My AGM Speech 2014

Speech by Mayor Sir Steve Bullock to the Annual Meeting of Lewisham Council, 11 June 2014

Deputy Lieutenant, freemen and women of the Borough, Chair, Councillors, Members of Parliament, Honoured Guests,

We embark tonight on the most challenging four years this council has faced for a very long time.  We will spend a lot of time trying to reduce expenditure while at the same time sustaining front line services as well completing capital schemes. It will tax the abilities of both members and officers.

That is actually word for word what I said four years ago – it was true then and sadly it is true today – but with some important additions not least the need to play our part in addressing the city’s housing crisis.  I will say more about the challenges that face us in a moment but first I want to reflect on the elections that took place a few days ago.

Let me begin by congratulating you all on being elected to serve here.  For some of you it will be just another 4-year term but for others it will be a new experience.  It may be the beginning of a long career in local government or you may decide that one term is more than enough!  For Cllr Coughlin it will be certainly be a unique experience and we will do our best not to leave you feeling too isolated as we all strive to do what is best for our community.

Change on this scale reminds us that one of the things that marks success in any organisation is the ability to change but still retain the values that have served it well.  New challenges require new ways of thinking but we also need to know how we came to where we now are.  I am the only remaining member of Lewisham Council who served under Andy Hawkins’ leadership and today many of you will know little or nothing of Andy yet his influence is felt in this borough every day – it is for example why we have such a strong relationship with our community organisations.  Our history matters. Together we weave today’s politics on the fabric developed by those who went before us.  For nearly thirty years Andy Hawkins served on this Council; and from 1971 to 1984 he was its Leader.  He built this Council’s compassionate progressive politics on the earlier base built by Herbert Morrison – himself a giant of Labour post war politics and a Lewisham MP.

Our essential pragmatism – to address social injustices locally and improve life for all in Lewisham – has deep roots.  It was developed not from some theory cooked up in political discussions – but in response to real community challenges here in Lewisham.  Events like the New Cross Fire of 1981 (an event which led to 14 young black boys and girls losing their lives) still matter.   Of course it matters intensely to the families of those concerned.  But it matters also to a much wider community and citizenry.  For if we fail to understand the roots of our community’s history,  and if we also fail to remember those who died, we risk not only the progress that we have made, we may also risk allowing the mistakes of the past to be repeated.

We need to be open to ideas that come from elsewhere too and the learning that others have done. We have no monopoly on wisdom and good ideas are too precious to reject just because someone else thought of them first!  We have been working closely with neighbouring authorities recently and I have no doubt we will do this even more in the future.

As some of you will know I was a little surprised by the margin of Labour’s win on 22 May – my forecasting skills need some work and you may want to treat my latest prediction that England will win the World Cup with caution.  I have nevertheless been giving thought to what is the right response to that victory.  And those thoughts keep returning to some lines from Kipling’s poem  – If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same….

It is humbling to realise that so many people have put their trust in you and the fact that it has happened after 4 difficult years only adds to the responsibility we now all have to justify the confidence placed in us by the electorate.

I am pleased to say that I have been able to reappoint Alan Smith to serve as deputy mayor – pleased because having such an able and experienced deputy makes my job easier but also because having contrived to lose both the previous deputy mayors after a single term to have mislaid a third really would have begun to look like carelessness.

There are changes to the cabinet however and I want to pay a warm tribute to Susan, Helen and Crada who are moving on – between them they have something like 31 years of service in cabinet and they have made a huge contribution to this borough in many ways.  I particularly want to thank them for the support they have given to me in dealing with difficult issues not only in their own portfolios but as part of a cabinet team working together to deal with both the triumphs and disasters we have faced.  Susan has also been a stalwart members of the charity fundraising team of which more in a moment.

The new team is an attempt to balance experience and fresh ideas.  Financial issues will dominate our work and I have invited Kevin Bonavia to join the cabinet and take on the Resources brief.  I have also made some changes to the way responsibilities are allocated to try and better balance the size of the tasks faced by cabinet members.  During the election two of the issues which found a positive response to our proposals were housing and schools.  I have asked Damien Egan and Paul Maslin respectively to take on the task of turning our promises into action in those areas. Alan Smith will continue to lead our work on jobs, skills and regeneration as well taking the lead on the Young Mayor programme as it enters its second decade.

