Archive for July 2009
Ever been out and sneaked into somewhere you shouldn’t have done? Wandered around a golf club, trying to escape the fact that there’s an old fella in a blazer looking at you like you’re about to grab the bar takings? Or snuck into some private members’ bar, and got giddy on the power? I got into somewhere last night that felt almost as secret, and was probably as inacessible. I got into a meeting of Greenwich Council.
You’re thinking, is that what you do for thrills? Well, I’d posted quite heavily on here about matters to do with what comes out of my council tax, and managed to upset the local Tories about their Lido petition, so I thought I’d see what happened at the heart of things. And I was curious after parents from Charlotte Turner school in Deptford, which is being closed by the council, managed to get a meeting abandoned last month. Were council meetings really that bad? Unfortunately, I saw some pretty shabby scenes last night. And none of them came from the public gallery.
I hadn’t been to a council meeting for many years, and had never actually seen my own council at work. So it’d be a new experience. I was travelling from north London and the Docklands Light Railway managed to break down, so after the murderous experience of getting a 472 from North Greenwich, I made it to Woolwich in the tipping rain 20 minutes late. I wasn’t the only latecomer.
Inside Woolwich Town Hall – a beautiful, ornate building whose appearance is diminished by its miserable surroundings – there was no indication as to where the council chamber was. Me and the other latecomer asked where we should go. We set off, and got lost. We asked again, and made it. For anyone else who fancies a visit – go the end of the entrance hall, right through a door marked “registrars”, straight ahead through a door which looks like it’s locked, left, up the stairs, and then take the far door into the public gallery of the chamber. Not the near door, because everyone will turn around and look at you. Although the security guard sat there seemed grateful for the company.
In our right places, my fellow latecomer found her companion, and I took up a spot on my own. From inside the chamber – which is tiny – someone looked at me as if I’d just broken wind. I looked around to see if there were any papers detailing the questions that were under way. There weren’t any. Well, thanks for the warm welcome. I tried to follow proceedings as best I could with the papers I did have.
Most of the people in the gallery were there for specific causes.
Unless I’m mistaken, I didn’t see any journalists there. A single journalist attended, sat awkwardly right at the centre of the chamber. (Thanks to Lib Dem councillor Paul Webbewood for correcting me there.)
It wasn’t very impressive. Lots of stonewalling from Labour cabinet members about various issues, one of whom managed to give his arse a good scratch in front of the public gallery before giving an answer. At least half the oral questions seemed to come from Conservative opposition leader Spencer Drury, who looked a bit like a bored lion in a cage, chewing on some old meat and dreaming of the day he’d really get something to get his teeth into.
Some of the answers given were barely coherent, as if the cabinet members were minding the shop while the boss was away. Patronising the two Liberal Democrats seemed to be a sport for council leader Chris Roberts, who doodled during their questions. (Blocky, envelope-type shapes, should you be interested.) No Labour members asked any questions. I didn’t get to see if they’d had any written answers – as the mayor, Allan MacCarthy, one of my trio of councillors in Charlton – read through the numbers of each written answer, and as councillors flicked through them, it was like a private game that was somehow denied to us in the public gallery.
Want any news from it? Well…
- I don’t think the Tory boys’ Lido petition is going to cut much ice with the council, unfortunately, with leisure cabinet member John Fahy – who’s also in charge of Greenwich’s preparations for 2012 – saying he expected a lease for the new-look pool to be signed “reasonably shortly”, and that “we want to get people on site as quickly as possible” for an 18-month construction period. Pressed by Conservative members on who’d decided to close the lido for the summer, he told the meeting that the decision had been taken “collectively”. Pressed further, he said, “At the end of the day, the buck stops with me, I guess.”
- In the year 2009, after 12 years of a Labour government, how big do you reckon a primary school class can be? If it’s Morden Mount in Lewisham, then it’s 30 kids per class, as revealed by education and childrens’ cabinet member Jackie Smith after being asked by Spencer Drury if any new buildings would appear on the site to cope with an influx of new pupils. They won’t, she said, because class sizes will go up to 30 instead, taking the place up to capacity.
- Only one person has ever been given a fine for throwing litter out of a car, and she got her Kent-based MP to complain on her behalf, neighbourhood services cabinet member Maureen O’Mara said. The money was retrieved in the end, she added.
