or the others had and that was just about viable and so he went away, reluctantly, and came back with this three hundred seat little theatre there and I said, “Who’s going to run the theatre?” and he said, “Well, we’ll get some community organisation”, I said, “Well there aren’t community theatres anymore, there’s no public funding for it.  You need to be commercial” and he said to me, “Well I don’t know any commercial theatre operators” and I said, “Well I do” so I went to see Cameron Mackintosh and Cameron said that he was interested and he came and looked at it and said no it was too small for him, his musicals require much bigger theatre so I went to Nica Burns who is one of the major owners of theatre, she owns about seven theatres in the West End, Nimax, and I introduced her to John Burns and, put it this way, as a result of that introduction they are almost finished building a new 650 seat theatre that will open in June 2022 and will be the first major theatre in the West End opened for 35-40 years and it’s very exciting and, in fact I was just talking to Nica about the work there, the work has been going on through lockdown and it is going to be a very, very exciting new venue and I am very proud that that all came as a result of me bringing them together, insisting that we put the theatre in there rather than the 15.24.  My final legacy I’d like to think about is there is something that would have happened about this time which is West End Live.  Many of you know West End Live, it’s, it’s… basically what happened with West End Live was about 16 years ago we were very worried about the impact of Westfield opening at Shepherd’s Bush on the West End and I was then an ex-official member of the board of the US Think 15.50, the business improvement district in 15.53 Street, Regent Street and 15.54 that we were worried about the debt that would be caused by Westfield opening and so one of the suggestions for addressing that was we did an Expo, we took over Leicester Square and we showed off to the world how exciting and important the West End is and what it is offered that Westfield doesn’t which is not only retail shopping but the restaurants, the bars, the clubs, the nightclubs, the theatres, the opera, the ballet, the art galleries, everything and that’s nowhere in the world apart from us other than New York City.  16.26 people in the West End and to show that off we would do an Expo and we called it West End Live but what really happens is the bit that took off and was loved by the people who came was the stage I put on and I went to my friend, Nick Geller who works at Camden Market and begged him to lend us four shows to put on the stage to highlight what the theatre had to offer and he gave me, he did extracts from Mary Poppins, Chicago, Mamma Mia and one other.  People just loved it and the fact that took off and over the years that people who know, we’ve been to Trafalgar Square and now for free, thousands of people can come over a weekend in June and watch extracts from all the musicals in the West End.  Now we usually get 100% 17.13 in full costume of 10/20 minutes each and the public can come and watch it and people buy tickets so that is why the theatre is loved. Now for me begging them for 17.23 they normally beg me if there are new shows coming on, used to beg me to be part of West End Live because they know it sold tickets so it was a win/win for everyone and I would raise about £450,000 each year from business so it didn’t cost the council, it didn’t cost the theatres.  Businesses who supported the West End would sponsor us and we would put on this live show that people went to for free and now it runs without me.  Unfortunately this year it won’t happen for obvious reasons but 17.53 next June.

Susan Freeman

So you created effectively the platforms to showcase theatre and shows and add vibrancy and colour to the West End.  Obviously we are in the middle of this Covid crisis.  I mean if you were still there at Westminster, would you be doing anything, anything differently to help bring back business and bring back tourism to the West End?

