One of the difficulties with the Princes and Oval Ward hustings was that whilst plenty of candidates were present, only one representative from each party was able to speak. The speakers tended to be the best that each party had to offer, and so delivered a more impressive (but less amusing) debate than at the Vauxhall constituency hustings. There was no English Democrat present (disappointing, as they can offer some quite unique perspectives), so representation was from the usual selection of red, yellow, green and blue politicians. Princes Ward was over-represented with Mark Harrison (Labour), Joseph Healy (Green) and Michael Poole-Wilson (Conservative) all speaking, which meant that the only Oval ward candidate at the front was the long-standing and somewhat rambly Andrew Sawdon. In fact, I began to suspect that it would be fantastic were a multi-coloured selection elected to represent both wards, since I felt that each of the candidates' offerings contained some merit worthy proposals. Healy deserves a special mention for appearing at Vauxhall hustings and Princes hustings, and being equally clued up for both. Thanks should go to KOV for organising the hustings and to Vauxhall Gardens Community Centre for the venue.
The evening began with introductions and quick requests to all candidates to reveal which cabinet position they most coveted within Lambeth Council, were they to be given the option to take one up.
Dr Healy (Green) kicked off the proceedings and highlighted three issues that the Greens consider important for Lambeth. The first was "twenty is plenty", a proposed national scheme whereby all of the roads controlled by the Council in an area would have a 20mph speed limit. The second policy was the suggestion of a London Living Wage for all Council employees. Lastly, Healy considered that the ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation) had been an utter disaster, and proposed that council housing in the borough be returned to democratic control. Due to his work with a disability organisation, he would like the Cabinet post of Health and Social Care.
Next up was Michael Poole-Wilson, whom I find considerably more impressive than Glyn Chambers (perhaps that is not saying much!). The first priority for the Conservatives was Housing. Poole-Wilson bounced off Healy's point that the ALMO had failed. He added that social housing in the borough had been a failure as a result of rents and services charges having risen disproportionately compared with services offered, and also noted the scandal of empty properties in Lambeth. The second Conservative priority was school places, which are considered not plentiful enough. The last Conservative priority is to combat waste, not just resolving empty housing issues, but looking into 6 figure council officer salaries and non-performance related bonuses. Finally, the Conservative candidate finished his opening gambit with the contentiousness issue of Lambeth Living, which the Conservatives would like to see abolished. Poole-Wilson would take the Lambeth Council Cabinet position for Housing.
Lib Dem Cllr Sawdon noted that Lib Dems "take up local issues, working on behalf of local constituents on very localised problems". I was wondering whether he was taking his cue from the League of Gentlemen, "this is a local shop for local people", but I'm afraid not! Policy-wise, Sawdon mentioned housing and the total disaster of the re-structuring which resulted in the ALMO, which he maintained the Lib-Dems have always opposed. Sawdon admitted that the Lib Dems were prepared to get rid of the ALMO, but that it is "hard to squeeze toothpaste back into a tube". The Lib Dems are also determined to end the "scandal of empty properties". Secondly, Sawdon mentioned the planning issues re. the huge Nine Elms development area and the question of how the mechanism for providing transport, social infrastucture and school places would be implemented. Sawdon would take the Cabinet position for Transport.
Last up was Mark Harrison (Labour), the current (and most recently elected) Councillor in Princes Ward. Mark began by noting that "housing isn't where we want it to be at the moment", but housing aside, argued that Labour was standing on a strong record. That record included freezing council tax, cutting £30m of waste and re-stabilising council finances. Harrison noted that youth and road/pavement spending had been doubled, the safer neighbourhood teams had been boosted with PCSOs funded by the council, and failing services such as housing benefits and planning have been transformed. The Council have opened 3 new schools so that the shortage of secondary school places was ended (although he admitted that there's now a primary school issue). The GCSE results in Lambeth are up, and better than the national average. Somewhat controversially, he noted that the Council had prevented the sell off of the former Lilian Baylis, and allowed SAZ to use the site (more on that below!)... In terms of Labour's priorities, they plan to keep council tax low, fund a police "hit squad" to tackle anti-social behaviour, invest in roads/pavements, cut carbon emissions by 20% and upgrade ten thousand homes which should hopefully lead to the ALMO's improvement to unlock central government funding. He'd take a cabinet position in Housing.
There then followed a series of questions, or general rambles which sometimes emerged into questions, and sometimes just turned into general moans. Such is the nature of local democracy.
Qn: "How do you plan to change the relationship between the Councillors who are the policy makers, and the officers who don't carry out what they're supposed to have done?"
