Wednesday, August 25, 2010

IFS Slam Coalition Budget

The Institute of Fiscal Studies criticism of the Coalition Government's budget is not good news. It comes on the same day as Anatole Kaletsky heavily criticised the Government's 'macho' attitude towards making spending cuts, which he fears will send us into a disastrous recession next year.

Now pundits and 'think tanks' can be wrong, but it really does seem that people are starting to wake up to the real damage that the Coalition's budget has already done and will do in the coming months and years. The reaction of "Deputy PM" Nick Clegg was typically vacuous - will there come a time when he engages his brain before speaking on any subject?

There is a choice for this Government to make - stop the posturing cuts now and take us back into recovery in a sensible and measured way, as proposed by the last Labour Government. The risks of and actual damage which will be done if the Coalition continues as it is currently doing are simply too great. It is time some Lib Dems with a conscience started to recognise this fact.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Maydew House

Last night the Cabinet took the decision to permanently rehouse the residents of Maydew House in order that 'Decent Homes' works can be carried out. It was not an easy decision and the length of the meeting demonstrated the consideration which we had to give to the issues raised by residents of the block and other external experts employed by the Council.

At the end of the day two factors weighed heavily on our decision. Firstly, we could not contemplate any resident or visitor to the block coming into contact with asbestos fibres displaced during the duration of the works and secondly we could not risk leaving residents living on a building site for up to two years, including losing basic services for lengthy periods during those works. However much thought and consideration goes into the project management of works such as this there are inevitably things that go wrong, and with the added difficulties which already existed in this project those further problems would make life unbearable for anyone still resident in the block.

We would not have chosen to make this decision at this time, but the previous LibDem / Tory administration had thrown the future of the block into doubt and created a level of uncertainty which was unfair on the majority of residents and needed resolution sooner rather than later.

Absolutely no decision has been made about the longer term future of the block. We want to keep all of our housing stock if possible and last night's decision has no bearing on any wider strategy. So we could see no advantage in further postponing last night's decision, despite being urged by the local MP. The reality is that unlike the local MP, who appears to be in permanent opposition whilst in Government, an Administration has to make decisions on the basis of the facts as they are presented, and not as we would wish them to be.

I know some residents will have been upset and angered by our decision. But I hope that everyone understands that we made the decision for the right reasons of health, safety and the proper living conditions of all Maydew's residents.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Southwark's Democracy Commission

Last week I gave evidence to Southwark's Democracy Commission about how we might improve Council Assembly in future and make it more accessible to the public. Too often our current meetings feel fairly bizarre affairs, with lots of political posturing and not much light thrown on some of the big local issues which affect us in Southwark. With some confidential information being unwisely thrown out during the course of debate by the opposition, our recent discussion of the Elephant and Castle regeneration must have seemed odd, to say the least!

Some of the questions which I posed to the Commission were (a) whether we always had to hold our meetings at Southwark Town Hall on Wednesday evenings? (b) Whether members' questions serve any valuable purpose at the present time? (c) How we make it easier for deputations and members of the public to attend and participate in our meetings? (d) Can meetings be webcast and is there the possibility for interactive questioning and participation?

We also discussed the possibility of returning some decision-making powers to Council Assembly. In opposition we were critical of the last Administration's decision to keep our borough's Housing Strategy as a Cabinet decision. It seems to me that responsibility for our housing policy should better lie with all members of the council. There may be other instances where this could be done.

The Lib Dems have a fairly long shopping-list of areas where they claim we can improve local democracy. Some of their points have a Year Zero feeling to them; it is almost as if they had not been in power for the past 8 years! It is worth remembering that the reason why Labour established the Democracy Commission was because the previous administration did everything they could to make Council Assembly a pointless meeting which they almost treated with disdain. I am confident that everyting that we do as a new administration will reverse that course.

Monday, August 02, 2010


A word about my cat, Curlywurly, who had to be put to sleep on Friday. He was only 15 months old, but he had been diagnosed with a horrible and rapid illness. He was a real 'Whiskas' cat, had a wonderful personality and brought a lot of joy in his short life. This photo was taken by my colleague Fiona when she was cat-sitting last year!

Southwark's Town Halls

Southwark has three Town Hall buildings - one in Spa Road, Bermondsey; another on the Walworth Road and the third, Southwark Town Hall, on the Peckham Road. All of them require major capital investment in order to make them user-friendly public buildings. And when that capital of approximately £20 million has been found we need to find a real use and purpose for them, and a revenue stream for maintaining them.

Why is this important? Well, in short we are likely to be facing unprecedented cuts in funding from central government - £76 million over the next 4 years - and unless we look long and hard at everything that we are spending our money on we will be limiting our options for finding the savings which we need.

None of the buildings provide good modern office facilities for our council staff, and so the major capital investment cannot be avoided if we are to continue using them into the future. Nor can we just hand them over for public or community use without investment which is needed to make the buildings DDA compliant.

The argument for maintaining Spa Road has historically been to maintain a council 'presence' in the north of the borough. But with over 2000 council employees now working out of the council's offices at 160 Tooley Street I am not sure that this argument remains. There is certainly a "Council presence" in Bermondsey!

Walworth is a difficult building. The council chamber there is too small for Southwark's 63 member council, and it is not obvious what use we can give to it.

Southwark Town Hall houses our current Council Chamber, but I was interested (and alarmed) to hear that some of the feedback received by our Democracy Commission has already criticised the public gallery as being poor - preventing sight of many of the councillors participating in debate. If we are to meet the aspirations of opening up our local democracy to the public we need to make sure that at least they can witness our meetings! But the Town Hall represents an important presence in Camberwell, and would be sorely missed by the local community.

What is the answer to this financial and democratic conundrum? I'm not sure. But I think we are fast moving to a point where we can no longer ignore these issues or simply indulge a wish to maintain the three Town Halls just because they exist.

This is one of those issues and debates which we are bound to see more of in the next couple of years, as we are faced with increasingly difficult financial options. Let me know if you have any thoughts.

A Progress Report

So we are now 75 days into Southwark's Labour Administration and it is worth taking stock of what we have achieved and what programmes we have started.

We have signed two major regeneration deals which had been progressing at a snails-pace under the last administration. At the Elephant and Castle we will see the major redevelopment of an area of Central London, and at Potters Field next to Tower Bridge we will see the completion of the regeneration of this part of our riverside.

We have cut Councillors allowances by over £70,000 - reversing the increases which the previous administration introduced over the past 4 years.

We have saved the green spaces at Nursery Row Park and Brayard's Green, which had been under threat from developers and the last administration.

And we have made it harder for the Council to employ external consultants - just last year Southwark spent over £12 million on consultants. We simply cannot afford to do that at a time when we are facing huge budget cuts from central government.

We are already looking at options to introduce our Free Healthy School Meals policy and in order to meet our pledge to make every council home warm, dry and safe. There is still a long way to go, but we are pushing ahead with our Labour programme to bring a fairer future for all in Southwark.