Thursday, November 24, 2011

Southwark's Housing Commission

Over the next 5 years Southwark will be investing £326 million in making every council home 'Warm, Dry and Safe' in line with the commitment which we made to the electorate in 2010. This equates to nearly £1100 for every resident of the borough - and includes the use of over £100 million generated from asset sales outside the council's current housing estate. We are able to do this as a local authority as we are a significant land holder in the borough. However, there will come a point where we do not have other land assets to sell in order to fund our housing improvements and in any event, we have to ask whether it is right for us to invest so much money in our housing stock which could also be spent on improving our libraries, leisure centres, roads, pavements and other general assets used by all residents of the borough.

At the same time as we face this financial challenge we also face an unprecedented demand for our council housing in Southwark, with nearly 20,000 people on our housing waiting lists. There is undoubtedly a demand for high quality affordable rented housing in Southwark - indeed right across London; the sort of housing which councils are supposed to provide.

To consider these two challenges we have decided to appoint a Housing Commission to report within a year on how we might best manage Southwark's housing stock over the next 25 - 30 years. The Commission will be wholly independent of the Council, run by The Smith Institute and be chaired by the leading housing barrister Jan Luba QC. Jan Luba has an impressive record and has previously successfully represented tenants in claims against the council.

It is important that the Commission should be independent from the Council. Firstly, it will give the Commission a credibility which it would simply not have if it was made up of local councillors who may be regarded as having an agenda or pre-determined outcome. Secondly, I believe that it gives the Commission the ability to really consider all of the options which might be available for financing our existing stock and meeting future demand. The Commission will receive evidence from anyone who has an interest in the future of Southwark's housing - no one will be prevented from making submissions to the Commission and actually people will be encouraged to do so. Once the Commission has reported there will no doubt be much debate and consideration of its recommendations.

I start from the position that I want Southwark to retain its housing stock, but it would be irresponsible of us not to look at the big long term questions - too many administrations in Southwark have done that in the past.

It's disappointing that the Commission has already been dismissed as a "pointless" waste of money by Southwark's Lib Dems. I think it and the issues it will consider are too important to be dismissed without any real thought on the part of all politicians in the borough.

The photo shows Jan Luba QC with myself, Cllr Ian Wingfield and Cllr Fiona Colley

Thursday, November 17, 2011

CPZ Consultation

The Council has been undertaking a consultation into whether residents want a Controlled Parking Zone ('CPZ') in a number of roads in South Camberwell including St Francis Road and East Dulwich Road. Residents in Oglander Road were not consulted, although a couple of roads nearby were included within the consultation.

The consultation has caused a lot of concern, not least from some of the residents of Oglander Road who fear the potential 'knock-on' effects of the CPZ if it is introduced in neighbouring roads. And it is fair to say that the consultation has generated quite a lot of misinformation.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that a consultation for a CPZ will not happen unless residents have made requests to the Council over a fairly lengthy period of time. There will be no consultation if residents have not asked for a CPZ in the area.

Secondly, when deciding where the consultation will take place officers use their professional judgement to determine its scope and area. This is something of an art, although supported by years of experience and specialist knowledge.

Thirdly, a CPZ will not be introduced unless the majority of residents in a road vote in favour of its' introduction. A CPZ will not be introduced or imposed by the Council against the will of residents.

Fourthly, CPZ's are not money-making ventures for the Council. They are not a back-door form of taxation, but are a self-funding scheme designed to provide residents with parking near their own homes.

The consultation has now ended, and I will keep you posted on the outcome. However, residents need have no fear that a CPZ will be introduced in their area without them having been informed or consulted.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Today's Unemployment Figures

With unemployment hitting 2.62 million today, and over a million young people out of work it really does look like the Coalition Government's much-vaunted 'Plan A' is not working. There is a terrifying risk that we will have another 'Thatcher Generation' of young people coming into the employment market without any real hope of work and condemned to lengthy periods without a job. It is no coincidence that the last two quarters of the Labour Government saw the economy growing - it was deliberate policies of continued investment in public services and initiatives like the Future Jobs Fund and Working Neighbourhood Fund which were making a real difference to the real economy. You have to wonder why the present government has abandoned policies which were working in favour of a policy approach which failed in the 1930's and the 1980's and which will undoubtedly fail again.

Equally staggering is the failure of local Liberal Democrats in Southwark to even raise a murmur about the damage THEIR government is doing. On the 1st of November ten senior Lib Dems, including former Southwark Councillor Ruth Bright, wrote to the Guardian pointing out the fact that their party had actively campaigned during the 2010 election campaign against the economic policies the Government is now pursuing. They said in their letter:
"...out of responsibility to the country, Liberal Democrats must now tell the Conservatives that they will no longer support policies which are not working. That is necessary even if one is only concerned about deficit reduction. As the Compass Plan B states, it already "looks as if the government will miss the defecit reduction target and, as the economy slows, the deficit could increase."

Today's unemployment figures and the concern expressed by Mervyn King must only add to the weight of the letter's argument.

Not unreasonably (I thought) I wrote to the Leader of the Lib Dem Group in Southwark asking her if she agreed with the contents of her colleagues' letter, and if not, why not.

Today I got a reply, of sorts. Cllr Al-Samerai queries how I have got time to write letters to her and goes on to tell me that she is asking for the letter to be investigated by the Borough Solicitor as it may represent a waste of council resources. The irony of wasting council resources on a potentially costly investigation by a senior officer of the Council into the production of a letter is clearly lost on Cllr Al-Sameria. But that aside, she has not provided an answer to my query.

Doesn't it just reinforce the points I made in my previous blog entry - the Lib Dems in Southwark have absolutely no answers to the big issues facing this borough. They are pathetically obsessed by opposition for the sake of opposition. At a time when we have over 25% of our 16 - 24 year olds in the borough out of work, and that figure rising every month, the fact that they will not criticise Tory policies represents abject failure, not opposition.

Thankfully the people of Southwark have a Labour Council on their side, fighting to build our local economy in the face of the downturn, with politicians who do have answers to the big questions and who are also able to hold their political opponents to account.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Council Assembly on the Disturbances

I have been reflecting on Wednesday's Council Assembly, which provided the first opportunity for all councillors to come together to discuss the cause, effect and possible solutions to the disturbances which took place across the borough on August 8th. In my speech I concentrated on the fact that the response of residents to the disturbances was what truly demonstrated the spirit of Southwark, rather than the disturbances themselves, although with youth unemployment running at over 25% there are some serious issues which need to be addressed. There were many thoughtful contributions from Labour members, who reflected on their own experiences on August 8th; the brave work of the Police, and the Council's response to what had occurred.

However, I believe that it was striking that the Lib Dem Group Leader used her three minutes of speaking time to rail against the injustice of the way in which the debate had been organised, and how Southwark Labour had prevented her from speaking! It demonstrated a lack of any vision or any possible solutions.

But it occurred to me that Lib Dems in Southwark lack a vision or strategy on all of the big issues.

They oppose our Housing Investment Programme and offer up a continuation of their works whilst in office as an alternative. But that was a programme without a timetable and without a budget - in fact it had a £400 million hole - and which would have meant more council homes in or borough would be non-decent than decent in 5 years time.

They criticise our approach to regeneration, but offer up nothing as an alternative other than passing more responsibility to the community for decision-making. But that is not a vision or a strategy; it is a cop out, and represents a return to the dither and delay which paralysed the council from 2002 - 2010.