Joan Millbank will continue her work with our community organisations of all kinds while Chris Best will continue to lead our work on integration with the NHS which is at a very critical point and she will also lead our work with older residents. Janet Daby will continue to lead our work on community safety and will now take on a corporate role in relation to our equalities work.

There are partnership boards in both Chris and Janet’s areas that I chair – the Health and Wellbeing Board and the Safer Lewisham Partnership.  This arrangement is not ideal and while we have made it work I intend to discuss with our partners whether the cabinet member should chair these bodies as happens in other areas of activity.  However these boards cover issues which our citizens are deeply concerned about and I want to make it clear to both them and our partners that this does not indicate a lessening of interest on my part.  I shall therefore remain a member of those two boards.

I have asked Joe Dromey to join the cabinet to work closely with me as lead on policy and performance. while  Rachel Onikosi joins cabinet to take on what I have called public realm and which includes our parks, refuse and street scene as well as the regulatory serves.

I am again appointing a small team of specialist advisers who offer many insights and ideas to particular aspects of our work. Three of them, Father Paul Butler, Wozzy Brewster and Robin Stott will be familiar to many of you.  My fourth adviser, Nathan John, has been a great source of ideas and practical actions but others have noted his abilities too and he is temporarily I hope working abroad.  I hope to make an announcement shortly about his successor as adviser on community cohesion.

During the coming four years I will continue to carry out both executive and civic duties and I am again exercising the mayor’s prerogative to appoint a Mayoress who will, of course, be Lady Bullock. The civic aspect of the council’s work matters to many local organisations and we should endeavour to meet their needs as far as possible and I thank the Chair for his assistance in making this possible over the last three years – and of course Sandra who has been a key part of that too.

It is my intention to continue to support the Lavender Trust as the principle mayoral charity. We recently handed over a cheque for £12,500 to the Trust. You should have found a programme of forthcoming events on your seats starting with the quiz at the wonderful Rivoli Ballroom and I think that Bill Mannix who owns the Rivoli and always makes us very welcome is with us tonight.  Kris has agreed to continue to lead our fundraising work along with the small but dedicated team who have now raised over £160,000 over the last decade. New volunteers are always very welcome of course!

We maintain our links with Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality in South Africa while our long-standing European links with local authorities in Paris (Antony) and Berlin (Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf) continue to allow our residents to make their own connections.  We recently had contact again with Matagalpa in Nicaragua who we twinned with many years ago and it may be that there is some life yet in that relationship.

We have now have a very good partnership with Kingston, Jamaica and that symbolises the very strong links between Lewisham and Jamaica.  I hope that our recent appointment of one of the most distinguished members of the Jamaican Diaspora, Doreen Lawrence as a Freewoman of the borough will further cement the bonds of friendship between our two communities.

Overseas links always need to be handled with care and in a time of austerity even more so but it is heartening to know that some of our best ambassadors are our young mayors who have made many links with other young people across Europe.

Let me return now to the challenges lie ahead.  Our citizens clearly rejected the confrontational stance that some candidates offered them but they also by a very substantial margin rejected the parties which currently form the very government which is imposing such severe cuts on this borough. Lewisham decisively rejected the harsh austerity approach of a government which has made blaming the victims a central policy plank.

The way in which that government has treated local government is deeply flawed – and the most recent round of spending cuts illustrates this.

Two things were fundamentally wrong with the way it went about those cuts. Firstly they were presented in a deliberately misleading way – not only were the figures massaged to understate the size of the cut but it was not made clear to the public what was being cut.  It was clear what was happening to spending on services like education, health and defence.

If an honest presentation had been made rather than using the term Communities and Local Government ministers would have spelled out that adult social care, libraries and child protection had been singled out to be cut more than those other areas I mentioned.

Had they done that there would inevitably have been an outcry – and I doubt whether the decision could have been sustained.

The second problem lay in the distorted allocation of funding to councils across the country.  Authorities like Lewisham which have high levels of deprivation were cut to a greater extent than those with fewer challenges.  Again a minister who stood up and said we intend to protect the well off and take more away from the poorest would have provoked fury – but that is precisely what they did.

When the Coalition was being created I mentioned by way of warning something that the Irish MP Tom Kettle said long ago  – “When in office, the Liberals forget their principles – and the Tories remember their friends” – while it is always good to be proved right in this case I wish I had been proved wrong.

