Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kings Stairs Gardens and the Thames Tunnel

Last night I attended another meeting of the Save Kings Stairs Garden Campaign. It remains a vigorous campaign, and no wonder when you hear that Thames Water have lodged a formal objection to the Council's proposal to give KSG SINC ('Site of Important Nature Conservancy') status! Why would Thames Water take such a step when it has no real impact on their plans for the Thames Tunnel super sewer? The community is rightly angry about Thames Water's approach.

I was able to tell the meeting that I was going to support a proposal by the Leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council to establish a Commission to look at the fundamental concept of the tunnel and whether there are other more acceptable alternatives to the scheme which is currently being proposed.

Thames Water have recently acquired Chambers Wharf, just a few hundred yards from KSG, but this site also presents problems and the potential for great inconvenience to the residents and schools which surround it during the 7 years of constant drilling and associated works.

This is the text of my letter to Stephen Greenhalgh in Hammersmith & Fulham:

"Thank you for your email and enclosed letter received yesterday (21st June 2011).

Southwark has been extremely concerned by the approach adopted by Thames Water with regard to the Thames Tunnel and how it may affect us.

Two sites in Southwark have been identified by Thames Water for possible main shafts. One is a park, Kings Stairs Gardens, which is a valued riverside green space, whilst the other is a brownfield site on the river at Chambers Wharf surrounded by housing and three schools. Neither is suitable for 7 years of constant drilling and associated works and the Council supports the community campaigns opposing the use of these sites.

Southwark is absolutely committed to the aim of cleaning the Thames and preventing sewage leaks. However, we also do believe that it is time to ask the fundamental questions of whether this scheme, at this cost and at this time is necessary, value for money, and will achieve its' stated objectives.

7 years of misery for those who use Kings Stairs Gardens or who live adjacent to Chambers Wharf is not a prospect which we are prepared to contemplate without a thorough independent investigation and challenge of the scheme as currently presented.

In the circumstances Southwark will be pleased to support your proposed Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Selborne.

I look forward to the work of the Commission being taken forward and it proposing a scheme which will make the Thames cleaner and safer, but which minimises the disruption and cost to our communities

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Potters Field Park Trust

About 5 years ago Council Assembly voted to transfer Potters Field Park to a Trust which would manage the park for 30 years. I was fundamentally unhappy about the proposal - Potters Field is a valued local green space next to Tower Bridge and is one of the jewels in the Council's crown of land ownership. It had also been hard fought for by people such as Lil Patrick who insisted that the LDDC give some green space to local residents in the 1980's.

I still remain unhappy about the Trust. When it was established we were promised that there would be "no more David Blaines" - a reference to the 40 days and 40 nights which David Blaine spent in a glass box suspended over the park and apparently an event which was not suitable for this "local" park. However, since the Trust has been in charge there has been a surge in its' commercial use - barely a week or a day seems to go past without some launch or event taking place in the Park. So much for protecting this green space for local residents!

But I am also unhappy that, save in a couple of cases, the Trustees, how they are appointed and to whom they are accountable remains fairly unclear. The Council appoints an officer and a councillor onto the Trust. At least they have democratic accountability to the people of Southwark. But others have a far less clear line or audit trail of appointment and accountability.

Why is this important? Well in a time of 'Big Society' and legislation apparently empowering communities to take ownership of public assets it is important to recognise that if assets are handed over "to the community" what provisions are there that that community group will be open in its dealings and accountable to the community it claims to represent? We should be very reluctant to give up the democratic accountability and legitimacy that a Council provides in respect of the ownership and management of any public asset in favour of its control by the unelected and the self-appointed.

Mobile Surgery - Bellenden & Oglander

Veronica and I undertook our latest mobile surgery at the weekend -around Marsden, Muschamp, Oglander and Bellenden Roads. It was great to catch up with so many residents and discuss the issues that concerned them. From bulge classes at local primary schools to overgrown hedges, and from anti-social neighbours to problems with damp, residents were keen to share their problems and seek our help.

Our mobile surgeries are a great way of keeping in touch with the issues which people have, but which they might not bother to raise with us if we only had fixed surgeries. One of the really good bits of news was the way in which people have welcomed the introduction of the food waste recycling pilot, and the fortnightly residual waste collection. All but one of the residents I spoke to were fully supportive of the scheme and the changes to waste collection - and were even happier after I told them that we had seen an over 20% increase in the recycling rate in the pilot area - up to 53% from about 31%.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to talk to Veronica and me. I will be following up individual bits of casework over the next couple of days.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Pumphouse Museum

I am sorry that the Pumphouse Educational Trust have decided to close down. They have been working in Rotherhithe since 1989 and I know that their work has been valued by local schools and residents.

I am afraid that they are one of the victims of the Government's spending cuts. As I have said previously, you cannot take £34 million out of our budget this year and honestly believe that it will have no impact on the services we provide and the organisations which we support - especially with another £50 million of cuts to come over the next two years.

So for anyone who is angry at Southwark Council for the cuts to the Pumphouse's funding my advice is that they should really direct their ire towards central government.

For organisations like the Pumphouse we have tried to ease the cuts by encouraging applications to our Voluntary Sector Transition Fund, and also tried to encourage access to other sources of funding. Schools budgets have significantly increased this year - so it may have been that some solution would have been possible in collaboration with the museum's principal users.

Of course it is always open to organisations such as the Pumphouse not to try and battle on, so I respect the decision they have taken.

We are not alone in facing difficult choices about what museums and organisations we support. This extract from the BBC news website yesterday, which includes references to the Pumphouse, includes a quote from Mark Taylor, Director of the Museums Association:

"Mr Taylor said councils are facing painful choices, and it could be better to close some museums in order to preserve the best.

