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Southwark’s community councils: political row over cuts to local meetings

Local Liberal Democrats have launched a campaign against Labour plans to cut the number of community councils which would see the local forum for Borough & Bankside merged with Walworth and Bermondsey meetings combined with those for the Rotherhithe area.

Last year we reported on proposals by Southwark's Labour group to reduce the borough's eight community councils to five, with Borough and Bankside to be combined with Walworth, Bermondsey to be merged with Rotherhithe and Peckham to be joined to Nunhead & Peckham Rye. The areas covered by the Camberwell and Dulwich community councils would be unchanged.

As well as a reduction in the number of areas, each community council would only meet five times a year compared to six or seven times under the current arrangements. The community councils would also lose their powers to determine local planning applications, with two centralised cross-borough planning sub-committees set up to deal with some of the same small-scale applications.

At this week's Bermondsey Community Council meeting councillors handed out letters from Lib Dem group leader Anood Al-Samerai and deputy leader Paul Noblet urging residents to protest against the mergers and sign an online petition.

Labour cabinet member for resources Cllr Richard Livingstone, who attended the Bermondsey meeting to talk about the council's draft budget for next year, spent nearly an hour fielding questions from angry residents and councillors.

Grange ward's Cllr Mark Gettleson said: "I find it very interesting that for Peter John, the leader of Southwark Council, his [Camberwell] community council is not being abolished, whereas Bermondsey is being abolished and they're creating this enormous Downtown to the Old Kent Road thing.

"Why couldn't you turn round to each community council and give us the right to make the savings and perhaps even working out new revenue streams on our own behalf?

"It strikes me that this is something you wanted to do anyway and are conveniently blaming the budget cuts for."

Cllr Livingstone replied: "We are facing significant cuts as a council. We are looking at – over a three-year period – reductions of around 25 per cent.

"The reduction that's planned to the community councils budget is 25 per cent.

"If we are not making that reduction in community council spending, we are having to cut services that we provide to a greater extent.

"The decision taken last February was that reducing the amount we spend on community councils was the right thing to do.

"There was a group that was set up – called the Democracy Commission – to look at ways to do this."

Cllr Livingstone continued: "Unfortunately before the Democracy Commission came to a conclusion, the Liberal Democrats withdrew from that. I think that's unfortunate because it would have been helpful to have a mature discussion about different ways of doing this, but that has not happened."

He added: "I'm willing to accept that the fault might not all be on one side ... but we are where we are.

"We are doing some things to increase democratic accountability in that we are creating a Cleaner Greener Safer revenue fund to go alongside the capital funding.

"So there are some new powers that are going to community councils even if the framework and scale of them is changing. It's not all one-way traffic."

The cabinet member also pointed to some benefits of the proposed new configuration.

"There are 'border issues' between Bermondsey and Rotherhithe all the time," he said.

"I have residents in my [ward] in Rotherhithe Community Council saying 'Why is it that our community council doesn't include The Blue where we naturally go shopping?'"

He added that the proposed merger between Borough & Bankside and Walworth would mean that the Elephant & Castle would benefit from greater focus rather than being on the boundary between two community councils.

Cllr Anood Al-Samerai responded: "It was a difficult decision to withdraw from the Democracy Commission. We're a party that likes dialogue.

"But what happened was that the chair of Walworth Community Council made an announcement – before the Democracy Commission had had a vote and heard all the evidence – that the Labour Group had had a vote and he knew exactly which ones were merging."

She added: "We had to withdraw. It's been a complete farce. You knew what you wanted from the beginning. ... It's a complete waste of time us taking part in your farce. All we can do now is protest about it."

Cllr Mark Gettleson said that the proposed mergers would "destroy the entire purpose of community councils which is that you are looking at an area which people can instantly understand" and wanted to know why individual community councils hadn't been allowed to decide themselves on the best way of achieving financial savings.

Cllr Livingstone argued that devolving decisions on how to save money to each community council could lead to inconsistencies across the borough: "It would be odd if Bermondsey was meeting twice a year and Peckham was meeting six times a year," he said. "That to me would sound strange. There has to be some commonality."

Cllr Gettleson retorted: "The new Bermondsey & Rotherhithe Community Council will have six wards with 18 councillors on the committee whilst Camberwell Community Council – the leader's community council – will still only have three wards and nine councillors. Where's the fairness in that?"

Simon Hughes MP said: "I shall certainly do all that I can to persuade the council to change its mind. I think it's a really, really retrograde step."

Mr Hughes argued that by reducing the "obscene" high salaries of senior council officers it would be possible to retain all eight community councils.

"Nobody in this council should be paid more than the prime minister," he said.

He added: "I've known Cllr Livingstone for a long time and he's generally a good bloke. I think he's defending the most indefensible position he's ever had tonight.

"I think he knows that this is an acutely political decision. It's partly because it will result in a change in the balance of political power on one of the community councils. It will take power away from a Liberal Democrat majority in the north of the borough and give it to a Labour one."

The MP asked whether the Labour Group was open to changing its position on community councils or whether its original private decision was set in stone.

"If it was, this is not democracy, it's ridiculous Stalinist Old Labour," said the Lib Dem MP.

"If we are into democracy, then the council has to reconsider its decision."

At the end of the meeting the chair asked for a show of hands to gauge the level of support for the proposed changes to community councils. Only two people in the room – Cllr Livingstone and a Rotherhithe Labour Party activist – indicated their support for the planned merger of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe.

Despite the opposition of the vast majority of people in the room, the cabinet member received a round of applause for the way he had handled the hostile questioning.

Simon Hughes MP is expected to address Southwark's cabinet meeting on Tuesday afternoon to reiterate his opposition to the proposals.

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