Speech by Mayor Sir Steve Bullock to the Annual Meeting of Lewisham Council, 26 March 2015
Deputy Lieutenant, Freemen and Women of the Borough, Chair, Councillors, Members of Parliament, Honoured Guests
The year following an election is one when new directions are set and new projects initiated and that has been the case here despite the background of a Parliament in its final year and considerable uncertainty about future policy towards local services. We cannot afford to let that uncertainty get in the way of the work that we need to do however.
We know we will need to make some fundamental changes to the way public services work in Lewisham– in part because our borough itself has changed and will continue to do so creating new and different needs – but also because we have to adapt to the economic realities that will be with us for many years. As we do so we will want to draw on our strengths and do this together, Lewisham Together means that across sectors and across communities we know our chances of success are greater working with one another rather than in isolation.
But for Local Government here and across the country the distinctions between the different Party policies are significant. The differences of pace and scale they propose in addressing the deficit matter because we are now close to the point where further cuts in local spending could have calamitous consequences for some of our residents and knock on to other public services too so I trust I will be forgiven if I touch on some of these concerns.
At times this year it has felt like we were staring into a very deep hole. 150 years ago Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland and early in that narrative the eponymous heroine having entered the rabbit hole cries out ”Down, down, down! Would the fall never come to an end?” I confess that I feel much the same about financing of public services – will the fall never end?
More of this later but first there are other matters I must address. I am making no changes to my cabinet this year. We have worked effectively as a team during a challenging period and I thank them for their efforts and support to me. Alan has agreed to continue to serve as Deputy Mayor. Kris will continue to serve as Mayoress.
I have been fortunate to have the support of my specialist advisers Wozzy Brewster, Father Paul Butler and Robin Stott who were joined during the last year by Len Hamilton who is advising on Community Cohesion. They are a source of both ideas and support which I value greatly. I also asked two councillors from outside the cabinet, Chris Barnham and Hilary Moore, to undertake roles on focused areas of activity during the last year and I thank them for the way they have done this. I intend to continue this practice where appropriate to make sure that we take full advantage of the skills and expertise that councillors offer and have tonight appointed a number of members to serve as “Champions” around particular issues.
The Young Mayor programme continues to develop and engage our young citizens and Liam Islam, the 11th Young Mayor, has made a great impression both inside and outside the Town Hall.
The Lavender Trust remains the focus of our fund raising efforts and earlier this evening we presented a cheque for £12,500. It has been great working with Rebecca Woolgar from the Trust and Kris has continued to lead the work along with a small team that has included Dennis Hunter, Sandra Jones, Roisin Bennett, Charlotte Gibson and Jane Hinnrichs this year. Special thanks go to Derek Johnson and his family who make it all possible.
There have been a range of events including the golf day thanks to the support of Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Golf Club and its President Pat Parker whom many of you will know from her time here at Lewisham. The ever popular quiz nights at the wonderful Rivoli Ballroom are made possible by the support of Bill Mannix and his team and Aspects Catering whose excellent food you will be able to enjoy later this evening.
Most recently we held a Valentine’s Day dinner which even the least romantically minded could enjoy hosted in the Phoenix Restaurant by Lewisham and Southwark College. The Annual Carol Concert at All Saints Church is a highlight of the year and we are always given a warm welcome by Father Owen Beament who celebrated an extraordinary 40 years at the church this year.
Many of you attend and take part in our events and I thank you for that. Some of you go a step further and participate in the London Marathon. This will be happening again in a few weeks and a special mention must be made of Councillor Paul Maslin who will be running for the 3rd time – the best of luck to Paul and all our runners this year.
Later in the year Sam Kirk from Customer Services is planning to cycle 500k in 4 days with her partner Katy to raise more funds for the Lavender Trust – I’m sure they would all welcome any support you feel able to give them.
More than £2,000 was raised by the members of locally based 101 Engineer Regiment who were sponsored to walk up a mountain in Wales carrying their full packs!
