Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland has mocked the the number of signatures on a petition calling for the closure of its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, saying: “I didn’t know the Tories and Liberal Democrats had so many members.”
Hyland also predicted other boroughs would join Greenwich’s judicial review into communities secretary Eric Pickles’ order demanding the council closes the controversial weekly.
The petition, started last Thursday by Stewart Christie – a Liberal Democrat candidate in last year’s council election – had gained 106 signatures ahead of last night’s full council meeting, the last before 7 May’s general election.
Responding to a question from Conservative group leader Spencer Drury, Hyland launched into a defence of the paper that lasted nearly seven minutes, reiterating the council’s claim that GT actually saves it money.
“Our advice from our QC is that the Secretary of State has acted illegally, and that is why we are applying to the court to judicially review the decision,” she said.
“And as for the people who set up the website ‘cease Greenwich Time publication now’, which I believe has 106 [signatures] on it – given the Tories and Lib Dems seem to have formed a coalition around Greenwich Time, I didn’t know they had so many members,” Hyland added to laughter from her own councillors.
Hyland also refused to give details of costs for the judicial review when pressed by Conservative deputy leader Matt Hartley.
“Essentially, I don’t think we’ll lose. I think we have a strong case, and in addition I fully expect other boroughs to join in on that JR [judicial review]. That would be my expectation,” she said.
Pressed again for a “worst case scenario” figure, she added: “We’ll wait and see what the lawyers say it will cost us, but obviously, it will not cost us a penny when we win.”
Hyland’s confidence may be explained by Greenwich sharing its Greenwich Time printing contract with eight other boroughs – Brent, Havering, Hackney, Hounslow, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, who all use Trinity Mirror to print a variety of council publications.
The general election – with its “purdah” rules on public bodies making controversial decisions – complicates matters, but Pickles’ direction states that Greenwich must not produce more than four council publications in the year from 31 March. This means the weekly GT would not breach the order until late April – giving other councils plenty of time to join in any legal action.
The Tower Hamlets question
Earlier, Hyland had questioned why Tower Hamlets Council – which is being partly-run by commissioners sent in by Pickles following allegations of malpractice – was still being allowed to publish England’s only other weekly council publication, East End Life.
“I find it extraordinary that Eric Pickles has sent commissioners into Tower Hamlets, yet Tower Hamlets is still producing East End Life on a weekly basis.
“The commissioner himself has even put an article in there,” she said to laughter.
“They haven’t had a notice, they haven’t had a direction,” she added.
In fact, Pickles did begin the process of taking action against East End Life in September, although has pulled back since sending commissioners into Tower Hamlets in December.
As for the article by a commissioner, East End Life merely reported a decision by Sir Ken Knight in its 16 March issue – he didn’t write a piece for it.
The situation with Tower Hamlets and East End Life may become clearer in the coming weeks, as Sir Ken and colleague Max Casey were given three months to draw up a plan to rectify the problems with Tower Hamlets – including a “plan for publicity”.
Asked by Spencer Drury (hear audio above) if Greenwich would close GT if Tower Hamlets closed East End Life, Hyland said: “Look, we all have choices about things and it’s this Labour administration’s choice to inform the public of different events and publish our statutory adverts that the government still say need to be published in the press. Essentially, its our choice to do that and we think it’s the most cost-effective way.
“There may be a few people – and we know who they are – who don’t agree with that. And you’re entitled to your opinion.”
“But you’re not in charge of the council,” she added, to laughter from her Labour colleagues.
No research into households without internet
After she used the “digital divide” as a justification for publishing GT, Hyland was asked what research the council had done into households without internet access. She only said this was work for “our digital centre” to take on.
She added: “What we do know is that vast numbers of people head to our public libraries to use the IT that’s there, and how valued that is. And I know from the people who go into my surgery – and I’m sure that’s relicated right around this chamber – that many people may have an email address but they don’t have broadband, and therefore they have to come into these facilities.
“With the amount of money this council has to save we will promote more and more online, but at the same time, we will do everything we can do lower that digital divide and make sure people have access to the web.”
Low newspaper distribution
Hyland also pointed out the low circulation of the News Shopper and Mercury titles in the borough.
“In Charlton, only 63 homes get the Mercury, so 99% of Charlton don’t get the Mercury,” she said.
“Greenwich – less than 1% get the Mercury, 99% don’t get it. Eltham – 88% don’t get it. Blackheath – three-quarters don’t get it. Abbey Wood – more than two-thirds don’t get it. And the News Shopper’s similar.”
Hyland also claimed there were small businesses in Greenwich borough that “just will not pay for adverts in the independent press – whereas they can buy space in Greenwich Time that is a lot cheaper”.
“And also we don’t use massage parlours. We don’t advertise those, and thank goodness, and we would find it hard to give our business to organisations that include adverts in that way.”
Neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper were present in Woolwich Town Hall last night to report on proceedings.
A former leader of a Yorkshire council has been selected by Labour activists to fight a by-election caused by the resignation of Matt Pennycook, who left Greenwich Council last week to concentrate on the general election.
Mehboob Khan, who led Kirklees Council until last year, will contest Greenwich West on 7 May, the same day Pennycook hopes to be elected MP for Greenwich & Woolwich.
Khan quit his post as council leader last year when he moved to the capital to take up a job as political advisor at the Local Government Association.
But despite living in Deptford’s Millennium Quay, he remained a councillor for Huddersfield’s Greenhead ward. He revealed his decision to leave last Monday – the same day Pennycook announced his resignation.
Khan was lauded as the “Twitter king” of Yorkshire politics last year by the Huddersfield Daily Examiner for having more followers than other council leaders.
But his adventures on social media in London haven’t always been such a hit – getting criticised last year for amending someone’s tweet praising the Tall Ships Festival so it namechecked Greenwich leader Denise Hyland.
He may also want to amend his Twitter handle – while he is still listed as a Kirklees councillor, continuing to use @cllrMehboobKhan could get him in hot water in London. (9.55am update: After initially changing it to the arguably-presumptuous @MehboobKhanRBG, then @MehboobKhan99, it’s now @MKhanGreenwich.)
Labour romped home at the last election and he’ll be the runaway favourite to win. But opponents eyeing an upset will include Conservative campaigner Thomas Turrell and Green Party stalwart Robin Stott.
It’s also understood that left-wing group People Before Profit, best-known for strong performances in Lewisham Council elections, are considering fielding a candidate, which would be their first on the Greenwich side of the border.
Friday update: The Liberal Democrats have chosen Sonia Dunlop to contest the seat.
One thing that was notable about Tuesday’s Greenwich Council decision to go to court to fight for the future of its weekly paper, Greenwich Time, was the response on Twitter that evening – it was unanimously hostile.
The justification for Greenwich Time that appeals the most to its Labour defenders is that it allows the council to reach out to underserved groups.
Yet it’s clear that Greenwich Time annoys more engaged people – the type a public authority would want to keep on side. There’s now an online petition demanding the council scraps the paper and changes its mind.
So how to deal with this? There’s one way the Government could end the row over Greenwich Time tomorrow. But there’s no chance of this happening – yet.
Forget the gripes about bias and propaganda for the moment. The public justification for Greenwich Time is about cold, hard cash. Public authorities have, by law, to print certain public notices in local printed newspapers.
These include planning applications, road closures, consultation notices, and so on. This is effectively an indirect subsidy to local press companies and doesn’t take into account a paper’s content or circulation.
Pay 30p for a copy, delve into the small ads, and you’ll find the Mercury features Transport for London notices next to ads for “adult services“. The News Shopper binned those ads many years ago (at huge cost to its parent firm Newsquest) but Greenwich Council has long grumbled about its more salacious stories.
So the main advantage of Greenwich Time for Greenwich is that the council can cut out the cost by printing its own paper – with the happy side-effects of being able to guarantee decent distribution and avoiding being associated with “massage” ads.
It costs nearly £590,000 a year to produce Greenwich Time – but the cheapest tender it’s had for shifting this advertising elsewhere is £714,000.
That’s an extra £124,000 per year just to produce humdrum notices that very few people actively look for – and that’d be printed in papers that are seen by far fewer people.
Time to revolutionise public notices
If local politicians aren’t acting solely in self-interest, they could start lobbying Eric Pickles (or his Labour shadow Hilary Benn) about removing this rule.
Hardly anyone kicks back of an evening with the public notices in the back of their local paper. You actually have to be an active citizen to search for this kind of thing – someone that’s involved in a residents’ group, for example.
Instead of being printed on dead bits of tree, or dumping it on an obscure website, information could be emailed to residents – or sent to their smartphones. One app that’s been tested by a team from Lancaster University, Open Planning, allows people to share and discuss applications – potentially increasing engagement with planning applications.
Such a system would require a revolution in council IT – planning systems in many boroughs, not just Greenwich, aren’t friendly to use. It could even see all local authorities moving to the same platform – in the same way central government departments have all been shifted to Gov.uk.
Of course, this isn’t just about planning – there are all sorts of public notices, such as consultations, that need promoting. A recent “consultation” into a faith school on Greenwich Peninsula only emerged as a single notice in the back of Greenwich Time, for example.
Yet the same principle can apply here, and would end this meaningless box-ticking. Backed up by printed notices in council offices and libraries, this would be at least as effective as the current system at a fraction of the cost.
It’s all about the subsidy to local papers
Actually, the last Labour government proposed such a move. But the local newspaper industry lobbied against it, and in 2009 it backed away.
