Representing Lewisham Central

I've was elected to represent Lewisham Central in May 2010. Since then, I've been selected as Vice-Chair of the Council and Chair of the Audit Panel (2010 - now). I sit on a planning committee, the public accounts select committee and previously the healthier communities select committee and the housing select committee.

Department of Health spends £209,000+ on lawyers to close Lewisham Hospital

Written by Mike on . Posted in Lewisham Council

As a councillor, I was interested to find out exactly how much the Department of Health spent both on the original legal action fighting against Labour-controlled Lewisham Council’s judicial review of their unfair attempt to close Lewisham Hospital and the cost of appealing the Council (and the Save Lewisham Hospital) campaign’s victory. My freedom of information request has discovered the figure is an astonishing £209,000 excluding the cost of in-house counsel at the Department of Health and Lewisham Council’s legal fees which they bizarrely exclude from the request.

Clearly, the cost could be higher than £300,000, an outrageous waste of taxpayer’s money. That’s on top of the £5.1 million spent on the special administrator (who doled out £3.2 million in turn to consultants).

Here is the response I received:

Dear Mr Harris,

Thank you for your request of 29 October 2013 under the Freedom of Information Act (2000). Your exact request was:

“I would like to make a Freedom of Information Request to obtain the
following information:
a. What has the total cost of legal fees for Department of Health for the
above-stated legal case (GOVERNMENT vs. LEWISHAM COUNCIL &
SAVE LEWISHAM HOSPITAL CAMPAIGN) broken down into:
i. Estimated internal legal costs (staff time, on board costs) for the
Department of Health;
ii. External costs for legal counsel for the Department of Health
b. What has been the cost of the challenge to the decision made by the
High Court by Judge Silber on 31 July 2013 in:
i. internal costs to the Department (as above);
ii. external costs to the Department.”

I can confirm that the Department holds information relevant to your request.
1. The estimated costs to the Department relating to the judicial review in the
High Court (between 18 March and 31 July 2013) totalled approximately
£117,000. This is broken down as follows:
• Treasury Solicitor’s fees charged to the Department –
approximately £41,000
• Counsel – approximately £76,000
• Disbursements – approximately £80.00
Up to 15 March 2013, legal services were rendered in this litigation by
employees of the Department of Health Legal Services – ie by in-house
solicitors. Information concerning staff members’ salaries is covered, and exempt from disclosure, under Section 40 of the FOI
Act. Therefore and outwith salaries, there was no cost to the
Department in this period.
2. The estimated costs to the Department relating to the appeal (from 1
August to 29 October 2013) totalled approximately £92,0000, broken down
as follows:
• Treasury Solicitor’s fees charged to the Department –
approximately £47,000
• Counsels’ fees – approximately £42,000
• Disbursements – approximately £3,000

Interestingly, the response goes on to say:

The Court is now dealing with consequential matters including both
respondents’ costs of the appeal. The levels of these are not yet known at
this time.

So, perhaps in excess of £300,000 and that’s without including the cost of Lewisham Council’s (and the campaign’s) legal costs which the Department of Health is now liable for.

Could London property prices rise another 30%?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Lewisham Council

The FT’s Alphaville Blog carries an interesting article today, London as a cheapo Hong Kong. The piece analyses a report by Deutsche Bank that notes while Central London prime property prices are rapidly gaining value the rate of return on all UK property over the last 5 years still remains over 9%.

Yet the most telling paragraph taken from the Deutsche Bank report is this:

For those from China and Singapore London house prices remain less than 60% of peak, for Malaysian, Hong Kong and US$ investor’s less than 70%. This also compares to house prices in some of the investors home territories which [have] shown massive increases, eg through 2010 house prices in Hong Kong increased by 50% impacting affordability and the ability of secure attractive income returns on properties. In some Asian countries in a bid to stem house prices tax regimes have been put in place. This has also pushed investors towards the UK…

As foreign investors now make up 73% of Central London new build property buyers and a staggering 90% of prime Central London property (£2,000+ per square foot), it’s clear they are the real driving force behind the current price boom. Worryingly, if the pound’s depreciation means that real estate in the capital is a mere 60-70% of peak prices (in 2007), this suggests that foreign buyers could drive property up another 30% before it regains parity with the previous peak.

