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James Hatts

Interview: Nick Stanton, Southwark Liberal Democrat leader

Nick Stanton tells us about Southwark Lib Dems' plans for a greener borough and greater devolution of power to community councils if they win outright control of the council on Thursday.

Nick Stanton
Nick Stanton
Wordle representation of this interview generated
Wordle representation of this interview generated at wordle.net

Nick Stanton has been a Riverside ward councillor for 12 years and Southwark Council leader for eight years.

We invited users of this website to submit questions they'd like to ask those seeking the votes of local residents. We put a selection of those questions to him.

He hopes that on Thursday his party will win a majority of town hall seats for the first time. Between 2002 and 2006 he ran a minority administration and since 2006 has led a formal coalition with the Conservative group.

"I think the joint administration has worked pretty well over the past four years," he says. "I think both parties have been pretty mature about trying to make it work, but obviously there have been compromises."

What practical difference would a majority Lib Dem administration make to Southwark?

"I think we'll be more confident about being greener, and I think there will be more of a push down to community councils," he says. "Those are two things where it feels like we stalled a bit over the last four years."

Cllr Stanton admits that some members of his own party – and those who voted Lib Dem in 2006 – might not have been comfortable with the joint administration which let the Tories take control of the housing portfolio.

"Clearly the more votes we get, the more chance there is of us having a majority. It's not a perfect system, is it? We're discovering at a national level what we've had at a local level for a while.

"We're going for an overall majority. That's what we want. If we don't get it then we'll have to deal with the situation we find ourselves in."

Housing

A resident of Grange ward asks what the council is going to do about young families being forced away from the area due to a lack of family-sized homes.

"We have very little control over what the private market builds," replies Nick Stanton. "At the moment the private market likes to build one and two bedroom flats not family flats and houses.

"We're heavily circumscribed by things like the London Plan and housing targets. We've said in our Core Strategy now that we want a minimum of 20 per cent to be family sized homes. That's pushing it as far as we think we can within the planning framework that we've got in this country.

"I do think that the market is at some point going to have to correct itself because one of the things that we're finding in Shad Thames in my ward, for example, is that ... you are having young professional couples having families and wanting to stay in the area. I think the market is going to begin to demand more family sized homes.

"As far as council housing is concerned, one of the big frustrations ... is people coming to us who are living in overcrowded conditions – children sharing bedrooms – wanting to move up to a bigger flat and we just don't have the supply at the moment to do that. We've got something like 3,500 families on our overcrowded list.

"If we could do something about incentivising people who are living in bigger properties and don't need that size of property any more to downsize – that would free up some homes."

"And I think there are some properties around the borough where you can create extra bedrooms ... and I think we can be more imaginative about trying to help people adapt their flats to create the extra bedrooms they need."

Student housing and mixed communities

A Cathedrals ward resident wants to know what the council can do to ensure the area remains a mixed community amid the recent spate of planning applications for student accommodation.

"We've said very clearly in the Core Strategy that we don't want lots more halls of residence. We think we're saturated, particularly in that part of the borough. It's good in many ways that we are building on that higher education bit around SE1, and where you have that you will get more halls of residence.

"I think there's a lot more that we can do about creating better relations between halls of residence, the people who manage them and local communities."

Elephant & Castle

Four years on from our last in-depth interview with Nick Stanton, the future of Elephant & Castle remains a key issue and this is reflected in many of the questions that SE1 website users have submitted. They want to know what the council will do to get the regeneration project back on track and how disruption will be minimised during the next four years

"Doing my Mystic Nick impression, I forecast that one of the first decisions the new administration will make is whether or not to sign the agreement with Lend Lease.

"I think it will be ready for a yes or no decision; the lawyers should have finished drafting it. So I think we can get on and sign the deal with Lend Lease.

"We are ready now to get on and start demolishing the first bit of the Heygate and to remove the southern roundabout, so you'll see a lot of physical work this summer and autumn as we begin to knock things down and take out the roundabout.

"If we are re-elected, one of the first decisions we make will be where the new leisure centre is going to go and what the timescale for building it will be. Health facilities are slightly outside the council's control but we've been saying very clearly to the NHS 'here is an opportunity for you to get in at the masterplanning stage and say what you want'."

"I think what you will see over the next four years is a large-scale demolition of the Heygate Estate, I think you'll see – hopefully – St Modwen coming in on the Elephant deal so we'll get some certainty about what's happening to the shopping centre.

"We still need to close this business with TfL about the escalators and the [Northern line] tube station but I think we'll get there."

"You'll see the roundabout coming out, you'll see the road junction improvements, so there should be a four year programme where you see stuff – and I think – excitingly – also a new boys' secondary school for the Walworth area."

