853

news, views and issues around Greenwich, Charlton, Blackheath and Woolwich, south-east London – what you won't read in Greenwich Time

Listen to a Greenwich Council meeting – just a few months late

with 15 comments

Some people have strange hobbies. They might collect odd things, or have peculiar enthusiasms. Me, I go to Greenwich Council meetings. I often even ask questions, because it’s the only way I’ll find things out.

Actually, it’s not that strange. We all should take an interest in how we’re governed. We can watch, and be depressed by, Prime Minister’s Questions each week. But in the borough of Greenwich, there’s no such facility for us to do the same for our own local council. Yes, we can trot along to Woolwich Town Hall to take in a showcase full council meeting, study scrutiny panels, or watch planning decisions being made. But for most people, real life gets in the way.

Greenwich Council meeting, 30 October 2013

Greenwich has resisted any form of recording or broadcast of its meetings, despite pushes for openness from both the government and the Labour party at Westminster.

I’ve sneakily recorded bits of meetings in the past, and they’ve seemed popular, even though to be frank, the quality’s crap. Woolwich Town Hall is due to undergo a £1.5m refurbishment soon, which will – in part – attempt to fix some of the notoriously bad acoustics in the committee rooms.

But even then, there’s no promise to start webcasting meetings, as Camden does. Here’s cabinet member Denise Hyland last month: “The proposal for the refurbishment of the Town Hall does include the delivery of improved meeting facilities for the public, and [we] will investigate the use of such technologies. However the decision regarding broadcasting committee meetings has yet to be considered by the Council.”

Last October’s council meeting was a particularly dramatic one, as the row over Greenwich Council’s pavement tax came to a head, and allegations over the leadership style of Chris Roberts were raised. But how to get hold of a decent recording?

The answer, as ever, came in the Freedom of Information Act. Greenwich Council records each meeting so minutes can be taken. Could I get hold of one of these recordings?

So, on 10 November, I emailed the council. On 12 February, three months later, I finally got the response I wanted – the council was going to send me a CD. I got it last week – it contains a 3-hour MP3 of the full meeting, from start to finish. The quality is crisp and clear, except for contributions from independent councillor Eileen Glover, whose microphone was switched off the whole way through. One of her (silent) contributions has been cut out, as well as one of the two short adjournments – otherwise, this is the whole thing.

Greenwich Time, 5 NovemberNow the council’s found a way to convert its recordings to MP3, there’s no reason why it can’t do this for future meetings – such as this week’s one.

But in the meantime, here’s the council meeting of 30 October 2013, broken up into chunks. You can read all you like about what goes on at the council, and get a gutful of mine and other people’s opinions, but this will give you an insight into just how the Labour council leadership defends and promotes its policies, and how the Conservative opposition group holds them to account.

The recording may be nearly four months old, but the issues are still current – particularly the pavement tax, a belated consultation into which has recently opened. Indeed, I’d recommend listening to part 6, and comparing it with the way the council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time (that week’s cover pictured on the right) covered it.

COUNCIL – WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2013, 7.00PM (See full agenda and minutes)
Silent parts in the recording are where Councillor Eileen Glover’s microphone was not switched on.


PART 1. Apologies for absence, minutes, mayor’s announcements, declarations of interest, petitions.
This includes mayor Angela Cornforth mentioning that a request had been made to film the meeting “by a commercial operator”. This was for the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, on bullying allegations against Chris Roberts, aired in December and made by Juniper TV. It also includes Peninsula councillor Mary Mills handing in the 2,500-strong pavement tax petition.


PART 2. Public questions. (See written answers to questions.)
Here, questions can be asked by members of the public if they’re submitted at least a week in advance. If you turn up, you get to ask a supplementary – and these are what you hear here. Includes questions on the pavement tax, Run To The Beat and the Silvertown Tunnel.


PART 3. Questions from members. (See written responses.)
A similar format to the public questions, except from councillors. These are almost always from opposition councillors. Includes questions on council computer system issues, publishing recordings of council meetings, Silvertown Tunnel, severe weather preparations, car parking income, war memorials, Well Hall Pleasaunce, Andrew Gilligan, Blackheath fireworks and zero hours contracts.