They advocate the strengthening of Community Councils; but don't spell out what they want them to do with increased powers - other than to remove power from the Administration which does have a vision and a strategy to take Southwark forward.

They oppose Free Healthy School Meals as a policy and response to the fact that Southwark has the worst childhood obesity rates, and offer up the Community Games as the response to this vital health issue. But the Community Games ran throughout their period of office, and childhood obesity got worse, not better.

They shamelessly support everything that the Coalition Government has done from the tripling of tuition fees to the abolition of EMA to the ransacking of the NHS to the destruction of the benefits system and the massive reductions in housing benefit. The local Lib Dem MP even blamed the Council for Michael Gove's imposition of two free schools on Southwark.

Southwark Lib Dems represent the politics of opposition for the sake of opposition. They offer no genuine alternative strategies or vision. It is a bankrupt approach to the problems of our borough.

Why am I saying this at this time? Because Southwark is facing some of the biggest economic and social problems that it ever has. These serious and difficult times require serious and difficult choices to be made and serious politicians to take them. The politics of the playground; of pretending there is some easy answer; of deliberate distortion - offer no solutions.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guy Fawkes Night

Firstly, let's be absolutely clear - Southwark Council never 'banned' Guy Fawkes night or Fireworks Night because of political correctness. In an attempt to replace the many events and festivals which the Council supports each year, but which we have had to significantly cut back this year because of the Government's cuts of £34 million to our budget (with another £50 million more cuts to come) our events team had tried to create something which was more than 'Guy Fawkes' night, and brought some fresh thinking and ideas to an event to be staged in the south of the borough in Dulwich Park.

The name chosen for the event 'The Colour Thief' was a mistake, but I believe that the idea for the event was a good one.

However, Dulwich Lib Dem councillors - in particular James Barber and Robin Crookshank Hilton, thought that the name of the event could be exploited for some political gain and ran off to the newspapers with their story. The ensuing coverage made the event impossible to stage. So Cllrs Barber and Crookshank Hilton have ensured that Dulwich Park does not get an event this Autumn. This must have been their intention - so to that extent they have had a great political success.

Instead, the Council will stage a fireworks display in Southwark Park, and I am sure that it will be a great success. I hope that residents or children disappointed by the decision to cancel the Dulwich Park event will be able to participate in the event in Southwark Park - there is no reason why they should miss out.

The Council will consult residents in the south of the borough on an event to be held there next year. I hope that a little more maturity can be brought to the discussion of what that event should be than has been evident in the past few weeks from Dulwich Lib Dem councillors.

Free Healthy School Meals

It was great that Harriet Harman mentioned our Southwark Labour policy to provide Free Healthy School Meals to all of the primary school children in the borough during her Labour Conference speech today.

At a time when young people are really being hit hard by this Coalition Government I am incredibly proud of the work we are doing and the choices which we have made in Southwark - not only Free Healthy School Meals, but also our Youth Fund, helping 16-18 year olds through their further education by topping-up the Government's EMA replacement; giving scholarships to some of our poorest but most able students in order to pay their tuition fees through University, and giving valuable work experience and internships to another 2000 pupils.

We cannot solve all of the problems we face in Southwark, but we can try and demonstrate that we have real faith in Southwark's young people and that we want to help them achieve their ambitions. By the policies we are pursuing and the action we are taking Southwark's students must know that in an era when the Government appears to have given up on them, Southwark's Labour Council never will.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Southwark Borough Conference 2011

Southwark Labour's 5th Annual Borough Conference took place last Saturday - with guest speakers Harriet Harman, Ken Livingstone and Val Shawcross, and a number of 'Break Out' sessions looking at particular policy areas. The sessions on Young People, Crime, the 'Big Society' to the 'Good Society' and Libraries were all well attended and generated loads of great ideas which we will be trying to include in our policy development over the coming months.

I think that our Borough Conference remains fairly unique within the Labour Party - an opportunity for all members in the borough to come together to discuss issues of concern and develop policy for the future.

Many issues were raised from the floor, including that of evicting those convicted of involvement in the recent disturbances from council housing. But I think we were able to explain our approach and put it in the context of all of the other work which we are doing following those disturbances- including our innovative Youth Fund and Community Conversations - which put any worried minds at rest. There has been a lot of heat and not much light generated over the issue of post-disturbance evictions. Our fundamental approach in Southwark is that anyone convicted of involvement in the riots will have a face to face interview; their individual circumstances will be considered and all options for dealing with their case considered, including the possibility of bringing possession proceedings. However, the other options available include no further action; demoted tenancies; acceptable behaviour contracts and anti-social behaviour orders.

But a good day on Saturday looking ahead to the Mayoral and GLA elections, with real enthusiasm from our membership for what Southwark Labour is doing in power.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Disturbances in Southwark

Monday night's disturbances and criminal behaviour in Southwark was truly unacceptable and sickening. There was no justification for what we saw, and indeed none of those involved in the rioting and looting appeared to putting forward any political justification for what they were doing. It was base criminality.

Over the past two days I have been speaking to residents and businesses who have been affected by the events of Monday night. Some of the most disturbing stories came from shop owners and managers on the Walworth Road. I was told about the mother who was sending her child through the broken small window of one shop to loot items from inside. Another told me how they found it galling that people were coming in to commiserate with the shop after Monday's looting having recognised that same person from CCTV images as having been one of the looters.

People who have been involved in the looting will be brought to justice where there is evidence against them. My colleague, Cllr Ian Wingfield has already announced that the Council will use all of the powers we have to evict those who are convicted of being involved in Monday's looting from any council house where they have a tenancy. This is what the vast majority of our community would wish and expect.

It is clear that there is something very wrong in our society where given the opportunity people fall into this level of criminality and lawlessness. In Southwark one of our key messages as an administration has been that we truly value our young people and want them to fulfil their potential and aspirations. But it seems that this message is not getting through to some - or if it is getting through is having no impact.

There are lots of reasons for what happened on Monday night in Southwark. It would be foolish of me to pretend that I have all of the answers at this point. But it is clear that those answers lie in our homes, our schools and our communities - and that those answers are not easy. It is certainly about restoring respect and clear boundaries.

In the coming weeks and months our community in Southwark needs to have a proper conversation- exploring what we can all do to fix some of the problems; to identify those boundaries, and to agree our collective code of behaviour - our expectations of each other in order to ensure that we have a society in which we can all properly co-exist in the future.

In the short-term we need to make sure that law and order continues to be maintained on our streets - and that we never get to a point where the police are again helpless bystanders to mass criminal conduct. And we need to ensure that the businesses who have been hurt and affected by Monday night and the loss of trade since are properly helped and compensated.

Some big tasks ahead, but I am confident that the people of Southwark are equal to the task.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

South Camberwell News

It's been ages since I posted so I thought I should bring South Camberwell residents up-to-date on two issues.

Firstly, the much unloved "Oriwu Spot" - a pub in Wanley Road on the Cleve Hall Estate, has been sold by the brewery which owned it and has now closed. The Oriwu Spot has long been a source of complaint from local residents about noise and anti-social behaviour, so there are unlikely to be many people who mourn its' passing. Veronica and I met with the new owners on Monday to discuss their plans for the site. Given the history and problems of the building as licensed premises they indicated that they are unlikely to re-open it as a pub. They are likely to draw up plans to redevelop the site as housing with a commitment to some local benefits for the community - through Section 106 contributions. They have committed to working with the community to develop an acceptable scheme. So, I think this is definitely good news for South Camberwell and the residents of the Cleve Hall Estate.

Secondly, after more than 4 years we are still waiting for a proper application to be submitted in respect of the redevelopment of Greendale playing fields. Greendale remains on a lease to Dulwich Hamlet Football Club until 2015 and there has been a lot of discussion about how it might be brought back into use as sports facilities and as a community asset. However, despite meetings, consultations and discussions no planning application has yet been submitted. I am now firmly of the view that DHFC should simply hand the lease back to Southwark Council so that we can develop our own plans for the site. It is amazing that we have such a wonderful green space in our area which simply cannot be used as much as it should be through lack of maintenance and care. Let me know if you agree that Greendale should be given back to the people of Southwark.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kings Stairs Gardens and the Thames Tunnel

Last night I attended another meeting of the Save Kings Stairs Garden Campaign. It remains a vigorous campaign, and no wonder when you hear that Thames Water have lodged a formal objection to the Council's proposal to give KSG SINC ('Site of Important Nature Conservancy') status! Why would Thames Water take such a step when it has no real impact on their plans for the Thames Tunnel super sewer? The community is rightly angry about Thames Water's approach.

I was able to tell the meeting that I was going to support a proposal by the Leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council to establish a Commission to look at the fundamental concept of the tunnel and whether there are other more acceptable alternatives to the scheme which is currently being proposed.

Thames Water have recently acquired Chambers Wharf, just a few hundred yards from KSG, but this site also presents problems and the potential for great inconvenience to the residents and schools which surround it during the 7 years of constant drilling and associated works.

This is the text of my letter to Stephen Greenhalgh in Hammersmith & Fulham:

"Thank you for your email and enclosed letter received yesterday (21st June 2011).

Southwark has been extremely concerned by the approach adopted by Thames Water with regard to the Thames Tunnel and how it may affect us.

Two sites in Southwark have been identified by Thames Water for possible main shafts. One is a park, Kings Stairs Gardens, which is a valued riverside green space, whilst the other is a brownfield site on the river at Chambers Wharf surrounded by housing and three schools. Neither is suitable for 7 years of constant drilling and associated works and the Council supports the community campaigns opposing the use of these sites.

Southwark is absolutely committed to the aim of cleaning the Thames and preventing sewage leaks. However, we also do believe that it is time to ask the fundamental questions of whether this scheme, at this cost and at this time is necessary, value for money, and will achieve its' stated objectives.

7 years of misery for those who use Kings Stairs Gardens or who live adjacent to Chambers Wharf is not a prospect which we are prepared to contemplate without a thorough independent investigation and challenge of the scheme as currently presented.

In the circumstances Southwark will be pleased to support your proposed Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Selborne.

I look forward to the work of the Commission being taken forward and it proposing a scheme which will make the Thames cleaner and safer, but which minimises the disruption and cost to our communities

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Potters Field Park Trust

About 5 years ago Council Assembly voted to transfer Potters Field Park to a Trust which would manage the park for 30 years. I was fundamentally unhappy about the proposal - Potters Field is a valued local green space next to Tower Bridge and is one of the jewels in the Council's crown of land ownership. It had also been hard fought for by people such as Lil Patrick who insisted that the LDDC give some green space to local residents in the 1980's.

I still remain unhappy about the Trust. When it was established we were promised that there would be "no more David Blaines" - a reference to the 40 days and 40 nights which David Blaine spent in a glass box suspended over the park and apparently an event which was not suitable for this "local" park. However, since the Trust has been in charge there has been a surge in its' commercial use - barely a week or a day seems to go past without some launch or event taking place in the Park. So much for protecting this green space for local residents!

But I am also unhappy that, save in a couple of cases, the Trustees, how they are appointed and to whom they are accountable remains fairly unclear. The Council appoints an officer and a councillor onto the Trust. At least they have democratic accountability to the people of Southwark. But others have a far less clear line or audit trail of appointment and accountability.

Why is this important? Well in a time of 'Big Society' and legislation apparently empowering communities to take ownership of public assets it is important to recognise that if assets are handed over "to the community" what provisions are there that that community group will be open in its dealings and accountable to the community it claims to represent? We should be very reluctant to give up the democratic accountability and legitimacy that a Council provides in respect of the ownership and management of any public asset in favour of its control by the unelected and the self-appointed.

Mobile Surgery - Bellenden & Oglander

Veronica and I undertook our latest mobile surgery at the weekend -around Marsden, Muschamp, Oglander and Bellenden Roads. It was great to catch up with so many residents and discuss the issues that concerned them. From bulge classes at local primary schools to overgrown hedges, and from anti-social neighbours to problems with damp, residents were keen to share their problems and seek our help.

Our mobile surgeries are a great way of keeping in touch with the issues which people have, but which they might not bother to raise with us if we only had fixed surgeries. One of the really good bits of news was the way in which people have welcomed the introduction of the food waste recycling pilot, and the fortnightly residual waste collection. All but one of the residents I spoke to were fully supportive of the scheme and the changes to waste collection - and were even happier after I told them that we had seen an over 20% increase in the recycling rate in the pilot area - up to 53% from about 31%.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to talk to Veronica and me. I will be following up individual bits of casework over the next couple of days.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Pumphouse Museum

I am sorry that the Pumphouse Educational Trust have decided to close down. They have been working in Rotherhithe since 1989 and I know that their work has been valued by local schools and residents.

I am afraid that they are one of the victims of the Government's spending cuts. As I have said previously, you cannot take £34 million out of our budget this year and honestly believe that it will have no impact on the services we provide and the organisations which we support - especially with another £50 million of cuts to come over the next two years.

So for anyone who is angry at Southwark Council for the cuts to the Pumphouse's funding my advice is that they should really direct their ire towards central government.

For organisations like the Pumphouse we have tried to ease the cuts by encouraging applications to our Voluntary Sector Transition Fund, and also tried to encourage access to other sources of funding. Schools budgets have significantly increased this year - so it may have been that some solution would have been possible in collaboration with the museum's principal users.

Of course it is always open to organisations such as the Pumphouse not to try and battle on, so I respect the decision they have taken.

We are not alone in facing difficult choices about what museums and organisations we support. This extract from the BBC news website yesterday, which includes references to the Pumphouse, includes a quote from Mark Taylor, Director of the Museums Association:

"Mr Taylor said councils are facing painful choices, and it could be better to close some museums in order to preserve the best.

"I personally would prefer to see a slightly smaller number of museums kept open and active, rather than all the museums kind of set in aspic, with no budget at all to do anything.""

The full article is here

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Badminton House - A Tough Decision

Last week the Southwark Cabinet took the tough decision of placing Badminton House on the market for sale. Badminton House is a block of 11 flats and sits at the bottom of the East Dulwich Estate on Dog Kennel Hill, opposite East Dulwich Station. Any decision to actually sell the block will have to come back to Cabinet in due course.

Why were we faced with this decision? The answer is simple. Under the last administration the management of the contract for the regeneration of the estate was allowed to run out of control, so that a scheme which should have cost £25 million now will cost over £30 million. And that additional £5 million does not exist in any other budget to make up the shortfall.

