My AGM Speech 2016

Speech by Mayor Sir Steve Bullock to the Annual Meeting of Lewisham Council, 30 March 2016

Ambassador, Deputy Lieutenant, Freemen and Women of the Borough, Chair, Councillors, Members of Parliament, Honoured Guests.

Tonight’s meeting marks the mid point of this administration – over the next few weeks many of us will be throwing ourselves into the campaign to elect a new mayor of London and only when that result is declared we will start to think about the next election here in Lewisham in 2018.

At least that is what we all would have said until a few weeks ago. But we then saw the Prime Minister take an extraordinary gamble with our nation’s future.  That was followed by an act of cynicism on the part of the outgoing Mayor of London that is quite breathtaking.

We face an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union because David Cameron failed to convince his party of the advantages of membership but far from resolving the issue it seems he will at best inflict huge damage on his own party and at worst cause Britain to leave the EU with far reaching consequences for London in particular.

The timing and circumstances in which this referendum is taking place seem to preclude rational debate.  Indeed much of what passes for debate, certainly from the Brexit Camp might be described in Shakespeare’s words as merely “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 

The EU is manifestly struggling to cope with the worst refugee crisis since World War 2 and the opportunity for the fear and anxieties this is producing to translate into a vote of no confidence in the whole European project is very real.

In the years after that war villages, towns, counties and cities across Europe came together to foster friendship, co-operation and mutual awareness between the peoples of Europe.  And it was in that spirit that we organised a symposium with our Twin French and German municipalities to share our experiences of local government and migration.

At that event the Mayor of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, a suburb of Berlin explained how his community, which is only marginally larger than Lewisham, had welcomed over 5,000 refugees during 2015 – more than it is proposed the whole of the UK should take each year.

As well as those relationships that the Council maintains in Europe, we have forged links much further afield, in South Africa, Jamaica, and as demonstrated by the attendance of our distinguished guest, the Ambassador, this evening, the Nicaraguan town of Matagalpa, who we formally twinned with in 1986, thirty years ago.

As we showed with our migration symposium, twinning is not just a civic nicety; it can be a practical and mutually beneficial relationship that ultimately benefits the residents of the respective towns through the sharing of information and good practice. In the case of our Nicaraguan friends we recently had the pleasure of a visit from Ivania Calderón Peralta, Secretary to the Board of the CECOCAFEN coffee collective from Matalgalpa, during Fairtrade Fortnight.

Ivania was able to share with Lewisham schoolchildren and Goldsmiths students as well as more widely the real and practical benefits that our buying Fairtrade gives her community, from more accessible healthcare for women, to environmental projects for children.

I am glad to say that, thanks to Ambassador Morales-Echaverry, we are also in correspondence with the Mayor of Matagalpa, Sadrach Zeledón Rocha, and hope to consider more projects marking the 30th anniversary of our twinning, so that both our communities can learn from the rich cultures and experiences of one another.

I referred earlier to the approaching midpoint of our term and I have been considering the progress we made on the pledges which formed our election platform in 2014 but also what our priorities should be in the remaining two years ahead of us. I will say more about this in a few moments but there are other matters I need to address first.

I am making no changes to my cabinet this year.  We have continued to work effectively together as a team over the last year and I thank them for the work they have undertaken both individually and collectively as well as the support they have given me. Alan has agreed to continue to serve as Deputy Mayor for the coming years and Kris will continue to serve as Mayoress.

I have again been fortunate to enjoy the support and advice of my specialist advisers Wozzy Brewster, Father Paul Butler, Robin Stott and Len Hamilton. They are a source of both ideas and challenge which I value greatly. Father Butler has decided to step down from this role due to other pressures and I have given careful thought to whether to appoint another Faith adviser.

Since becoming Mayor in 2002 with Paul’s help I have endeavoured to build links with faith organisations across the Borough and I have concluded that it is now  possible to call on a number of ministers of different faiths as necessary.  Of course as some of you will be aware I am fortunate in having among those other advisers Len Hamilton who is also known as Bishop Hamilton of Greater Faith Ministries.

The Young Mayor programme continues to develop and engage our young citizens and for the first time we have seen a previous Young Mayor, Emmanuel Olaniyan, elected to serve a second term.  The programme is now in its 12th year and the enthusiasm it engenders continues and if anything grows.

