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Goodbye, Woolwich Fire Station. Sorry we didn’t try harder

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Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

Woolwich fire station closed this morning.

There was a small demonstration outside the graceful Victorian building, tucked away in the back streets, which now has prime redevelopment potential. About 20 people, including Greenwich Labour councillors and candidates, plus MPs Nick Raynsford (a former fire services minister) and Clive Efford, gathered outside for its final hour.

Woolwich fire station is the victim of budget cuts, yet there was still money in the GLA kitty for two private security guards, two policemen, a police van to lurk around the corner, another police van and the Greenwich borough commander to keep watch.

“All very peaceful, the local MP’s here,” one copper radioed back to base. This was no raging against the dying of the light. As the wind whipped up, this was a final farewell to London’s second oldest operational fire station, which seems to have been written off as terminal long ago.

Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

When Shooters Hill fire station was closed (by a Labour government) in 1998, residents were assured they’d be safe because Woolwich fire station was still there. Now Woolwich is gone, too, thanks to Boris Johnson.

One of its tenders will move to East Greenwich fire station, but a gap in fire coverage has opened up around Woolwich, a district in the throes of redevelopment. More people will live in Woolwich, but they’ll have to wait longer for a fire engine.

With Woolwich fire station gone, could more have been done? I certainly wish I’d covered the issue more, rather than fearing duplicating what other local media were doing. But where was the community anger? It was an issue which seemed to struggle to get beyond local Labour party stalwarts. Local councillor and cabinet member John Fahy comes out of this with credit, organising a 433-strong petition against it.

Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

But Fahy’s own council barely bothered to take up the cause. It can organise a petition to build a new road to please developers, but it didn’t back a petition to keep a fire station eyed by up developers.

As reported here in November, Greenwich’s only response to the cuts proposal was to fire off a two-page letter from cabinet member Maureen O’Mara, containing glaring errors. Neighbouring Lewisham did some research and sent off a seven-page document, detailing the impact on it and other boroughs, and saw New Cross fire station saved as a result.

Greenwich wouldn’t even put up posters for a formal public meeting about the closure.

LFEPA report

The council belatedly joined a court action to stop the cuts – but it was too late.

John Fahy – recently given a warning by his party over allegedly leaking council leader Chris Roberts’ bullying voicemail to him – was there this morning. So were cabinet colleagues Denise Hyland and Steve Offord and a smattering of other councillors and candidates. No sign, though, of O’Mara, Roberts, or his deputy Peter Brooks – the ones who really could have done something.

But maybe the blame lies with all of us, for not kicking up a bigger stink. Perhaps not enough people even knew the station existed. Or it points to something nobody wants to face up to – how the public are now completely disconnected from local issues. Or maybe nobody really cared enough.

But now Boris Johnson will have leave a little bit of his legacy behind in Woolwich, when the old Woolwich fire station becomes a free school or luxury flats. Sadly, and despite the efforts of Labour activists, I can’t help thinking either result would meet few complaints from Greenwich Council.

Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

Goodbye, Woolwich fire station. Sorry we didn’t try hard enough.

Written by Darryl

9 January, 2014 at 10:49 am

Greenwich Tories tell Labour to tell the Tories to fix the buses

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108 bus

It’s always good to see an issue raised on this website taken up by politicians – so here’s a warm 853 welcome for a petition calling for a boost to the 108 bus service between North Greenwich and Lewisham, which suffers from chronic overcrowding during rush hours.

The petition comes from Greenwich Conservatives – in particular, their energetic candidate for Blackheath Westcombe ward, Thomas Turrell. Blackheath Westcombe’s the borough’s most marginal ward, represented by two Tories and one Labour repesentative, so what goes on here is worth watching.

The Tories’ petition wants a rush-hour only bus, numbered 108A, to supplement the packed-out 108 south of the river, giving passengers a service that is less affected by Blackwall Tunnel delays. Ignoring the fact that Transport for London no longer runs rush-hour only buses (nor ones with letters as suffixes – although with next year’s train woes in mind, a revival of the original 108A to London Bridge could be useful), at least the issue of the 108′s woes is being taken seriously.

