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Interview: Cllr Peter John, leader of Southwark Labour

James Hatts

Four years after winning back control of Southwark Council from the Liberal Democrats, can Cllr Peter John this week secure a second term for his Labour administration?

Cllr Peter John

Barrister Cllr Peter John has been leader of Southwark Council for four years and has been at the helm of the borough's Labour group for a decade.

Although elected to represent South Camberwell ward, he lives in the north of the borough close to the council's Tooley Street headquarters.

What does Cllr John consider to be the highlights and lowlights of the last four years? He immediately picks out the worst things as the financial cuts the council has faced in its funding from central Government, along with the riots which affected parts of the borough in 2011.

The economic situation has "constantly caused headaches" – and he warns there is no end in sight to the financial squeeze.

These problems are balanced, in his view, by progress made on the regeneration programmes at Elephant & Castle and Walworth's Aylesbury Estate, and the community's defiant response to the 2011 riots.

With attention turning to the next four years, what are his biggest hopes and fears for Southwark?

"My biggest hope is that we translate the investment that we're seeing in the borough into a real increase in our employment levels, which still lag behind the London average," he says.

"The challenge for us is to make sure that local people have the skills to get the jobs."

He welcomes the imminent change in leadership at LeSoCo, the underperforming local FE college, and says the council will continue to use its "soft power" to press for improvements there.

However, he is realistic that local school-leavers are now competing in a pan-European jobs market with graduates from further afield.

His biggest fear for the next four years is the continued impact of funding cuts. He points out that the council now employs 500 fewer people than it did four years ago, and hints more job cuts could be necessary.

When we talked to Peter John in advance of the 2006 and 2010 local elections the future of the Elephant & Castle was a key topic.

There can be no denying that his tenure as council leader has seen change happen on the ground at the Heygate Estate, the leisure centre and elsewhere, though many question whether the right choices have been made.

Four years ago he was critical of the deal the Lib Dem-led council was about to sign with developer Lend Lease, describing it as "an agreement to build houses – and private houses at that".

Months after taking power, Labour signed a very similar deal, but with a built-in minimum 25 per cent affordable housing rather than leaving the tenure mix to the planning process.

Referring to a recent tribunal decision ordering partial disclosure of new information about the deal, Cllr John says: "I hope that when the viability papers are released ... people will see that what we did – securing 25 per cent – was a good deal."

He mentions the provision of shared ownership homes as an important component of the affordable housing mix at the Elephant; however a new study by Savills shows that house prices have increased so sharply that new shared ownership homes are no longer viable in vast swathes of North Southwark.

What solutions will a Labour council promote to help the huge number of people who want to live in Southwark but cannot afford to buy on the open market and will never qualify for social housing?

He points to the work the council is doing to regulate the private rented sector, as well as the new breed of purpose-built private rented sector housing proposed by Delancey and others at Elephant & Castle.

"I think the real conundrum is how you help people earning good money – £60-£80,000 a year – but who have absolutely no hope of buying ... It's a London-wide problem and we do need London-wide solutions."

It is clear that one of the next big projects for whoever runs the council will be overseeing large-scale development along the Old Kent Road, recently designated as an opportunity area by the Mayor of London with scope for 2,500 new homes.

Although this project – with its fragmented land ownership and more industrial character – will be quite different from schemes like the Elephant & Castle, Cllr John is clear that there are lessons that can be learned.

"I would never tell anyone to do regeneration a la Heygate ever again in the future. It is just too unnecessarily challenging. Emptying an entire estate – 27 acres – is just not the way forward."

Although the Mayor has linked the new homes target on the Old Kent Road with the potential for a Bakerloo line extension, Cllr John continues to favour a tube link to Southwark Labour's political heartland via the Walworth Road to SE5 and SE15.

"The route I argue for is through Camberwell and Peckham," he says.

"I know TfL are looking at a possible extension down the Old Kent Road and they see that there might be more economic viability down that route."

One of Labour's most eye-catching manifesto commitments has been to promise Southwark residents free access to swimming pools and gyms.

He admits that the policy has not yet been fully fleshed out but maintains it is "affordable and deliverable" although the offer may have to have some caveats to help manage demand.

Cllr John chairs the borough's health and wellbeing board, one of the raft of new bodies established by the coalition's health service reform which has passed many public health responsibilities back to local authorities.

"There's no point giving public health back to local government if councils aren't going to make political choices about what they do with that money.

"Following on with what we did with free school meals, it made sense to do something bold and original on the public health agenda. That's why we brought forward this proposal.

Cllr John concedes that the free access policy may not be implemented in time for the opening of SE1's new pool Castle Leisure Centre – due in 2015 – as the council's current contract with leisure centre operator Fusion Lifestyle doesn't expire till the following year.

Although the All People's Party – founded by Bermondsey-based Prem Goyal – isn't standing any candidates in SE1 wards, it has made a lot of noise on the local political scene in recent months.

Cllr John accuses Goyal – who missed out on being Labour's parliamentary candidate in Bermondsey & Old Southwark by the narrowest of margins – of "throwing his toys out of the pram" and joining forces with other "disillusioned and disgruntled folk" to form a new party.

"We've got more candidates from black and minority ethnic backgrounds standing in these elections than ever before," he says.

The Labour leader says he shares Mr Goyal's aspiration to have "a party and a council that reflects our community" but disagrees with how he has gone about it.

As well as the APP, in his South Camberwell ward Cllr John is facing a challenge from three candidates under the Southwark Heritage Alliance umbrella.

These candidates are members of the Bermondsey Village Action Group whose election literature focuses on recent planning decisions in the London Bridge area.

Their concerns echo the recent comments of retiring Lib Dem councillor Mark Gettleson who claimed that Labour is "strangling the goose that lays the golden egg" by disregarding the aspects of the borough's unique character which make it an attractive place to live and work.

Cllr John insists that "North Southwark's history and heritage are safe in Labour hands" – but is clear that we can't "pull up the drawbridge" against development.

And where does Peter John see himself in five years' time?

"I'd hope to still be here," he says. Cllr John claims to have "no plans" to pursue political ambitions beyond the borough.

"This is one of the best jobs in London politics, and therefore it's got to be one of the best jobs in politics."

Read the Southwark Labour manifesto in full

Read our interview with Lib Dem leader Anood Al-Samerai

• Local elections will be held across Greater London on Thursday 22 May. Polling stations are open 7am-10pm

• The votes will be counted on Friday 23 May: stay tuned to @se1 on Twitter for the results

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