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Mayor's annual report

Speech by Mayor Sir Steve Bullock to the Annual Meeting of Lewisham Council, 27 March 2017.

Deputy Lieutenant, Freemen and Women of the Borough, Chair, Councillors, Members of Parliament, Honoured Guests  

Not Twenty but Fifty years ago today the Beatles would have been putting the finishing touches to the Sgt Pepper Album that was to change the way the world thought about popular music. Swinging London was where everyone wanted to be and as they said “It's getting better all the time”

But there was much that needed to change. Cathy Come Home may have been a work of fiction but it had made the meaning of being homeless a reality, The Aberfan disaster had appalled the nation and the war in Vietnam continued to escalate.

Nevertheless there was a real sense of optimism that change for the better was possible which Sgt Pepper reflected. Today we face just as many challenges and in some cases the same ones are back but today’s response seems to be an angry and pessimistic populism. Of course it may be that looking back to a time when you were young inevitably creates a rosy glow about how the world used to be – so perhaps we need to look at what today’s young people are doing.

Three quarters of voters under 24 voted Remain and they turned out in equal numbers to other age groups too dispelling the myth that young people can’t be bothered. If only 16 and 17 year olds had been allowed to vote as they were in the Scottish referendum how different things might have been.

In a little over a year’s time Lewisham will face an election and by that time I will be 64 and according to Lennon and McCartney should be “Doing the Garden, digging the weeds” though “Staying out till quarter to three” sounds like more fun. Either way I will be standing down as mayor but it is not my intention tonight to reflect on the time I have served this borough. I will as usual briefly look back over the past 12 months and then forward to challenges and opportunities that face us in the coming year.

Governments come and go – we are sad when a man with the intelligence and integrity of President Obama leaves the stage but we know that before long there will be more elections and further change. The vote to leave the EU was different however. For many it made us feel that the very basis on which we had lived our lives as European Citizens was being threatened by our fellow citizens who wanted to build walls and shut out the world. Then in the days that followed we saw a return to the sort of open racism and displays of hatred that we thought had been left behind.

If some of us who were born and raised in Britain felt like that how much worse must it have been for those who had chosen to make this their home and were now being told they were not wanted here.

There are 24,000 residents of Lewisham who are EU nationals and many have been in touch with us seeking help with their situation. Many of them are doing important jobs that serve this community and the wider city. Last week I wrote to the Prime Minister adding my support to the demand that guarantees be given now by our Government that EU nationals currently here can stay. They should not be used as chips in a bargaining process.

The young will have to live with the consequences of a decision that they may understandably feel was been made by angry and perhaps ill-informed older people – as the consequences of that decision become clear they may well become angry themselves and those of us who share their view have a duty to make sure we work with them to create an optimistic alternative.

Here in London we know that such an alternative is possible. The election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, the scale of his victory and the way it was celebrated by this city made us feel proud to be Londoners and gives us genuine cause for optimism about the future.

The international links that the residents of this borough have are extensive and the Council has continued to play its part through both formal twinning arrangements and other informal links. One of the things I did following the Leave vote was to write to my opposite numbers in Charlottenberg Wilmersdorf and Anthony to assure them that our links with them began before Britain joined the EU and would continue after we left – if anything those links will be more important in the future.

It has been a particular pleasure to see our links with Matagalpa in Nicaragua become stronger again and Cllrs Muldoon and Jeffery were outstanding ambassadors for the Borough when visiting Matagalpa last year.

We have endeavoured to fulfil our international obligations towards those forced to flee their homes in Syria in the face of a brutal civil war. Thanks to the support of our community and Lewisham Citizens in particular we have now been able to help several families settle here and also assisted some unaccompanied young people to be reunited with relatives in the UK. But the attitude taken by our Government has been shameful. Throughout their efforts have been slow and lukewarm but the about turn on the “Dubs” children was a disgrace.

We were honoured to be joined by Lord Dubs himself at our annual Holocaust Memorial day event as well as the Chief Executive of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

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 personally – there are no easy jobs in the cabinet but each in their own way has addressed the growing challenges we face.

