There Are Huge Lessons To Be Learned

Hands up who can name their local Ward Councillors? Or how about the members of Southwark council’s Cabinet?

Okay, I know some of you will now be silently reeling off a list of names in your head but for most people the world of local politics is a distant and abstract one. Councillors are the people that you go to talk to about your mental health issues.  A cabinet is something you keep your best china in.

We have become used to the posturing and personalities of national politics in this country. Whether we’re discussing Jeremy Corbyn’s confused choice of apparel or ‘Call Me Dave’ Cameron’s (alleged) Bullingdon buffoonery, we are inundated daily with media coverage of those who hold the purse strings or those who make the laws that govern our Fair Isle.

But what about the people who operate a step below the national scene? What makes them tick? What motivates them to serve their local communities?

I thought I’d find out by arranging to meet with Councillor Michael Situ, who has recently finished a two year stint as Southwark’s Cabinet member for Communities and Safety, and who currently represents the Livesey Ward in Peckham.

Michael was born in Nigeria where he spent the first 12 years of his life, before moving to Peckham where he has lived ever since, becoming a councillor in 2010.

There is something in the genetic makeup of the Situ family that has propelled them into civic duty. Michael’s father, Tayo, who sadly passed away in 2011, was a councillor for Peckham Ward and a former Mayor of Southwark. His brother, Johnson, is currently serving on the Cabinet as member of Business, Employment and Culture. 

Why do I deserve this when the next kid in Dulwich has it better than you?

Michael credits his father as one of the main reasons he was inspired to serve his local community.

“What my father instilled in me is the notion that the best people to solve a problem are the people who are affected by it.

“I experienced a very high level of poverty and coming over here and seeing the opportunities that were available here (even in Peckham – as challenging as it was then) compared to Nigeria gave me a wider perspective as to what was possible.”

Michael’s experience growing up in challenging circumstances has clearly impacted on his view of the world.

“I lived in an environment where I felt that I didn’t have the right tools to achieve in life and when you grow up in that environment all you often think about is: why do I deserve this when the next kid in Dulwich, only ten minutes away by bus, has it better than you? It gets you thinking about what the solution is.”

So how do you change this?

“It boils down to the fact that the best way for you to find a solution is to get involved. Being part of the solution itself – that is what my father impacted upon me and my brother and we naturally followed in his footsteps.”

Southwark is a unique borough in many different ways, not only demographically but also in how it is being regenerated. I put it to Michael that regeneration has a positive impact in some respects, but that there are many people in the borough who are critical of Southwark council and its approach to regeneration.

Did he think that the notion of improvement had gone too far? Does somewhere like Peckham lose its beating heart as the tide of redevelopment turns its way?

“I tell people that when I was growing up in Peckham there were estates that were run down, were a no-go area. A lot of housing was inadequate (what I mean by that is the basic facilities of the housing were not fit for living in).

“Since becoming a councillor in 2010 the bulk of my case work has been housing repair. A typical story would be a resident telling me that they had literally called Southwark 3 or 4 times, someone would come round and paint over mould or damp, and nothing would ever happen. A plumber comes, says he’s fixed my leaking pipes, and lo and behold three months down the line there’s another leak and they are needed again.”

Michael is keen to state and from Southwark council’s perspective that a lot of homes in the borough have or had gone past their sell-by-date. The question is how do you achieve a holistic change?

“For me the best way is to build it yourself and totally rely on your resources as a local authority. However, we all know that the government doesn’t allow us to do this and we all know that the money hasn’t been there.

“When you come to the conclusion that necessary changes need to be made you realise that there has to be a delicate balance – a bit of give and take from each side. We will try to ensure as much as possible that we protect people and that all the changes benefit local residents as much as possible.

“Do you then say no because you can’t do it with your own resources and consign a generation to inadequate housing?

“We also recognise that in order to make change happen we have to compromise – we have to attract inward investment, we have to develop partnerships with private developers. I see that as a progressive outlook.“ 

We need to think about doing something differently

When I pointed out that there would be many who disagreed with him on this he was quick to highlight what he wanted for Southwark residents.

“I want a local letting policy that gives priority to local people. I see young families that have grown up in Peckham moving into nice housing. That is future I want for all Southwark residents. I’m proud that we’re starting to deliver that.

“I understand the agony it is for those who are not able to live in the areas that they want but I will say that there has to be some compromise – we need to think about doing something differently.“

Some reading this may think that Michael is simply towing the party line; that his view is a misguided one inspired by the administration he serves in. Whilst this may be true I can definitively state that it is from a position of genuine passion and commitment to want to help the residents of Southwark.

In an attempt to compromise over housing and regeneration I asked Michael whether he at least accepted that lessons needed to be learned by Southwark council in relation to the process of working with housing developers. Could Southwark council have got a better deal for itself and is residents with certain developments or has it been held over a barrel?

“There are huge lessons to be learned in terms of the process and in terms of the substance of the agreements themselves. The process needs to be as transparent as possible in terms of financial viability assessments of projects and now we have rectified that (I raised my eyebrow at this but Michael was adamant). We are the only borough in the whole of the country to actually make all developers publish their viability assessments. We compromised that it was a step in the right direction.”

(I did interject at this stage and point out that whilst Southwark’s move to publish viability assessments was indeed a step in the right direction, there have been several examples of the council delaying the publication of these recently).

Michael agreed: “The process can be improved in terms of transparency and in terms of the consultation process and we’ve got to get better at selling the message: What benefit there is for Southwark residents and local people – we haven’t done ourselves justice in the past.

“In terms of substance Southwark will always try and achieve the highest level of social housing as possible but we’ve to balance that with the opportunity of investment by developers.“

So what would you say to those who are critical of Southwark’s dealings with big developers such as Lend Lease?

“I always tell people that you have to have a dream: this is the first stage in the process. If we don’t set out a vision (and it is a vision at this stage) you should be more concerned if we didn’t.

“Southwark is on a journey and I want people to see it for what it is at the moment. I will be more than happy to accept more criticism ten years down the line – cut us a bit of slack and work with us and then come back and criticise me – I’ll hold my hands up!”

So there we have it – in ten years’ time I’m hoping that there won’t be a queue around the block from Michael’s constituency surgery…

You should be able to speak to the actual decision maker and get things addressed

It is clear that a lot of people don’t feel that they have had a real say in the new developments or don’t feel connected to them. I asked Michael from his experience as a cabinet member and as a councillor – what is the key to engaging with the community?

“I think that successful community engagement involves putting yourself in the shoes of the residents – we need to provide information at the earliest opportunity after making decisions so that residents are aware of what is going on.

“Secondly, we need to provide opportunities for residents to give genuine input into a proposal or plan itself. What I mean by genuine is that you are prepared to listen and then change your plans to reflect the wishes of people.”

Let’s say you are a resident who has just moved to the borough – what is the best way to get involved in your area and your community? How can people make their voice heard?

“I think that there are three major networks at the moment that people should engage with. The first port of call is your Tenants and Residents Associations (TRAs), Community Action Network meetings and Community Councils. Obviously the council is there but they are the three primary organisations on the ground.

“My feeling is that we’ve got to look at doing things differently – do it in conversation with residents and find out what is better for them. The TRA halls should be the centre of communities – there should be something happening there every day of the week. There should be a fight to get a space in the hall itself and not just used for private parties and church services.

“They should be the place you go to if you want some information. Far too many could be used better – This should be a focus of Southwark council but this has to be driven by residents.”

So what about the effectiveness of Community Councils as a vehicle in which Southwark residents can engage with their communities? It is not a secret that they could be better attended and a somewhat stuffy and formal council meeting can be, dare I say it, off-putting…

Michael agreed with the need to reform: “Community Councils are not really getting the traction among ordinary residents – I have my own personal view on this but my view is just the view of one person and we need to have a consensus on how to possibly reform them.

“We are very fortunate that all Community Councils have a cabinet member on them and I would like residents to have the ability to directly challenge or get questions answered.

“People need to feel empowered to come along to Community Council meetings and get the answers that they want – you should be able to speak to the actual decision maker and get things addressed.”

For many residents (and people reading this) attending meetings isn’t practical or appealing and some will want some direct support from their elected representative. What is the best way to get a local councillor’s attention?

“Every single councillor should respond to every issue that is raised by residents. The issues that touch a nerve with me, that get me up at 2am when I should be sleeping. Tell us how this issue is impacting on your life. For most councillors it is that human element that makes you go beyond your working hours or even your remit.”

So you have an issue that may pull on the heart strings – what’s the next step?

“It is recognising how individual councillors respond the most. Some are very technical (responding to emails etc) but some prefer people to see them in person (surgeries). Others prefer home visits – I actually relish them as they allow me to see it how it is.

“When you make someone smile or help them out – it’s a priceless moment. The times where you get that kind of reaction is when you help people at their lowest points. In a lot of situations you’ve just opened a door or forwarded an email but it can make a big difference.”

Over the course of my discussion with Michael one thing becomes apparent. It’s important to push the point that there are people like Michael who are dedicated to helping the residents of Southwark- the council isn’t all bad!

I had restored his trust in politics

I decided to draw our conversation to a close by fishing for an inspirational story that would compel the next generation to get into local politics or community action! The response was a surprising one.

Michael had recently been contacted by someone in Oxford. That’s right – the story doesn’t even involve a Southwark resident… This particular person had recently read an article in a particular daily national newspaper (rhymes with ‘fail’) detailing a sprawling ‘car park camp’ off the Old Kent road where ‘homeless migrants have lived in untaxed cars for years.’

This person felt compelled to email Michael and raise what they felt were serious child safeguarding concerns for any children living on the site.

Michael can fill in what happened next:

“I’ve got so many other emails to respond to and he wasn’t a resident but it was an important issue. I fired off an email to a senior officer who assured me that they were planning operations with police, social care, the Home Office and parking services to remove vehicles and to take actions where individuals or households are not exercising their EU treaty obligations.”

“They protected those who needed protecting, they helped those that needed helping, and they moved along those that needed moving along.

I got an email back saying that I had restored his trust in politics (I can testify that I have seen the email). It shows how serious our staff take their duties – they were the ones who responded to me asking about this and they are the heroes of the hour.”

Michael ended our exchange as only a local politician could…

“For the majority of councillor it isn’t just any old job to them – they are providing a public service to ensure that every single resident deserves the best opportunity in life. Even if they’re from Oxford!”

Councillor Situ is clearly a dedicated servant to the people of Southwark. Whether you agree with his political beliefs, or some of the decisions that he has been party to in his role in a Labour administration, it cannot be denied that the desire to improve the lives of those who call Southwark their home is in the Situ DNA.

If you have an issue or a problem that you want to get sorted why not drop your local councillor a line to see if they can help? You can find out the details of all councillors serving the borough of Southwark here.

For more information about how local democracy works take a look at our resources here.

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