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 has played a splendid role as our representative for Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations but I am sad to say she has decided that the time is right to hand the baton on to a younger member.  I am, however, pleased that we have willing volunteer in Cllr James J Walsh who I understand was once a colour sergeant in the cadets! Pauline will be a hard act to follow and I thank her for her sterling efforts over many years in this role.

Beginning in 2014 we have marked a number of important anniversaries relating to World War 1 and last August a special drumhead service and parade was held marking 100 years since the formation of the Lewisham 11th battalion that went off to fight in WW1, with my predecessor Mayor Alderman Robert Jackson leading the recruitment campaign parading through the streets of the borough.

May last year saw the unveiling of the first of 6 Victoria Cross memorial stones to recognise people who were born in this borough and were awarded the V.C. for their valour during WWI.  In a few weeks we will unveil two more V.C.’s memorial stones alongside the Lewisham War memorial.  You will all have passed through the double glass doors downstairs as you came into the Civic Suite but you may not have noticed the display to your right (on the way in) between the doors which sets out some of the history of VC holders with Lewisham connections.  It was given to the Borough by some of our local veterans who worked very hard to research it.

This has been particularly successful year for the charity, the Lavender Trust.  Many events have taken place including quiz nights at the Rivoli, the Valentine’s dinner, the Golf day, Pink Friday, bucket collections and of course the runners in the London Marathon not forgetting the Christmas carol service presided over by Father Owen. I thank all of you for your support for these events.

Money raised this year has been added to by the Borough’s success in the New Year’s day parade where second place in the judging of the floats resulted in a prize of £7,000 which has gone to the charity.  Thanks are due to Jimi and Sandra who braved a cold New Year’s Day to take part in the parade.  As a result he Mayoress and I were able to present Rebecca from the Lavender Trust with a cheque for £18,000 earlier this evening. Thanks are also due to the small band of people who help Kris and they are Sandra Jones, Dennis Hunter, Roisin Bennett, and Charlotte Gibson – thanks as well to Derek Johnson and his family who are very willing volunteers too.

Catford will soon be in the throes of a long awaited regeneration and was recently identified by the outgoing Mayor of London as a Housing Zone which brings significant additional funding for the scheme.  There will be great change in this part of the Borough as a result but one thing I am determined to retain is the wonderful Broadway Theatre.  A number of us had the pleasure of visiting the theatre a few days ago for the launch of its first drama festival – Catford-upon-Avon – which celebrated the little known period of the Bard’s life when he may have played in panto and certainly pioneered the “Knock, knock, who’s there” routine.

I concluded my speech last year by saying that “Whatever happens on May 7 we will continue to serve our community to the best of our ability” and we have done that though I am sure I am not alone when I admit that the eventual outcome was not one I had contemplated.  That outcome has seriously constrained our ability to do many of things we believe are needed.

However we do not have the luxury of standing aside until a time comes when we can do all those things we aspire to.  Our fellow citizens face hardships and challenges right now that we must respond to using everything at our disposal.  It is why we sought office – to change things for the better in whatever circumstances prevail – not simply to hold office for its own sake.

We now know that the resources available to local councils will continue to decline despite growing need.  We will have to do things differently but must recognise that transition itself will be a drain our resources both financial and human.

We expect fewer and fewer staff to do more and more each year while government does nothing to manage the expectation that “The Council will do it”.

The performance of our staff goes unremarked upon – ministers, media and citizens will let us know very quickly if staff are failing but the commitment and quality that is displayed again and again does not get recognised. Those staff are the greatest asset this council has and together with their colleagues who serve in the other public services they deserve our thanks and the recognition that they do what they do because they believe in serving our community just as we do.

They do not deserve the cheap criticism that is all too often made of the public sector by those pursuing an ideological view which maintains that only the profit motive can deliver quality services.  So tonight I want to send a clear message to all those who work for this community whether in a council service, the NHS, the uniformed services or other public services – that message is thank you!

In the circumstances we face we know that even those dedicated staff cannot deliver everything our community needs and so it is right that we also celebrate the thousands of volunteers across Lewisham who give so much and ask nothing in return – to you too I offer thanks!

