Protecting Lambeth libraries from Government cuts

Rosamund Urwin’s article on Lambeth’s libraries (Evening Standard, 14th April) fails to fairly reflect the huge pressures on council budgets. She dismisses the idea that public services are “either or”; but with a 56% budget cut from this government, that is the reality for local councils like Lambeth.  Far from trying to “alienate” the people of Lambeth, we are working with them in an attempt to protect vital services in the face of these unprecedented financial pressures.

Across the country, hundreds of libraries have shut completely due to this government’s cuts.  We hugely value our libraries so we’ve worked hard to keep them open despite this. Of our ten libraries, two of them, Carnegie and Minet, have closed temporarily but they will reopen next year with books, study space and computers. By expanding the range of uses for these buildings, including health and fitness activities, we can keep them open for the community.

Although Ms Urwin claims the council “seems barely to have entertained” the idea of a staff mutual running the borough’s libraries, the idea was in fact first discussed in 2012. The proposal put forward by staff this year was considered in depth by a panel including senior Council officials and an expert from an independent agency, but it was concluded that there was not a business plan in place that could deliver the significant savings required by 1 April 2016.

We didn’t want to make these changes, but we just can’t provide the same service as we do now with significantly less money. Despite this, we’ll continue to work to protect the most vulnerable people who rely on our services and find imaginative ways to keep services open.

A more factual explanation of the libraries policy is available here: http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/lambeth-libraries-faq

Cllr Lib Peck, Leader of Lambeth Council

The above is a longer version of a letter published in the Evening Standard on 19th April. 

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Tory cuts mean a tough budget for Lambeth

Today we have announced Lambeth Council’s budget for the year ahead. It is a budget that focuses on protecting our most vulnerable, despite the scale of the Conservative Government’s attack on local government.

Since 2010, the Tories have cut our funding by 56%. Local government has been hit harder than other public services and deprived areas like Lambeth have been hit hardest of all (while areas like David Cameron’s Oxfordshire have actually had a rise!).

Since the last time we set a budget, a year ago, we’ve had the election of a majority Tory Government and the Spending Review that followed in November. It is even worse than we thought and there is little prospect of an end to austerity any time soon.

At this week’s meeting of Lambeth Council, we heard from Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, who laid out in stark terms the changing nature of local government under this Tory Government. By 2020, our funding from government will have disappeared, leaving us solely dependent on business rates and Council Tax (which together make up only 2/3rd of our current income).

While this offers us significant opportunities to harness the benefits of growth in homes and businesses as a borough at the heart of London, there are also huge risks. By abolishing the grant, the Government is bringing an end to the important idea that areas with the highest need should get the extra resources they require to help vulnerable people. That is an idea that is integral to our Labour values of fairness and equal opportunity and it is important that we fight back strongly against this demolition of local government.

The scale of the financial task is the toughest challenge we’ve ever faced. We’ve saved £138 million already. But we have to find another £100 million in the years ahead.

This has meant we’ve had to make some really tough choices. We’ll be raising Council Tax next year by 1.99%, along with the additional 2% Government precept for Adult Social Care. This is the right thing to do to ensure we can raise more funding to protect some of our most vital services. The raise will mean an increase of just 36p a week for a Band D property and 65% of residents will pay this amount or less. And we will continue to have the 8th lowest Council Tax in London.

The Council will become a smaller organisation as we will have fewer staff in the years ahead. That will mean voluntary redundancy for between 300-500 members of staff. As a councillor since 2001 and leader for the last three years, I am very proud of the great work that our staff do in so many areas and it will be extremely difficult to see so many valued colleagues leave the council.

Less staff will also mean less capacity to deliver the same services in some areas. And we’re having to drive more efficiencies with our partners in areas like public health and social care, recognising that all of those who provide services in the public sector have to adapt to the realities we face.

Some people argue that councils should ignore this reality and refuse to make any of these cuts, as was done so disastrously in Lambeth in the 1980s. It took decades for Lambeth to recover from the impact of that. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn was right to reject this and to call on Labour councils to set balanced budgets that protect our most vulnerable.

That’s the approach we’re taking. By ensuring most of the savings in the budget we have announced today come from the back office and efficiencies, we can ensure we protect other services.

Over 50% of our budget is spent on providing care for vulnerable adults and children. We have a duty to provide that care and we will protect these frontline services as much as possible. We’re also protecting our important work around Violence Against Women and Girls, continuing to support those affected by Government welfare reforms and spending more on Council Tax support for those who can’t afford to pay.