Robert Davis

I would and I would look at the whole experience and I think to some extent the New West End company is addressing it as are the other business 18.30.  I am a great fan of the 18.31.  Sadly one or two people I used to work with were not but I thought the West End would not have succeeded as it did against that competition with 18.42 opening on both sides of the City without the marketing and the attention to detail that the 18.51 give to the West End and I think there is a way forward.  I think the impact of 18.57 and the council has 18.58 honestly, for example, we had a very strict policy that said in Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street you could only have retail at ground floor level so you will see there aren’t any A3 restaurants or cafes, you can’t even get a cup of coffee in those streets and that was deliberately to protect retail because it was felt that as soon as you allowed in one restaurant, you would have a hundred restaurants and no retail.  But I think times have changed and to get people to come to the West End where 19.30 sit on their sofa and press a few buttons to order their shirts or 19.34, they have to be entertained and that has to involve having something to drink, having a meal and being entertained, having live shows down the street to get people there and it is all part of the bigger picture of making 19.48.  I know that some of my colleagues disagree with me.  Parking, you know I would provide that and enhance the 19.56 so what is happening now is parking is greatly reduced and removed because there are some people who want to come up by car and it may well be because there are disabled members of the family, elderly members of the family and public transport is not a possibility.  You of course improve public transport and 20.15 will certainly achieve that but you have to offer everyone the ability to come to the West End, to have this rounded experience to sell packages so you can go to the theatre, have a restaurant package and realise that the West End is unique in this offer and you have got to have entertainment on the street and that is why I was very upset that my proposals and plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street failed because I actually think that’s the only way that Oxford Street is going to survive.  I fear the future of Oxford Street but I do think that by having pedestrianised it the traffic will have calmed down round it, it wouldn’t have caused chaos.  The ban that we were introducing would not have bought a diversion of traffic through the side streets, it would have calmed the traffic in the same way when we pedestrianised the north end of Trafalgar Square, people thought the world was going to come to an end but it didn’t, the traffic moderated itself around the area and you would have thought that lights in the street, we could have had entertainment down the street and restaurants and tables and chairs down the street and people would come there for the experience of shopping and not just to go and buy something and I just feared that without doing something as drastic as that, you are going to find that retail is going to suffer and makes the competition of not being able to drive to Westfield or to shop online and I think we have to do something that can support retail in a way that has never been done before.

Susan Freeman

Why did your pedestrianisation plans fail and do you think they could get back on track again now that you know, we are looking at trying to reduce car use in Central London?

Robert Davis

Well the reason is because is politics, you know we had an election coming up, we had residence who were fearful of change in the same way the residence were very fearful of change where we had made Baker Street two way.  The residents were up in arms, they thought it was the end of civilisation as we knew it and yet as we see today, it’s working extremely well and a number of residence there can’t believe how happy they are so it is fear of the unknown and that happened in Oxford Street and with an election pending the two together means it’s much easier to just drop these ideas.  Now the council have now decided they are going to do something and their latest proposal some two and a half years later is that they are going to pedestrianise around Oxford Circus so Oxford Street itself, east and west of Oxford Circus will be pedestrianised.  But that is to me a compromise because you know, you are not going to achieve very much there and I understand the residents are up in arms about that as they see it as pedestrianisation through the back door so they will be opposing it and as we get closer to the next election nothing is going to happen and I fear by the time we come two years hence when the election has just finished, Oxford Street will be just as it is today but with less shops because they will all be closing and boarded up.

Susan Freeman

It’s a shame and I mean do the local, the businesses and the property companies you know, have any say in what is going on or does it really just come down to the sort of politics and local residents?

Robert Davis

Well when I was Chair of the Working Party we were working together, we were working very closely with the GLI and the Mayor of London.  We sat with 23.38 but we wanted to work together on this to achieve the same objective and we had residents involved and the council was involved and we tried to take them with us but there were certain individuals who had a different agenda and you know, it’s difficult.  There are a few residents who believe that the West End should be a quiet 24.00 place like Shropshire village and that is not the West End. My view is if you want to live in a Shropshire village you go and live in Shropshire.  I had this very similar incident happen, the attitude in Covent Garden where a new restaurant opening and the residents went… there was an uproar about this new restaurant opening and trying to oppose the planning application, saying ‘we don’t want restaurants in Covent Garden, we want a quiet night, we don’t want anything open beyond 9.00 o’clock at night’. 24.29 new development to just move there and I would say to them ‘if you want to live in 24.34 you don’t choose a flat above a unit in the middle of Covent Garden, you go and live in Barnet or 24.41 suburb or you go and live in Shropshire, you don’t live in the centre of Covent Garden’ but they want to live in the centre of Covent Garden and they want peace and quiet.  I mean you know, this is the centre of the country and it has to be the centre of business and business has to succeed just as much as the rest 24.55 and I think there can be a balance.  I think that a lot of people who do live in there do enjoy the balance of living 25.02 streets, Mayfair and Marylebone and yet they are minutes away from all the entertainment and retail, the best in the country probably.

