With eight years under his belt as leader of the ruling party in Southwark, Peter John is confident voters will see Labour has an “exceptional” track record of delivering on its promises in the borough – but accepts they have been “slower” when it comes to council homes and broadband.
The local party leader is hoping to take control of the council for another four years – and he believes his track record since 2010 of delivering free healthy school meals and free swim and gym, and his commitment to building affordable housing will stand him in good stead.
But he isn’t afraid to admit that the Labour administration has been slow in reaching its own ambitious target of building 1,500 council homes by 2018 – and that poor broadband speeds are still plaguing residents in some parts of the borough, particularly in Rotherhithe.
“We’ve been slower on delivering council homes than we had hoped but we are up to 535 now and we’ll get to where we need to be, but maybe a year later than we had hoped,” he told the News.
“Our target remains the most ambitious of any council in the country – not just London – so our commitment to and belief in council housing remains absolute and we will carry on delivering.
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“Obviously we would not have said we could build 1,500 by 2018 if we didn’t think we would get there, but it’s been a slower and harder process than we had imagined back in 2014.
“Broadband in Rotherhithe is another one where we made slower progress, but we are making real progress there.”
When pushed on Liberal Democrat criticisms that Southwark Labour could find £2,000 to spend annually on fresh flowers – and Conservative claims that it had calculated where savings could be made to buy eight police officers through the Met Patrol Plus Scheme – Mr John said the council had to “balance its priorities”.
“We could get rid of flowers and have £2,000 but it’s not a game changer,” he said.
“We had 40 per cent cut from our budget by central government in 2010.
“We are just not in a position where we can save and bail out the police as well.
“I have regular conversations with the borough commander Simon Messinger and there are no suggestions from him that this [the scheme] would be a complete game changer at all – I think it would be a token gesture really.”
“We’ve continued to have a wardens presence in the borough since 2010, which a lot of boroughs don’t have, and at one stage we did invest into some matched funding in night-time police in the borough,” he added.
“I think our budgets are really challenged at the moment and I think what’s come out loud and clear in the last few months is that the government really needs to step up – that’s who we look to to provide our police.”
The politician is not particularly concerned about losing EU nationals’ votes to the Liberal Democrats, who are the only clear anti-Brexit party nationally, as he doesn’t believe constituents in Southwark see them as having any influence on the debate.
“The EU nationals on the doorstep are not saying that to me,” he said. “Sometimes people might get frustrated that we haven’t gone as far as they would like in calling for a second referendum and things, but they do think we have an influence on the debate.”
And he does not believe voters locally will penalise Labour over the anti-Semitism row nationally.
“We are absolutely determined as a party nationally to stamp it [anti-Semitism] out and I don’t think it’s going to be a game changer in terms of how people will vote because I think they will vote locally on the basis of our record and our manifesto,” he said.
“If we found examples of that locally we would do everything to stamp it out. I think people see we are on the side of people who are hardworking and vulnerable locally and need the greatest help up – and I do think our politics chimes with [Labour party leader] Jeremy [Corbyn]’s and the party nationally.”
Mr John said that the 2018 Southwark Labour manifesto was “evolutionary rather than revolutionary” compared to the last two local elections.
The party proposes to make sure 50 per cent of all housing built on council land will be let at council rents, give primary-aged children a free theatre trip every year, set up a dedicated construction company to build the borough’s future council homes, and further campaign for a tube station at Bricklayers Arms.
Southwark Labour’s key pledges:
We’ve helped over 5,000 local people into work; we will help 5,000 more and create 2,500 new apprenticeships
We’re building 11,000 council homes by 2043, with the next 1,000 done by 2022
We will establish a Southwark Construction Company to build the homes and develop the skills our borough needs
We’ve introduced free swim and gym for all our residents, and now we’ll make swimming lessons free
We’ve introduced Free Healthy School Meals to all primary school children, and now we’ll extend it to school nurseries too