Leadership

In the early hours of Friday morning I posted here urging against despair in response to the shattering defeat for “Remain”.  I didn’t know then that I would have to watch the Party that I have been a member of for 45 years go through the worst crisis it has faced since before the Second World War and have to watch a debate take place which seems to fundamentally misunderstand what Leadership means.  The Labour Party exists to represent the interests of a broad section of Britain and to win elections at every level so that it can act to turn rhetoric in to action.  The Party itself will always be more important than any single individual within it but some members must undertake leadership roles.

I have worked for leaders as different in belief and temperament as  Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Beecham who both were brilliant at it and I learned from them all. For most of the last 30 years I have been privileged to hold leadership positions myself locally and try to put some of the things I have learned into practice.  I hope this means I might be permitted to make some observations about the current situation without my motives being impugned.

In those thirty years I faced a number of internal Labour Party selections, some of them extremely bruising, but one thing I learned was that the really hard work always started AFTER the selection was over.  The right to lead has to be won over and over again.  It involves earning at least the grudging respect of those who worked hard to stop you becoming the Leader.  It involves working day after day to lead the whole Group many of whom will have their own separate mandates from the Party and the electorate and often very different views to you.  It can even involve having to work with people you disagree with so fundamentally that you privately wonder how they can be in the same Party as you.

But you do all of that and accept that while you must provide a clear vision and articulate a narrative about what you, the Group and the Party are seeking to achieve there will be times when you have to accept that things you personally care deeply about are a lower priority for those you lead and however reluctantly you put them aside and enthusiastically work to deliver the priorities that you do all share.

Finally there will come a time when you understand that someone else is likely to be able to do a better job of leading than you are and that even if you believe that you could win a selection again it is nevertheless time to go.  If you are very lucky (I count myself as that) it will be after years when you feel you have been able to deliver some things that have helped those you set out to work for.  If you are unlucky it will come much more quickly and it will become clear that you simply cannot provide the leadership your Party needs.  At that point there is only one remaining service you can do for your Party and that is to stand aside.

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My South London Press column, 20/05/2016

The reaction to the election of Sadiq Khan as our new Mayor has been London at its best.  Across the city it is clear that there is enormous goodwill towards him from Londoners of different ages, backgrounds and faiths.  In his first days in office he has been reaching out and making it clear that his claim that he will be a Mayor for all Londoners was not just campaign rhetoric.

There has been no shortage of advice and suggestions as to what his priorities should be, although it is already clear that addressing London’s housing crisis will be at the top of any list with transport and making the city safer not far behind.  There will be lots of efforts to get the Mayor to address local concerns and he already knows that here in Lewisham, getting the Bakerloo Line extension will make a huge difference.  Expectations are high and it is easy for them to become unrealistic but we have a mayor who will be aiming to deliver the manifesto which has just been endorsed by London and we shall be doing all we can in Lewisham to help.

We are now half way through our term here in Lewisham and I have been taking stock of the progress we have made on our own manifesto.  I can see real progress in many areas and some of our pledges have already been acted on.  We have already agreed to adopting a 20mph speed limit on all the roads we manage and this is now being put into effect.  Other things have been overtaken by events beyond our control – two years ago I could never have imagined that George Osborne would be telling Councils to put council tax up! With two years to go until the next local elections we have already met more than half of our pledges but we will be working hard over the next two years to deliver those that are still outstanding.

Before you are able to vote in the next local elections in 2018 there will be one more opportunity to cast a vote. The European Referendum takes place on 23 June and the debate is already heated, and at times emotional. One issue that is a real concern to Londoners is air quality and I have no doubt it is something Mayor Khan will be working on. The most-worrying pollutants are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and tiny particles that can go deep into your lungs called PM2.5. Despite this, the UK has broken EU safety limits for NO2 for years. And the EU has acted with legal action against the UK ultimately forcing the Government to make plans to reduce levels. This isn’t the sort of thing you hear much about during the campaigning but it is one good answer to that question “What has the EU ever done for us?”

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?

