Monday, August 02, 2010

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.


Anonymous said...

You could sell your three buildings, downsize your office space into something small, modern, and convenient, and hold all public meetings in an open-air amphitheatre in the newly-redeveloped Burgess Park. What democratic potential could that hold? Though if I was in your position, I would secretly desire a brand new, state-of-the-art, £100m Liebeskind South London beacon of hope and prosperity.

Peter Gasston said...

Regarding the Camberwell Town Hall:

I'm quite surprised to learn that after 80 years of service, it's only just been discovered that the lines of sight in the public gallery are quite poor. Had nobody thought to mention this before?

I would argue that the council now suffers from the opposite problem of what it had historically: a lack of presence outside of the north of the borough. We know Bankside is the jewel in the crown of Southwark, but now that the bulk of employees have moved to Tooley Street it's the rest of the borough that can feel neglected.

I also think that some of this council property - such as South House, East House, etc - should be considered for community use before being sold off to private developers. As you know there's a campaign in Camberwell to try to gain a community space (currently the old cinema / bingo hall). Wouldn't some of the council property be better suited for this purpose?

Ari said...

Given a couple of years of rates only on Peckham Rd Town Hall, similar to Neckinger deal, the DDA requirements could possibly be overcome. It isn't a direct metod of raising capital, it is a way of not spending on the present lack of facilities for community use.

Peoples Republic of Southwark would still prefer to take on an underground car park in Southwark but we first need to find out what the "safety" concerns are and be able to have a dialogue with properties management.

The Town Halls in themselves are immaterial, it is the finances which are the problem. Southwark is blowing a fortune every year by allowing cars to park/drive on the pavements (for some reason in the council there is a belief that the cars were not driven onto pavements so the owners can not be prosecuted!). There is also an argument for charging for repairs to the surface under the vehicle. Mini-bus parking opposite the old Father Red Cap has been going on for months.

There is also the strange habit of the community planting greenery and then the council's staff coming round to dig them up and leave a delightful patch of soil.

And pack it in with those horrendous magazines - the largest pile of junk mail from anyone.