Susan Freeman

Yeah it must be tough being a local politician.

Robert Davis

And you know, I got criticised because you know, I support business you know and don’t forget you know, we have to look back, we were criticised a lot in the early 2000’s and this was why we set up what was called the West End Commission and the West End Commission was independent people, including local residents who looked at Westminster and where we were and came to the conclusion that we were behind the times, we were not supporting business, we were not supporting 25.41, we were lacking and all the excitement that was now moving east of London where there was major new developments, there was new businesses, new restaurants and new retail 25.52 Westfield at Stratford and were lacking behind and so we took the decision that to support this, to support the government and that was what I was trying to do in recognition of the criticism that 26.05.  But some people thought I was too pro-business and too pro-development well, you know, if you don’t you just stagnate and sadly I worry sometimes that we are stagnating.

Susan Freeman

So if we can turn to another issue which again you know, has been of concern to the residents, tall buildings.  So initially I think you were a signatory to the Skyline Campaign in 2014 which felt that there were too many tall buildings.  I mean did you subsequently change your mind or what happened there?

Robert Davis

My views on historic buildings have always been misunderstood.  For many years I was, and continue to be, opposed to tall buildings that affect historic views and historic sites and so a good example was the proposal of Lister House which is the building around Waterloo Station which was going to be redeveloped and they were going to build a very tall modern building.  Now if you are standing in Parliament Square on the west side near the Supreme Court and look across at Parliament you would see Paliament, the silhouette of Paliament, Big Ben and the Victoria Tower against the blue sky backdrop.  An amazing photograph 27.23 view.  This building would have stuck up right behind Big Ben and destroy those views of Big Ben so I think they would be lost behind this building in the background and so I strongly opposed that, we challenged them in Court and I am pleased to say it never happened although there are plans afoot I think for a new application and there were other buildings along 27.44 boroughs, the south of the river who were proposing and did build tall buildings that have affected these historic views and I feel sad about that.  I in fact chaired the World Heritage Site for Westminster for many years and we were put on the At Risk Register by UNESCO for having a world heritage site that could be at risk of being removed as a world heritage site because of the damage done by the tall buildings along the southern part of the Thames and I would have constant disagreements with the leaders of those boroughs about their need to grow and our need to protect that heritage.  But that’s very different to not agreeing that there are some places where taller buildings are the solution to some of our housing issues and some of our regeneration issues and that is where I still have a problem with taller buildings in the north of the borough around the Paddington area, and so you look around at the westway and see a number of proposals that have been given permission 28.45 that have been able to regenerate the area and of course the one where I did get a lot of criticism was there was a proposal by Urban Cellars to build what he called Paddington Hall Abington which should have been a focal point for the area in the same way that the Shard is in south London and what it would have done as his 29.06 which did get consent is now underway in construction terms 29.12 and that what will do is bring regeneration to the Paddington area.  Now if you look up Abbington it was one area that was crying out for redevelopment, it is not a very attractive place and yet it could be and I think 28.29 of the ice cube being constructed and completed you will see a totally different Paddington in the same way we have, and I was very proud of, regenerating the Victoria area.  You will see a similar regeneration of Paddington in 5/10 years’ time and it will be unrecognisable and it will be the entrance to the station.  Don’t forget Paddington station is one of our most important stations in the country not in London and yet the entrance to it is appalling; you walk down this slope that looks like it hasn’t been touched for 60/70 years and that will change to a new piazzo with new accesses to the underground and to the mainline station and it is going to be… and it is going to encourage the whole area to upgrade and it will be, I think, a 30.15 for tourists to come and that’s because we work together with developers to make sure there is developments and progress and to keep everything the same forever is not the way forward.

