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A Green Voice for Southwark

Eleanor Margolies is standing up for Camberwell and Peckham in 2018

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Southwark Council

Signs matter

Two new blocks of flats on the East Dulwich Estate were completed in 2017. When residents moved in, the signs on the blocks looked like this.

Southdown sign

The signs are a little larger than A3, with very low contrast between the brushed aluminium base and the black lettering. They are not illuminated at night.

Compare the signs on the adjacent block of flats. Both the original 1930s tile, and the more recent Southwark Council sign, use strong black and white contrast, and individual letters are two or three times as large as those on the 2017 sign.

older signage

Being able to find an address matters:

  • for the emergency services
  • for non-emergency but essential visits, with staff often working on very tight schedules: community nurses and midwives, ambulances taking people to hospital appointments, Dial-a-Ride drivers, carers, tradespeople carrying out repairs
  • for taxis and delivery services, from post office to pizza
  • for friends and relatives …

The importance of legible signage for residents’ safety was the main reason that I asked council officers to look at whether these signs were large and clear enough.

But signs speak of more than just a name.

I have no doubt that the brushed aluminium was chosen to look less ‘council estate’ than the white and turquoise Southwark sign pictured above. This follows the much vaunted aim of ‘tenure blind’ housing – that is, no one should be able to tell from the outside if a flat is owned by the council, a housing association or a private individual.

So far, so uncontroversial. But signs on blocks of flats should be as large and clear as signs on streets. When people can’t find their way, they get annoyed. At night, they can get anxious about being lost, or even about looking lost, in an unfamiliar place. Confusing layout, a lack of signs, a lack of landmarks, blocks that all look the same – these are long-standing complaints about council estates, and contribute to the cliché of ‘intimidating’ estates. Signs also tell a story about the social meaning of different types of housing. In this case, a superficial image (black on silver = classy residential) has been prioritised above legibility.

Analogue accessibility

Isn’t this irrelevant now everyone uses smartphones? Have a look.

Screenshot-2018-1-2 Estate near east dulwich

Google Maps does not give the names of the blocks of flats on the estate – they are simply shown as blank rectangles. The detail on Open Street Maps tends to be much richer:

Screenshot-2018-1-2 OpenStreetMap

And East Dulwich in particular has benefitted from the work of Tom Chance who labelled many of these blocks. Volunteers like Tom have made a vital, largely unsung, contribution to integrating social housing into the digital city. But neither of these online maps yet shows our two new blocks, Gatebeck and Southdown, despite them being fully occupied.

Even if the maps did show the names of all the blocks of flats, navigating by GPS/smartphone is not foolproof. Not everyone has a smartphone. Setting out from a railway station or bus stop with phone in hand is discouraged by the police. Data and charge can run out.

Nine months (and counting)

And so I asked about the signs at the East Dulwich Estate Regeneration Project Team meeting in March 2017. Council officers agreed that the signs were too small and should be replaced. I assumed that they would be. At monthly ‘project team’ meetings since then (in person or by email), I have asked about the progress in replacing them. At the end of September 2017, I was told that new signs were ‘going to be ordered’. But as I write, in January 2018, nothing’s changed.

So residents of these new blocks have now spent nine months without a legible sign showing visitors or emergency services where they live.

What the saga of the signs indicates to me is just how hard it is to get things fixed by Southwark Council – even when a repair or alteration has been agreed – when there are so many layers of outsourcing and sub-contracting. These two blocks were built for Southwark Council by Osborne, ‘one of the leading construction businesses in the UK’  with dozens of sub-contractors working under them. It’s long after the normal ‘snagging’ period. The contractors have moved off the site. As residents, we no longer have regular meetings with Osborne or with staff in the ‘direct delivery’ department of the council. Council officers still have the unenviable job of chasing contractors to finish the job properly, but seem to lack the time or will to do so.

If this repair is delayed long enough, the period of the contractor’s liability to ‘make good’ any defects will be over. In that case, either the illegible signs remain in place, causing inconvenience and potential risk to residents, or they are replaced by the council, at the taxpayers’ cost. Who benefits?

 

 

 

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The small stuff that matters

‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ is generally good advice. But it’s at the small scale that high level policies are implemented, paving stone by paving stone. Things that seem like small decisions can have long-lasting effects on the way people feel and behave. So while national politics is in turmoil, a friend and I have been knocking on our neighbours’ doors to ask them about the shrubs and bricks they pass every day.

whaddon and melbreak pathThis photo shows a footpath running between Pytchley Road and Albrighton Road, on the East Dulwich Estate. It’s used by residents of the adjacent blocks, and also by parents and children heading to local primary schools, the East Dulwich Community Nursery and the Albrighton Community Centre. It’s a good way to avoid the noise and pollution of the main road, and offers the only step-free route up this part of the hill between Dog Kennel Hill and Bromar Road.

Southwark Council plans to demolish the large brick planter and replace it with four car parking spaces. Does this make any sense at a time when everyone wants to encourage walking instead of the use of private cars? What do Southwark Council’s policies say?

