Lewisham and the Fourth Estate illusion

News coverage in Lewisham is woeful. We should be worried.


“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” Nelson Mandela, 1994

Continue reading “Lewisham and the Fourth Estate illusion”

Lewisham residents being let down ‘by broken system’

A campaign group has said councils dominated by a single political party – such as Lewisham – suffer from “the absence of any real scrutiny”.

“The citizens of Lewisham are being let down by a broken electoral system which underrepresents thousands of voters,” Darren Hughes, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, told Lewisham Lately this month.

Asked to comment on the balance of Lewisham Council, where 53 of its 54 councillors are from the Labour Party, Hughes said the current voting structure resulted in “one party dominating… in a manner wholly out of sync with their support on the streets.”

The Electoral Reform Society defines its mission as to “champion the rights of voters and build a better democracy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

Vote share in the borough

In the 2014 local elections, the Labour Party had a vote share across the borough of 51 per cent (see full detail here), but the balance across the council equates to 98 per cent. The Green Party had a 16 per cent vote share but just one councillor, John Coughlin, was returned. No other political party is represented on Lewisham Council.

Hughes said the dominant make-up of the council allowed “its ruling group to pass policy on everything from bin collections to council tax in the absence of any real scrutiny from opposition voices.”

He also highlighted a report carried out on behalf of his organisation, which found that one-party dominated councils are at much higher risk of corruption (51% higher) than competitive councils.

It concluded that such councils often achieve lower price savings: 2.1 per cent compared to 6.2 per cent achieved by competitive councils in England.

Some councillors within Lewisham’s ruling group may also share misgivings about the balance of power.

One Labour councillor said privately saying that holding a council to account locally was particularly important when there were few opposition councillors.

The opposition (or… the Green councillor) motion for a fairer system

Some have suggested they would be happy to welcome a more representative system. In a full council meeting last November, Lewisham Council’s one-man opposition John Coughlin put forward the following motion:

“This Council believes that a proportional voting system best reflects the democratic values of Lewisham Council and that proportional representation is the optimum expression of the legitimate democratic wishes of the people of Lewisham. This council therefore resolves to identify the most appropriate proportional voting system for the election of councillors in the Borough of Lewisham and seek the agreement of HMG to implement this in Lewisham.”

The motion, which was seconded by Mayor Steve Bullock, was defeated by 21 votes to 20, with three abstentions.

Coughlin’s full speech is on the Lewisham Green Party’s web site.


His party accused Lewisham’s Labour party “of turning its back on democracy” following the motion’s defeat.

Social care funding crisis swamps Lewisham as council breaks budget by more than almost any other borough

Forecast overspend to touch almost £13m in 2017/18 – and Lewisham is among councils that most exceeded its children’s social care funding

Lewisham Council is expected to exceed its budget by £12.9m this year – more than any other London borough except Newham.

Social care costs, in particular for looked-after children, make up most of Lewisham’s unplanned spending. For the fourth consecutive year the council will be forced to dip into its reserves to balance its books.

It was among the 10 councils in the country that most exceeded their children’s social care budget, figures researched by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) show.

Lewisham’s children’s services directorate will be a predicted £7.7m over budget by the end of the financial year. Several other London authorities also feature in the top 10, suggesting that pressures on child social care costs are particularly acute in London. (However it was a council outside the capital –  in Somerset – that was most over budget for child care costs at £14.7m).

This year’s total overspend in Lewisham is set to be more than £3m more than last year’s, which stood at £9.8m (£7m after contingency funds were applied). Adult social care services are set to be £1.5m in the red, while other costs cited include the delayed start to the fortnightly bin service, and a growing population leading to pressure on housing.

Of the £12.9m, £7m was attributed to savings that were not made. For context, £153m savings have been made since 2010/11 out of £160m planned.

In Newham, which is the only council set to overspend by more than Lewisham, managers have been instructed to exercise “strict financial controls on non-critical business”. On the other side of the city in Ealing, where the overspend is forecast slightly lower (£12.3m) than Lewisham’s, a spending freeze is now in place.

Of the London boroughs, 26 (81 per cent) are forecast to exceed their budget this financial year, with just six underspending [see table at bottom].

Continue reading “Social care funding crisis swamps Lewisham as council breaks budget by more than almost any other borough”

Anatomy of a ‘Lewisham’ newspaper: the ghost is given up

I’d like to start this blog with a caveat. I don’t want to give individual local journalists a hard time. Most are highly competent, talented, bright, rounded, curious human beings. Given a bit of space and time, they would do great work. Many, in spite of all the obstacles and constraints, still manage to produce brilliant articles, compelling investigations and great features.

I suspect this would be true of the few people who still report at the News Shopper, the main newspaper serving our area, distributed (if that’s the right description for the ever-smaller pile plonked in Lewisham Shopping Centre Sainsbury’s) every Wednesday.

But I picked up a copy of the Lewisham and Catford edition of News Shopper today, and something had to be said. After all, this remains the main printed source of news serving our local community (beyond the council-produced quarterly Lewisham Life).

Here’s an abridged run-through of the paper, starting with the cover wrap, as it’s known in the trade: an advert wrapping itself around the main paper that’s sold (in theory) at a premium. Some traditionalists don’t like cover wraps but I think they are fair game these days. In these straitened times, newspapers have got to (at least try to) make ends meet. Continue reading “Anatomy of a ‘Lewisham’ newspaper: the ghost is given up”

Mystery of derailed Lewisham freight train solved

Remember the freight train that tipped over and messed up your Lewisham commute last year? Here’s why it happened (with technical details)

I never expected to use Rail Technology magazine as a source for writing stories about Lewisham. But it’s the first publication with the lowdown on why that freight train that caused so much havoc for commuters derailed in the first place.

