The night the wheels fell off at Greenwich Council
The main highlight of Wednesday night’s Greenwich Council meeting was meant to be the motion about Greenwich Council’s refusal to deal with Andrew Gilligan, London mayor Boris Johnson’s cycling ambassador.
But it ended up being a bad-tempered farce of a meeting, which somehow managed to drag on for three-and-a-half long hours, partisanly chaired by new mayor Angela Cornforth, even down to denying partially-sighted councillor Eileen Glover the chance to get amendment papers in large print so she could take part in debates. In five years of looking in on these meetings, it was the worst I’ve seen.
The ruling Labour group is opposed to webcasting their meetings – nobody has tried to video them from the gallery, and the rubbish acoustics make recording hard – and from performances like Wednesday night’s, you can see why. If people were able to see clips of what went on, Greenwich’s councillors would be laughing stocks. The rambling excuses of hapless cabinet members would be revealed, seeking to blame anyone but themselves for their own failings.
As for leader Chris Roberts, he looked like he wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else, hunched at his table, alternately sulking and snapping at anyone who dared to criticise what was going on.
There are Labour councillors who want change, but are biding their time. There are freshly-minted candidates for safe seats who’ll be on the council next year, who also want change. Wednesday night may well have been one of the last hurrahs for the Dear Leader and his cabinet of the walking dead. But what will come next?
Don’t mention Gilligan – running scared of the cycling debate
I’ve already mentioned the cynical manoeuvre of completely replacing a neither here nor there Tory motion on health with an amendment about Lewisham Hospital’s A&E, when Greenwich Labour councillors hadn’t even bothered to pass a motion opposing its closure when it was under threat.
A similar thing happened with the cycling motion. A motion criticising the council’s refusal to talk to Andrew Gilligan was replaced by a bizarre amendment which replaced the entire text with some meaningless words about how wonderful cycling is, grumbled that TfL is more interested in central London cycling, moaned that Greenwich wasn’t mentioned in the mayor’s cycling plan, and said the council would “press TfL to complete the Thames Path”, something that’s actually Greenwich Council’s job.
Tory councillor Matt Clare opened the debate. “One local blogger has described the Conservatives as, I quote, being to the left of the council’s authoritarian Labour leadership on cycling. I’m afraid that due to the lack of decent cycleways in the borough, all of us cyclists have to track to the far left.
“In the ward I represent, Eltham South, there are numerous examples of roads that are impassable to cyclists such as myself. On Court Road, many cyclists use the pavement, including council employees – I don’t judge them for that.
“Most importantly, however, the Woolwich Road flyover, where Adrianna Skryzypiec lost her life, needs urgent and radical solutions. And who better to bring the solutions we need, than someone who’s highly articulate, someone who’s already got an audience and is being heard out there, and lives in our own borough, and knows it far, far better than the others?”
Regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland cited figures which she says show Greenwich is one of London’s safest boroughs to cycle in – reeling off statistics at length. But what she failed to mention is that the low number of accidents reflects the low number of journeys taken by bike in Greenwich – which hasn’t seen the rise in cyclists seen in neighbouring Lewisham.
While she welcomed the mayor’s cycling policy, she added: “It is rather central London-centric – Crossrail for bikes, central London grid… and as an inner London borough, Greenwich is actually ineligible to apply for the [mini-Holland] process. I think some exceptions have been made for that, but we are ineligible as an inner London borough.”
So why didn’t Greenwich (which actually counts as an outer London borough in TfL’s recent Roads Task Force document) ask for an exemption? Hey-ho.
Even more weirdly, Hyland then referred to “the successful [sic] implementation of cycle superhighways from south of the Thames – Wandsworth to Westminster and Merton to the City – but they require a connecting bridge across the river. That reflects our case that more river crossings are needed”. It’s worth pointing out that cyclists would be barred from the Silvertown Tunnel that Hyland endorses.
You can hear more from Hyland and deputy leader Peter Brooks here:
Two words weren’t mentioned: Andrew Gilligan.
Labour’s amendment was passed around, and the fireworks were lit. Tory Nigel Fletcher said it was “quite clearly out of order”. “This is not a motion about cycling, it’s a very specific point about the relationship between this council and the mayor of London’s cycling commissioner.” Mayor Angela Cornforth, who you could feel flinch every time the council leader moved, wasn’t going to let her leader down and refused to entertain the Conservative objections.
