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Interview: Val Shawcross, Labour London Assembly candidate

Labour's Valerie Shawcross has represented Lambeth and Southwark on the London Assembly since it was created eight years ago. She's hoping to win a third term this week, and we put some of your questions to her.

Val Shawcross and Kevin Whately
Val Shawcross campaigning with actor Kevin Whately at London Bridge last week

On the role of the London Assembly

"The Assembly has got two functions really," explains Val Shawcross.

"One is that it provides the leading members to help the Mayor run the functional bodies and run London. There are members of all parties on the Metropolitan Police Authority, on the fire authority, on the London Development Agency.

"But the Assembly as a whole is there to hold the Mayor to account and publicly question what's going on.

"I think the Mayor's criticism of it has some basis. He says there aren't enough members who are full time.

"I've always only been an Assembly member. I came off the council immediately and I've never had any other job while I've been there.

"I've chaired the fire brigade – which is more than a full-time job and I've not been paid [for that work] either.

"But quite a few of the members are House of Lords members as well, they're councillors as well, they are MPs as well and some even have got commercial private sector jobs and I think that has damaged the work of the Assembly.

"I think it's meant that some of the work that has gone on has been somewhat superficial and that's a pity. I think it would be good if members of all parties would commit to doing it full-on and digging in to the real issues there are in London.

On her achievements in the constituency

"I've done a lot of issue-based casework. For example numerous complaints about a lack of a bus service down Tulse Hill. Station safety has been a big issue in my area – we've managed to get some more resources for that.

"And there have been particular planning issues – and they tend to be towards the south bank area – where I've been called on to take a view.

"It's not part of my statutory function at all but I think it would be wrong of me as a politician not to help try and find the best balance of interests.

"I certainly spoke up for the hospital when they wanted to put the hostel for parents for the children's hospital up [at Founder's Place].

"So I have involved myself in some of the bigger issues. I fought to protect Jubilee Gardens the first time when the Southbank Centre wanted to build a building on it with a grassed roof which I thought was the most appalling abuse of the public interest. It's taken me quite a while to recover my relationship with the Southbank Centre.

On the Cross River Tram

As the leader of Croydon Council when the Tramlink system was built, Shawcross describes herself as a "big fan of the tram" and its environmental and social benefits.

"The only barrier to taking Cross River Tram up to King's Cross through Holborn is actually Camden Council which is Liberal Democrat. I hope they'll sort it out.

"It's Camden Council that's caused the glitch. We desperately want to take it up there.

"All the evidence shows that people want to be able to go in that direction and it was only ever under question because Camden Council started getting difficult about it.

"We absolutely aspire to the whole tram [route], but if Camden does try and block us we'll have the south bit anyway, and by the time Camden Council changes hands again we'll put the rest of it in.

"We've got to get it rolling sooner or later."

On the Elephant & Castle

"I feel very angry about Southwark Council. They go out of their way to find other people to blame for their own failures.

"They have missed opportunities to work positively and collaboratively with the Mayor.

"It's quite interesting if you look around the boroughs. Sometimes TfL and the Mayor have a better relationship with councils of other political colours because we're all working for the public interest.

"I think because Southwark has got a lot of internal problems they lash out all too easily and don't look for positive solutions.

"I get the impression that they are in big trouble about the Elephant & Castle project because here we are eight years on and very little has happened.

"I'm not utterly convinced that they've got the housing replacement funded. We don't seem to have had anything other than lots of launches, lunches and glossy brochures.

"Certainly residents on the estates that are going to be demolished or refurbished don't feel particularly well looked-after at the moment.

"I just think Southwark is not making progress with that project and they are trying to find somebody else to blame.

"There isn't a problem about the road scheme. It's certainly clear that the Mayor wants to bring the tram to the project.

"The central issue there is getting the housing replacement under way and getting the private project for the replacement of the shopping facilities under way.

"If they stuck their hands up and said 'actually, this project is too big for us, we need help' then I think we might get somewhere with it, but they don't have that maturity of approach.

"The problem is that the project as a whole is just not taking off at the moment. The road scheme has been redesigned, but would you start implementing it until the core regeneration is under way? Otherwise you just rejig the roads and nothing happens."

On housing at the Elephant

"I think Southwark Council takes every opportunity to be aggressive to the GLA. They printed this appalling misleading graph on the back of their council tax this year which there have been complaints about to the district auditor. So they're not really conducting themselves in any kind of sensible way.

"If I was leader of Southwark Council now I would be thinking 'the Mayor is about to take over key powers of funding the housing development in London' – he's about to have key powers that the Housing Corporation has got.

"They really ought to be saying to Ken 'let's work together on this housing project'.

"But they're talking about the ribbon when they really ought to be looking at the content of the box."

On Waterloo regeneration

Shawcross describes recent development proposals at Waterloo as "a perfect example of Lambeth Council and the GLA collaborating".

"Lambeth recognised that its planning department was having difficulty coping with a massive planning issue of that scale and complexity and the GLA seconded somebody to assist them. That's the kind of approach we'd like to have.