- And 452 people were seen at a jobs fair at Woolwich town hall on Tuesday to apply for 250 jobs in street cleaning. There’s still sessions to come at The Valley (tomorrow) and in Eltham (4 August). The Conservatives said if there were fewer managers in street cleaning, then there’d be more jobs, which is an opinion you won’t read in Greenwich Time.
But the impression that’s going to stay in my mind came during a session where members of the public can ask questions of councillors – yes, you can rock up there and do it, something I had no idea about. A gentleman stood up and explained he was representing residents of Kings Highway in Plumstead, who are opposing a redevelopment scheme which the council has given approval to. A petition had been presented to the council, and he explained that he wanted to distribute some literature to illustrate the point he was going to make.
“No you can’t,” interjected Allan MacCarthy, managing to make this gentleman, who pays for his wages and his mayoral robes and his chain, feel throroughly unwelcome. You could feel impatience from the floor as the council tax payer tried to get back on track. He and his fellow residents felt let down by the council that was supposed to represent them, he said… only to be cut off by the mayor again.
“I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m trying to get the business of the council through,” MacCarthy said, as if “the business of the council” was more important than the lives and well being of the people that council was supposed to represent. He instructed the gentleman to deal with the response given to him on the official papers.
The gentleman shuffled among his papers. He was just trying to get up to speed with what was said, he said. You could feel invisible watches being tapped. “You’ve had an hour and 20 minutes of this meeting to read that,” nagged MacCarthy. It was awful to watch, and it was no way for someone billed as the “first citizen of the borough” to behave to a fellow citizen. He seemed to not care that someone who pays his wages may not be 100% up to speed on how these archaic meetings work.
The gentleman eventually sat down, looking utterly crestfallen. To his credit, council leader Chris Roberts wandered over and asked him if he could take the documents, which he did. Would they be distributed to councillors, one of the Liberal Democrats asked. “Yes, that’s why I did it,” Roberts said sarcastically.
Outside, I caught up with the gentleman. “I don’t know what I did wrong,” he said. “I only wanted to say my bit.” Unfortunately, in this private members’ club, like wearing the wrong blazer or tie, it doesn’t seem like that’s allowed. If you want to see this for yourself – circle 28 October in your diary, because that’s when the circus is back in town again. Hopefully its ringleader might have been to a charm school by then.
Oh dear, oh dear… less than a day after suddenly popping up on Twitter, Greenwich Council decides to change its username…
So, the clutch of locals that’d already signed up now have to switch over to @greenwichcouncl (without an “i).
Hopefully they’ll, er, stick with that and, like I said before, use Twitter to listen to people as well as tell them stuff. They’ve started following locals, so the signs – so far – are looking promising.
I was flattered the other day to see that Brockley Central had praised this blog as being one of the best providers of local news – which was rather nice as I was having one of those head-up-bum periods where I spent far too much time wondering “what’s the blog for?”, “what am I hoping to achieve?” and “does this just look a bit stupid in the end?”
It followed a call from the editor of the Guardian for public money to be given to the Press Association – the UK’s biggest news agency, which is owned by most of the major newspaper publishers – to fund a revival in local reporting. The first comment someone left at the bottom of the story suggested sites like Brockley Central could be part of the future.
And on Monday came a rare, but welcome thing – an Andrew Gilligan piece I agreed with, rightly tearing into council-run newspapers like Greenwich Time, which he claims costs council taxpayers here half a million pounds a year. How many street sweepers could they employ for that?
Sure, it doesn’t mention how the owners of local papers such as the Mercury have allowed GT to park its tanks on their lawn by cutting their papers back. The Mercury’s past owner, PA shareholder Trinity Mirror, hobbled it some years back by moving the paper from Deptford High Street to the South London Press’s offices in Streatham while its rival, the News Shopper, is based in its Orpington heartland. And naturally, Gilligan’s piece doesn’t mention the Standard’s general ignorance of all matters south-east (which will no doubt become a deafening silence when Gilligan moves to the Telegraph). As Nick says on Brockley Central, there’s clear evidence of market failure – local papers are no longer a product of their community, they’re either owned by big combines and based far away, or run by local councils to dictate to that community. So there’s a gap which needs to be filled.
I think the call for PA to get public funds to cover council meetings and courts is interesting… but I can’t help feeling that it’s another call from the same old busted flushes to get cash to reverse the things they’ve screwed up in the first place. The old Mercury worked brilliantly because it was based in in the communities it covered (Lewisham and Greenwich boroughs – Deptford High Street traditionally was slap-bang on the boundary, and isn’t far off it now), the reporters were local faces, and it had a feel for local issues. It even triumphantly launched a Bexley edition in the 1980s, as its old readers moved out to the suburbs.