These are the right choices to ensure that our Labour values are at the heart of what we can deliver for this borough.

Unfortunately, even as we are able to take pride in our work so far to tackle the scale of this challenge, we know that there are even more cuts to come. It is farcical to expect councils to keep finding ever more things to cut: but it’s a farce nevertheless that this Government shows no sign of stopping.

So we have to continue the hard work of changing our services to reflect the financial reality while at the same time, loudly and publicly rejecting the agenda that has imposed it. That means highlighting to our residents the scale of the Government’s 56% cut in our funding. And making sure everyone is aware of their plans to abolish local government as we know it.

It means calling out the hypocrisy of David Cameron or the local Tories in Lambeth when they campaign against cuts locally that they have so gleefully cheered nationally. And fighting back against this Government as we have always done, as it targets the areas who need support the most.

Most importantly, it’s about ensuring that Labour is a credible, alternative voice for all those who are suffering under this Government. That means campaigning as hard as we can to elect Sadiq Khan in May (you can sign up here to do that). And it means continuing to govern in Lambeth with our values of ambition and fairness for all, which led so many people to put their trust in us in 2014.

A better way

For all the Government’s talk of a ‘jobs miracle’ the truth is that growth has been uneven. Too many people are languishing on low paid or insecure jobs. Unemployment, particularly amongst certain hard to reach groups, remains high.

The Government should accept its share of the blame. The dysfunctional Work Programme is failing those who need help most. Of the 950,000 people who had completed the work programme by last September, 825,000 (77%) had returned to benefits. For ESA claimants, 90% had not moved into work – a stunning indictment of the scheme’s failure.

The verdict of the Public Accounts Committee was “those in greatest need are not getting the help they need… and are instead being parked by providers because their case is deemed just too hard.”

Together with Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, we have developed a model that is geared up to support the people who have fallen through the cracks of the Work Programme. The early indications are that it is working.

“Better Placed” deliberately focuses on four “hardest to help” groups; those aged 18-24, aged 50+, single parents and people with low level mental health needs.

Our intensive support service brings together the Job Centre Plus and providers to provide focused help for people with complex needs. Each client is paired with a dedicated caseworker. Their remit is not just to shift people off benefits , but to bring in other agencies to tackle any barriers that might be preventing these people from finding stable employment.

50 year old Rachel had been out of work for several years when she was referred to the project. She had caring responsibilities for a relative and had accumulated significant debts. Her caseworker referred her to a debt agency who helped her structure a realistic re-payment plan. She was then supported to prepare a CV, and, with careful support, found a permanent job as an Admin Support Officer at a care agency. She has now come off benefits, is successfully managing her finances and enjoying her first job in years.

We have already enrolled 350 people onto the scheme. Of those we set an ambitious target of moving 114 into work and after only a few months, 50 people have already found a job.

The wider lessons are clear. It is not surprising that a locally designed system better fits local needs. Instead of ‘parking’ those who need help most, the Government should loosen their grip. A decentralised system, with the local authorities as the prime provider of employment support for those with complex needs makes clear sense.

As the devolution debate continues, the Government need to match word with actions. They owe it to people like Rachel to get on with it.

Garden Bridge is bold and ambitious but the Mayor should not be issuing a blank cheque

One of my first planning committee meetings, back in 2002, was to approve the London Eye as a permanent fixture on the capital’s skyline. I recall a sense of pride and uncertainty in the room. Initially thought to be just a temporary structure, it’s easy to forget the early controversy that surrounded it. Many opposed its size, quirkiness and its location opposite Westminster’s iconic palaces and democratic heart.

A few months ago, Lambeth’s planning committee considered an application for the Garden Bridge. I’m sure they had a similar sense of trepidation as I had 13 years ago. Were they giving the go ahead for a project destined to become a fabulous addition to the Thames for generations to enjoy? Or an expensive project promoted by a London Mayor in a rush to leave a legacy before his term comes to an end in less than a year’s time?

There remains a very important unanswered question: how will the bridge be paid for? No matter whether you’re for or against, it is difficult to justify Transport for London (TfL) funding the project to the tune of £30m. The Mayor characterises the Bridge as a transport scheme in order to raid TfL’s coffers. The Bridge may do many things, but how can it be argued it will significantly boost walking? It is in the wrong place for that, sandwiched between two other crossings. And as cyclists will be banned, it will do nothing to get people out of their cars and onto bikes. So while it might have other merits, it is surely wrong for TfL to issue a blank cheque, particularly given the financial pressures they face from the Chancellor.