Alan Smith has agreed to serve as Deputy Mayor for the coming year and Kris will again serve as Mayoress. I have been fortunate to enjoy the support and advice of my specialist advisers Wozzy Brewster, Robin Stott and Len Hamilton. They are a source of both ideas and challenge which I value greatly.

The Young Mayor programme continues to develop and engage our young citizens and it was a particular pleasure to see for only the second time a female candidate succeed this year and indeed another female candidate be elected as Deputy Young Mayor.  

Congratulations to Kayla Sh’ay and Tekisha Henry. The programme is now in its 13th year and the enthusiasm it engenders continues and if anything grows.

For the last few years I have been welcoming Primary School students who serve on their School Councils to the Town Hall. The Young Mayors and the supporting team and advisers have been a great help with these visits and even those young people who are as yet too young to take part in the election know all about it and in some cases are making clear their intention to run just as soon as they can.

The connection between the Council and the Armed Forces is a significant one and I thank our Deputy Lieutenant, Jane Davis, for her help in maintaining that link. Cllr James J Walsh on has made a great contribution during his first year as our representative for Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations as has Cllr Damien Egan who has Cabinet responsibility for the Armed Forces Covenant.

At Lewisham’s Armed Forces Day last June we remembered both the Battle of the Somme and the Naval Battle of Jutland. Some of us were privileged to see a remarkable documentary film made in 1916 which was shown in the Broadway Theatre accompanied by a 40 piece orchestra that played a new score specially composed by Laura Rossi.

Earlier we had unveiled a further two Victoria Cross memorial stones to recognise people who were born in this borough and were awarded the V.C. for their valour during WWI. Two more unveilings will take place later this year.

The Mayoress and I were delighted to present Charlotte from the Lavender Trust with a cheque for £12,000 earlier this evening. Thanks are due to the small band of people who help Kris - Sandra Jones, Dennis Hunter, Roisin Bennett, and Charlotte Gibson and of course Derek Johnson not to mention his family! More volunteers always welcome.

Events this year have included quiz nights at the Rivoli Ballroom, a musical Valentine’s curry evening, 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. Money raised this year has been supplemented by the Council’s successful entry into the New Year’s Day parade where Lewisham came 8th among other London boroughs.

Perhaps the most shocking thing over the last year has been the way that truth has not only become subject to interpretation in the light of circumstances but for some politicians an irritation if not an irrelevance.

Once an opinion has been expressed, often without any facts to substantiate it, Social Media repeats and expands on it allowing the politician who in all likelihood fed the opinion to the media outlet in the first place to claim overwhelming support for their concerns. Efforts to establish the facts are ignored or even dismissed as lies.

It would be disturbing enough if local councillors were to behave in such a way but for the holder of the most powerful office on the planet to do so is truly the stuff of nightmares. Yet those who framed the American Constitution had the foresight to create checks and balances which have proved resilient in the past and may yet see sound government reasserted there.

Nearer home it seems that we have a Prime Minster who is determined to not only lead us out of Europe but to do so in way which maximizes the damage caused. But we won’t feel the effects for some time to come and here we find ourselves struggling with another truth conundrum.

As attentions spans have shortened and rolling news has become the norm an expectation has grown that the impact of decisions will be instant and if they are not this disproves the argument. So because there has not yet been economic disaster as a result of the Brexit vote Leave supporters argue that there never will be and the warnings from its opponents were based on false information. Never mind that the fall in the pound is already causing problems - It will be years before we know the full extent of the damage done and no doubt by then the blame will be placed elsewhere.

But this issue of delayed consequences is of real and direct relevance to us here in Lewisham as we address the twin challenges of declining resources and rising demand.

The current Government is deliberately misleading the nation about the significance and impact of its austerity policies. Those policies will reduce the size and nature of many public services yet the Government narrative is rather different. They simply refuse to acknowledge what they are doing and when real effects become visible those who deliver or use the service are blamed.