An impatient Chris Roberts, hunched in his seat, twice objected to opposition councillors’ speeches, clearly trying to stop the “G” word from being mentioned
Worse was to come. When the Tory leader Spencer Drury tried to mention Gilligan, Cornforth intervened, claiming it was out of order as irrelevant to the amendment. He said that even local London Assembly member Len Duvall – an ex-Labour leader of the council – had intervened to try to persuade the council to talk to Gilligan.
Significantly, ousted Labour councillor Mary Mills made an intervention to ensure the work of her own cycling panel, which had included backbenchers and the general public, was recognised among the rowing.
“Wherever something is inconvenient to the party opposite, they chose to pretend it doesn’t exist,” added Nigel Fletcher – but Chris Roberts – doing his “I wasn’t going to speak but…” party trick – claimed he had Boris Johnson’s top team’s numbers on his mobile, and that relationships with City Hall were good.
Labour’s amended motion was carried – but they way the party leadership had carried on left a nasty taste in the mouth. You can read a full report from Mark Chandler at the News Shopper, while Tory candidate Matt Hartley has his own take on the issue.
Work soon on the foot tunnels… but report kicked into long grass?
This is a big one – Greenwich Council has started the process of finding contractors to restart work on the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, despite an independent report into the fiasco of their refurbishment not being finished. In October 2012, independent expert John Wilmoth was called in to write a report on the council’s processes when dealing with large projects, followed by one on the tunnels project itself. The first was done quickly, the second still hasn’t emerged. Originally, it was said the council would need to wait for these reports to be completed before restarting work.
Now it’s changed tack, and work’s going ahead.
According to Denise Hyland: “In discussions with our independent expert, we [have decided] the most important thing is to get those tunnels finished. So we have decided, within the boundaries of the October 2012 report to cabinet, to proceed with a procurement exercise to get those tunnels finished.
“As for the report by the independent person, I think this council would agree that the most important thing is for this council to finish the tunnels, both for our residents and those of Newham and Tower Hamlets. As for a timetable, I’m afraid it’s too early to say.”
What of the report? It’s likely to be sharply critical of the council, and particularly the department that Denise Hyland runs. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it was now delayed until after May 2014’s council election – particularly as there are rumours that Hyland fancies herself as the next council leader.
Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park
Listen to the end of that clip of Denise Hyland above and you’ll hear something that never normally happens – a Labour councillor asking a question. Peninsula Labour councillor Mary Mills broke convention to ask Denise Hyland for recognition that the Greenwich Ecology Park’s Green Flag award be recognised by the council – Labour councillors are usually forbidden from asking questions in council meetings.
The threat to the park from a 20-storey tower was mentioned in public questions – but Denise Hyland, who despite being in charge of regeneration also sits on the planning board – could only be non-committal.
A clash and some facts on Greenwich Time
Chris Smith, the leader of Greenwich borough’s Liberal Democrats, criticised the propaganda in council weekly Greenwich Time in public questions. In response, Chris Roberts slagged off the Liberal Democrats.
But we know now how much advertising revenue Greenwich Time has made in the past three years, both from external sources and from within the council. This came in an answer to a question from me.
2010/11: Internal – £379,754.35 External – £198,982.31
2011/12: Internal – £411,538.55 External – £224,893.26
2012/13: Internal – £403,938.56 External – £254,272.45
We also know how much it spends on freelance editorial and sales staff.
2010/11 – £227,621.63
2011/12 – £177,192.59
2012/13 – £206,880.90
Council leader Chris Roberts claims the council saves £2.3m each year in using Greenwich Time rather than existing local papers for ads, and that no council staff work on editorial or sales for GT.
Pavement charges for small shops
Environment cabinet member Maureen O’Mara was quizzed about charges being brought in for small shops to put things on the pavement. She claims some businesses support it as it’ll bring certainty as to whether or not what they’re doing is legal.
She was questioned later by Tory Geoff Brighty, who asked if it was such a good idea, why the council hadn’t introduced it before. When a front page story about the issue in the Mercury was mentioned, she responded: “I must admit I don’t read the Mercury, so I have no idea what’s on its front page.”
Fires on Plumstead Common blamed on Boris Johnson
A spate of fires on Plumstead Common was brought up from the public gallery by Liberal Democrat candidate Stewart Christie. Maureen O’Mara’s response? To go on about Boris Johnson’s fire service cuts, which haven’t happened yet (and to which her own official response was pitiful).
There was another fire on the common yesterday afternoon. A blond-haired man was nowhere near the scene.