It is easy for us working in a single borough to lose sight of the difference that we can make.  There are things that we do here that other councils have chosen to cut back or put into the “too difficult” box – in many cases it is because we have taken difficult decisions that we have been able to sustain services.  We often talk about the hard choices arising from the financial cuts imposed on us – but simply closing a service can be an easier decision than changing the way it works and I am proud that this council has been prepared to re-imagine the way services can work and along with staff, service users and our community found ways to sustain some of them.

Since 2010 38 Libraries have closed in London and 17 boroughs have lost libraries.  Only two boroughs have library services being delivered from more locations today than in 2010 – Redbridge and Lewisham.

In Lewisham the spend on Youth work has been reduced but remains significantly higher than many other boroughs including some which are rather better off than Lewisham.

Despite London’s economic success some of our residents face great hurdles in gaining employment and we have been able to help many of them by developing imaginative schemes that maximize the available resources not least through our joint work with Southwark and Lambeth councils.

As a result we have seen over 100 people who have been unemployed for more than 2 years get back into employment in the last year, and we will be supporting another 1800 people who have been long term unemployed or have health conditions over the next two years to get back to work.

In Lewisham we have maintained an Adult Education service while many boroughs have abandoned this entirely – today we have a service which is  rated ‘good’ by OFSTED. We now have over 11,000 learners enrolled this year – up 13% on last year.

We were the joint first local authority in the country to become an accredited Living Wage employer – And I mean the real Living Wage – which is over £2 higher than the Chancellor’s so-called National Living Wage which will be introduced on Friday.

But, one employee in four in Lewisham still earns below the Living Wage.

So we’re offering local employers a deal; if they commit to paying the Living Wage and get accredited with the Living Wage Foundation, we’ll offer them a discount on their business rates.

The cost is small, but the impact is potentially large. This is just another example of how we can still make a difference for our community, even in these tough times.

If we are to continue making a difference in circumstances where we are financially constrained and face ill conceived legislation we need to be clear about where we will focus our energies.  I believe that there are three key areas we must address – not to the exclusion of all else – but where it is possible to make a difference by acting resolutely and quickly.

What these have in common is that they are driven in no small part by the extraordinary demographic change which is happening to this city and from which Lewisham cannot be excluded.

Chris Threlfall who was a senior manager in Children and Young People for 12 years who retired recently and one his responsibilities was school places.  He reminded me that in early 2008 a report was brought Mayor and Cabinet recommending that the admission limits for our Primary schools be lowered as the demand for places was falling. Very soon afterwards the GLA statisticians published updated population forecasts indicating that London’s population was now growing rapidly and Chris had to bring another report to us proposing the complete opposite by recommending that we start to create extra places!

By last year London had exceeded its pre World War 2 peak of 8.5m inhabitants and as it continues to be the most successful part of the UK economy that growth shows no sign of abating.  London is now a genuine world city and while we should celebrate its success we have to deal with the consequences of that success.

As a city and as a borough we face choices which will define London for decades to come.  The city will change very significantly and there will be hostility to some of those changes but a failure to act will put the well being of the city and its residents at risk.

Some of those choices are in train already and we will face more over the next two years and in the decade beyond. Making those decisions will be all the harder because of the legislative and financial pressures that compound demographic change.

The first of these is Education.  Two years ago we set out to improve outcomes from our Secondary schools and to deliver enough primary places to meet the needs of our growing population. So far we have achieved the second of these but with growing difficulty while the first is a work in progress.

We have established a Commission of experts to look at the performance of our schools and to make recommendations to us about what we need to do secure improvement.  It will report shortly.

When we consider its advice we will need to do so against the background of impending legislation to turn every school into an Academy and remove it from the Local Authority family of schools.  Many of us take the view that this is a policy which derives from ideology not from any consideration of the evidence.  We hear minsters attempt to justify it by reminding us that it was a Labour Government which first introduced academies.

And so it was – but they were expressly intended as a way of achieving improvement in schools which were experiencing significant failure.  We now have a policy which is designed to lead to all of Lewisham’s primary schools becoming academies – despite the fact that we have some of the best performing primary schools in the country.

