Archive for July 2010
A quick heads-up to let you know Greenwich Council’s consultations on its plans to part-pedestrianise the town centre – and create a flaming great gyratory through west Greenwich – and to do up Cutty Sark Gardens end this weekend.
I’ve already voiced my feelings about the pedestrianisation scheme – and you can have your say here. However, there’s a small problem with the Cutty Sark questionnaire…
Incidentally, if you went to see the Enderby Wharf exhibition on Thursday or Friday – how was it? I managed to miss it like an idiot, thinking it would stretch into the weekend. Frustratingly, there’s nothing on the web to look at.
On a London-wide basis, the consultation on the western extension of the congestion charge – which was meant to fund the new central London bike hire scheme – also ends this weekend.
You may have read elsewhere (see greenwich.co.uk and – crikey! – the News Shopper) about Wednesday night’s Greenwich Council meeting, which featured a motion put forward by the opposition proposing the scrapping of its propaganda weekly Greenwich Time. Yes, the News Shopper was represented, its reporter sat at the press bench while around her a direct competitor was debated.
Shame, however, that she wasn’t taking notes during the rest of the meeting. There was some good stuff at that meeting that’d sit happily in any local paper worth its salt.
- The Blackheath councillor accused of “playing to the gallery” for questioning Olympics’ organisers plans for Greenwich Park – see the Olympics post below.
- The residents of Hambledown Road, Sidcup, who mounted a stand-up protest in the public gallery to protest about plans to build on a patch of green space at the end of their road (although to be fair, the paper covered the story a couple of weeks ago). (UPDATE: This was covered on Saturday, two days after the meeting.)
- Labour and Conservative councillors uniting to condemn the closure of Greenwich Community College’s Meridian Music Centre in a debate that actually did both sides credit, up to a point.
- A severely epileptic woman who presented a petition (rightly) complaining about the dire state of pavements in Charlton to the council, summing up a huge amount of courage to speak to the chamber to point out an important issue, and sympathetically supported by local councillor Allan MacCarthy. Hey, there’s a local blogger in Charlton who’s also got a bee in his bonnet about the state of the streets…
- An interesting new policy where Greenwich is to hive off a small number of its council homes to a wholly-owned private company to try to provide more “family” homes for rent. Complicated and to some extent goes against a long-held Greenwich Labour policy of not hiving off council housing. Deserves more investigation, especially since nowhere else in the country seems to be doing this.
Get set to see more of those stories in next week’s News Shopper. Or maybe not.
The Greenwich Time debate wasn’t an encouraging affair. The Conservatives complained it cost too much money, but focused on the paper’s content, when they are two separate issues. Along with local blogs/websites, council newspapers are one of the things which have sprung up as once-respected local newspapers have withered and faded away. Greenwich Time is a product of market failure.
Conservative deputy leader Nigel Fletcher spoke wittily on the subject, acknowledging one Achilles heel when he said he’d make a “substantial donation” to the mayor’s charity if Labour members did not mention the word “Hammersmith” – H&F News is proof both Labour and Tory parties publish propaganda rags if they think they can get away with it. (Labour members didn’t go along with the joke and mentioned it anyway.)
“Is it really a frontline service without which our lives will be materially worse? This week, we’re treated to a centrefold spread of Councillor Fahy… is it really a core function of the council to review Toy Story 3? Do we need to tell people Prince’s new album is his strongest yet?,” he asked.
But the value-for-money argument was easily demolished by council leader Chris Roberts, who said the council was “on the verge of delivering its statutory notices at almost no cost- if there is a no-brainer, this is it”. He claims GT will cost 3.5p a copy to produce and deliver this year, down from 22p/copy in its old fortnightly, less folksy format. You can criticise the content, he added, but it drove advertising revenue. Cllr Roberts even claimed the recent cutback in the number of photos of leading councillors (since the last council election) was to help sell more ads.
