Tuesday 27 November 2018

Council press release blames protestors for Tidemill eviction costs

The fact that Lewisham Council spent £105k in a single day removing four people from Tidemill Garden has just been revealed in response to a number of FOI requests, and the figures will be made public at tomorrow night's council meeting in response to questions to the council.

The council has refused to provide figures for the ongoing cost of securing the site since the day of the eviction.

But in a deeply cynical move, which will do nothing to improve relations between SE8 and Lewisham's elected representatives, the council has just put out the following press release, which I have reproduced in full.

Counting the cost of the Tidemill eviction 

Lewisham Council has revealed the £105,000 cost of evicting the Tidemill protestors in Deptford could help house more than 20 homeless families in temporary accommodation for an entire year. 

The Council gave the Old Tidemill Garden Group temporary, meanwhile, use of the garden back in 2012 on the clear understanding they would leave once the development of the site was ready to go ahead. The group agreed to this condition. 

The Council had to spend the money to remove campaigners and members of the group after they refused to leave in October. 

Councillor Paul Bell, Cabinet Member for Housing, said: “It is disappointing that the actions of some activists illegally occupying the site meant we had no choice but to spend this large sum of money which could have been much better used elsewhere for those in real housing need. 

“Our housebuilding programme is for the many, not the few, and we won’t let the actions of a small number of people stop us providing decent, secure, social housing for those who need it. 

“In the last three years alone private rents have risen by almost three times as much as earnings in Lewisham. We are fighting the housing crisis by building more homes at social rented levels and working with others to do the same. Tidemill offers an unprecedented amount of social housing and we cannot let those who wish to undermine the scheme for their own motives further delay these homes from being built.” 

The Council’s housing programme will deliver over 1,000 new social homes over the next four years with 117 due to be available for social rent at Tidemill. Overall, redevelopment of Tidemill and surrounding areas will provide 209 new homes, 54% of which will be social. There are nearly 10,000 people on Lewisham’s housing waiting list and over 2,000 households in temporary accommodation because of a lack of social housing in the borough. 

Cllr Bell added: “We are sorry for the residents who live locally and are caught in the middle of this ongoing situation. We are trying our best to resolve it.”

Tomorrow's council meeting, which includes not only questions about the Tidemill eviction, but also an item on the arrangements for replacing the sacked chief executive Ian Thomas, looks set to be a lively one.

Saturday 24 November 2018

Tidemill trees

Since the heavy-handed eviction of Tidemill Garden almost a month ago, the site has been guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week by a workforce of at least 50.

I covered this in my previous blog post, the contents of which came as news to many observers in the wider SE London area who were aware of the eviction but not the ongoing levels of security and associated cost. In the last few days, with fencing now erected around the site, the number may have been reduced but security staff still remain on the public land around the perimeter of the site, and there are guard dogs inside the former garden. With little to do, the dogs spend their days and nights barking - another unnecessary disturbance for neighbours.

There has been no official word on why the eviction took place when it did, given that there is still an ongoing legal procedure. Although the judicial review that campaigners funded was rejected, they are still going through the appeal process. Neither the council nor the developers is permitted to start work on the site until the legal process is complete.

Councillor Joe Dromey claimed on Twitter that the council is paying the cost of security until the appeal is heard, after which developer Peabody will take it on. As far as I am aware there is no specific deadline for the decision to be made, so no-one can predict what this will cost.

If the council really was concerned about the cost of evicting the campaigners and securing the site, why didn’t they wait till the legal process was complete before initiating this expensive procedure? With legal arguments out of the way, if they had been successful they would have been able to come straight in and take possession at minimal cost. Why choose such a provocative course of action?

Cock-up or conspiracy? Evidence certainly favours the latter, with no senior council members or officers willing to stand up and take responsibility for what is going on, and a deafening silence from Lewisham’s elected mayor Damien Egan.

The latest act of provocation from whoever is directing operations at Tidemill was the arrival of tree surgeons on the site last week.
They cut back all the overhanging foliage around the site perimeter, some of it heavy with berries that would have been a valuable food source for local birds this winter, and felled several young trees within the site. A neighbour speaking to the staff doing the work was told that they had also been instructed to fell the larger trees.