It has always been a key element of the regeneration of the East Dulwich Estate that capital receipts would be generated from land and void sales on the estate itself. Some flats have already been sold on the open market. So in order to meet the £5 million funding gap we had to look at ways which will have a minimum impact on the Estate and the overall regeneration scheme. We could choose to save £1.5 million by not proceeding with environmental works on the Estate, but I have long believed that those works will be a key element of the regeneration - giving the Estate a truly 'as new' feel. We could increase the sale of individual voids across the estate - but this has its own difficulties.

Add into the equation the fact that Badminton House was not within the Durkan regeneration works programme for the estate and never has been, for reason which lie in the decision-making of the previous administration in Southwark - and that to undertake the regeneration of Badminton House would add another £1 million to the £5 million shortfall, and the problem becomes even more acute.

I do not want to have to sell council housing in Southwark and lose homes from our stock. But in this instance we are faced with a problem which we cannot ignore. Homes in Bermondsey and Peckham have already been lost in order to fund the regeneration of the East Dulwich Estate. It would be unfair to go back to those areas and demand more homes or land in order to fund the works. By the sale of Badminton House we can fill a significant part of the funding gap in the project, without fundamentally changing the nature of the Estate.

But this decision and the debate which has ensued just underlines the challenge which we face in Southwark. With 54,000 properties the Council has to be assured that we can maintain those properties in a proper state going forward. We have to know that our housing stock is capable of being self-financing, because without that assurance the problems of funding major works which we have experienced on East Dulwich Estate will arise on estates right across our borough.

We have developed a 5 year housing investment programme which does not mean the loss of any significant number of homes from our stock; we must now put together a business plan which looks to the ensuing 25 - 30 years.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Elephant & Castle Regeneration - Lib Dems latest Call-In

On Wednesday evening Southwark's Overview & Scrutiny Committee considered the Lib Dem's latest call-in of our agreement to enter into discussions with St Modwen, the owners of the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre and Lend Lease, our redevelopment partners, for the regeneration of the shopping centre.

I have previously posted on this topic, and explained why this agreement was sensible. Firstly, it is better to work in co-operation with our partners than against them; secondly, the discussions may lead to an early redevelopment of the shopping centre; and thirdly, it is in everyone's interests that the shopping centre is redeveloped sooner rather than later.

I had thought that all three of these objectives would be welcomed by everyone. But it seems I was wrong. At Wednesday's meeting Southwark's Lib Dems moved that there should be no agreement for us to even discuss regeneration of the shopping centre with St Modwen and Lend Lease without there being an absolute commitment to demolish the shopping centre before any redevelopment work.

Let's just think about the logic of this position, and what it leads to.

St Modwen will not give an undertaking to demolish the shopping centre. Firstly, the shopping centre as it exists earns them money. They could simply choose to leave it as it is for the time being. Secondly, they believe that their proposals to strip the current centre back to it's concrete core and redevelop will lead to a new shopping centre - and having looked at some of the images they have produced that is hard to argue with. And thirdly, the works which they propose and which are being discussed with ourselves, Lend Lease and the community have the very real potential to meet our key objectives for the Elephant & Castle.

So if we adopted the Lib Dems approach it would not be delivered by St Modwen.

So who would deliver it?

Well the Regeneration Agreement provides that the Council will cooperate with Lend Lease in respect of a compulsory purchase of the shopping centre, but only at a time when Lend Lease ask for the CPO and only after they have exhausted attempts to redevelop with St Modwen. And when would this be likely to happen? The reality is that this would only arise at the end of the regeneration agreement period - 15 years from now. And even then there is no guarantee that Lend Lease would want to demolish the shopping centre if the economic climate for retail was not buoyant.

So the Lib Dems position is that it is wrong to even discuss redevelopment of the shopping centre with St Modwen and Lend Lease, and that we should hold out for a demolition which may not even be delivered in 15 years time, rather than try to bring about a major redevelopment of the shopping centre now.

Isn't the Lib Dems case really this - we don't want a redeveloped shopping centre and we don't want it now!

I am afraid that I cannot understand this position. It lacks ambition; it lacks vision; it opposes progress. But there again isn't that exactly what the Lib Dems did for the 8 years that they were in charge of the Elephant & Castle regeneration?

In 2014 I want to see real progress on the shopping centre; new homes on the Heygate; the development of the Oakmayne/Delancy site; and a new leisure centre for the Elephant & Castle. With the decisions which we have taken so far since last May we are well on the way to seeing these ambitions achieved.

Those who oppose the decision we took to work with St Modwen and Lend Lease on the regeneration of the shopping centre are opposed to the progress of the regeneration.

The Lib Dems have called-in and opposed every significant decision which we have taken on the Elephant & Castle since last May. Isn't it time for them to come clean and state clearly that they oppose the regeneration of this vital part of our borough? And if they don't oppose the regeneration can they please explain how their arguments and objections are consistent with progress being made.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Southwark Cathedral Funeral of Mayor Tayo Situ

Yesterday 1200 people packed Southwark Cathedral for the funeral of our Mayor, Cllr Tayo Situ, who died two weeks ago. It was an inspirational service which celebrated Tayo's life. I was honoured to play a part, paying tribute to Tayo and carrying the Mayoral Chain behind his coffin.

This is the tribute I gave:

"It is a great privilege to have been asked by his family to pay tribute today to the life of my friend, the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr Tayo Situ.

Tayo has been taken from us far too early, but at a time when as our serving Mayor, he was able to show to so many more people in our borough, across the rest of London and indeed the World all of those qualities for which we knew him and for which he had earned our respect – warmth, humour, integrity, friendliness and devotion to those causes and things which he cared about so deeply – his family, his church, his community and his borough of Southwark.

I first met Tayo in 2002 – we were both elected to the Council in the local elections that year. Tayo had been active in the community of Peckham for a long time before then – in particular he had helped to lead his community’s response to the tragic death of Damilola Taylor in 2000.

As a councillor and Labour Group member it was always clear that his was a voice in Group meetings of quiet authority and I shall miss his thoughtful contributions to discussions and debates.

Tayo was always busy – he would inevitably be en route from one meeting to another – not only fulfilling his role of community champion for Southwark, but also as a leading figure within the Nigerian community in London.

In opposition Tayo played a leading role in Southwark’s Labour Group. For six years he was our lead spokesperson on Equalities issues. It was a role which he fulfilled perfectly, dealing with some issues which were very difficult for us as a borough in an utterly straightforward way. He was not an advocate for special treatment or excuses or privileges for any section of our community, but merely agued that where there was an injustice we should do all that we could to put that right.

In the 2006 local elections Tayo deployed “Team Situ”– with Michael and Johnson following in their father’s footsteps on the campaign trail. He had trained them well! I know he was so proud of Michael being elected last May as a councillor in Livesey ward – in fact he was so proud of all of his children Elizabeth, Michael, Johnson, Victoria, Victor and his devoted and beloved wife, Abike -

You have good reason to be proud of him too.

After our victory in the local elections last year Tayo and I sat down to discuss what role he could play in our first year as an administration. I suggested that he should be Mayor – he was such a great role model for our community. He was attracted to the idea, but wasn’t sure he wanted to do it this year. I persisted, he thought about it some more, and decided that as I had asked he would be honoured. I am so pleased that I persisted and that he agreed to be our Mayor.

During his mayoralty Tayo was determined that we should celebrate Southwark and in particular the achievements and successes of the vast majority of young people in our borough, who work hard to achieve their potential, who stay out of trouble and contribute in so many different ways to making our borough a better place to live.