So here’s the problem. Councils need to publish its statutory notices – planning applications, that kind of thing – somewhere. We’re not at the stage where they can go online, and the internet’s not really a good format for these things. Greenwich used to do its in the Mercury, stopping around the time the freesheet moved out of Deptford. Local newspapers have been known to charge councils a fortune to do this. So councils have put them in their own papers instead to save money. After all, should it be their job to subsidise local papers through advertising?
What Greenwich has done is tried to make its vehicle for publishing these things stand on its own two feet – with the happy spin-off that its editorial is slanted towards whatever Good Things the council are doing. You can’t argue with this in pure financial terms, but it’s a killer for papers like the News Shopper.
But what about the News Shopper? It got some stick from the aforementioned Cllr John Fahy, who said it and the Mercury carried “10 pages of stories in Lewisham and beyond, and perhaps 2 or 3 stories about the community in Greenwich” (Greenwich’s NS and Mercury editions are, front pages aside, shared with Lewisham) – but more tellingly, said the paper had been “an extension of Conservative News” during the election, a reference to a number of council-knocking stories which ran during April (which I should point out featured me in my then-role as a Green Party candidate). That said, the News Shopper complains bitterly that it is denied access to Labour councillors.
Indeed, the rare appearance of a News Shopper reporter at a council meeting was commented upon by Labour’s David Grant – “it’s lovely to see the local papers here… showing up for the really important matters”.
However correct the News Shopper may be in pursuing the Greenwich Time issue, it isn’t helping itself with its poor coverage of news in the borough. Its ongoing feud with the council just makes this worse. Obviously, that’s a criticism of its management rather than the reporter who had to sit in the middle of the chamber with 60 councillors looking at her.
So if we take Chris Roberts at his word, and accept that scrapping Greenwich Time would cost a fortune, what to do about its content?
Senior Labour councillor Maureen O’Mara pointed to its role in advertising council house tenancies, but then said the paper was “designed to be supportive and encouraging”, as if the population of the borough was comprised solely of five-year-olds. She then gave the game away by criticising Conservative bias in the national press, including the Daily Star in her round-up of Tory titles. Can’t say I’ve ever seen the Star run an in-depth expose of the shenanigans around Charlton Lido, but I’m happy to be corrected.
John Fahy was more revealing, claiming: “The Conservatives fought the election on the argument about Greenwich Time and lost,” adding GT was about “celebrating” the borough. Of course, there’s a thin line between celebrating the borough – an artificial entity – and celebrating the council created to serve that entity.
Conservative veteran Dermot Poston recalled being attacked “as a Tory” by the long-defunct Kentish Independent, which closed in the early 1980s after, he said, Greenwich Council pulled its advertising from it. Greenwich Time, he said, was “a Pravda, a political newspaper that is supposed to represent this council and I bitterly resent it”.
Another long-serving Tory, Eileen Glover, revealed she had been airbrushed out of a photo from an event in her ward, and joked how she won a bet by changing her hairstyle, enabling her to sneak into an issue. Labour’s David Grant was, refreshingly, less defensive than his colleagues, adding that he had also been airbrushed out of a shot. (I later heard a story about another councillor who’d been airbrushed out of another photo, replaced by a balloon.)
For his part, Chris Roberts said the paper could not legally be political, revealing it was reviewed “line by line” by lawyers before publication. I wonder if those legal costs are included in the 3.5p/copy costs? Indeed, he said, that was why Greenwich Time did not feature the government’s cuts to the school building programme.
But this hits right to the problem with Greenwich Time – what you leave out of a newspaper is as important as what you leave in. Nobody criticises Rupert Murdoch in the Sun, and nobody has a pop at the council in Greenwich Time. Those campaigners facing the loss of their patch of green in Sidcup won’t get a look-in, because that doesn’t “celebrate” a borough they live right on the edge of. Bad news is less likely to feature than good news. With local papers failing or fading, people who find themselves at the centre of bad news are going to find it harder to get their voices heard. And even if Greenwich Time disappeared tomorrow, the local papers are unlikely to celebrate by increasing the coverage they give the borough.
