Esther is a Peckham resident and the Planning Caseworker at Southwark Law Centre. She is a very keen cyclist and can often be found cycling around South London, as well as venturing further afield into Kent and Surrey on the weekends.
On a cold and dreary January day, in the middle of the formal consultation period on the New Southwark Plan, I hopped on my trusty Bergamont commuter bike to take a tour of Southwark’s libraries.
Not because I was after some inspirational writing to lift me out of the January blues, or even to return overdue library books. I was off to make sure that Southwark Council was complying with its “Statement of Representations Procedure”: a document that it is legally required to produce when preparing a new draft Local Plan for the final submission stage before it is adopted.
The Statement of Representations Procedure for the New Southwark Plan lists all the locations where the final “Proposed Submission Version” of the New Southwark Plan and its supporting documents can be viewed by members of the public, and their opening hours. Essentially this list comprises all of the libraries in Southwark, and two MySouthwark Service Points. As well as being a legal requirement, it’s important that hard copies of these documents are available for reference: for those who don’t have access to a computer or printer, or find it difficult to read 350-page documents on a screen.
My office is next to Rye Lane, so the first stop was Peckham Library (a building I have grown to love in the 5 years that I have lived in this part of London).
This building also houses the Peckham MySouthwark Service Point, so I popped in there before heading upstairs to the Library. Although this Service Point is one of the locations identified in the Statement of Representations Procedure, the staff were adamant that they didn’t have any copies of the New Southwark Plan documents. Minus points for Southwark Council already! However, I had better luck in the library itself, where after inquiring at the desk I was taken to the Reference section.
After rooting around a bit in this pile of council documents, I found the New Southwark Plan: Proposed Submission Version and the Annexes to the Plan with an A3 Map of proposed policies tucked inside.
A short bike ride later and I arrived at the much quainter Nunhead Library, erected as a free library by the philanthropist John Passmore Edwards in the late 19th Century. I was met with a blank stare by the library staff when I asked to see the New Southwark Plan, but now that I knew what the documents looked like I could spot them on a shelf behind the enquiries desk.
It was a similar story at Grove Vale Library in East Dulwich. First I was taken to the Preferred Options document, an earlier draft of the New Southwark Plan from 2015, which was filed in the Reference section of the library. However, after some discussion with the library staff, we located the Proposed Submission Version and its supporting documents behind the main library desk.
As I ventured into the southernmost part of the Borough, the distances between the libraries were getting longer and the cycling more serious. I huffed and puffed my way up Lordship Lane to another wonderful Passmore Edwards Library: Dulwich Library, on the border of Dulwich Park.
Once inside, the library assistant had to put me on the phone to his manager. He told me that I was not the first to enquire after the Plan documents, but that none of the documents had been sent to Dulwich Library. Another strike for the Council.
Did you know that one of Southwark’s libraries is housed in a castle? Arguably the jewel in the crown of my library tour, I was really excited to visit Kingswood Library – almost at the very tip of the borough, close to Sydenham Hill station. After a punishing climb up College Road, I zoomed down Kingswood Drive to discover that the building more than lived up to expectations. Not only did its battlements and towers provide a bizarre contrast with the surrounding suburbia, it had also been the house of John Lawson Johnston, inventor of Bovril, earning it the nickname “Bovril Castle”.
Inside the library it was much the same story as before. I was taken to the Reference section, but only the Preferred Options document was filed there. Only after suggesting that it might be behind the enquiries desk and describing the document was the librarian able to locate it for me.
Back on the bike, I was relieved that the worst of South London’s hills were behind me, although my legs faced one final test up Red Post Hill before dropping down through Denmark Hill to the new and very fancy looking Camberwell Library. A complete contrast to the slightly shabby, old-fashioned castle I had just left.
The library was busy and once its staff were able to serve me, they had to consult the manager about the New Southwark Plan documents. When the manager arrived, he told me that Plan documents were no longer held in all libraries, but were accessible either online or in the three main libraries for the borough. However, after a long wait and some phone calls the Proposed Submission Version documents were finally located behind the enquiries desk.
It was now starting to get dark and the closing times for the libraries and service points were drawing nearer so I left Camberwell and sped up Walworth Road for the remaining stops on my tour.
At the rather uninviting-looking Walworth MySouthwark Service Point I had a very similar experience to that in Peckham: the staff confidently assured me that no Plan documents were kept there, and told me to “go to Tooley Street”. When I explained that the Service Point was one of a number of listed locations where Plan documents were available for viewing, the Service Point manager gave a wry smile and told me that the Council had probably failed to update the list.
Next stop was Newington Temporary Library, now housed in the shipping containers at the Artworks Elephant following the fire at the Walworth Town Hall in 2013.
The librarian did not seem to know about the New Southwark Plan, but took the initiative to google it and told me that all the documents were online. He offered to give me the relevant web address, but when I said that I only wanted to look at the hard copies he assured me there were none in the library.
I arrived at the John Harvard Library on Borough High Street a few minutes after 5pm. The Local History Library next door had just closed, but the Council’s Statement of Representations Procedure indicated that the John Harvard would be open for another two hours. However, when I asked at the desk I was told that all Plan documents are given to the Local History Library immediately, as there is simply not enough space for them in the main library. A bit of a problem as the Local History Library has quite different opening hours to those advertised on the Statement of Representations Procedure, including being closed all day on Wednesday and Sunday! Luckily the Local History librarian was still around, but she was only able to locate Local Plan documents from 2016.
Twenty-five km down and 3 hours into my tour, I was parched and exhausted, so stopped for a breather and a refreshing juice in the Mousetail café inside the library.
Just as my drink arrived, the librarian came rushing up to me clutching the Proposed Submission Version documents – but from whence they came, I do not know.
After a much-needed break at the John Harvard, it was a race against the clock to make the final three libraries on my tour in time, with the Blue Anchor Library in Bermondsey closing at 6pm. I needn’t have worried though – both at East Street Library and the Blue Anchor Library I was taken to the Proposed Submission Version documents immediately on asking – neatly filed and readily accessible in the Reference section.
My final stop was Canada Water Library – where you can walk off the tube and into the library!
When I asked at the desk the staff member couldn’t help me, and called his manager instead. Ten minutes later I was handed the Proposed Submission Version documents, but with no indication where they were shelved in the library.
My overall assessment of the accessibility of Plan documents at Southwark’s libraries and service points? I’d give Southwark Council a score of 6/10. The main Plan documents are available at most locations listed in the Statement of Representations Procedure, but are significantly absent at Dulwich Library, Newington Temporary Library and the two MySouthwark Service Points. Southwark Council has also failed to provide all documents at the stated locations: the Appendices to the Plan (another 600-odd pages, including the Consultation Report and Impact Assessment) and the evidence base documents, both important for assessing the soundness of the Plan, are missing.
No proper training has been given to library staff on the importance of these documents and how and where to display them. If I hadn’t been able to describe what the Proposed Submission Version documents looked like, they might not have been found in some locations. I must say however that the staff were brilliant and all tried to help me as much as they could – despite the failure of Southwark Council to properly explain the relevance of the documents to them.
Postscript: I was not able to go to Brandon Library that day, as it had already closed by the time I arrived in Walworth. When I visited it a few days later, the librarian handed me the Proposed Submission Version documents as soon as I asked, which were kept behind the enquiries desk.
“You’ll be the only person ever to look at them!”, she joked.