853 exclusive: Greenwich Council has put its advertising contract out to tender – spelling the end for council newspaper Greenwich Time in its current format.
A tender notice has been placed on the council website and on the official journal of the European Union seeking a provider that can “exclusively host our statutory notices and other Council advertising as required (non-exclusive) in a borough wide, weekly publication at a favourable rate”.
The decision to put planning notices and other council information out to tender appears to mean the council has ducked a legal battle with the Government over the controversial paper, which was outlawed earlier this year.
As well as being weekly, the publication must have an audited distribution to at least 95% of homes in the borough, along with pick-up bins and a digital edition.
The tender is said to be worth £400,000 per year for three years, with a possible two-year extension.
While considerably less than the £2.3m/year former council leader Chris Roberts and ex-chief executive Mary Ney – who retired last week – claimed the council would have to fork out if Greenwich Time was axed, the low sum is likely to only attract major publishers such as Mercury owner Tindle Newspapers and News Shopper proprietor Newsquest.
Indeed, that sum is likely to just cover the cost of distributing the paper each year. Last year, Greenwich spent £372,000 on distributing Greenwich Time, and charged council departments £404,000 for advertising in it.
This summer, it emerged that Tindle Newspapers had offered to take over Greenwich Time. However, Tindle’s policy of accepting ads from escort agencies and prostitutes is likely to count against any offer.
Another likely contender is council leisure and libraries provider GLL, which has previously been mooted as a home for Greenwich Time.
But does this mean the death of Greenwich Time? As a council-owned publication, it’s certainly the end – but there’s nothing to stop a publisher taking the title on.
And another line in the tender suggests Greenwich may take a closer interest in the editorial than some publishers would be comfortable with.
“The contractor will also be expected to ensure that the advertisements are published in the context of engaging local editorial content which helps to positively inform local residents about the measures that their neighbours and local service providers are undertaking to make the borough a great place to live, work, learn and visit,” the tender reads.
With a clause like that in an advertising contract, any editor may pause before commissioning any investigation into council services.
Greenwich is one of only two councils to publish a weekly newspaper – the other is Tower Hamlets, which today was accused of having a “culture of cronyism” by communities secretary Eric Pickles after a report into allegations of corruption was published.
It’s unlikely Greenwich’s Labour leadership relished the idea of being in court alongside the publishers of East End Life, dubbed by the party’s Hilary Benn in Parliament today as “little more than a vehicle of promotion” for Tower Hamlets’ independent mayor Lutfur Rahman.
Similarly, Greenwich Time was regularly lampooned for its regular appearances by Roberts, who made the paper weekly in 2008. Last year, it was admitted that he had the final say over the paper’s content.
Eric Pickles makes his front page debut in this week’s edition of Greenwich Time, pictured with new leader Denise Hyland in a story trumpeting success in health and social care services.
The change of policy on Greenwich Time comes alongside a second major change at the top of the council, with Mary Ney’s former deputy John Comber set to be confirmed as its new chief executive at Wednesday night’s council meeting.
9.10pm update: Greenwich’s deputy leader John Fahy seems adamant that Greenwich Time will continue – suggesting the council might well want to keep a close eye on editorial in wherever its ads end up going. After Tory leader Spencer Drury tweeted “hopefully this is the end”, Fahy replied: “Wishful thinking on your part.” Greenwich Time was “widely welcomed by the majority of residents”, he insisted.
Update 11 November, 10.05am: For the benefit of those arriving from Roy Greenslade’s Media Guardian blog.... After this piece was published, Greenwich Council told the News ShopperI that the tender was “a contingency”, while at 5 November’s council meeting, Denise Hyland called the tender a “Plan B” and said she would fight closure – Conservative councillor Matt Hartley touches upon this.
Greenwich Council is backing the eventual closure of the Woolwich Ferry in favour of a road bridge at Gallions Reach, according to its response to Transport for London’s consultation into Thames river crossings.
It’s also calling for tolls to be introduced at the Blackwall Tunnel before any other road crossings are built, according to the document, which was published last week.