Healy (Green) noted that his colleagues who attend council meetings had seen the undisguised contempt that the council officers had for councillors and he would want to address this. He borrowed one of Kate Hoey's points and argued that the top grade Council Officers are paid disproportionately high salaries, and felt that pay should be performance related. He was concerned that council officers are able to insulate themselves from the complaint process.
Poole-Wilson (Cons) agreed on the problem, which he argued lay partly with pay disparity. He'd focus on attaining buy-in from residents about whether they wanted an ALMO through a ballot. He also suggested that pressure could be put on officers by publicising individual examples of malpractice, such as the neglect of removal of asbestos.
Sawdon (Lib Dem) also thought that very well paid top level people was a problem with the creation of the ALMOs, and that front line housing staff suffered demoralisation as a result of the reorganisation. He noted that front line staff need to be remotivated, and tenants and leaseholders on estates need to be re-engaged. The Lib Dems want to restructure the ALMO on a more local basis and to reduce management costs.
Harrison (Lab) considered it a good question, that if councillors knew the answer to, would transform the Council overnight. He also admitted that officers aren't always as responsive to councillors or residents as the Council would want them to be. Harrison thinks the way to change that is through persistence and courtesy (I'm not convinced that that will work as effectively as targeted redundancy!). Harrison agreed with Healy re. performance related pay, but said that union opposition would need to be overcome, and there'd be a risk of demoralising the officers by changing the workforce structure. He said that Labour had set up a commission which has reviewed how staff could be encouraged to positively improve performance and services, rather than being told what to do.
At that point, the chair digressed somewhat and gave all of the candidates a lecture about the officers being unresponsive to councillors and the public. This caused Healy to point out that Southwark were using Lambeth's ALMO as an example to deter Southwark voters from voting Labour. Harrison pointed out that there was a £750m housing black hole in Southwark, before being told firmly by the chair that she wasn't interested in Southwark! Poole-Wilson then interjected by commenting that he would extend Labour's ward purses to estates and also put empty council properties back into use. He suggested that companies could renovate empty properties, and then share the rent earned between the improvement companies and the Council. (One fears that the Council would become heavily reliant on such companies, and it would de facto privatise the public housing sector, but it was one of the few innovative proposals put forward at the hustings.)
Qn: "We've had two KOV meetings on the Nine Elms Opportunity Area. This matter incorporates transport issues, and we wonder whether pressure would be put on local parking or cause Section 106 money to be diverted to transport instead of local areas? Could we have opinions on that?"
Healy (Green) raised the issue of the American Embassy and potential security issues. Healy is suspicious that the only reason the Northern Line is being extended to Battersea is to enable US diplomats to travel to work more easily! Cllr Thackeray (Green) introduced a motion in the Loughborough Junction area to encourage Section 106 money to be spent as local residents desired, and the Greens would look to extend that policy. (I felt that this didn't really do justice to the questions about the extent of the Nine Elms plans and local objections to tall buildings.)
Harrison (Lab) thought that "part of the problem with planning is that it's split between the Mayor and Lambeth." He seemed to suggest that tall buildings were not the Council's fault because it was Mayor's decision to put tall buildings at Vauxhall, and "there's not a great deal that Lambeth Council can do about that". He was heartened to see local organisations involved with the planning process and wanted to ensure the planning department's full engagement with such groups.
This caused Cllr Sawdon to leap into action. "It's not wholly true that the Mayor decides everything", he announced with previously unknown vigour. "The principle of planning is supposed to be that the Mayor decides the broader strategic issues, and the Borough decides the more detailed local aspects and the individual planning applications." Straight from the horse's mouth. So, what has gone wrong, I wondered? Why are we faced with this influx of tall buildings?
Sawdon continued..."If you take the Vauxhall area, the London Plan had a broad brush approach from London planners as it had been developed under Ken Livingstone, for clusters of high buildings at Vauxhall. It was then legally speaking for the Borough to develop the Supplementary Planning Document to turn that into detail. What happened was inherently political. The Supplementary Document was put on hold whilst the Council waited for the Mayor's view, which has resulted in the existing applications coming forward rapidly without a framework in place."
I felt that this was an incredibly strong answer (although I've cut out rather a lot of waffle). Planners, please take note. Sawdon also added that he felt that there's nobody within the Planning Department who is employed to engage with people in the development of a vision for their area, and he placed the blame firmly at the feet of the politicians. (I'm rather presuming that he must be referring to the Labour politicians, since he is also a politician, but it wasn't clear...)
Poole-Wilson (Cons) wanted to tap into the expertise of local organisations (which is either a very wise answer, or veering towards the John Lewis model). As a Tory boy, he quickly jumped to the rescue of Bo Jo by placing the last tall building decision firmly into the lap of John Prescott!
