The mayor of Lewisham promised to “do all he can” to reform “racist drug laws” that criminalise young Black men in his annual speech to the council’s AGM on Wednesday (July 15).  

Mayor Damien Egan vowed to “confront racial inequality”, to support small and independent businesses, and to invest more in green spaces.  

He said in the wake of the pandemic “we have a chance to build a more equal society”.  

“One issue that I want to continue to focus on is the issue of drug reform and I will continue to work with others to press for an evidence-based system, one which treats drug use as a public health and not criminal justice issue,” he said.  

Mayor Egan said he was “shocked to learn” that last year 49 Lewisham children were sent to the borough’s youth offending service (YOS) for first-time drug offences.  

“Of those 49 children, how many do you think were children of colour? It’s 43.  

“Every single child in Lewisham who received a custodial sentence from the courts last year was a child of colour,” he said, adding the majority of offences involved cannabis.  

“And often very small amounts – a drug now legal in many parts of the world where public health approaches are being advanced. They’re not the ones running the gangs.  

“In Lewisham you are three times more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re Black than if you’re white.  

“Three quarters of the time, regardless of who you are, the police will find nothing on you.  

“Our drugs laws are racist, they criminalise young Black men, while giving criminal gangs the power to exploit vulnerable young people, and I will do all I can to challenge and reform them,” he said.  

He also announced a new annual count of independent and Black, Asian and ethinic minority businesses to protect them against chains moving into the high street.

Mayor Egan gave his condolences to the 260 Lewisham residents who died from Covid-19. 

He said though the last four months have been ones of “anxiety and tragedy”, they have “also been ones of heroism”, adding he was “hugely proud” of how the community and volunteers have responded in the wake of the crisis.  

Mayor Egan said the financial cost of Covid-19 is now at £53 million, and described the Government as “shameful” after it appeared to backtrack on its promise to cover councils’ costs for the pandemic.  

The council has already warned of cuts to essential services if it has to foot the bill for outstanding costs.  

Mayor Egan said there would be two “non-negotiables” for him that wouldn’t be cut – the council house building programme and refugee resettlement scheme.  

He said the crisis has “held up a mirror to society”.  

“It has reflected back the deep inequalities which we know exist in our country.  

“It has reminded us of the injustices that impact the lives of too many children and too many young people. 

“It has also thrown a harsh light on the fragility of our economy and the insecurity that so many of us face,” he said. 

Many parents have told me that – as their children approach secondary school – they start to feel that maybe they need to either move out of Lewisham or get ready to fight for a school place outside the borough

On education, he said the council will endeavour to “convince parents” that Lewisham schools are a better choice than those outside of the borough.

“Many parents have told me that – as their children approach secondary school – they start to feel that maybe they need to either move out of Lewisham or get ready to fight for a school place outside the borough.  

“We need to convince them that there is a better choice. We will judge success by a simple metric: more families making a Lewisham secondary school a choice for their children,” he said.  

On making Lewisham greener, he said the council would “continue to work with residents” to roll out the healthy neighbourhoods programme. 

“It is the poorest in Lewisham who are least likely to own a car, yet most likely to live in areas with toxic air. 

He said the borough must “step up” the move away from cars, and prioritise walking and cycling.

“We will continue to charge those who drive the most toxic vehicles more to do so.  

“We will continue to, working with residents, roll out our healthy heighbourhoods programme and we will close more streets around our schools.  

“And we will redouble our work with TfL to support the Bakerloo Line coming to Lewisham, more segregated cycle routes, and to improve public transport in our borough.” 

Speaking about being the London Borough of Culture 2022, he said though it seems a “way off”, the council is “already working hard to prepare for one of the biggest years in Lewisham’s history, and what a celebration it will be”.  

“We will make certain that our Borough of Culture programme reaches every corner of our borough and reflects Lewisham’s wonderfully diverse community,” he said.  

In a speech, the outgoing Mayoress Barbara Gray said learning about different cultures throughout the year has been “great” for her.

She also highlighted the importance of having “diverse leadership”.

Three volunteers from the Evelyn Community Store will be taking over her position, Dawn Atkinson, Natasha Ricketts, and Christine Norman.