Strategic Policy 5 on Healthy, active lives of the Preferred Option of the New Southwark Plan states that ‘New policies for improving town centres, building schools, and providing the facilities for cycling and walking will address physical and mental health issues to improve the every day experiences of residents, workers and shoppers.Strategic Policy 6 Cleaner Greener Safer states that ‘Southwark will be a place where walking, cycling and public transport is the most convenient, safe and attractive way to move around. We will protect and improve our network of open spaces, trees and biodiverse habitats and green corridors that make places open and attractive.’

It’s good stuff. The council’s high level policies recognise the importance of greenery in tackling air pollution, unsustainable carbon consumption and public health problems. And yet in this small corner of the borough, council officers persist with a plan that flies in the face of those policies.

As residents, we’ve objected to this detail of the plan since it was first proposed in 2013. We’ve attended monthly Regeneration Project Team meetings, and made a deputation to the planning committee in 2013. As a result of our comments, the Planning department said that the plans must be revised to preserve step-free access through the courtyard (the original plans had replaced a sloping footpath with steps). But the revised plans still included new car parking spaces and footpaths that were a mere 1.2 metres wide at some points. This makes it hard for pedestrians to pass – if two people pushing buggies in opposite directions met, one would have to reverse back!

widths

Image from a Scottish Government document on designing streets. The accompanying notes state: ‘In lightly used streets (such as those with a purely residential function), the minimum unobstructed width for pedestrians should generally be 2 m’.

 

Last month an amended plan was presented to us, increasing the footpath width to 1.8m. But it still narrows the footpath significantly and would force pedestrians to follow a tight ‘dogleg’ path round Melbreak House, creating a new blindspot. By reducing visibility and increasing the chance of conflict between pedestrians heading in opposite directions, it is likely to make walking here feel less pleasant and less safe at night.

The design also depends on demolishing a large brick planter containing shrubs. Air pollution is an acknowledged public health emergency in London. Trees and shrubs play a significant role in trapping particulates and taking them out of the air, as well as producing oxygen. We should be planting more, not cutting them down. Here, the proposed car parking spaces would back onto a children’s playground – an undesirable combination from the point of view both of physical safety and air pollution. Greenery also helps to absorb sound – an important consideration since blocks of flats can create hard ‘corridors’ that bounce and amplify street sounds. And replacing a large bed of shrubs with tarmac is contrary to all the current thinking on the need for sustainable urban drainage.

So what of the assumed demand for car parking? In this part of the borough in 2011, 36% of residents owned cars. Census figures show car ownership is falling across London. Our common space should not be designed only for the presumed needs of a minority: after all, every car owner also uses pavements and footpaths to get to their front door. Residents who own cars here would also be affected by the loss of space for pedestrians and the loss of greenery; they also have children who use the playground. Though there has been pressure on parking while Albrighton and Pytchley Roads have been closed off for building work, these nearby streets will offer plenty of spaces once they reopen.

Previously, there were no private car parking spaces at this entrance to the courtyard: a ‘deliveries/emergency access only’ entrance would ensure that delivery vans and emergency vehicles can park close to the residential blocks when needed.

So far, we’ve spoken to about half the residents in this courtyard. Everyone we’ve spoken to – including car owners – has signed our petition (below). We’re now waiting to see how the council officers responsible for New Homes and Regeneration will respond.

On balance, I think it’s worth sweating the small stuff here. After all, decisions about bricks and mortar, trees and public space are likely to last for a generation.

We, the undersigned, ask Southwark Council officers responsible for New Homes and Regeneration to change their current plans for Melbreak and Whaddon courtyard on the East Dulwich Estate. We urge them to follow the council’s own policies on walking, biodiversity and green spaces. These policies are meant to protect and improve the trees and shrubs around our homes and make sure that walking to school and shops is safe and convenient. We are asking for a new design that

a) keeps the flowerbed

b) keeps a wide pavement

c) keeps access for bin-trucks, deliveries and emergency vehicles only.

Work towards a greener Southwark continues

Letter published in Southwark News 22 October 2015

At the by-election on 15 October, Octavia Lamb (Labour Party) was elected as a councillor for South Camberwell. Southwark Green Party wishes her well in her new role.

Southwark Green Party will continue to work with local campaign groups to hold the Labour-led council to account. We call on the council

  • to stop pushing out residents to boost developers’ profits,
  • to abandon plans to bulldoze Southwark Woods,
  • to take Southwark’s investments out of dirty fossil fuel companies, and
  • to clean up our air, providing health information to residents and lobbying TfL to provide cleaner buses and better walking and cycling infrastructure.

Please keep telling us your concerns about the area as well as your ideas to make it a better place to live. You can contact Eleanor directly by sending an email to eleanor.margolies [@] southwark.greenparty.org.uk

Council to rip out its own ‘green lung’ to bury the dead

Camberwell Old Cemetery
Camberwell Old Cemetery has become a sanctuary for wildlife

On 6 October, the council’s own Planning Committee passed an application from Southwark Council to clear 10 acres of urban woodland in Camberwell Old and New Cemeteries to create 5,000 spaces for new burials.