My South London Press column, 26/02/2016

In my last column I said that very reluctantly we were considering following the Government’s advice and increasing the level of Council Tax in Lewisham in order to take some of the pressure off the services we have been forced to cut back in recent years, particularly those that provide care for our older residents.  We decided to raise the tax by 3.99% last Wednesday, which sounds like a large rise.  In practice it means that we will be asking people whose properties are in Band D for Council Tax to pay 45p extra each week which is less than the cost of a single Cadbury’s Crème Egg if my calculations are correct!

It is not a decision any of us took lightly – we know that many of our fellow residents get by on fixed incomes and any increase in cost really does cause problems.  But we also know that many of the essential services that the Council provides are under severe pressure.

For some residents it is possible to claim a reduction in the Council Tax depending on your particular circumstances and it is worth visiting the Council’s web site to see if you qualify

Lewisham was the first council in the country to pay the Living Wage and we continue to do so. We will also be doing more to encourage other employers in Lewisham to pay the Living Wage, including through offering a Business Rate discount for those who follow our lead and get accredited.

The Government recently announced that employers with more than 250 staff will be required to publish the Gender Pay Gap in their organisation – that is the difference in the average pay of men and women.  In the UK women earn 20% less than men on average.  Lewisham Council already publishes information about gender pay difference and the most recent information showed that there is a significant gap but not in the way you might expect.  The median earnings for female employees stands at £32,930 and male median earnings at £27,879. No you haven’t misread that – women working for Lewisham earn more than the men!

We also heard this week that there will be a referendum in June on whether or not Britain stays in Europe. I personally believe that the implications for us leaving the EU would be disastrous and have long lasting effects on our future prosperity, particularly here in London. I am therefore very pleased that Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, will be campaigning for us to stay in Europe. We need a Mayor of our city who understands the importance of our place in Europe, and in Sadiq Khan we have that champion.

My South London Press column, 05/02/2016

February for many people is the month when romance is in the air but for Local Government it is something quite different – it is the month when we have to set the budget for the coming year and take ever more difficult decisions about what services can be sustained and what level of council tax is right.

Throughout my time as mayor I have supported the Lavender Trust Charity and this year there is an “Alternative Valentine’s Day Dinner” on February the 11th in the Phoenix Restaurant at Lewisham and Southwark College.  Why “Alternative”? Because it’s not just a great place for couples but everyone is welcome too – details can be found at http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/mayorandcouncil/mayor/Documents/ValentinesDayDinnerA5.pdf

But it will be the Council’s budget that takes up most time at the Town Hall this month.  Of course we work on this all the year round but things become more intense when the Government tell us how much funding they are prepared to provide each December.

It is easy when something you’ve been worrying about turns out to be less painful than expected to breathe a sigh of relief and say “Well that’s OK.” That is exactly how many people reacted to that announcement in December, but they were wrong.  It’s not OK.

Council budgets have been hit harder than any other part of the public sector and while we have responded by making ‘efficiency cuts’ we have also had to make cuts that have reduced services. This year’s Settlement changed how and when the loss of Government funding happens to us, but it will still happen.

The Settlement also did something quite unexpected.  It told Councils to increase Council Tax!  For years Government has been telling us not to increase Council Tax and created incentives to help us do this.  Since 2010 Lewisham has only increased Council Tax once but now we have been told to put it up 2% to help fund Adult Social Care and the grant that we have been receiving as a result of freezing Council Tax in previous years is being taken away leaving from us, facing either a further Council Tax rise or even deeper cuts next year.

Over the next few weeks we will have to resolve these dilemmas and we know that there is no easy answer.  The services the council provides are important to many residents but we also know that an in increase in Council Tax will be an unpalatable choice for many of you facing rising costs in so many other ways too.

On the other hand I am sure that the students of Lewisham and Southwark College will make sure that the Valentine’s Dinner is extremely palatable!

Next London mayor must urgently address housing, transport costs & wages

The economic success that London is enjoying today brings with it challenges and threats but none of this is new to our city.  During the fifty years from 1861 London’s population grew from over three million to more than seven million by the 1910s. During that period, the flow of migrants from Europe rose significantly, while migration from the wider world also grew in importance.