Susan Freeman

I mean obviously the Victoria regeneration has been ongoing for some years, I mean did you similarly face a sort of backlash from local residents?

Robert Davis

Yes there were, there was very much so, Victoria, there was a whole residents association was created to fight some of the regeneration of Victoria and they were very much opposed to it but you know, we pushed through and we persevered and we tried to work with them as much as we can, we tried to take them with us and compromises were made and I think everyone, even the residents 30.56 the area who initially were opposed to it now love what’s happened to Victoria, they absolutely adore it, especially with all the new retail there and the offerings for freshness of food and beverage, they love it now but you see it is always the fear of the unknown and that’s what happened in Baker Street and that’s unfortunately what happened in Oxford Street.  Because I think if my plans for Oxford Street had been implemented, people would be loving that, the traffic would have settled down and everybody, the people visiting as well as people living there would be loving it but it is always that fear of the unknown that set up these campaigns, often they are by one or two individuals who carry more weight than they 31.35 carry with them.

Susan Freeman

No it’s interesting but maybe the time is right now, we’ve been through lockdown, we’ve seen the benefits of reduced pollution and you know, all the new cycle lanes around the centre of London so maybe…

Robert Davis

It is interesting though, pedestrianisation doesn’t always work.  Soho is a good example.  We had a lot of issues during the early part of Simon Milton’s leadership of Westminster with late night licensing in Soho and the residents are still 32.05 who live in Soho complaining about the non-stop noise disturbance from late night licensing and we decided at some stage to pedestrianise certain streets in Soho and it made things worse because it allowed more space for people to stay out until 11.00/12.00 at night drinking and talking and shouting and screaming and upsetting the residents and we actually then reversed it and put the traffic back because it seemed to calm the place having traffic going through Soho at 10.00 o’clock, 11.00 o’clock at night meant people were less able to enjoy themselves loudly and 32.40 to local residents or on the streets and so there is a balance you need.  It is not always the solution.

Susan Freeman

Well there is going to be an interesting experiment now because I think we’ve got the Soho Festival, you know coming up, which is going to involve closing streets so that the restaurants can actually put outside tables because we are social distancing at the moment, that’s the only way they are really going to be able to…

Robert Davis

Well that’s the difference between London and somewhere like Spain where alfresco dining has always been on the cards so all the restaurants are opening now because they’ve always had large areas of open space.  We’ve always… years ago we were totally against alfresco eating, you couldn’t find anywhere to sit outside.  Over the years we have allowed more and more again, look at Leicester Square where we deliberately gave all the 33.25 on to Leicester Square itself, larger areas to have tables and chairs because we also got rid of some of the issues there, some of the unsocial issues people hanging around doing things we didn’t want them to do, got pushed away because people were eating there.  So we tried to encourage it but as you say, the solution now I think is we’ve got to, and I am pleased the Government are thinking of reducing the burdens of licensing and planning to allow you to expand your 33.50 because that is the way forward especially when you have wonderful summers as we are getting at the moment and that is a future without the bureaucracy 33.59

Susan Freeman

Robert you’ve mentioned Simon a couple of times and perhaps we can, we can just talk a little bit about your relationship.  So Simon Milton was your long-term partner until his untimely death in 2011 and he was leader of Westminster Counsel I think from 2000 to 2008 and then when Boris Johnson became London Mayor in 2008 he asked Simon to come and be Deputy Mayor for Planning.  Now I think you were together for 23 years in total but for the first 19 years nobody knew about the relationship, the relationship was secret.  What made you both decide to go public in 2007.