So what to do? I’ve always thought abolishing GT was a red herring. But if it costs so little to produce, why doesn’t the council spin it off into being a genuine community newspaper, run independently of the council, or at least overseen independently? What would the council – and its Labour leadership – have to be scared of by giving GT a little independence?
Ultimately, though, with Greenwich Labour digging in – most of its councillors obediently lining up behind an amended motion praising GT to the skies (a couple of wiser ones made themselves scarce before the vote) – the future of Greenwich Time is going to lie with the government. It may well be that legislation may be needed to allow for solutions like the one I suggest.
Councils can’t keep on pumping out weekly propaganda rags, even if they do make business sense – but local media barons shouldn’t be rewarded for neglecting their newspapers either. There has to be a middle way – or otherwise everyone will lose out.
Olympic athletes and officials are due to get their own lane on the Blackwall Tunnel approach during the summer of 2012, under plans revealed by organisers this morning.
Several roads in Greenwich, Blackheath, Kidbrooke and Charlton have been designated part of the Olympic Route network, designed to ferry competitors, staff, sponsors and media between the competition’s venues.
Lanes will be set aside on the A102 between Blackwall Lane and the Sun-in-the-Sands roundabout for Olympic traffic, along with short sections of Shooters Hill Road in Blackheath. While lanes are also being set aside on the A12 north of the river, the Blackwall Tunnel itself will not have a dedicated lane.
However, police will employ “traffic management” techniques to speed traffic through the Blackwall Tunnel as well as on the rest of the network, which comprises the Blackwall Tunnel approach Charlton Park Lane, Shooters Hill Road between Charlton Way and Charlton Park Lane, Prince Charles Road (north of Shooters Hill Road), Maze Hill, Park Vista and Park Row.
Officials say the route via Charlton Park Lane, to the shooting events at Woolwich Barracks, will only be in operation for the nine days that events will take place there.
The bulk of Olympic traffic will be expected to get in and out of central London via the north side of the river. But other local roads, including Trafalgar Road, most of Woolwich Road, Blackwall Lane, Crooms Hill in Greenwich and Academy Road in Woolwich have been designated as “alternative roads”, for use in case of problems with the main network. Officials say “minimal” measures will be needed on these roads.
Other SE London roads in the “alternative” network include Blackheath Hill, Blackheath Road, Deptford Church Street, Evelyn Street, Deptford Broadway and New Cross Road, as well as the A2 stretching out towards Kent.
I get the feeling there will be howls of anger further down the A2 at this news, and the Blackwall Tunnel Facebook group will explode as soon as the news reaches the suburbs. While I don’t see anyone begrudging free movement of athletes and officials, I don’t think anyone – whether they’re behind the wheel of a van or stuck on a packed 108 – is going to be too happy to about pausing so the head of the IOC or the chief executive of McDonald’s gets a smooth ride through the tunnel.
Much depends on how often the lanes will be closed to non-2012 traffic, and how long in each day the restrictions will last for. With both sides of the Blackwall Tunnel approach overloaded during rush hour, and further restrictions further north close to the Olympic Village (Bow Road and Stratford High Street won’t be much fun to travel around by road), it looks as if a sticky few weeks for traffic is going to be one of the more bitter pills this part of London will have to swallow for its share of Olympic glory.
Unfortunately, many of those affected may just have to lump it, rearrange things for a month, or take some time off. This might sound insultingly glib, but it’d probably be easier to do that – and free up a bit of space for those who’ll need the room on the road – than be a martyr to grumbling for a summer. That’s not really a message anyone involved in promoting 2012 is going to want to send out to people in their determination to prove it’ll be (sort of) business as usual.