There will be opposition to this legislation and I have no doubt there will be fierce debate and efforts made to remove the worst parts of the bill.  It has been encouraging to hear even Conservative councillors making clear their opposition to this.

But this government has been democratically elected and is entitled to act on that mandate.  Those of us who disagree with a given policy should say so and explain why but equally those of us who hold elected office must also examine the potential impact such legislation will have and prepare to deal with it.

Nor can we wait until the legislation passes before acting – we will need to talk to those who are currently involved in delivering education in Lewisham about how we can work together to sustain the positives we now have while making ready to deal with the consequences of legislation.

The co-operation between our schools has been a great strength in this borough and I hope we can use that strength to find local solutions to a changing situation rather than sit back and let Academy chains which know little of our community pursue a piecemeal approach.

Our ability as a local authority to secure the building of new schools has been severely constrained already but new schools are needed and we will have to find ever more imaginative ways to secure their delivery.

If the impact of a rising birth rate has been felt acutely in our Education system it is change at the other end of the age range which is impacting on our health and social care provision.  We are living longer and placing a greater burden on that provision at a time when resources are being constrained.  The relationship between the responsibilities of councils and the NHS has confounded and irritated those who need help and their families and carers for years but the urgency of resolving that relationship has become urgent.

The fight to retain a full A&E and maternity service at Lewisham Hospital is often cited as an example of what can be achieved when a council and a community work together.  I must confess that when I stop being Mayor one of things I shall look back on with pride is inflicting a legal defeat on an arrogant Secretary of State who didn’t even understand the legislation he was using.

But at no point during that fight were any of us under the illusion that things would be able to continue without any change in the future. Even without demographic change what an ageing population needs and what it is possible to provide has been rapidly evolving– the lesson that I hope was learned in 2013 was that change needs to be bottom up – something that is worked on locally and engages all who are affected not imposed from Whitehall.

I have been critical of government policy tonight and I will be again before I finish but from time to time there are solutions that present themselves and which when endorsed by and supported by government should be welcomed.

The devolution of responsibility – and resources – from the centre to localities is something that has been talked about for decades.  The current government has pursued a Devolution policy that has engaged local authorities around the country. It is has flaws and I for one believe it needs to be treated with caution. It has its critics – it seems some councillors don’t like the idea of having an elected mayor – they have obviously not visited Lewisham!

But we need to make use of whatever advantages Devolution can offer. That relationship between Health and Social care is only going to be fixed if we can achieve real integration quickly and effectively.

It will not of itself solve the crisis that the NHS faces but without it being achieved it is difficult to see any way of even beginning to shape a solution.  Government decided not to protect spending on Adult Social Care, one of the largest budgets councils face.  It did protect the NHS but failed to recognise how its costs were growing thus effectively making a hidden cut.

Earlier this year Government belatedly recognised that unless more resources were made available to support the care of those leaving hospital the system was in danger of collapse.  However they chose to do this by urging councils to increase council tax and I am afraid that is why you will have noticed that your recent bill was somewhat higher than last year.  The further bad news is that even then the amount raised does little more than scratch the surface of the problem.

Let me turn now to Housing.  I no longer believe London has a housing crisis – we now face a full scale housing emergency and action on an unprecedented scale is urgently required.  The root of the crisis has been housing costs outstripping rises in income by a large degree over many years compounded and in all probability caused by a continuing failure to build enough new homes each year.

That emergency has real and devastating consequences for citizens of this Borough and it is also now threatening the city’s economic well being.  Tonight there are likely to be more than 1,700 Lewisham families in Temporary Accommodation and the continuing rises in rent levels are making it ever harder to find permanent accommodation.

Meanwhile teachers, nurses, doctors and many others who we need to deliver our public services are finding it impossible to buy homes in London and face rents so high they cannot afford to save for a deposit.

We have responded – during our 4 year term 6,000 new homes will built in Lewisham and of these 1,700 will be built directly or enabled by this Council.  That is well above our current London Plan target.  Over the decade to 2025/26 that target is 13,850 new homes in total but after 2020/21 it becomes increasingly difficult to see where they will be built.

We are trying to find ways to both build more and to do it faster – the Ladywell pop-up village looks like a viable way to get additional homes in the system quickly while we have two Community Land Trust schemes identified.

