Archive for July 2011
A senior Greenwich councillor has apologised for the weeds springing up across the area, blaming failings by the firm contracted to apply weedkiller across the borough’s pavements.
Environment cabinet member Maureen O’Mara said the council was having to bring a new contractor in to finish the job after foot-high plants started to appear in some parts of the borough.
“I apologise to the residents of the borough – the political buck stops with me,” she told last night’s Greenwich Council meeting.
“We didn’t get it right this year, and when you don’t get it right, you should say so, and get it sorted out, which is what we’re doing.”
In a written answer to Conservative councillor Matt Clare, she said a company had been engaged in March to apply a treatment called Dual to the borough’s streets.
But while the treatment is known to be effective, 853 understands the unnamed company – which was selected because it offered the cheapest tender – only applied it to existing weeds – but not as a preventative measure on other parts of the pavement, leading to the green growths springing up across local streets. (The photos here were taken in Harraden Road, Kidbrooke, on Thursday afternoon.)
“The unsatisfactory quality of the treatment was primarily due to the way in which the weed killing chemicals were being applied by the contractor, rather than the product itself,” Cllr O’Mara said, adding that a new contractor was at work and should complete the job within two weeks.
“Our own teams will also continue to undertake additional weed control works on some sites, and will gradually remove dead weeds as part of the street cleansing operation.”
It’s the second time in just over two years Cllr O’Mara has had to apologise for weed-strewn streets – in July 2009 she said sorry after the council struggled with adapting to new regulations on weedkillers.
Invited by Conservative councillors to pose for a photograph for Greenwich Time with the weeds in their Eltham wards, and to repeat the apology in the council weekly, joked: “I don’t want to stand with inanimate objects.
“If I get a look at these weeds, I’ll pull them out myself.”
Cllr O’Mara added: “I am sure my apology will be noted in the local press.”
However, neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper were present at last night’s meeting.
Hear Conservative leader Spencer Drury discuss the issue with Maureen O’Mara:
Also at last night’s meeting:
Hear council leader Chris Roberts discuss the council leader and chief executive getting VIP passes for the Olympic Games with Conservative Adam Thomas:
Chris Roberts also defended Greenwich Time under questioning from Conservative Matt Clare:
It’s official – from 3 January the London Borough of Greenwich will become the Royal Borough of Greenwich after a motion backing the change was passed at last night’s council meeting.
Leader Chris Roberts proposed the change, outlining the borough’s connections with royalty through the royal residences at Greenwich and Eltham, and dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford.
Additionally, to mark the change, the National Maritime Museum, Queen’s House and Royal Observatory will be collectively known as the Royal Museums Greenwich from the new year.
“I’ve no doubt there will be those who will bleat on about cost and relevance, but this is our history,” he told councillors.
“It is what has made our borough, and we should be justly proud of the designation being conferred on us.
“It’s very difficult to talk about the history of the borough, because you could be here all night, and still miss a lot.”
Cllr Roberts referred to Henry V returning to Eltham Palace with French prisoners from Agincourt, Charlton House being originally built as a school for James I’s son, and how Duke Humphrey “took on the NOGOE of the 15th century” to enclose Greenwich Park.
“Henry VIII and the Tudors based themselves at Greenwich, and what may be called the greatest soap opera of English history took place in our borough.”
He said the Queen’s first public appearance was in Greenwich, at her father’s side at the 1937 opening of the National Maritime Museum – and spoke of how the Duke of Edinburgh, declared Baron Greenwich in 1948, had stayed in “constant touch” with the borough.
She will return to the borough in April 2012 to reopen the Cutty Sark, while the National Maritime Museum will host an exhibition about the “royal river”.
“We remain heirs to what is a great royal heritage, which has spawned science, industry and culture. It is a rich royal legacy.”
Conservative deputy leader Nigel Fletcher said Greenwich would be the only London borough to be given royal status in its entirety, since others had inherited their titles from predecessors.
“When I mentioned the soon-to-be Royal Borough of Greenwich, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea muttered darkly, ‘there’s only proper one royal borough’.
“Yes, I told him. And it’s going to be us.
“Whether you are a monarchist or a republican, this is the head of state recognising something that we all in this chamber have always known – that in this corner of south-east London, we have something very special indeed.”