London property is now an international asset, like the dollar or bonds. We need to deassetise property from an internationally traded commodity to an asset whose primary purpose is to fulfil a basic human right in line with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unless we begin to intervene in the market, either by government intervention to build more properties, or by making these assets less attractive to foreign buyers with stricter taxes, there is no chance that any young person today will be able to afford to own their own property (unless they are fortunate enough to be in the top 1% of earners). Public anger is growing. Politicians now must act.

Update: interesting map from Savill’s residential research on the rise of the £500,000 flat across London.

Lewisham is building council houses

Written by Mike on . Posted in Labour, Lewisham Council

Lewisham Council is in the process of building new council houses. Yes, you read that right houses. After a considerable amount of hard work attracting grants by the Labour party, and the sale of some older buildings formerly used as offices and centres by the council, we’re in the process of building up to 300 homes in the near future.

The initial projects for social housing and low-cost housing in Lewisham Central will be as follows:

Mercator Road, SE13

This is the site for the first new homes in the programme and planning permission for the scheme was granted in September. The scheme consists of four three-bed and two two-bed homes, all of which will be let at social rent levels and managed on the Council’s behalf by Lewisham Homes. The Council hopes to have appointed the contractor and handed over the site before Christmas with a view to starting on site in early January 2014 and completing 10 months later in November.

There will also be new affordable home ownership on Mercator Road too. The plan is to build some private housing for sale to peole who currently live in Lewisham at a 20% market discount on the market rate with 26 X 1 bed and 1 X 2 bed homes. Dependent on the results of the consultation and approval to dispose of the site, and then the planning process, work could start on site in the first half of next year.

Community self build scheme on Church Grove

Over 100 residents have expressed an interest in taking part in the proposed self build scheme on Church Grove. Our London, a social enterprise, is bringing these residents into groups to help them to understand the options for self build and support them to develop their ideas for the site. The idea is that the residents selected will currently be in social housing, or on the council waiting list, so the new housing reduces demand for social housing and the waiting list further.

There will be a discussion day on Saturday 5th October, from 10 until 12 at St. Mary’s Centre which will present some successful self build schemes from around the world. You can register here.

The Chiddingstone Extra Care scheme

Earlier in 2013 Lewisham Council successfully bid for £2.3m allowing a new 51 unit scheme to provide extra care housing for vulnerable people. Planning and a consultation is still needed but hopefully an excellent proposal will come forward that will allow us to top up our social housing.

The use of consultants and interims by Lewisham Council

Written by Mike on . Posted in Lewisham Council

I’ve been the Chair of Lewisham’s Audit Panel since 2010 and during that period we’ve done a lot of work to create transparency over how we use interim managers and consultants. Now every single interim consultant and their pay is available for the public to see. Previously, confidentiality agreements meant we needed permission to ask interims whether we could publish their pay online, but over the last two years, their contracts have been updated to stipulate this is a requirement of the council. No publication, no pay.

Political party “Lewisham People Before Profit” has accused the Council of wasting money on consultants.

Instead of actually doing their research and providing a critique of how we use consultants, they have resorted to base populism. The issue is, if you tell the public that the local council is wasting their money, it’s very difficult to then persuade them to support local public services. Lewisham People Not Profit have ended up doing the Tories job for them, resorting to quick sound bites that do little to illuminate a complex issue, but a lot to damage trust in our local Council.

Some of the consultants we use are very expensive indeed. This is not a fact lost on the Audit Panel as we’ve scrutinised the decisions of Officers. But there are projects that simply could not have been delivered without talented external expertise: we would not have rebuilt every secondary school in the borough in the past few years without people who had the experience to deliver projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds. We did not have this experience in house.

So here are the facts:

The number of senior interim posts has fallen from 19 in Jan 2011 to 17 by the end of July last year.

The number of paid consultants has fallen from 24 in Jan 2011 to 11 by the end of July last year.

The next report on this will come to the Audit Panel in the Summer, and again we’ll be asking questions on this and doing the work that People Not Profit simply aren’t.

Item 7 Consultants Audit Report Oct 12 Final Version Nov12 by m8149

Co-op on Hither Green Lane applies for 7.30am license

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Lewisham Council

In recent years, there has been a serious problem with street drinking in the Hither Green Lane area. Many local residents (unfairly, in my view) have associated this problem with the residents of St Mungo’s homeless hostel which has worked hard to tackle this problem. What is clear is that extending licenses in this area would exacerbate the problem. So it’s extremely galling to see ethical food trader, the Co-op (Hither Green Green Lane, SE13 6QH) apply to extend its license to sell alcohol at 7.30am in the morning.