Sadly, the people who ran the Mercury in its pomp are now behind Greenwich Time – and probably getting a much better salary for it too, while the paper they used to work for is based miles away, has little nous for local issues, is poorly-distributed, has a ropey website and looks like it’s run on a shoestring. And it has a Bexley edition which now covers absolutely no news in that borough whatsoever. The legacy Trinity Mirror left south-east London is a reason why we should be sceptical of any claim from it for public funds.
And on an issue like Charlton Lido – would a PA reporter from outside be able to pick up that story from a council meeting? Local issues take time to learn and understand. I once spent a day working with a team of journalists at Westminster, and was assigned to cover a select committee about immigration, only to find the story I produced turned on its head by an editor who had the experience to spot a running story I’d not really been aware of. You could stick me in, I don’t know, Wandsworth, but I could only ever scratch the surface of what’s going on over there.
Most local blogs are produced by people with no journalistic training (even if they’re quite media-savvy) and no legal support but end up producing products which are appreciated more by their readers than those made by big firms with hacks who have flogged their guts out to get NCTJ training and the like. It’s a sad indictment on those big firms, the ones who are now crying out for cash. Unfortunately, it’s no good for the local journalists, stuck in the middle, trying to do their jobs on crap salaries, seeing their work undermined by their own bosses and by publicly-funded rivals like Greenwich Time.
So where does this site fit into all this? Well… on its own, it can only play the tiniest of roles. There’s only me, I’m pretty partisan and I can only tell things the way I can see it, by highlighting things that are good/bad/interesting, making a bit of mischief here and there, trying to stick to things nobody else has done, and hoping you pick up the thread and leave interesting comments, because that’s where these things take off. As for journalism as most local hacks would recognise it, there’s been very little of that – blogs tend to offer simple, straightforward opinions while real local journalism involves putting in calls, bothering people and pounding the streets. And unlike Brockley Central, there’s precious little community in Charlton anyway, so the focus is a bit wider and there’s a bit more of a scattergun approach.
In a blog format, just being part of the discussion is more satisfying, I find; although the more I criticise local papers (although to be frank, I’ve not had a regular delivery of either title for many years) and the more frustrated I get with the smothering all-is-good embrace of Greenwich Time (which has vanished from my doormat again), the more I wonder if I should be doing more proper local reporting. And if someone tells me something, I’m more than happy to check it out. But for now, I’m happy to be part of a discussion. That’s all it is at the moment.
But beyond that? If you look at 853, Greenwich Phantom, Plumsteadshire, and Brockley Central regularly, then you probably pick up some idea of what’s going on in this patch of London without having to pick up a local paper (or wonder why it’s not being delivered). I’m sure you don’t get all your news on TV from just one source, and the same works on the web. I think a great part of the future will involve networks of local blogs, co-operating and promoting each other, maybe taking different viewpoints but all with the well-being of their local area in mind. To an extent, this happens anyway – Adam at Tory Troll did some digging around after I made a cheap joke at the expense of Greenwich Labour party and got a proper story out of it.
But what if trained journalists were around to mentor and support those behind local websites? As Nick mentions, how about offering small subsidies to encourage local creative businesses, an idea floated by journalist Martin Bright, which could help encourage local bloggers and others to get involved with their communities?
Like with the Digital Britain report, the thinking still seems to be about trying to save crumbling media combines that long ago neglected their local communities. (Weirdly, on a national level only yesterday the BBC agreed to allow the likes of the Mail and Telegraph – two papers whose editorial lines are vehemently anti-BBC – use its news video for free on their website, presumably so the Mail can concentrate on filling Mail Online with more tits and arse while the BBC does the hard work on its behalf. Yet the Mail owns 20% of an organisation that’s already in place to do this – ITN. But why pay its sister firm some money when the BBC can provide it for free?)
Sooner or later, enough local people will despair of ropey local freesheets edited miles away and crap council propaganda rags, and being patronised and ignored by London-wide media, and will want to club together to get their own networks going. Giving them practical help to do this would be far more valuable to than bailing out businesses which have already failed in their tasks. It’d give local journalism back to local communities, empower people, and ultimately help democracy. After all, what could big media firms and politicians be scared of?