"It's true that people all the way along the riverfront are in the front line of regeneration, and I think there are threats and dangers to local people as well as opportunities there.

"This is the area where we do have the most opportunity to put in new offices and developments that will bring jobs to the area.

"The issues to me are how sensitively is that managed and what effort is made to give local people access to those jobs, because otherwise you can end up with an ethnic cleansing of the poor.

"The other thing is making sure that some very local needs – like the need to keep the markets running, to keep green space available – are protected.

"We have to get it right at a policy level."

On the balance between affordable housing and community facilities

Shawcross was enthusiastic in her support for the Doon Street tower – recently the subject of a public inquiry – which promises 329 private apartments and a leisure centre – but no affordable homes.

"There isn't ever a perfect answer to any problem in urban development. You've got to try and achieve the best interests of the community.

"I've been around ... for long enough to know now that man does not live by bread alone. It's not good enough just to put houses and jobs in – you've got to put leisure facilities in. You have to think about all the needs of the people.

"I don't think future generations would thank us for missing an opportunity to put some community-focussed sports and swimming facilities there. And the more people there are, the more we need these things.

On arts and culture – and Jubilee Gardens

Last week Ken Livingstone unveiled his culture manifesto – including support for the BFI's proposed national film centre which it wants to build on Hungerford Car Park next to Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank.

"Personally I would much sooner see Jubilee Gardens expanded and refurbished – and I'm very frustrated to see not much happening there.

"We've got a bit of technical, legal and financial tangle with regard to the [Hungerford] car park at the moment.

"Although it's designated as metropolitan open land, and everyone has an aspiration to see it made green, because it's got an established use as a sodding car park (which as far as I can see isn't a particularly necessary one), it's difficult to fight the owner off.

"If they want to come up with a proposal for a facility and say let's do a deal and have half of it turned to grass and the other half for a cultural facility it does get quite difficult to resist that.

"Personally I think I'm going to hold out a little bit longer and see if we can get the whole thing grassed. Open space is also a useful cultural space."

On the Olympic Games

"I observe that Lambeth has made much more effort to talk to LOCOG and the Olympic Delivery Authority and think about what opportunities there are. Southbank Centre is going to be part of the cultural programme and that's great.

"I was talking to the council leader in Lambeth about the fact that we've got a huge Portuguese community in Stockwell – 27,000 I think – and it would be really lovely to have a cultural festival festival around the Portuguese team and Portuguese visitors to the Olympics.

"Southwark doesn't seem to have lifted a finger on the Olympics and doesn't seem to be seeing it as a positive opportunity. But there is time to get that rolling."

On crime and antisocial behaviour

"It is true to say that crime is going down, so the area is safer. But we do have a particular problem with drug dealing and some kids getting dragged in to gangs and knife crime and gun crime.

"We have been pushing to increase the police numbers. That's what the Mayor's been doing for the past eight years and we want to carry on doing that.

"He's now putting money into youth services and I think that's really crucial. We need far more youth facilities and activities that kids can afford for the area.

"There is a particular problem for Lambeth and Southwark police in that as the south bank area becomes more and more popular as a tourist destination – it's fabulous how many people come here – it does mean that the police get drawn into looking after tourists, looking after high-profile visitors and looking after high-status institutions that are opening up here.

"I've been arguing for some time that we need capital city allowance to come to Lambeth and Southwark now, because it's not just Westminster that has special demands on its services."

On the London Fire Brigade

Shawcross describes the London Fire Brigade – which she oversees as chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority – as "one of London's success stories" – fires and fire deaths are both down.

She talks enthusiastically about the changes made to the service over the past eight years.

"We've had to adjust the mission of the fire service to say that we're not just about an excellent response, we're also about prevention.

"We've had a complete technical re-equipping. We've got equipment now that we never had before to deal with terrorism, to deal with explosions, attacks on the tube ... we've got the firefighters all learning enhanced medical care for those issues.

"We've had a big equalities issue. There was a degree of sexism and racism historically in the fire service.

"Latterly we've moved from Albert Embankment to our new headquarters – which is absolutely wonderful – on Union Street.

"In a way it gives a physical expression to the modernisation that's gone on in the service. It looks rather old-fashioned and solid on the outside, but inside it's science fiction, it's beautiful."

On the importance of using your vote

Shawcross is confident that there will be a better turnout at polling stations in Lambeth and Southwark on Thursday than the paltry 33 per cent four years ago. But she's still passionate about urging people to use their right to vote.

"If you don't make the decision, someone will come and make the decision for you, and they will be doing it on entirely different interests than yours.

I've worked a lot in developing countries before I became a local politician, and I can tell you that if you ever had to live in a country that didn't have a basic democratic system you would fight for we've got here – your basic security, your free education, the good public transport, the good health service. All of those things have arisen because we have a democratic system.

"There is nothing more important in life than supporting our democratic system."

• Val Shawcross's website: www.valshawcross.com
• Read our interviews with the Lib Dem and Conservative candidates

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