Unfortunately it is too late to place an objection. The hearing at Lewisham Council is on the 17th April at 7.15pm and has been moved because of resident representations. Members of the public are welcome to attend but are not allowed to address the committee. To attend please fill in this form quoting reference PL0250.

I will be speaking to my fellow councillors on the committee as a matter of urgency.

Councillor Mike Harris, one of 3 Labour councillors for Lewisham Central said:

“It is beyond belief that the Co-operative, an ethical retailer, wants to sell alcohol at 7.30 am in an area next to a homeless hostel. Hither Green Lane already has a problem with street drinkers which we’re working hard to tackle. Selling alcohol earlier will only make matters worse. I hope they will withdraw this application before the 17 April.”

Should public servants be able to use public money to sue for libel?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, Lewisham Council

Blogger Jacqui Thompson is now £25,000 poorer after losing a libel action against the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council, Mark James. The judge found the posts on her Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog to be defamatory and that she was engaged in an “unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation targeted against Mr James and other council officers”.

Yet while Thompson paid for the case out of her own pocket, the ratepayers of Carmarthenshire paid for the chief executive’s libel action. In these straitened times, is it really fair that taxpayer’s money is being used to fund a libel case?

Carmarthenshire council is not alone. South Tyneside council is paying for its chief executive and council leader to bring proceedings against one of its own councillors. In South London the Durand Academy, a primary school, has on multiple occasions funded libel claims. This is a live debate with the government’s Defamation Bill (the first wholesale reform of our archaic libel law since 1843 ) currently passing through parliament after a long fight by the Libel Reform Campaign. An amendment tabled in the House of Lords by the Labour party, with support from influential Tory Peer Lord McWhinney and Liberal Democrat Peer Anthony Lester will (if passed by the Commons) block corporations and public bodies from suing individuals for libel, unless the libel has caused “substantial financial harm”. However an important loophole remains.

Public bodies themselves cannot sue for defamation. Derbyshire county council vs. Times Newspapers Ltd (1993) rules out public bodies from suing for libel. Lord Keith’s judgement makes clear the importance of “uninhibited public criticism” of democratically elected and public bodies.

The remaining loophole is the judgement does not prevent public bodies from using taxpayer’s money to fund libel actions on behalf of their staff.

In the Carmarthenshire case, Mr Justice Tugendhat reiterated the importance of the bar on public bodies suing directly, and emphasised the greater latitude members of the public had in criticising public bodies, but did not believe that allowing councillors or officers of a local authority to sue for libel would infringe the right to freedom of expression. “The decision of the House of Lords is binding on me. But in my judgment there is nothing in the suggestion that it is contrary to Art 10 that a member or between officer of a local authority should be able to sue for libel,” he said.

He also refused to restrict the ability of public bodies to use taxpayer’s money to pay for libel actions on behalf of their employees saying that such indemnities needed to be challenged: “There are procedures by which the grant of an indemnity by a council to an employee in respect of the costs of litigation can be challenged.”

Yet the procedures to challenge are complex and only relate to whether the local authority is funding the libel action to circumvent the Derbyshire principle. The default position in law established by Mr Justice Sullivan in Comninos vs Bedford borough council is that councils can fund libel actions on behalf of their staff – unless challenged. Local bloggers can now find themselves sued by a council employee backed with the full financial weight of the local authority, and yet will only know whether this is legal or not if they challenge this funding separately. It’s hard to see how any blogger or citizen critic could fund such a challenge unless they have very deep pockets indeed.

These indemnities have a corrosive effect on local democracy. Local authorities, sensing the controversy over using taxpayers’ money to sue their own citizens, are not transparent about the costs of these claims.

I tabled a freedom of information request to Carmarthenshire to find out how much it had spent on the libel action. It refused to disclose this information, citing an exemption. From a wider request, I did find out that the council spent £891,433 in legal fees in 2012. This is the same county council that is making 450 people redundant and closing down training services for disabled people.

The defamation bill will continue the bar on public authorities directly suing their critics for defamation. Yet, without action to stop them directly funding libel actions on behalf of councillors or officers, the power and resources of the state can still be used to silence citizen critics.

It is self-evident that public servants should be able to sue for defamation if directly and unfairly criticised, but it is not fair to expect taxpayers in this period of austerity to pick up the bill.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Local Government Network on 2 April 2013.