Our links with the Armed Forces are important and our Deputy Lieutenant, Jane Davis is a great support in ensuring these continue to develop. Cllr Pauline Morrison as our representative for Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations, plays an equally important role as does Cllr Egan who is the Cabinet lead for the Armed Forces Covenant.
As you heard earlier 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the London Boroughs and you should have found a short history of the borough on your seats which we hope you will find of interest. It was a particular pleasure to welcome visitors from both our European Twin towns of Antony (Paris) and Charlottenberg-Wilmersdorf (Berlin) recently to mark that anniversary.
We believe that only one person who was both a member of one of the predecessor Councils and then elected to the new Lewisham Council in 1965 is still with us. Ron Pepper is a former Deputy Leader of the Council and unfortunately is not able to be here this evening but he sent us some reflections which I would like to share with you:-
“I was simultaneously a member of the old Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham Council and the new incoming London Borough. I was proud to be part of the new Lewisham which emerged from what some saw as a “shot gun wedding”- a union now celebrating its golden anniversary, and a Council which paved the way with many initiatives. We pioneered self-build housing schemes, established the first Conservation Area in London (Blackheath); were the first Council to allow local residents to speak at Planning Committee meetings, established tenant involvement in housing management, set up a Race Relations working party, involved the Voluntary Sector in the grant making process and established Housing Action Areas buying up and modernising many of the Borough’s larger old houses. My very best wishes for another 50 years coupled with the hope the Borough does not suffer from the dead hand of Central government.”
Ron points to many positive things that the council has done in the past and there are many positive aspects to life today in our borough which we should celebrate though rather like Alice on discovering that lovely garden with the very small door that she struggled to get through there can be times when some of the joys of Lewisham 2015 can feel just out of reach. I only ever seem to learn of “pop up” restaurants after they have popped down again for example – but perhaps that is for the best as far as my waistline is concerned.
It can be argued that cities are the most remarkable collective achievement of humankind. Great art, scientific advancement or acts of physical endurance are the work of individuals or small teams but cities are staggeringly complex entities that work because of the different contributions that thousands indeed millions of individuals make. When they began to emerge 6,000 years ago they were precursors of distinct civilizations which then fostered those other achievements.
London today is perhaps the greatest of all cities – the capital not merely of the United Kingdom but the world’s chosen capital city. Last year a global survey identified London as the city most people wanted to work in. When I take part in the Citizenship ceremonies we hold in the chamber several times a month I am always struck by not only the wide range of places those new citizens were born in but how different their stories are – some come here in hope of a better life, in fear of what the old life might involve or just to enjoy what this place has to offer – I have met those who came as refugees, those who came as skilled workers to help fill the gaps we could not fill ourselves and most memorably the Rolling Stones fan who came to watch the band, decided to stay for a few weeks when the concert was delayed, fell in love and has never gone home!
Lewisham is part of that success story. It is a place where people want to live – somewhere that offers proximity to employment in Central London or Docklands, somewhere that has good links to the transport network within the city and beyond, somewhere that offers a great quality of life with good schools, parks and public services. Lewisham isn’t an employment hub but as technology makes it possible to work differently and the success of London creates new demands we can see our residents and local businesses seizing the opportunities which are opening up. Cultural and Media businesses are growing and the presence of a successful University with a worldwide profile furthers strengthens the offer that Lewisham has.
I spoke earlier about the uncertainties we face but we need to balance those against the strengths we share. Last autumn we invited the Local Government Association to undertake a Peer Challenge of the Council and as a result a team of expert political and managerial practitioners spent a week with us and our partners.
They concluded that Lewisham continues to be a strongly performing Council and noted that our progressive, pragmatic, structured and incremental approach to change had served the borough well. They also, rightly, warned us that for many people both inside and outside the organisation, there was uncertainty about the future council, what this will look like and whether past practices will be sustainable. They advised us that we will need to set out how the next phase for Lewisham Council will be developed, what this might look like and the new styles of working that might define this.