As I was working on this speech we saw exactly this disconnect illustrated. Chris Hopson, the Chief Executive of NHS Providers, the body representing NHS Trusts said the NHS faced “An unbridgeable gap with worrying implications for patients and staff” he went on to say a further £2.5B was needed to meet the Government target of treating 95% of A&E patients in four hours”. What was the Government response? They said the report “fails to acknowledge that the NHS has a strong plan to improve performance – backed by £2B for Social Care and £100m for A&E in the budget”

Let’s be clear the people who run our hospitals say they need £2.5B on top of the money Local Government needs for Social Care and the Government simply says it’s not true. Over the next year when you read the stories about further crises in the NHS remember this exchange.

A few weeks ago the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants and the Institute for Government published “Performance Tracker” – a data driven analysis of government performance in running public services. This is the first time this has been done in this way and it looks at five areas of public services that are experiencing significant financial problems at present.

This report didn’t get a lot of attention but it contains some important messages that will inform what we do during the coming year and beyond. Essentially it demonstrates that the 2010 Austerity programme which was originally viewed as a one-off period of pain following the 2008 financial crisis, before an economic recovery led to a return to business-as-usual, was largely successful in terms of reducing expenditure and minimising the impact on services.

In contrast the 2015 programme is failing and there has been a dramatic deterioration of services - increased waiting times in hospitals, and record deficits, a 40% increase in delayed transfers and a sharp rise in violence in prisons.

The report describes a Government in denial about the disaster it is causing. It’s worth quoting directly from the report. They said:-

The facts established by the data do not appear to be feeding into decision-making. Instead the pattern in this Parliament has been one of the Government:

  • failing to develop alternative strategies despite the clear warning signs in the data
  • continuing to pursue approaches that are no longer working
  • being forced into emergency actions in response to public concern; and
  • providing emergency cash to bail out deeply troubled services. 

Before I go any further I want to say something about the staff who work for this council and all those other public services. If the first phase of austerity was successful it is because of their extraordinary efforts. In the face of wage cuts and the departure of thousands of their colleagues they worked harder, longer and more effectively to sustain vital services. Their reward is to be blamed this time round when things inevitably fail because Government isn’t listening.

I want those who work in Lewisham whether for this Council or other public services to hear very clearly that they will not be blamed here – they deserve our thanks and praise – whether we are decision makers or service users we depend on them and they have not let us down nor will they.

Against this background we need to focus our effort on those things where we can make a difference either directly or by working together with others. In some cases we will have to expend considerable effort to achieve what may be quite short term gains but in others we need to lay the foundations that will produce better outcomes for future generations.

Faced with challenges on this scale and such a negative external outlook there is an understandable temptation to default to protest and complaint and as someone who grew up in the 60s I do not for a moment underestimate how satisfying that can be.

But when faced with the everyday experiences of the citizens of this borough and their need for better housing, better care and a safer environment we have a duty to use whatever powers and resources are at our disposal, resist the luxury of blaming others and do our damndest to make a difference.

I intend to continue striving to make a difference in this borough until the moment I leave office.

Both Health and Social Care face unprecedented difficulties. In the short term the concerted efforts led by the Local Government Association successfully made the case for an injection of cash into Social Care which happened in the budget. But that is little more than a sticking plaster and a stable, long term plan must be developed quickly.

Without that both the Social Care provided by this and other councils will remain at risk and so will the NHS itself. The report I referred to earlier has a damning verdict on Sustainability and Transformation Plans – or STPs as they are known. They conclude that the STPs “are nowhere near the concrete organisational (and political) plans needed to prevent recurring overspending and service deterioration. The Government needs to show how STPs can deliver, or find a new approach, before the freeze in NHS funding built into the next two years’ plans really bites.”

The STPs were created in a typically secretive, top down NHS Management way and while the broad thrust of improving community based services to reduce the need for Hospital admissions is one we can all support there is no indication of how the radical transformation needed to make this a reality will be resourced.

Councils need to do all we can to make this work but we also need to warn our residents of the risks involved and be prepared to take whatever action is necessary to protect our NHS locally. The Secretary of State appears to have learned very little from the defeat we inflicted on him last time he tried to downgrade Lewisham Hospital and we must be ready to respond if he tries again.