Qn: "There will be a large residential increase in the area when expenditure on public projects will be limited, and investment in the Northern Line, will take years. There's a question of air pollution... What will you do to make walking and cycling not something hazardous, but something that is a non-polluting pleasure?"
Harrison (Lab) felt that Lambeth were going in the right direction. (What a relief! It would be a nuisance for the local Council to have another Hoey-like thorn in the flesh that disagreed with them). Harrison wants to remove the Vauxhall Cross gyratory and re-design to improve for pedestrians and cyclists. (Can anybody remember whose idea it was to install the gyratory in the first place?) He supports a 20mph speed limit in residential streets. Harrison (unsurprisingly) does not support Boris Johnson's attempts to cut down the time that pedestrians are given to cross the roads, just in order to keep vehicular traffic flowing.
Poole-Wilson (Cons) felt that bike hire schemes will help people who live in flats where bikes can't be kept. (I'm not convinced that these bike hire schemes will be affordable for all, but he didn't touch on that). He felt that the Cycle Superhighway isn't perfect due to cars driving in them, but that they are a step in the right direction. Sawdon (Lib dem) noted two recent deaths in Oval Ward and considered highway and junction design to be important. He added that a 20mph limit would make a great deal of difference, but there are issues in getting the Mayor and TFL to conceive that it's not just a matter of side streets, but the main routes. (Lots more waffle, but rather short on substance.)
Healy (Green) mentioned that the EU is about to fine London's government because of appalling levels of air pollution and people dying from respiratory illnesses as a result. He thought that single-use streets (an idea from Kensington and Chelsea) might be interesting, but was concerned that disabled and blind people be consulted about the effects of such ideas. He commended looking into "new ideas" around "highway design", but wasn't any more specific.
Qn: "I am concerned about expense. There are two key things. If you reduce the speed limit in an area, it's not expensive to put up signs. There needs to be some attention to enforcement re. behaviour of cyclists and drivers so that everybody is given space. Would you commit to cycling to Council meetings at the town hall?
Poole-Wilson (Cons) committed to cycling twice to the Town Hall. (I think he might have been deliberately ambiguous about whether he'd committed twice, or whether he intended only to cycle twice!!!) He was enthusiastic about car parks housing vehicles for car share schemes.
Qn: "Labour have introduced the idea of co-operative government, and the Lib Dems have mentioned it in their manifesto. What would that look like more concretely? It can be difficult to get people together to agree, and we're hoping that that's why we're electing councillors. Can we hear further from Labour about the Lilian Baylis hub, and from the Lib Dems?"
Harrison (Lab) was no more forthcoming in his response than Steve Reed has been. He uttered generalities about needing to be flexible and the dangers of imposing one size fits all model on groups. Labour are apparently "keeping an open mind about how we would introduce this over the next 4 years". Harrison promised a commission to see how the principles would be put in action. He noted that the SAZ lease is temporary whilst a community group is established to run that site and asked anybody with problems accessing the site to contact their councillors.
Sawdon (Lib Dem) was more excited about the use of the co-operative model for sports areas on the basis that "there are a lot of people committed to sport." He noted that the Borough's centre(?) is run by a company in Greenwich which is not responsive. But instead of elaborating further on the co-operative model, he tried to get into a fight about Labour selling off the former Lilian Baylis to the All Nations church. Fortunately, somebody interjected that both the Lib Dems and Labour have tried to sell off the site, and that whole row was stopped in its tracks!
Another person asked about whether, if local government made cuts, anything could be done to lead to greater efficiency? The chair, unfortunately, over-rode with an unrelated question about what proposals would be in place to strengthen the viability of local businesses.
Healy (Green) was not to be deterred, and returned to the John Lewis model of council, which he noted that Cllr Reed has presented as a new model plan in very simple terms. He was concerned that enacting a John Lewis model across a huge council is very dangerous. He wanted to know why, with the possibility of 30% cuts, the electorate haven't had flesh on the bones? He stated, "We've heard new model ideas before, and they sound impressive and glossy, but what is behind it?" Poole-Wilson (Cons) jumped excitedly on to the bandwagon, "there has not been flesh on the bone re. the John Lewis council and people in the area don't know what Labour mean by it." But he went on to differentiate himself from the Green Party, by saying that he's more willing to give it a chance, whatever is meant by it. (That felt a bit like having your cake, and eating it too!) Poole-Wilson then approved the idea of a third-party run school, funded by the state in the Beaufoy. (It's sometimes difficult to separate the Tories from the Labour lot in Lambeth).
