Calls from irate residents and opposition councillors for Cllr Leo Pollak to resign as a councillor have so far been batted away by Southwark Labour’s leadership.
Last week it emerged that Cllr Pollak set up a Twitter account that argued with residents over Southwark Council housing schemes. He resigned from the Cabinet, but has stayed on as a ward councillor.
Lib Dem leader Nick Johnson has described Pollak’s position as ‘untenable’, with fellow group councillors Anood Al-Samerai blasting the account as a ‘propaganda machine’, and Humaira Ali saying she was ‘livid’. The Green Party’s former election candidate Claire Sheppard said the situation was ‘appalling’ and argued Pollak should also step down as a councillor.
This week Labour leader Kieron Williams gave no indication that Cllr Pollak would be asked to step down, telling the News: “The mistake made by Cllr Pollak has rightly led to him apologising to all those affected and resigning from his cabinet role.
“Whilst he primarily used this Twitter account to champion the building of new council homes, I am sorry to say that at times he went about that in a way that did not meet the high standards I expect of everyone in my cabinet; that is why I accepted his resignation as cabinet member for housing.
“It is a decision I made with a heavy heart, as I know his work delivering new and better council homes has transformed thousands of lives for the better. Having spoken to him at length, I know he is deeply and genuinely sorry for that mistake.
“I hope he will learn the lessons from this serious error as he continues to work hard to serve the residents in his ward.”
Lewis Shaffer, from the Save Priory Court campaign – who was dismissed by the ‘SouthwarkYIMBY’ account as a ‘serial blusterer’ said he believed Cllr Pollak should resign and called the council to pause the ‘infill’ plans that had ignited the war of words in the first place.
Although there is huge support for new council housing across the borough, the campaigner believes ultimately tenants will lose out the most through overdevelopment and higher density housing – in an already overcrowded borough and describes the schemes as an ‘overreaction’ to historic failings in estate redevelopments like the Heygate.
“Our main goal is to make people realise that infilling on council estates increases density and reduces amenities for estate residents.
“In Priory Court they want to build nine new homes, a small part of what is actually needed and there is land available elsewhere to do that.
“It’s just that building on council owned land already is seemingly easy.
“He argued that I don’t have support – but 47 out of 72 flats signed our petition.”
Cllr Pollak resigned and referred himself to the council’s monitoring officer over the Twitter account last week.
In an unequivocal public apology, he said he would accept whatever recommendations were made after an investigation.
The News attempted to contact Cllr Pollak this week, to ask whether he intended to resign as a ward councillor.
During Wednesday’s council assembly, he publicly apologised to colleagues and residents and gave the following speech: “I want to apologise to residents in Southwark, councillor and officer colleagues, and to the wider tenants movement, for using an unattributed twitter account to promote and defend council house-building, all communications from which should be regarded as from me personally.
“I have resigned from my role as a cabinet member because it is critically important that my mistakes don’t in any way impede the collective effort needed to provide new council homes that gives hope to so many thousands of people in our borough living in overcrowded and inadequate housing.
“I have attended countless meetings and walkabouts with residents about new homes projects and sought to engage directly with many groups in resolving issues with design, mitigating impacts and the establishing the wider resident benefit.
“On the whole, most people have always appreciated the urgency and imperative to build council homes in the borough, and I’m always grateful for the time and commitment so many residents give in supporting and helping steer projects on their estate.
“While my goal has always been to improve existing estates and build high quality new council homes, I have always understood the anxieties of people who are concerned about changes to the built environment around them, and have regularly rallied against clumsy development.
“This is partly why I changed the approach of new homes projects to be framed as delivering on a wider estate improvement plan to ensure these projects deliver an uplift in everyone’s living environment, as well as creating structures that give residents a strong and decisive influence over the brief-writing and design process.
“I know well that even with these efforts to engage and involve, we will never win the hearts and minds of all residents affected by every scheme, and I should not have used this Twitter account to challenge alternative views in that way. I know this is a serious and silly error and I apologise.
“The controversy over my error and resignation doesn’t alter the fact that our borough faces a huge challenge in meeting residents’ housing needs in the midst of a broken housing crisis.
“I’m proud of the progress made under my tenure in cabinet and extremely sorry that it has been cut short by a foolish mistake, but I am confident the council will continue to deliver on our ambitions to improve the lives of all our residents.”
Those to show support for Cllr Pollak, and praise his tenure in cabinet include Labour colleagues such as former council leader Peter John, and readers supportive of projects including the ‘great estates’ programme and infill plans.
One reader wrote in to the News to comment: “I think both sides have a point. More housing is needed for those who need it.
“People talking of ‘littering the landscape’ are callously disregarding the urgent housing needs of many. But green space is so important for residents and costs to the quality of life of existing residents should be kept to a minimum.”
On Twitter, Martin Johnson responded to those who called for the councillors full resignation: “Did Leo make a big mistake? Yes. Had he put his heart and soul into providing extra homes for needy local people? Yes.”
The News understands Cllr Stephanie Cryan has interim responsibility for the housing portfolio until a new cabinet member is appointed.