While the response, as expected, calls for the construction of a road crossing at Gallions Reach, between Thamesmead and Belvedere, the tone of the document falls some way short of the “Bridge The Gap” rhetoric employed under former leader Chris Roberts.
The council’s support for Gallions comes with a number of caveats:
- that a bridge must be accompanied by public transport improvements, with the council calling for both an extension of London Overground from Barking (subject of a current No to Silvertown Tunnel petition) and the old chestnut of the Docklands Light Railway from the Royal Docks to Thamesmead.
- that a bridge must be “part of a package of river crossings”. Just what package the council would prefer, however, is not stated.
- all crossings must be tolled “to manage demand”.
- that TfL can demonstrate any new bridge will not affect air quality.
Essentially, the response – which was decided behind closed doors, without discussion in cabinet or council – looks like an unhappy compromise between Labour Party members’ angst (and in many cases, anger) over their council’s pro-road crossings stance, and Greenwich Council’s usual habit of deferring to the demands of developers and “business leaders”.
The council also expressed unhappiness that the Silvertown Tunnel proposal was now being dealt with separately from the Gallions and Belvedere plans.
However, all mention of Silvertown, along with the demand for tolling at Blackwall, has been cut from the version of the story that appears in this week’s edition of the council’s propaganda paper, Greenwich Time, possibly making Greenwich the only Labour council in the country to be trying to put a positive spin on Conservative proposals.
It’s a complicated document, and one which demands reading between the lines at several points.
Scrapping the Woolwich Ferry
In this complex and sometimes ambiguous response, it’s Greenwich Council’s simple desire to abandon the Woolwich Ferry that’s the clearest of all.
“The Council would support investment to improve the resilience of the ferry until such time as other additional capacity is provided but cannot support this option,” the response says in answer to whether the ferry should be refurbished in the next decade.
A ferry has operated at Woolwich for centuries – the remains of the 19th century railway-run ferry pier can still be seen at North Woolwich. The current free ferry was instigated by Joseph Bazalgette – best known for creating London’s sewer system – in 1889.
The current ferries, the third generation of ships to cross the Thames, are now over 50 years old and in need of replacement. TfL has been consulting on refurbishing the current ferry, moving it to Gallions Reach, replacing it with a bridge at Gallions Reach, and/or building a new bridge at Belvedere. All options would see the crossings tolled.
While road-building fans generally agree on a need for a bridge at Gallions Reach, it’s surprising that they want to see the closure of another traffic-friendly crossing to achieve it – despite all their talk of wanting “resilience”.
Perhaps the answer is in Woolwich’s regeneration plans. The Woolwich Ferry lorry park, approach, piers and associated land are all owned by Transport for London. Next door, Greenwich Council’s Waterfront Leisure Centre is already slated for redevelopment under the town centre masterplan. Maybe the value of selling this stretch of land for redevelopment trumps City Hall and Woolwich Town Hall’s usual instincts.
Tolling Blackwall and Silvertown Tunnel frustration
The bits they won’t mention in Greenwich Time. The council’s called for the Blackwall Tunnel to be tolled before any other crossings are built, citing worries about traffic congestion and air quality.
“Recognising the issues of resilience and capacity at Blackwall Tunnel and the impact these issues have on the local road network and air quality the Council requests that TfL gives serious consideration to the introduction of charges at Blackwall Tunnel in advance of the construction of any other crossings,” it says, also calling for charging at the Rotherhithe Tunnel to stop traffic diverting through Greenwich town centre to find a free crossing. This would leave Tower Bridge as the only free crossing east of the congestion charge zone.
Currently, TfL plans to charge for Blackwall and the proposed Silvertown Tunnel, but not the Rotherhithe Tunnel. These plans have been known about for nearly two years, but Greenwich Council has taken until now to express worries about them.
Indeed, reading between the lines, it appears Greenwich Council is unhappy that its unconditional support for the Silvertown Tunnel has not been rewarded with any data from TfL on how the Silvertown proposals would affect traffic and air quality in the area.
Nearly two years after the last Silvertown Tunnel consultation, only now does Greenwich express worries about air quality.