Another Olympics story came out of last night’s council meeting, and it doesn’t bode well for the maturity of the debate surrounding the equestrian events in Greenwich Park. Conservative councillor Geoffrey Brighty, whose Blackheath Westcombe ward borders the park, submitted two questions to planning chair Ray Walker about LOCOG’s plans to reinstate the park after the games, and its plans to protect Roman remains. Cllr Walker declined to answer the questions, saying each was “a complex issue” and suggesting Cllr Brighty speak to planning officers.
When Cllr Brighty, who voted against planning permission for the equestrian events in March, pointed out that the planning officers could have supplied an answer for the public meeting, Cllr Walker accused him of “playing to the gallery”, insisting that planning conditions were being adhered to.
That little exchange doesn’t really give us much hope for real public scrutiny of LOCOG’s plans, especially as consultations are now limited to the usual suspects in the form of the local amenity societies.
March 2010, greenwich.co.uk: “The Royal George pub in Blissett Street is set to be turned into flats after planning permission was granted by Greenwich Council. The pub closed its doors recently and the owners, Shepherd Neame, put in an application to have the building converted into two flats. Six responses from the public were made which all opposed the closure, but permission was granted at last week’s meeting of the Greenwich area planning board.”
The August 2010 issue of CAMRA magazine Capital Drinker: “Shepherd Neame put the pub up for auction in June with planning permission for conversion into two flats, but bids failed to reach the reserve price in excess of £400,000. Remains closed and boarded up. The outcome supports CAMRA’s view that the property’s location would make it more viable as a free-of-tie pub than as flats, in which there is apparently little interest.”
I took the above photo last night after leaving the wonderfully revamped – and, by all acounts, thriving – Guildford Arms, possibly the poshest pub in Greenwich, and about 100 yards away from the “Little” George. How dull would life be if we all gave up hope for our local pubs?
The Little George will once again go under the hammer on 21 September, with a reserve price of £500,000. Whip-round, anyone?
I got home just before midnight on Monday, checked the blog stats, and was amazed. The page views Greenwich Council consultant Brian Hanson had helped clock up – thanks to the Hyder Consulting man’s intervention on a post I’d written – had helped this site to one of its most-read days. He was upset about me pointing out, in forceful terms, that no council officers or councillors had showed up at a public meeting to discuss the possible pedestrianisation of Greenwich town centre – a project he has a great deal of interest in as a contractor to the council, for Hyder is developing the project on its behalf.
For a post which didn’t go up until 2.45pm – and that was to give him some time to reply to an e-mail to check his identity – it propelled this site to one of its most-read days.
See, nobody reads this dull local news stuff, eh? All they want to know is about crows and blondes and…. ah.
Harsh words above on Twitter from a chap who, as far as I know, has no axe to grind. But the fallout from this (Hansongate? Hydergate? Greenwichgate? Pedestrianisationgate?) worries me.
Because Greenwich Council is secretive enough as it is. Why wouldn’t Greenwich West’s Labour councillors show at a public meeting if they weren’t worried about saying something without some kind of authorisation from above? One councillor, Maureen O’Mara, is a member of Greenwich’s Labour cabinet, who were meeting that night. But where were the other two, David Grant and newly-elected Matthew Pennycook? Most of the people grumbling were their constituents – why weren’t they there to listen? And why no council officers, or those contracted to to their work for them?
It would appear, from the hapless Mr Hanson’s comments, that to get one of them along to a meeting full of people who pay their wages that organisers need to “address invitations to persons with the authority to authorise officers (or consultants) to attend, namely Cabinet Members and/or Chief Officers”. Anyone who fails to go through these esteemed channels has “simply failed to organise the meeting through the proper channels”.
I understand that Mr Hanson is a former employee of Greenwich Council. His comment betrays the same old attitude that Greenwich Council is so often slated for – it thinks the people are there to serve the council, not the other way around.