Whenever and wherever I saw Tayo his face would light up and he would give the warmest of greetings – more often that not he would say ‘Ahhh My Leader’ – which I was able to pre-empt over the past year giving a little bow and an even warmer welcome to ‘Mr Mayor’.

The only time when that smile was absent was in December last year when he called me into the Mayor’s parlour to tell me that he would have to go into hospital as his specialist had found something which required investigation. There was no doubt that he feared what might be the consequence of that investigation. And I recall the dreadful night not so many weeks ago when he telephoned me to tell me that the Doctors had just given him a poor prognosis.

But throughout this period I know that he found strength from his faith, his family and his many friends. People from all walks of life were drawn to Tayo, whatever the circumstances they met him in. I think it must have been that innate sense that here was a good man. I recall the wooden cross lying on his hospital pillow which he said had been given to him by one of the nurses treating him.

Tayo was a man who had made some huge choices in his life. He had chosen his Christian faith. He had chosen to come to the United Kingdom to study, live and raise his family. He had chosen to become involved in public life and stand up for his community. But it was we as his colleagues on the Council he who had chosen him to be our Mayor over the past twelve months – without doubt it was the right choice for us to have made.

He was the best of Southwark. As a friend I will miss him, as a borough Southwark will miss him, and we are all much poorer for the passing of our “friendly Mayor”."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre

On Tuesday at our Southwark Cabinet meeting we took the decision to enter into an agreement with St Modwen, the owners of the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, and Lend Lease, our partners in the Elephant & Castle redevelopment, with regard to the rebuilding of the shopping centre.

Under the Regeneration Agreement, which we signed last year with Lend Lease, provision was made for us to compulsorily purchase the shopping centre on behalf of Lend Lease if no agreement could be reached on the future of the centre with St Modwen. No specific time was provided for within the agreement and it was anticipated that given the current uncertainty in the retail market that the shopping centre regeneration was likely to be at the end of the 15 year programme.

Happily our prospective agreement with St Modwen and Lend Lease brings that regeneration forward, but it is the result of some very tough negotiations by all parties.

The original vision for the Elephant & Castle regeneration envisaged the demolition and rebuilding of the shopping centre - increasing the permeability of the whole area and punching through the railway arches to open up the new housing on the Heygate site to the shopping centre and the transport links there. Over the past twelve months both Lend Lease and St Modwen have explored options which do not involve wholesale demolition, but rather envisage stripping the centre back to its' core and building and extending around that core. At the same time access into and through the centre would be improved in all directions, and the links through the railway arches provided.

It took me a lot of persuading that anything other than demolition was the way forward, but having seen some of the thinking and plans put forward I can see that it is possible to create a new shopping centre for the Elephant & Castle and achieve the objective of making it a new and open gateway to the housing on the Heygate.

There is a lot more work to do on these plans, and the local community will be able to start their conversation with St Modwen and Lend Lease at the Forum which is due to be held on the 26th of May. But the momentum behind this project from the political leadership of this council is unstoppable -and we are determined to deliver on our commitment of regenerating the Elephant and Castle for the benefit of the local community, Southwark and London.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Councillor Allowance Savings top £100,000

With the changes we are making to the structure of the Cabinet, the removal of one full Cabinet place and the introduction of four Deputy Cabinet members, Southwark's Labour Administration will have achieved savings of over £100,000 on the amount of money which we spend on councillor's allowances over the past 12 months. All of this money is contributing to the savings which we need to make so that we can carry on trying to provide high quality front-line services for Southwark's residents.

Within days of taking office last year we reversed Lib Dem/Tory increases and were able to make savings of over £70,000. This years changes will add another £30,000 to that sum.

Some have criticised our decision to introduce allowances of approximately £2,700 for the Deputy Cabinet members - but taken in the context of our overall savings I believe that we are demonstrating real efficiency.

We have already brought an end to the dither and delay of the previous administration - providing clear political leadership right across the borough. This is an administration which makes savings and delivers results for the people of Southwark.

A Tour of the Aylesbury with Grant Shapps

This morning Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister, came down to the Aylesbury Estate to see how the Council is taking the project forward. The government undermined the project last November by removing £170 million of PFI credits, but since then we have taken stock and are approaching the project in a slightly different way.

The plans to build 4000 new homes on the existing Aylesbury site are ambitious, and depend on us being able to drive up land values in the early stages of the project. So it is at the early stages that the finances are most difficult. Whilst we were not expecting the Minister to provide any immediate financial help, he clearly demonstrated his interest in this major regeneration project.

We will be letting him know further details about how the finances work for the next phase of the scheme, as much will be affected by the Government's changes to housing benefit and grant subsidy for new homes. So the Minister indicated that he would like to look at the next phase as a 'case study'.

Delivering the Aylesbury regeneration will not be easy, but we have the political commitment and determination to make sure that it happens!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cllr Tayo Situ, the Mayor of Southwark

My friend and colleague, and our Mayor of Southwark Cllr Tayo Situ died yesterday after a brave fight against cancer. His death is a grievous blow to his family, all those who knew him and to our borough of Southwark.

Tayo was one of life's truly gentle men. His life was informed by his religion and his devotion to his family and community. Even before his election as a councillor for Peckham Ward in 2002 Tayo was a respected community leader, and an effective representative of the Nigerian community in London and the United Kingdom.

After our election victory last May I discussed with Tayo what role he might take on in the new administration, and persuaded him that it would be an honour for his Labour colleagues if he were to become the new Mayor and First Citizen of our borough. He agreed, and I know from every conversation which I had with him since last May that he regarded it as a great privilege to be the Mayor of Southwark, and undertook the role with genuine pride and dignity. He met people and took part in events which he thoroughly enjoyed - and which showed him to be a great representative for our community and borough.

Tayo was also delighted to have seen his son, Michael, elected as a councillor in Livesey Ward last year.

He will be greatly missed by us all.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Lane By-Election

A quick word on the result of The Lane by-election yesterday, which saw Rowenna Davis elected as a councillor with a majority of well over 2,000; the Lib Dems knocked into third place behind the Green Party; and a turnout of nearly 40%.

In short the result was stunning! This was the only local election taking place in London yesterday, and it saw a swing from the Lib Dems to Labour of 12.4%. In the best Peter Snow traditions our calculations suggest that if, just if, this swing were repeated across Southwark at the next local elections Labour would win 60 seats, and the Lib Dems would be reduced to just 3! Whilst I don't discount the possibility, even I have to admit that the prospect is pretty overwhelming!

Cllr Rowenna Davis will be a great asset for The Lane. She ran a superb and upbeat campaign, and I know that the many voters who met her were impressed by her. And Rowenna shares the commitment of our entire Labour Group to create a fairer future for all in Southwark - delivering free healthy school meals; improved housing; increased recycling and major regeneration projects which benefit the borough.

So well done to Rowenna and Southwark Labour!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sir Simon Milton

I was very sorry to learn this morning of the untimely death at 49 of London's Deputy Mayor Sir Simon Milton. Simon has been Boris Johnson's Deputy and Chief of Staff since 2008 and was one of the most influential politicians in London. It is fair to say that if Simon supported or opposed a project it is likely that Boris would be of a similar view. His death does really leave a vacuum at City Hall.

I last saw Simon three weeks ago at a lunch given by Boris Johnson. There was little indication then of the illness which overtook him.