Addressing the twin challenges of a growing population – potentially up by another 12% over the next 10 years – and shrinking resources will require us to be both clear headed and light footed. We will only succeed if we can utilise the resources of all sectors.
We have land and assets that can be part of meeting the needs of existing communities and future residents. We need income from them to help sustain services but also know that they must be supplemented by both private and public investment bringing affordable housing, jobs, growth, vibrant new places, infrastructure and schools. We welcome anyone who wants to invest in Lewisham – we will drive hard bargains but aim to create lasting partnerships. Those who are looking to make a quick buck need not apply but those who want to build sustainable communities will be welcomed warmly.
That will be the dominant theme of our work over the coming year. Inevitably it will be rooted in the financial challenge but it will also be about building on strengths and successes and making the most of what we have as we look to change this organisation to meet the future needs of Lewisham.
The Council itself has played a very significant role in making Lewisham the successful place it is today – we have worked over many years to create the conditions for the Borough and its residents to prosper. If we take Transport as an example the last year has seen members of this Council leading a campaign to get the Bakerloo line extend to Catford and beyond – Cllrs Smith, Dromey and Walsh and many others have been unrelenting in their efforts and they have been successful. It is now possible that many of us will live long enough to catch an Underground train from Catford Bridge. But over the years we fought to get the Docklands Light Railway extended to Lewisham and then the Overground to Forest Hill and Sydenham. The Bakerloo is not the end of our ambitions and the case for a further Overground extension from New Cross is one we will pursue too.
In recent years we have invested heavily in our schools and our leisure facilities and it is occasionally a little irritating to see them being extolled in the property supplements with not so much as a mention of the part the council played. But as the poet Alexander Pope advised perhaps we should be content to “do good by stealth” – although try explaining that to political campaign managers!
And that light hearted remark does bring me to consider some more political aspects of our current situation. The election which will take place shortly does so against a background of political turbulence unknown for a century or more but which also represents a pivotal moment for our country.
There has always been a healthy cynicism in our country about politics and politicians – particularly those of the Mad Hatter tendency who play extravagantly with words but say nothing of any genuine significance. But there is another sort of politician who works down the years to make the lives of their fellow citizens better both individually and collectively.
Last week several of us here attended a memorial event for Chris Price who served as MP for Lewisham West from 1974 to 1983 and who died a few weeks ago. His obituary in the Guardian said
“He was uninterested in status, wealth or public recognition. He wanted people to be treated fairly and he wanted children to be taught properly.”
After a chance meeting while canvassing he campaigned tirelessly to demonstrate the innocence of three young men convicted of the murder of Maxwell Confait in 1972. He succeeded in having them freed and in getting the law changed so that such injustices could be prevented in future.
That healthy cynicism I spoke of and which I know Chris himself shared has now become something very different and not a little dangerous. We see a hostility to and loss of faith in the entire political process. This hasn’t happened overnight but 40 years of reducing turn outs and a fragmentation of parties has brought us to an election where it is widely believed that the outcome will at best confused and at worst chaotic.
I don’t doubt that the speed of modern communication has played its part – instant solutions are demanded to the most complex of problems and hours rather than years are permitted for success or failure to be judged. I count myself fortunate to have been granted the time to develop approaches here in Lewisham that did develop over longer time periods but too often today we see pressure for hurried decisions which when revealed to be flawed add to the vicious spiral of anti-politics.
But I do not despair – one of the highlights of most weeks is when I sit down with a group of Lewisham residents who I know didn’t vote in the last election and won’t be voting on May 7th. Many of them would like to vote but they are not old enough to yet.
They do however set a wonderful example because they are all members of the school councils of our primary schools and they have chosen to volunteer to try and make things better for their fellow students in just the same way anyone who offers themselves for election to public office does
As we identify in detail the ways that the council and the borough will change we need to create a dialogue which is both subtle and sustained. It will not permit of simplistic answers to complex problems. If it is conducted with the volume at maximum and the participants only transmitting it will fail. The Big Budget Challenge was a different way of engaging and we should build on that experience. If there is genuine listening and discussion it can lead to genuinely better outcomes.