Just as we were led to believe that the NHS was to be protected from the effects of austerity so too we were told that schools would be protected too. Yet we have seen is Government set about changing the way that schools are funded with the deliberate intention of taking resources away from London. The losses will be compounded by other pressures beyond the control of schools but which Government does not intend to fund.

The London Boroughs working together have won a concession that the loss because of the changes will be capped at 3% but the other pressures add a further 8%. Parents and Schools have been campaigning for Fair Funding and we will continue to make the case for our schools to be properly resourced.

Last year I spoke about the Lewisham Education Commission and when it reported it was clear that the way forward was for a school-led system of improvement in our Borough. The Lewisham Education Challenge Partnership is now at work seeking to replicate the success of our Primary schools in working together to raise standards in our Secondary Schools.

It is all too easy as we grapple with these immediate issues to lose sight of things which require attention now but will take years to resolve. But in some cases there is an urgency that should concentrate our minds and lead us to take action so that future generations will be able breath more easily – and I do mean that literally.

This January pollution levels in London were so bad that Mayor Khan issued his first “very high” alert. When levels reach this point the government’s Daily Air Quality Index recommends that even healthy members of the public “reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors”.

Failure to act threatens the health of our fellow citizens and the wellbeing of our whole city. Sadiq Khan has made it clear just how much of a priority Air Quality needs to be and in December we finalised an excellent report setting out Lewisham’s 5 year strategy.

We need to act on that Strategy supporting the actions of the Mayor. Later this year the T Charge will come into force and further down the road we will see the introduction of an Ultra Low Emission Zone. The Sustainable Development Select Committee endorsed the report and urged us to champion Air Quality inside and outside the Borough.

They are right about the need to raise the profile of this issue and I intend to do that over the coming year. To that end I am appointing Cllr McGeevor as our Champion for Air Quality and I have asked her to work with Cllr Onikosi and Robin Stott, my Environmental Adviser and our officers firstly to make our residents better aware of the issue and how they can help but also to advise on any additional measures we can consider that will make an impact.

For some families the issue of poor Air Quality has become a personal tragedy. Lewisham resident Rosamund Roberta’s daughter, Ella, died as a result of childhood Asthma. She has set up the Ella Roberta Family Foundation which is doing amazing work including raising awareness of the links between air quality and asthma.

If Air Quality is something that needs to be given greater recognition as a priority Housing has in recent years been firmly established as the top concern on almost everyone’s list and here in Lewisham we have continued to play our part. Place Ladywell has grabbed the headlines with its award winning approach to the Temporary Accommodation and we will shortly start to use the learning from that scheme to increase the pace at which we can deliver permanent accommodation.

Sadiq Khan has shown a drive and commitment to delivering a solution to the Housing crisis that is refreshing and it is a pleasure working with him on the new “Homes for Londoners” Board. Only through a partnership between City Hall, the Boroughs, the Housing Associations and the House builders can we begin to meet the city’s housing needs.

I was shown an email from a local resident recently bemoaning what had happened to Lewisham Town centre and urging us to rein in the planners. I do understand that seeing the borough changing as we accommodate London’s growing population is frustrating for some but if London is to deliver the 50,000 new homes each year far from reining in the Planners we need to give them the green light to use their skills and imagination to work along with their colleagues to find ways to build more not less - even in a borough as crowded as Lewisham.

I am sure that resident was not alone in her concerns but tonight there will something like 1,800 Lewisham families living in Temporary Accommodation – most of which will be nothing like the quality of Place Ladywell – and their prospects of getting a permanent home will be severely hindered if we do not all accept that it is our duty to build at greater densities and to do so at a considerably greater pace than heretofore.  

London has continued to be the economic powerhouse of the UK economy and while Brexit may eventually change this it continues to be a place that attracts investment from across the globe yet the same poverty that Cathy Come Home portrayed is still with us fifty years on. Indeed to be poor in a city which is getting richer must be even more dispiriting.

As part of their austerity programme Government has sought to reduce welfare spending and done so with an apparent indifference to the consequences for individuals and families. However in this local authority we have striven to act in ways which protect the least well off in our community.