“Made in Lewisham!” Supporting business in Lewisham

Written by Mike on . Posted in Lewisham Council

As part of Lewisham’s Fairness Review, which I have been involved in as a member of the Public Accounts Select Committee, we’re trying to help more local businesses to successfully bid for contracts with the council. Currently only 14% of council suppliers are based in Lewisham.

Lewisham, like most local authorities, is under huge pressure to make drastic cuts of up to 30% of our budget. The Fairness Review recommended that the council should work closer with local businesses, rather than huge corporations, to meet this challenge. The Fairness Review has even led to a change in Lewisham Council’s constitution so that for all contracts under £40,000 it will be mandatory for the council to get a quote from a local firms. Lewisham will be adding all tenders to the “Supply4London” portal and publishing all payments to suppliers worth over £250 to show the opportunities available.

This builds on the work of the New Economics Foundation who have demonstrated that buying local is worth 400% more to local authorities due to the “local multiplier”. The multiplier means: –

· that every £1 spent with a local supplier is worth £1.76 to the local economy, and only 36 pence if it is spent out of the area. That makes £1 spent locally worth almost 400 per cent more.

This work by Lewisham Council will drive more money into the local economy with the aim of cutting local unemployment and giving home-grown businesses more hope for the future.

Lewisham pay day loan firms are parasites pushing people into debt

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Labour, Lewisham Council

This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.

I once borrowed from a legal loan shark. I took out a loan of £100 and a week later, for the privilege, I had to repay £120.

At the time, I was between jobs and the Nationwide had helpfully slashed my overdraft.

I was lucky enough to escape this debt trap and pay back my debt – but for families across Lewisham using a loan shark is an everyday reality. In fact, Lewisham has London’s worst pay day loan problem – according to the Step Change consumer credit counselling service.

If you walk down Lewisham High Street, these pay day firms offer loans at rates up to 4,000 per cent. That’s a rate over 200 times even what an average credit card charges. Rip-off Britain is alive and well.

Yet, it’s clear that people don’t realise how expensive these loans really are. Normally when there’s a lot of competition, the price of a product falls – but even as new shops have opened up in Lewisham, the interest rate charged hasn’t fallen and may have gone up. The market just isn’t working.

In Lewisham, the average person who uses these short-term loans owes £530 and has two separate loans. We’ve got to help these people out of their debts.

At the end of September, Lewisham’s councillors debated legal loan sharks. We heard evidence that made my blood boil. I told our meeting that one loan company had sent an employee out in costume to promote their loans during the Olympic torch relay through Lewisham; another councillor said employees of one firm had given out leaflets outside the job centre queue in Catford.

Unanimously, with cross-party support every councillor backed Labour’s motion to try and tackle these parasites.

There’s a lot we would like to do but sadly the government won’t let us. We want the ability to stop new loan shops opening in the same way we can stop too many late night bars from congregating in the same street, and we would like the government to set a maximum cap on the interest that can be charged.

But there’s a lot we can do. The council supports Lewisham Plus Credit Union, an alternative to the big banks that can provide low cost loans to people. The cost of a loan with the credit union could be up to 20 times less than with one of the legal loan sharks.

You can help too. Instead of the miserly rates offered by the high street banks, you can save with the credit union so they can lend more to families at a reasonable rate – you could even earn a better rate of interest on your savings!
This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.

Local people need to pass this message on to their family, friends and neighbours, as credit unions don’t have big advertising budgets but rely on word of mouth recommendation.

I’m also calling for Lewisham’s residents to sign a national petition calling on the government to give councils the powers to hold back the endless spread of legal loan sharks.

The recession has made this problem worse, with more people relying on credit to make ends meet. But it’s a false economy as the unregulated wild west of legal loan sharks is shackling the UK’s poorest borrowers with the highest price for credit in Europe.

Yet, this industry doesn’t need to exist – for most people their local credit union or building society can lend them money cheaper. Together we can help people out of their debt traps, but as a community we need to take action, and now.

Lewisham’s Big Olympic Conversation

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Lewisham Council

Lewisham’s Big Olympic Conversation

Now this looks really fun…. A message from your local council:

What are the people who live in your area really like? What’s important to them, and what are their fears? What might you find out about yourself by talking openly to someone you’ve never met before?

Lewisham residents are being encouraged to find out by coming to the Big Conversation on Wednesday 8 August at 7pm in the theatrical Spiegeltent at the Lewisham Big Screen on Blackheath.

