Ahead of our September 11th assembly on the crisis, Sharon Borthwick writes on the changes in social composition and public services in Peckham in recent years, and the meaning of the crisis and cuts plans.
The sign outside Academy at Peckham reads, “Our facilities are unparalleled by any other school in Britain”. And well they might be! But the ‘facilities’ spoken of here are nothing to do with the vast playing fields of Eton. There are no well-stocked libraries. They can’t boast a rowing lake or a Latin Master. Learning for learning’s sake is not the object here. The facilities consist of things such as a “Professional Hospitality and Catering Suite” and a “Hairdressing and Beauty Salon”.
The children of Peckham are being told what career paths they are cut out for. Though academies are mostly funded by public money, Lord Harris of Peckham is the chief ‘sponsor’ of Academy at Peckham and nine other South London Academies; he likes them all to bear his name. Harris is a Conservative member of the House of Lords and contributes substantial donations to his party; he is also a vocal opponent of gay rights. The Academy at Peckham is set to make job cuts, specifically in support staff.
Cuts to public services are going to affect the young in Peckham as elsewhere. Our coalition rulers will continue New Labour’s policy of privatisation and cutting back on public services, but will be even more brutal about it. Most people in Britain seem to know of Peckham even if they don’t know where it is. If it’s not through watching Only Fools and Horses (filmed in Bristol) it will be because of gun and knife violence. In 2002 a youth centre was opened and dedicated to the memory of Damilola Taylor, a child killed at the hands of other children on the notorious North Peckham Estate in November 2000. But this wasn’t to be an additional youth centre for the community but rather instead of other amenities, which were closed. Locals complained that there was now nowhere catering to the under 11s, pertinent as Damilola was 10 years old when he died.
Peckham is described as multiply deprived on Southwark council’s website, with low rates of educational achievement and a high rate of unemployment, many having few or no skills and qualifications. A 2009 Southwark NUT report describes results at Academy at Peckham as “underwhelming”. There is an extremely high rate of teenage pregnancy here as compared to the rest of the country. A Mayor of London report on Southwark says, “Peckham, Newington and Camberwell in the centre of the borough are characterized by some of the most deprived communities in the country albeit with pockets of affluence.” A 2004 report by the National Office for Statistics estimates the density of population in Southwark as averaging 8,827 people per square kilometre compared with an average of 4,721 for the whole of London. Yet when new builds are made they are rammed into these areas leaving more affluent areas of the borough leafy and suburban, in fact part of Dulwich which borders Peckham is described as Dulwich Village and there is a Blackheath Village in the borough of Lewisham, a neighbour to Southwark.
Housing is a key issue for the people of Southwark as they have had to live in some of the worst designed estates ever built. The North Peckham Estate was eventually pulled down and there are plans afoot to do the same to the Aylesbury Estate, another vast and hideously ugly development built between 1969 and 1975 covering all that was formerly Walworth Common. The trouble here is that there is no intention of building the same amount of social housing being bulldozed, yet 7,500 people will need re-housing. According to a Telegraph article, “In 1995, 90% of homes [in Peckham] were local authority owned, by 2002, 60% are”. A great amount of money was recently spent on regenerating Peckham, a programme started in 1998 and there have been some improvements and more ‘human-scaled’ builds made but some of the work has been shoddy and not of actual benefit to the community. Peckham Pulse Leisure Centre, for instance still does not have a working swimming pool. Its been beset with problems from the start. The famous award winning Peckham library is not a library! At least, only an ill-stocked part of a floor is a ‘library’ the rest are council offices.
Peckham has a very diverse community. According to a 2001 survey, black Africans make up the largest part of the populace here and it is the biggest African community anywhere in the country. There are almost as many white British and about a third as many Black Caribbean. There are also small populations of black ‘others’, white ‘others’, Chinese and Indian. Peckham has the biggest shopping centre in Southwark, located in Rye Lane, but there aren’t the big department stores. Of the big high street names there is a Morrisons, a Primark, Boots, Superdrug and Mothercare. Most of the rest is made up of small shops selling some amazing looking vegetables and other foods reflecting the large African community. There are many shops selling beauty products and hairpieces, there are hairdressing salons, a nailbar and a Chinese herbalist for some examples. There are the usual takeaways, McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King but few other places to eat, very much opposite to neighbouring Dulwich.
For entertainment there is the multiplex cinema and some clubs. Many of the pubs have closed though the Wetherspoons is thriving. Many artists have set up home here attracted by cheap rents, but some of their projects are being threatened with closure. There is currently a facebook group in aid of saving Area 10, project Space. Over the years many squats have opened and some social initiatives set up by some of the squatters. In the 1990s the old dole office was squatted, and bands played for free. Ratstar Squat has recently started up in Camberwell and has film nights, political awareness talks with guest speakers and fund raising evenings for causes such as Palestine. But public spaces are being fought over; many buildings have been bought by Evangelical Churches. The old bingo hall in Camberwell (formerly a cinema) has recently gone to one such church to spite a large local petition asking for it to be used for the benefit of the whole community as a social centre.
Peckham will be particularly hard hit by the cuts. Attacks on benefits will be tough on this community. A 2005 report said that unemployment here was almost double the national average. 14% of the unemployed then were aged 50 or over, 14% had never worked and 34% were long term unemployed. There is a higher rate of disability and long term chronic illness here than the national average and much drug use. There are many single parent families. Southwark has already endured cutbacks under the previous regime. Blair’s government closed the Maudsley Emergency Clinic to spite much local outcry. Schools and nurseries have already closed. Five local libraries are said to be closing. Now we have the long awaited East London Line they are planning to reduce trains, with a view to shutting down the South London Line which serves, for instance, Kings’ College hospital staff and patients. Of employment and employment opportunities here many are in the public sector: Southwark has three major hospitals. Industry is very small scale with some workshops employed in light manufacturing and builder’s yards, other businesses being made up of retail outlets, the usual banks and estate agents.
On 24th July a Southwark anti cuts meeting was held hosted by Southwark Trades council 70ish people were in attendance including some local trade unionists, SWP members and a few Workers’ Liberty people and a few Labour supporters. As expected, and like other local boroughs Lewisham and Lambeth, the council confirmed that it was going to accept the cuts as inevitable. Councillor Peter John (New Labour), head of Southwark Council actually had the nerve to say that until such a time as there was a Labour party in power again he was powerless. He was rightly heckled from the floor. There were some speeches by other members of the panel talking about resistance and their experience of it such as Clare Solomon describing the sit in at Middlesex University in the face of closure of an entire department. We all added our names to a register of supporters. I suppose there will be more meetings but I am yet to hear of any really inspiring initiatives.