Greenwich Tories' petitionExcept… the Tories are addressing their petition to Greenwich Council. Not TfL, which runs the buses, but Greenwich Council. “We call on Royal Greenwich Borough Council [sic] to use the means at its disposal to work with Transport for London to introduce a new 108a bus route…”

So, effectively, Greenwich Tories are asking the Labour-run council to ask Tory-run TfL to fix our buses. Could they not, well, go straight to Boris Johnson instead? Perhaps not, with TfL bracing itself for deep cuts to bus services under its current administration. Awkward.

Anyone that’s ever been to a Greenwich Council meeting will know how it’ll treat the petition, anyway. Transport cabinet member Denise Hyland will act like the Tories have suggested selling a close family member, before Chris Roberts declares once again that the council should run bus services because Berkeley Homes the council knows better than anyone else on the entire planet. Nobody will go home happy, not least those going home by bus.

Which is a shame, because the state of the 108 is worth addressing, and it’s a pity that local politicians have ignored the issue for so long. Unlike the 132, overcrowding on which has been raised three times in 14 months at City Hall.

But then the 132′s fate proves a point. Run a bus to North Greenwich from just about anywhere, and it’ll fill up.

So maybe the Greenwich Tories’ 108 petition will light a flame. Perhaps some bright spark will team up with politicians across the boundary, and suggest an entirely new route to somewhere new like Brockley or Bromley, or maybe just the Kidbrooke Village development, to help ease the 108 through Blackheath. Maybe they’ll even set up a petition, and maybe they’ll get somewhere.

But hopefully, they’ll remember to address it to the right people first.

Will 2014 be the year of cycling in Greenwich borough?

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Blackheath Royal Standard
An interesting plan crept out of Greenwich Council with zero publicity before Christmas – it wants to put in a special cycle lane at Blackheath’s Royal Standard, to make pedalling through the area easier and safer.

The idea came from Greenwich Cyclists. If you’re cycling from Vanburgh Park towards Old Dover Road, it’s intimidating for new cyclists to have to circumnavigate the Standard, and can feel a bit dicey. So why not have a contraflow lane to cut straight across to Old Dover Road?

Blackheath Standard cycle plan

So, there it is. It’s a notable plan, because while Greenwich has been pretty good at widening cycle lanes and improving what’s already there; this might just be the first scheme on an existing road aimed at newer cyclists.

Most experienced cyclists will find the Standard a cinch (especially now it’s been resurfaced with new lighting) but it’s a worry if you’re a newbie. So it’s an important development, and I think it’s one which deserves credit.

You could have commented on it, but the oh-so-quiet consultation ended yesterday. Some things still need some work…

But there’s another way to have your say about cycling in Greenwich borough – the consultation into Greenwich’s cycling strategy ends this Friday. If you pedal around SE London, it’s worth a read and worth having your say too.

Written by Darryl

7 January, 2014 at 7:30 am

Greenwich Council forced to reveal Silvertown Tunnel report

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Bridge The Gap relaunch

Greenwich Council has been made to release a secret report to Labour councillors about its backing for the Silvertown Tunnel under freedom of information legislation, after nearly a year of refusing to publish the information.

The document reveals that Greenwich’s Labour councillors decided to back the Silvertown Tunnel proposals with no evidence that it would do any good – and one year on, there is still no business case to back up the council’s claims that building what is effectively a third Blackwall Tunnel will help regenerate the area.

Greenwich Time, 4 December 2012The report was presented to Labour councillors in November 2012, ahead of the launch of its Bridge The Gap campaign, promoting both a road tunnel from Greenwich Peninsula to Silvertown and a new road bridge between Thamesmead and Beckton.

London mayor Boris Johnson wants to build the Silvertown Tunnel, along with a ferry at Thamesmead.