But the city as a whole must build 50,000 new homes a year for the foreseeable future.  Meanwhile we have the Housing and Planning Bill in Parliament and the clinical dissection of this Bill in the Lords led by Cllr Lord Kennedy has been encouraging.

It is an extraordinary Bill which could almost have been designed to make things worse not better.  The notion that starter homes requiring deposits of nearly £100,000 will help any of those people I mentioned earlier is absurd and their construction is likely to actually reduce the number of homes built – in the words of the Bard “If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” Sadly it is fact.

But despite this we must make every possible effort to increase the number of genuinely affordable homes that are built year on year in Lewisham and across the city. And face the challenge of where they are to be built.

There will be no single answer but it is inescapable that London will become a city characterised by denser housing developments in the future.  One part of the answer will be infill, another part will be estate regeneration and before very long we will have to find ways to develop sites that are currently not being considered at all – perhaps over stations and along rail lines.

If we decide that there are parts of London which are to be excused from making a contribution the burden on the rest will be that much greater and the same is true within each borough including our own.

In just a few weeks London will have a new Mayor and I fervently hope it will be the candidate who understands the urgency and scale of this city’s Housing Emergency.  A city wide approach led by a dynamic, activist Mayor who brings together the boroughs, housing associations and private sector can make a difference, particularly if government can be persuaded to at least give London a fair share of the available resources to deliver new homes.

Of all the challenges that we face it is this one that poses the gravest threat – fail and our city will begin to decline but if we succeed we will change the city in other ways and while many of our fellow citizens recognise that housing is now our most urgent priority we have not yet persuaded enough of them that this means every part of the city playing a role.

This challenge has increasingly become something which drives me personally and which I am determined to do all I can to help resolve.  Those of us in our 60s experienced a very different housing situation in our younger days and we owe it to today’s young people to do everything in our power to help them get the homes they need so they can play their part in sustaining this great city in the future.

As some of you will know I can talk about London’s Housing Emergency at great length but I am aware that we have a special treat awaiting us at the completion of tonight’s meeting. To quote the Bard a final time “The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.”

Should that apply to any of you I would urge you make a hasty departure from the Civic Suite but I hope the rest of you will join me for some entertainment by the splendid Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir and refreshments in the foyer once the remaining business of the meeting has been concluded.


My South London Press column, 25/03/2016

The comedy genius, Tony Hancock, once wrote an entire radio show about the fact that in the 1950’s there was nothing to do on a Sunday especially if it was raining.  Nowadays we are spoilt for choice – if it’s not sport we can always go shopping or even the theatre.  But it’s still different to the rest of the week.  In fact a typically British compromise has been achieved where there is lot more to do on a Sunday but it remains a special day.

I was delighted that Parliament decided to throw out the Government’s ill judged proposal to change the law on Sunday Trading and let Councils choose if they wanted Sunday to become like every other shopping day.  Don’t get me wrong – I am in favour of the government giving councils more responsibility but this was quite simply an unnecessary change which would have created confusion for retailers and shoppers alike as different rules applied depending which side of the street you were on and led to the closure of more small local shops.

The fact that it took a revolt by the Government’s own backbenchers to stop this happening shows how out of touch they are.  We can only hope that the same thing happens to their Housing and Planning Bill most of which will make London’s Housing crisis worse not better.  This Bill is currently being considered by the House of Lords where many sensible amendments are being proposed not least by one of Lewisham’s own councillors Roy Kennedy who sits on Labour’s front bench in the Lords.

The Government don’t seem to be interested however and are pushing this bill through.  One of the worst proposals is for what they are calling “Starter Homes”.  Home ownership has fallen in London in recent years because the cost has risen so far that fewer and fewer people can afford to buy.  Now this is a real problem and some good ideas are around to help solve the problem.  One of them is what is called “Shared Ownership” which means paying a mixture of rent and a mortgage as way of getting started.

What is the Government proposing?  They want thousands of homes built in London that even after a 20% discount has been applied will still cost up to £450,000.  These are supposed to be “affordable” for first time buyers – well they will be if you have an income of £80,000 a year and can find a deposit of £100,000! And this is just one of the many things wrong with the Bill.  Is it too much to hope that some Conservative backbenchers will again tell the Government they are getting it wrong?