“At a time when (i) there remain concerns about the environmental impacts of that crossing and (ii) detailed assessments that may address those concerns have not been published it is disappointing that the consultation does not cover the full range of crossing options (including Silvertown).”
Perhaps Greenwich shouldn’t have tried to rig the 2012/2013 consultation into Silvertown in the first place. Greenwich’s support for Silvertown has been critical for the proposal’s progress so far – as the face of the Bridge the Gap campaign, the Labour council leader Denise Hyland is in no place to complain that she’s been tricked by the Conservatives at City Hall.
Quite how genuine the council’s new-found concerns about Silvertown are, we shall have to find out, although a call for “a wider package [of river crossings] that would be progressed from west to east” presumably means that Greenwich still backs some kind of mythical Silvertown Tunnel that doesn’t increase traffic levels or increase lethal air pollution.
They’d be better off believing in the tooth fairy, frankly.
Gallions – with caveats
Shiny new bridge! But it looks as if Greenwich has been boxed into a corner on the Gallions Reach crossing, seen as unfinished business by Labour administrations across London since the Livingstone-era Thames Gateway Bridge was canned by Boris Johnson in 2008.
“A bridge must be accompanied by public transport improvements.” At least this is consistent with the last consultation’s response, although at least the weird idea of a circular bus route using the Silvertown Tunnel and Gallions Reach Bridge has vanished. Unfortunately, an extension to the DLR into Thamesmead currently remains as likely to happen as an extension to Eltham, as neither appears in City Hall’s 2050 wishlist of public transport schemes.
That said, it’s good to see Greenwich backing an Overground link to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood – which does appear in the 2050 document. But it’s a shame they didn’t come out and say it when the News Shopper covered the N2ST petition last month.
“On the understanding that any vehicular crossing would be charged to manage demand and have dedicated and accessible public transport provision.” Those tolls again. Wonder if Greenwich will press for the likes of Putney or Chelsea Bridge to be tolled?
“Subject to clear evidence demonstrating that they would not cause local congestion or a reduction in air quality.” Not going to happen – this Newham Council study already points to huge traffic impacts in Woolwich, Plumstead and Abbey Wood. The 2007 Thames Gateway Bridge planning inquiry also concluded a bridge would make traffic and pollution worse. Is Greenwich waiting for a study that says what it wants it to say?
“The Council would not support any widening of the A2 and TfL should finance measures to prevent rat-running between the bridge site and the A2 and also to prevent congestion on roads to and from the bridge.” Strange Greenwich brings up the widening of the A2 here when it’s actually the Silvertown Tunnel that would be more likely to result in a widening of the A2 (or A102). As for rat-running – it’s hard to see quite how you’d prevent that without further isolating Thamesmead or chopping Plumstead into half.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the Council is opposed to any future proposal that would impact on Oxleas Wood or any other of the Royal Borough’s green spaces.” But this is the endgame of a Gallions Reach Bridge – build that, and there’ll be a permanent threat hanging over Oxleas and a chunk of Plumstead.
Bexley backing a crossing at Belvedere, Greenwich not keen
Bexley Council’s response favours a crossing at Belvedere, with the Tory council now “neutral” over Gallions Reach – a climbdown that hasn’t gone unnoticed. It’s curious, though, that Greenwich is much more hesitant over backing a bridge at Belvedere – since, by using its previous logic, it would relieve congestion at Gallions, bring new opportunities, etc, etc. It doesn’t seem particularly consistent.
Messing up by the river – council confusion?
“Moreover the Council was disappointed by the quality of engagement at the Thamesmead ‘road show’ – an event that only took place at the Council’s
suggestion. The quality of the arrangements compromised the extent and quality of local engagement on an issue that is critical for the well-being of south and south east London.”
I’m not really sure the people behind the Bridge The Gap campaign – where Greenwich Council’s activities included handing out cards in Woolwich uncritically backing the Silvertown Tunnel (they didn’t dare try this trick in Greenwich, Blackheath or Charlton) have really got any right to criticise. But we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for a minute.
