The decision to put the building of a controversial new council office building on hold due to COVID-19 does not mean large scale redevelopment projects across Southwark will be shelved, says Peter John.
The leader of Southwark Council told the News around 3,000 of 4,000 council staff were currently working from home.
Although plans have been made for a return from September onwards it is likely its offices will not be ‘up and running’ as normal until early 2021.
As this paper has reported, the council has said it is ‘pausing’ the scheme in Peckham, beset by objections from residents from the offset, due to the financial pressures of COVID-19 and changes to workplaces in light of social distancing.
But does this mean a raft of similar infrastructure projects will be parked? “I don’t think so,” he told the News, “It just wasn’t the right time and it was a specific decision about our office strategy.”
Cllr John doesn’t believe similar decisions made by businesses across London will leave Southwark’s prime offices empty, but concedes the financial pressures of the last few months in lockdown could create delays in some of the key projects ahead.
And he does want City Hall to remain in Southwark, describing it as a ‘great shame’ if the proposed relocation to East London went ahead and left its ‘iconic seat’.
“At the moment I am worried about the Bakerloo line extension,” he admits, “not because I don’t think it will happen but because TfL’s finances are terrible.
“The government wants to get on with significant public transport projects but we know that their focus is in the north and the midlands.
“It’s a no-brainer for the government but I think we might have to be patient – even more patient.”
Local authorities have made no bones about the fact that for years they have pushed for social care settlements and more clarity on future central government funding but remain struggling to plan ahead.
Government-backed COVID-19 support is now being wound down but the council now has more Universal Credit claimants and vulnerable residents in need of support than ever.
“We’re expecting another announcement soon on further funding available to us,” Cllr John said.
“The support we have put in place needs to stay without a doubt, but we have difficult decisions to make.
“For example our contractors are saying they need money immediately to keep going, but that is five million not in our budget for things like our leisure facilities.
“There are many other organisations that are going to be challenged but our pockets are not bottomless.”
How the council will envisage running its operations in a post COVID-19 world that potentially faces further waves of the virus will be clearer by September.
This is when the new council plan is put forward as part of a handover to Cllr John’s successor. It is clear priorities, and funding, will pivot.
“There will be streamlined commitments and ongoing COVID-19 support and more information on our green new deal,” Cllr John says.
“There will be a consultation on the plan and we are open to hearing from residents about how they’d like to see support continuing.
“But there are some difficult decisions and things we need to balance. We’re working on this now, and making sure my handover is seamless.”