I had found Simon very easy to work with since last May. It is important for Southwark that we have a good working relationship with City Hall, and I always found him to be open to our ideas and proposals on planning and other subjects. We will miss him.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Themed Council Assembly

Last night we held our first Council Assembly which adopted the procedure proposed by the Democracy Commission. This included a themed debate on 'The Future of Southwark' - a debate designed to throw up ideas about how the Council engages with the community in future, particularly at this time as we are facing unprecedented cuts to our budget. As I have said many times before the Council simply will not be able to do all of the things which it has done in the past and in the same way, so there is a need for some really creative thinking and innovation.

It was an opportunity for backbench and opposition councillors to give their input, all of which was going to be considered by my colleague Fiona Colley in her capacity as Cabinet Member for Corporate Strategy, in charge of the Council's Business Plan.

Labour members were absolutely fizzing with ideas and suggestions during the debate, with some exceptional contributions from Cllrs Patrick Diamond, Michael Situ and Mark Williams. Bizarrely the Lib Dem group staged a half-hearted walkout at the start of the debate. I am not sure why, or why they thought that the Future of Southwark was not an important issue for discussion. I do have to say that their contributions to the debate were petty and banal, complaining about process and concentrating on some really parochial issues. There was a complete lack of invention and innovation in their contributions, which was disappointing, and I got the feeling by the end of the debate that they realised that they had made a fundamental mistake in their approach.

But it just underlined for me that Southwark Labour Group has a depth and strength of ideas and experience which is unmatched in our borough.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Camberwell Baths Re-Open!

Last Saturday we celebrated the re-opening of Camberwell Baths. It is 120 years since they first opened their doors to the public, and until 2008 it was feared that those doors might close and never re-open. But with some great support from Lewis Robinson as the incoming executive member for Culture, Leisure and Sport; £1.4 million from the last Labour Government after a visit by the then-minister, Gerry Sutcliffe; continued campaigning by local councillors and Harriet Harman MP, and the tireless work of the Camberwell Baths Campaign and Helen and Chris Owen in particular, over £5 million was found to refurbish the Victorian baths.

Unlike the original opening we did not have the Lord Mayor of London as guest of honour, but echoing events of 1892 we did have synchronised swimming featuring Jo Brand! An unlikely synchronised swimmer I accept, but incredibly entertaining and helping to create a truly wonderful atmosphere.

Well done to everyone on some excellent work - and in particular the Southwark team of officers who have embraced and delivered this brilliant project on time and on budget!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mobile Surgery

Veronica and I were out on the Champion Hill Estate at the weekend for our latest mobile surgery. A water main burst on the estate before Christmas and a temporary water pipe system is still operating at the bottom of the estate. I will be pursuing this today as it seems an incredibly long time for any 'temporary' solution to a major problem.

I was struck at the number of properties where the residents complained about real damp problems. From what I saw this is not a question of simply improving ventilation, but some structural issues which need fundamental resolution. It is so dispiriting to see residents having to live with dark mould growing on bedroom and living room walls. Again Veronica and I will be looking to see what can be done - but these kinds of issues should be tackled by our administration's commitment to make every home warm, dry and safe.

Some of these same issues of damp were also found on the East Dulwich Estate yesterday - which was disappointing given the fact that we are coming to the end of major regeneration works there. So the work goes on!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Congratulations Cllr Mark Williams

Mark Williams was elected as the new Councillor for Brunswick Park ward last night. On a turnout of 34.2% - very high for a council by-election, Labour polled 1,981 votes; LibDems 630; Green Party 231; Conservative 129 and Independent 70 votes. So Labour polled over 65% of the vote - up from 53% in the local elections last year. The Libs vote was down on last year to under 21% whilst the Tory vote collapsed to just over 4%.

This means that the vote for the coalition parties collapsed from 31.5% to 25% - a bad result. In 2006, when the Lib Dems last did any work and visited Camberwell, their vote was over 36%, and the coalition parties polled about 41%. I am no expert on political swing, but it's a great result for Mark and Labour! It is particularly gratifying given the nasty and negative campaign which the Lib Dems pursued in this campaign.

Labour fought the campaign on the issues facing Camberwell and Southwark, and we received a great endorsement of the work we are doing and the choices we are making as a new administration.

Thanks to the voters of Brunswick Park - I know that Cllr Mark Williams and the Southwark Labour team will not let you down.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Welcome Bishop Christopher!

Yesterday I was delighted to be at Southwark Cathedral for the enthronement of Christopher Chessun as the tenth Bishop of Southwark. Bishop Christopher has been the Bishop of Woolwich for the past 6 years prior to his appointment to Southwark - so he knows our part of South London very well. I was also reminded that he has previously served as Mayor's Chaplain to Cllr Eliza Mann during her year of office.

It was an uplifting service and the choir sang brilliantly. It was good to see Bishop Tom Butler present to hand over the bishop's crosier to his successor.

There was applause from the congregation for four Bishops who had travelled from Zimbabwe for the service. They are having to deal with a great deal of abuse and repression in their own country from the authorities.

Special mention to my colleague and Southwark Mayor, Cllr Tayo Situ, who read the first lesson.

The photo shows Bishop Christopher blessing his new Diocese and the river!

Friday, March 04, 2011

Electoral Calculus

Electoral Calculus is one of those websites that politicos like to look at. It takes opinion polls and election results and uses that information to predict the outcome of the next general election in parliamentary seats.

At the moment it is predicting that Labour have a 100% chance of winning Camberwell and Peckham, a 97.9% chance of winning Dulwich and West Norwood, and......wait for it....a 71% chance of winning Bermondsey and Old Southwark. That last result would be a very significant Labour gain. It gives the Lib Dems just a 22% chance of winning.

Now I accept that no opinion poll or prediction matters really - it is only the election result itself which counts. And there are always local factors which can affect any result.

But I have to say it certainly gives me a lift to see how Labour support is firming up in Southwark. And I dare say it must be sending a cold shiver down the spines of some other politicians and political parties.

You can follow Electoral Calculus here

Brunswick Park By-Election

Next Thursday voters in Brunswick Park ward will be able to cast their votes in a council by-election. Mark Williams, a local resident in Vestry Road in Brunswick Park, is Labour's candidate. He has been doing a great job on the campaign trail and will be an excellent representative for the area if he is elected next week.

Brunswick Park is a ward of contrasts. There are some pockets of affluence in the south of the ward, and in the north of the ward some major estates which are still in need of 'Decent Homes' works. It is a ward which will really benefit from Labour's manifesto commitments to make every council home 'Warm. Dry and Safe' and to provide free healthy school meals to all of our primary school children.

The Lib Dems have run a purely negative campaign which has offended many of the voters I have spoken to. It's a shame that they have nothing positive to say to the people of Camberwell. But with the national picture looking so bad for them they are probably in a state of near meltdown. Some of the other minor parties have run much more positive campaigns.

Well done and good luck to Mark Williams for running a positive and honest campaign, and for being a candidate Labour can be proud of!

Day Centres and Lunch Clubs

On Wednesday I sat down with representatives of most of the Day Centres and Lunch Clubs who will be affected by some of the decisions we took in last week's budget. The meeting was chaired by my colleague Cllr Dora Dixon-Fyle, the Cabinet Member for Adult Health and Social Care.

Although we were discussing some really difficult funding cuts I was pleased with the tone and substance of the meeting. There was a clear understanding from all of the groups about where the blame for these cuts really lies - i.e. with the Government; and a fantastic spirit and commitment to co-operation with the Council and amongst the groups themselves to find a way that they might continue to provide services in the future, but without the method and level of financial support which the Council currently provides.

