March 2019 latest...
This is the second of our monthly reports on what’s happening at Lewisham Council. Although Lewisham is a one-party state, that doesn’t stop us from doing our best to scrutinise what’s happening in the council through the monthly public questions at Full Council meetings and in freedom of information requests.
So what’s new this month?
Chaos at the top
First up is the continuing saga of how Mayor Damien Egan is handling recruiting the senior leadership team at Lewisham. Newly appointed CEO Ian Thomas left last year and the council won’t tell us why. What we do know is that the council will have spent over £100,000 on two rounds of recruitment and paying three months gardening leave once Ian left. For a cash-strapped authority to be spending this much and not even to have a Chief Executive in place is pretty poor.
Many in Lewisham’s Black community were pleased to see Ian Thomas as Lewisham’s first Black CEO. Lewisham’s leadership should reflect the community it serves. In the first senior appointment since then we’ve seen Labour appoint a new £100,000 Head of Communications – we're not sure how much comms experience the new postholder has, but she was previously a Labour councillor in Southwark, which is what seems to count.
What’s most disappointing is that our Public Question revealed that Lewisham Council didn’t even shortlist anyone from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background for this role. For a borough where half the population is BAME, this simply isn’t good enough.
Failing on housing
Lewisham’s approach to housing also remains controversial. This month’s Full Council meeting took place on the same day as the council started the destruction of Old Tidemill Garden for a new housing scheme. We absolutely agree there’s a need for more social and affordable housing, but Lewisham Labour have bulldozed through their proposals in the face of local opposition, cutting down scores of mature trees and razing to the ground the community garden. We’ve always argued that a more conciliatory approach would have avoided this – and it could have avoided what we now know is a security costs of £1.4 million, all at a time when finances are tight.
Learning nothing from this, Lewisham Labour have again been back at the courts this week, seeking injunctions to remove campaigners near to Tidemill Garden. Lewisham Labour behave more like fracking companies than a supposedly progressive council. You can read more here.
Housing is though the one issue where Labour have a big idea – a new council house building programme. But it turns out that they’ve taken this a bit too literally – just one house for social rent was built in the last year we’ve got figures for. Yep – you read that right. Just one. Singular not plural. You can read more about this here. Things can only get better on housing…
Democracy not one-party rule
Given all this, we’ll continue to demand better from Lewisham council. But it seems that Labour backbench councillors aren’t that interested in putting their Mayor and Cabinet members on the spot for failings like these. In February, nine committee and panel meetings were cancelled, almost half of the total number of meetings.
These failings are why we hoped that the council’s Democracy Review would be an opportunity to strengthen scrutiny. But with a Labour Chair of the Review, Labour councillors on the working group and only reaching out to Labour party to organise meetings, it’s clear that it won’t really change much. That’s why we’re calling for a cross-party and cross-community Challenge Panel to be set up to provide real independent input to the Review. You can read here.
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