The change is being made to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and will involve a new coat of arms and signs around the borough.
You can hear the full discussion below. Chris Roberts speaks first, and after a word from mayor Jim Gillman, Nigel Fletcher speaks before the motion is voted on.
Neither of the borough’s local newspapers, the Mercury and the News Shopper, were represented in the council chamber to see the name change decided. greenwich.co.uk was there, mind, and transcribed Chris Roberts’ speech, the brave man…
The one-year countdown to the Olympics started around here in predictable fashion – with North Greenwich station being briefly closed because of a fire alert. Despite millions being thrown at Tube upgrades, new rail lines and a boosted Docklands Light Railway, transport remains next summer’s biggest worry.
With the test event arena still being dismantled in Greenwich Park, how can next summer be made easier and – heck, enjoyable – for locals who are going to have their lives turned upside down for a fortnight. Let’s get one thing straight – there’s a significant core of people who don’t want to enjoy next summer, who are going to make our lives a misery by complaining the Olympics will make their lives a misery. Not even a free ticket to the 100m final, with free helicopter ride there, will change these people’s minds.
But what about the rest of us? It’s a different situation in Greenwich to the main site in Stratford – or even Woolwich, which is seeing spin-offs such as its new square – as the physical legacy from the Games will be minimal. The hope is for private investment – like hotels – rather than creating permanent sporting reminders. So we’re in the odd situation of knowing the Olympics will change Greenwich – but we’re not quite sure how.
Here’s some thoughts about how people in this part of London can be kept happy – or a little bit less disgruntled – as the eyes of the world (© all media outlets) gaze upon our fair capital city. Your constructive suggestions to add to these thoughts would be welcome.
1. Information, information, information. The test events went off well, with much of the park opening ahead of schedule. But some of the information was still faulty – a surprise gate closure and a lack of information displays on the worst-affected east side of Greenwich Park didn’t help. This isn’t tough – put up notice boards at every entrance to the park, and update them fortnightly or monthly with the latest news.
2. Common sense closures. Speaking of the east side of the park, closing all of that side of the park – and denying access to the flower garden except from the Blackheath gate – was hugely inconvenient. Yes, as much of the park should stay open as possible – but access to what’s open should be kept as wide as possible.
3. Tell us more about our park. Another problem with the information given is that nobody knows the names of the gates and roads within the park. Anyone know where Lovers’ Walk is? With three gates on Maze Hill and one just off it, which one is Maze Hill Gate? And then which is Maze Hill House Gate? With months of small-scale closures coming up, perhaps it’s time for Royal Parks to invest in some tasteful signage so we know our Great Cross Avenue from The Avenue. (Here’s a map.)
4. Alternative parks. I’m looking forward to the Olympics, but even I found myself feeling bereft at losing a chunk of the park for the test events. I’m not sure Olympics organisers, or some of the local decision-makers who live elsewhere in Greenwich borough, have really though through the impact of having the park padlocked for a month will have. But Greenwich Park is not the only green space in south-east London. Greenwich borough has some wonderful green spaces, as does neighbouring Lewisham. Never been to Manor House Gardens in Lee? Or checked out the wetlands in Sutcliffe Park? You’re missing out. It’s time to promote these green spaces.
5. Let us see what’s going on. One great omission from the test events? A big screen so those without tickets could see what was going on inside. As we know, there’s hundreds of thousands of people who were let down by the 2012 ticket sale – yet they deserve to be part of the action too. I’ve still got fond memories of the fan park in the centre of Berlin during the 2006 World Cup – while a massive effort on that scale is going to be impractical, there’s no excuse for not peppering Greenwich and its neighbouring areas with screens.
I understand a big screen is planned for Cutty Sark Gardens. But the equestrian and pentathlon will have to become Greenwich events to win people over – so as many people as possible should be able to see what’s going on inside. Keep that screen in Cutty Sark Gardens, but have one on the peninsula too. Why not screens in East Greenwich Pleasaunce and St Alfege Park as well? Lewisham Council should get in on the act too – a screen on Blackheath would be a big draw.
6. Think again about the Olympic route network. This has been done to death elsewhere, and I’ve a funny feeling the ORN will collapse as the games go on. But the Blackwall Tunnel approach aside, the Greenwich area actually gets off pretty lightly – the biggest pinch point, as far as I can tell, will be on Shooters Hill Road between Charlton and Kidbrooke. But losing a lane on the Blackwall Tunnel approach will have knock-on effects elsewhere in the area. Short of flying a plane over Kent telling motorists to bugger off if their journeys aren’t necessary, it’s going to be one of the weakest links in the whole Olympic jigsaw. Ken Livingstone is right – the ORN should be opened up to buses and taxis. And extra buses should be laid on to get people through the A102 bottlenecks. It could be the best advert that the public transport network has ever had. An idle thought – could the ORN work as a contraflow on the approach road?
7. Reverse the Southeastern Olympic service cuts. The train company still plans to cut services at Deptford, Maze Hill, Westcombe Park, Woolwich Dockyard and Kidbrooke. If you’re telling people to take the fortnight off, and telling people to stay out of their cars, don’t make it more difficult for them to take trains to go about the rest of their business. The worst example of pig-headed idiocy in Olympics planning – and our mayor doesn’t seem to care.
8. Let’s have a party. Sat in the Old Brewery late last night, listening to the Divine Comedy waft over the walls, it dawned on me – why not have a free concert in the week before the Olympics? The Greenwich Summer Sessions may not happen next year because of the Games, which would be a great shame – but what’s really needed is a show for everyone to enjoy. We should be planning as many free things – like Sail Royal Greenwich – as possible to attract visitors who might be deterred by the loss of the park and museum.
9. Neighbourhood pride. A renewed commitment to keeping the streets of Greenwich clean would be nice. This isn’t the council’s strongest point – but if we’re meant to be feeling proud of our neighbourhood, more effort should be made to sort out the area’s tatty streets. Incidentally, we should go to town on putting banners up – costs can be recouped by selling them afterwards.
10. Free tickets for schoolchildren. Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts is right – it’s a disgrace that most local children are being locked out of events. It’s not too late to change this.
11. Be visible and listen to local residents’ ideas. Open up that 2012 shop in the market. Have a suggestion box in there. Just listen to people. This has to be a Greenwich event (and I mean Greenwich itself, not the borough), instead of feeling like an event imposed on Greenwich by outside forces and local politicians. Leaving Greenwich Park untouched will be a challenge – but so will leaving the people of Greenwich feeling like it’s all been worth it. It can be done, though.
Any more ideas? Your suggestions – as opposed to complaints – would be appreciated.
Want more? The latest In The Meantime podcast discusses Olympics issues across the whole borough.
I went over to Trinity Buoy Wharf‘s open weekend the other day (thanks to Diamond Geezer for the reminder). I’d only been there once before – for a work thing on a cold day about 10 years ago – so it was good to go back and have a proper wander around in the sunshine.
If you’re not familiar with it, Trinity Buoy Wharf is directly opposite the Dome, and the location of London’s only lighthouse. Climb the narrow stairs to the top of the lighthouse, and you can peer back across the river while listening to the eerie Longplayer.
Once the place where the river’s buoys were made, Trinity Buoy Wharf is now a thriving community of artists and small businesses. It’s a little bit cut off from the surrounding area, tucked away at the end of an old street called Orchard Place. Once home to the isolated community of Bow Creek, its residents were moved out following the flood of 1928.
So there’s a ferry from North Greenwich Pier, run by an old police boat called Predator II. Its main job is as a crew shuttle for Thames Clippers, which is based at Trinity Buoy Wharf. But it’s also available if you need to visit Trinity Buoy Wharf, running between 5am and about 7.30pm, charging a £2 fare. Trips were free at the weekend, and if it’s choppy it’s not for those prone to seasickness – but it’s a quick way to get across the Thames. It’s hardly advertised, though – there’s a tiny timetable and phone number at the western end of North Greenwich Pier – and it’s probably best to give Thames Clippers a call first to check it’s running.
Plans for a two-day music festival on Blackheath have been upheld by magistrates, who threw out an appeal against it being granted a licence.
Bromley magistrates dismissed the appeal brought by the Blackheath Society against Lewisham Council, which granted a 10-year licence to Nimby Events Ltd last year.
The society now faces an £80,000 legal bill following the seven day hearing, the longest appeal ever heard under current licensing laws.
This year’s festival, due to attract 50,000 people over two days, was abandoned because of the lengthy court case, but organisers are now planning to hold the first On Blackheath festival in September 2012.
Despite the rejection of the appeal, Lewisham Council came in for criticism in the magistrates’ ruling. They said there was “little evidence” the council conducted its consultation into the festival licence in an “open and transparent manner”.
Lewisham approved the event at a licensing sub-committee meeting in October – but a large number of local people in both Lewisham and Greenwich boroughs were “totally unaware” of the application, they said.
The festival is due to be held on the western side of the heath, between the Territorial Army base at Holly Hedge House and Shooters Hill Road, on the boundary of the two boroughs.
Furthermore, the magistrates branded Lewisham’s failure to formally notify Greenwich Council of the application “astonishing”. Festival organisers had informed Greenwich of their plans – but officers at the neighbouring authority, whose boundary runs just metres away from the festival site, were left waiting in vain for Lewisham to inform them when a full application was made.
While it had complied with the Licensing Act 2003, magistrates Roger Mills and Dr Patrick Davies said “Lewisham, through its licensing sub-committee, as not acted in an appropriate manner and has not had the interests of some of its residents at heart”.
But concerns about public order and noise at the event were dismissed by the magistrates, who noted the “days when events would have banks of speakers on a stage facing the audience” were gone, and were confident sound control firm Vanguardia would be able to mitigate any problems with noise.
Counsel for Nimby Events had asked the magistrates to award the full £140,000 costs of the hearing to the Blackheath Society, but the magistrates declined, saying the appeal had been “properly brought and Parliament had intended residents to have a say in the licensing process”.
It was revealed in the hearing that the society, which has a membership of 980 families, has assets of around £400,000, partly tied up in local property. Nimby Events’ Tom Wates, Terry Felgate and Alex Wicks were described in court by their counsel Simon Taylor as “local family men” who were funding their legal costs from their own pockets – they will be liable for most of the remainder of the costs.
Speaking before the costs ruling, Nimby’s Alex Wicks said he and his fellow organisers were “pleased” the festival could go ahead.
“We’re looking forward to working with the whole community, including the Blackheath Society and the Blackheath Joint Working Party. We very much want this to be a community event.”
He added that they were looking to hold concerts at Blackheath Halls during the winter as a build-up to the festival. “The halls need all the help they can get, and hopefully we can get it sold out for three nights.”
Blackheath Society chairman Howard Shields said that Lewisham’s decision to revise its policy on holding events on the heath showed the appeal had not been completely in vain.
“Our grouse all along has been with the way Lewisham has handled it,” he said.
“We have never said there should never be anything on Blackheath. But if we’re going into an era of having big commercial events on Blackheath, then there should be proper scrutiny.”
The decision to begin the appeal was taken by its management committee after an overwhelming response against the festival on its e-mail list, he added.
Asked about those who backed the event, Mr Shields said: “Nobody has written to us asking, why did you do this?”
However, he conceded there was a feeling the society had lost touch with younger people, and needed to “broaden our communication abilities” in future. (A full statement is on the Blackheath Bugle.)
Festival organisers will now be looking to find a suitable date for On Blackheath, with the Paralympic Games equestrian events taking place in Greenwich Park during early September 2012. Earlier this year, Tom Wates told this website the event could bring up to £1m of custom for local firms.
Slogans of urban progress flashed up on the screen in front of us. A largely silver-haired crowd filed into the hall. But something didn’t quite feel right.
We were in Bexleyheath School, where Boris Johnson was to hold an event called Talk London. Yet, looking around, London was probably a distant concept in many people’s minds. This is country where people still write “Kent” on their addresses. Boasting of Sikh festivals in Trafalgar Square, volunteer corps and Skyrides through the West End sits strangely in DA6, which only seems to assume a London identity whenever a crime takes place.
The idea behind Talk London is for ordinary Londoners to quiz the mayor. They can do that at People’s Question Times anyway, but these extra events give Boris the chance to spread his message. In Bexleyheath, he was joined by the Conservative leader of Bexley Council, Teresa O’Neill, while the meeting was chaired by the local Conservative assembly member, James Cleverly. Somehow, you could see why he came to Bexleyheath and not, say, Woolwich. Also on the panel was Ray Lewis, the mayor’s “mentoring ambassador” for youth, and a local special constable.
The panellists strode on stage and introduced themselves, and Boris gave everyone a rambling version of one of his Daily Telegraph columns. Like all the best comics, he looks like he’s making it all up as he’s going along, but I’m reliably informed he delivered a gag about exporting cakes to Paris two years ago in Brixton. “…And we’ve exported Piers Morgan to America!”
The contradiction between extolling the virtues of the city when you’re trying to appeal to people who’ve rejected urban life soon shone through. “In a city, you live longer than you would do in a village,” he declared, losing his audience for a rare moment before explaining he wanted to return London to being 150-odd villages, and encouraging people to travel around them as they would in villages, on foot and by bike. Try telling that to someone trying to find a corner shop among the sprawling semis of Barnehurst.
The cycle hire scheme was brought up – even though the nearest hire station has to be 12 miles away; and Crossrail was declared a triumph for Bexley borough, even though it’ll terminate just short of its border at Abbey Wood. Even Teresa O’Neill winced at that moment – her council had campaigned for it to be extended into the borough itself.
If the mayor was looking for an easy ride, though, he wasn’t going to get it. The first question asked why he’d broken a campaign promise and relinquished the chairmanship of the Metropolitan Police Authority. “Kit Malthouse is an excellent chair, and I saw no reason not to delegate to him.”
“Can we have a proper answer please, Mister Mayor?”
After some bluster, the mayor said his decision was nothing to do with the conviction of his deputy Ian Clement for fraud – a touchy subject around these parts, since the now embittered Clement used to run Bexley Council.
Generally, though, the questions were mostly about crime – and the fear of youth crime – and parking and traffic problems. Pretty much bullseye issues for suburbs like this. The mayor identified “a lack of risk and excitement” in young men’s lives for much of the problems, and proposed rugby as a solution. “If you have two hours of getting your head kicked in at rugby each week, there’s no way you’ll commit crime.”
The school head chipped in with his own suggestion – blocking young people’s access to Facebook. “It stops fights on Mondays.” He got the biggest round of applause of the night.
Unfortunately, somebody allowed London Assembly member Richard Barnbrook, who now claims to have moved to the borough after being ejected by voters in Barking, into the meeting. Barnbrook, who didn’t identify himself, won applause after asking a rambling question about youth crime, referring to “the unfortunate murder of a black person in Welling” and claiming somebody had been stabbed at the recent Danson Festival.
Teresa O’Neill rightly slapped the unshaven ex-BNP member down for trying to spread malicious rumours – he’s got form for this – but tellingly, she only received a gentle round of clapping for setting the record straight. Playing to prejudices still wins friends around these parts.
Also not identifying himself was a dapper chap at the end of our row who asked a question congratulating Boris on scrapping the Thames Gateway Bridge, and condemning Ken Livingstone for promising to revisit the idea. That’s because the questioner was Conservative London Assembly member Gareth Bacon, quietly planting the opportunity for Boris to pledge to build a third Blackwall crossing, to enable the people of Bexley to drive across the Thames and make Greenwich suffer the consequences. What Boris didn’t say was that TfL hasn’t entirely killed off the bridge scheme yet – but hey, there’s an election coming next year.
There was more backscratching to come, when Teresa O’Neill was asked why she pays Bexley’s chief executive £208,000 a year. The mayor tried to answer the question on her behalf, before O’Neill declared that Will Tuckley had transformed the council from being “where’s Bexley?” to “what are Bexley saying?” to more heckles.
Later, a full-blown row broke out as a pugnacious RMT taxi drivers’ rep challenged the mayor on what he was doing to stop unlicensed minicabs touting for business in the West End – the rep accusing the mayor of not accepting TfL’s own figures, the mayor getting ratty with the rep. The bonhomie slipped, and you could see how uncomfortable the mayor gets when his statements get challenged.
On the whole, it was a better night when talking about local matters. Problems with buses linking Bexley with Kent – and Kent’s reluctance to cough up to boost them – got an airing. Road humps were declared beyond the pale, with Teresa O’Neill blaming them on the evil Ken.
But on the whole, it was unclear quite what Boris could offer Bexleyheath other than some warm words and funny jokes. He talked lots about getting young people into training and apprenticeships (youth crime again) – but nobody was there with any personal experience of any of this. The mayor talked up safer neighbourhood teams – even as they’re now having their sergeants cut across London.
A question about pensioner poverty was answered with a boast about the extension of the Freedom Pass to 24 hours a day – but nobody pointed out that extension isn’t valid on the local Southeastern trains. In some ways, Boris may as well have been the mayor of Balamory, boasting about buying Miss Hoolie a new jumper, for all his talk of cycle hire schemes and the Olympics have to do with Bexleyheath.
Despite the rough questions, they only came as an interruption to the backslapping. The event still felt politically lopsided – if London Assembly members are allowed to sneak in their own friendly questions to their candidate, can this really be called anything other than electioneering?
At the end, the mayor would have headed back off down the A2 into the sunset, job done at charming another group of voters, his apparent success of reviving the capital city up the road pressed home. “This is London’s safest borough!” declared Teresa O’Neill. Keeping Bexley safe from interfering Ken seemed to be what mattered last night – and with events like this shoring up the core vote, they can’t do the mayor’s chances of fending off the old foe any harm at all.
Sound the fanfares! There’s a special meeting of Greenwich Council next Wednesday. Never mind that there’s a normal meeting of the council that night, but there’s now a special meeting added to it too.
What can this be about?
Motion Signed by Councillors Chris Roberts and Spencer Drury Regarding Royal Borough Status and the Name of the Borough
This Council welcomes that Her Majesty the Queen has announced her intention to convey Royal Borough status on Greenwich as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.
The Council notes that the new status of Royal Borough is expected to come into force on 3rd January 2012; and, that the event will be marked by the issue of Letters Patent.
The Council welcomes the honour and resolves, in line with Section 74(1) and (2) of the Local Government Act 1972, to agree to change the name of the Borough to the Royal Borough of Greenwich with effect from 3 January 2012.
So there’s just 166 days left of being a dull old London borough, before Greenwich becomes a royal borough on 3 January. Curiously, that’s a Tuesday, and will be the first day back at work for most of the borough’s population, so don’t go expecting a flurry of street parties on the big day.
The setting of a date starts the countdown, though, and we’ll be seeing more of this in the weeks and months to come as the council gets set to change over to the new name.
One thing to go will be the old borough crest – with the hourglass of Greenwich and the cannons of Woolwich – since a royal borough demands a proper coat of arms. Mayoral chains will change. But more visibly, so will signs and notepaper. Those “millennium borough” signs as you come in from Lewisham, Bexley and Bromley haven’t got long left.
So expect a PR coup on 3 January, on what’s usually a deathly quiet day for a news media who’ll be desperate to fill column inches and airtime – and the expectation of lots of lovely tourist lolly in what’s going to be a big, big year for the borough, even without the regal trinkets.
Yes, expect the likes of London Tonight and BBC London News to be in town – but get it on Good Morning America and it’ll be worth its weight in royal diamonds. Old Labour firebrands might be crossing their fingers and humming the Sex Pistols’ version of God Save The Queen, others might be wincing at the cost of a shedload of new signs.
But’s a little like the Olympics – except we aren’t losing a park for a month here. The moment the Royal Borough of Greenwich gets its first mention on US TV, or in Japan or China, even cynics might begin to agree it’s all worth it.
Greenwich Council’s cabinet members lined up tonight to lavish praise on its weekly newspaper before giving it the go-ahead to continue – but only after it was revealed discussions had been held about selling Greenwich Time to commercial operators.
Leader Chris Roberts said there was an “overwhelming” financial case to carry on publishing 50 times a year, in defiance of a new government code which restricts councils to just four issues of their newspapers.
The cabinet unanimously agreed to back a report endorsing the paper, some of which has been blocked from public scrutiny because of concerns over commercial confidentiality.
But Conservative councillor Matt Clare asked a series of questions referring to the confidential part of the report – including a request for further details about talks over GT being “acquired as a going concern”, which he said he had been pleased to hear about.
However, most of his questions were ruled as being unable to be heard in public, and the meeting broke up with no discussion of the “confidential” matters. Therefore, it was not revealed what discussions took place, or with whom, or how much the council could make from selling the borough’s most widely-distributed newspaper.
The report says the council saved £1.8m over the year in advertising costs by publishing 50 times a year – although once again, the figures which show this are not being published publicly.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles has threatened authorities who break his code with a judicial review, but council officers say his code does not have the force of law behind it. However, Greenwich has made several changes to GT in recent months, dropping a TV guide and adding the council logo to its masthead.
Critics have called the paper “propaganda”, with editions published before the 2010 election aggressively promoting council initiatives, alongside a now-axed masthead saying the paper was “campaigning for an even greater Greenwich”.
Many of the cabinet members put on record their appreciation for the newspaper, pointing to the role it plays in informing council tenants of available properties.
Community safety and environment member Maureen O’Mara said she had always been “taken aback” by the “screaming and shouting” of those opposed to the paper. “I still don’t understand it,” she said, adding she had watched council tenants “come in every Tuesday to see what properties they could bid for”.
“It’s very mean-spirited to complain,” she added.
Housing member Steve Offord said he would be “very sorry” if Greenwich Time disappeared, while deputy leader Peter Brooks said council tenants in neighbouring boroughs had to visit libraries to find out about vacant homes. “My neighbours speak very highly of Greenwich Time,” the Thamesmead Moorings councillor added.
Education member Jackie Smith said Greenwich Time reflected the positive contribution the children of the borough made, “while the rest of the media only covers young people when things go wrong”.
“We are able to give a balanced view of what’s going on,” she said.
Regeneration, enterprise and skills member Denise Hyland said the paper was distributed to all homes and “celebrated the lives of people in the borough, is informative and cost-effective” while commercial freesheets (the Mercury and News Shopper) were only interested in targeting more affluent residents.
Chris Roberts said he did not blame commercial publishers for their “tighter distribution”, but claimed they tended to avoid council estates, citing the News Shopper reporting zero deliveries to the estates west of Well Hall Road, Eltham – but over 4,500 to the privately-owned homes to the east.
“For me, finance, cost savings and distribution make the case for Greenwich Time overwhelming,” he said.
Of the two freesheets which cover the borough, only one, the Petts Wood-based News Shopper, sent a reporter to cover the meeting.
Southeastern has started a publicity campaign to warn passengers about its planned Olympic rail service cuts, but is remaining typically coy about its effects on passengers in the Greenwich area. There’s an new page on its website – www.southeasternrailway.co.uk/olympics – although this isn’t linked from the main front page as I type, it being full of guff about trains to the Open golf. But posters are appearing at stations – thanks to Diamond Geezer for this photo from Herne Hill, referring slyly to “altered timetables”.
Inside, you can find the full planned timetable for the Greenwich, Bexleyheath and Sidcup lines for the Olympics period.
Despite objections from passengers, politicians, watchdogs, and Greenwich and Lewisham councils, the timetable is largely unchanged from the one showed to rail user groups during Southeastern’s “full consultation” period – with cuts to train services at Deptford, Maze Hill, Westcombe Park and Kidbrooke, and the complete closure of Woolwich Dockyard station lest it be confused with Woolwich Arsenal.
The only concession made during the “full consultation” is the reversal of cuts to trains at Charlton station, which always seemed particularly daft considering Charlton is the station for the Dome (North Greenwich Arena).
Charlton is the only station in the area to have a rail users’ group, and I understand there are moves to set up a group for Maze Hill and Westcombe Park to look after their interests.
On the up side, there are some extra late services on the Greenwich line.
However, the schedules are still liable to change – and I suspect Southeastern may be covering itself against demands for compensation by aggrieved passengers by publishing the timetables now. “Please note that anyone purchasing an annual season ticket from 27 July 2011 may be affected by the proposed Olympic timetable changes.”
As greenwich.co.uk has already reported, Greenwich Council is set to carry on publishing its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time – despite the threat of a judicial review by government minister Eric Pickles.
A report prepared for a cabinet meeting next week recommends the paper stays as it is after an internal review concluded it would cost more money to either reduce its frequency or place its advertising elsewhere. It also cites the “lack of a significant mass circulation alternative” for council advertising.
Pickles had the likes of Greenwich Time in his sights when he introduced a new code for local government publications earlier this year, declaring that they should be published no more than four times a year.
But Greenwich publishes GT 50 times a year – and the report, prepared by the communications team which publishes the newspaper – says this makes printing more cost-effective, and attracts more advertising. In the last financial year, the council claims it only cost 3.6p per copy to publish – bringing in over £575,000 of advertising.
Indeed, the report says the council saved £1.8m over the year in advertising costs – although the figures which show this are not being published publicly.
Also not being revealed to the public are the results of discussions about Greenwich publishing an insert in an existing local newspaper – a route being taken by Lambeth and Hammersmith & Fulham councils.
While the council says Pickles’ code “is not law, it is guidance”, the report does mention some concessions to it – the inclusion of the council’s logo in the paper’s masthead to “clearly and unambiguously identify itself as a product of the local authority”. Until last year, the paper had merely styled itself as “the newspaper campaigning for a greater Greenwich”. The TV guide and crossword have also been dropped, while the leisure guide has been refocused around local events.
Few of the council’s arguments for continuing to publish the paper will come as a surprise – as well as value for money and the lack of any other significant media outlet, the report also says it helps target minority and deprived communities not reached by the poor distribution of other local papers. The report also reveals that council departments have been encouraged to advertise in GT rather than publish leaflets of their own, to save money.
Apparently, though, GT “helps to keep people informed about the Greenwich Strategy” – the existence of which would be news to most of its readers. It contains “a degree of community news, certain lifestyle features and residents’ opinions where they relate to the Greenwich Strategy, Council and other public services or encourage the Council’s tourism economy”. I wonder if that explains the weekly letter from a Charlton fan urging supporters to get behind the team?
It says GT does not target car dealers or estate agents for advertising, and there is also a sideswipe at the Mercury, pointing out that GT does not accept advertising from “escort services, massage parlours and chat lines” – which has seen its sister paper, the South London Press, dubbed the “South London Pimps“.
There’s also some interesting maps of how the Mercury and News Shopper are distributed around the borough. These claim neither newspaper reaches any of the parts of Deptford covered by Greenwich borough (including the big Millennium Quay development), with the News Shopper not being delivered at all in parts of Charlton and Woolwich, with only a handful of east Greenwich homes getting a Mercury. Neither paper is distributed in the Greenwich Millennium Village or Royal Arsenal, the report claims.
GT reaches 84,151 households, the report says, compared with 39,239 for the News Shopper and an unaudited 44,919 for the Mercury.
(From personal experience, I’ve not had a regular delivery of either paper for many years, although I do see NS distributors in parts of SE7 where the council claims it is not delivered. I’ve also not had a Greenwich Time for about a month, funnily enough.)
But there’s little on how the council plans to steer the paper away from being a propaganda sheet. Certainly, while current council services are promoted, those which have fallen victim to cuts have closed without acknowledgement, and there’s been no discussion within its pages about how the council should go about saving money, beyond the odd letter about parking meters.
A glance at the paper’s archive does show a shift in GT’s priorities, though. Before the May 2010 election most front pages claimed success for many council services (see above) – as close to overt propaganda as it could get away with, quickly ceasing as the “purdah” period before the poll arrived. Once the election was won, the men in high-vis tabards departed the front pages, which are now mostly taken up with beaming kids or grinning grannies.
Even then, though, that can get the council into trouble, as it found with the Hornfair Park BMX track, whose virtues were trumpeted as councillors were preparing to decide whether or not it should be built.
“The paper is reviewed by the council’s chief executive before publication,” the report says. Does the council leader check it, too? Funnily enough, there’s no word on that…
Greenwich isn’t the only council still flouting the code, but it’s certainly a high profile offender. Much of the situation is down to Eric Pickles’ insistence that councils continue to publish public notices in a local newspaper – rather than allowing them to go online.
The current situation is a product of some unique circumstances, though – a council which has successfully found a lucrative way to control and promote its news agenda, helped by local press barons who have bled their titles dry (let’s not pretend that an extra £1m to the News Shopper or Mercury would be spent on employing journalists) but threatened by a cabinet minister who so far has been all talk and little action.
Will Eric Pickles get off his backside and challenge Greenwich? If he does, it looks like Chris Roberts and his Labour colleagues are more than ready for the fight.