Over the past 18 months I've become an 'accidental activist', engaging in community issues and getting involved with local politics for the first time in my life.
It wasn't my intention, when I first began challenging Southwark Council over housing safety concerns, to still be present now, nearly a year and a half later, doing the same thing. I had just had a prematurely born baby when the issues on our Ledbury estate emerged, along with her two older sisters to take care of.
My first involvement was scrawling a hand-written note for our neighbours, calling an urgent impromptu meeting over serious fire safety concerns in our tower blocks. One of my neighbours carried her small printer up to my flat and we copied the letter 224 times before heading out to leaflet every household. The meetings continued over the course of the summer, with my five month old baby chairing an emergency meeting of around 20 Ledbury residents on one occasion, all squeezed into our living room!
From there, I began sitting in and observing council meetings at Southwark Council's Tooley Street headquarters. Trying to figure out how the structures and bureaucracy works. These politicians are in charge of our homes, our streets, our communities. They hold so much power, and I wanted to bear witness and learn more about the checks and balances in place, how they hear from local people and work with them to shape the future for everybody.
What I saw shocked me. The very few checks and balances that are in place often don't work, and are so easy for the council to bypass. In many instances, the council are being scrutinised and peer reviewed by themselves.
It was only after becoming this deeply involved, and seeing how the process worked first hand, that I knew I couldn't just walk away. There is simply too much work to be done. Too many injustices taking place. Too many individuals making decisions within those council offices that aren't in the public interest, nor what local residents want. I see people constantly not being listened to. I see consultations that don't mean anything, that are simply being undertaken as a tick box exercise designed to fake 'good practice'. I see Councillors actively lying and getting away with it, not being held to account. I see PR spin doctors in Southwark's press department creating misleading news to paint them in a good light, and in the meantime, on the ground, I see the disheartened faces and tears of local residents who feel like they really have no say and no power. And I see more and more of those faces with every month that passes.
I've been there myself, and my children have been through it. Through a situation that I couldn't protect them from, learning that our home wasn't safe, having to pack up our things and leave. My 7 year old daughter saying "goodbye cupboard, goodbye radiator" as we closed the door on 7 years of memories and 7 years of laughter and tears inside those broken walls which were so full of life. She didn't understand. She didn't see our new home through the same lenses. She didn't see it as a fresh start, or understand why it was necessary. She just saw all that she knew, her past and her memories erased, locked behind a door that she would never be allowed to re-enter. After dropping her at school the morning of our moving day, my husband and I headed back to help the removal team, with angry tears of frustration streaming down our faces. A feeling any parent will understand, that feeling of helplessness when your children are hurting and you can't do anything to help them.
There are still Ledbury children today who are having nightmares and in counselling because of what they heard, witnessed and went through. A former resident tells me her 6-year old son is seeing a therapist over his repeated dreams of fires on the roof and she feels helpless too. There are adults who have told me they are suffering from PTSD a year down the line. These are the stories from the ground on just one estate.
But zoom out from Ledbury, and you will see a myriad of situations of unfairness and cruel injustice all over our borough. This is not to say that our decision-making Councillors are wicked, terrible people. If that were the case, there would be no hope whatsoever. We do have some deeply caring and committed politicians who are trying to work with local people and hear what their concerns are and we rely on those politicians to take our messages back and ensure that we are heard and importantly, that change comes from it.
But all the while that certain politicians do exist in our local government ranks, the ones who sit behind desks, making major decisions on what THEY believe to be best moves, making decisions which have huge ramifications on the local community, playing chess with our lives, then we are in trouble, and the turmoils and tribulations that affect the populus here in Southwark will not diminish, they will worsen.
I happened to be present at a meeting at Southwark's Tooley Street headquarters the day Councillors heard from users of the Queens Road Day Centre, a centre for adults with learning disabilities and multiple complex needs. The council wanted to demolish the centre, relocate the users and turn the site into new council offices. The centre users themselves were present at the meeting, taking part in local democracy. Wanting to save their centre. They spoke in strong objection to the proposals, the day centre staff were emotional. They pleaded with the council. The council demolished the centre anyway.
I sat in Tooley Street for a planning committee meeting on Delancey's Elephant and Castle regeneration scheme. The councillors heard from local residents and traders, who asked the council not to approve the scheme without considering the impact on traders and users of the shopping centre. The council's planning committee approved the scheme anyway.
I witnessed the cabinet meeting at Tooley Street, where Aylesbury leaseholders asked Southwark council not to demolish their estate and not to CPO leaseholders. They laid out their history, how hard they had worked to get to where they were in life, and what effect losing their homes would have. The council continued with the CPO anyway and began progressing further demolition on the estate. Walking past the Aylesbury Estate now, there are public 'viewing holes' for people to peep through and see mounds of rubble where homes once stood. A most disturbing form of voyeurism.
I witnessed objectors, local residents who had spent hours of their own spare time working hard on, and putting together legal factual arguments in objection to the 48 storey Ruby Triangle development on the Old Kent Road, asking Southwark to re-consider the developers plans. The council just dismissed them and approved the scheme anyway.
I witnessed Southwark's Tenant Council, TRA's and Area Forum make a unanimous decision to boycott Southwark Council's Resident Involvement Review, a model which in other boroughs has led to the closure of Tenant's federation, the dis-empowerment of ordinary residents, and the seizing of funds and assets. They asked Southwark to scrap the panel and instead work with them. The council didn't listen, they went ahead with the panel anyway.
And locally, here on Ledbury, we've campaigned for residents being decanted into the nearby Sylvan Grove development, who face huge rent and council tax increases. We pleaded with Southwark on behalf of those residents, many of whom are elderly and just wanted to stay living alongside their friends and neighbours. The council wouldn't listen to our pleas. Now there are several tenants already in rent and council tax arrears and one who called me last week in tears because they'd been issued with a court summons.
These are just some of the many, many issues taking place in our borough. Individuals and campaign groups attend endless meetings and discussions with the council, yet nothing changes. From what I've witnessed, Southwark Council have a method of false engagement with people. The politicians and officers turn up, they sit, they hear people speaking, they deliver their sound bites and then they go away and do nothing. That has to end. This council claims to celebrate democracy, diversity and resident involvement, yet they ignore groups like ours simply because they don't like our messages and what we are asking for. Southwark Council celebrate only the few people who agree with them, hailing them as champions and pushing them to the forefront, presenting them as ambassadors of local democracy and local heroes, and the manipulation of individuals attached to this method is deeply disturbing.
Transversely, the council ignore the people who ask the difficult questions, the ones who scrutinise their processes and campaign for change. They ignore us because they don't want to change, and they don't want to hear us. That's not democracy. The council know that not everybody living in Southwark engages in local issues, and they like it this way. They use this to push forward their plans and to feign consent from an entire borough. That's not democracy.
So we are protesting, outside Tooley Street on the 28th November, from 5pm onwards. Join us, because we have to be heard. We have to begin taking this action to demonstrate to Southwark Council that we want and need to be listened to, and that things cannot continue in this way.
Wednesday 28th November
Protest from 5pm onwards
Outside Southwark Council HQ
160 Tooley Street
London SE1 2QH