The problem is that Greenwich is currently hamstrung by its deference to City Hall. In 2012 and 2013, it complained about Conservative consultations into fire and police cuts, calling them flawed. But because the Labour council wanted the same new roads as City Hall wanted, it was happy to go along with equally iffy consultations into the Silvertown Tunnel and other crossings.
Now Greenwich realises it’s been caught out – promised environmental assessments have not been carried out, and residents are furious that their council is putting their neighbourhoods at risk. And all it’s got to justify its past stance are the scribbled notes that Chris Roberts used to pass Denise Hyland in council meetings.
Back in 2013, Denise Hyland made a virtue of the fact that Greenwich wasn’t spending taxpayers’ money on its own studies. Now that stance looks even more foolish.
If it’d been more sceptical in the first place, and took a leading position rather than placing its residents under threat from the City Hall roadbuilders, it might not be in this position now.
If Greenwich Council wants new roads – that’s it’s decision. But it has to be honest about the impact those new roads will have. Because new roads will have an impact on all our lives. But by crossing its fingers and hoping for mythical roads that won’t pollute, or won’t bring added traffic, it doesn’t seem to be being honest with itself, never mind its residents.
Greenwich Council could be on the brink of a welcome U-turn over the traditional Blackheath fireworks display, whose long-term future is at risk thanks to Greenwich’s refusal to join Lewisham Council in funding the display.
The display, due to take place this year on 1 November, began in the 1980s as a joint event between the two boroughs. But Greenwich pulled its £37,000 funding in 2010, leaving Lewisham to raise the funds for an event which takes place on the border of the two boroughs.
With Lewisham facing steep budget cuts, the £100,000 display – which attracts 100,000 people to Blackheath and fills pubs and restaurants in both boroughs – is unlikely to survive without funding from both councils.
But on Friday evening, Greenwich Council’s press office tweeted it had “initiated discussions with Lewisham Council about how we might be able to support their (fireworks) event in an agreed partnership”.
It’s worth pointing out that Greenwich didn’t promote the event at all last year.
On Monday, Greenwich repeated this non-statement on its website, although funnily enough it hasn’t made it into its propaganda weekly Greenwich Time.
When it canned funding for the fireworks in 2010, Greenwich’s then-deputy leader Peter Brooks claimed budgetary pressures led to the decision, a claim that’s looked increasingly ridiculous over the years, with Greenwich blowing £500,000 on the Tall Ships Festival earlier this month.
But if Greenwich Council is sincere in wanting to help the event, perhaps it could start by cancelling a private party it’s continued to hold despite pleading poverty – the annual mayor-making ceremony.
Most councils inaugurate their mayors in simple ceremonies at town halls, which anyone can pop along to watch. (Incidentally, this is all alien in Lewisham, whose residents elect a mayor – Sir Steve Bullock – to run the council. In Greenwich, the mayor is elected by councillors to be a ceremonial figurehead.)
Here’s Waltham Forest’s mayor getting a round of applause from his peers in 2013.
This isn’t good enough for Greenwich, which supplements this town hall event with a full-on inauguration ceremony at the Old Royal Naval College, with 400 invited guests. Were you invited? Nah, me neither.
This year’s event, for current mayor Mick Hayes, cost Greenwich taxpayers £13,385. It featured a speech from the mayor (which you can read here, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act), a speech from leader Denise Hyland (again, you can read it here thanks to FOI). Guests also enjoyed a menu which included Morrocan lamb skewers, crumbled spicy hake and, er, “crudities”.
So, who attends these bashes? Let’s have a look at who was invited – again, supplied under the Freedom of Information Act.
Most of the Labour councillors are on the list, together with a few Tories – all in this together, eh? – along with a load of local worthies, faith leaders and property developers, including representatives from Cathedral Group, Galliard Homes, Berkeley Homes and Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon. Essentially, it’s a big networking bash that, if you’re a Greenwich taxpayer, you’re picking up the tab for.
