The Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, has just celebrated ten years as Lewisham’s first directly elected mayor. In an interview with East London Lines, he says “that, of course, there have been difficult days but the good far outweigh the bad.”
Looking back on his time in office, the formation of the Young Mayor of Lewisham, was one of his highlights. The scheme started eight years ago and gives young people a chance to get involved with local politics and make decisions on issues that affect their area.
Bullock is proud of the scheme, and is still in touch with the first young mayor, Manny Hawks 2004-5, and last year’s young mayor, Kieran Lang 2011-12, is now studying at university.
Lewisham was the first mayoral authority to hold elections for a Youth Mayor and the initiative has won national acclaim.
Bullock passionately believes that the future of democracy at any level means that it has to engage young people, and the young need to be directly involved.
The challenge of modern local government is that most of the money and power in decision-making is drawn from the Westminster Parliament, government departments and European Union institutions.
It is easily forgotten that it was local councils that pioneered sanitation, health, education, welfare, improved housing, and even votes for women.
Lewisham’s referendum giving the thumbs up for a directly elected Mayor in 2001 was won by a whisker. A margin of 2% and 908 votes and a turn-out of only 18% of the electorate. Local democracy is continually fighting apathy, complacency, and a perception that in the 21st century it does not make any difference.
Mayor Bullock may be a Knight of the Realm, one of the most widely respected figures in British local government, but longevity in office and any power he wields has left no trace of the pompous or sense of standing on ceremony.
For the interview, he was the usual down-to-earth, “Steve the Mayor”, looking relaxed in his busy office, open-neck shirt, and no self-aggrandizing as the former van driver made good from Redcar, in North Yorkshire so often written in profiles about him.
But he didn’t start out in private road transport. He was driving for the local urban district council. The atmosphere in the Mayor’s office could be described as progressive and busy politeness.
There’s work to be done, and it’s not that easy to find the borough’s Coat of Arms, bearing all the pageantry of tradition and history, and a Latin motto “Salus Populi Suprema Lex”, that means the welfare of the people is the first great law.
Mayor Bullock was a policy advisor to Ken Livingstone, in the run up to the 2012 London Mayoral Elections. They are political colleagues going back a long way, and developed the ‘Fare’s Fair’ policy of the former Greater London Council that was challenged in the courts and frustrated by conservative central government.
Labour did well on May 3 this year, but Bullock does not need reminding that its London Mayoral candidate lost spectacularly against the national swing.
When East London Lines asked him why he thought Livingstone had failed he quickly got to the point: “Ken is about 10 years older than the mayor”, and he believes that “he could not get his point across because he is a pensioner.”
The Mayor thinks that Livingstone still has a lot to offer, but sends a warning to other politicians. The challenge is to “know when the electorate have had enough of you.”
Despite Livingstone announcing his retirement, Bullock does not think we have seen the last of the former London Mayor.
He says he does not think he needs to learn Livingstone’s lesson yet: “It’s up to my colleagues and the electorate on how long I stay in office.”
The riots in the summer of 2011 were the worst experience. He had been on holiday and arrived back on the first day of the riots. He believes it’s important that everyone remembers that the majority of rioters were not just young people. In his words “This was about people who frankly should have known better up to, and including pensioners.”
The disappointment is still clearly there, but so are his heroes of the day. He praised the street cleaners, who get up early most working days. But on the morning after the riots they were up extra early for the clean up; so early in fact that when residents came to help they were thanked and told to go home as the clean-up had already been completed.
Bullock finds the financial cutbacks, and the fierce criticism that he faced over the closure of five libraries a constant disappointment. He says that “watching some of the good works undone after spending the last ten years building them up was particularly hard.”
Bullock stresses that he “can’t fix the economy of Europe” but he can try and help Lewisham get through this very difficult time.
He praised the communities that have helped keep the local libraries open and turned them into meeting hubs . Despite the economic woes of the country and the borough, he is still very proud of The Deptford Lounge, and the refurbishment of the swimming pool in Forest Hill.
Bullock has not found it easy getting them updated, but feels his persistence and tenacity has seen the pools renovation come to fruition. The pool in Forest Hill has kept its Victorian frontage, and inside it has been updated to a state of the art building which includes a café, gym and space for other community events.
The Mayor is getting excited about the upcoming celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee happening across the borough. There have been over sixty applications for street parties and he believes that Lewisham residents have topped all other boroughs in enthusiasm and community solidarity. He feels proud that as a community in times of trouble they are able to unite together for such celebrations.
As for crime in the area, figures are down. The Mayor is in full support of Operation Trilogy, a Metropolitan Police led initiative aimed at gang distruption. Operation Trilogy provides a proactive response to tackling gun and drug related criminality.
He feels that the past ten years have shown him to be a good mayor, but he also accepts that the next ten years will hold fresh and new challenges for him.
At the end of the interview he emphasized that the biggest challenge remains providing more homes for people living in the borough. There is a critical shortage exacerbated by rent inflation, and the failure of the banking system and private housing market to make home ownership a reality for people on low and middle incomes.