Good to get another leaflet through tonight from the local Conservatives – they’re rightly up in arms about Greenwich Council’s barely competent handling of Charlton Lido, which remains closed this summer despite the fact that a deal to redevelop it hasn’t yet been finalised.
Indeed, they’ve got a petition to get up to present at a council meeting tomorrow night (Wednesday) to get the Labour-run authority to shift itself and unlock the gates “immediately”. Nice idea. Except – for a petition delievered at some point between 7pm and 10pm on Tuesday 28 July, it contained a slight flaw.
A little too late for anyone to pop the petition in an envelope, find a stamp, pop it in a post box and let the Royal Mail deliver it to their HQ in Eltham. Still, it’s nice to know they believe they can bend time – you’ve got to aim high in life, after all…
Found this by accident searching for a reason why there was a helicopter buzzing right over 853 Towers while I was trying to get some (gasp!) work done… Greenwich Council has gained a Twitter feed. Slightly odd username, though – @greenwich01.
Unfortunately, as I type, it doesn’t seem to be following any local residents – only the Today programme, three local government publications and the Cabinet Office. I may have stumbled upon it a bit early, because as far as I can tell I was the first local to start following it (unless this spammer has switched from Greenwich, Connecticut).
It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out – Lewisham Council’s been there for a while, and the brains behind it, Helen Hilton, often responds to locals’ enquiries. Southwark Council has a feed which is a little more one-way, but it was used to disseminate news in the wake of the recent fire tragedy in Camberwell. But it’s Lambeth that’s used the technology to most eye-catching effect, with Twittering mayor Christopher Wellbelove keeping people up to date on where their chains of office have got to.
Will Greenwich use Twitter to listen and learn? Or will it just use the feed to spout off nonsense, and miss out on a valuable chance to communicate with its people? We’ll have to wait and see.
Oh, and the helicopter? I got an answer, too…
See, Twitter does have its uses.
Funny, the morning after I posted about the state of Floyd Road, there’s a whole load of crap dumped on my doorstep… this was Priolo Road, Charlton, at midday today.
The council truck came within about two minutes of me calling them – now that’s service! – well, someone had already reported it. I suspect the dumpers planned to use nearby Wellington Gardens, a flytipping blackspot, but since that’s been taken over by Thames Water for its marathon session of roadworks, Priolo Road probably offered a more convenient spot.
This is, unfortunately, what you get when you don’t clean the streets properly – or, to quote the famous US example by James Q Wilson and George L Kenning, fix a broken window:
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.
And this is exactly what has happened to Charlton over the past few years. The people responsible for this, you might like to know, are council cabinet member for neighbourhood services Maureen O’Mara – whose clean-up of weeds in nearby Highcombe led to them being strewn all over the road – and director of neighbourhood services Jim Wintour. And, of course, you and me, because we’re also responsible for keeping an eye on what goes on in our front yard. However, when the council fails to back us up, the whole system falls apart. I’ll give them some credit for there have been some small improvements in this area in recent weeks – a weekly sweep seems to have reappeared after whole months passed without the street seeing a broom, but even that’s not good enough, with the debris left behind from weekly bin collections left lying around for days.
I appreciate it’s tough for local councils. Across the water, Waltham Forest Council is lambasted for offering cash rewards to people who report litterers and fly-tippers by the Daily Mail, which decides to take the side of vandals because it gives them a chance to have a pop at a local council. Fly-tippers and the like should face the strongest possible punishments – at the very least, the vehicles they use should be confiscated. But in a country led by the opinions of the Daily Mail, the vandal is king, and the person who has the job of cleaning up is the loser.
So, in a climate where a right-wing media backs vandals and a Labour council can’t be arsed to pull its finger out, what can you do? From my experience, here’s some advice on the way to get things done.
1) Don’t e-mail the council – you’ll be left waiting days. This is where it all went wrong for me in the first place. Greenwich Council routes all its e-mails through a “contact centre”, which merely sends the e-mail to another inbox where it is likely to be left ignored. Unlike neighbouring Lewisham, communication via internet is not its strong point. Using web service FixMyStreet.com records the complaint in public, but council staff don’t seem to have internet access so can’t see photos uploaded there. If you e-mail the council, you’re wasting your time. (Take a look at the Love Lewisham blog to see how our neighbours are light years ahead of Greenwich – putting power into the hands of people.)
2) Call the council instead – 020 8921 4661. It’s a pain if you’re at work far outside the area, like I used to be, but the only real way to get a response is to call direct. The call centre staff, on the whole, are pretty good. They are, however, only a call centre so can’t answer queries, but can put you through elsewhere or, better still, give you a name.