We agreed to get together in about 6 weeks time to see what progress has been made, but in the meantime Council Assembly's decision to provide an additional £500,000 of funding to the groups means that some of the panic and urgency of those discussions has been eased.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Southwark Labour's Budget

On Tuesday Southwark Labour's budget was approved at a meeting of councillors. I was pleased that despite some initial protests and screaming from Lib Dem councillors we were able to hold the meeting in public, so that the residents of our borough could see the arguments made and the democratic process take place. Sadly meetings in Lambeth and Islington have been disrupted by protesters and been forced to take place in private.

It has been a tough budget process - finding £34 million of cuts forced on us by the Tory / Lib Dem government, but at the same time adhering to our budget principles and trying to deliver on the manifesto which we were elected on just 9 months ago.

Every department was asked to deliver savings of 25% over the next three years, but after listening to public representations during the budget consultation process we invested further sums in adult social care and children's services meaning that those departments have only been required to find savings of about 20%. I have said time and again, but it is worth repeating, that you cannot take £34 million out of our council's budget without having some impact on front-line services. And there are services which will be impacted by the decisions which we took on Tuesday night.

At the moment the Council supports 12 Day Centres and Lunch Clubs in the borough. Our initial proposals took £1 million out of this budget and envisaged 3 of the centres becoming hubs to replace the others. But the speed with which we proposed to make these changes alarmed some of the groups and users so it was sensible that we put back £500,000 into the budget to help these groups develop a different working model in the months ahead.

We took some other tough decisions which will see a reduction in spending in children's services, but on the advice of expert officers I feel reassured that alternatives to the services which we provided can be found and that no child who needs the protection of our council will be affected.

There were some innovative proposals in the budget - a £1 million Voluntary Sector Transition Fund to help voluntary groups continue through this difficult financial climate; a £1 million Youth Fund - particularly aimed at helping those young people aged 16 - 18 who have seen their future prospects blighted by this Coalition Government as tuition fees have risen, educational maintenance allowance has been removed and youth unemployment soared to 22% in Southwark; and a £200,000 Social Care Innovation Fund - helping groups who want to change but need funding to achieve that change.

And we were able to deliver on our manifesto pledges to halve the price of Meals on Wheels and further roll out our plan to give every primary school child in the borough a free healthy school meal. This policy has been criticised by our increasingly desperate political opponents as being a plan to feed "rich kids"! Perhaps they are confusing Southwark with somewhere else - but in this borough anything which tackles childhood obesity and helps that vast majority of families who are truly struggling to get by has to be a good thing. So I make no apologies for delivering on this pledge.

We will continue to deliver sports to young people - and I am hopeful that we will soon be able to announce what we will be doing with Southwark Community Games in the near future. Our twelve libraries will stay open - although they will have to deliver savings which I hope we can find when we undertake a review through until the Autumn. The streets of our borough should remain clean and we will deliver the £250 increase for all of our employees earning under £21,000 - a commitment which many local authorities have walked away from.

So, whilst we have found the savings Government required it has not been easy. The cuts are too far and too fast and demonstrate a complete lack of understanding by the Lib Dems and Tories in central government of the important role which local government undertakes.

We will continue to help those groups who want to engage with us as we deliver change across Southwark. But we will be doing so in a very different financial climate after Tuesday.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's the basis for your claims Simon?

The Lib Dems sometimes appear to have only a nodding acquaintance with facts. Never let a good story get in the way of the truth must be the motto in Lib Dem HQ! In Southwark, as well as putting out horrendous literature in the Brunswick Park by-election and peddling a malicious lie about a Labour Councillor's council tax status, they twist reality in weird ways. Labour plans for a new library in Camberwell are presented by the Lib Dems as plans to build a new benefit office on Camberwell Green. I don't understand who benefits from this kind of distortion. Perhaps it's just a case of desperate times requiring desperate measures?

But I was horrified to hear Simon Hughes on The Politics Show at the weekend claiming that we as a Labour Council in Southwark were deliberately making political choices in our budget which were "blatantly unfair" and that we were deliberately making more council employees redundant than was necessary in order to make a point against the government.

This is utter nonsense. We have made choices in our budget which are informed by our values and budget principles - believe it or not Simon some of us still have those. We anticipate that we will have to make 150 people redundant this year on the basis of this year's budget. Although any job loss is a job loss too many, I think that's not as bad as it might have been when you consider that we are losing the equivalent of one sixth of our budget - and compares very favourably with Lib Dem run Newcastle which is laying off 2000 of its' staff.

Like his Lib Dem colleagues on the Council, Mr Hughes has made no contact with me about our budget choices or made any suggestions of his own. Throwing about loose allegations and accusations for the sake of a soundbite is irresponsible and bad politics. So, what is the basis for your claims Simon?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Southwark Budget Consultation

In my post below I have mentioned the 13 Deputations which we received at Cabinet last week. Some may argue differently, but I think that the budget process we have undertaken this year has made a difference to the choices which we will make, and to the groups affected by those choices. I have just received a note from one of the groups who came to speak to us which seems to support this. Here is an extract from that note:

"I do not envy your position as a council; the timescale given to implement cuts of this magnitude defies belief and flies in the face of good practice. It is clear that you are trying to give us all as much opportunity as possible to share our concerns / put a case for our own work; this is appreciated."

I am not sure that I need to add any more.

Southwark Lib Dems Dilemma II

Last week 91 Lib Dem Council and Group Leaders wrote to The Times with a tough message about the Government cuts being forced on local government by their own national leaders. This extract from the letter echoes much of what I have been saying in Southwark for some time:

"These [government] cuts will have an undoubted impact on all frontline council services, including care services to the vulnerable.

Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making public-sector savings in a way that can protect local economies and the frontline, the cuts are so structured that they will do the opposite. The local government settlement will take a major hit in this coming financial year and further, smaller, cuts in subsequent years. This front-loading means councils do not have the lead-in time necessary to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base and ease staff cuts without forced, expensive redundancies. Inexplicably, local government is also being denied the opportunity to spread the cost of reorganisation and downsizing over several years — at no cost to central government — which just makes even bigger in-year cuts inevitable The Secretary of State’s role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us."

Now, remember, this is a letter from Lib Dems. I carefully scanned the signatories to the letter to see whether it was supported by Southwark's Lib Dems - who have said that they will speak out in support of our residents and protect them from the worst of the Government's proposals. But they had not signed the letter. So I wrote to the local Leader of the Lib Dems and asked her why not.

This is her reply:

"Dear Peter,

Thanks very much for your letter dated 10th February. I am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to discuss with you the cuts in our borough and the poor choices which you and your cabinet are making at the moment.

I did not sign the letter about Eric Pickles as this is not the approach which I wished to take. I prefer not to be confrontational, but to try to make progress in a consensual way. As you know, Liberal Democrats from Southwark have been happy to join you in discussions with Government Ministers about how to get the best deal for Southwark.

I also strongly believe that the poor decisions which are being made in Southwark at the moment are not simply the fault of the Government. We all know that cuts have to be made in public spending as a result of the huge deficit left by the Labour Government. I am sure I don't need to remind you that 'there was no money left' as Liam Byrne described the legacy left by your party in Government.

