An elephant decision – will it be repeated across London?

For the past decade Labour-run councils in London have been dominated by the centre and the right of the party. However since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the subsequent influx of left-leaning members and the creation of left-wing group Momentum the political gulf between the average Labour Party member and the typical Labour council leader has grown wide.

The leadership in Labour boroughs that have typically welcomed developers now chafe against a membership that increasingly believe that developers are not to be trusted, council officers and politicians fail to secure appropriate levels of affordable housing and that nothing but tenures equivalent to social rent should ever be considered ‘affordable’.

We have seen this tension come to a head in Haringey. At recent Labour candidate selections in the borough almost two dozen moderate councillors failed to win the right to contest their seats at the next local elections and were instead replaced by left-leaning members running on an anti-developer platform. Most of these candidates will become Labour councillors in May and we will be likely to see Haringey become London’s first Momentum controlled council.

This week we saw the same forces at work in Southwark. According to our research, Southwark has not voted to refuse a major planning application in over two years. However on Tuesday evening the committee was due to decide on the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. After nearly eight hours they failed to reach a firm decision and deferred it so that their officers could draw up reasons for refusal.

Before the meeting was due to start, a protest marched outside with local Labour councillors, Elephant and Castle business owners, and even the veteran demonstrator and brother of the Labour Party Leader, Piers Corbyn, in attendance. In total 14 Labour councillors and council candidates signed a letter against the proposal. One left-wing Labour councillor, Cllr Paul Fleming (pictured above), addressed the protestors, and a moderate Labour councillor Cllr Lury, who is not usually a rebel, also addressed the crowd.

During the meeting members took their time discussing the application and hearing representations from supporters and objectors. They were forensic in their questioning. The committee’s main concerns included the effect on traders from minority communities and the lack of real social housing, and the possible closure of the bingo hall and bowling alley. Members wanted their reasons for refusal to include harm to people with protected characteristics (meaning Latin Americans). Planning officers felt this was not an area that would provide substantive reasons for refusal and requested a private audience with members. When the vote was finally taken, four members (two Labour and two Lib Dems) voted against accepting their office recommendation to approve and three members (two Labour and one Conservative) voted to accept their officer recommendation, one Labour member abstained.

After members voted not to accept the officer recommendation, the chair was unsure how to proceed, as the committee had not sought reasons to refuse an application for a couple of years.

Cllr Mark Williams, Southwark Council’s cabinet member for regeneration and new homes, said in a statement on Wednesday: “We respect the vote of the planning committee not to approve the application last night. We understand the strong feelings of many local people, particularly regarding affordable housing and business space, as these are priorities that the council shares. We remain committed to finding a solution for a new shopping centre and home for UAL’s London College of Communication that works for everyone.”

Despite only voting to defer the application the social media interpretation was (and largely remains) that the application was defeated, however the item will be back before the committee on Tuesday 30 January. Will compromises need to be made? Is the only way the application could progress is if the local residents and traders are consulted and offered a ‘fair deal’, and the social housing on the site is increased and promised to local residents?

For more information about our work in Southwark (or across London), email us here.

Here’s a BBC report of the meeting: