Brian Hanson, Greenwich Council, and a rotten culture
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.