I believe we have little to learn from the way our national debate is conducted in this context but hope that we and our colleagues elsewhere in Local Government may be able to demonstrate that there is another way!
I cannot make this speech so close to the election without making some observations about what is already being debated. Last Thursday the Prime Minister was asked by the Northern Echo how much further council spending be cut. In reply he said they would face further substantial cuts but this wouldn’t cause problems because Council reserves were rising – “They do have financial capacity. I think there is more efficiency to be delivered” he said.
It is disturbing that the very serious situation councils face should be dismissed so lightly – I await the announcement that Councils like Lewisham which have already made use of reserves to reduce the impact of cuts will have those reserves made good by the Government so we can do it again next year and the year after.
He was asked those questions in the context of last week’s budget and I do not disagree with everything that was in it – indeed some of things proposed – and I don’t just mean the cut in beer tax – make sense and we should applaud them not least the continuing devolution to the cities.
However I take issue with what was not spelled out because if we are to have an honest debate we need to understand the whole picture. That budget implied cuts to local government services on a scale which could destroy many of them and damage others in particular the NHS which is inextricably linked to Social Care.
We have been told that Health and Schools will be “protected” so the 10% cut over the years 2016 – 18 will all fall on other areas like local government, police and defence. Because we were able to cut expenditure on general local government services – which is of course includes social care, youth work, libraries and the arts – by nearly 30% over the last 5 years we are being told that we can do so again.
We cannot do so because the need to spend on social care is rising and the impact of slashing it would be a disaster for some of our fellow residents. However if we protect it many other things will be lost. That should have been spelled out on budget day – the fact that it wasn’t can only add to that cynicism about politics.
When challenged on this ministers have responded by arguing that the cuts will be less because they intend cut £12B from welfare benefits.
We need to think carefully about what this implies. Over the last 5 years the poorest members of our society have borne the greatest losses proportionately – and we have seen what that means in rising homelessness and poverty.
Further cuts will lead to a growing number of people becoming destitute – the safety net will be taken away and they will have to rely on the goodwill of charities. Many will turn to their local councils at exactly the point where we are facing cuts on an unprecedented scale.
For all that London is truly great city it is not difficult to see where the stress points are that could lead to a downward spiral. The greatest of them is inequality and it is defined by London’s Housing crisis. Professor Danny Dorling has recently published an updated version of his book “All that is Solid” which looks at what he calls the “Great Housing Disaster” – he points out that the city has both the most expensive housing and the largest number of people living in poverty in Western Europe – and incomes are falling and the cost of Housing is rising.
If we do not make a huge impact on London’s Housing crisis and do so very quickly we will inevitably see a growing exodus from London of many on low incomes while those on middling incomes see their hopes of home ownership slip away.
But building more homes is not enough – they have to be at rents that people can actually afford to pay and on tenancies that let them create a home not just a shelter for a few months before moving on again.
It can be done – Lewisham and other boroughs are now building homes ourselves – just a few days ago families moved into the first new homes built by the council in decades. Hundreds more will follow but we need a government in Westminster and a mayor in City Hall who recognise that solving this problem is not optional – without a dramatic increase in housing on secure tenancies at social rent levels this city is going to become a very difficult place to live – and much that we value and which has made it so attractive will be lost.
I make no apologies for going on about housing again – it is the greatest challenge we face but over the last year we have made progress in many other areas. And with apologies to those who will feel this is a less than comprehensive list I will start with Lewisham Town Centre.
It has taken a long time for this development to finally start and I know that the disruption is significant but this area with its outstanding transport connections is one of the places where our borough can grow and we will see a very different Town Centre emerge over the next two years. Catford is currently seeing a significant housing development but this is only the beginning and the Town Centre itself will be redeveloped.