After a request was submitted under the Environmental Information Regulations Act, the council refused to release the report, claiming it would affect “its ability to develop policy out of the public gaze”.

But the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled in November that the council had been wrong to refuse to release the information – pointing out Greenwich had already made and publicised its decision – and ordered the council to publish it before Christmas.

“There is an inherent argument for transparency and accountability in any spending of public money, and the Commissioner considers that this is relevant for a campaign designed to influence public debate on an important subject,” the ICO said.

“Furthermore, whilst the Royal Borough of Greenwich is not bearing the brunt of the costs for the new river crossing it still has significant influence over how the project evolves, and this has serious ramifications for the people in the borough.”

It added: “There is a strong objection to RBG’s position. Evidence of this can be found on-line, such as a petition with over 400 signatories.

“In the Commissioner’s view this shows there is a legitimate public debate around the subject and also public support for learning how RBG reached its position.”

Greenwich Council Labour group report, 26 November 2012

Three weeks ago, almost a year to the day that I submitted the request, Greenwich finally sent me the report by post. So, the first time, here is the November 2012 Labour group paper on the Silvertown Tunnel and Gallions Reach Bridge.

Councillors voted to endorse the report, which outlines how the council planned to campaign for the Silvertown and Gallions Reach crossings, although some have since said privately they feel they were misled by leader Chris Roberts. What striking is how little there is in the report.

The report does not contain a shred of evidence that either crossing will do any good – merely an assertion that “the potential associated with [developable] land [in the ex-Olympic boroughs] can only be realised by investment in major transport infrastructure in an acceptable timeframe”.

It also failed to anticipate hostility from local residents – merely saying that “environmental groups against an increase in vehicle crossings are rehearsing previous arguments”.

Furthermore, the report said the council would need to develop a business case for the crossings, and a “conference and/or public meeting” – neither of which happened.

So what did happen to the business case? I asked regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland at this month’s council meeting.

Her response? “TfL will be required to present a regeneration business case as part of their proposals. However a study has been undertaken by independent consultants employed by the London Borough of Newham, for which the Royal Borough provided data to inform the study, which is now in the public domain and demonstrates a clear regeneration case for a new crossing [sic].”

In other words, Greenwich didn’t bother. But does Newham Council’s report justify supporting the Silvertown Tunnel? Let’s have a look at its cover…

Newham Council Gallions Reach Bridge business case

That’d be a no, then.

Oddly, among the few times that Silvertown is mentioned, the report’s potential traffic figures claim it would attract no new vehicles at all – which is optimistic, to say the least, and flies in the face of a body of evidence which states that new roads attract new traffic. Indeed, the Newham report even concedes that new developments will lead to more traffic.

It’s even slightly sceptical about Silvertown, saying it is “surprising that TfL report a higher benefit cost ratio for the Silvertown tunnel than the Gallions Reach bridge”.

So, there is no evidence, and no business case for Silvertown. Its own Labour party members won’t back it, and neither will neighbouring Labour councils.

So why is Greenwich Council continuing to support a policy on Silvertown which can only continue to cause it grief? Answers on a pre-paid Bridge The Gap postcard to the usual address.

Want to help the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign? The No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign, of which I’m a part, is going to be running a new pollution study over a wider area early in the new year. If you can spare either a) time to help put up and take down tubes on weekdays in January and February or b) money to help fund them, then drop info[at]silvertowntunnel.co.uk a line.

We’re also interested in hearing from local firms who’d like to get involved – tech firm Scale Factory, based in Catford and Woolwich, is our first business backer. There’s more on the No to Silvertown Tunnel website.

Greenwich’s whitewash Christmas – council leader gets off

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So, get this through your f***ing thick skulls – Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts has been let off a telling-off for threatening and abusing one of his cabinet members in a sweary voicemail.

Chris RobertsA standards committee meeting on Friday decided Roberts should face no further action over the voicemail, in which he threatened to strip health cabinet member John Fahy of his responsibilities in a row over the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which donates places to a charity which the council leader chairs.