More recently, Eric Pickles has announced a pilot into “bringing statutory notices into the 21st century“, but has made it clear local newspaper advertising is still part of the mix.
While it remains that way, Pickles’ demands for Greenwich to increase its costs in the name of acting fair (which, effectively, its what he is doing by demanding Greenwich Time’s closure) will ring a little hollow.
One measure announced in Wednesday’s Budget was a consultation into tax breaks for local papers in England – in the same way that film production attracts tax breaks.
It’s another indication that the government is keen on keeping this indirect subsidy going. But in future, could this tax break replace the money from public notices?
How valuable are local newspapers?
One side-effect of Greenwich Time is that – in print, at least – it has become the dominant media voice in the borough of Greenwich.
That wasn’t always the case. Journalists have a bad reputation, but even in Greenwich – where both the News Shopper and Mercury are neglected by their owners – local journalists still play a role in holding power to account.
Whatever you think of the News Shopper, its Greenwich & Lewisham reporter Mark Chandler has played a vital role in holding both councils to account. The Mercury‘s Greenwich reporter, Mandy Little, has also highlighted important community stories.
But distribution of both papers is patchy, and the collapse in classified advertising has hit the industry hard.
And neither Mercury owner Tindle Newspapers nor News Shopper proprietor Newsquest (part of the giant US Gannett corporation) have really invested in their local papers, nor have they innovated to make their reporters’ lives easier.
Mercury owner Ray Tindle dislikes people seeing his company’s work for free – either online or in print. He’s opted to abandon free distribution of the Mercury altogether in some areas, producing paid-for editions for Charlton, Blackheath and west Greenwich. But this has just increased the workload for a skeleton team, struggling to produce papers for an area where buying a local newspaper hasn’t been a habit for three decades.
The News Shopper – London’s first free paper when it launched in Orpington in 1965 – has stuck to its free guns, concentrating more on its website and specialising in salacious or humorous stories.
One aspect of Greenwich Time has been to try to keep the “mayor at a local school” genre alive. The Mercury has also attempted to do this in its paid-for “hyperlocal” editions. But resources are so slim, you might pay 30p for a Charlton Mercury only to find the story’s about the Lewisham mayor in a school in Sydenham.
So, there’s a genuine question. How much do you value this kind of journalism? In these days of social media, is it even valued by those in the story? If it is valued, does the state have a role in producing this community journalism – either by doing it itself (Greenwich Time) or by indirect subsidy (public notices or a tax break)?
And in any case, would Tindle or Newsquest put the proceeds from a big council advertising contract into expanding their papers?
The community alternative
One idea that’s been talked about on and off over the years has been spinning off Greenwich Time to the community – putting it into a separate organisation, which would, in theory, be able to be report freely on the council.
But would it really do this? If a council leader was accused of bullying, let’s say, it’d be a very brave editor who ran that story in a publication that depended solely on advertising from that council.
While the row over the Daily Telegraph’s relationship with HSBC shows that these issues are alive and well even in the nationals, a publication in the gift of the council could be fraught with problems – especially given its recent track record.
While community-run papers are an interesting idea, the concept may be better off being put to use on an existing commercial title rather than the council paper.
And is the borough of Greenwich a “community” anyway? It’s a big, ungainly slab of south-east London. It’s never felt a cohesive borough, either geographically or emotionally. What unites it other than the name at the top of the council tax bill?
Of course, every other Labour council in the country manages to survive without a weekly newspaper, so why can’t Greenwich? Lewisham gets by happily on four editions of Lewisham Life each year, for example. Nobody’s really been able to answer that question properly except on the grounds of cost.
There’s been no study in just how effective Greenwich Time is at anything other than retaining Labour council seats – Greenwich Time was credited by a cabinet member in a Labour group meeting with helping the party in the 2010 election.
Greenwich Time may be cheaper than other options – but nobody knows how many people actually read it rather than throw it in the bin. Greenwich may be spending less than other councils – but may be getting far worse results.
The one remaining defence, its advertising of council homes, was breached accidentally some years back by cabinet member Maureen O’Mara, who said she had watched council tenants “come in every Tuesday to see what properties they could bid for”. Yet if tenants come into council buildings to collect GT to pick up a list of properties, why does that list need to be pushed through every door in the borough?
So what next?
It’s not going to be a pretty few weeks – with even Labour critics of Greenwich Time feeling forced into defending it for the sake of unity at election time. Others feel duty-bound because while they may hate GT, they hate Eric Pickles’ interference even more.
It’s likely the council will win by default – the election making it hard for Pickles’ law to be implemented – or on a technicality, on a badly-drafted point of law. Greenwich claims Pickles is acting outside of his powers.
But if Pickles had simply withdrawn the rule about local councils having to subsidise local papers with ads, we simply wouldn’t be here – because that’s the only argument that definitely stacks up. If we do think local papers need an indirect subsidy, the tax break option outlined in yesterday’s Budget offers a different way.
In the meantime, we’re set for a legal battle in which there may be a winner, but definitely no moral victory.
Update, 26 March: Greenwich Council has denied the leak referred to in this story was about the leaked Chris Roberts voicemail. See the end of the second video in this story.
Greenwich Council used public resources to track down the whistleblower who leaked ex-leader Chris Roberts’ abusive voicemail to a cabinet member to the media, it has been suggested.
The council is said to have launched the investigation after a voicemail of Roberts abusing John Fahy was made public, according to a report on answers given to a freedom of information request made by journalism trade website Press Gazette.
Roberts can be heard threatening Labour colleague Fahy with the removal of his cabinet position, telling him to “get it through your fucking thick skull”. The voicemail’s existence was first revealed on this website, after which it was published by the News Shopper. The investigation was into who leaked the voicemail to the Shopper.
Roberts was angry because Fahy was challenging his assumption that he would decide whether or not the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired, should take place in 2014.
It’s worth noting here that Greenwich Council refused to reveal details of the investigation to Press Gazette, only saying the leaker was identified. Instead, it said the information was already in the public domain – and the “thick skull” voicemail was by far the most high profile story leaked out of the council in recent years.
It is certainly known that the council was planning a investigation of the voicemail leak at the time, in addition to investigations by the Labour party, and the council’s standards board met to discuss the matter in December 2013.
Roberts left the council last summer, with the council mired in accusations over a bullying culture that led to two Labour councillors stepping down. He was let off any council punishment over the voicemail, but did get a written warning from the party.
However, Fahy – the victim of the voicemail – was punished twice by Greenwich Labour group chief whip over the incident. He was given a verbal warning over the leak of the voicemail, and while selections were taking place for the 2014 elections, he was given a written warning for not saying who the message had been leaked to – something that could have put his candidacy at risk.
Mary Ney, the chief executive who oversaw the investigation, also left the council last year after refusing to release a dossier about bullying submitted by a councillor, claiming it was solely a Labour party matter.
She is now working as a commissioner at scandal-hit Rotherham council, itself criticised for a bullying culture in an official report.
Chief whip Ray Walker, who oversaw the party’s disciplinary process against Fahy, was deposed by new councillor Stephen Brain last year.
When BBC London investigated the bullying at Greenwich Council in December 2013, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan promised to investigate complaints – but the complaints were ignored by the party.
Last night, the Tooting MP appeared at a comedy fundraiser in Greenwich called Stand Up For Labour – something he failed to do for his party’s own councillors in the borough.
2.10pm update: I’ve made a few tweaks to the story in light of information received just after it was published to stress it’s not fully certain whether the investigation was into the Fahy voicemail, although that is the only major leak story to have involved Greenwich in recent years.
Greenwich Council’s cabinet will challenge Eric Pickles’ decision to outlaw its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, it confirmed after a meeting yesterday.
Greenwich remains the only Labour council in the country to print a weekly paper – and yet has decided to seek a judicial review of a direction by the communities secretary telling the council to stop publishing by 31 March.
The council insists it saves money by using Greenwich Time as its exclusive advertising outlet, and says it will lose out by having to exit print and distribution contracts early.
A paper released on the day of the cabinet meeting put the cost of Greenwich Time as being nearly £590,000 – although much of this would have to be spent elsewhere anyway on advertising planning applications and other statutory notices.
After a recent tender for alternative publications to place advertising in, Greenwich head of legal Russell Power says axing Greenwich Time would cost the council an extra quarter of a million pounds each year.
There’s no news on just how much a judicial review will cost – but the bill will be faced by the same Greenwich council taxpayers who get the paper shoved through their letterboxes every week.
With a general election coming up, it may well prove to be a spoiling tactic to get any ban moved until after the general election.
But the decision also makes it very hard for local Labour representatives to complain about coalition cuts when they’re blowing cash on saving a weekly newspaper that no other Labour council feels the need to have.
Indeed, the decision – which came a day after Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook stood down to concentrate on the battle for Greenwich & Woolwich – could prove embarrassing for Labour candidates in the general election.
The council’s announcement of the judicial review on Twitter was greeted with universal criticism. Tweets included “time to close it down and get your councillors to engage with residents properly,” “Don’t ever tell me in the future that there’s no money available to improve services”, and “why exactly should we fund this?”
How did we end up here, though? Let me take you back in time, to the early 1980s…
If you ever find yourself with a day free, head down to the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal and ask to have a look at their old newspapers. The microfilm goes back centuries, but even looking back to the 1980s is fascinating – a time of deep political polarisation.
Until the early 1980s, Greenwich had always been seen as a moderate, or even right-wing, Labour council. After 1982’s elections, things changed somewhat – left-winger John Austin-Walker took control, and a new wave of Labour councillors began to push more radical policies, complementing Ken Livingstone’s programme at the Greater London Council.
Of course, this was set against a particularly right-wing Conservative government, plus a national press that couldn’t understand why all these lefties were giving money to gay groups, ethnic groups, women’s groups – and then there were the nuclear-free zones, solidarity with striking miners, and more besides.
These battles were fought out on billboards, in newspaper ads, in Sun editorials, even in ads on the side of dustcarts.
The local press was in a much healthier state back then. The Woolwich-based Kentish Independent – 20p each week – was the paper that followed Greenwich Council the closest. The small-“c” conservative weekly faithfully reported all this stuff – and the opposition to it. (Its editor, Frank Dunkley, wasn’t shy about expressing his own rather ripe views, branding Austin-Walker “Nonsense Talker” in his own column. That column may have played part in the eventual closure of the paper – but that’s another story.)
A new council logo? Could the council be sharpening up its communications act?
Greenwich had been publishing a news-sheet called Civic News six times a year. With the local press, particularly the KI, sceptical about the council’s policies – and the nationals on the hunt for “loony left” stories – it seems the Labour administration wanted to fight its corner a bit more robustly.
I couldn’t track down any copies of Civic News at Greenwich Heritage Centre, so I can’t see if it had headlines to match the one about the missing maracas. But at the the bottom of a box, I found this…
In April 1984, just days after the Kentish Independent closed and Charlton Athletic had staved off the same fate, Greenwich Time was born as a monthly. It was distributed alongside the Mercury, which had just gone free (helping seal the old KI’s fate).
And yep, it was talking up the council’s role in helping save the Addicks from doom. A rate rise was promoted because it helped stop job cuts, while inside an editorial from John Austin-Walker said if it hadn’t been for government cuts, he would have been able to cut rates instead.
Looking through those early issues, it’s obvious Greenwich Time was a propaganda tool. But it’s clear those behind it saw it as a tool to champion the marginalised – the unemployed, women and minority groups. Greenwich councillors had found their most potent weapon to fight the decade’s culture wars.
It wasn’t all one way. A lively letters page contained a range of views, while a panel promoting council meetings cautioned: “it’s your council, keep an eye on it!”. Might have to revive that one.
It promoted discussion about just what the council should do about government cuts – and there was a surprisingly even-handed write-up of the all-night session which saw Greenwich finally, grudgingly, set a rate for 1985.
There was even a short-lived cartoon strip…
…while a council U-turn was owned up to.
This Socialist Worker-style campaigning fervour faded as the decade wore on, but Greenwich Time remained the place for a frustrated council to vent against Margaret Thatcher’s government.
12 years ahead of the Lewisham extension becoming reality, Greenwich Time praised the 1987 opening of the “space age” Docklands Light Railway, while rows with the government continued into the 1990s.
The paper went fortnightly in 1991 – still being distributed with the Mercury – and adopted a new look in 1993, when the council was run by Len Duvall. This era of Greenwich Time was almost benign – the news items were briefer and briskly-written, while council policies were still regularly challenged in the letters page.
The next big change came after this fresh-faced chap took over Greenwich Council in 2000.
Chris Roberts started with a blast at newly-elected mayor Ken Livingstone – then outside the Labour fold as an independent.
Another new look in 2002 saw Greenwich Time inch away from looking like a council newspaper and starting to ape the look of a local paper – specifically, the Mercury, whose former editor Peter Cordwell was drafted into work on it. (The relationship ended in acrimony a decade later.)
It’s here the personality cult also starts to kick in…
…and a 2004 story about Greenwich Peninsula which feels like it’s been repeated about 50 times since then.
There was also a campaign to bring Crossrail to Woolwich….
…and a “youth champion” becoming the youngest-ever councillor.
The final transformation came in May 2008, when Greenwich Time went weekly, carried a TV guide, was distributed on its own and started carrying council ads exclusively – making it much cheaper to run.
Strangely, that first weekly edition isn’t in the Heritage Centre, so here’s a council tax freeze – before it started telling porkies about long it’d lasted for – with our favourite picture of the Dear Leader.
Looking back over Greenwich Time’s history, you can see three key stages – the nakedly political, campaigning paper of the 1980s; the brisk information sheet of the 1990s; and the 21st-century imitation of being a local paper.
Under Austin-Walker it wanted to persuade you to support a particular viewpoint, and published monthly; the Duvall version was more about information, published fortnightly; while under Roberts it became something aimed at more subtly shaping opinions, and published weekly.
It’s also worth considering the wider media context – the free Mercury had a near-monopoly in Greenwich for much of the the 1980s after the Kentish Independent’s demise, although the paid-for Eltham Times still figured in the south of the borough along with the free News Shopper. By 1988, the local newspaper market was still strong enough for the Shopper to launch borough-wide.
Scroll forward to 2015, and the Mercury is a shadow of its former self while the former Eltham Times retreated to Bexley and Bromley some years back. Neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper have the reach of Greenwich Time – a near-reversal of the situation in 1984.
Much of this has been down to the greed and stupidity of the local newspaper industry – but Greenwich Time, once the paper that fought for minority causes, has taken advantage of this to get a dominant position in both distribution and advertising.
Back in the 1980s, Greenwich Time was run by councillors willing to risk their own finances for what they believed in – risking surcharges in battles over rates. Their 2015 successors have not nearly been as active in defying government cuts, except when it comes to risking taxpayers’ money to defend their own newspaper.
Now Greenwich Time’s life has flashed before our eyes, will we see it come to an end soon? We may find out the answer in court soon – as well as the bill for the council’s legal action.
Thanks to the staff at the Greenwich Heritage Centre in the Royal Arsenal for their help and patience in my trawl. You should go and visit some day.
Former Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney has been handed a new job trying to turn scandal-hit Rotherham Council around, despite trying to stop allegations of bullying in her old borough from being revealed.
Ney, who retired from Greenwich in October 2014, worked on Louise Casey’s report into child sexual exploitation in the South Yorkshire borough, which was published a month ago.
The report damned “a pervading culture of sexism, bullying and silencing debate” in Rotherham – a description that raised eyebrows in Greenwich, embroiled in its own accusations of bullying towards the end of former leader Chris Roberts’ spell in charge.
Two weeks ago, it was announced Ney would be a “supporting commissioner” at Rotherham, working as part of a five-strong team led by former Kensington & Chelsea Council boss Sir Derek Myers.
During Ney’s time as Greenwich’s senior council officer:
- Two councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – stepped down, citing bullying in the ruling Labour group among their reasons.
- Ney blocked an attempt by this website to obtain a document detailing allegations of bullying in the council.
- Former leader Chris Roberts, who left the council in June 2014, was let off with a slap on the wrist after a threatening voicemail to a cabinet member was made public.
- Ney refused to investigate a conflict of interest that arose from the voicemail concerning the council’s handling of the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired.
- Roberts also escaped any discplinary procedure over an incident where he is alleged to have thrown a set of keys at a cleaner who woke him up early one morning when he was asleep in his office. This incident was highlighted by the BBC’s Sunday Politics London in December 2013.
Many councillors and figures within Greenwich politics remain privately angry that the council’s standards structure meant incidents of bullying were easy to get away with, and are questioning how Ney managed to get the job trying to clear up Rotherham.
Councillors ‘routinely threatened’
The loss of two talented councillors in Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher was a blow to the borough’s Labour group. Both have now moved out of the borough, but Grant – who now lives in France – has been particularly outspoken on the issue.
In a lengthy blog post paying farewell to the borough in December, he said the stories about Greenwich were just “the tip of an iceberg”.
He wrote: “Councillors and council staff were routinely shouted at, threatened with disciplinary action for speaking their minds at internal meetings, or quite literally airbrushed out of [the council’s weekly paper] Greenwich Time like victims of a Stalinist purge.
“Those who raised concerns found that their confidential correspondence was hacked into without their knowledge or consent; they were then accused of “issuing publications critical of the party” and told to shut up or else. In my case, a ‘colleague’ once yelled at me aggressively in front of my daughter, then aged 7.
“On another occasion I was officially ‘warned’ to stop asking awkward questions about why council properties in my ward were standing empty for several months – or even years – before being sold off at auction for less than their real value (a ‘warning’ that was later found to be unlawful). Many, many other councillors and council employees had similar experiences.”
How Greenwich Council’s bullying dossier was successfully covered up
Grant also wrote a document for the council in May 2013 detailing some of the accusations, and proposing solutions to help rid the council of the problem.
I tried to obtain this via the Freedom of Information Act, originally without knowledge of who the author was. But my request was refused by Ney in December 2013 – just as further accusations about Roberts were emerging – on the grounds that it had been sent as an email attachment and it had no use for it.
I kept on challenging the decision, until a “first tier tribunal” last year, which upheld Ney’s decision as it had “no use for it” – a loophole which means that if the council decides it wants nothing to do with a document, it doesn’t have to release it (presumably to stop you submitting your shopping list to the council and then trying to get it through FOI).
Worringly, Judge Shanks claimed there “may have been an abuse of the process” because Grant – who was a serving councillor at the time the original FOI request was made – could have leaked the document himself, despite the risk of being intimidated and harassed himself.
Effectively, Ney’s rationale for the council having no use for the document was that accusations of bullying should be dealt within the Labour Group, and so wasn’t applicable to the council as an authority.
The Greenwich dossier revealed – ‘staff were also bullied’But once the tribunal was over, Grant quietly released the document on his own blog. Titled Forward, Together – Recommendations for a new anti-bullying strategy in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it openly states council staff were also being bullied.
It states: “Those who feel they are at the receiving end of bullying are not always threatened directly – sometimes they are warned verbally that they should “watch their back” as they [are] out of favour and may be victimised next.
“Councillors – and council staff – who do voice concerns about their treatment have from time to time been labelled as troublemakers, criticised for being over-sensitive, or even accused of bringing the council, and/or their political party, into disrepute.
“In some cases such behaviour has not lead to formal complaints – often because complainants do not feel their complaints will be listened to – but when complaints are made, these are rarely taken seriously, and in some cases complainants have felt intimidated or stigmatised for speaking out.
“There have been several cases of… complaints of bullying being investigated (and dismissed) by the very person who is accused of bullying.”
Greenwich Council’s argument for refusing to release the document was that it was solely applicable to the council’s Labour group, and was of no interest to the council as a whole.
Yet Grant’s allegations that staff were being bullied show this argument to be untrue. Furthermore, the council’s constitution states that councillors have a role in “ensuring standards are properly established and monitored”.
Despite this, Ney still chose to prevent the release of the document.
The parallels with Rotherham
Nobody is pretending that what happened Greenwich is in any way comparable with the tragedy of Rotherham, which ignored widespread organised sexual abuse of children.
But Louise Casey’s report into Rotherham details a culture of bullying that chimes with experiences in Greenwich. Bullying and sexism had “cemented its failures”, Casey wrote.
“This was a culture where bullying and fear of repercussions if you spoke out was not met by any concerted challenge,” she continued.
Rotherham leader Roger Stone refused to take part in Casey’s report, but sent a statement outlining a his priorities for the borough, centring on regeneration projects – an echo of the emphasis of Roberts’ administration.
Whether Ney is the right person to assist in cleaning up Rotherham Council is a matter for Eric Pickles, whose Department of Communities and Local Government chose her for the role. I’ve asked the DCLG for a response. It has not replied.
Yet it is easy to understand why, considering past events under her watch in Greenwich – and attempts to block exposure of these incidents – many in south-east London are bemused by her new appointment.
After the Dear Leader – what’s happening now?Since Denise Hyland became leader of the council in June 2014, “Dear Leader” Chris Roberts has kept a low profile, although he’s understood to still be in regular touch with Hyland.
After 20 years of working with them as a councillor and council leader, Roberts is now working as a consultant to property developers. Companies House records reveal he has set up his own company, PSL Solutions Ltd, based at his home address in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal.
Roberts’ chief whip, Ray Walker, who denied there ever was a bullying culture in the council, was deposed in a Labour group vote by newly-elected Peninsula councillor Stephen Brain.
But Walker, who accused those complaining of bullying of “jumping on a bandwagon”, remains the chair of the council’s planning board – the key hold-out for Roberts’ old guard of councillors.
Keeping it in the party
More recent events have had more to do with the Labour Party itself than the council – though clearly there is some overlap.
Just as the London Labour Party turned a blind eye to bullying among councillors in Greenwich, it also ignored the bizarre attempt to stitch up cabinet member John Fahy, where someone sent emails purporting to be him routed via Portugal.
Another allegation was spotted by the News Shopper last month, where new councillor Ambreen Hisbani – who is close to the old council leadership – accused Eltham MP Clive Efford of abusing her Portuguese husband Rui Dias after drinking five pints of beer in small-hours tweets sent to Ed Miliband, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan and London Labour regional director Alan Olive.
Neither party has commented on the allegation, although it should be noted that Hisbani’s tweeting puts her at risk of disciplinary action.
The fractious relations within the Labour Party also have consequences outside it.
This website also understands that Labour councillors in the south of the borough were threatened with deselection by a senior party figure if they voted against the party’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel.
While Roberts has gone and there is a new chief whip in charge, it remains tough for many councillors to operate openly and honestly – with the council still at risk of passing bad policy because of Labour figures throwing their weight around.
Troubles with non-politicians
It’s not just those inside the Labour party that can feel a backlash for speaking their minds.
The nascent campaign for a community council in Charlton ended up being put on hold after a whispering campaign against individuals who supported it was promoted by figures within the party. This is despite community councils being Labour policy.
And even Denise Hyland – who as leader has aimed to strike a more emollient tone than her predecessor – betrayed impatience with residents who were impertinent enough to complain at a recent council meeting.
Last November, a delegation of people who live near the Rochester Way Social Club in Eltham presented a petition showing their unhappiness about the club’s closure. Here’s their impressive speech – “[you] are made up of a majority of Labour councillors – councillors we voted for” – and new cabinet member Chris Kirby’s conciliatory response. You can hear this up to the point where mayor Mick Hayes gives the residents a cue to leave.