PART 4. Oral questions to members of the cabinet.
More questions from councillors. Includes the pavement tax (including Chris Roberts’ admission of “informal” cabinet meetings), storm damage, World War I huts in a school in Eltham, and Denise Hyland declaring: “A group that calls itself ‘No to Silvertown‘ is hardly independent, is it?”


PART 5. Petition responses.
A member of the public speaks on speeding traffic on Westcombe Hill, Blackheath. Includes debate on Charlton Lido parking and speeding traffic on Sparrows Lane in New Eltham.


PART 6. Motion on the ‘street trading policy’ (pavement tax). (motion text)
Conservative and Labour councillors debate the controversial tax on shops placing items on the pavement outside their premises, and the way it was introduced. Worth a listen, and also worth seeing how council weekly Greenwich Time covered the debate.


PART 7. Labour motion on “management of public services by the Mayor of London and the Coalition Government”. (see motion text)
Chris Roberts lays into the Tories. Spencer Drury says “it reflects some brass neck”, and issues a sarcastic amendment about Roberts’ “interpersonal skills”.


PART 8. Revised code of conduct, Treasury management report, council functions on scrap metal dealers, “changes to the executive functions scheme of delegation”.
The dry drudgery of regular council business. But it picks up at the end, as opponents claim constant tinkering with the way the council works makes it harder to track just what the council is doing. Includes Eileen Glover having a pop at her former Conservative colleagues (well, it would if her mic was switched on).


PART 9. Labour motion on smoking and tobacco control.
Charlton councillor Janet Gillman speaks.


PART 10. Conservative motion on culture of politics in Greenwich. (see full item)
This motion followed comments made about the way Greenwich Council is run made by Greenwich West councillor (and now parliamentary candidate) Matt Pennycook and Lewisham councillor Kevin Bonavia, which themselves followed allegations of bullying in the Labour group. Notably, Pennycook does not speak in the debate. It proposes changes to the council’s scrutiny functions.


PART 11. Conservative motion calling for secret ballots for council leader.
Another motion designed to smoke out allegations of bullying in Greenwich’s Labour group. Mayor Angela Cornforth withdrew the motion “for further consideration”. It has not yet re-emerged.

So, there were are. Audio of a Greenwich Council meeting has been published. And nobody’s been hurt by it. I’ve also asked for recordings of the past two meetings, which I can only assume Greenwich is sitting on, now it knows how to convert these to MP3 – it’s made a habit of being late with responding to Freedom of Information requests, particularly those which cause it difficulty.

But when they come, if people find this recording useful, I’ll be happy to publish them here.

Written by Darryl

25 February, 2014 at 6:30 am

15 Responses

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  1. Blimey.

    Peter Cordwell

    25 February, 2014 at 8:29 am

  2. Re. Eileen’s microphone. You might have mentioned that councillors have to switch their own microphones on/off.

    maryorelse

    25 February, 2014 at 8:51 am

  3. Sir, I admire your determination to cast light upon some of the workings of our council.
    I would like to ask a question at the next meeting about the flooded Kidbrooke underpass. Are the council chasing TFL to clear the flooding quickly on behalf of residents?
    Anyone know how I go about doing this?

    Gavin

    25 February, 2014 at 12:27 pm

  4. Bristol have been broadcasting since 2008. It hasn’t always been too popular with the public…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-21769513

    But even so it is of course essential and inexcusable in the modern world. It has cost Bristol 100k over 5 years, though £40,000 came from a European Union grant as part of an e-democracy project.

    Though there may be very low live take up live it allows easy access to the archives if people want to find information. The council said that ‘even the meetings which attract the smallest live views, were then watched by hundreds through our archive facility.’

    Here’s their site – http://www.bristol.public-i.tv/core/

    It says on their that it started in 2007. “Like many UK councils, we webcast some of our most important council meetings. Since the service began in 2007, we have webcast more than 240 meetings. Our webcasts have received over 417,000 views from more than 139,000 unique visitors and 80,000 repeat visitors. The majority of our audience watch our webcasts from our archive, however our most popular webcasts, such as election results and big planning applications, have attracted large live audience figures.”

    fromthemurkydepths

    25 February, 2014 at 2:43 pm

  5. Terrific job, 853. You’re helping to prove that democracy is really not that frightening. Maybe four or five years from now there will be a much healthier level of communications between the council and the people, and lessons will be learned from the dark ages. Trust in people, listen to them and dump the dreadful philosophy of “perceptions” that, among other things, calls a riot a “disturbance”.