Part of the city’s response was the growth of a public transport system, but almost from the beginning the cost of fares was an issue and early morning workers’ tickets enabled travel at half price on the railways and brought public transport within the reach of many more working people for the first time and also enabled them to live further out.

Today the excessively high level of transport costs in London is again one of the factors putting the city’s continuing success at risk.  Many Londoners on low wages face a vicious spiral – dramatic increases  in housing costs are forcing them look further and further out for homes they can afford but then finding that the cost of travel to work is unsustainable.  Research published recently by London Councils revealed that 1 in 5 workers commuting from Outer London have had to cut other spending so they can afford to get to work.

All three linked issues, housing costs, transport costs and low wages must be addressed with urgency if that success we are seeing today is to be sustained.   In the 1980’s I worked for the then Leader of the Greater London Council, Ken Livingstone on Transport matters and that was the dominant issue then,  but in the years since Housing has come to be the thing that troubles Londoners the most. The next Mayor of London must find ways to impact on Housing, Transport and Low wages too.

London today is one of the most expensive cities in the world to travel in with fares three times higher than in New York and four times more than Paris.  Livingstone implemented a far sighted policy of reducing fares in the 1980s but this was later struck down by the courts.  As one who supported Sadiq Khan’s campaign to be Labour’s nominee for this year’s mayoral election, it was pleasing to hear him  proposing a freeze on fares if he is elected and arguing that this can be delivered by making careful choices about other transport expenditure.

Of course even if travel can be made more affordable, the poor industrial relations during the current mayor’s term has meant that all too often Londoners journeys have been disrupted.  As Khan has pointed out there have been more than twice as many strikes under Boris Johnson than in the previous eight years.  His pledge to intervene by negotiating directly with the Transport Unions could offer a better way to deal with the issues that have caused so much disruption.

Khan also makes an explicit link between transport and Housing and is calling for Transport for London to create a “win – win” situation by using some of its extensive property holding to build affordable homes for Londoners which will also produce additional revenue which can support a fares freeze.

In recent years many employers in London have begun to pay the “London Living Wage” not least London Boroughs like my own, Lewisham.  The question still arises though of whether even the London Living Wage adequately reflects the escalating cost of Housing in London. As someone who is dealing with Housing issues every day I am very aware that an increasing number of working Londoners are finding themselves being made homeless as the number of homes they can afford to rent shrinks.

Sadiq Khan has rightly raised the question and called for the annual calculation of what constitutes a “Living Wage” to give greater weight to Housing costs and take the figure above £10 an hour for the first time.  He had previously proposed a new concept of “Living Rents” to address the housing costs issue directly.  This has the potential to finally allow some rational thinking about rents in different part of London by creating a link to average wages.  This would be a huge improvement on the current concept of “Affordable homes” which includes homes for rent at 80% of the market rent.

The threat to London’s success caused by high fares and rents is not future speculation.  It is happening right now, and both public and private sectors employers are seeing the effects in the struggles they are having with the recruitment and retention of staff.  London will expect the next mayor to give their undivided attention to resolving this rather than using London as a platform for national ambitions.

 

Sir Steve Bullock is the Elected Mayor of Lewisham and London Councils Executive Member for Housing

This article was first published on 13th January 2016 for the International Business Times UK website. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/next-london-mayor-must-urgently-address-three-issues-housing-transport-costs-wages-1537567

My South London Press New Year Message for 2016

As the old year drew to a close it became clear that the Government’s Austerity approach will continue to challenge the ability of Councils to meet the needs of the communities we serve.  There may have been a few tweaks to the Local Government settlement which mean that screw gets turned slightly more slowly but the same level of cuts will still be required.

2016 will be a year when we have to make near impossible choices between spending on care of the elderly and the provision of Libraries, between services for vulnerable young people and filling in potholes.  And there can be no right answer.  We will strive to get the most out of every pound we still have but also work ever more closely with our local residents so together we sustain the things they care about.

I hope that 2016 will see a downturn in the level of youth violence which still happens too often in Lewisham and across London and we will work closely with the Metropolitan Police on this.

