Sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from the now fenced in Aylesbury Estate, Harriet Harman defiantly defends the council’s regeneration scheme, which has hit national headlines of late and come to symbolise what campaigners are calling the ‘social cleansing’ of working class communities from London.
The Labour parliamentary candidate for Camberwell and Peckham, who has been the sitting MP for more than 30 years, says most of the leaseholders knew what they were getting into when they bought their properties.
The council needs to buy the properties back from leaseholders who bought their homes through Right to Buy, before they can knock the blocks down and build new ones.
A tribunal last year found Southwark had offered under the market rate for some properties but Ms Harman is standing by the council, which she says has acted within the law every step of the way.
“When you buy a place in the middle of an estate you know that’s the situation you are buying into and people have known there’s going to be redevelopment on the Aylesbury for a good twenty years.
“Of course it’s difficult if someone wants to stay there and the estate is being pulled down, but it’s the same if there’s going to be a new road built or a railway – it’s how compulsory purchase works. The idea that the council is being mean to people, I don’t accept that. They are operating the law as it is.”
Ms Harman dismissed the accusation from her opposition that as a Labour MP, she had not stood up to the Labour-run council.
“I’ve always pressed the council to do everything they can to help leaseholders,” she said, adding that the building of 200,000 new homes across Britain would be one of Labour’s key priorities if they were elected in May. She believes Southwark Council has also demonstrated its own commitment to solving the borough’s housing crisis by pledging to build 11,000 new properties over the next 30 years.
“They’ve got the biggest house building programme of all the boroughs in London, including affordable housing.”
With a majority of more than 17,000 at the last general election in 2010, Camberwell and Peckham is considered to be one of the safest Labour seats in the country. Despite the overwhelming odds in her favour, Ms Harman says she treats “every election with the respect it deserves.”
“I have to earn people’s support and I’ve never believed in taking any votes for granted.”
For the last five years, Ms Harman has been the deputy leader of the Labour party as well as an MP, which she admits has meant she has had to spend more time out of the area (most recently in a pink battle bus, appealing for the female vote), but says the two roles feed into one another.
“It’s the needs of people in my constituency that I bring to my role as deputy party leader. I’ve never seen what I do at local level and what I do nationally as contradictory. “It means that I do travel around the country, but actually it’s important for me to be able to play my part in getting Labour elected – because above all what my constituents need is not David Cameron and not a Tory government.”
Ms Harman’s priority if Labour were to be elected would be to abolish the ‘bedroom tax’, which she claims has hit Southwark the hardest out of every borough in the country.
The Labour party has also pledged to invest in more NHS staff, increase the minimum wage, ban zero-hours contracts, extend free childcare hours and freeze energy bills.
But questions have been asked about where Labour would make cuts to public spending, as they have promised to reduce the deficit while making spending commitments.
“I think we’ve been absolutely clear. [With] everything we’ve said we want to do we’ve shown how we can do it.”
Labour is proposing a ‘mansion tax’ on properties worth over £2million, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a pay cut for ministers, a freeze on child benefit and a stop on the winter fuel allowance for the wealthiest pensioners as some ways of making savings, but opposition leaders have argued more ‘hidden’ cuts to public spending in order to bring the deficit down.
“I don’t buy the Tory argument that it’s all about the virtue of doing cuts. The point is to get people better off, improve the services and be clear how you’re going to do that.
“When I’m out and about on the doorstep nobody says ‘you know what, I just think you haven’t told us enough’. You know, I think people can see what we’re saying and that we need to have less extreme spending cuts than the Tories are doing and we need to help the economy get going again.”
Asked if Labour would make more cuts than those outlined in their manifesto, Ms Harman said: “No… not that we’re saying that we think we need to right away.”
A spending commitment Ms Harman thinks is vital for the constituency is to make the two-route option for the Bakerloo line extension a reality – bringing the tube to Camberwell, Peckham and down the Old Kent Road.
“They do two different things. One serves an existing, very densely populated community who are absolutely jam-packed on buses and trains, and the other is to open up and help develop an area which is still very underdeveloped and has a lot of potential for housing.
“I think we should have both, they’re not actually exorbitantly expensive. I’ll be pointing out it’s good value for money. Compared to things like HS2 it’s small fry, but big in importance for the area.”