Robert Davis

Well it was about the times really.  If you go back 23 years together, when we first got together you know, you certainly would not have got very far in the Tory party had we been open about our relationship.  I say now jokingly that unless you are gay 35.02 Tory party but the fact that shows you and just emphasises that change and time with attitudes and you have to put it in context with what happened.  The reason we went public was just shortly after the law changed and Tony Blair introduced same sex civil partnerships and it was just after that and people were starting to become more open and it was becoming much more acceptable and Simon was then just leader of Westminster Council but he was about to become Chairman of the Local Government Association which is the umbrella organisation for all counsellors in the country and you are, as Chairman, the person who deals with the Government and has meetings and negotiate matters with the Secretary of State and he felt that having such a prominent national role that we had to be open and suggested we got married and so it was I suppose, his way of proposing to me and I said yes and we decided to have a wedding and a kind of party and we sent out our invitations to our 200 closest friends to come and join us for our ceremony and one of them, I think I know who it was but I can’t prove it, decided to go immediately to the Evening Standard and two days later the entire front page of the Evening Standard said ‘City Leader weds gay lover’ and photographs of both of us on it.  So from one day being totally discreet about our relationship then telling 200 of our closest friends and family that we were going to get married to then the whole world knew was quite opener but in my view it was probably the best thing that happened to me and being free of you know the difficulties was the best thing and we were open and I had hundreds and hundreds of letters from people saying how wonderful it was and I remember one guy I knew who was very senior in the Salvation Army and I was dreading what his reaction was and he wrote me a lovely letter saying that his son was gay, was secretly gay and even he wasn’t supposed to know and thought what we were doing was wonderful and gave him confidence to be open than they were and I think luckily we were two well known people who were openly proud of what they were doing 37.12 with people who felt more confident to maybe come out themselves.

Susan Freeman

Were any of your colleagues at Westminster surprised?

Robert Davis

Yes.  I mean most people knew.  Simon and I were always together, we were inseparable but some people, not just at Westminster but other people, friends, you know most people said ‘oh we guessed, we knew’ you know but one or two people said they were absolutely shocked but they think that although people have different views of life and different expectations and just thought we were good friends and being separable as we were, well may we were you know.  We were as well good friends but more than just friends.

Susan Freeman

So in May 2008 Boris was elected London Mayor and Simon moved to City Hall as Deputy Mayor?

Robert Davis

Well originally, 38.00 but within six months when things weren’t going too well, Simon started this 38.08, you know it soon became 38.10 six or seven deputy mayor’s, Simon was 38.14 and Boris recognised that and within six months made him Chief of Staff and the Senior Deputy Mayor so he was basically with Boris and all the other Mayors would 38.26.

Susan Freeman

And so you were Deputy Leader at Westminster, Simon’s with Boris 38.33, so you were I mean the ultimate power couple at the time but did this put you in to any sort of political conflict because obviously you were in very different roles?

Robert Davis

Certain people, yeah, 38.50 but we said right from the beginning we were conscious of this and so the City Solicitor and the Chief Executive of Westminster Counsel wrote a set of protocols about how it worked and that was approved by the GLA and by Westminster and we signed up to it 39.10 you know, it worked very well and no one made any accusation about that relationship at all.

Susan Freeman

And there was no sort of conflict of policy in terms of 39.21?

Robert Davis

No what… yes there are in some instances but you know, we would have a disagreement because Simon having supported my views 39.29 GLA and decided that tall buildings were the future, the same reason I was suggesting that Paddington regenerating parts of south London and for example he was very involved with that stage 39.42.  In those days that was mostly, you know brown sites and it is now super developed with a lot of tall buildings there but Simon was very supportive of that because he saw that was the way to regenerate the area.  We were also made to bring the northern line, extend it down there and paid for that and we were opposed to it so he and I often had particular grievance 40.04 at that time you know but he had a different hat on and came from a different angle and I still, you know, we still had our arguments but he obviously, there were protocols so he couldn’t preside over any planning application at Westminster as such.

Susan Freeman

I mean very sadly Simon died prematurely in 2011 and preparing for the interview I was looking at the order of service at Westminster Abbey where the memorial service took place and I have to say at the time I was thinking well Boris Johnson is going to be giving, you know, a speech and talking about Simon.  I’d never heard Boris Johnson give a serious speech before but he made an amazing you know speech, talking about Simon and his amazing contributions to London.