    Peter Cordwell

    25 February, 2014 at 2:58 pm

  6. Hopefully Peter though I would have thought 5 years ago things would be different by now. Still, changes are slowly occurring. In the past day alone I’ve read about the antics of Newham, Bexley, Greenwich, and Tower Hamlets councils. SE and east London councils seem to be in the dark ages.

    fromthemurkydepths

    25 February, 2014 at 4:01 pm

  7. Must remain positive, Murky. There are good people around (check the British response to global disasters) and the job is to try and create an environment where more and more of them get involved in one way or another. Don’t lose heart. Keep the faith. It’s all good. Play the Wilburys’ ‘End of the Line’ when you start to get a bit down.

    Peter Cordwell

    25 February, 2014 at 5:04 pm

  8. Gavin- Here’s an ancient post explaining how: http://853blog.com/2012/02/20/watching-greenwich-council-if-you-dont-do-it-nobody-else-will/

    (It’s worth contacting a London Assembly member for that, too – try local AM Len Duvall or one of the Londonwide ones such as Caroline Pidgeon.)

    Darryl

    25 February, 2014 at 10:44 pm

  9. Thanks, Peter – but what if the Traveling Wilburys get me down?

    Darryl

    25 February, 2014 at 10:46 pm

  10. If the Traveling Wilburys get you down there’s no hope. Buy you a pint if you’re around tonight.

    Peter Cordwell

    26 February, 2014 at 6:48 am

  11. Hopefully if this law goes through (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-press-freedom-law-to-open-up-town-halls) the public/press won’t require permission to film Council meetings.

    Chris 2

    27 February, 2014 at 10:50 am

  12. Chris – it has gone through! The bill received Royal Assent on January 30th – http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/localauditandaccountability.html

    Stewart

    27 February, 2014 at 11:13 am

  13. Well done on getting the audio, Darryl.

    I was half expecting a copy on compact cassette. If the facilities and knowledge are there to get this on MP3 I would expect to see these published as a matter of course going forward, especially in light of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.

    It’s interesting to hear some of this back after a few months. I spent the first part of this meeting exteremely angry that my question to Cllr Fahy was “lost”:

    “While working on the “No to Silvertown Tunnel” campaign I discovered, through a Freedom of Information request, that RBG have been extensively monitoring NO2 pollution using diffusion tubes at over forty sites since 2005.

    “None of the data from this comprehensive monitoring is available on the council website and DEFRA only have data until the end of 2010. While I applaud the council on this forward thinking work I have to question the merit of keeping this information under wraps.

    “I would like to know when, and where, this information has been published internally and who would have viewed it; indeed, was it considered as part of the evidence for the “Bridge the Gap” campaign, and if so, who had access to it?”

    Stewart

    27 February, 2014 at 11:45 am

  14. “Chris – it has gone through!”

    Ah. So it has.

    S.40 covers the right to film, etc. However what it says is “The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for and in connection with allowing persons (a) to film, photograph or make sound recordings of proceedings at a meeting of a body to which this section applies, or of a committee or sub-committee of such a body”. ‘Body’ is later defined to include a London Borough Authority.

    So the power is there, but Regulations haven’t been written up yet (so far as I can tell). So, more waiting. That said, in light of such regulations being released imminently, it would be incredibly petty to refuse a request to film.

    Chris 2

    27 February, 2014 at 1:46 pm

  15. Good work. Worth noting that the Mayor expressed disappointment that I uploaded a partial recording of my constitutional wrangle with her at the time – good to see the whole meeting now available. This demonstrates that there is, and never was, any good reason why recordings of meetings cannot easily be uploaded for voters to hear for themselves what we say on their behalf. I am now more confident that, with the new law due to come into force, we will see this happen routinely, but it should never have taken this long, or required intervention by government, to bring it about.

    Nigel Fletcher

    3 March, 2014 at 4:57 pm


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