Simon Hughes MP has accused Southwark's Labour administration of punishing parts of the borough which elected Liberal Democrat councillors with its plan to reduce the number of community councils and strip them of some of their powers.
Since they were established in 2003, the borough's eight community councils have held regular public meetings for areas each comprising two or three wards.
The Bermondsey & Old Southwark Lib Dem MP last week wrote to the Labour council leader to urge him to reconsider plans to reduce the number of community councils in the borough from eight to five by creating larger areas covering five or six wards.
The proposals include the merger of Borough & Bankside Community Council with Walworth and the merger of Bermondsey Community Council with Rotherhithe. If the plans are approved, community councils will lose their power to determine planning applications and appoint schoold governors.
"I was one of the people who insisted that establishing community councils was a priority of the first Liberal Democrat administration in Southwark in 2002," said Simon Hughes in his letter to Cllr John.
"The success of community councils since then has absolutely vindicated that decision. I am therefore angry and extremely disappointed by Southwark Council's plans to cut the number of community councils and the frequency of their meetings."
He added: "The plans both reduce the ability of people to influence council decisions and broaden the areas the committees cover, making them less focused on local communities.
"In effect, the plans will mean that residents on Bermondsey Street will attend the same meetings as people on Rotherhithe Street, and residents from the Aylesbury Estate with those from Southwark Street. Surrey Docks and the Old Kent Road are not in the same community; nor are the Borough or Waterloo and west Walworth. You know that perfectly well."
The MP continued: "Your Labour council is clearly wishing to punish that part of the borough where most people voted Liberal Democrat at the last elections, and to diminish the role of Liberal Democrat councillors. And you are clearly planning to impose a centralist socialist solution rather than deliver localism or strengthen community."
Labour denies the claim that the cuts are politically motivated and points out that the areas affected by the changes include Peckham, Peckham Rye and Nunhead where all the councillors are Labour members.
However, the proposed changes mean that Labour councillors will have a presence on all five community councils, whereas the present Bermondsey Community Council is entirely made up of Lib Dem members.
Southwark's Labour councillors argue that, in choosing to campaign on this issue, Mr Hughes has got his priorities wrong.
"I find it bizarre that for the past two years Simon Hughes has buried his head in the sand about cuts to education maintenance allowance, trebling of tuition fees, the privatisation of the NHS, ending of secure tenancies and cuts to police numbers," says Cllr Peter John, Southwark Council's Labour leader.
"These are all decisions which will have far more impact on his constituents than the merging of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe community councils, yet if he feels that passionately about it he could ask Nick Clegg and Eric Pickles to reverse the £60 million of cuts they have imposed on Southwark."
"Other councils that had a similar system such as Waltham Forest – which Southwark used as a template for community councils – have now disbanded their area committees to save money, so we have done a good job in keeping five. Importantly, and for the first time, we are also giving community councils their own budgets to spend on local priorities."
Cllr Abdul Mohamed, who has chaired the Democracy Commission tasked with finding ways of reducing the cost of community councils, said: "I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats have chosen to make council meetings their top spending priority for the next four years.
"We, on the other hand, recognise the impact Government cuts are having on people in Southwark so we will continue to prioritise spending on front-line services.
"All these proposals were part of our Democracy Commission. Unfortunately, the Lib Dems have a pretty poor attendance record for council meetings and so missed most of the Democracy Commission which is why they have not presented an alternative except for the council to spend more money."
The changes to community councils were also raised at last week's council assembly meeting by opposition leader Anood Al-Samerai who tabled an urgent question to the leader. In his response Cllr John cited the relatively small number of responses to the community councils thread on the SE1 forum as evidence that there is no great groundswell of popular feeling in support of the status quo.
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