The format is very simple – it’s a conversation over dinner. Guests sit with someone they’ve never met and are served a simple meal along with a ‘menu of conversation.’ The menu offers a choice of questions designed to help them open up and think about their life in new ways. The questions will be based on the Olympic and Paralympic values.

Since January 2011, Lewisham Council has been working with Theodore Zeldin, the philosopher and historian who pioneered conversation dinners. Zeldin will return to Lewisham on 8 August to host the borough’s biggest conversation dinner yet.

This is a free event. Seats will be allocated on the day, so it’s best to arrive early. Guests can bring friends along, but should remember that they will be seated with someone they don’t know.

Theodore Zeldin was awarded France’s Légion d’Honneur in May 2012 in recognition of his many works on French history and habits.

How my riots tweet landed me in hot water – at taxpayers’ expense

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Lewisham Council

Sanctions against councillors who express an opinion are overzealous. Finally, a judge has stood up to such nonsense

This article was originally published in The Guardian on Wednesday 9 May.

Last year, I was reported to the standards board of Lewisham council for tweeting concerns that last summer’s riots were spreading to our area (which they did – you can read my tweets here). I was bizarrely accused of inciting riots.

The intervening weeks weren’t much fun. I wondered whether the board would publicly reprimand me, leading to my possible suspension from my political party, or whether I’d be banned altogether from the council chamber for six months – unable to vote on issues directly affecting my constituents. In the end, the claim against me was thrown out. But every year, claims are brought against councillors. One individual made 170 complaints about their local authority and elected members, at a cost to taxpayers of £160,000. Not a single one of their complaints was upheld.

You’d expect councillors would be encouraged to speak out on behalf of their voters. But over the past decade a new culture encouraging “standards” has deadened lively public debate in local government. In 2007-08 of 3,547 allegations investigated by the now abolished Standards Board of England & Wales, only nine ended up with sanctions applied against councillors. The investigations weren’t just a complete waste of £10m a year of taxpayers’ money; the threat of investigation and subsequent negative publicity had a negative effect on free speech.

The code of conduct, written by the dead hand of bureaucracy, pays little thought to the importance of free speech. Councillors are expected “not [to] conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute”. And to “show respect and consideration for others”.

These clauses are so broad as to be meaningless. What they do is give your opponents a powerful toolkit to use against you. Across the country, where councillors have been reported to local boards, their opponents have printed mischievous leaflets saying that an “investigation” was under way into their behaviour. Many complaints taken through the Standards Boards don’t come from voters, but from other political parties that use these boards for their own advantage.

Since the abolition of the Standards Board of England & Wales by the coalition, local boards comprising of independent members and councillors have overseen the conduct of the elected. It has saved money and weeded out some of the most ludicrous cases, but confusion continued as to the boundaries of free expression. One of the most infamous cases concerned a tweet by former Cardiff councillor John Dixon while shopping in London: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

After being reported for a breach of the code of conduct (from a Scientologist living in East Grinstead, Sussex), Dixon was cleared as his tweet was made in a private capacity, not as a councillor. Yet, the public services ombudsman for Wales who referred the case to Dixon’s local board for judgment, said Dixon “may” have breached the code. The ombudsman’s witless judgment is worth quoting from: “I am, however, concerned that a member who has served his community for over 10 years and has recently attended training does not appear to understand the provisions of the code, particularly paragraphs 2(1)(b), 4(b) and 6(1)(a). I also note that Councillor Dixon has not shown any remorse for his actions.”

Finally, a judge has stood up against this type of nonsense. Mr Justice Beaton’s decision in the high court declared that elected politicians should “possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public”. His ruling that political speech is protected under article 10 of the Human Rights Act is a judicial rebuke to these inquisitions.

This case concerned Councillor Lewis Malcolm Calver’s blog, which contained sarcastic comments on the council chairman. Hardly the most scurrilous blog written about local government, but it landed Calver in trouble with the Adjudication Panel for Wales, which ordered he undergo training and publicly admonished him for “snide comments” (no, really). Thankfully, Calver’s victory will now establish a higher threshold for cases against councillors to proceed at standards boards.

There has for years been an extremely effective way for citizens to express their concerns about a councillor’s language or behaviour: by not voting for them. And no one would question that there should be locally set standards for those in public office. However, enforcing the nebulous concept of “respect” is a charter for those who oppose a particular policy or party to drag local politicians through the mud of an official investigation. The sanctioning of penalties against elected officials, for behaviour that is not illegal, has gone on for too long. It has taken the judiciary to finally stand up for the free speech of those elected by the public.

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