“I will remove your portfolio, you will have no portfolio, and you can be doing nothing… Get that through your fucking thick skull, John,” Roberts told Fahy in the voicemail, the existence of which was first revealed on this website.

The committee decided that the incident did not amount to bullying, but was to be treated as a breach of a rule which states councillors must “treat others with respect”.

It decided “no further investigation was warranted” because:

  • “The facts and evidence of the matter were clear and, moreover, were self-referred and admitted. Therefore, it was not considered a further investigation would be justfied or warranted.”
  • “The matter had been investigated by the Labour Group who had applied a sanction of a written warning.”
  • “Councillor Roberts had apologised to the councillor via voice-message, via letter and in person and had made his apology public in a statement to the News Shopper.”

Now, it should be emphasised that the committee could only look at the voicemail incident in isolation – so it could well be seen as a one-off incident of poor behaviour – rather than the tip of an iceberg of questionable behaviour towards councillors and officers.

Or throwing keys at cleaners, an incident first featured on television some years after Roberts told his Labour councillors “not to believe the rumours”.

Nor could it formally look at the conflict of interest surrounding Run to the Beat which the voicemail indicates, since chief executive Mary Ney has refused an investigation.

Instead, its role was to accept or reject a report from chief executive Mary Ney into the situation – there wasn’t much more it could do. So this has ensured the stink goes on, five months ahead of the next council election.

At least pushing for a public apology might have drawn a line under the affair – and it’s curious that in a council which funnels all its publicity through its own weekly newspaper, a statement to the News Shopper is fine, even though the council believes the Shopper’s distribution isn’t sufficient for its public announcements.

Greenwich Time, November 2013Where’s the apology in Greenwich Time? That hasn’t carried a word about the affair. Indeed, the paper which Roberts has the last word on has carried pictures of him hob-nobbing with Princess Anne instead.

The other curious thing about the decision is that it seems to emphasise that Roberts is only answerable to the Labour Party for his behaviour, rather than the council which pays him (and the electorate which pays for that council).

Of course, this then puts the responsibility onto the Labour Party to ensure its councillors behave properly. But as we are aware, in Greenwich at least, the real problem as far as those who run the local parties see it is not with the leader’s behaviour, but those who speak out against him. This is not a place for whistleblowers.

With the loss of two talented councillors, you would hope that Labour would act – even though refusing to even concede any weaknesses in public seems to be its overriding aim right now.

That said, this website is aware that complaints about Roberts’ behaviour have been passed to Labour’s national general secretary Ian McNicol, the party’s most senior employee, and London regional director Alan Olive – so as far as Labour is concerned, the process actually isn’t over yet. Hopefully they will take a serious look at the issues which have been raised.

As for the council itself, it’s clear that its standards structure has no definition of bullying to work with. In fact, it decided at its last meeting, in October, that it did not need a definition of bullying…

Standards committee minutes, October 2013

But who is on this standards committee, anyway? It’s chaired by Dr Susan Blackall, a financial and customer services consultant who is also the assistant chaplain at the Old Royal Naval College chapel. The vice-chair is former diplomat Sir Michael Pike, the associate member is banking compliance director Sandra Mottoh. There’s also an independent advisor, James Emmerson, professor of astrophysics at Queen Mary, University of London.

From the council’s side, opposition leader Spencer Drury was there, as was deputy leader Peter Brooks and a Labour whip, Janet Gillman.

An aside: Peter Brooks is an interesting figure in relation to all this. Two nights before, at a full council meeting, there was a heated row between him and former councillor Paul Webbewood, when the latter suggested from the public gallery Brooks was “too scared” to reveal how much he gets paid for chairing council subsidiary firm GS Plus – this isn’t disclosed in the firm’s accounts – and was too scared to do a number of other things too.

While calmer figures would have turned the other cheek, Brooks was visibly angry and suggested Webbewood discuss matters outside, to murmurs of approval from the men of Greenwich Labour.

