SE1’s community councils to be merged with adjacent areas

Southwark's ruling Labour group of councillors has published its proposal to merge Borough & Bankside Community Council with neighbouring Walworth and combine Bermondsey Community Council with Rotherhithe.

Southwark Council – then Liberal Democrat-led – established eight local community councils in 2003 to devolve some decision-making and provide a regular forum for consultation and debate.

Since then public meetings have been held in each area 6 or 7 times a year as well as separate meetings for local planning decisions.

For SE1 residents the two main community councils are Borough & Bankside (covering Cathedrals and Chaucer wards) and Bermondsey (for Grange, Riverside and South Bermondsey). Walworth Community Council covers a very small part of SE1 as well.

Earlier this year Southwark's current Labour administration instructed the cross-party Democracy Commission to come up with recommendations to alter the community council system to save 344,000 a year.

The commission is due to meet on Wednesday evening to draw up its final recommendations.

The commission, which has a built-in Labour majority, has now received a submission from the council's Labour group which proposes a reduction in the number of community councils from eight to five. The five community councils would each meet five times a year.

The Labour group proposes that the democracy commission should recommend:

• The merger of Borough & Bankside and Walworth Community Councils
• The merger of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Community Councils
• The merger of Peckham and Nunhead & Peckham Rye Community Councils
• Retaining the current boundaries of Dulwich Community Council
• Retaining the current boundaries of Camberwell Community Council

The Labour group also proposes that community councils should lose their power to make decisions on local planning applications with two borough-wide planning sub-committees set up to handle some of the same workload.

However the Labour group has separately announced that it plans to introduce a Cleaner Greener Safer revenue budget, equating to 10,000 per ward, for community councils to allocate from 1 April 2012.

Until now community councils have only been able to spend Cleaner Greener Safer funds on capital projects and not to meet the ongoing costs of local schemes.

"We have always been clear that despite massive cuts to our budget from the Tory Lib Dem Government, giving local people more of a say over decisions in their communities is an absolute priority that is why we set up the Democracy Commission," says Cllr Abdul Mohamed, cabinet member for equalities and community engagement.

"Labour Councillors have been working side by side with Conservative and Lib Dem Councillors on the Democracy Commission.

"Community councils will be free to spend this money on anything that makes the local area cleaner, greener or safer."

The plans to reduce the number of community councils have been criticised by opposition councillors.

Cllr Paul Noblet, a Liberal Democrat member of the Democracy Commission, described the Labour proposals as "completely crazy".

"We're not blind to the fact that the council needs to make savings and community councils need to take their share," he told the London SE1 website.

"Talking to local people, when there's less money around, is a good way of making sure that the money we do have is really well spent."

He said that the plan to create one community council in the north-east of the borough "from Bermondsey Street to Rotherhithe Street" would make it difficult to attract residents from such a wide area to attend future meetings which are likely to be held at Canada Water Library, two tube stops away from the western end of Riverside ward at London Bridge.

He accepted that there was a legitimate argument that uniting Borough & Bankside with Walworth would encourage a greater focus on the Elephant & Castle, but warned that the northern and southern halves of the proposed area have different needs and priorities.

"Having a community council that stretches from Falcon Point to Addington Square is a completely crazy idea," he said.

Cllr Noblet said that the Lib Dems were considering a boycott of this week's Democracy Commission meeting.

"We – and the public – feel that our time has been wasted over the last six months."

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