Cast your mind back to a little more than a year ago when conditions were quite similar to now: wintry days with a few flurries of snow .

The incident below happened in the early hours of January 24, 2017 and commuting from Lewisham practically ground to a halt for several days. Continue reading “Mystery of derailed Lewisham freight train solved”

Lewisham Council announces new chief executive – and this time it’s a full-time role

Cynics may question his salary – but his track record is impressive

Lewisham Council has just announced Ian Thomas as its new chief executive. Subject to approval by the full council later this month, he will replace Barry Quirk, who moved to Kensington and Chelsea Council to help in the wake of the Grenfell tower disaster.

The chief executive role in Lewisham is now back to being a full-time post, commanding a salary of between £185,000-£195,000 (see council document here). Dr Quirk had reduced his working pattern to a three-day week in 2011 as part of the council’s austerity measures and taken a cut in salary to just over £115,000 per year. Continue reading “Lewisham Council announces new chief executive – and this time it’s a full-time role”

Excellent news for the borough: The Lewisham Ledger newspaper to launch in 2018

After years of neglect by publishers, a new Lewisham community newspaper is scheduled to launch in spring next year.

The void in news coverage in the borough was one of the main reasons for setting up Lewisham Lately – although with an average of about two posts a month, and scant research and writing time, it has made limited difference.

The Lewisham Ledger, as it will be known, should do much more. A sister paper to The Peckham Peculiar and The Dulwich Diverter (Lewisham Lately likes their line in alliteration), it will be out every two months.

It’s worth checking those out (see back issues of the Peckham Peculiar here, and The Dulwich Diverter archive here). The writing is very good and there’s a broad range of subjects tackled: the latest issue of The Peckham Peculiar has articles on youth homelessness, the long-running battle over development at Dulwich Hamlets football club, the visit of the world champion boxer Jack Johnson to Peckham in the 1900s, as well as several profiles of local entrepreneurs, artists, restaurateurs and publicans.

Most notably, perhaps, its production values and photography are first class. I find it genuinely exciting to think of the many untold tales in Lewisham getting the same treatment.

Lewisham Council can expect another thorn in its side too, if yesterday’s social media posts are anything to go by. And that’s got to be a good thing for a council that has had very little media scrutiny (excepting the whole sorry Millwall/ New Bermondsey development saga) in recent years.

Will it be enough? Almost certainly not. Six issues a year is not much, although the team behind it are very active on social media.

But it’s extremely welcome and needed and we wish it all the best. Speaking of which, its founders will be seeking £5,000 Kickstarter funding for the first two issues.

Chip in if you can: this is a genuinely positive thing for the borough.

Could Heidi Alexander become leader of the Labour Party?

More praise for Lewisham East MP’s leadership credentials

It was the barnstorming moment talked about after the hubbub of Prime Minister’s Questions had died down yesterday.

Theresa May seems to spend a lot of time on the back foot the back foot these days and yesterday it was the Lewisham East MP who put her most on the defensive. Alexander accused the Prime Minister of “ramping up the no-deal rhetoric” over Brexit because she was “afraid of the most right-wing, rabid elements” in the Conservative Party.

“Do the British people not deserve better than a Prime Minister simply running scared?” the MP for Lewisham East asked.

The Prime Minister looked rattled and fumbled her dispatch papers while rising to respond (watch the whole exchange below).

It was enough for some of the lobby hacks to comment on the strength of Alexander’s chances of leading the Labour party.

“Said it before and I’ll say it again, Heidi Alexander would make a brilliant Labour leader,” said the Telegraph’s senior political correspondent, Kate McCann. The Sun’s political editor also agreed. “I’m not sure our support will be particularly helpful …”, McCann added shortly afterwards, in a wry acknowledgement of The Sun and Telegraph’s political leanings.

Alexander’s impressive performance may have prompted the remarks, but it’s not the first time they have been aired. The veteran Labour MP Frank Field mentioned it last year. “I give Heidi a head start in possessing the abilities needed [for leader],” he wrote. “I also think it shameful that Labour has yet to have a permanent, full-time woman leader while the Conservatives can boast of two female Prime Ministers.”

Another political correspondent cited a former Labour front-bencher saying “Heidi Alexander would make an excellent party leader. She has great warmth, charm and huge integrity”. Back in March, the editor of Labour Uncut, cited her as one of the frontrunners for leadership.

“Only Heidi Alexander could be reasonably confident of making the ballot even if rivals were busy hoovering up nominations.”

“Her personal standing within the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and soft left political positioning make her an archetypal unity candidate.”

This was, of course, before the Conservative Party’s disastrous showing in the June 8 election boosted the morale and standing of the current leader Jeremy Corbyn.

And that’s a quarter where Alexander – who has never publicly expressed leadership ambitions – is unlikely to find much backing. Supporters of Corbyn, whom Alexander served as shadow health secretary, are unlikely to forgive or forget her blunt resignation in June 2015.

So that leadership may not be up for grabs for a while. But Alexander, a vociferous opponent of Brexit who has been re-elected twice to Lewisham East with a commanding majority, looks likely to be at least in the running when it does.