But after two days on the site, contractor Artemis Trees announced that they were pulling out of the job, without pay, having found out about the campaign and the backstory to the work they were doing. They were reported as citing ethical reasons for pulling out. 

Once again, official communication from the council on the subject has been nil, other than councillor Joe Dromey attempting to respond to some of the questions on Twitter. He tweeted a copy of a letter from fellow councillor Paul Bell that he said had been sent to residents - but seemingly not to those living opposite the site on Reginald Road. The letter makes no mention of the campaigners' legal action and unresolved appeal, preferring instead to paint them simply as troublesome protestors. 

Dromey also posted a letter that had been received from the bailiffs County Security, in response to complaints about staff covering their faces during the eviction. Eyewitnesses know that the 'skull mask' was not an isolated case - many of those carrying out the eviction covered their faces, and the only 'ID' they carried was a high-viz vest with a number on it. Given that the eviction of any site is potentially a contentious procedure, the council should have been closely involved in scrutinising how the operation was carried out and who was managing it on the day. Someone in authority should have been present to ensure that the procedure was followed to the letter.

Campaigners, neighbours and members of the local Deptford community are genuinely distressed at the utter lack of respect they are being shown by the council. Even if elected officials are not willing to engage with the campaigners, there is an overwhelming case for explaining their actions to the electorate and reassuring local residents that they are following due process.

This week it also came to light  that the council is recruiting an assistant director of strategy and communications to assist the mayor, who as we know is famously heading off in a  'new direction'. 

The job was actually advertised last month and initial interviews were due to be held last week. With Egan's remit officially covering 'planning, emergencies and communications' at least he will have one strand covered. 

"Communicating effectively with our residents is very important for the council," News Shopper's story quotes the council as saying. "Good communications informs and engages residents on all aspects of the council’s work."

Yes of course it does. 

Monday 19 November 2018

Tidemill, Thomas and transparency

In times of austerity there are two things that councils should be particularly scrupulous about.

The first reads like a statement of the bleeding obvious. To be seen to be visibly wasting money is a massive no-no. When you are closing libraries, reducing children's services and slashing support for the vulnerable, any unnecessary spend or inefficient use of funds is going to rapidly attract the wrong kind of attention.

The second is more subtle, but in my opinion just as important. Communicating with your electorate about why you are making certain decisions, what alternatives you have considered, and why these have been eliminated in favour of a particular course of action is good practice and shows respect for the people you serve.

Transparency and accountability are qualities that all local councils claim to be striving for. But recent events over the last few weeks in Deptford and the wider Lewisham borough suggest that the council's 'new direction', under elected mayor Damien Egan, seeks to abandon any such worthy aspirations.

The ongoing saga of the Tidemill Community Garden and the proposed redevelopment of the land between Frankham Street and Reginald Road came to a head on Monday 29 October when more than a hundred bailiffs, police, dog handlers and dogs, and other assorted heavies turned up at 6am to evict four people from the garden. The community garden had been occupied since August when the council served a notice of eviction ahead of plans to start redevelopment of the site. Although a judicial review brought by campaigners was rejected in October, an appeal against the decision is still unresolved.

The arguments on both sides of the Tidemill case have been widely covered elsewhere, but my particular focus is on the disproportionate and heavy-handed action that has been sanctioned by the council, and the huge sums of money that have been (and continue to be) expended on clearing out and securing this space. 

Since the eviction on 29 October, staff from County Security have been guarding the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They surround the perimeter of the garden on Reginald Road and stand along the footpaths and car parks next to Frankham House and Reginald House. People living in the buildings that surround the site have bailiffs a few metres away from their windows at all times. 

The cost has been reliably estimated at around £35k per day - on this basis, at the time of writing, the total cost is approaching £750k - three quarters of a million pounds. Awkwardly, this week the mayor and cabinet will be discussing more council budget cuts. 

