The St. James Family Centre was saved from a total funding cut today at the cuts meeting, which also finalised a decision to close five Lewisham Council-managed public libraries.
After months of campaigning from residents – including one all-night ‘read-in’ – Lewisham will be axing nearly half its current libraries, closing New Cross, Sydenham, Blackheath, Crofton Park and Grove Park libraries. Six libraries will remain running in the borough.
The Council says that the closure of these facilities will save £88m of public finds over the next four years. The libraries will close their doors at the end of May this year.
Meanwhile the St James Family Centre was saved after an impassioned plea by a mother at the controversial meeting of the mayor and cabinet.
“I feel like my disability will hold my children back,” said mother-of-four Charity Izu, 46, from New Cross. “I can’t walk very far, and the activities at the centre are really a lifeline”.
The centre, which arranges social activities for children and parents, and offers advice and help with housing and services, was due to be axed after it was placed on a list to have its funding cut at the end of March.
Lewisham Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, made a promise of extra money of £45,500, which covers the centre’s costs for six months. This gives it time to find other funding without shutting down in the meantime.
The finance officer revealed the total figure of the cuts to be made this year as £33.4m. These cuts will be made during a council tax freeze, but residents’ parking will be doubled. The Mayor also heard pleas from the Metro Centre and Phase One which were given back £21,000 and £20,000 respectively.
A representative from Voluntary Action Lewisham, which works with voluntary and state groups, complained that there had been “limited consultation with those groups”, and that the Equality Impact Assessments (which are designed to spread the burden away from vulnerable groups) had been undermined by a lack of detail.
The meeting was held at 10am on police advice after a town hall riot earlier this month, however the timing has been widely criticised as anti-democratic, preventing proper scrutiny by councillors and by the public. Around 60 protestors held a “Breakfast with Bullock” outside council offices, serving coffee and bacon sandwiches.
Martin Powell-Davies, secretary of the National Union of Teachers, who later spoke at the meeting said outside: “We don’t think a Labour council should be passing £88m pounds of cuts behind closed doors and carrying out the dirty work of the government, and we are here to protest against it.”
The teachers’ union is particularly concerned at cuts for under-5 services, making reference to several studies which showed that £1 spent before the age of 5 saved £7 later on.
Sir Steve opened the meeting with the remark that there were “no easy decisions, and no quick decisions”. Several members of the council cabinet expressed dismay at the extent of the cuts, with Cllr Paul Maslin describing local government as being “under attack”. This did not satisfy many of the residents attending the meeting who frequently called for resistance to the cuts. Labour councillor Alan Hall, though expressing regret, told residents that “we live in the real world”. He was accused of “standing with the government”.
A heavy police presence muted the audience heckling, though at times it was enough to cause the Mayor to call for quiet. At one point the meeting was adjourned and several audience members were ejected.
Cllr Joan Millbank asked why organisations had not received very much notice of when their funding would be cut. She was advised that the council had not received its “settlement” figure until December 13th and this is why voluntary organisations weren’t notified until February 3rd.
Julie Rush, who manages the St. James Family Centre was visibly relieved and happy upon leaving the council meeting. When ELL asked her, “does democracy work?” she said, “I don’t know. But today we came out with a very good result.” The centre now has six months to find new funding.
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Video by Camilla Luise Hemmestad