Update, Friday 17 April: The consultation period has now been extended to Tuesday 28 April.
The general election’s well under way. But an arguably bigger decision for this part of south east London is also open for your thoughts – although you’ve only got until Friday to make your views known.
Last month, Greenwich Council quietly started consulting on changes to the 11-year-old Greenwich Peninsula masterplan. Considering the size and location of the site, this is one of the most important pieces of planning in the 50-year history of the borough (with only Thamesmead and the Royal Arsenal as competition).
Yet, as ever, engagement with the public seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. You know how the council claimed Greenwich Time was essential for engaging with local people? Well, not a word of editorial copy has appeared in its weekly paper about this in the three weeks the consultation has been open.
By contrast, the issue has been covered in both the News Shopper and the Mercury.
If there’s a development that demands proper discussion and debate – especially at general election time – it’s this one. It touches on the two most vital issues addressing our capital city – housing and infrastructure. Yet there simply isn’t one – it’s being swept under the carpet.
To his credit, Labour candidate Matt Pennycook mused on the issues after a consultation event in January (followed up by the Guardian’s Dave Hill), but that’s been about it. The local Peninsula ward councillors aren’t even mentioning it on their new blog.
If you want to find out more, head to Greenwich Council’s planning search and look for application 15/0716/O.
There are 191 documents to read. One person is not realistically going to manage to take on board this information all alone – even in the summary planning statement – so if you read the documents and something strikes you that’s not mentioned here, please feel free to stick it in the comments.
The plans include 12,678 homes (up from 10,100 in 2004); towers of up to 40 storeys high; 220 serviced apartments; a 500-room hotel; education and healthcare facilities; a film studio and visitor attraction; a new bus station/ transport hub; and a 5k running track around the peninsula.
Update, 21 April. Philip Binns has emailed to say the planning statement points out “up to 15,700 units could be delivered in total on the Peninsula as a whole”, explaining that this is made up of the 12,678 units referred to in the application notice plus a further 200 serviced apartments and 2,822 units which are currently being constructed or are to be implemented (approvals already having been granted). This would represent a 57% increase on what was permitted in 2004.
Like I said, there’s a lot to take in. But here’s two very broad themes that I reckon should be addressed. You may have different views.
Housing – who’s going to live there?
One vital question is unanswered – how many of these homes will people be able to afford to live in? No figures are given for social or “affordable” housing.
We already know that neither you nor I will be able to afford to live in part of the Peninsula, as Greenwich Council allowed the pre-emptive social cleansing of Peninsula Quays back in 2013, reducing the amount of social/affordable housing to 0%.
This decision was based on a viability assessment – can the developer afford to build social housing? – which was kept secret by Greenwich Council. Earlier this year, local resident Shane Brownie won a Freedom of Information battle to get this information out there.
It’s a complex issue that affects other areas of London and elsewhere – the most notorious case affects Southwark Council and the Heygate estate – and one that’s barely being heard in the election campaign. The BBC’s Sunday Politics London spoke to Shane when it dealt with the issue a few weeks back. (Thanks to Alex Ingram for the recording.)
It’s entirely possible Knight Dragon has been spooked by Greenwich being forced to disclose this document, and is playing its cards even closer to its chest.
Indeed, this planning application going out to formal consultation during an election may even stifle debate – although the decision to run it now would have been the council’s call, rather than Knight Dragon’s.
But where else in London would a development of 12,000 new homes emerge without any discussion about who they are for?
The transport infrastructure – can North Greenwich cope?
The plans also include rebuilding and moving North Greenwich bus station. It’s approaching capacity and struggles to cope with demand as it is. But the increase is small – space for 17 bus stands rather than 15, and 11 bus stops rather than seven.
There’s pressure for North Greenwich to handle even more buses. Very few other tube stations in London are expected to handle demand from such an absurdly large area (Finsbury Park – which has to serve areas such as Crouch End and Muswell Hill – is probably the nearest equivalent).
Politicians keep demanding extra services from Kidbrooke and Eltham (as opposed to demanding improvements to rail services there), while existing routes from areas much closer to North Greenwich still struggle to cope. Route 108, in particular, is still overwhelmed each morning despite demands for a boost to services, which were met with the miserly addition of a single extra bus.
And this is before the next phase of homes open on the peninsula – adding more “one-stop” passengers on the buses and more demand for the tube station itself.
Yet TfL’s only significant transport boost in the area has ben to create a cable car which is aimed at tourists and charges premium fares. If it was a bus route, it’d be London’s 407th busiest.
It’s a crude measure – especially as these figures cover all passengers, not just ones heading to North Greenwich – but a cursory glance at passenger numbers on the eight services would suggest they’ve pretty much hit their rush-hour capacity.
Add to this the continuing huge developments planned for Canary Wharf and the Royal Docks, together with predictions that Crossrail will hit capacity within months of opening, and you’ve got a big problem in depending so heavily on the Jubilee Line. The queues for Stratford-bound trains at Canary Wharf show just how big demand is here.