The London Assembly have rightly called for the Mayor to cancel TfL’s contribution and are now turning their attention to the Mayoral candidates who may oversee its construction.

So what is Lambeth council’s role?

First, we are the independent planning authority. We granted permission in December 2014 but this was conditional on the fulfilment of 45 specific terms. It means that the bridge can go only ahead if the planning committee is satisfied that the Garden Bridge Trust has complied with all these conditions. Those conditions range from construction, provision of toilets and plans to accommodate the number of potential visitors. The Judicial Review that followed the decision led to the Mayor underwriting the maintenance of the bridge should the business case fail. It did not query any aspect of Lambeth’s decision making and we will continue to work by those high standards.

Second, the south landing of the bridge will need to touch down on land we own, currently leased to Coin Street Community Builders. The terms of the lease would need to be varied if the bridge is to go ahead. Over the next few months, I need to be convinced that Lambeth residents will be advantaged, not disadvantaged, by the renegotiation. The Mayor’s £30m contribution from the public purse will be uppermost in my mind.

It is true that Lambeth could pull the plug on the project now by refusing to enter into negotiations. But that feels very alien to a Lambeth that has increasingly played a bigger role in shaping our city. London is an ambitious city, known for giving space to big ideas and creative projects. Lambeth spent far too many years in the past being known as the place where such ambitions were blocked rather than realised.
The Garden Bridge is a creative idea but I am clear it can not come at any cost. A trick has been missed on its location, and with a more flexible approach by the Garden Bridge Trust an alternative could have been found. Critically, Londoners know that public finances are stretched – they feel it every day. Ultimately the London Eye succeeded, winning over hearts and minds early on, because it was funded entirely from private sources. The Mayor and future Mayoral candidates should learn from that fantastic project.

In the meantime, Lambeth will continue to challenge and shape the Garden Bridge to see if it can become the Eye of the future.

Thoughts on Saturday’s Reclaim Brixton event

As the Leader of the Council in Lambeth, but also as someone who has lived here for many years, I want Lambeth to keep the ingredients of the place I moved to 20 years ago – to remain a distinctive, diverse and spirited borough.

This was clearly the intention of the vast majority who came on Saturday’s demo. It’s a shame that the predominantly peaceful outlook was hijacked by a small handful of people. You don’t bring eggs and masks to a peaceful demo if that isn’t your intention.

For a demo labelled ‘Reclaim Brixton’, it’s significant that the six arrests made on the day, were not Brixton residents, or even residents from other parts of London, but people who live outside the capital and came specifically to cause trouble.

They may have come to Brixton because it has a past and a name and attracted attention in the media because of it. Whatever their reasons, nothing could have been more emphatic than the real Brixton communities’ rejection of them. Be it the man who covered the glass outside Barnados and shepherded people away from the damage. Or the person who threw down a mop to trip up a vandal running away from the scene.

However, if the overall tone of the demo was clear – peaceful, community spirited – the central cause, or the list of demands, were more disparate.

Unsurprisingly, with less than a fortnight (on Saturday) to go until the general election, some of the reasons were political. Locally, the Greens have been trying hard to muster support on some of our housing estates proposed for redevelopment by playing into resident’s fears and distorting the council’s intentions.

I understand the worry of tenants who are being asked to work with and essentially trust the council about their most valued thing – their home. But I really reject the Greens description of the plans as ‘social cleansing’ or their attempts to make Cressingham Gardens a by-word for gentrification. Not only is the word social cleansing offensive and inflammatory – having spent time in former Yugoslavia in the early 90s, I know the use of the word here is grossly inappropriate.

But it’s also incredibly inaccurate. Surely gentrification only applies when people are being forced out of an area. I’m not saying this isn’t a problem in London (more on this later), but in the case of Cressingham Gardens, all the current tenants or home owners are able and have a right to stay on the estate. And the fact that the plan is for more social homes to be built, not less, regardless of which option is pursued, runs completely counter to gentrification.

Contrary to opposing trends over the last few years, the deeply unhelpful policy of Right to Buy and the lack of available land to build on – as a council we’re nonetheless strongly committed to both the concept of, and the delivery of, social homes. We’ve committed to building 1000 more. We want to provide those homes so that people from all walks of life can live in our borough. But the Greens oppose us at every turn when we try to do so. Their message is hugely contradictory.