Sawdon then wanted to talk about supporting business (probably because the Lib Dems don't really know what they mean by a co-operative council either. He thinks that over the last 4 years, there has been focus on grandiose projects and wants to return to a more localised town centre approach when supporting businesses. But Harrison (Lab) though that Labour's business-loving record had been superb, since Labour had invented a Cabinet member for Business and Enterprise, formed a help desk for businesses navigating the council, created business awards and focused on worklessness. He noted that the Streatham hub deal had been signed and considered it well worth the years of negotiation (this was a riposte to Sawdon's criticism of the grandiose projects). In any case, Streatham's hub does not really address the lack of leisure centres around SE11, but perhaps Harrison should be awarded merit points for reading out very long lists of Labour's achievements.
Qn: "In 4 years time, looking back, what would each candidate most want to have achieved?"
Poole-Wilson: Better housing, speedier repairs, charges and rents that match with the service provided. (Good answer, delivered instantly.)
Harrison: Windows replaced in Vauxhall Five Estate, a community set up on former LB site, a school on the Beaufoy site and housing service transformed. (Another good answer, and some of it is on the way to being achievable).
Sawdon: Cure the backlog of housing repairs, see the end of the holes in the road and the removal of local puddles. (I really thought that this was weak. The "removal of local puddles" really was the phrase used, and I thought the Lib Dems might aim for something a little grander!)
Healy: All housing properly insulated, starting with pensioners, and a statue of Charlie Chaplin erected in Vauxhall Gardens. (Again, a weak closing answer, considering that some of his criticisms are very good. Can you really compare being proud of potential transformation of the housing service with a Charlie Chaplin statue?).
Qn: How can a greater number of local residents contribute their views to funding priorities in their neighbourhoods under the Sustainable Communities Act? [This one was from the chair]
Poole-Wilson (Cons) wanted to focus on getting Councillor's voices heard above officers. Harrison (Lab) was rather flummoxed by the thing, and jokingly suggested that it changes its name so that people had some idea of what it was. Sawdon (Lib Dem) denied that a "Sustainable Communities Act" was needed, and argued that "a local council with the will to devolve budgets to local areas, which will enable residents to be in charge and decide what projects they want to see implemented" would be sufficient.
And finally, the question that is on the hearts and minds of every voter in Lambeth....
Qn: "If Lambeth Living is replaced, where would statutory notices be published? Would it be put in the South London Press?"
Poole-Wilson (Cons) appeared to retract his earlier statement about abolishing Lambeth Living and felt instead that it could be replaced with a shorter newsletter, which did not include propaganda from Steve Reed. Sawdon (Lib Dem) wholeheartedly agreed. He felt that newspaper ownership could be debated, but then came out with the most bizarre statement of the evening... "it would be a shame if all local newspapers were forced out of business by the withdrawal of local authority advertising, when they're often the only local independent voice" Gah! As though local newspapers would be forced out of business solely on the withdrawal of statutory advertising. That seemed patently ludicrous. Harrison came to the rescue. "The statutory notices need to be put somewhere", he retorted. "The local press has a tiny circulation in Lambeth, and Lambeth Life goes to every home and ensures everywhere gets to see the notices.", he added.
Of course, that was like a red rag to a bull. Various people immediately announced that they didn't receive Lambeth Life!! Another audience member suggested (in a bizarre hybrid of the Communities Act thing and the John Lewis model) that "local residents take control of the budget and Lambeth Life and put in it what they want!" "Hear, hear" I nearly declared! (After all, I can think of somebody who would make a great editor.)
But Healy jumped in with the last word by noting that lots of people don't receive the paper, at the same time as defending the need for a Council paper, and noting "there's a strange relationship in Lambeth between the South London Press and the ruling administration, as there have been recent tussles and police action." Instead, Healy wants an independent council magazine.
The hustings enabled all participants to engage with audience members before the debate so there was lots of wandering around. I was deeply unimpressed when I over-heard Sandra Lawdon (Lib Dem, Princes) admitting that she was not currently aware of specific issues affecting the ward, and would need to read-up on them were she elected. I'm not sure whether that's quite the point, when trying to persuade local people to vote for you. Other than Sawdon, the other two Oval Lib Dem candidates were not present and I didn't see any of the other Lib Dem Princes Ward hopefuls. I was also rather unimpressed to hear that Marcus Letts, one of the Green candidates was down in Brighton, rather than appearing at his local ward hustings (what is it with these guys and Brighton?) and except for the ever-present Healy, none of the other Green candidates appeared. I didn't notice Labour's Cllr Morgan or Cllr Campbell at the hustings (did anybody else?), although Jack and Jane (the Oval Labour folk) were present. There was a good Conservative turn out, but I didn't manage to speak to any of them...
(Apologies for the delay and length in this report, but I hope its publication today might help anybody still wavering on which party to vote for.)