What is it about Southwark?

The London Borough of Southwark is on the south bank of the River Thames in central
London. It is flanked by Lewisham to the East and Lambeth to the West. Across
the river on the north bank, lie the Cities of London and Westminster. It’s
position has ensured that Southwark plays a significant part in national life,
offering a setting for both the richest and the poorest communities to live
close to the centres of power and employment. With the decline of the docks,
the north part of Southwark has been searching for a new role in our
service-driven economy and has diversified into a wide range of industries.

 A centre of culture and diversity

Photo by Marcin Wichary (CC Flikr)

Southwark as a whole enjoys a vibrant economy with much new investment being visible in new buildings – many of them primarily residential and aimed at a privileged minority. New centres of cultural and tourist industries have been created by the Thames and universities and colleges have built up the intellectual and
artistic sectors locally. Major NHS teaching hospitals and a large private hospital serve the health of the world elite first and the citizens of Southwark only second. Being an historic borough, Southwark has a rich heritage offering and also hosts some major transport links into and out of the city. Southwark council remains the largest social landlord in Europe. Several large green spaces provide relief for the community and lots of small parks and squares give access to nature. Alongside the white British majority, the borough enjoys a broad ethnic mix with the West African community being the numerically largest – many of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin. The extremes of wealth and poverty are both very noticeable in Southwark but spatially separated.

Separate and very unequal

Southwark could be said to be a borough of two parts. The geography of exclusion is very
obvious even at first glance. The Southwark council has designated eight
council areas which demonstrate the wide disparity of social experience across
the borough. To the extreme north, the riverside is dominated by wharf renovations
and new build providing expensive living and working spaces for the very rich.
Just a few streets away, some of the social housing estates are poorly
maintained and house families on poverty wages. To the south of the borough,
Dulwich village is a nearly rural idyll of wide avenues and small locally-owned
boutiques; this is where the City powerful live. Yet in Camberwell and Peckham
in the centre of the borough, enduring poverty and concentrated hopelessness
has led to reputations for violence and crime. The joyous reality is however
that it is in just these areas that have been ground down for so long that the
bright shoots of community life are strongest.

Tradition and change

Peckham Library – Photo by Colin G P Grey (CC Flikr)

Southwark has a history of change and transformation. For the Romans, it was a marshland to be to be crossed with care and trepidation. As London grew, so too did the demand for beer and leather. As these two industries were smelly as well as polluting, they were banished to the south side of the Thames and Southwark became a centre for brewing and tanning. The docks and wharves were the lifeblood of Southwark’s people throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, with their ancillary trades such as provisioning and boat building. World War II brought devastation to the north of Southwark in the blitz and subsequently the process of regenerating the north of the borough became a priority. Now the borough has moved into a new phase seeking its diverse roles in the modern economy.

Main Links for Southwark

The London Borough of Southwark is the local authority http://www.southwark.gov.uk/

The Southwark NHS Primary Care Trust commissions health care for Southwark residents http://www.southwarkpct.nhs.uk/

Community Action Southwark is the borough coalition of voluntary organisations http://casouthwark.org.uk

Southwark Chamber of Commerce brings together the borough’s business interests http://www.southwarkcommerce.com/


If you know Southwark, is this a fair picture of the borough? Do you see major ommisions in the picture I paint?

What are you proud of in Southwark? What do you want to see conserved and developed?

Do you experience the huge difference between the very rich and people on poverty wages? How does it impact you, your family and your work?

What external forces are at work in Southwark to make it the place it is?

Southwark is a place of contrasts. Many people think of the borough or particular parts of Southwark and think it is a negative place. Others – mostly who live here – recognise it’s vibrancy, energy and potential and want to turn round the assumptions about the community. Let me know what you think about Southwark and my comments here. I see this as a developing post, built up from the great ideas of my readers. Go on, join in.

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