We are going to spend a lot of time trying to manage the council’s shrinking budget and most of that time we will involve looking at specific areas of spend and the implications of change to them.  Before we begin to do that it may be wise to briefly reflect on why there is such a huge gap.

Following the 2010 election there was a Comprehensive Spending Review  and funding for local government for the period 2011 – 2015 was reduced by 30%.  In Lewisham this resulted in cumulative savings for that period of £93m.  The last administration dealt with that and I believe that the electorate recognised how responsibly and effectively we did so.

The next CSR in June 2013 cut the Communities and Local Government resource budget  by a further 10% – the largest cut to any government department. Even this was an underestimate according to the Local Government Association because of the way the figures were presented.  The real cut was 14.6% and this was increased by a further 2% when the detailed local government settlement was announced in December.

This government has distributed its cuts to local government so that councils serving areas of higher deprivation (such as in the northern cities and in the inner London boroughs) are cut substantially more than those councils serving much more affluent areas.  If Lewisham had to find savings in line with the national average, our savings target would be £73m not £95m – £22m lower!  And £22m is a lot of services, a lot of activities and a lot staff.

But how are other London councils faring under this government?  Other councils serving communities of similar levels of deprivation are facing cuts targets at the same level as us.  But not those who serve well-to-do parts of London.  Richmond-upon-Thames, for example, is doing comparatively well.   It’s a council serving a fairly affluent community in outer SW London.  Lewisham serves the 16th most deprived community in England; Richmond-upon-Thames is the 286th! If this council’s finances were treated the same as Richmond-upon-Thames, which oddly enough re-elected a Conservative administration, our cuts target for the next four years would drop from £95m to £41m – some £54m lower!

The last administration agreed savings of £24m for the current year 14/15 and an additional £3m was drawn from reserves to set a balanced budget.  This £3m will need to be found from other sources in the future.  £2m has been identified so far for 15/16 leaving £42m to be found.

But difficult as it will be for us to deal with the financial challenge we must not allow this to distract us from delivering the programme that our electorate have endorsed – in the fields of housing, education, growth and jobs, community safety and much more we need to move quickly to begin implementing that programme.

The London housing crisis continues to deepen as each year the city builds fewer new homes that it needs.  In Lewisham the positive approach that we have taken as a council has meant that we have done better than many boroughs but we need to do even more and the return of the council itself as a builder of new homes will be something that marks this coming period.  We will also make sure that the needs of existing tenants are not forgotten and during these four years we will complete the programme of bringing our housing stock up to Decent Homes standard.

The crisis is multi facetted and pressure is most intense in three areas – genuinely affordable social housing, the lower end of the private rental sector and homes for sale which are affordable to first time buyers.  We will deliver 1000s of new homes in Lewisham over the coming four years but we need to take a sophisticated approach to meeting the needs of all three of those areas.  The term “Affordable Housing” as used by this government is an abuse of the English language and we need to treat it with great caution.  In particular we need to avoid getting hooked on headline figures about the percentage share of “Affordable Housing” in any given development.

If we fail to do this we risk achieving figures that might look like something to boast about but which obscure the fact that not a single person on our waiting list will be able to afford to move into that so-called “Affordable Housing” – equally we need to put continuing pressure on developers to deliver amounts of genuinely affordable housing that reflect the continuing rise in value of those schemes.

London needs a campaign of unprecedented proportions to deliver 50,000 new homes a year and Lewisham will not only play its part but be at the leading edge as we seek to persuade the national government elected in 2015 and the next Mayor of London to join that effort.

In part that housing crisis is a result of London’s rapidly growing population and this is also having a great impact in other ways.  Most obviously the demand for places in our primary schools.  Those schools are now among the best in the country – in fact results are the 4th best in the country surpassing many authorities with much lower levels ofdeprivation – but each year sees a record number of applications for places in them.

So far thanks to remarkable efforts by those schools and our own staff we have managed to create enough additional places. But it gets harder to do each year and we will need to increase the size of more schools and where possible build some new ones.  Just as there will be decisions about making housing developments denser there will be some hard choices about school expansions but we must continue to make sure that we are able to offer a place to each child who needs one.