We are already planning on integrating what we do even more closely with our local NHS so that we are able to get the best for everyone from the limited resources available to us.

Even more new homes were built last year than planned and that needs to happen again but we also need to get a London Mayor elected who will prioritise Housing so I will be working hard to get Sadiq Khan into City Hall next May.

Happy New Year to all SLP readers and let’s hope Millwall can squeeze into the playoffs too.

Sir Steve Bullock

Mayor of Lewisham

My South London Press column, 18/12/2015

The Holiday season is a time when we both look back over the year past and forward to the New Year and what it might bring.  2015 was a year that many of us will look back on with mixed feelings.  Local Government and the services it provides have continued to be put under enormous strain as the Government has pushed its austerity programme harder and deeper.  But we have seen public servants working long hours to make sure that essential services continue and our residents doing more and more to help their fellow citizens whether helping at a Community Library, setting up Food Banks  or running one of the hundreds of community Groups we have in Lewisham.

The General Election promised the possibility of change but ended in defeat for my Party.  That defeat was particularly difficult to swallow in Lewisham where Labour won strongly.  We said farewell to Dame Joan Ruddock after 28 years serving Deptford and welcomed Vicky Foxcroft as her replacement.  Along with Jim Dowd and Heidi Alexander she also served as a Local Councillor and it is reassuring to know that when ministers who haven’t had that experience say some of the things they do we have three MPs who can point out their errors.  It has been particularly good to see Heidi being such a powerful advocate for the beleaguered NHS in her new role as Shadow Health Secretary.

London’s Housing Crisis has deepened during the year but in Lewisham we have stepped up our efforts to increase the number of new homes that are being built including building some ourselves.  Last year there was a net increase in Lewisham of 1,468 homes and over 300 long term vacant properties were brought back into use.  This was 33% above the figures in the London plan.  Lewisham and every borough in London will need to match this performance year after year if we are to start turning the crisis round.  2016 will see London elect a new Mayor and I very much hope it will be my good friend Sadiq Khan who has made clear that addressing that Housing Crisis will be his top priority.

The Christmas holiday season can be a time of joy for some but for others it can be a sad and lonely time.  And for some it will be just another working day helping to keep our city running. However you will be spending it may I take this opportunity to wish you, your family and friends a safe and happy new year.

My South London Press column,27/11/2015

The appalling terrorist attacks of recent weeks involving the bombing of a Russian plane, the suicide bombers in the Beirut market and then the series of outrages in Paris has caused an outpouring of grief and sympathy.

It is summed up by some of the words from the joint statement issued by the Catford and Bromley Synagogue, Lewisham Islamic Centre, St Laurence Church, St Margaret’s Church, St Stephen’s Church, Holy Cross Church, Catford and St Mary’s Church Lewisham. They said:-

“We send our sincerest condolences to the families of the victims of these attacks. We pray that their families may find the strength and patience to get through this extremely difficult time, and to find some solace in remembering their loved ones with the fondest memories. We appeal to every community to stand united, stay vigilant and look out for one another. Let us all repel every hate-filled narrative from whatever vile quarter it comes.”

The attacks in Paris inevitably had a particular resonance here not least because it is a city less than 300 miles away which many people know well.  For some of us in Lewisham our immediate thoughts were for our good friends in the Paris suburb of Antony that Lewisham has been twinned with for more than 50 years.

When such attacks happen we expect those responsible for security here to provide us with reassurance not that “it can’t happen here” but that they are doing everything possible to make sure it doesn’t.  We rest easier knowing they are at work but do we ever spare a thought for the pressures they must face?  Some of them are specialists working in the shadows out of necessity but others will have been going about their usual jobs with an enhanced sense of vigilance this week.

We saw extraordinary acts of bravery and personal sacrifice by ordinary citizens and security forces in Paris.  We must believe that our own city would behave the same way and we know from our past experiences it would.  But spare a thought for that individual police officer who may be confronted with a situation requiring a split second judgement – the consequences of getting that judgement wrong could be horrific for the officer personally and for others present.  We depend on them to make that judgement without hesitation and we need to do all we can to support them when they do.