Welcome to the Woolwich Private Members’ Club (aka the town hall)

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.

woolwich_town_hall

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.

13 comments

  1. AdamB

    RE local questions: I saw much the same thing when I went a year or so ago. It was a pretty depressing experience.

  2. Political Animal

    There’s something about the role of civic mayor that seems to bring out the worst in those who hold it. I’ve seen mild-mannered, pleasant, polite councillors from all parties and in several local government areas become autocratic, slightly bullying and dogmatic for the duration of the year they hold the post (although thats often only in respect of council business – they normally remain charming people when doing the bulk of their work, attending community events). I think it must be something in the chain of office…

  3. Sacha

    Alan McCarthy has always been a hard character to deal with, he was a terrible CLP secretary and Chair, hated confrontation, and didn’t allow people to talk at meetings.

  4. Paul Webbewood

    Thanks for the feedback and apologies if we didn’t impress. I will ask officers to put copies of the Members’ Q&A in the Public Gallery in future.

    Journalists sit at a table in the middle of the Chamber, in front of the officers. There was one there last night.

  5. darryl853

    Ah-ha – thanks, Paul, I thought he looked a bit out of place sat down there, but didn’t think there was special press seating. I shall amend…

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  7. Iain Nunn

    As a person who contributes to the Mayor of Greenwich’s wages, if only I could repeat the words of Lord Sugar – YOU’RE FIRED! Read up the Mayor JD on the Greenwich Council website. This MacCarthy fellow missed every attribute. Only a public apology and resignation will keep a modicom of his tarnished credibility.

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