Another more central issue of the demo was the future of Brixton Arches. Here the peaceful embrace around the arches could not have been further from the image of demonstrators smashing the window of a children’s charity. This was a genuine expression of wanting to protect something valued by the community – not simply to remain in the past – but because it contributes to unique character of Brixton and deserves to thrive in the future. As a public body Network Rail need to respond positively to the local community with clear timelines and guarantees around rent. And as a council, we’ll keep putting the pressure on them too.

The wider issue of gentrification is a much more complicated debate. I don’t speak to many people who want to return Brixton back to where it was ten years ago – a place people without jobs, a place with a reputation for crime, a place that didn’t feel safe. And so for many in the community the word “reclaim” felt inappropriate – it didn’t recognise the positive change that has taken place, and instead tried to put up boundaries in a place whose very strength has always been inclusivity and diversity.

We all have a responsibility for our communities. I believe that the council should intervene where it has the power to and to do so positively. To use the land we have on Somerleyton Road to provide new homes and community co-designed with local people; to use space on Pope’s Road to provide business space for new start-ups; to make sure the redesigned Town Hall provides new social homes in the centre of Brixton as well as community and business space.

But this is only part of the answer. For all Brixton’s uniqueness, the challenges are a very wide London phenomena. How to bring in investment without making a place bland or soulless? How to balance improvements in an area with making sure people can still afford to live there?  How to bring new jobs whilst making sure local people get the benefits of them? How to bring change in a way that at the same time addresses inequality and retains diversity?

The challenge is profound and no-one has all the answers. But we need to start asking the questions at a borough level, and critically at a London level with a new Mayor in post after May 2016 who will be up for facing the serious challenges facing us rather than playing the clown. And in our communities we need to bring different ideas and solutions to the table. Lambeth has always been at the forefront of pushing these debates, but our ultimate strength is in addressing these questions and working together to come up with some answers.

Our budget: ambitious and fair in difficult times

Since 2010, local government has faced an unprecedented challenge. To me it seems like we talk about this all the time, but it’s also not clear that the message is getting across just how much pressure we are under.

Like when we’re asked why we’re no longer able to spend £95k on a free fireworks display while we’ve got to find £25m savings from Adult Social Care alone – that is, from some of our borough’s most vulnerable residents. It’s about priorities. But more on that later.

Local government has faced the largest cuts of any part of  the public sector. In Lambeth, that has meant a 50% cut in our funding since 2010.

This would always be difficult, but it comes at a time when the policies of the Coalition government mean we are facing growing demand for our services.

Homelessness is rising, more households are living in debt, and wages are stagnating whilst the cost of living – especially for housing – is going up.

Meanwhile demographic changes are having their impact too. An increasingly ageing population is rapidly adding pressure to our health and social care systems. In the UK, between 2009/10 to 2013/14 the number of people aged over 65 and over 85 rose 10.1% and 8.6% respectively; but spending reduced by 13.4%.

Eric Pickles is always helpfully first in queue to offer us up ideas for savings, cavalierly offering up solutions to the problems caused by his own government.

He recently suggested councils use their reserves to plug the massive funding gaps we’re facing. In Lambeth this is just a simple impossibility. We have the 2nd lowest level of reserves in London. We’re not sitting on a huge pot of money, and to reduce our reserves further would be to put us at odds with advice from the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).

Another Pickles brainwave has been to level unnecessary rows with Lambeth over Lambeth Talk. Our total budget for the Communications team is £1 million. Whilst I recognise this is not an insignificant sum, Eric Pickles was recently found to have spent half of that just on his private limo alone. A recent survey of our residents found that, along with our website, many found Lambeth Talk a good way of finding out about council services and local decisions affecting them. And in these difficult times, there are going to be a lot of those. Forgive me, but I know which one I feel is more socially valuable.

And it’s not just about straight out opposition to the cuts; it’s also the fact that in Lambeth we have been disproportionately affected. Let me illustrate this.

Despite the fact that Lambeth is the 29th most deprived area in England, Lambeth has experienced the 13th highest cut per household in the country over the course of this Parliament and the 7th highest in London.

Lambeth faces a decrease of -5.46% in spending power, or -£306.38 per resident, over the course of this Parliament.

The mean average cut for all of England’s councils is £111.36. Lambeth has therefore experienced almost three times greater cuts as the mean average English council.

Meanwhile 17 Home Counties authorities will see an increase of over 2% in their spending power: all are Tory-run, with Reigate and Banstead seeing the biggest increase, at 2.92%.

