The London Borough of Lewisham is a vibrant and diverse collection of many communities. We have a population of over 300,000 with the highest proportion of residents in a London borough travelling elsewhere for work. This also means we are a borough of more homes and green spaces that is an essential part of the world’s greatest city.
But we are facing tough challenges. The housing crisis, Tory government cuts to public services and now the prospect of a harsh Brexit are real threats to Lewisham’s future prosperity.
Our Labour Council is taking on that challenge. I currently serve as the Cabinet Member for Resources, so here are just a few of the things we are doing in my areas of responsibility.
Ever since 2010, the Tory Government has imposed a so-called austerity programme on public expenditure in a failed attempt to eliminate the national budget deficit. The result has been huge cuts to public services, none bigger than to local councils..
Areas like Lewisham, which have a higher proportion of social need but a lower tax receipt from fewer high band council tax payers have been far worse hit than others. In the period 2010—2020, our budget will have been cut by over 60%. We already have around just over half the staff we had in 2010 from around 4,000 to 2,100.
While a big effort has been made to minimise the impact on front line services, most residents will have noticed that it can take longer to resolve concerns than previously. Our priority is our most vulnerable residents – our biggest expenditure is on social care, now over 60% of our much reduced budget.
Labour in Lewisham is working to find new ways to avoid passing on harsh cuts to services:
- Community involvement: We are fortunate in having a strong local voluntary sector, which has helped meet the needs of many local people. It has also stepped in to help the Council keep all 12 libraries open. There are undeniable risks in such changes, so these are being attempted in areas of less impact in the event of service failure.
- Shared Services: We are in principle willing to consider sharing services with other councils, but this depends on both compatibility and desire of others. We have started a shared in-house IT service with Brent Council and this has already helped mobile staff, such as social workers, use IT on the go. Southwark Council has now expressed an interest in joining the shared service, which could help make it even more resilient and cost-effective.
- Income Generation: Increasing charges for services has occurred, but there are legal constraints and there is only so much that residents should be required to bear. We are considering what we can do to receive income from other councils or the private sector based on our assets and service capability.
- Digitalisation: Once we complete the IT system overhaul, we anticipate much more of our work to be done digitally so saving on operational costs. We need, however, to be mindful of anyone who has difficulties in using digital communications, so some of the saving is being applied towards ensuring residents get help to overcome difficulties, or, if that is not possible, ensure that they can communicate with staff by ‘phone or in person.
The Tory Government’s welfare reforms are hitting those who need most support. Lewisham Labour’s priority remains protecting the vulnerable as much as possible eg to date, no-one has been evicted for not being able to meet the Bedroom Tax. We have also taken our debt collection service in-house, which is able to deal with cases more sensitively and has already recovered more debt.
We are proud to be the first Living Wage accredited Council in the UK meaning all our employees and those employed by contractors are paid the London Living Wage, and we are currently putting resources aside to pay travel time to home care workers, as well implementing a business rate discount scheme for local businesses paying the London Living Wage.
In 2016, the Mayor asked me to take on responsibility for Lewisham’s response to the refugee crisis:
We have launched the Lewisham Offer for Syria Refugees – by which we intend to accommodate initially 50 Syrian vulnerable refugees. Given the housing crisis, we are not using social housing, but working with the community, eg Lewisham Citizens to find property.
We also offered to provide up to 23 foster placements unaccompanied children from the Calais Jungle camps last October under the Dubs Amendment (although the Government has lamentably only taken up one place so far).