Robert Davis

He did and he did make a few jokes in it and as a matter of fact I came across one the other day because he reminded people about the kind of people 41.01 trying to do some 41.03 on the river bank and end up falling in the river and this was all over the television at the time and Simon was watching about it later that night, 41.13 watching it on television and Boris was very embarrassed by it all and Simon said ‘I’ve got the headlines for tomorrow – River Crisis Boris Steps In’.

Susan Freeman

Anyway it was a lovely speech and Robert you stepped down as a councillor in I think 2018 and I suppose we need to tackle the negative, so there was, you stood down against a backdrop of negative press and you know after you, obviously you had put so many years into serving Westminster, what was that all about?

Robert Davis

It was about elections in my view.  Some people wanted the conservatives to lose the local elections and they worked with certain members of the press to create the story about me, about my main crime was to be honest and open so over a whole period of 18 years of Deputy Leader or Chief Whip, I had been open and declared every little 42.18 that I received.  Now when you are in Westminster everyone wants to know you, you want to work with people; I’ll give you a little example where it is taken out of context is where I was invited to meet the New General Manager, Robert Strong, 42.32 hotel in Westminster who was told you know, you’ve got to meet Robert Davis etcetera so I was invited to have a tour of the hotel, meet the new general manager.  While I was there he said ‘come and have some lunch’ so I had some lunch with them.  Over lunch I persuaded him to employ 30 unemployed people in Westminster as part of our training programme we had set up job centre to encourage some of the unemployed people of all ages, who were struggling to find employment and we helped them, we nurtured them, we supported them in getting jobs and I persuaded them to be part of the scheme and he took on 30 of these people, cooking in the kitchens, as chambermaids etcetera and that came out and I declared that as a lunch and of course I then get accused of enjoying hospitality which you know 43.24 own hotel. I was using these, often these meeting people to benefit Westminster and everyone who knew me and knew that I just cared enough about Westminster and I was using these opportunities of meeting people to see what I could get to make Westminster a better place but we had an election coming up, people were suddenly determined that we would lose and saw me as a high profile councillor so they got me 43.52 and it backfired because what happened is my own ward where a lot of pressure was put on for me to lose that seat, the campaign was geared at me and two or three days before the election and document was circulated with my photograph on to everyone who lived in my ward saying don’t vote for this man and it was a personal campaign against me and yet the election came along and I did extremely well.  I came almost top of the poll and I got more votes than I had done previously, I came way above all the other people and my own colleagues and it proved that people just thought it was silly and I watched the count, you could see people 44.34 vote, because you have three votes and three councillors to be elected for so there were 9 candidates and you vote for three people and the top three win and people were voting Labour, Labour, Davis, Labour, Labour, Davis so a lot of people were voting Labour and still voting for me because I presume that (a) that they knew that I had been a hard working councillor for years, cared about Westminster and it was more than just a political game but I got fed up with this whole thing.  I got re-elected.  In trying to defend myself I incurred substantial costs and I decided that I had done this for years and I just needed to move on with my life and I decided to… and it has taken over my life, my life before I stood down was seven days a week I would spend.  I was a full-time councillor by this stage and the last five years I had stopped being a lawyer and I was being a councillor full-time so it was every day, every night.  The paperwork you get as a senior councillor is immense and I used to see Minister get every night red boxes full of papers to read, we got a dirty plastic bag with our papers in because we couldn’t afford red boxes but… and Saturdays you would get two, I mean literally I spent all day Saturday and Sunday reading my papers preparing for the following week.  I never have a life and I decided I had finished 45.51 up, I had achieved everything I wanted to at Westminster, I had been Lord Mayor, the youngest Lord Mayor 45.56 1997 and I wanted to move on with my life and that is what I am doing now.  Having fun.

Susan Freeman

Having fun!  Well it sounds, it sounds to me that being in local politics is fairly thankless so I think you’ve done your time.  Well Robert that was fantastic, thank you very much for your time today.

Robert Davis

My pleasure.

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much to Robert Davis for talking to us so openly today about his role in shaping policy at Westminster Council and his ground breaking relationship with the late Sir Simon Molton.

So, that’s it for now.  I really hope you enjoyed today’s digital conversation.  Please all stay safe and join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very shortly. 

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app, and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  Do continue to let us have your feedback and comments and most importantly suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe for a regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Robert Davis was an elected Councillor on Westminster City Council for over thirty-six years (1982-2018) and was the longest serving Councillor on Westminster City Council in its history.

Between 2008 and 2018 he served as Deputy Leader of the Council and between 2000 and 2008 as Chief Whip.  During this period, he was also Chairman of the Council’s Planning committee for seventeen years and Cabinet Member for Planning for fifteen years.  From January 2017 to March 2018 he served as Cabinet Member for Business Culture & Heritage.   In fact, during his time on the Council, he served on all the major committees including being chairman of the Environment committee, Chairman of the Traffic committee and Chairman of the Housing committee.

Robert was Lord Mayor of Westminster in 1996 -1997 (then the youngest in the Council’s history) and between 2000 and 2018 acted on a rota basis as Lord Mayor Locum Tenens (Deputy Lord Mayor).

He also served as Chairman of the London Mayors’ Association (which Association represents the Mayors and past Mayors of all the thirty-three London Boroughs) for 18 years retiring from that role in July 2016.

Robert is a solicitor but after 32 years in practice as a partner in Freeman Box, a West End firm of lawyers, he retired in April 2015 (although he remains a consultant with the firm).      

Robert is one of Her Majesty’s Deputy Lieutenants for Greater London (“DL”).

He was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2015 for service to local government and planning.

He was educated at Gonville & Caius College Cambridge and at Wolfson College Cambridge before training as a Solicitor at the College of Law in Lancaster Gate.

In 2014 he was voted “Conservative Councillor of the Year” by Asian Voice.

During his tenure as Cabinet member for Planning, his Planning Team won the award for “Best Planning Authority” in the 2015-16 Planning Awards.

Robert also conceived the idea for and produced the annual award winning “West End Live” in Trafalgar Square.  This showcase of the West End’s Musical Theatre is now in its 15th year and Robert has raised about £400,000.00 each year from the private sector to put on the event and enable the public to attend free of charge.  In 2009 he won the “Kiss 100’s Hottest Musical Event of the Year” Award for West End Live.

Robert initiated and subsequently ran the Council’s “City of Sculpture Festival” where artists and sculptors where invited to display large sculptures around the City.  For eighteen years he also ran the Council’s Green Plaque Scheme commemorating famous people who lived in Westminster buildings.   Robert also chaired the Westminster World Heritage Site Steering Group until 2018.

Robert was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park for ten years until December 2019 and is also a Trustee of the Savoy Educational Trust and a Trustee of Mousetrap Theatre Projects.  He also served for ten years as President of the City of Westminster Guide Lecturers Association (retiring in 2017).  He was appointed by the Dean of Westminster to serve as a member of the Westminster Abbey Advisory Group, however he retired from that Committee in 2018.

Now widowed, in May 2007, Robert entered a civil partnership with the late Sir Simon Milton, former Deputy Mayor of London.  

Robert is also currently a founding Trustee and the Deputy Chairman of the Sir Simon Milton Foundation, a charity set up in Sir Simon Milton’s memory to further Simon’s work as Leader of Westminster Council between 2000 and 2008 with particular emphasis on addressing loneliness amongst the elderly and in training and apprenticeships for the young.  The Foundation founded the Sir Simon Milton Westminster University Technical School (UTC) in Pimlico which trains young people to become engineers.  The UTC has partnered with BT and Network Rail to give the students practical training as part of their secondary education. 

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