Thousands turn out for "Save Lewisham A&E" hospital march

. . . and the Jeremy Hunt coconut shy went down a storm.


Yesterday Lewisham town centre was brought to a standstill as thousands of people took to its streets. They were voicing their their anger at proposals to close the A&E unit at Lewisham Hospital, and to downgrade the maternity service.  

The proposals come after the South London Health Care Trust ran up huge debts following an expensive PFI Initiative - as detailed in Rowenna Davis's New Statesman piece. However, that trust has nothing to do with the running of Lewisham Hospital - and there was clear anger among demonstrators that their local services were being cut in order to pay back a debt not of their making.

A local organisation, Lewisham People Before Profit, handed out song sheets with alternative Dad’s Army theme tune:

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Kershaw/ Our hospital is here to stay / We are the ones who will stop your little game / We are the ones who will make you think again / Cos we can find the money Mr Kershaw  / If we make the bankers pay.

Matthew Kershaw is the special administrator appointed by Andrew Lansley to tackle the financial problems of the South London Health Care Trust. It was his proposal to shut the A&E Department (only months after it reopened following a refit) and that the patients should be moved to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich to save money.

On the march, Brighton-based artist and educator Bern O’Donoghue said: “Both my children were born in the hospital, and we’ve used the A&E loads of times. We wouldn’t have coped if we’d have had to go six miles to Woolwich. It’s a ludicrous plan and one which will have a hugely damaging impact on the community.”

Many children on the demo were in buggies with ‘Born in Lewisham Hospital’ signs attached. I saw a mother marching with her children, carrying a placard saying “We’re here thanks to Lewisham A&E”.

Strikingly, the demo seemed to have brought together an incredibly diverse range of groups and organisations all united in opposition to the plans. I saw banners from various union branches and political groups, but there was also support from Millwall Football Club, who had even moved the date of a match so that their supporters could attend the demo. A local group called Islamic Awareness also displayed a Save Our NHS placard on their stall outside Lewisham Library as the demo passed by.  Even car drivers caught up in the march and unable to move were supportive, tooting their horns and cheering the marchers.

As the march passed by Lewisham Hospital itself, its staff - still in their medical uniforms - came out to applaud the demo, and were cheered in return.

At the final rallying point in Mountsfield Park, the atmosphere was positively charged as the crowds arrived and people began to appreciate the sheer scale of the march. 

And for those with frustrations left to vent, the Jeremy Hunt Coconut Shy was open, and doing a roaring trade. 

You can follow @Brixtonite on Twitter. 

A sign in a Lewisham window. Photo by @Brixtonite
Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation