What should Lewisham Labour do next?

Some thoughts from New Cross Labour,

Lewisham’s Labour Group have launched an internet consultation, at Lewisham Together , a wordpress site, http://lewishamtogether.wordpress.com/, anyone can contribute ideas to Labour’s Manifesto for Lewisham’s Mayor and Labour Group.  The Labour Party has been choosing candidates over the last six months and campaigning on the doorstep since they won back control of the council in 2010. As part of the consultation, Mayor Steve Bullock came to New Cross Labour Party to talk about the next administration. Members of neighbouring Brockley Ward were also invited, which is how I got there.

Mayor Steve looked at the history and successes of his administration developing the infrastructure , possibly most importantly acting quickly to take advantage of the Labour Government’s infrastructure expenditure programmes including Schools for the Future, which the coalition has closed.  Since 2010, the Tory led coalition’s resettlement of the local government support grants has made life difficult for most of the poorer areas in England & Wales.  In Lewisham, not only has the Government withdrawn massive amounts of funds, but the population is growing, with the number of young people and children growing even more rapidly; causing strain and policy challenges in the Education sector in particular.

sunset over south london

Steve also spoke of the Labour Council’s standing up to the Government by going to court to challenge the legality of the government’s actions in court, firstly, to challenge Gove’s non-instruction to mark last year’s GCSE’s more harshly, and secondly to challenge Jeremy Hunt’s decision to confirm the South London Health Trust’s Special Administrators recommendation to close Lewisham Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) and thus its maternity unit.

A central problem facing Lewisham is that about 50% of the Council’s Services are universal services such as Libraries & Leisure and 50% is more targeted on the poor and the vulnerable.  In addition to cutting the amount of money Lewisham receives since about ⅔ of local council spending comes from central government and, the government has now transferred the responsibility of paying for some of the targeted programmes onto council’s while not transferring sufficient money to pay for them.

Steve asked for our views on the central priority, but this is a difficult problem. The demand for services is going up, and the money is going down; ⅔ of local government money comes from central funds and the first thing the Tory led coalition did was to take money away from Labour authorities. One of the purposes of the central government spending is to ensure that the rich carry their load. Poor authorities have a higher expenditure requirement and a lower revenue base. The new Tory settlement makes this worse. Only electing a Labour Government will make doing the right thing possible, we need a fairer use of central funds, and in the case of housing a change in the borrowing rules.

To my mind it’s crucial for Labour and the people of Lewisham that the council and Mayor do not retreat into a position where the only people who get council services are a minority. Universal services are a statement of social solidarity and in direct contradiction to the right wing’s ideological,  self servicing view that these services should only be acquired from the private sector, through individual purchase.

We are all agreed that we must set a legal budget; an illegal budget will allow the Tory politicians who have caused the financial squeeze to appoint commissioners, presumably of the same calibre and with the same duty of care, and attention to their legal powers as the South London Health Trust Commissioner.

Some Labour Party members present raised the issue of Housing. The council has just undertaken a massive debate about social housing governance. One of the legacies of Thatcherism is that local council’s ability to meet housing need was dramatically reduced. The bulk of Lewisham’s social housing is now owned by independent Housing Associations and the remainder by Lewisham Homes, the councils arms-length Housing Executive. Lewisham’s Labour led council have decided that social housing needs a social ownership dimension and that the community as a whole has the right to a say on the direction and management of the social housing programme. They have also decided to start rebuilding and plan to start 2500 houses over the next five years. The biggest problem is getting land, and even when there is empty property, acquiring it is hard and expensive; again this is an area of law that we might hope a Labour Government would reform to make house building easier.

A bunch of ideas were proposed from the floor of the meeting, a number around economic development.

One suggestion was to re-invigorate cultural scene; the consequent discussion about how to compete with central London led to consideration of transport. The need for better transport into and out of the borough was also influenced by the need to create more jobs in Lewisham and Deptford. There was support for extending the Croyden tram to Lewisham as well as the Bakerloo line. The Bakerloo line extension, is an off again, on again project proposal, currently fighting to get into the TfL medium term funding plans. One of its major champions is Southwark Council and most importantly no route has yet been decided. A Tory Mayor of London will be more concerned about Bromley and many of these plans do not make provision for routes and stations in Deptford; several even avoid Lewisham station.

While Steve expressed a reticence to direct investment in culture, he expressed an admiration for the regeneration of Hackney, which he suggested was the result of the new Old East London line, now known as London Overground. While London Overground’s new outer circle has only one station in Lewisham, there are branches to West Croyden and New Cross that have stations in Deptford.

A 45 minute, cabs eye view of the London Overground journey from Dalston Junction to Croyden.

It would seem to me that there are two factors that have benefited Hackney. One is Silicon Roundabout, the pump priming flag-ship investment and innovation cluster for the next generation IT startups and schools, located at the Old Street roundabout. They have Google, we have Goldsmiths University and the Brockley Arts community. It seems essential to me that Deptford needs a similar investment and business focus; it’s a shame that the New Cross Sainsburys estate is not a business park because it must be possible to create a business and sustainable jobs hub in such close proximity to both Canary Wharf and the City. The second of Hackney’s ‘advantages’ is its proximity to the City of London with rapid transport links to Liverpool St. and Shoreditch High Street stations. This is not necessary a blessing as it leads to gentrification and  the reflation of the housing bubble; the benefits to local residents is questionable. It’s also commonly believed that the British and London economies are too reliant on Finance. For jobs to be sustainable, they need to be future-proof, and while North London has Silicon Roundabout, the obvious cluster focus seems to be missing in Lewisham.

It would be good if the council established a vigorous jobs plan and transformed economic development portfolio beyond planning.

Having got to IT, I raised the issue of the ‘Digital Divide’. I suggest that building a free municipal wifi cloud might be financially ambitious, and there remain other problems due to the lack of clarity relating to the Digital Economy Act, there are initiatives that could be cheap and effective. If the council adopted a more modern LAN architecture, they could offer residents e-mail and 2nd tier ISP services, in my research 20 months ago, I looked at initiatives in the UK, London and USA. In San Francisco, the Council moved from funding ubiquitous WiFI towards seeding connectivity equipment i.e. Laptops and Desktops. The reality is that connectivity is moving to the smart phone, which remains expensive to many of Lewsiham’s residents. Perhaps the focus should remain investment in Libraries, with both access and training and Adult Education.

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