Boosting Business, Helping Renters and Lots of ‘Good Energy’: Lib Peck’s vision for the future of Lambeth
‘Her approach to fighting the government’s austerity plans is resolutely collaborative. There’s a point, she says ‘about campaigning and making our voice heard as the public sector’ as a whole’
By Joshua Neicho
Lambeth council leader Lib Peck has an unenviable amount on her plate.
Lambeth has been struck by some of the deepest local government spending cuts, amounting to a loss of 56% of its grant from Westminster between 2010 and 2018. Alongside dism
ay at the Government’s cuts, there has been strong criticism from across the political spectrum at the policies over which Councillor Peck has presided since becoming leader in 2012. There have been protests at the council’s estate regeneration programme, something Lambeth says is necessary to build more council homes and improve conditions for those living in social housing – estate residents are understandably nervous as it involves demolishing and rebuilding their homes. There’s a campaign over the perceived downgrading of Waterloo and Upper Norwood Libraries and controversial plans to install a gym in Carnegie Library in Herne Hill. There are claims that the council under Peck is failing to consult and is shutting down scrutiny. There is even anger about Lambeth exaggerating its budget constraints using expensive communications campaigns: when other income sources are counted, such critics argue, funding cuts amount to just over 20% over eight years (you can’t compare these income streams to the cuts in central grant, says a former council chief executive).
Priorities and collaboration in tough times
Peck responds coolly to these criticisms. When I ask her what her message is to residents who feel let down, she says, ‘Without entirely challenging the premise of the question I would query it’, and goes on to note Lambeth resident surveys, which show relatively high levels of satisfaction with the council. She defends films the council has made, such as one about business rates, as an important tool to get its message across and rally supporters. She dispels the gloom around library policy. Waterloo Library has moved to The Oasis Centre, ‘which means it’s welcoming, it’s much brighter’ and can offer ‘much more engagement with lots of other groups and services’. Upper Norwood Library is now run by a community trust. ‘The group there have set themselves up in an incredibly entrepreneurial way which means that the building is so much more connected with the community,’ Peck says.
Her most noteworthy defence is that policy has been driven by a commitment to protect the most vulnerable, and that the council has increased spending on children’s services – a big chunk of its budget – so it has maintained its ability to do preventative work, such as investment in early years’ education and support. One of the things she is proudest of is making sure there have been no cuts to Lambeth’s programme of combating violence against women and girls. She has just come back from a mentoring event at the London Eye for the UN’s International Day of the Girl, and she supports TfL’s decision not to renew Uber’s licence due to, among other issues, questions over women’s safety (although she adds that as a mum of two teenage girls, once these concerns are resolved she’ll be happy for them to take an Uber home, rather than having to pick them up from parties).
Her approach to fighting the government’s austerity plans is resolutely collaborative. There’s a point, she says ‘about campaigning and making our voice heard as the public sector’ as a whole, rather than being viewed only as disparate elements – local government, the police, and so on. Through local authority association London Councils, Lambeth has joined other boroughs to fight proposals such as cuts to school budgets. Peck believes campaigns prove their worth in terms of the number of people engaged as well as success at changing policies. ‘Clearly the most effective example of a campaign is that we don’t have those cuts. But equally I’m not naive, I realise that’s hard at the moment. We have a government that isn’t listening.’ The council h as scored partial victories over the school funding formula and business rates relief, and is now campaigning on Universal Credit.
Better ways of doing housing
Part of a council leader’s role is handling disaster response, something Peck has faced on a number of occasions. Shortly after she took over, a helicopter collided with a crane attached to St George’s Tower, killing two people. The morning after the Grenfell Tower fire, the council offered to send social workers to Kensington & Chelsea, and Lambeth co-ordinated the emergency centre in the weeks afterwards. The disaster resonated with Lambeth tenants so that ‘there was a real job for us to do in terms of providing information and practical measures’, Peck says. The council has spent up to £3 million on urgent fire safety work on Lambeth’s 122 blocks over six storeys to make sure they are as safe as can possibly be.
On housing policy, Peck is proud of the council’s success at exceeding its own 40% affordable target (reaching 43% last year) by ‘being very tough and consistent with developers’. She adds that Lambeth’s definition of affordable goes further than the 80% of market rate used elsewhere – but that the housing in this category still isn’t affordable to many, so that there is more to be done beyond current local authority powers. Lambeth has recently brought in publication of viability tests, requiring developers to explain the reason they’ve failed to achieve the affordable housing target in a publicly-available document. There remain concerns that developers can skew viability assessments by downplaying the profitability of their schemes.
