Sir Steve Bullock has lived in Forest Hill for 30 years and has been running Lewisham for eleven of them.
Starting his career in the then Greater London Council in the 1970s, he left in 1986 and trained government officers, took a year out to get a post-graduate qualification at Goldsmiths, and was elected into Lewisham Council in 1982. He was knighted in 2007.
On March 15, Eastlondonlines reporter, Jo Abbas, spent a day with him. Here’s what happened:
10.00am – Catford Civic Suite
It is 10am on a colder than usual morning in March. The entrance of the Civic Suite in Catford, the home of Lewisham’s local government buildings, is jam packed with queues of chattering school children. Up two floors away from the hustle and bustle, the Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, sips a coffee while checking his emails in preparation for the day ahead.
As you would expect, each day is different for the Mayor, and a lot of his work is desk-based. However it’s Friday, the day often put aside for community visits, so he has brought a pair of outdoor boots to work with him.
10.30am – The Council Chamber
Approximately 120 children from schools across the borough sit in the seats most commonly used for council meetings. They will be taking part in workshops throughout the day about staying safe in Lewisham. It is part of the CitySafe Haven Campaign, set up after the murder of Lewisham teenager, Jimmy Mizen, in 2008.
The Mayor sits at the back and listens.
When it’s his turn, he talks about the security briefings he encountered before going to Afghanistan which made him rethink his own personal safety and the way in which people respond to events.
Not that he was comparing life in the borough with Afghanistan he hastened to add: “I don’t want to say that Lewisham is the most dangerous criminal place because it isn’t, but in the world at the minute, we all have to be aware.”
“Sometimes, through no fault of your own,” he tells the children, “you are in situations where there are elements of risk and how you then behave makes an enormous difference to the potential outcomes. We need to not only be safe for ourselves, but to be safe for other people and make this a safe and happy place for all of us. These things only get changed when we do them together.”
11.15am – back to the office
11.30am – outside the Civic Suite
The mayor and his surprisingly large entourage – made up of members of the Apprenticeship Team and his political advisor- pile into a mini bus, cameras at the ready. They’re heading out to meet council apprentices across the borough.
11.45am – Pendergast School Hilly Fields
We meet Jason Ford, 21, a Building Control apprentice from Grove Park. The Mayor and the entire team speedily put on hard hats, boots and a high visibility jacket as if it were a race.
My hard shoes are three sizes too small, but a member of the team ushers me along. “It’s just for a few minutes,” she whispers. They then head down into the construction site. I painfully hobble down the stairs and drop my phone in the process.
As the Mayor lifts a brick on to a half finished wall one of his team intervenes. “Face this way! Lovely!”
The entire operation is over very quickly, which, for my toes sake, is a relief.
12.30pm – home for lunch
We get off the mini bus in Forest Hill and head down the street. “We’re going to the Mayor’s house for lunch,” his political advisor quickly says. It appears the off schedule visit has been planned as we are greeted at the door by his wife, Kris Hibbert, a governor at Forster Park Primary School. She has prepared butternut squash and sweet potato soup with a spread of bread and cheese.
As we sit down at the table the Mayor turns to me and chuckles, “we don’t usually do this.”
The Mayor seems to embrace the opportunity to be excused from mandatory small talk and photo shoots. His team, however, are full of energy and carry on a conversation about downgrading the Lewisham A&E on through lunch.
1.30pm – back on the mini bus
The Mayor spends the rest of the journey alternating attention between his phone and what’s going on outside of the window.
“The best aspect of being Mayor is getting the opportunity to meet some truly remarkable people.” He says, “One week, in the space of seven days I was at the opening of a local mosque and the induction of a new Rabbi at the local synagogue.
“The worst thing would have to be the budget. The level of cuts imposed on us by government means we’re having to make some really difficult decisions, and I am forced into doing things that I would not otherwise choose to do,” he says.
1.45pm – Siddons Road in Forest Hill.
The Mayor meets Brick Laying apprentice James Moroney, 19, from Catford.
He gets stuck in again, and this time it’s in front of a bigger crowd. He watches Moroney fix a brick on to a damaged wall, and then tries it for himself. Some staff members confess they’ll probably have to remove the Mayor’s brick after he leaves.
But Moroney is glad to have the opportunity to show off his work.
“I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I’ve learned a lot of skills. I already learnt some of them before I started the apprenticeship, but this is helping me develop them further. I think it will definitely help me with getting a job.
Soleil Redwood, 24, a Communications Apprentice with Lewisham Homes captures the entire event on camera for a film she is making about apprentices doing repair work. She then asks the Mayor some questions for her first ever on-screen interview.
“I knew I wanted to go into marketing” she tells me, “but it’s really hard to get the experience these days and hard to fund it yourself as well. So, coming to place where you know you’re going to be there a year and get a broad look at communications has really helped me.”
2.30pm – North Downham Training Project
Here the Mayor meets four apprentices: Ben Whiterod, 21, Apprentice Supervisor, Dean Tashkiran, 21, and Aron Whyte, 24, multi-skills apprentices, and Shakila Johnson, the Resident Liason Apprentice.
He puts on yet another outfit: blue overalls and goes on a tour of the classrooms the apprentices have been working on. Then he has a go at painting a wall.
“Don’t tell my wife I’m doing this!” the Mayor shouts, as various people squeeze into a compact space to take even more photos. He doesn’t want to be roped into DIY duties at home anytime soon.
Dean Tashkiran, has been on the scheme for six and a half months, “I’ve learned a lot because before I was only doing painting and decorating and now I can do plastering, electrics, plumbing and roofing. I hope it will get me a job in the future. If not, I might start my own housing development business.”
3pm – Hither Green Crematorium
The Mayor meets the youngest person on the council’s apprenticeship scheme, Joey Layden, 17, from Catford. He’s been on the horticulture scheme for six months now. Previously he was a carpentry apprentice but his boss passed away so he applied for the next apprenticeship vacancy that came up..
His new role includes gardening duties and maintenance of the graves-an aspect of the job he seems un- phased by.
The Mayor and Layden plant a cherry tree that is expected to live for around 40 years, in the Crematoriums grounds.
3.30pm – on the road
Back on the bus and the Mayor and his team talk about housing:
“Housing is the biggest issue for Lewisham right now- there simply isn’t enough of it and it is increasingly unaffordable – whether you’re looking to rent or to buy. But we’re looking to do something about it. Last year, Lewisham had the third highest number of affordable homes built in London, as I’ve recently agreed to build the first new Council funded homes in Lewisham for 30 years.”
He reflects on the day: “They might not realise it, but in effect they are ambassadors for future years and that’s why it’s so frustrating when placements don’t work. We’re working really hard to reduce that because if an employer has taken on an apprentice and it hasn’t worked out, it’s really hard to get them to do it again.”
3.45pm back to the Civic Suite
My day pass ends here. The Mayor tells me he will spend the rest of the afternoon responding to emails and making phone calls, and that it wouldn’t be very interesting for me to sit and watch.
He and his entourage vanish into the building. I can’t help but wonder if the Mayor’s ‘real’ tasks are mundane as he makes out to be, and, if what I’ve been exposed to today, from the tree planting to the civilized lunch, was designed to give me the least useful insight into what life as the Mayor is really like.
There are many tough challenges ahead for the borough, such as a lack of housing and the plans to downgrade the Lewisham hospital A & E: a decision that the council is legally challenging.
But but that wasn’t on the top of the agenda for today.