Move the peninsula closer to Canary Wharf
One answer would be to give Canary Wharf workers an alternative to the Jubilee Line. At this point, up will pop Transport for London, claiming the Silvertown Tunnel would provide that for buses.
But it’s very likely that before long, any buses routed this way would get stuck in the same snarl-ups as the 108 through Blackwall, or new ones north of the Thames.
Building new roads won’t bring the high-density regeneration Greenwich Peninsula needs – this isn’t a suburban business park or a collection of warehouses. You get better results when you build workplaces within walking distance of shops, restaurants, other workplaces and railway stations.
The mostly-empty office block at 6 Mitre Passage, whose lights have stayed dim on winter evenings, shows how the Greenwich Peninsula has failed to attract businesses – one stop from Canary Wharf might as well be the other side of London.
So why not a pedestrian and cycle link to Canary Wharf? Proposals for a bridge from Rotherhithe to the Wharf have recently been dusted off – but one to the east would bring the Greenwich Peninsula within walking distance of shops, offices and the new Crossrail station.
It’d transform the area, tying it into Canary Wharf and freeing up space on both Tube and buses, and making it more attractive for businesses to set up shop.
In 2009, the cost of a bridge was put at £90m, not including maintenance and operating costs, and a TfL assessment as part of the cable car business case said it would be an “iconic” scheme, “likely to attract investment” in the area.
It added that “the walking routes on both sides of the Thames would need substantial improvement associated with developments for the environment to be of a high quality”. Well, those improvements are coming now. And without a fixed connection to Canary Wharf, those improvements on the Greenwich Peninsula may never fully reach their potential.
It’s election time – why isn’t this an issue?
London is growing at a bewildering rate. Property developers are ruling over local people like feudal landlords, while local councils are treated like mug punters who fall for three card tricks.
Yet this simply isn’t an issue in a general election where it’s become fashionable to bash London. Planning desperately needs reform to give councils more clout – but this isn’t being addressed in manifestos.
The lack of serious discussion about how to manage London’s growth reflects poorly on our city’s politicians and media. And we’ve one of the worst examples of it here in Greenwich, a borough run by councillors that have too often lacked curiosity in what’s presented to them.
In the same way that Greenwich councillors fell for poor road-building schemes because the area lacks river crossings, they may well fall for an unsustainable plan for the peninsula simply because they’re desperate to see all that brownfield land built on with the first thing that comes along.
That said, the recent ousting of Chris Roberts acolyte Ray Walker from his role as planning board chair can give us hope – his replacement, Mark James, has a background in transport, so actually has an understanding of the issues at stake. With Matt Pennycook taking a more sceptical view of big developments than his predecessor, some of the mood music around Greenwich and regeneration could be about to see a welcome change.
If you’ve a couple of hours free this week, give the plans a read and send your views (try the planning statement and design and access statements for summaries) to the council. At least then, they can’t say they weren’t warned.
The election doesn’t stop Greenwich Time – it just removes councillors from its pages for a few weeks. But the weekly paper remains to subtly associate the council with Good Things in the area, and to drone on about “royal borough” this and “royal borough” that.
This week’s Good Thing is the rescuing of Kidbrooke’s Hervey Road Playing Field, which has had the threat of redevelopment hanging over it for years now. There’s a council press release on it too, linking it to other Good Things such as improvements to nearby Hornfair Park.
Except the only threat to Hervey Road Playing Field came from… Greenwich Council. Until 2011, the council had been planning to move Willow Dene special school from Plumstead to the site, until it became clear that building on open land wasn’t going to be a popular option – particularly with the tenacious Save Hervey Road Sports Field campaign in full swing.
“It is clear that the process to secure planning consent for a development at Hervey Road might produce challenge, given its current use and planning designation for Community Open Space in the Unitary Development Plan,” a paper presented to Greenwich Council’s cabinet in July 2011 said with some understatement.
So the council backtracked, Willow Dene stayed in Plumstead and now has a brand new building; and finally Hervey Road field has been declared safe. It should never have taken this long.
Of course, those who only see Greenwich Time – like those who lived in East Germany’s “valley of the clueless” because they never saw western TV – won’t know the full story. Hervey Road got a happy ending – but it’s just another little example of how the council abuses its dominant weekly paper to shape perceptions of itself.
Over 3,800 people have signed a petition demanding Transport for London saves the Woolwich Ferry, which is threatened by its new river crossing proposals.
Greenwich Council supported closing the ferry in its submission on a planned new road bridge at Gallions Reach, and TfL has recently canvassed opinions on whether or not the 50-year-old vessels and pontoons should be replaced with new ships and structures.
Notably, in publicising the recent consultation into the Silvertown Tunnel, TfL claimed those who backed a revamped Woolwich Ferry were backing a new river crossing, exaggerating support for the transport authority’s new road plans.
Closing the crossing would remove the problems of lorries queuing at the ferry approaches in Woolwich and North Woolwich and open up more riverside land for development.
But regardless of the flaws or merits in TfL’s road crossing plans, closing the Woolwich Ferry would send more HGVs to the Blackwall Tunnel (and potentially a Silvertown Tunnel, which TfL admits would lead to a 20% increase in traffic on its approaches) – it would certainly be simpler for lorries to reach there than any new bridge at Gallions Reach – and would remove an alternative option for crossing the Thames.
Closing the ferry would also remove a part of the history of Woolwich – TfL and its predecessors have been legally obliged to provide a free ferry here since 1889, on the basis that Woolwich taxpayers (on both sides of the river) had paid for free crossings for west London.
Local politicians have generally kept their support for the ferry’s closure quiet – it would have shut two years ago if Ken Livingstone’s Thames Gateway Bridge had been built.
Any move to shut (or charge for) the ferry would need to be endorsed by parliament, so I wonder if any of Greenwich & Woolwich’s general election candidates will back the Save the Woolwich Ferry campaign?
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Greater London – and half-a-century since shotgun marriages between metropolitan boroughs, urban districts and county boroughs formed today’s 32 London boroughs.
Even naming the boroughs proved problematic – the organisation sitting at Woolwich Town Hall could have been called the London Borough of Charlton as a compromise between the two squabbling sides, while Lewisham was nearly called “Ravensbourne”.
A few years back, Rob Powell from Greenwich.co.uk uploaded a scan of the Mercury supplement introducing the “new” Greenwich Council. I thought I’d head back down to the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal to see what else was going on at the time.
The headline above shows how the Mercury’s rival, the Woolwich-based Kentish Independent, headlined its coverage of the final meeting of Woolwich Council, which stretched out to Plumstead, Shooters Hill, Abbey Wood, Eltham and Lee. The good burghers of Woolwich were sat in the same town hall that the current Greenwich Council sits in today. Meanwhile, the Mercury noted a “gift night spectacular”.
Back in the KI, the Gallery column noted all was gloom at the old Greenwich Town Hall on Royal Hill…
…although none of it was showing when the old Greenwich Council bowed out, the Mercury noted.
A mile or two away on New Cross Road, the old Deptford Council – which also took in New Cross and Brockley – was also turning out the lights, sent down to Catford to merge with Lewisham.
“Mercury Man” was sorry to see the old borough go, mourning “an ability to present a public image which would make a publicity man suicidal”.
Looking back at these misty-eyed reminiscences, it’s striking how closely the local press watched the local councils then. But there’s still a level of deference. The Kentish Independent still got excited over the new mayor of the London Borough of Greenwich. 50 years on, is anyone really that bothered now?
In the Mercury, the new Greenwich borough opened with a Labour rebellion over a “lodger tax” for council tenants. This was something the old Woolwich Council had done for years, yet had been resisted by Greenwich. In the end, a compromise saw the area covered by the old Greenwich borough let off the extra charges until 1966.
Then another Woolwich habit got up Greenwich noses, as the new council managed to annoy traders on Royal Hill by cancelling their contracts in favour of shopping at the Co-op instead.
One of the last decisions of the old Woolwich Council was a big headache for the new authority. In 1961, it’d decided to invest in an experimental automatic car park. The Autostacker was a spectacular failure. The last Woolwich Council meeting approved plans to knock it down.
The new Greenwich Council had to deal with the fallout (before finally sending the bulldozers in).
What else was going on at the time? One Mercury front page from early 1965 bemoaned a labour shortage across south-east London – there were simply too many jobs and not enough people. Even its recruitment ads boasted of jobs for everybody. But in the Kentish Independent, the year opened with bad news for Plumstead’s Beasley Brewery – closing after a century of slaking SE18 thirsts.
Signs of things to come on Plumstead Marshes were also apparent in the KI, as the new Greenwich Council sought to assert itself over plans for a new town on surplus Royal Arsenal land, which stretched onto Belvedere Marshes in the new borough of Bexley (and the old Kent district of Erith). The split was one of the issues that hobbled the new town – and it still does, half a century on.
The recent death of Winston Churchill had sent the country into mourning – but would a motorway bridge at Woolwich have been a fitting tribute?
Nevertheless, one part of the Ringways scheme – the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach – was causing aggravation in Blackheath and Kidbrooke.
On Blackheath’s Old Dover Road, traders awaiting new accommodation couldn’t wait to be rid of the old Greenwich Council as their colleagues in Woolwich had a more “go-ahead approach”.
London was changing in the 1960s. In the Mercury – whose coverage at the time stretched from Bermondsey and Camberwell to Abbey Wood – headlines discussed racism, with one reporting a magazine article which compared Lewisham to Alabama.
At the same time, this was what was in the Kentish Independent, reporting from what was then still Kent…
Within two decades, councillors from the new borough of Greenwich would have set up their own paper to challenge racism – but that’s a different story.
The old metropolitan boroughs had lasted 65 years – the new London boroughs have now notched up 50. Will the current boroughs outlast their predecessors, or are we due for another round of mergers and squabbles?
The days of Ken Livingstone wanting to take an axe to the current structure are gone. But we’re in an age of devolution – Greenwich joined boroughs north of the river to discuss this a few weeks back – and austerity, where sharing services is looked upon kindly.
So today’s councils may well be toasting today’s anniversary with some trepidation. The London Superborough of Greenwich & Lewisham, anyone?
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.