Labour politicians from three of the capital’s most pro-Remain boroughs have painted a daunted picture of growing financial pressures, community anxiety and economic uncertainty as Britain’s departure from the European Union draws nearer.
A gathering of leading councillors from Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, local MPs and others held at Southwark Town Hall on Tuesday, organised by the Local Government Association [LGA], heard that inward migration from the EU, job applications in key sectors and private investment vital to council finances are all being hit as Brexit negotiations continue and the UK’s departure approaches.
In the most wide-ranging contribution, Lambeth leader Lib Peck said that troubling signs included seeing “planning applications go down quite significantly, we estimate to possibly about half of what they were at the same time last year,” a “real shakiness” and reluctance to make commitments among some of her borough’s main business investors, and an increase in existing skills gaps as inward migration falls across the capital as a whole. Both private and public sector employers were beginning to notice a reduction in applicants for jobs, she said, noting that from “talking to our big partners, St Thomas’s Hospital and King’s [College Hospital], that applications for nursing are dramatically falling off.”
Peck also said that there are “challenges around the whole regulatory framework and what that might mean for environmental protection and food safety,” and stressed disquiet among Lambeth’s estimated minimum 45,000 citizens of other EU countries about their rights following withdrawal: “Like Southwark and Lewisham, we pride ourselves on being a borough that is pretty much at ease with itself and does more than tolerate diversity – it actively celebrates it. But I think there are people who very frightened, actually.
“Though it was a very different situation, what’s happened around the Windrush generation has provoked even more anxiety. What you’ve seen there is not only a fundamental unfairness in the way people have been treated, but also an incredibly lengthy, unresponsive, bureaucratic process. I think the fear of EU citizens in Lambeth comes from looking over their shoulders and thinking, is that the sort of think that is to come?” Peck said.
The event, entitled a London Regional Brexit Sounding Board, was also addressed by an LGA adviser, a civil servant from the ministry of housing communities and local government, Bermondsey & Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle, Dulwich & West Norwood MP Helen Hayes, Centre for London research director Richard Brown, Councillor Victoria Mills, who is Southwark’s cabinet member for finance, performance and Brexit, and Councillor Kevin Bonavia, who is Lewisham’s cabinet member for democracy, refugees and accountability.
Echoing some of Peck’s points, Bonavia said that his borough’s two biggest employers, Goldsmiths, University of London and Lewisham Hospital have “substantial numbers of EU migrants working for them, and they are worried.”
Peck concluded that London government needs to continue working cross-party “as one” on “really making the case for bringing investment into London.” She said the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, “is very supportive on this” and that, leaving aside “parochial Londoner points”, succeeding is “about the centrality of the London economy to the UK economy as a whole.”