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Mayor's annual report

Read Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham's speech at our annual general meeting on 15 July 2020.

Thank you Speaker and congratulations on your election. I look forward to working with you over the year ahead and I join you in paying tribute to Cllr Jacq Paschoud who has been an excellent Speaker and ambassador for our borough. Thank you Jacq.

This is an AGM like no other. Unimaginable, only a few months ago.

I would like to thank all those who have worked so hard to make sure tonight’s AGM can take place.

I do of course want to add my condolences to not just on my behalf, but on behalf of all the council and our thoughts are with all the 260 Lewisham residents have died due to coronavirus and very many more have been ill with the virus.

Our thoughts are with the family and friends of all those who have lost loved ones.

Tragedy and hope

We are in unprecedented times. With much uncertainty ahead.

The last four months have been ones of anxiety and tragedy.

But they have also been ones of heroism and hope.

And we have seen our community come together like never before.

I am hugely proud of the way our council has responded to this crisis, and I am proud that this is in large part thanks to hard work of volunteers.

It’s no surprise that the first mutual aid groups sprung up here in Lewisham.

When I set up a Just Giving to raise money for a local food bank our community stepped forward and donated £128,000.

And our volunteers have help us get food and medicine to any of our 10,000 shielded residents who needed help.

In many ways this has been the ‘year of the volunteer’ and to highlight the incredible role volunteers continue to play, I have appointed this year not one, but three Mayoresses - Natasha Ricketts, Dawn Atkinson and Christina Norman.

Three incredible women who run the Evelyn Community Store in Deptford. A food project that has supported 100s of families in need.

And I want to say all our volunteers and those who have given so much these last few months, you know who you are, thank you.

In contrast: the Government response

But we have an even more challenging time ahead of us as we face the reality of a much reduced council budget – and the bills aren’t all in yet.

We know people have already lost their jobs, income and businesses.

At the Council when you add lost income to new costs then the cost of Covid has already cost Lewisham Council £53m.

Now, at the beginning of lockdown, I joined other council leaders from across the country on a call with the Secretary of State.

The message from Government could not have been clearer: he said that the Government would do “whatever is necessary” to support the work of councils in protecting the most vulnerable.

And we did, and we did it well. Not just protecting residents but also keeping the basics going; emptying every bin, keeping our streets swept, making sure all our parks stayed open.

But now the Government is threatening to backtrack on the pledge they made to us.

They talk instead about councils needing to, and I quote, “share the burden”.

A barely coded signal that further cuts are expected.

After a decade of austerity what could be a more shameful betrayal by this Government than to cut the jobs of the very frontline workers saving lives today.

But that’s the reality and that’s why Lewisham and councils up and down the council are calling for the government to keep the promises they made.

Our priorities

This massive change in our budget will undoubtedly have an impact on our work too.

I will be working with councillors to renew our priorities in the months ahead as we look closely at our Corporate Strategy.

There will be some non-negotiables, including our council-house building programme and our refugee resettlement scheme.

And there will be new commitments we want to make.

The Covid crisis has held up a mirror to our society.

It has reflected back the deep inequalities which we know exist in our country.

It has reminded us of the injustices that impact the lives of too many of our children and young people.

And it has thrown a harsh light on the fragility of our economy and the insecurity that so many of us face.

But it has also given us a renewed appreciation for the importance of our environment, parks and green spaces;

For our local neighbourhoods and the shops and businesses that keep them going;

And for our human relationships, with family, with friends, with community, the things that matter most in life.

Amid the huge challenges we face, we also have an opportunity to build a more equal society.

Racial inequalities

But to build a more equal society we also have to be honest about the people who are being left behind.

The impact of Covid on BAME communities has been truly shocking. Our black residents are not just more likely to catch Covid, but more likely to die from it too.

It exposes once again the persistent racial inequalities that people of colour face – not just in healthcare, but in education, in housing, in the criminal justice system, the pay you get and how likely you are to succeed at work. Racial inequality permeates across all walks of society.

The Black Lives Matter movement offers both a glimmer of hope, and a chance for each of us to renew our commitment to rooting out racism wherever it lurks.

One issue that I will continue to focus my efforts is on the issue of drug reform and I will continue to work with others for an evidence-based system; one which treats drug use as a public health, not a criminal justice issue.

And this is important in Lewisham.

Now, our Youth Offending Service is doing an excellent job and picking up recognition from across the country. But I was shocked when I learnt that, last year in Lewisham 49 children, nearly a child a week, were sent to our Youth Offending Service for first-time drug offenses.

Of those 49 children, how many do you think were children of colour?

43 of 49.

And every single child in Lewisham who received a custodial sentence from the courts last year was a child of colour.

And they’re not the ones running the gangs.

The majority of those Lewisham children are sent into our Youth Offending Service are sent there because of involvement with cannabis, and often with a very small amount, a drug now legal in many parts of the world where public health approaches are being advanced.

In Lewisham, you’re three times more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re black than if you’re white.

And three quarters of the time the police find nothing on you.

Our drug laws are racist.

They criminalise young black men, while giving criminal gangs the power to exploit vulnerable young people.

I will do all that I can to challenge and reform them.

Educational inequalities

And racial inequality stretches deep into our country’s education system too.

In Lewisham we are making progress but – as across the country – the biggest determinate of how well a child will do at school is your family’s income.