"I personally would prefer to see a slightly smaller number of museums kept open and active, rather than all the museums kind of set in aspic, with no budget at all to do anything.""

The full article is here

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Badminton House - A Tough Decision

Last week the Southwark Cabinet took the tough decision of placing Badminton House on the market for sale. Badminton House is a block of 11 flats and sits at the bottom of the East Dulwich Estate on Dog Kennel Hill, opposite East Dulwich Station. Any decision to actually sell the block will have to come back to Cabinet in due course.

Why were we faced with this decision? The answer is simple. Under the last administration the management of the contract for the regeneration of the estate was allowed to run out of control, so that a scheme which should have cost £25 million now will cost over £30 million. And that additional £5 million does not exist in any other budget to make up the shortfall.

It has always been a key element of the regeneration of the East Dulwich Estate that capital receipts would be generated from land and void sales on the estate itself. Some flats have already been sold on the open market. So in order to meet the £5 million funding gap we had to look at ways which will have a minimum impact on the Estate and the overall regeneration scheme. We could choose to save £1.5 million by not proceeding with environmental works on the Estate, but I have long believed that those works will be a key element of the regeneration - giving the Estate a truly 'as new' feel. We could increase the sale of individual voids across the estate - but this has its own difficulties.

Add into the equation the fact that Badminton House was not within the Durkan regeneration works programme for the estate and never has been, for reason which lie in the decision-making of the previous administration in Southwark - and that to undertake the regeneration of Badminton House would add another £1 million to the £5 million shortfall, and the problem becomes even more acute.

I do not want to have to sell council housing in Southwark and lose homes from our stock. But in this instance we are faced with a problem which we cannot ignore. Homes in Bermondsey and Peckham have already been lost in order to fund the regeneration of the East Dulwich Estate. It would be unfair to go back to those areas and demand more homes or land in order to fund the works. By the sale of Badminton House we can fill a significant part of the funding gap in the project, without fundamentally changing the nature of the Estate.

But this decision and the debate which has ensued just underlines the challenge which we face in Southwark. With 54,000 properties the Council has to be assured that we can maintain those properties in a proper state going forward. We have to know that our housing stock is capable of being self-financing, because without that assurance the problems of funding major works which we have experienced on East Dulwich Estate will arise on estates right across our borough.

We have developed a 5 year housing investment programme which does not mean the loss of any significant number of homes from our stock; we must now put together a business plan which looks to the ensuing 25 - 30 years.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Elephant & Castle Regeneration - Lib Dems latest Call-In

On Wednesday evening Southwark's Overview & Scrutiny Committee considered the Lib Dem's latest call-in of our agreement to enter into discussions with St Modwen, the owners of the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre and Lend Lease, our redevelopment partners, for the regeneration of the shopping centre.

I have previously posted on this topic, and explained why this agreement was sensible. Firstly, it is better to work in co-operation with our partners than against them; secondly, the discussions may lead to an early redevelopment of the shopping centre; and thirdly, it is in everyone's interests that the shopping centre is redeveloped sooner rather than later.

I had thought that all three of these objectives would be welcomed by everyone. But it seems I was wrong. At Wednesday's meeting Southwark's Lib Dems moved that there should be no agreement for us to even discuss regeneration of the shopping centre with St Modwen and Lend Lease without there being an absolute commitment to demolish the shopping centre before any redevelopment work.

Let's just think about the logic of this position, and what it leads to.

St Modwen will not give an undertaking to demolish the shopping centre. Firstly, the shopping centre as it exists earns them money. They could simply choose to leave it as it is for the time being. Secondly, they believe that their proposals to strip the current centre back to it's concrete core and redevelop will lead to a new shopping centre - and having looked at some of the images they have produced that is hard to argue with. And thirdly, the works which they propose and which are being discussed with ourselves, Lend Lease and the community have the very real potential to meet our key objectives for the Elephant & Castle.

So if we adopted the Lib Dems approach it would not be delivered by St Modwen.

So who would deliver it?

Well the Regeneration Agreement provides that the Council will cooperate with Lend Lease in respect of a compulsory purchase of the shopping centre, but only at a time when Lend Lease ask for the CPO and only after they have exhausted attempts to redevelop with St Modwen. And when would this be likely to happen? The reality is that this would only arise at the end of the regeneration agreement period - 15 years from now. And even then there is no guarantee that Lend Lease would want to demolish the shopping centre if the economic climate for retail was not buoyant.

So the Lib Dems position is that it is wrong to even discuss redevelopment of the shopping centre with St Modwen and Lend Lease, and that we should hold out for a demolition which may not even be delivered in 15 years time, rather than try to bring about a major redevelopment of the shopping centre now.

Isn't the Lib Dems case really this - we don't want a redeveloped shopping centre and we don't want it now!

I am afraid that I cannot understand this position. It lacks ambition; it lacks vision; it opposes progress. But there again isn't that exactly what the Lib Dems did for the 8 years that they were in charge of the Elephant & Castle regeneration?

In 2014 I want to see real progress on the shopping centre; new homes on the Heygate; the development of the Oakmayne/Delancy site; and a new leisure centre for the Elephant & Castle. With the decisions which we have taken so far since last May we are well on the way to seeing these ambitions achieved.

Those who oppose the decision we took to work with St Modwen and Lend Lease on the regeneration of the shopping centre are opposed to the progress of the regeneration.

The Lib Dems have called-in and opposed every significant decision which we have taken on the Elephant & Castle since last May. Isn't it time for them to come clean and state clearly that they oppose the regeneration of this vital part of our borough? And if they don't oppose the regeneration can they please explain how their arguments and objections are consistent with progress being made.