Lewisham Labour members have chosen Damien Egan to be their candidate for next May’s mayoral election in the borough – making the councillor red-hot favourite to succeed Sir Steve Bullock as the council’s figurehead.
Unlike Greenwich, which operates a leader and cabinet system, Lewisham is one of a handful of boroughs where residents directly elect a mayor to run the council.
With Bullock stepping down next year after 16 years in the post, Labour members in the borough have been taking part in a very public selection contest to pick his successor.
New Cross councillor Brenda Dacres – a relative latecomer to the contest – came third. Bellingham’s Alan Hall – who rose to prominence after being one of the first to challenge the council’s role in a redevelopment scheme which would have seen land at Millwall Football Club compulsorily purchased – finished a distant fourth. Egan’s fellow cabinet member Paul Maslin, an art gallery owner who sits on the right of the Labour party, came fifth.
Simply picking a candidate will be a relief for the Labour hierarchy in Lewisham who faced delays in holding the poll – Labour members who studied Egan’s campaign material closely will have noticed that one of the leaflets that dropped through their letterbox in late summer featured supporters wrapped up in winter woollies.
Lewisham has been particularly badly hit by government cuts and how the council responds to continuing austerity was one of the main themes of the campaign, along with the housing crisis.
Egan’s promises included bringing council services back in-house and starting “the biggest social house-building programme ever seen in Lewisham, with a minimum of 1,000 new social homes” as well as “a new generation of council-owned homes for private rent, using German-style long-term contracts and rent controls”. He also plans to bring in a policy of never selling council land to housing developers.
The row over Millwall also loomed over the election – with only Maslin standing by plans to hand over part of the club’s land to Renewal, a development company with links to former council leader Dave Sullivan and ex-council officer Mushtaq Malik. Egan has pledged to end the deal.
Campaigners say the Millwall row showed Bullock wielded too much power, with Paul Bell pledging a review of the mayoral system, with an eye to moving to a system where decisions are taken by committees.
However, that mayoral system – at least as practised in Lewisham, where the mayor controls the council but not councillors – also enabled scrutiny of the Millwall deal, giving Alan Hall as chair of the council’s main scrutiny panel the freedom to blow the whistle on the scheme.
It’s difficult to imagine any councillor in Greenwich calling out a poor decision by their council leadership in such a public way without fear of personal sanction, even on a scrutiny panel.
Hall – an affable character who even secured the endorsement of his local pub, the Blythe Hill Tavern – may have scored poorly in the poll, he can at least be satisfied that he made almost as big an impact on the contest as the eventual victor.
Viewed from Greenwich – where there is little discussion about the direction of the borough – the cut and thrust of the mayoral debate can look refreshing, even if it proved uncomfortable at times for the candidates: Paul Bell’s views on Syria and the EU were given a forensic going-over by opponents.
But the discussion has at least anchored the Labour cause in Lewisham to the party’s values – or at least helped them figure out just what they are these days. And it also provided honesty about the council’s failings, with the Lewisham Gateway development scheme – the towers by the station – coming in for criticism at hustings.
Greenwich has never been keen on the mayoral system – with former leader Chris Roberts once comparing it to abolishing the monarchy. But with Greenwich Labour currently selecting its own councillors for next year’s poll, there is some food for thought in the contest just completed over the border.
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