This when overlaid by ethnicity, leads to a situation in Lewisham where only 1 in 4 of our Black Caribbean children attained five good GCSEs.

Good local schools with heads and teachers that share our determination, our ambition, to reduce inequalities are critical to Lewisham’s future success.

Many parents have told me that - as their children approach secondary school – they start to feel that maybe they need to either move out of Lewisham or get ready to fight for a school place outside the Borough. We need to convince them that there is a better choice. And we will judge success by a simple metric: more families making a Lewisham secondary school a choice for their children.

Today, we’re currently supporting our schools to get ready for September.

And I want to pay tribute to our teachers who have led a superhuman effort and have worked so very hard through these difficult times.

Our schools have been open during lockdown for keyworker and vulnerable children, including during the school holidays.

But there is no doubt that far too many young people have been out of the classroom for far too long – And we will support our schools as they prepare to welcome all children back in September.

A greener Lewisham

One of the positives we saw from lockdown was that air quality improved as our streets were less chocked by car fumes.

I do not want us to just go back to how things were.

And being green isn’t just about responding to the climate emergency, it also tackles health inequalities too.

It is the poorest in Lewisham who are least likely to own a car, yet most likely to live in areas with toxic air.

We must and we will make some difficult decisions.

We must step-up Lewisham’s move away from cars, we must and we will prioritise walking, cycling and public transport.

Our parks have been a real lifeline this year, especially if like me you don’t have a garden.

But we shouldn’t accept that the tranquillity found in our parks should lie exclusively behind their fences and in private gardens.

Yes we’re a dense borough, with over 300,000 people, but we can also step up our efforts to be a more beautiful borough too. With safer streets centred around people and play – not the car dominated landscapes our children see outside their windows.

So we will continue to charge those who drive the most toxic vehicles more to do so. We will continue to work with residents to roll out our Healthy Neighbourhoods programme. We will close more streets around our schools.

And we will redouble our work with TfL to support the Bakerloo Line coming to Lewisham, segregated cycle routes and to improve public transport in our borough.

And I would like to take this moment to thank Sadiq Khan for all the support, all the new funding that he has awarded Lewisham so we can begin to realise our ambitions.

Protecting our high streets

Lockdown has also meant we’re all travelling less and exploring what’s on our doorstep. I’ve enjoyed showing Yossi around all our different neighbourhoods, I create little tours and we’ll go out for a few hours and I get to see Lewisham through his eyes.

We love the fact that Lewisham is home to so many independent businesses, amongst the highest in London I remind him.

And you’ll have heard me say before that I’m proud that we’re a Pret-free borough.

And I am so thankful that many of the bland and sterile high street chains that make up so much of London have largely passed us by.

Instead, we have shops and family-run businesses and restaurants with products and food from all over the world that reflect Lewisham’s history of migration.

Independent businesses with both local and global roots, don’t just make Lewisham a more vibrant and fun place to live. They’re good for our local economy too.

But competition is fierce and we’ve got to do all we can to support our small businesses, especially as they face a recession.

All too quickly and all too quietly we could start losing these businesses, and before we’ll know it our high streets would start to look and feel very different.

So that we’re always highlighting the needs of small business I’ve asked officers to undertake a new annual survey of our high streets, becoming the first council to physically go out, every year, and count and publish the number of independent retailers and the number of black and BAME owned businesses on Lewisham’s high streets too.

I’ve asked that this survey runs alongside our new local plan which runs until 2040. This means the results won’t just help inform the decisions that I and councillors make today, but they’ll inform future Mayors and councillors too. And hopefully signal to small businesses that they’ll always be at home in Lewisham.

Culture for all

As I come towards the end of my speech I’d ask you to think about what you think makes a good place to live, what do you think about?

Because over the coming months we need to draw on our experiences during lockdown to think about Lewisham’s next decade.

When we think about a good place to live, it can be all too easy to forget about culture.

Yet it’s one example where during lockdown many of us we’ll have realised just how important the arts and culture is to our wellbeing and to our sense of understanding about life and about the world around us.

2022 may seem a way off, but we are already working hard to prepare for one of the biggest years in Lewisham’s history and what a celebration it will be.

Winning London Borough of Culture is not just an accolade we should all be proud of, it is a watershed moment in how the rest of London sees Lewisham and how we all feel, particularly our young people, about where we live.

We will use this opportunity to make sure all Lewisham residents have cultural opportunities in their neighbourhoods.

We will make certain that our Borough of Culture programme reaches every corner of our borough and reflects Lewisham’s wonderfully diverse community.


Now, finally, I’m coming to the part of the speech where I hand over to our outgoing Mayoress.

And I would like to formally record my thanks to Barbara Gray.

I would like to thank you Barbara, for the positive way you have worked with us and given advice to myself and councillors and challenged us too.

Thank you for agreeing to continue as my Advisor on BAME Health Inequalities. I’m glad to be working with you for another year.

Your efforts are reflected in our work and I’m delighted that, alongside Birmingham, Lewisham will be leading new national work studying health inequalities among Black African and Caribbean residents.

Barbara has been an amazing role model of our borough, in and out of our schools inspiring our young people, and we are truly blessed to have such and powerful champion and friend as you are.

And just before we hear from Barbara.

I want to close my speech tonight by thanking my colleagues, councillors, cabinet members, officers of the council, for all your hard work and support in this truly extraordinary and truly challenging year.

Thank you.