The unknown is for how much longer this level of spend will continue, nor the process by which the council plans to take things forward. Communication from the council has been non-existent, other than individual councillors defending the development plans in general, and criticising the behaviour of the campaigners when asked by the media to comment. No statement has been issued to confirm who authorised the action, why the bailiffs did not give occupants of the garden the opportunity to leave the site peacefully, what it is costing, who is paying the bill, what the next stage of the process will be, when it will take place, and why they are spending a great deal of money to secure an empty site for an indefinite period.

Councillor Paul Bell (cabinet member for housing) is quoted as saying that he 'did not believe' that the eviction was heavy-handed and that it was a 'straightforward operation'. The fact is, he was not present, and nor were any of his council colleagues. My own eye-witness account and that of many other reliable contacts contradicts this.

The very same day that bailiffs were evicting people from Tidemill Community Garden, the following appeared on the website of the MJ, a weekly magazine for council chief executives: 
The chief executive of Lewisham LBC will stand down at the end of the year following a change of political control at the council. Lewisham has confirmed the departure of Ian Thomas was due to the change in direction by new Mayor Damien Egan and there was ‘no negative reflection’ on the chief, sparking concerns over ousting chiefs ‘on a whim’.

Say what?

This is the same Ian Thomas who was recruited to the post by the council earlier this year with great fanfare and of course, a press release. The post comes with an annual salary of 'between £175k and £185k'. 

The press release announced that his recommendation 'was made following a rigorous selection process by an appointments panel consisting of Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham and a cross-party group of eight councillors.' The cross-party group included Damien Egan, at the time a ward councillor but already selected as the Labour Party's mayoral candidate.

After being elected as mayor, Egan introduced Thomas on May 23rd using the following words:
"One of the personal pledges I have made is a commitment to electing more councillors from black, asian and minority ethnic communities. All parties should be committing to supporting the election of more BAME councillors and I will make it my mission through training, mentoring and through political pressure – that in four years’ time we are more reflective of the communities we represent. We have of course, fantastic BAME role models in our council who inspire many through their leadership. We welcome our new chief executive, Ian Thomas. Ian – welcome to Lewisham. I am looking forward to working with you to shape the future we all want to see for our borough."

Whatever has gone wrong in just five months is not up for discussion. Once again the council is remaining tight-lipped on the issue, although under pressure the pr department started referring to a 'change of direction' by the new administration under Egan, which presumably Thomas was either not invited to, or not keen on.

Meanwhile Private Eye's take on what it calls Lewishambles suggests that an infantile clash of egos was the issue, quoting one council source as saying it was 'dicks at dawn'. Now the former interim CEO is back at the helm and Thomas has gone on gardening leave, with no credible explanation of what has created this embarrassing and expensive situation. The council has to find the funds to advertise for and recruit a new CEO, not to mention cover any severance pay that Thomas may be due.

Neither of these decisions have gone down particularly well in Deptford, hence 'mayor's question time' at the recent New Cross Assembly at the Mulberry Centre became the focal point for a rather angry electorate.

A group of council staff in the audience voiced their concerns and demanded answers about Thomas's departure, while Tidemill protestors wanted to pin the mayor down on the rationale for the eviction of the community garden and the cost to council tax payers. Egan's late arrival from another meeting (with a police escort) meant there was little time for questions, which must have been something of a relief for him.

Members of the public were prevented from entering the room by the police, who claimed that it was at capacity. The film I've linked to below shows this was not true. Some of those left outside vented their anger by banging on the meeting room windows and trying to disrupt the meeting.

Most of the subsequent coverage focused on scuffles outside the venue afterwards, but I draw your attention to footage recorded by founder of the Deptford People Project, 'Lucy Loves-Life' who was in the audience. Her short film shows how the mayor responded to a simple question about provision for young people.

In the circumstances, a question that was neither about Ian Thomas nor Tidemill Garden should have been a gift to the mayor; an opportunity for him to win over his audience and convince them that he was a credible leader. Someone the audience could trust to make the right decisions even in difficult circumstances, someone who would listen and respond respectfully, and someone who would take responsibility for his actions and those of the council he leads.

I invite you to make your own mind up about whether he was successful or not (and with apologies to anyone not on Facebook as I have only been able to find it available here).