#Lewisham2014: The issues that don't matter

We argued yesterday that Lewisham politics is sorely lacking the vision that our leaders ought to have for a borough with Lewisham's scale and natural advantages. In terms of policies, there is little difference between the solutions offered in the main parties' Mayoral manifestos - most of the difference comes down to the underlying narrative about who is to blame for the mess we're in.

So if the solutions sound the same, then what matters most is what weighting the candidates give the problems. In our view, there a few issues that should not be a key focus for Lewisham Council - not because they aren't important, but because we doubt the Council's ability to do much about them.

"Jobs"

London is a huge, liquid jobs market on the doorstep of every Lewisham resident, so to consider Lewisham employment opportunities in isolation is a mistake. Not because unemployment in the borough isn't worryingly high, but because employability is the key problem, not the lack of local options. It's not even true to say that Lewisham does particularly badly in terms of local employment - as this map shows, job density in the Deptford - Catford corridor is comparable with many other parts of London. While we lack big employers, we have a healthy density of very small businesses.

Labour is pledging somehow to support the creation of 3,000 jobs over the next seven years. For the Lib Dems, Duwayne Brooks is focused on peppercorn rents to attract small businesses. Both of these seem like the wrong solution - trying to remedy a supposed failure of the private sector to pay any interest in our borough.

Firstly, there is a London-wide trend we have to acknowledge - jobs are becoming more and more clustered in the centre. Big employers probably aren't coming back.

Secondly, at a time when London is creating the vast majority of all new private sector jobs in the country, we shouldn't be looking for government to subsidise employers or compete on cost, the focus should be on creating as attractive an environment for employers as possible (more on how in the next article). Lewisham is not a pit village - we should be competing on quality and selling ourselves better, not looking desperate.

"Crime"

Crime is relatively high in Lewisham, compared with the national average. But, in line with the rest of London and the UK, crime is falling and appears in long-term decline. The trend seems linked to a variety of socio-economic factors and is relatively unaffected by policing strategies. This is not to diminish the important work being done by Lewisham police, but simply to challenge the idea that this should be a key election issue, treated in isolation as a policing matter. Let's concentrate on the causes of crime.

A lot's been made of Boris' failure to honour his commitment to increase the number of police on our streets, but as crime falls, we're due a peace dividend.

"Supporting independent high street business"

Lewisham has a good proportion of independent high street businesses. But it also has too many unfilled units. The solution is to be agnostic about the role of "big business" on our high streets and - once again - to focus on creating a quality environment to attract businesses. Chains can be boring, but they attract footfall (because people like them), they can afford to invest in unpromising properties and they tend to be run responsibly. They don't just fill high-streets with useful services, they also make them more attractive for independent businesses to open next door. If Brockley is any guide, they also do a better job of employing staff from ethnic minorities than many independent businesses do.

The model whereby Lewisham Council insists that developers add shops to the bottom of new buildings and offer rent free periods to independent businesses has been tried and has too often failed. Instead, the Council should focus on creating the right kind of units in the right kind of locations. Let's create high quality units in the right locations, for the right kind of businesses. In the case of Brockley, that means on Brockley Road, not in Brockley Cross. And it means restaurants and cafes more often than shops.

No more peppercorn rents for side-street properties - just fix the pavements of our main high-streets, plant trees, prevent rogue businesses and their customers dumping rubbish and encourage developers to create bigger commercial units where people can sit, not hobbit holes that can't accommodate much more than is a counter and a couple of shelves.

Real help for small businesses means not allowing your major contractors to close Ladywell for a year while one worker pokes some tarmac with a spanner and it means knocking heads together to get Brockley's new enterprise centre connected to the internet. That's the kind of meaningful intervention we need.

Next up - the policies that really do matter.

2 comments:

kol said...

Some space for cycling would be nice too.

Ladywell Rose said...

Good point about unemployment in the borough being about employability/ skills rather than job availability given we are part of the wider London job market. It would be interesting to see how many council employees are from within the borough ;). There is some attempt to resolve this with the apprentership scheme but there is so much more to be done.

Brockley Central Label Cloud