Meanwhile, Peck highlights progress made on her party’s 2014 manifesto pledge to build 1,000 new council homes. She was pleased to hear Theresa May emphasise social housing in her conference speech (‘inspired is much too strong a word,’ she notes), but is infuriated by the tiny amount of money available for it. She cites the bearing the council has had over the Berkeley Group’s development of council housing at Vauxhall City Farm, which has also led to investment in better community facilities at the farm, as an example of a successful partnership with the private sector.
With 30% of Lambeth residents living in private rented accommodation, Peck acknowledges that a housing strategy that looks at all forms of tenure and in particular addresses the security of private tenants is needed. More regulation around the private rented sector, ways to incentivise good private landlords and the possibility of the council itself providing private rented accommodation are all ideas being explored.
Lambeth’s entrepreneurial streak
Lambeth has a strong track record of supporting small businesses. Its commitment is signalled by its campaign against business rates, and the fact it has more Business Improvement Districts than any other London borough aside from Westminster, with scope for designating more if there is demand. The borough was acclaimed as joint winner of the Best Programme of Support for Small Businesses at this year’s Small Business Friendly Borough Awards. To deliver enough affordable office and retail space for start-ups, Peck says the council is focused on ensuring a good proportion of Section 106 obligations on developers goes into creating physical premises. Temporary community and events hub POP Brixton is a pioneering project of its kind with 75% local businesses, operating on the principle of more established firms subsidising newer start-ups.
Similarly, on the environment, Peck refers to the number of Lambeth ‘firsts’ where the council has been ahead of the pack – eg introducing the Street Champions residential neighbourhood improvement scheme and leading on the south London-wide Low Emissions Logistics project. She is a big fan of the renewable energy cooperative Repowering London, holding a symbolic single share in it to back its notion of getting the community to support ‘good energy’. Lambeth is committed to sustainability in its council buildings. The Town Hall is being made energy-efficient and a new sustainable civic centre constructed, in a move that also creates affordable housing and consolidates council properties from 14 buildings to 2 at a saving of £4.2 million a year (campaigners say the scheme’s projected cost has more than doubled, however). The transformation of public spaces such as Clapham Old Town and the planned replacement of the Vauxhall Gyratory also speak to Peck’s greener agenda.
Peck is proud that Lambeth identifies itself as one of the most cycling-friendly boroughs, addressing two of the obstacles that keep people away from bikes by offering cycle confidence training and plenty of cycle storage spaces. There are 215 Bikehangars across the borough with 1,290 secure parking slots, and a long waiting list. Lambeth was quick off the mark to promote car clubs, but slower to adopt electric car charging points – although Lambeth’s charging points will be more efficient than other boroughs’, Peck says, because they utilise lampposts as connecting points rather than standalone charging stations.
Optimism can carry us through
Peck diplomatically distances herself from the Garden Bridge scheme, saying that as the planning authority, Lambeth was ‘very much wrapped up in it, but we certainly weren’t leading it’. On wider gig-economy issues, ‘we’ve now got quite a high employment rate. We also know there are far too many people who are doing three jobs a day or night. Our role as a place-shaper means we’ve got a responsibility to try and influence employers to say paying the right wages is important.’ Following the start of the Night Tube, Peck wants to foster the night-time economy, but balancing it with the rights of local residents is ‘one I take seriously’.
On the ‘very bleak’ EU referendum result night, Peck says that she was at least able to cheer when Lambeth topped the percentage of Remain voters. She finds it ‘absolutely appalling’ that the government still hasn’t guaranteed EU nationals’ rights. As Brexit is negotiated, she feels it her duty to speak out about the importance of attracting investment into Lambeth and London. On the gulf between her and the strongly pro-Brexit Kate Hoey, she remarks, ‘I completely disagree with people like the MP from Vauxhall on this issue – I can’t really say any more than that.’
She thinks Lambeth’s strengths are its character, diversity and dynamism. She hopes there’s enough inherent interest and resilience in the borough that, in the event of the UK leaving the EU, it keeps attracting business, and she would consider it a success if in twenty years Lambeth manages to retain all its qualities and ensure opportunities are shared more equally. Despite being under huge pressures, Lambeth has much it can take pride in: radically improved schools (in the top 10% of English Local Education Authorities) and its status arguably as both the most entrepreneurial local authority outside Tech City (according to Start Up Loans Company figures) and the most thoroughly multicultural London borough.
In the face of vocal criticism, Lib Peck sticks by her vision and is determined to celebrate Lambeth; more of that can-do spirit will be needed to meet all the challenges ahead