Would Nick Stanton support temporary uses of the Heygate Estate between demolition and redevelopment? "Nobody wants this thing land-banked with great hoardings round it," he says. Simon Hughes is suggesting a temporary BMX track, but Stanton is "diffident" about the idea of short-term allotments because of the difficulty of reclaiming land for development once people have grown attached to the idea of green space.

Four years ago we were talking about the fate of small businesses at the Elephant. Since then, footfall has increased at the shopping centre but many of the developments that were intended to provide new affordable space for local businesses have stalled, notably the Oakmayne Plaza development on New Kent Road.

"We're very concerned about Oakmayne and making sure that they get on with it, and they are reassuring us that they are close to being able to sort out their funding," he says.

The planned redevelopment of the former London Park Hotel site as the 360 London tower has also been cancelled amid the collapse of the Homes and Communities Agency's London Wide Initiative.

"With the London Park Hotel, whoever is the next Government one of the things we want to talk to them about is that. That was a central Government purchase of land ... and we need to have a conversation about quite where they fit in with the whole regeneration scheme."

Potters Fields coach park

Four years ago the Southwark Lib Dem manifesto included a pledge to lead "the development of the vacant site between Potters Fields Park and Tower Bridge to include a nationally and internationally-recognised centre for arts and culture". This time the commitment is to "ensure a sympathetic development".

Since the last election the council has forced Berkeley Homes to rethink its plans and agree a joint approach with Southwark. We were told last spring that a planning application for the new Squire and Partners-designed scheme was imminent, but it's all gone very quiet recently.

"I'm expecting a planning application to go in probably this summer. Negotiations are going on at the moment with the park; one of the proposals was to remove one of the kiosks in the park to create a straight through view of Tower Bridge in the same way that you get those diagonal views in More London."

"It's a much better, much more sympathetic development than we had last time."

A more sustainable Southwark

Another batch of questions from SE1 website users relate to the environment – what will the council do to make the borough more sustainable and ecologically accountable to future generations? The questions asked include reference to green space, cycle parking and similar measures.

"On cycle parking in Bermondsey we've been using some of our Cleaner Greener Safer money to provide cycle lockers on estates. You look round at the estates in Southwark and they are designed for car users ... That kind of practical thing is useful.

"We're all going to wait with bated breath to see how the Boris Johnson free cycle hire thing works out. You can begin to see how if that does take off you can build on the success of that."

But what about the wider green agenda? "I'm passionate about tackling climate change and trying to reduce our carbon emissions," he says.

"There's a lot that the council can do to make a virtue of the fact that it is such a large social landlord. We know that heat emissions from people's homes is one of the single biggest sources of emissions in Southwark and there's stuff we can do about better insulating council properties."

The manifesto includes a reference to the Old Kent Road as a centre for green technology. What does that mean?

"On the Old Kent Road we're going to have our state-of-the art waste minimisation plant at one end and we're going to have the Musco green power plant somewhere at the other end.

"This is part of a bigger agenda about the Old Kent Road. What's the Old Kent Road for? What could it be? At the moment along the north side behind Tesco and along to PC World we've got a lot of industrial estate which is empty or half-used.

"Somewhere in London a green technology centre will emerge. Why not try and make it the Old Kent Road? ... I'd love to talk to London South Bank University about their technopark and business incubation units. There's a real opportunity to create a cluster of businesses around Old Kent Road.

Berlin Wall at Bricklayers Arms

A Chaucer ward resident wants to know what the Lib Dems will do to work with Transport for London to eliminate the Bricklayers Arms flyover.

"I think one of the big successes has been the Walworth Road and I'd love to bring that approach to the Old Kent Road.

"The Old Kent Road at the moment is hideous; it's a dual carriageway and no-one crosses it.

"It's an unloved bit of Southwark because in Southwark terms we do stuff north of it and we do stuff south of it. We don't do stuff across it. It's mainly Southwark but it's a bit Lewisham. It's a TfL road right through the heart of Southwark and I think with a bit of love and care and attention – and in the overall scheme of things not very much money – trying to create that more boulevardy, pedestrian-friendly feel you've got on the Walworth Road now would be good."

"I'd love to bring down the flyover. It's like the last bit of the Berlin Wall. I've been looking at all the bits Peter Wright's been doing around Mason Street and places like that. It's great except when you turn and look north you see the Berlin Wall flyover at the end of the street.

"I'm convinced that there's a major piece of land there that could be developed to generate some of the profits to take some of the cost. I'd love to sit down with Boris [Johnson] who I think is also interested in this. I think Boris also gets that having half a flyover left over from the 1960s isn't good."

Southwark – Lambeth relations

Before the last election Nick Stanton told us that Southwark should sit down with Lambeth to agree a joint approach to planning the future of the Waterloo area that lies on the borough boundary. But Labour unexpectedly seized control of Lambeth and cooperation was not successful.

