A Brixton councillor and former Lambeth council cabinet member who broke ranks with the ruling Labour group of the council over its libraries policy has explained her decision.
And, while she said the Conservative government was “the real villain” of the piece, treating her constituents “like dirt”, her statement added several more areas where she believes the council has lost sight of what its communities want and need.
She also appeared to suggest that there might be other issues that are not yet in the pubic domain, saying: “We don’t know what we don’t know”.
Cllr Rachel Heywood represents the Coldharbour ward in Brixton. The Minet library which, like the Carnegie, has been closed to be turned into a “healthy living centre”, is just to the north of her ward.
The former cabinet member for communities and community safety backed campaigners against the council’s library plans from the platform at a rally in Windrush Square last Saturday.
“Our communities are in crisis and the gap between wealth and poverty is growing,” she said in her statement.
Research had found that Lambeth has the greatest level of inequality in England and Wales based on health, housing, employment and education.
“I believe absolutely – in fact I know,” she said, “that it is services such as those provided by libraries and by children’s centres that begin to bridge the gap, that provide support, that prevent the crisis that is otherwise inevitable.”
They were not “an expensive luxury” but a small investment with a handsome return.
She said that by defying the political leadership of the council she had put her role as a councilor “at significant risk”.
But, she went on: “I know I did the right thing, and I don’t regret it.
“Lambeth’s cabinet is faced with the most difficult of tasks and they deserve our support for taking it on: I am truly sad I had to withdraw mine, and so publicly.
“But there are good ways and less good ways of doing the unthinkable, and in a borough like ours the good way must always involve and respect our remarkable communities, drawing upon their wisdom, commitment and generosity to find the best possible solution in a bad situation.”
She said that at times of crisis, elites could lose sight of what real life is like and that libraries were not the only areas of council policy where this was happening in Lambeth.
Road closures at Loughborough Junction, for instance, had been ill-planned and local people “consistently ignored”.
No less damaging to the council’s reputation was the council’s “apparent collusion” with Network Rail “or at least their failure to intervene” in closing businesses in Brixton’s arches.
“The list goes on,” she said: “The Garden Bridge, Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens are amongst those in the public domain, but of course we don’t know what we don’t know.”
She said the “real villain” was the Conservative party of “Cameron and his bully boys”.
They had penalised people in her ward working in two or three jobs just to pay the rent and keep their children in school uniform and shoes.
“They have treated our doctors and nurses, our teachers, our carers and the people who drive the engine of the economy, like dirt.
“What they have done has been catastrophic for Lambeth, it has driven many people to – and some over – the edge.
“And that is why I had no choice but to break ranks, and to ask, as I do now, that we go back to the community, listen to them and work with them to turn this shocking state of affairs around.
“It isn’t just about the libraries, although they are a powerful example of a substantial breakdown in trust and communication between the electorate and the elected, and of an imposed ‘solution’ which does not provide any answers.
“There is a solution for the libraries and it has already been identified.
“Sometimes the bravest act, and the one commanding most respect, is to admit that a change in direction is what is needed.
“The people of Lambeth want to help and they know how to, I believe we should trust the people who gave us their mandate and move forward, not apart but together.”
You can download the full statement here.
New protest, new libraries chief
Library protesters plan to demonstrate again this evening (13 April), this time outside the annual meeting of the council at 7pm at Elm Green School near Tulse Hill station.
The meeting will allocate new roles to council cabinet members, with responsibility for libraries passing from Cllr Jane Edbrooke to Cllr Jack Hopkins, whose portfolio will also include “regeneration and planning” and encouraging economic development.
He will be responsible for “encouraging economic development in our town centres and making the borough an attractive place for businesses to thrive” as well as assets including “parks, leisure services and libraries,” the council said.
Under the council’s published plan for the Minet and Carnegie libraries, its leisure provider, GLL, will be running the “healthy living centres” in them which, opponents say, will be no more than gyms with books.
The Labour group has rejected this description.
Hopkins will also be “driving a major events strategy to attract and boost tourism locally including working with Lambeth businesses to develop a vibrant, yet safe, night-time economy.”