Fans of dark comedy would have been richly rewarded by Wednesday night’s torturous meeting of Greenwich Council. In fact, it’s hard to know where to start.
But running through the meeting were themes common to anyone who’s read this website over the past couple of years – the lack of transparency and an unwillingness to listen.
Labour mayor Angela Cornforth, who is on the longlist to be Greenwich & Woolwich’s next Labour candidate, announced she had refused permission for the meeting to be filmed. It’s understood the BBC wanted to bring a camera into the meeting, but the doors were closed to the corporation and so Greenwich residents won’t be able to see their councillors’ inaction.
Council leader Chris Roberts’ bullying voicemail hung over the meeting like a cloud, but it wasn’t just the local Labour outpost having problems.
The Tories’ attempts to capitalise on the issue were hampered by deselected councillor Eileen Glover consistently making digs at her former colleagues. When the Tories complained about another attempt by the Labour leadership to make changes to the way the council does business, Glover, sporting the biggest poppy in the room, turned on her own colleagues, saying they should have “tracked the changes” themselves.
“It’s past their bedtime,” she spat at youthful ex-colleagues Nigel Fletcher and Adam Thomas. Hell hath no fury like a Tory scorned.
The Tories plan to get Roberts hung on a clutch of motions designed to smoke any dissent on the Labour benches. One was about the way the council runs its scrutiny panels (no Tory ever gets to run one), hung on the back of a tweet from another wannabe MP, Matt Pennycook, declaring “the decades-old culture of machine politics must change”.
Challenged by Tory leader Spencer Drury to explain what he meant, Pennycook kept quiet. The situation was a lose/lose one for the Greenwich West councillor. Speak out and get disciplined, or keep schtum and look silly? Short-term embarrassment was the easier option rather than face the long-term difficulties of being ostracised by Roberts and his helpers.
With his own councillors staying quiet, Roberts made one of the oddest contributions himself – presumably to try to protect Pennycook. Talking about his early days in Greenwich Labour, during the days of rate-capping rows, he recalled how he and other young upstarts vowed to change matters.
“The most embarrassing political question you can be asked is ‘what’s the average age of your councillors?’ I’d be really worried if we didn’t have a group of talented twenty- and thirtysomethings saying ‘this is our time’. And believe me, after [the elections] in May, you will see some of those in this chamber.”
Nobody thought to ask why twentysomething councillor Hayley Fletcher is stepping down because of bullying.
Pennycook’s Greenwich West colleague, David Grant, wasn’t going to keep quiet – intervening several times to defend the embattled leader. When Drury made a passing reference to Roberts referring himself to the council’s standards panel, Grant blurted out “cheap!”. Greater love hath no man than this, that a Greenwich Labour councillor lay down his dignity for his Dear Leader.
Roberts did try to fight back, though – inserting motions into the evening which had barely even been discussed beforehand by his own councillors. The Tories made sport of this, inserting a sarcastic amendment into one attacking David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Eileen Glover, who’d earlier treated the council to a lengthy complaint about councillors’ IT woes, branded her former colleagues’ effort “a waste of time”.
But the Tories did leave a ticking timebomb. Another “get Roberts” motion, from Nigel Fletcher, suggested the council investigate the possibility of electing its leader by a secret ballot – it’s currently done by a show of hands.
But Labour mayor Cornforth, heavily guided by council chief executive Mary Ney showing her various bits of the council rulebook, withdrew it “for further advice” on the legality of electing a leader by secret ballot – despite it appearing in the agenda. Fletcher recorded the discussion himself – it’s very technical, but it’s illuminating nonetheless, especially towards the end. No wonder why they didn’t want it filmed.
Fletcher has now launched a formal complaint over the issue.
All of which overshadowed two significant bits of news. Firstly, the council voted to review its new “pavement tax” on shops’ outdoor displays, introduced earlier this year with no discussion or debate. Indeed, an unusually sheepish Chris Roberts even apologised for the way things had been handled.
Yet the bungled introduction of the charge goes to the heart of the political culture in Greenwich. One answer from Roberts suggests key decisions are being taken at weekly informal cabinet meetings, rather than in the monthly public meetings.
If the council leadership wasn’t so scared of debate, it might have got the charge right in the first place.
And the council is finally meeting Andrew Gilligan to talk about belatedly signing up to City Hall’s big cycling plans – indeed, I understand regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland is due to meet him today. It’s another U-turn from the council’s troubled leader, who had refused to allow officers or councillors to talk to the journalist-turned-cycling advocate. Three months ago, Roberts and mayor Cornforth seemed desperate to stop his name even being mentioned.
Thankfully, sense has prevailed. What about that “irresolvable conflict of interest”? “Well, that was the situation at the time,” Hyland responded.
So, in the world of Greenwich Council, what was an outrageous suggestion in July becomes normality three months later. Maybe that’ll be the case with the Silvertown Tunnel. But clearly not yet, for the council is still in its denial phase. (Full disclosure: I’m involved in the No to Silvertown campaign.)
A question asking who knew what about the council’s pollution figures was “lost” by the council and wasn’t asked. Written answers about the tunnel told a questioner he was “misinformed” about the council not publishing air quality stats from its 42 monitoring sites. Yet it doesn’t – go looking on its website, and you won’t find a thing.
Even madder, another questioner was told he had “failed to properly convey the response given” from the council to the News Shopper about its support for Silvertown on economic grounds – appearing to deny telling reporter Mark Chandler that the tunnel would bring economic benefits, even though that’s the whole basis of its Bridge The Gap campaign.
When asked by Nigel Fletcher if the council would reconsider its policy given independent evidence of the damage the tunnel would have, Denise Hyland commented “a group that calls itself ‘No to Silvertown’ is hardly independent, is it?” What counts as “independent”, though, was not explained.
There are big problems at Greenwich Council. The council leadership’s bullying is out in the open, and it’s clear how it’s not just ruining the lives of those who entered local politics to do good, it’s also resulting in bad policy. Or it’s resulting in incoherent policy, like the current mess on air pollution and the Silvertown Tunnel. Treating people with legitimate questions like enemies to be vanquished isn’t healthy.
Those with the most power to do something are still sitting on their hands, though, content either to let others do the dirty work of trying to decapitate the leadership or to wait until May’s elections and see what happens. Yet while this happens, the bullying row is infecting the more high-profile battle to be the next Labour candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich, and causing problems outside the borough too. But that’s another story…