3) Try to get the name of a council officer. If you can get someone’s name, you’re likely to be going places with your query. Drop them a friendly e-mail – firstname.lastname@example.org – and explain you’ve been having problems. Chances are, they probably haven’t been made aware of what’s been going on. One senior officer even told me he’d divert through my street on his way home to make sure it’d been cleaned.
4) Contact your local councillors. I give Greenwich councillors a lot of stick here, particularly Labour ones, because I don’t understand how they can stand under the banner of a local party that’s failing the borough so badly. But politicians are here today, gone tomorrow types, and they may well be hanging on and waiting for some more enlightened leadership under the same banner – some of those councillors were around when left-wing firebrands were running the place and getting ratecapped, and some may plan to be around when it isn’t sucking up to developers, publishing embarrassing propaganda rags and not clearing rubbish. In short – they may hate the system as much as you. And they can help. Drop all three a friendly line and see what responses you get. They may not be your political allies, but they can get things gone. Give them a chance.
5) Go public. All of the above fail? Start a blog. Didn’t you hear hyperlocal blogs are the new in-thing? Write to local papers (I know the Mercury and News Shopper aren’t brilliant, but they’ll appreciate the story ideas). Contact rival political parties if your leanings turn in those directions. If you can cause some embarrassment, some aggravation for someone down the line, you’ll eventually get the job done.
6) Go back to square one. You’ll have to do this from time to time. But it can be worth it, even if it’s arse-grindingly dull, and you end up feeling like the community pedant.
7) Use your vote in the next council election. Remember – you have the ultimate sanction over what gets done, and you’re due to get it on 6 May 2010. If all five options above don’t work, and you stay at home that day… don’t complain about a crappy council again.
Got any other tips? I figured I should try a more constructive angle on this issue, so it’ll be good to hear other people’s experiences.
Sadly, neighbouring blogger Charlton Average doesn’t seem to be around to fill us in on his quest to make sure his street – Floyd Road, the one which leads down to The Valley – gets cleaned properly. I walked down there on Monday afternoon – it being Monday, it was wheelie bin slalom day – and found just what Greenwich Council had done in response to his many public complaints.
Sweet bugger all. This was the scene at about 2.20pm.
Who’d want to live in a street like that, eh? Clearly, if you do live in Floyd Road, you’ve the misfortune to live among some of the filthiest, most selfish individuals on the planet. But it amazed me that after Charlton Average’s long campaign, Greenwich Council is still incapable of collecting rubbish in a way which doesn’t leave the street in a mess, and is incapable of doing anything about those who are littering the street.
If I was one of the three councillors for Charlton ward, I’d feel a sense of shame – it’s their party that’s in charge, it can’t even keep the streets clean. And I wondered why Charlton Average had such contempt for them – I’d be driven nuts by having to wade through that crap.
It’s been a curious few days to watch the council work. One of the streets covered in triffid-like weeds, flytippers’ favourite Highcombe, had some lads out last week getting rid of the weeds. But then they drove off… leaving the pulled-up weeds strewn all over the pavement. Eventually, last week’s heavy rain washed most of it away, but it’s shows just how half-arsed the council’s “neighbourhood services” department is. The weed clearance also seems a bit hit and miss – while Highcombe got done, nearby Mayhill Road looks positively jungle-like. Maybe they’re simply waiting for a complaint, instead of taking a proactive stance.
I was out and about over the weekend and was talking to a woman who lived in east Greenwich (Fearon Road, should anyone from the council be reading this) who complained last week about an overflowing litter bin. Someone from the council arrived on Friday, bagged the rubbish up… and left it there. All weekend. I’ve seen it happen before in my street and complained angrily about it – but it seems they’re still at it where they can get away with it. Who’s in charge of these people? Why are they still in jobs?
Curiously, the council may be blundering to some kind of fix – community site greenwich.co.uk carried a story about it “creating 250 local jobs”, which
oddly doesn’t even appear on the council’s own website has already been archived on the council’s own website. The story was the usual guff about helping to beat the recession, but the real significance was further down – the jobs, paid for by a government grant, are for “for street cleaners, environmental workers, enforcement officers and neighbourhood wardens”. Maybe they’ve finally acknowledged there’s a problem? Who knows? But with elections due in May, and local people noticing how filthy its streets are, it wouldn’t be surprising if they applied for a little extra help to clean up, would it?