Local democracy in the London Borough of Lewisham is completely broken. The Labour Party occupies every one of the council’s 54 seats, and there is no effective opposition. Power is concentrated in an executive mayor. Local people find it exceptionally difficult to have their voices heard over powerful development companies bent on gentrifying the local community. Unwilling to tolerate this democratic deficit, local people are organising to do something about it.
Lewisham council is right wing. Its conservatism has driven it to partner with Peabody to pursue the immensely unpopular Reginald/Tidemill development against the wishes of local residents. Spuriously claiming to care about housing, the council is demolishing a vital community garden along with 16 council flats. The garden has been shown to significantly reduce pollution in an already over polluted borough. The local authority refuse to ballot residents of the 16 council flats due for demolition. Many local residents now know their councillors by name and are deeply critical of their handling of the project.
A three part plan.
At a meeting last week called by the Save Reginald, Save Tidemill campaign, local residents met to discuss how they can collectively transform Lewisham council. In over two hours of intense, small group debate, more than seventy participants from a variety of political backgrounds pored over the problem of Lewisham’s democratic deficit. At the end of the discussion the organisers resolved to hold a follow-up meeting to discuss taking things forward. Three key proposals emerged.
The first is to overhaul the mayoral system in Lewisham. A campaign already exists to Bring Back Democracy, aiming to gather enough signatures (10,000) to enable a new vote on whether to abolish the executive mayoral system. Returning to the committee system would give all councillors a say in local decisions.
The second is to pursue a coordinated, community approach to local elections. This might see a combination of independent candidates running alongside left wing selections from existing political parties. The community might even consider collaborating with the left of the Labour party to deselect right wing labour candidates. A coordinated response could also prevent too many candidates from running and splitting the opposition vote.
The third proposal is for a monthly “New Cross-Deptford community dialogue”. This will provide a pretext for local people to congregate, break bread together and discuss the month’s issues on which Lewisham council has been (mis)representing its constituents. Such a forum would allow for dissemination of knowledge about what is happening within the council and provide a springboard for applying coordinated left wing pressure on council decision-makers.
While attitudes towards existing parties differ, it is clear that the current composition of Lewisham council needs to change. A coordinated community-led response is urgently needed for housing and environmental campaigns like Reginald House/Tidemill Garden, Achilles Street, Besson Street, and Milford Towers in Catford. Community action across all media, whether politically affiliated or not, can help raise awareness locally and put pressure on the council, embarrassing them into listening to their constituents.
‘Deep state’ bureaucracy.
But elected councillors form only part of the picture. The council has a miniature ‘deep state’ bureaucracy, operated by unelected staff members. These civil servants help provide important public services. But they can also tend to reproduce austerity and neoliberalism, limiting the ability of councillors to tackle the housing crisis and other local problems. Acting behind the scenes, unelected council staff use concepts like ‘legality’ to prevent councillors from passing fairer budgets and transforming the local environment.
Lewisham councillors are caught between the money and power of unaccountable real estate companies and the communities they are supposed to serve. They are also trapped in a system of Tory central government funding cuts and Thatcherite legislation like right to buy. In those circumstances, individual blame and moralism help no one. It is the deeply embedded political and economic structures, and not individual councillors working in difficult circumstances, at which we should take aim.
With that said, those structures do give councillors some room to make different choices. By choosing to evict local campaigners from the Tidemill Garden, the right-wing Lewisham Labour council made a grave mistake. They are now haunted by a stark picture of their unpopularity among local people: the £1m team of private bailiffs who still guard the Tidemill Garden 24/7 from the Borough’s residents. A council so fearful of its own constituents cannot remain long in office.
Haringey council provides an interesting example of an ongoing attempt to change this local democratic deficit. While in control of the local authority, right wing Labour councillors had proposed the Haringey Development Vehicle, a disastrous project to deliver luxury flats. A coalition of local left wing groups, including Stop HDV, Momentum, and hundreds of unaffiliated local people, were able to ensure the election of councillors opposing the HDV. Once in the driving seat, the newly constituted council chamber overturned the deeply unpopular proposal.
In the aftermath of this apparent victory for the left, many have remained vocal in their criticisms of Haringey’s Labour council. The threat of legal action against Haringey by Australian multinational developer Lendlease remains. The Secretary of State is currently considering compulsory purchase orders, which will potentially allow another developer, Grainger plc, to begin demolishing the Latin Village, another important community resource. The battle is far from over.
Islington Council has gone even further than Haringey. They are the only London borough currently exploring community wealth building along the Preston model. And in April 2018 they won a High Court case upholding their decision to withhold planning permission to developer Parkhurst Road Limited on the grounds of insufficient affordable homes.
Another Lewisham is possible.
Since 2013, Preston City Council have become nationally renowned for their approach to reversing the trend of austerity and stagnation. They started to reform the city’s public procurement processes by “harnessing the potential of anchor institutions” via community wealth building. In 2016, they managed to invest £4m to benefit their community directly, and the ‘Preston Model‘ has since become an economic policy proposal for the Labour Party and a model for other small cities.
None of these models for local government is without its flaws. But they show that people across the UK are organising to reclaim control of their built environment, seizing power from developers and putting it back in the hands of local residents.
Last week saw local Lewisham residents take important steps towards democratising Lewisham Council and overcoming its neoliberal bias. Through a coalition acting inside and outside existing political parties, we affirmed our commitment to combating the housing and environmental crises as they appear in our local communities. Amid the exciting buzz of discussion and debate, one thing above all was abundantly clear: another Lewisham is possible, and we are starting to build it.