Who really wrecked Lambeth?: Savaged budgets and bans on councillors were a recipe for scandal, says the borough's former leader, Linda Bellos

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE TORIES want to use the present difficulties at Lambeth as evidence of the rottenness of Labour-controlled local authorities. But it is they who caused many of Lambeth's difficulties.

The current chief executive has spoken of a climate of political instability that has allowed corruption among officers to go unchallenged. He may be right. Instability certainly caused difficulties in Lambeth Labour Party organisations.

In April 1986 the democratically elected representatives of the London Borough of Lambeth were surcharged and disqualified from office for opposing rate-capping. The party organisations had to find 60 new candidates to fight local elections the next month. There was an almighty scramble to find people willing to stand, and it has to be said that they scraped the barrel. Much to everyone's surprise, Labour won not only the 33 seats it had previously held, but also another seven.

In these bizarre circumstances, there was a new administration with only three councillors on the Labour side who had ever been councillors before. I was one of them. The others had a variety of skills and experience. Some were and are highly competent, but some were not.

If, as has been said, corruption goes back more than 10 years, it is unlikely to have been spotted by so new an administration. Yet it was. In 1987 there was an independent inquiry into contracts in the construction department. It was instigated by the chair of construction services and supported by me as leader of the council. Once the inquiry reported, we began to implement its recommendations. I also initiated a series of meetings with officers to try to establish a formal means of scrutinising all contracts. What I was actually trying to introduce was contracts compliance, to establish an agreed procedure that would give all potential contractors an equal opportunity.

I did not succeed, and one of the main reasons was that the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley, put every obstacle in the way of introducing a system of contracts compliance. Lambeth council was therefore confronted not only with the real legislative difficulties faced by all local government during the long reign of Margaret Thatcher, but also with the inexperience of most of its councillors and political in-fighting stemming from disagreement about whether to cut jobs and necessary services just because we did not have the money to sustain them.

I made my own position very clear. Not only did I advocate cuts, I actually implemented them. And the cuts distracted councillors from the inquiry into corruption. We were either imposing them or fighting them. This may not seem much of an excuse, but the government had set an agenda. It may not have been realistic, or even reasonable, but it was the law and we had either to comply with it or risk the same fate as our predecessors.

The cuts were not a minor political issue. The Government was demanding that Lambeth reduce its budget by 25 per cent, a sum of pounds 60m. Of course, there was heated and passionate political argument about such a vast and daunting task. How could it have been otherwise? And other issues went on to the back burner. One result was that I and my colleagues who had implemented the cuts lost the support of the local Labour Party, and we stood down from office rather than continue without political support.

These political arguments have continued, however, and were exacerbated by the disciplinary action of the Labour Party against councillors who opposed the cuts. This was all a tremendous diversion that took councillors away from their important duty to represent local people and deliver vital services to the community.

In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that councillors in Lambeth have not done enough to eradicate corruption. So far as I am aware, however, councillors have been accused not of being corrupt but of not doing their jobs properly.

Some of the blame must rest with councillors, myself included, but much rests with a government that was intent on imposing the poll tax, compulsory competitive tendering, the abolition of the GLC and Ilea, and at least 100 other pieces of legislation on local government. Councillors are by and large ill-equipped to cope with this complexity. They are merely local people with a sense of civic duty, they are not paid, and they are held in low esteem by this government - especially if they happen also to be members of the Labour Party.

Comments