We pay the London living wage and encourage others to do the same. The welfare benefits we administer must follow government guidelines but the staff at all levels who work in this area do everything in their power to be fair and caring in difficult circumstances.

But we can always do more and the Lewisham Poverty Commission that will look at both the effectiveness of what we do now and what more we can do. It involves both Executive and Scrutiny councillors as well as a range of external experts. I look forward to receiving its report later in the year.

One way me may be able to help our residents is through cutting the cost of energy. There are some innovative schemes being developed which may make it easier to change to more economical providers but also deliver some wider benefits for the Borough. We have a very good track record as a Council in relation to energy and there are some great local schemes like South East London Community Energy. Over the next few months I want us to take a good look at whether we can do something to build on this.

As your mayor I am asked to attend many events but few are as humbling as the presentation of long service awards to Foster parents – the stories told by those remarkable individuals are inspiring. They change young lives year after year and enable us to discharge our duties in a ways that we can be proud of.

But Looked after Children continue to face challenges even with great support and the transition to independent adult life is a particularly challenging time. They have been hit by one of those welfare changes I mentioned a few moments ago. Last year Government decided that work allowances for care leavers without children would be withdrawn leaving those claiming Universal Credit up to £72 per month worse off.

Some Local Authorities have tried to help by exempting Care Leavers from Council Tax until they are 25. I want Lewisham to look at doing the same and I will be asking for a report to come forward as part of our budget making that examines the cost and benefits of doing this here.

It is important that we do not lose sight of just how much this Council has been able to achieve despite 7 years of austerity.

Some things are on a grand scale – we have seen improvements to the infrastructure of the borough – new schools, new leisure facilities and of course new homes. Other have been less obvious but have changed lives for the better like the 134 individuals who have completed apprenticeships with the Council itself.

The Bakerloo line is coming to Lewisham, We were one of the few Boroughs to achieve UNESCO recognition as a Baby Friendly borough, Beckenham Place Park is being transformed and thousands of new trees are being planted there, by bringing the Bailiff service in house we have saved money and can provide a more sensitive service, our partners like Lewisham Homes and Phoenix Housing have their own success stories to tell to – I could go on – and on – but I won’t.

My point is that while we have to focus on stopping the worst excesses of Austerity and fight against the threats to the services the people of this borough rely on we must not lose sight of the good that is being done. Anger, negativity and pessimism will not achieve change but if we remain positive and optimistic about this great Borough and this great City of London we can play our part in helping ensure that things really do get a little better all the time

I want to conclude by saying something about how this council works with its community and in particular those groups large and small, young and old, spiritual and secular that work within our borough. They are not just a sector we need to have a policy for; they are not a problem to be managed but the very life blood of Lewisham.

Those of you who are regulars here will have heard me speak before about the influence of Andy Hawkins, a former Council Leader I was privileged to work with. A significant part of Andy’s legacy was a strong and close relationship between Council and community. I have endeavoured to build on that and we have found ways to work together for the good of the people.

As we face difficult times it is a strength and a comfort that we have such a relationship and it is something which is different here to many other places where there is less warmth or even open hostility.

That connection both with community groups and the individuals who so selflessly work with them must be nurtured and it will be needed even more in the years ahead.

Tonight I simply want to thank the thousands of citizens of this borough who have in so many different ways made a difference – and perhaps it was people like them that Lennon and McCartney had in mind when they penned the words “I get by with a little help from my friends”

We all know people who make genuinely extraordinary contributions to our community – but I’m not sure we honour them as we should. The Chair, Cllr Millbank, Cllr Michael and I have looked at how we can change that and we will shortly bring forward a proposal to create a citizenship award scheme that will enable residents and councillors to nominate some of those amazing people.

I have to confess that the length of these speeches has increased over the years but we are now at the end and while it's wonderful to be here, It's certainly a thrill, You're such a lovely audience – I’m afraid I don’t really want to take you home with me – so we’ll make do with a cup of tea and a bite to eat outside in the Foyer once the remaining formal business is concluded.

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