This wild oasis in our borough, a Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, is a “green lung” in south London and a sanctuary for wildlife. Local residents have been fighting to save it for more than a year, and Save Southwark Woods’ petition has so far been signed by nearly 10,000 people, including 1,500 in the surrounding Peckham Rye ward. The planning application itself received more than 600 individual objections – no easy feat, considering how difficult it can be to register an objection on the council’s website.

There were no supporters of the application present when campaigners put forward objections to the Planning Committee on 6 October. Calls for a public consultation had previously been rejected, although the council had agreed to a review by its Overview and Scrutiny Committee. This committee was chaired by Gavin Edwards, Labour councillor for Peckham Rye. Unsurprisingly, the committee found in favour of the council.

Southwark Green Party has supported the SSW campaign from the start. We are deeply concerned by the council’s decision to destroy the woods, which are much valued by walkers and local residents. The council is ignoring the pledge in its own New Southwark Plan “to provide more green infrastructure and to promote opportunities for healthy activities”.

The planned works will cause air, water and noise pollution, with the excavation and reprocessing in the woods of 4,000 tonnes of illegally dumped construction material, and the transporting of a further 8,000 tonnes of rubble off site over many months.

Labour councillors seem determined to press ahead with these disastrous plans despite strong opposition from people in the area. According to Save Southwark Woods, Peckham Rye Ward Councillor Vikki Mills ‘ignored the opposition of more than 1,500 residents in her ward to back these destructive plans’. (More about the Planning Committee’s decision can be found here.)

This Thursday, there will be a by-election in South Camberwell, the ward that council leader Peter John also represents. In the 2014 elections, Southwark Green Party came second in this ward with more votes than the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives combined. We are now calling on voters across the political divide to support our candidate, Eleanor Margolies, who has a strong track record on fighting to protect trees and green spaces in Southwark. A Green vote in South Camberwell is a vote for woodlands, for wildlife and for local democracy.

Gravestone in Camberwell Old Cemetery
Gravestone in Camberwell Old Cemetery

Words: Tracey Beresford

 

Eleanor Margolies shines at South Camberwell hustings

A councillor-worthy performance at the hustings on 8 October saw Green Party candidate Eleanor Margolies’ odds for winning the by-election slashed, while Labour party candidate Octavia Lamb struggled to make an impact.

Photo of the hustings panel
Eleanor Margolies, Octavia Lamb, Linda Craig, Ben Maitland, Chris Mottau, Stephen Govier

All five candidates in the South Camberwell by-election participated in the well-attended hustings at the Albrighton Centre, expertly chaired by Linda Craig. The candidates responded to questions from the audience about the Dulwich Hamlet FC grounds, the future of Peckham Rye station and what they would do first, once elected.

It was pleasing to see that all candidates had good knowledge of local issues and that there was common ground on many themes. Fascinatingly, even Conservative candidate Chris Mottau spoke out in favour of divesting Southwark Council’s pension funds from fossil fuels, after Eleanor Margolies raised this in her opening presentation. Octavia Lamb, last to speak on this subject, could only offer that she “personally” supported the aims of Fossil Free Southwark, but did not say how she would persuade her Labour colleagues at the council, who have so far ignored calls for divestment.

Liberal Democrat candidate Ben Maitland and the All People’s Party’s Stephen Govier repeatedly stated that Southwark Council does not need another Labour councillor, while Chris Mottau compared the Labour dominance on the council to a one-party state. Eleanor Margolies quoted a report from the Electoral Reform Society raising concern about the integrity of councils where one party holds on to power for a long time. She cited the achievements of Green councillors on councils in Lambeth and Lewisham, as well as the Green Party’s success in getting Southwark to pay its staff London Living Wage – highlighting the difference that one Green councillor can make.

Eleanor Margolies speaking at the hustings
Eleanor Margolies at the South Camberwell hustings

Throughout the evening there was no convincing argument from Octavia Lamb to persuade the audience of the need to elect another Labour councillor on top of the 47 already there. She stated that she was passionate about casework, and that it was important to consult with the community. When the council’s track record on communication with citizens was raised, she could only concede that there was room for improvement, while Eleanor Margolies offered several constructive suggestions on how Southwark Council could provide a better service.

South Camberwell has an interesting by-election ahead. These hustings have certainly given voters something to think about.

Text by Remco van der Stoep. Photos by Nick Hooper.

Question the candidates on Thursday 8 October

Hustings poster draft

FREE PUBLIC HUSTINGS
7.30pm Thursday 8 October 2015
Albrighton Community Centre, East Dulwich Estate SE22 8AH
(opposite Sainsburys on Dog Kennel Hill)
A chance to meet the candidates, question them on the issues that matter most to you, and hear what they have to say.
Chaired by Linda Craig.

South Camberwell is represented by three Councillors, one of whom has stepped down, triggering a by-election on Thursday 15 October. Our Councillors are a crucial part of the local community and represent it on the Council.
The Council is responsible for local services including schools, housing, roads, social services, waste and recycling, the protection of our built and natural environment, leisure facilities and libraries.

Come along and ensure your voice is heard.

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