Greenwich Labour’s political opponents should beware here. Mr Hanson is an employee of a private organisation that stands to gain under the coalition’s “big society” plan to hive off council services. It also stands to gain under schemes like Labour’s “co-op council” caper in Lambeth. It doesn’t show the dynamic, fresh attitude that bringing in private enterprise is supposed to – it simply shows a complacent, arrogant attitude that betrays a system which has gone horribly rotten.
The pedestrianisation of Greenwich town centre – a world heritage site, remember – should be something the council is eager to discuss with us. But it isn’t.
Why should a council officer, or contractor, feel unable to speak to the public about a scheme he or she is involved in? Unfortunately, clumsy interventions like Mr Hanson’s don’t help the cause of openness, for a naturally secretive council like Greenwich discourages its staff and councillors from speaking out of turn about just about anything. Yet what people want is information, and engagement, not a patronising silence.
Let’s be frank here. Most Greenwich Labour councillors aren’t allowed to wipe their backsides without permission from the leadership. It’s not a party political thing – see what happened to the Barnet Tory who challenged her greedy bosses’ pay rises – but more of a symptom of how local government fails us. It’s a system where backbench councillors are whipped into line, and dissent is discouraged, punished or ridiculed. Greenwich Labour provides a grim example of this.
Anyone with nothing better to do can pop along to Woolwich Town Hall tonight and see this in action at the witless farce which is a full council meeting. The Conservatives are going to propose a motion (see item 17) demanding the scrapping of propaganda paper Greenwich Time, suggesting its funding could be better placed with frontline services. (This week’s GT is a thing of wonder, containing a review of the new Prince album and a photograph of the council leader.)
Greenwich Labour could well just vote this down and bugger off to the pub, as any sensible group of people would do if they had a thumping majority on the council. Unfortunately, what will probably happen is that it’ll be turned into a motion proclaiming Greenwich Time to be the finest thing since the invention of the printing press, and all Labour councillors will vote, sheep-like for it. (Hey, there’s time for them to prove me wrong…) Nobody will gain anything from this, apart from the security guard paid by us to sit in the public gallery while those down below play their silly games.
Such is the state of local democracy in Greenwich. Brian Hanson’s comments betray a “do as you’re told” culture which comes down right from the top. But at least he said something. It may not have been the wisest of things to say, but at least he contributed to the debate. Which is more than you’ll get off almost anyone else involved with Greenwich Council.
Last Wednesday I popped along for the first hour of a public meeting about plans to pedestrianise Greenwich town centre, a project about which I have mixed feelings – good idea, looks like it’s being implemented badly. I went along to see what others thought, and wrote some of it up for this blog. I thought the lack of attendance from Greenwich council officers or councillors was rather telling, so led with it. Job done, a bit of a debate in the comments section, a story to watch for the future.
Until this lunchtime, when this comment appeared from a Brian Hanson…
When organising a public meeting at which you wish the Council (or any public body)to be represented, it is important to address your invitations to persons with the authority to authorise officers (or consultants) to attend. Namely Cabinet Members and/or Chief Officers.
If you failed to do this, it is little wonder nobody within the Council knew about this meeting, or if they did, felt that they were not authorised to be present.
Nobody “snubbed you” – you simply failed to organise the meeting through the proper channels. Please try again and do it right this time.
Huh? What? I’m not sure why he mistook me for an organiser of the meeting, or why I deserved this kind of sniffy treatment – and then I checked his e-mail address.
Brian Hanson is a technical director for Hyder Consulting, which is rather close to Greenwich Council. Hyder is working for Greenwich Council on the pedestrianisation scheme, and has also been commissioned to look at “public realm improvements” in Eltham town centre. A recent commenter on this site, the Greenwich Phantom and on greenwich.co.uk, “ME” of Deptford, reported he’d been using the title of “‘L B Greenwich Commission Director”.
