Greenwich councillors block public’s Olympics questions

woolwich_town_hall

Got a burning question to ask Greenwich Council about the Olympics? With just days to go until the biggest events to hit Greenwich and Woolwich since the war (and with probably only a smidgeon less disruption), what will “Royal” Greenwich’s councillors be discussing when they hold their last pre-Games meeting on Tuesday? What questions will they be putting on our behalf?

None. For south-east London’s democratic champions have decided to shift their meeting forward by a day, and ban the public from asking questions of leader Chris Roberts or his cabinet. So the Olympics parking problems, the state of Greenwich Park and other worries certainly won’t be discussed.

In May, the council agreed to hold its final meeting on 25 July. But at some point last month, they changed their minds, and shifted the meeting to a day before.

The reason for the change? The launch of Sail Royal Greenwich, which will see a flotilla of tall ships sail up and down the Thames during the Olympics. While it’ll be an amazing sight, I understand all councillors are due to get an invite to what’s billed on its website as “the most stunning corporate entertaining opportunity London has seen for many years”.

So, instead of discussing how best the borough will run while the spotlight of the world is on it, the council’s leadership will be messing about on the river.

But if we allow them Wednesday’s fun and games, what about Tuesday’s meeting? Well, an agreement between Roberts and Conservative leader Spencer Drury means the Tories, the only other party represented on the council, will ask no questions, and there will also be no questions from the public. With a lack of press scrutiny of the council, public questions are often the only way to get information out of Woolwich Town Hall.

I’m told the council has got around this by cancelling Wednesday’s meeting and declaring Tuesday’s a “special” one. The official reason for shutting public questions out is that council officers are “too busy with the Olympics” to draft answers for cabinet members, who are presumably incapable of doing it themselves. It’ll be interesting to see how many of those accept a free drink on a ship.

The compromise agreed by Spencer Drury was that the council would hold a “proper” meeting at the end of September – in recent years, the council leadership has granted itself a three-month summer break between meetings – so all those urgent questions about the Olympics can wait until a fortnight after the Paralympics are over instead.

You might have scoffed when I went on about Greenwich councillors ignoring Blackheath Bluecoat pupils at a meeting last year to go off and drink wine. But this is just another incident which gives the impression that they’re not really comfortable with the public they’re meant to be representing.

There’s 51 councillors on Greenwich Council, all trousering a £10,000 allowance, half of whom take home more in “special responsibility” extras. As the Olympics approach, it’s worth asking your local councillors what they did to represent your worries about the event – and keeping the answer in mind when the next set of elections come around.

3pm update: Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher insists his party did not agree to the blocking of public questions. Separately, I’ve also been told the Sail Royal Greenwich launch the council cancelled its original meeting for only runs from 5-7pm – so what was wrong with the rest of the evening?

13 comments

  1. Stewart

    It really is a rather unfortunate situation. With so much going on in the Royal Borough, not only with the Olympics, there is a pressing need for questions to be asked by the public and councillors from both sides.

    From my limited knowledge of current legislation I believe that there is a requirement for a minimum of six full Council meetings a year, including the Council Annual Meeting. Greenwich usually does better than this but it does leave a lot of leeway to shut down any dissent over long periods.

    You can of course enter FOI requests in the meantime, but with the paucity of decent, independent and local print journalism the ability to generate publicity for anything that is discovered is rather limited.

    Perhaps this should put on the agenda for Chris Roberts’ “wide-ranging review” of local democracy in the Autumn. We already have the committee system, directly elected mayors, borough boundaries and reductions in councillors on the list.

  2. Colin

    At last, with so many important decisions being split exactly down party lines, I am delighted to read that a cross party agreement has been reached for the greater good…em.. oh no wait

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  4. Bernard, Island Gardens

    I asked Greenwich Council last week if the cladding on the stairwells would be removed from the foot tunnel before the Olympics, given the tunnel will very likely be a lot busier during the games, and the stairwells have a much reduced capacity with the cladding in place. They said they would get back to me, but I am still waiting. I remember when the tunnel renovation was announed and the Council stated it was imperative to have the work finished by the time of the Olympic test event in 2011, now we are days away from the real thing and the work still drags on.

  5. Chris 2

    I do hope they’ve all declared this freebie outing that they tell all their officers to simply refuse.

  6. Michelle O'Brien

    Greenwich Council has withdrawn housing benefit from my 86-year-old neighbour.
    As a result of its withdrawal she currently owes her landlord over £1,500 in back rent. And of course the amount she owes will go on mounting up each month that she doesn’t pay.
    The landlord is pressing her for payment, with the ultimate threat if she doesn’t/can’t pay of having to evict her from her home where she has lived for over 50 years. After all, he’s not a charity.
    And the stark reality is that my neighbour cannot pay.
    Her sole income is her state old-age pension. This is less than the rent her landlord charges. (And it’s considerably less than the £10,000 allowances trousered by the 51 Greenwich Councillors each year.)
    She has no savings.
    She, her landlord on her behalf, and I have been writing and e-mailing the Council’s Revenue and Benefits Service since mid-June to try to get housing benefit to her restored.
    So far the response from the Council officials has been …
    … yes, you’re right, it’s been total silence … zilch … big nothing. Thanks, guys, you’re doing a grand job.

    I hope Greenwich Councillors enjoy their Olympics and their Sail Royal Greenwich Experience.

  7. Mary

    Michelle – if you and your neighbour live in Peninsula Ward PLEASE get in touch NOW – and I will try and sort it out. If not it would be an idea to contact whoever your local councillor is and – regardless of what you think of them – ask them to help. ok?

  8. Michelle O'Brien

    Re my post here about Greenwich Council’s Revenue and Benefits Service suspending housing benefit payments for my 86-year-old neighbour:

    Thank you for your concern, Mary. I will contact you privately later today on the e-mail address you gave.

    My neighbour and I don’t live in your Peninsula Ward. But hopefully you will be able at least to point us in the right direction to go on this one with a view to getting it sorted.

    The silence from the Council’s Revenue and Benefits Service for over a month while the amount my neighbour owes in rent arrears steadily mounts up has been unnerving to say the least.

  9. Mary

    That’s ok Michelle – look forward to hearing from you – there’s often a very simple nobodys-fault sort of reason why things sometimes seem to go wrong. Just need to get someone to find out what has happened.

  10. Bernard, Island Gardens

    Greenwich Council has confirmed the foot tunnel stairwell cladding will not be removed before the games. That makes a nonsense of their original promise that all work would be completed before the Olympics.

  11. Pingback: Greenwich Council leader dodges Peninsula Festival questioning « 853

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