The event used to cost £30,000, but the cost has dropped in recent years after the Old Royal Naval College waived its fee for hiring out the Painted Hall. But at £33 per head, there’s very little that ordinary taxpayers in Greenwich get out of this indulgent bash, other than a tedious write-up in Greenwich Time, which probably goes straight in the bin. At least the Blackheath fireworks (£1/head) help local businesses and prevent pyrotechnic misadventures.
Greenwich Council knows the mayor-making is a touchy subject. In 2011, it was mooted that incoming mayor Jim Gillman could axe the ceremony – but he never carried through with the idea. And in 2013, when the celebration went ahead despite the murder of Lee Rigby the same day, Greenwich Time twice misleadingly claimed the event took place in Woolwich Town Hall.
But still, it goes on. There’s a broader issue about how Greenwich Council relates to its residents, and the mayor’s bash is certainly emblematic of all that is wrong with the council’s approach. But quite simply, while the mayor-making goes on, claims of poverty and cuts simply won’t wash.
And in these gloomy days of ongoing austerity, if there is a few quid to be spared for entertainments, then it’s best spent on something we can all enjoy, rather than on a slap-up meal for hangers-on and fat cats.
Next year’s mayor is likely to be Norman Adams, who by all accounts is a thoroughly decent chap and almost a part of the council furniture, having been there since 1978. If the Charlton Athletic season ticket-holder really wants to contribute something good in his mayoral year, he could can next year’s ceremony and insist the cash is spent on something worthwhile instead.
So we wait and see just what comes out of these belated talks between Greenwich and Lewisham about the fireworks. But there’s one man who could help give them a mighty push forward. So, please, step forward, Norman – and give us all something to smile about.
You can donate money to the Blackheath fireworks display on the Lewisham Council website.
The prospect of a legal fight over the future of Greenwich Time has got closer after the Government sent Greenwich Council a final warning to stop printing its weekly newspaper.
Greenwich is one of 11 councils – also including Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Conservative-controlled Hillingdon – that have been warned they will face legal action to shut down their council publications to “defend the independent free press”.
Only Greenwich and Tower Hamlets produce weekly newspapers. Greenwich now has two weeks to show communities secretary Eric Pickles why he shouldn’t take legal action against the council – essentially, it’s an order to shut it down or face legal action.
The Government believes it has outlawed councils publishing newssheets more than four times a year. Greenwich believes it is still operating within the law by publishing Greenwich Time – see its full submission to the Government here, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act – and is vehemently opposed to any attempt to end its publication. Despite the fact that it is one of just two councils that publish a weekly paper, it claims criticism of Greenwich Time is politically-motivated.
Last month, it was revealed the council had refused an offer from the publisher of the Mercury and South London Press to take over Greenwich Time.
It’s long been rumoured Greenwich may try to spin off Greenwich Time to try to avoid the wrath of Pickles – with Greenwich Leisure Ltd mooted as a possible publisher. But there’s never been anything on the record to substantiate these rumours.
In truth, the squabbling over Greenwich Time has been going on for so long, residents may have just become resigned to the paper’s continued existence.
But after many false starts, the fight may now really be about to begin.
Weeks after blowing £500,000 on a tall ships festival, it’s emerged Greenwich Council has declined to pay its way for this year’s Blackheath fireworks for a fifth year running – leaving Lewisham Council to fundraise for the event again.
Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of funding from the event in 2010 with then-deputy leader Peter Brooks claiming it would be “inappropriate in this financial climate” to fund the event, which takes place right on the border between the two boroughs.
Lewisham has continued to hold the event, which attracts up to 100,000 people and boosts trade to local businesses in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham.
But despite its best efforts at fundraising, last year’s display lost just short of £30,000, leading Lewisham to approach Greenwich for funding.
Despite Greenwich’s deputy leader John Fahy backing restoring funding to the display, it appears the tall ships have taken priority.
With Lewisham losing 33% of its funding over the next three years, the £100,000 display is unlikely to survive without help from Greenwich.
For a relatively small cost, Greenwich leader Denise Hyland could have demonstrated her council really had entered a new era. Sadly, it seems nothing has changed at Woolwich Town Hall.