So it appears one of the people in charge of the Greenwich pedestrianisation scheme – and taking our council tax money to do this – has taken to the keyboard to publicly abuse and patronise those who are scrutinising his work. He’s not even doing it accurately if he thinks I’m one of the organisers of the scheme.
But why is he doing it? Is he worried the scheme may fail because of public opposition? Or has he just been given permission to abuse people who are seen as somehow “anti-” whatever Greenwich Council wants to achieve here? Aren’t we all meant to be in this together, wanting the best for a battered town centre?
And why is a man from a private company lecturing me on how the council works?
Unfortunately, Brian Hanson’s intervention raises yet more questions about a scheme which is causing great worry among many people. If this is his attitude to people who are commenting on the process, then why is Greenwich Council paying him and Hyder money to work on our behalf?
UPDATE 3:25PM – Brian Hanson has responded to an e-mail in which I pointed out I was not connected with the meeting organisers.
I don’t blame you for organising the meeting, but the misleading headline implying that the Council deliberately “snubbed” the event does feature prominently on your blog and could be construed as lazy journalism. Before rushing to print such disparaging assertions in the future, it would be gratifying if you could make more effort to ascertain all the facts concerning the event and the nature of the actual invitations extended.
For the record, as lead consultant to the Council I would have been delighted to have attended this meeting had I been authorised to do so through proper channels (despite its premature timing with regard to addressing the concerns that have been voiced).
We are currently processing the feedback of consultation with some 8,500 premises in Central Greenwich, including other comments received on the Council’s website. This follows a public exhibition of the plans (with micro-simulation traffic models) in late June, that was attended by some 500 persons. Members will be briefed on the outcome of this consultation shortly and, unless they resolve to scrap the plans, one imagines, they will advise on what forums they wish to establish to promote further local debate.
Assuming the plans are taken forward, we are already committed to addressing the specific problems of ‘rat-running’ raised by the Crooms Hill and Hyde Vale Residents Associations (amongst others) and are close to resolving many of the concerns of local bus users with extended services agreed with TfL / LT Buses. We would also be happy to engage with local cycle groups to address their outstanding concerns as and when instructed to do so.
For the record, it was clearly stated at the start of the meeting that council officials had been invited to the event, which had been announced two weeks in advance. It’s inconcievable that the three Greenwich West councillors were unaware of the meeting, especially considering the appearance of a neighbouring councillor (in a non-official capacity) and two representatives of the local Conservatives.
UPDATE: 10:30AM TUESDAY – Here is a statement from Transition Greenwich, which organised the meeting, explaining that apologies were recieved from council officers, and that neither local councillors nor local MP Nick Raynsford responded to their invitations.
Each time I told them they had no authority over me, and that I hadn’t committed any crime, nor was I unruly, and I had a perfectly legitimate ticket which entitled me to be on the train. The younger of the two officers explained he had seen me taking pictures of them on the platform and they had the right to see those pictures because of their safety. I refused. The older one then said they did have the authority to do so because of the terrorism act. I asked which terrorism act and why were they enforcing that act if they were not police officers? They informed us they did have those powers.
They informed my partner and I that they would be taking us off the train at Dartford where they would meet the British Transport Police who would deal with the situation. I at first refused to go with them stating that they had absolutely no authority to kick me off the train without a legitimate reason. Bear in mind my partner had nothing to do with this incident at all and why they felt she needed to be removed from the train I have no idea. It must be pointed out that we did ask what would happen if we refused. Their answer was they would relay our descriptions to the police and the police would search for us and we would be arrested. I relented not wanting my partner to get too involved and advised them that I would get off the train under protest and that they were forcing me to do something against my will and I would be taking it further.
More at You’ve Been Cromwelled!
Incidentally, nearly eight weeks after my encounter with a platform attendant at Cannon Street who didn’t understand how Oyster worked, Southeastern still haven’t seen fit to respond to my complaint. It’s not just blogs they don’t respond to, clearly.