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.

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Devolving power to our communities

The idea of devolution has been talked about a lot since the Scottish referendum a few weeks ago. The feeling that the current balance of power needs to change – in some way yet to be defined – has really captivated people.

Personally I do think that change is possible and even necessary, but I don’t believe an English parliament or ‘English votes for English laws’ is the way forward. To me that just sounds like extra layers of bureaucracy, when what ordinary people are crying out for is to better connected to the decisions that affect them.

For this reason, I strongly support the call for greater devolution of powers to our cities; the ‘City Centred’ approach.

However, when we talk about London in this – rather than say Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool – people generally tend to assume London already has the power it needs. Either by simple proximity to Westminster, or through assuming that we got our settlement with the reform to the GLA and the Mayor of London role in 2000.

But the picture for many London boroughs like Lambeth is quite different. We house some of the most deprived communities in the country, and record some of the highest levels of unemployment and other complex problems. Our populations are vast and growing, yet meanwhile our funding has been dramatically cut – in Lambeth we’ve lost 50% of our budget since 2010.

As a council we hold some really significant responsibilities; whether it’s housing our growing population, safeguarding the most vulnerable in our communities or keeping our streets clean and safe.

But in trying to meet the needs of our communities, we often find ourselves stymied by a lack of powers – such as to tax and spend as we see fit to invest into building more homes, stimulating local jobs and growth or investing in children’s early years. Simply – if we were better able to manage our own income, we would be better able to deliver on the things our residents tell us are their priority.

Furthermore, the devolution London has been handed so far doesn’t necessarily work for us. Often the powers of the London Mayor conflict with our ambitions for our borough. That couldn’t be made clearer than in our commitment to building more affordable housing, where amongst other frustrations, the Mayor of London has allowed developers to set ‘affordable’ rent as 80% of market rents – that is simply unaffordable for most of the people we would want to benefit from affordable housing. (You can read more about this in my blog here).

But it’s not just about London or London boroughs getting more powers per se. In doing so it means we can do more to represent the communities we’re inherently better connected to; which I feel the London Mayor is much more abstracted from. As a local council we interact with our communities daily; and in Lambeth we’ve even been giving our residents a central role in the services they want and how they are delivered.

In this way, councils like ours are at the forefront of innovation and efficiency in public service delivery. Working with our communities to co-deliver services and interventions that they want and need, and working with them to identify both problems and opportunities early on – we are simply more efficient. We make better policy.

Greater fiscal powers for councils like ours, or for groupings of like-minded authorities, would mean we could craft policy that betters suits the needs and aspirations of our communities. We’re already working with Southwark and Lewisham to help our residents into work, and with Southwark to look at affordable childcare solutions. But whether we’re running local employment support services, fully taking over from the desultory Work Programme, or working together to develop Children’s Centres as key community hubs – there is so much more we could do given the chance.

Bringing decision-making closer to the real people it affects – and giving people a real voice so they are not just passive recipients of public services – also goes a long way to combating that sense of disillusionment and apathy that has become so rife of late.

You can read more about the potentials for greater devolution for London in this excellent piece of work from London Councils, which outlines some of the key policy areas we could make a real difference in – given the powers to do so.