Important schemes are underway at a number of locations across the borough. The redevelopment of sites such as Marine Wharves (East and West) and Cannon Wharf in Evelyn Ward, which will provide nearly 1400 new homes between them as well as commercial and community spaces. In New Cross we have the Batavia Road development nearing completion and in Lewisham Central Thurston Point and Arden House schemes are being developed, with a further 500 homes between them.
As a Council we are working to develop innovative proposals to help us cope, not just with long term housing pressures we face, but also the more short term (but no less important) problems. In the next few months we hope to see the construction of the eagerly awaited, and much publicised, Pop-Up village on the site of the old Ladywell leisure centre. This is a high quality re-deployable housing scheme that we hope will lead the way in improving the temporary housing offer, and over time will save the Council money because of its ability to be dismantled and rebuilt in a number of locations.
The scheme will also have commercial space for new businesses that need a base to initially help them get off the ground, and I personally look forward to seeing what I know will be a vibrant new part of the community living and working side by side. On the subject of new businesses, we also intend to have an incubator space in our old Town Hall alongside our new neighbours, Lewisham Homes.
We all know that the quality of housing is important, but so to is the quality of our schools estate. As such it would be remiss of me if I didn’t also mention that the final two schools are about to reap the benefits of the last Labour Government’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme. Brent Knoll School and Sydenham School will soon have new and refurbished buildings, creating brilliant environments in which our children can learn and develop.
We also need to help our young people into the world of work and enable them to compete successfully in an increasingly technical labour market. We continue to deliver the apprenticeship programme and will be expanding it to include formal pre-apprenticeships aimed at young people who need additional support. Tomorrow is our Apprenticeship awards and I am looking forward to meeting both some of the apprentices and their mentors.
The growth in population means that we continue to need more school places. Our Primary schools have coped brilliantly with the extra classes but the bulge is now approaching Secondary and soon we will need not only to expand current schools but build more. That will require careful planning and considerable imagination and the funding to do so will be one of the early requests to the incoming government.
We have begun the process of making Lewisham a 20mph borough building on the experience of our localised zones. We will watch the experiments by the Mayor of London to further extend this to trunk roads with great interest. We have also secured funding for one of the first cycling quietways from Greenwich Park to Waterloo through Deptford, with 2 more in design and 5 more to follow.
I spoke earlier about inequality and one response to that is to raise the minimum wage – in London many public bodies have undertaken to ensure that the London Living Wage is paid not only to their own staff but to those of other employers with whom they have contracts. We have been doing so in Lewisham for a number of years and we hope to add significantly to the numbers over the coming year as we seek to include Social Care staff employed by contractors. The work they do is vital and should be rewarded properly.
And where we have led, we hope others will follow. Over the coming year, we will work with our partners and with local businesses to promote and encourage the Living Wage.
I will highlight one more thing – we have been working with our colleagues from Lambeth and Southwark on a project which is helping individuals who have experienced long term unemployment back into work.
It encapsulates what can be achieved when we work together not just as local authorities but with the agencies of Central Government. In the years ahead we will need to transform the Health and Care services using similar approaches albeit on a much greater scale.
In the end when confronted by an authority figure who declares that the sentence should come before the verdict Alice decides that enough is enough and tells the Queen her view is “stuff and nonsense” – it feels at times as though Local Government has suffered from being sentenced first and is still awaiting a verdict. The temptation to tell the current Secretary of State that much of what he says is “stuff and nonsense” is almost irresistible when the sentence involves cutting services and losing staff yet the verdict is likely to be that they are essential to the wellbeing of this community.
Whatever happens on May 7 we will continue to serve our community to the best of our ability – working together across sectors – public, private and voluntary – while community organisations large and small will continue to selflessly work on behalf of their fellow residents.
Our borough will change and in so doing we will need to retain what has made it strong and successful but not be afraid to do things in radically different ways. Our greatest strength is our ability to act in concert. Lewisham Together is more than a slogan – it is a way of life that has stood the test of time and will go on helping us deal with whatever the future brings.
Can I thank you for your attention and invite you to join me for some refreshments in the foyer once the remaining business has been concluded.