By Kaye Wiggins
It is one of July’s many cold, rainy evenings as councillor Sally Prentice and I nurse a pot of coffee at Brixton Village’s Cornercopia café.
Like Paul McGlone, profiled in the previous edition of the Bugle, Cllr Prentice represents the Ferndale ward, which runs from Brixton’s town hall, down Acre Lane as far as Clapham High Street, and northwards to encompass the Stockwell Park Estate.
She is also a senior figure within Lambeth Council, as its cabinet member for culture, leisure and the Olympics. Like all of the 15 councillors that represent Brixton’s five main wards, she is from the Labour Party.
However, Cllr Prentice does not live in Brixton – her home is in Kennington, close to the Oval cricket ground. “I love where I live,” she says. “It’s within walking distance of the South Bank. Strolling by the river is one of my favourite things to do.”
I ask how long it takes to get to the ward she represents. “It’s about a 45 minute walk,” she says. “But you can do a lot by email too. That’s increasingly the way people want to deal with their councillors.”
Cllr Prentice is in her tenth continuous year as a Lambeth councillor, and also did a shorter stint in the role during the 1990s.
I ask why she joined the Labour Party, and why she wanted to be elected. “I went to a comprehensive school, and to Oxford University,” she says. “I want that sort of thing to be an option for more young people. I want to help to improve people’s chances in life.”
She also says she is more willing than her fellow councillors to admit she is partly motivated by power. “I enjoy power, I enjoy having the responsibility for decision-making and I enjoy the cut-and-thrust of political arguments,” she says.
“I like being able to walk around an area and say, things are the way they are because of a decision I made or a piece of work I did. Not all councillors would necessarily admit to that,” she says.
Lambeth Country Show fiasco
Cllr Prentice’s cabinet role means she is responsible for overseeing the Lambeth Country Show – although she was not in charge when, earlier this year, the council made an embarrassing u-turn on its decision to cancel this year’s event.
After a powerful public campaign, including a Brixton Blog petition, the council agreed to reinstate a “remodelled” version of the popular Brockwell Park festival, to be held in September.
I ask Cllr Prentice whether, with hindsight, she thinks the council should have handled the decision differently – in particular, whether it should have consulted residents first.
“The approach I’m taking on the country show is this: nobody remembers that the Millennuim Bridge wobbled,” she says.
That is exactly what everybody remembers about it, I reply. It still gets called the ‘wobbly bridge’ now.
“Well, nobody remembers that the London Eye came down for three weeks,” she says.
Okay, I respond (I really don’t remember this), but has the council learned lessons about the way it takes decisions? “Well, I think this year it was just a particular set of circumstances with the Olympics, which I don’t envisage will happen again,” she says.
But should there have been more consultation? “I have a view that councillors are elected to make decisions,” she says. “The country show is a great success and I’m sure this year it will be a great success again.”
But it wouldn’t be happening at all if it weren’t for a local petition, I say. “Look, I’m not going to be drawn down that route,” she replies. “And actually most people are too busy getting on with their lives to think about the issues that politicians and journalists think are very important. Those are often not the issues that local residents are concerned about.”
I can’t help but respond that local residents were very concerned about the country show being cancelled: that is why 2,000 of them signed the petition. Cllr Prentice is (understandably) growing weary of this conversation. “Yes, I know they were,” she says. “But we’ve responded to that and I don’t envisage that set of circumstances would happen again.”
At that point – with coffee and stamina running out – I decide it is best to let the issue lie.