Once the residents had gone, Conservative leader Spencer Drury raised the issue. With the petitioners safely on their way back to Eltham, Denise Hyland’s response was less cautious. “If the 600 people that put their names on the petition drank there, socialised there and paid a membership there, it wouldn’t be unviable, would it?”
Whether it’s harsh truth or an over-simplification of a complex situation, it’s not very nice to have a go at people once their backs are turned.
And the future?
Despite these issues, Greenwich’s current leadership knows it has a problem with the way the council relates to the people who it is set up to serve. With Roberts and Ney gone, it can start to fix them.
As an attempt to make the place more transparent, webcasting council meetings is promised soon, as are new proposals to get people more closely involved in decision-making.
But the council remains on the naughty step regarding its handling of freedom of information requests, a legacy left behind by Ney.
Returning to what Alex Grant wrote, things have certainly improved under the new regime.
Dropping the absurd way it continually refers to itself as “the Royal Borough” (what’s wrong with “we” or “us”?) would be a clearer sign of change, along with weaning itself off its dependency on Greenwich Time. But it’ll take a long time for the ship to be turned around.
Of course, local politics tends to be much a game of egos and power as it is serving the population. Especially as under the current electoral system, it’s always bound to be a slightly crap miniature version of Westminster.
But if members of the Labour party in Greenwich treated each other with a bit more kindness and a bit more respect – the rest of it might come a little bit more easily, and they might find all kinds of things become better for them. Just a thought.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles stepped up his battle to axe Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time today by formally demanding it ceases publication by the end of this month.
In January, the council was given two weeks to respond to Pickles’ decision to tell it to close the paper, one of only two council weeklies left in the country.
Now Pickles has rejected the council’s arguments, and a statement issued to the House of Commons today declares Greenwich has been told it must not publish Greenwich Time more than four times in the year starting from 31 March.
The council is also barred from outsourcing Greenwich Time – which would appear to prevent the long-mooted idea of putting the paper out to tender. (See the full Government statement.)
While council-linked leisure supplier GLL has long been connected with a possible takeover of Greenwich Time, last November Greenwich put its advertising contract out for a three-year tender at £400,000 per year – roughly the cost of distributing GT, a move called “Plan B” by council leader Denise Hyland.
Arguments over Greenwich Time have raged long and hard for many years – particularly as local newspaper coverage has traditionally been poor, arguably in quality but unarguably in distribution.
But with a general election approaching, the rhetoric has ramped up – not least because of the potential for GT to be promoting a Labour council’s good works at a politically-sensitive time. Last month, this website showed how Greenwich Time had played fast and loose with the truth over council tax freezes.
Five weeks back, the council used a centre spread to puff work it is doing in Eltham – not that there was much new to promote, but a reminder of council achivements would reflect well on the once-marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford, who has increasing influence at Woolwich Town Hall.
Of course, regular readers will know that what’s left out of Greenwich Time is as important as what’s left in – indeed, it’s been four years since the controversy over GT last featured in its own pages.
Is this really the end, though? Today’s announcement seeks to ensure that with a fortnight, Greenwich “will take the necessary decisions in order that the Council will be in a position to comply with the requirement on publication from 31 March 2015 onwards”.
This is important, because the approaching election gives Pickles very little room for manoeuvre. Both the Westminster Government and local government go into “purdah” from 30 March – the day Parliament is dissolved.
Advice issued before the last election states:
“It is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character. Decisions on matters of policy on which a new Government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present Government should be postponed until after the Election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.”
So whether Pickles could take any action against Greenwich after 30 March is open to question.
Furthermore, it’s also been suggested that Pickles’ own “localism” legislation, which allows local groups to bid to run council services, could be used against him. A “community right to challenge” for Greenwich Time could disrupt the process.
Asked about this at the last council meeting by Tory leader Spencer Drury, council leader Denise Hyland simply said “my Plan B is a Labour government in May”.
So Greenwich Time ain’t dead yet, and remains likely to stagger on – which is why Greenwich’s Labour councillors chuckle so heartily when it’s mentioned in the council chamber. After the 2010 council election, one cabinet member declared in a Labour group meeting that Greenwich Time had helped the party win seats.
Other councils adjusted easily to cutting back their council publications when Pickles demanded – Lewisham, for example, has outdoor advertising space to promote its messages.
But Greenwich – which is the only Labour borough to publish weekly – sets its whole communications strategy around Greenwich Time, publishing news releases only when GT has gone to the printers and the local papers have gone to press. Losing GT would be an enormous blow.
But the final decision may well rest with the next government, which, looking at the electoral maths right now, could well have a lot more on its mind than one errant south London council.
5.40pm update: A feisty response from the council’s Twitter feed:
Worth pointing out that despite this victim mentality, the only other council to publish weekly is Tower Hamlets, which is now being partly-run by commissioners appointed by the Government, putting the future of its own paper in doubt.