Lewisham’s secondary schools have changed dramatically both physically and in the way they perform. 26% more 16 year olds now gain five good GCSEs than in 2002 – while nationally the improvement was 17% and in London 20%. The last two Building Schools for the Future schemes are on site now.

But we can still do better – secondary schools in some boroughs have improved even more quickly – I want the best for Lewisham’s young people and we will work with our schools to see a significant further rise in outcomes over the next four years as well as improving the vocational offer that is available to those young people who do not want to follow a purely academic path.

London is a successful city and it offers great opportunities as it continues to grow but we must make sure that our young people are skilled up to be able to take full advantage of those opportunities. The apprentice scheme we introduced has proved itself and we now need to expand it.

Lewisham will continue to see a great many capital programmes in the years ahead.  I am delighted that the Lewisham Town Centre scheme is now finally underway but there is more to come – some in the north of the borough are already underway while others not least Catford Town Centre will be a focus in the next few years. In all cases we need to make sure that not only our young people but also local businesses get the chance to benefit.

We will be lobbying hard for further transport links to be developed opening up even more opportunities for our residents. The Bakerloo line extension has been something we have been pressing for and we know that these projects require a long term approach.  The extraordinary success of the East London line extension has created a real opportunity now for a further extension on the eastern side of the borough and this will be something we need to build support for.

Important as those big projects are we also need to address the needs of our citizens for help with some of the more basic things – for many the cost of living has become a real crisis.  We have taken a lead in Lewisham on many aspects of this like the adoption of the London Living Wage and our support for Credit Unions.  We must redouble our efforts and I am determined that we will freeze council tax for at least 2 years.

Many of us have visited some of the food projects which have grown up in the borough in recent years – some driven by the growing poverty experienced by some of our fellow residents while others seek to demonstrate that it is possible to have a healthy diet on limited resources. This is an area we can play a key role not by seeking to do it ourselves but by bringing groups together and sharing resources – it is an approach that Lewisham excels at and one that our recently acquired role in Public Health fits well.  I now even feel it possible to publicly endorse the work we do about obesity without inviting ridicule.

It is tempting to go through every aspect of the programme we are about to start on but you will no doubt all be relieved to know that I am going to resist temptation and shortly bring things to a conclusion but before doing so I want to say something about the councils partners many of whom are represented here tonight.  They include both public and private sector organisations and without them many of the things we want to achieve would be doomed to failure.

Through Lewisham Homes we will build hundreds of new homes but we need thousands and the rest will be built by housing associations, developers and some by the people who are going to live in them.

We will build on the success of our 20mph zone programme by making the whole borough subject to a 20mph limit.  To make that work we will need to change the mind set of drivers so that 20mph becomes the default speed.  We will only succeed in doing this with the help of the Police and the GLA.

We were all proud to a play a part in saving Lewisham Hospital but we know that the NHS faces a challenge on a similar scale to local government.  As a result they will have difficult choices to make but if we work together we will all make better decisions and be able to deliver more for our residents.

The community organisations of this borough – large, small, secular, faith based, local, borough wide – are the life blood of Lewisham.  They already deliver a great deal and I know from conversations with some of them that they are ready to do more. They and all the other partners are vital to what we will do during the next four years and we will need to make sure that we continue to work closely together.

I said earlier that our fellow citizens have done us the honour of putting their trust in us. Trust is not easily earned and should not be given up lightly.  Talking about trust, Harold MacMillan said a man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.The people of Lewisham now expect us to justify their faith in us by delivering the things we promised, making the hard choices in a fair way and by being open and honest in all we do.

I am proud to be the mayor of Lewisham and I hope you all feel proud to represent its constituent parts.  We face a testing time but we also have the opportunity to change many things for the better.  There are dedicated and committed officers both here at the town hall and with our partners who are ready to help us with that task.  Those partners are ready too. Our community and its organisations want to work with us to make sure we succeed.  We have a group of talented and hard working councillors who have committed themselves to working for this community.

In the years that lie ahead trust will be an invaluable resource – we will need to earn it afresh each time we make a decision but we also need to reciprocate by demonstrating that we trust the people of this borough. If we trust one another too we can face the difficult choices and still succeed in making Lewisham a better place for all its residents.

I thank you for your attention and invite you to join me in the foyer for some refreshments once the remaining business is concluded.