The council of David Cameron’s constituency, West Oxfordshire District is gaining 0.66% in spending power in this settlement.

Overall across the country the ten most deprived local authorities in England will lose ten times the amount in spending power per household compared to the ten least deprived local authorities over the course of this Parliament.

Perhaps speaking about it terms of Lambeth Council’s funding doesn’t help illustrate the point enough. This isn’t money being taken away from the illusory Council coffers, its money being unfairly taken away from each and every person in Lambeth, whose local services we are being forced to do our best to protect.

So forgive us if we don’t sit back quietly and accept it. We’re going to use every opportunity to tell this government, and the next one, that this isn’t fair.

Personally, I’m also using every opportunity to contribute to the devolution debate. We need more power and money at a local level; bringing it closer to the real people it is ultimately all for.

We were elected by our residents to do the best for them and that’s what we’re trying to do. Our values of opportunity and fairness are real, and what we strive to uphold in everything we do to respond to this challenge.

To date, we’ve tried to respond as effectively as we can, with a clear focus on protecting frontline services for as long as possible. Those priorities I mentioned earlier.

We’ve already found £100m in savings. That’s meant working with other boroughs as well as streamlining all our operations. But be under no illusion that this hasn’t come without significant pain – we’ve had to lose over a quarter of our staff so far.

We’ve also pledged to bring back Lambeth Living back in house again so it can work more effectively and make more savings.

Often we get asked about Council Tax; either why we can’t make up the shortfall in our funding from it, or why we might need to put it up. Council Tax makes up only 27% of our income, but it is important because unlike other sources of income, it remains at our disposal.

Putting Council Tax up is not a decision we take lightly. But after 6 years of freezing it, of trying to keep our residents insulated from the pain – saving households on average over £200 – a raise is now simply a necessity.

The 1.99% rise we’re proposing, will, over 3 years, mean £5.6m fewer savings we need to make.

We also need to expand our potential sources of funding. We’re continually striving to attract inward investment and encourage new development – but not uncritically. We will always want to make sure it works for local people.

But overall what will get us through is our attitude. Yes there is huge unfairness in the 50% cut we’re facing. But that is our reality, and we need to change the equation to look at the 50% we do have to spend and how we can use it most effectively.

We’re rising to the challenge and finding new ways of doing things. We’re unlocking the capacity embedded in our communities, and we’re opening up to new partnerships with both the public and private sectors. We’re intervening early where we can, and pushing better integration where it makes sense to do so.

We have to meet the challenge the government has put in front of us, but we’re determined to do so in a way that is both ambitious and fair for all – in a way that, despite the climate, in the long term ends up delivering the best deal possible for our residents.

I will try to write further about some of the key themes from this year’s budget in the coming weeks:

  • Unlocking community capacity to support our parks and libraries
  • Our effective partnerships like the West Norwood Health and Leisure Centre and the Somerleyton Road development
  • Our focus on early intervention, particularly in the early years to support some of our borough’s least well off families
  • Bringing good investment into the area

Launching St Luke’s Hub in Kennington

CamillaOn Tuesday morning I was at the opening of the new St Luke’s Hub in Kennington, which was officially launched by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge.

It’s a fantastic project based on a partnership between Emmaus Lambeth and the West London Mission, which Lambeth Council have supported.

St Luke’s Hub provides a new community space, with a strong focus on digital and financial inclusion in Kennington. They host a range of projects and classes and work with a range of different partners and organisations. There is also an active Emmaus community attached to the site.

Lambeth Council have been working with Emmaus over the last two years to deliver our Emergency Support Scheme. Through this scheme, Emmaus provide good quality second-hand and refurbished furniture and white goods to residents in crisis situations. To help them deliver this service, we provided them with a disused commercial property in Brixton at a peppercorn rent, which they have now transformed into a fully-operating shop, their fifth in the borough. Emmaus service-users are fully engaged in running the Emergency Support Scheme through co-ordinating referrals and stock, assisting in the shops and driving the delivery vans.

The business gained by Emmaus through this partnership has IMG_0714helped them on their way to opening the new 27-bed community at the St. Luke’s Hub. We also supported this by providing Emmaus and West London Mission with a contribution to the capital costs of redeveloping the site.

With this support, St. Luke’s Hub is becoming a hub for a number of Council services as a key stakeholder in our Financial Resilience work,
such as Money Champions, Money Mentors and Digi-buddies.

The launch event was a fantastic celebration, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak about our important work together.

Find out more about St Luke’s Hub here.