A basic understanding of how Southwark council is structured is helpful for knowing the various ways of influencing policy.
The council can be split into two broad arms:
- The decision-making arm, which consists of the ‘council assembly’ – the meeting of all 63 elected councillors from different political parties – the ruling party ‘cabinet’ and the subject-specific committees and sub-committees.
- The operational arm, which is non-political and consists of the Chief Executive and the departmental strategic heads and officers. It formulates, implements and evaluates policy, overseeing the delivery of public
Council assembly, cabinet and committees
While the detail of policy proposals is developed by council officers, policy decisions are ultimately made by the council assembly, the council’s decision-making body. The assembly is made up of all 63 elected councillors in the borough – three for each of the 21 electoral wards – drawn from multiple political parties. At the last election in May 2019, the following were elected:
- 49 Labour councillors
- 14 Liberal Democrats
Labour has a majority of councillors, meaning they are able to vote through their preferred policies.
Council assembly meetings are public, fulfilling the legal requirement on councils to make important decisions in public and enabling residents to hold to account their elected councillors for how they vote and the decisions they reach.
Assembly meetings are held every two or three months in different venues around the borough. They are chaired by the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr Barrie Hargrove. While the Mayor and Deputy Mayor are Labour councillors, the role of Mayor is non-political, representing all sections of the community and presiding over council meetings so they are carried out fairly and efficiently. The current Deputy Mayor is Cllr Sunil Chopra.
One of the council assembly’s core functions is to approve the policy framework, which includes the following plans and strategies:
- Children and young person’s plan
- Sustainable community strategy
- Youth justice plan
- Policy on community councils
- Corporate plan
- Treasury management strategy
- Parts of the development plan framework
The Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Kieron Williams – provides overall strategic leadership for the council, including setting council priorities. The Leader’s responsibilities also include appointing a Deputy Leader and members of the cabinet. The cabinet is a smaller group of approximately 10 councillors (or ‘members’) of the ruling party – currently the Labour party – with particular policymaking responsibilities and powers. These include drafting the policy framework and budget which then have to be approved by the council assembly. Following approval, the cabinet then takes decisions on how to implement these.
Other cabinet responsibilities include:
- Ensuring that the development of the council’s policy framework and other key strategic documents and key decisions are open to wider input and consultation
- Being the focus for forming partnerships with local public, private and voluntary and community sector organisations to address local needs
- Overseeing services provided by the local authority
Each cabinet member has a particular area of responsibility, or ‘portfolio’. The cabinet is currently made up of the following Labour party councillors:
- Leader of the Council, Cllr Kieron Williams
- Cllr Jasmine Ali – Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Education
- Cllr Evelyn Akoto – Cabinet Member for Public Health and Community Safety
- Cllr Stephanie Cryan – Cabinet Member for Council Housing
- Cllr Helen Dennis – Cabinet Member for Social Support and Homelessness
- Cllr Rebecca Lury – Cabinet Member for Finance, Business and Jobs
- Cllr Alice Macdonald – Cabinet Member for Communities, Equalities and Neighbourhoods
- Cllr Catherine Rose – Cabinet Member for Leisure, Environment and Roads
- Cllr Johnson Situ – Cabinet Member for Climate Emergency, Planning and Transport
The cabinet meets on average once a month, except in August. Meetings are open to the public and are generally held at the council headquarters at 160 Tooley Street.
Cabinet decisions can be investigated by the scrutiny committees. These committees can look at particular decisions in depth and examine council services, activities and policies. They can also review other organisations providing services in the borough, including voluntary sector providers.
The body co-ordinating this work is the Overview & Scrutiny committee. It appoints three scrutiny sub-committees looking at particular areas:
- Education & Children’s Services Scrutiny Sub-Committee
- Healthy Communities Scrutiny Sub-Committee
- Housing & Community Safety Scrutiny Sub-Committee
A forward plan, prepared for the Leader, contains details of all the upcoming key decisions to be taken by the cabinet and other council staff. It is published online and is a good way of knowing what policy issues will be discussed and decided on in the coming months.
Empowering Communities is a series of meetings where neighbourhood issues can be discussed and residents can voice their concerns. Ward Councillors are responsible for shaping the agenda and managing the meeting process. These meetings are intended to engage people in the issues that affect them at a very local level.