By an unfortunate coincidence, Hyland is pictured on the front of this week’s Greenwich Time propaganda newspaper with Lewisham Council’s nemesis, hospital-threatening health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Oh dear.
Want to get your hands on Greenwich borough’s biggest job, plus a salary of at least £185,000? Get yourself to royalgreenwichchiefexecutive.com and see what’s on offer as Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney gets set to retire.
Ney’s approaching retirement has been well-known around the council for some time, and the quote given to the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler back in July when he asked to confirm the details – “this is old news” – pretty much sums up the petulant, entitled and secretive attitude that spread at the top of the council under her watch.
Recruited by former leader Chris Roberts shortly after he took over the council, Ney – a former head of Harrow social services – failed to act when alerted to the bullying culture within the council under Roberts and ex-chief whip Ray Walker’s watch.
Indeed, Ney is still trying to prevent the release of a document about bullying sent by a Greenwich councillor, a case that has now gone to a freedom of information tribunal.
Writing on his blog yesterday, former Labour councillor Alex Grant shines some light on the broken culture of what now calls itself ‘Royal Greenwich’:
“In my 16 years as a councillor in Greenwich I lost count of the number of times that hard-working councillors were told to look away from problems rather than scrutinise them.
“It was worryingly common for councillors who asked innocent questions about what the council was doing – either publicly or privately – to be shouted at, receive abusive voicemail messages, or even be officially ‘warned’ to shut up or face the consequences.
The problems I encountered in my time as a councillor in Greenwich [included] bullying, a culture of secrecy, discouraging councillors and members of staff from raising concerns, particularly about the council’s finances and use of resources.”
A new chief executive will be a bigger opportunity to flush out the old culture at Greenwich than the election of a new political leader – here’s hoping it’s an outside appointment. Alas, it doesn’t look like an offer’s gone out to share Lewisham’s hugely-respected chief executive, Barry Quirk.
I couldn’t face the crowds in Greenwich, so nipped down to Woolwich on Sunday afternoon to see what the fuss was about.
And you know what? The Tall Ships Festival looked rather decent. At least in Woolwich, anyway.
A big crowd, nice atmosphere – it looked like a good job, well done. And it’s been lovely watching the ships go up and down the river this weekend.
I did pass on the opportunity to buy a £16 Royal Greenwich Tall Ships t-shirt for half price, mind.
And here’s the most graphic demonstration of why the Firepower museum is closing down – its doors were locked on one of the busiest days the Royal Arsenal complex has ever seen. Madness.
It was a funny experience watching the ships by bike, though. Nowhere to park in sponsor Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal compound – well, apart from this one rack…
Greenwich Council later tweeted me to say there was bicycle parking in Beresford Square, but there were no signs from the Thames Path to indicate this. Which mattered, because loads of cyclists were using the path on Sunday.
At least there was some parking at Woolwich, however hidden it was. I thought I’d peek at the ships moored at sponsor Barratt Homes’ Enderby Wharf. But security guards were ushering cyclists off the recently-installed bicycle path.
So I trundled down Tunnel Avenue, surprised by the numbers of people coming away from Enderby Wharf towards North Greenwich. Was there anywhere to park the bike? Well, I could have taken my chances here…
After a couple of minutes trying to get a D-lock through a wire fence, I gave up and went home.
So that was my Tall Ships Festival. I know there’s been some gripes about it in Greenwich (see the comments on Friday’s post), and the traffic’s been murder this weekend, with packed roads and overcrowded buses. But it was fine in Woolwich.
Imagine it being called the Woolwich Tall Ships Festival, acknowledging where most of the action was…
Remember, though, it’s all about reputation-building. Here’s a naughty slip from Greenwich Council’s Twitter account.
Retweeting praise aimed at the council leader? Cheeky.
Even cheekier, because the original tweet, sent on Friday night, was it was amended the following night by Mehboob Khan, who juggles being a Labour Party adviser to London Councils with being a councillor in Kirklees, West Yorkshire. Very naughty. The original tweeters weren’t impressed.
Enough of what I saw, how were the tall ships for you? Share your praises or gripes below.