So while we accept that savings need to be made, the Liberal Democrat group in Southwark believes that your supposedly open and transparent budget process has been a complete farce. I have listened to a large number of local groups in recent weeks who have described conflicting information, a lack of response from cabinet members, uncertainty, sudden decisions with no discussion and complete chaos and last minute announcements with no proper notice.

You appear to be intent on making cuts in the front line services which our hard working voluntary sector provides. You are choosing to cut services for early years and older people with little thought to how much more this will cost the council in the long run. You don't have the honesty to let communities know which of our libraries you are closing. You are choosing to put £4 million into contingency funds this year while withdrawing the far smaller tens of thousands upon which local groups depend for their very survival.

I suggest, therefore, that you worry less about producing press releases about whether I am signing letters to The Times. You need to concentrate on the very real choices which the council must make and actually listen to the people of this borough who are desperately asking to be heard.

Best wishes,


Councillor Anood Al-Samerai
Liberal Democrat Councillor for Riverside Ward
Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group"

For the sake of completeness this is my response to Cllr Al-Samerai's reply:

"Dear Anood,

Thank you for your reply. I am not sure that it evidences your stated desire of working in a consensual rather than confrontational manner, but consistency is not an obvious LibDem trait at present.

Furthermore, whilst you are critical of Labour's budget choices in Southwark you do not state what choices Southwark LibDems would make in the face of these unprecedented budget cuts. If you were even remotely serious about working in a consensual fashion you and your Group would have been making alternative proposals during the consultation period, rather than simply criticising our proposals developed in consultation with our residents.

It seems clear to me that Southwark LibDems are even more isolated than ever - both from the politics of your national colleagues and from the reality of the budget cuts we are facing. It is amazing that so many other LibDem councillors around the country recognise the damage which your Government's cuts will cause to front-line services and are prepared to say so, but you and your colleagues believe that there will be no impact in Southwark - despite the fact that we face the largest cash budget cut of any London borough. Your silence is a betrayal of those you claim to represent.

You and your group have a choice to make - participate constructively in the budget process and make the case for Southwark at all levels, or continue to indulge in juvenile politics which serves no one - least of all the most vulnerable residents of our borough.

Yours sincerely,


Cllr Peter John,
Leader of Southwark Council,
Labour Councillor for South Camberwell."

There are some really serious issues here. How can we take Southwark's Lib Dems criticisms of us seriously when (a) they have put forward no alternative budget proposals themselves during the consultation process and (b) even their own colleagues around the country argue that front-line services will be hit by these cuts.

It may be that Southwark's Lib Dems come along to our budget meeting on the 22nd of February, try to amend the budget and argue that we don't need to make the savings which we are proposing. But that will be too late to be serious. All alternative proposals have to be considered and their impact thought through. So turning up at the budget meeting with a shopping list of changes will not give us that opportunity.

Like all other residents and groups in Southwark the Lib Dems have had the opportunity of making proposals and suggesting alternatives during our lengthy consultation process. Last week we received 13 different deputations at our Cabinet meeting - all of whose proposals and arguments we will consider again tomorrow. There were none from the Lib Dem group.

So you have to ask yourself, if Southwark's Lib Dems cannot even be bothered to put forward even one single proposal for an alternative approach to the budget in our budget consultation, whose interests are they representing, and who are they standing up for?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Southwark Lib Dems' Dilemma

I have been pondering what the result in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election means for Southwark, and in particular for Southwark's LibDems. It seems clear that many of those who voted LibDem in Oldham in May 2010 switched their votes to Labour's candidate Debbie Abrahams in this by-election. And it seems equally cleat that many of those who voted Conservative in May 2010 moved their votes to the LibDems. There is no other logical explanation for the collapse of the Tory vote and the maintenance of the LibDems share of the vote.

So what does this mean in Southwark? At the moment I get the feeling that Simon Hughes and the Southwark LibDems are trying to carry on as if nothing has changed since last May. They are trying to oppose Government policy when it doesn't suit them, and then try to blame Labour's administration in Southwark for any difficult choices which we are obliged to make as a result of the Government's cuts.

But the difficulty for them is that things did change last May, and changed very significantly. Whether they like it or not the national LibDem Party chose to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives, and thereby indicated that the LibDem Party nationally preferred a right-wing solution to the dilemma posed by the election results to a left-wing or progressive solution. A formal coalition with the Conservatives was not an inevitable choice for the LibDems - they chose 5 years of what they hope to be guaranteed power with a right-wing party, rather than any more pragmatic solution. And no decision since May 2010 would seem to demonstrate that Nick Clegg's LibDems are not prepared to sign up whole-heartedly to the Conservative's approach.

At the end of the day national political parties are just that - national. They are led by a single Leader who sets the policy tone and framework and becomes the living embodiment of what the Party represents and offers to the electorate. Even the Green Party has recognised the need for a single identifiable Leader. And in national political parties other senior elected representatives "toe the party line" and demonstrate their support for what the Leader and senior figures say and do. Both the Conservatives and Labour know what happens when that does not occur! What the leadership of the Party does is important. Sometimes you can disagree with a particular policy approach, but it becomes impossible really to retain credibility as a Party member or supporter if you disagree with the national leadership's fundamental direction of travel.

So the point I'm making is that Southwark Lib Dems do have to recognise that their party's direction of travel is to the right. And that direction looks set firm. They also have to recognise that the Southwark Lib Dem party does not exist in isolation from their national party - after all Simon Hughes is the national Party Deputy Leader.

I have no doubt that many Lib Dem councillors, members and supporters in Southwark are extremely uncomfortable with this lurch to the right by their Party. And there will be many who recognise that if the electorate in Southwark behave as the electorate in Oldham have, Southwark's Lib Dems face real electoral difficulties.

Labour remains the only party of the left and centre-left, and all that we do in Southwark will be true to our core political beliefs and principles, representing the best in progressive politics. So I say to all Lib Dem councillors, members and supporters in Southwark - if you still wish to be part of the progressive politics of our country and our borough there will always be a place for you with Labour. It is your national party which has moved - not you or your beliefs. If you want to be a relevant part of the debate going forward don't think you have to put yourselves through the agony of pretending to defend Conservative policies - but join with Labour in fashioning a real alternative.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Southwark's Budget 2011

Later today I will be meeting with Grant Shapps MP, the Local Government Minister, to make the case for additional funding for Southwark in the next financial year. Southwark is the hardest hit of all London local authorities in the amount of money it will lose from Government grant next year - £29.7 million; with a further £17.2 million being taken next year.

This level of cuts is unprecedented and will mean that we will have to make some very difficult choices here in Southwark. No department or service will be unscathed - it is simply impossible for us to make 11% less money pay for all the same services. After you add in inflation costs and other unavoidable cost pressures the cut is equivalent to nearly £60 million.

Our meeting with Mr Shapps will also be attended by all three Southwark MPs, Harriet Harman, Simon Hughes and Tessa Jowell, as well as Cllr Tim McNally from Southwark's opposition LibDem group. Our message will be the same - Southwark will not be able to preserve all of its front-line services over the next year without some further financial support from Government.

I have no great hope that Mr Shapps will offer us any further funding - but he must at least recognise that the problems facing a borough such as ours are many - and expensive to solve. With consistently increased funding during the lifetime of the last Labour Government we did make real progress in tackling some of the real problems which flow from having an inner-city borough with high levels of deprivation. I fear that some of this progress will be lost if Mr Shapps cannot provide some real cash this afternoon.