Why was Nick Stanton so keen to dismiss Labour's recent commitment to integrate some services across the two boroughs?

"There are three different ideas knocking around. One is that you could run services slightly more joined up and slightly better in those border areas. Why is it that you have a set of Lambeth parking restrictions on one side of The Cut and a set of Southwark parking restrictions on the other side of The Cut. It's a theme you hear in Waterloo, in Camberwell, in Herne Hill.

"I'm intensely sympathetic to saying yes, it really ought to be possible to make life easier for people ... I get that, and it ought to be possible.

"The second one is about planning I think. I don't think it actually really worked with Waterloo although we gave it a go. It's something I'd like to make happen with SE5 Camberwell now.

"There's a third idea which is: can councils save costs by sharing management or directors or services? It's true that in London it's the kind of thing we're going to need to do. And – it's not in the Labour manifesto which is slightly puzzling but in this joint Lambeth-Southwark press release – the idea about giving control of Southwark schools to the Lambeth education department strikes me as not terribly sensible and I'm not convinced there's a lot of money to be saved as a result of it."

Tall buildings in Bermondsey Street

A Grange ward resident accuses Southwark of colluding with a developer to promote tall buildings near the junction of Bermondsey Street and St Thomas' Street. How does Nick Stanton respond?

"There are two separate propositions. There is proposition A which is Southwark Council's which says we think that this area around St Thomas' Street where you already have the Shard of Glass and Guy's Tower is a place where it would be appropriate to have tall buildings. We're not saying how tall, we're not saying what kind of buildings ...

"In fact if you read the whole document it's saying that we don't want tall buildings anywhere else except around London Bridge Station so it's trying to protect that area to the other side of Borough High Street along the Thames towards the Tate and Blackfriars Road from having more high buildings. But we do think – and it's what we've been saying around the Elephant – that around these big public transport interchanges tall buildings are suitable.

"You've then got an emerging proposition from a developer that they'd like to build some tall buildings along St Thomas' Street. Now, they're going to have to put a planning application in and people will get a chance to have their say on that. Just because you've got a planning document that says in theory that tall buildings would be suitable for this area, it doesn't mean therefore that planning application does or does not get consent."

Cllr Stanton says that the council will listen to people's views on the emerging planning policy.

"Bear in mind that our London Bridge, Borough and Bankside SPD does have to be in conformity with the Mayor's London Plan. The Mayor of London says that London Bridge is an 'opportunity area'; that does dictate to an extent what we have to say about that."

What next for Bankside and Borough High Street?

In several recent speeches Cllr Stanton has suggest that parts of Bankside could do with a few years' respite after a decade or more of continuous building work. What does he mean?

"People in Cathedrals ward have put with an immense amount of change over the last few years, and yeah, it does kind of feel like we need to take stock, take a pause, let it settle down, see how it's working.

"The other thing is about Borough High Street. There's a common consensus isn't there that Borough High Street doesn't seem to quite work. It's not a pleasant shopping environment at the moment. That Borough Market feel doesn't seem to be permeating terribly far down.

"We need to be looking at smaller interventions around that, rather than some of the larger ones we've seen over the last few years."

Dissatisfaction with council services

A resident of Cathedrals ward wants to know what will be done about the "broken" housing department.

"There's a wider point about trying to make the council a customer-friendly organisation. I know it is still a frustrating organisation sometimes to deal with. It's better than it was and there's more technology than there was to help make it better which is important but we have to continue to pursue that.

"I do say that on the whole people don't report good experiences with the council but they are quick – understandably – to report bad experiences.

"I bet you don't get many threads on the forum that say 'I had a housing repair that needed to be done and someone turned up on time and did it and I'm really pleased' because that's not the way the world works."

"We do know that the housing repair service is lot better than it was. There's still a way to go."

"On the fire safety stuff, I'm really sorry for the people in Perronet House who are having large bills but I'm afraid that's the way of the world at the moment with the way the leaseholder system works. I'm having constant discussions with Simon Hughes about this.

"I don't think it's fair that the law treats leaseholders on council estates the same way it treats leaseholders in private blocks," he says. He believes that the next government should address this issue.

"How can I get more involved?"

One Bermondsey resident asks how they can get more involved in local community life.

"What a great question," says Cllr Stanton. "Come to community council meetings. We're going to be putting more stuff down to community councils. We want to have more voluntary sector funding discussions, we want to have a greater say over what's going on in public realm works.

"We want to talk to youth community councils about the way the youth money gets spent because I'm sure at the moment we're not listening to young people's views enough.

"We're always desperate for good school governors. Regardless of who's in government, schools are going to be taking on a lot more responsibility over the next few years.

"One of our ideas is that we should be publishing an annual list of 100 things you can do locally – from giving blood to going to community council to becoming a school governor – to make it easier for people."

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