Later in the meeting, when Webbewood stepped up to go to the toilet, Brooks moved as if to get up and follow him, before sitting back down. Whether this was a joke, a genuine attempt to go after him, or an attempt to intimidate or wind up Webbewood, wasn’t clear. Neither man came out of this incident well, and the issue goes beyond the ruling benches in the council chamber, but it showed Greenwich Council’s political culture at its petulant “how dare you criticise us” worst.

While a change of leader at Greenwich Council wouldn’t necessarily mean a change of culture, whether Roberts is allowed to stand for the council in May’s election will signal if this affair has had any impact on the party at all.

Finally, it’s worth noting that one of the biggest losers out of all this has been Chris Roberts himself.

Earlier this year, he announced he planned to stand down as leader – but a welter of bullying claims doesn’t look on your CV when you’re looking for a job. Try Googling “chris roberts greenwich”, and see what I mean. Counter-intuitively, the bullying claims may mean he stays in a high-ranking role at the council in 2014 because he’d have nowhere else to go.

It’s long been suspected that Roberts could go to work for an outfit such as Berkeley Homes, which he has worked with closely as council leader. Perhaps now the stink would be too much.

But interestingly, Labour’s former Greenwich borough organiser – and Roberts ally – Michael Stanworth, recently quit his paid party role to take up a new position with Curtin & Co, a public relations firm which helps property companies smooth their way to getting planning applications accepted. One of Curtin’s clients? Berkeley Homes.

Whatever happens with the bullying accusations, you never know, the keys to a new job might still be flung Roberts’ way in the new year. Get that into your thick skull…

9pm update: I’ve rearranged a couple of paragraphs to make this read a bit better, and added a line to emphasise that the standards committee had very little room to manoeuvre.

Written by Darryl

23 December, 2013 at 7:32 am

Run to the Beat: Greenwich Council still hasn’t been paid

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Run to the Beat / Chris Roberts

Organisers of the controversial Run to the Beat half-marathon still haven’t paid Greenwich Council the £10,000 they promised it for hosting the race, it’s emerged.

The council asked for a contribution “towards its sports legacy work” after agreeing that the borough would host the race for a sixth year, according to an answer given under the Freedom of Information Act.

It was the first time Greenwich had asked for money from IMG Worldwide, and the sum is due to rise to £20,000 if next year’s race gets the go-ahead.

But two months after September’s event ended in acrimony after runners complained about bottlenecks and poor organisation, the council is yet to receive a penny of that money, according to the FOI answer.

The event has long been mired in trouble, with residents complaining of poor information and upheavals; with IMG insisting on running the race on a circular route via Greenwich, Blackheath, Charlton and Woolwich.

More recently, Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney has refused to investigate allegations of a conflict of interest surrounding leader Chris Roberts and the race. Roberts is chair of a charity, Greenwich Starting Blocks, which is given free places by IMG. The recent threatening voicemail featured Roberts insisting his administration decides whether 2014′s race takes place, rather than the one installed after May’s election, after which he has said he will stand down.

The links between Greenwich Starting Blocks and Run to the Beat have also been confirmed by the council. Over 1,000 places have been donated to the council charity since the first race in 2008.

But only a handful have actually been filled. In the race’s first year, 250 places were offered, and 144 were taken up. This figure slumped to 26 in 2009. In 2011, the number of free places was cut to 100 – but none of them were taken up.

Greenwich Time, August 11 2013Numbers rose off the back of last year’s Olympics, but this year, another 100 Run To The Beat places were donated by IMG, and Greenwich Council promoted them in its weekly propaganda paper, Greenwich Time (right). But again, none were taken up.

Places donated Places taken up
2008 250 144
2009 250 26
2010 250 55
2011 100 0
2012 100 78
2013 100 0

Documents revealed during the licensing process showed that IMG was planning to double its donation to Greenwich Council to £20,000 next year - even though it’s far from certain that the event will go ahead.

Indeed, even at £20,000, it’s possible to argue Greenwich lets Run To The Beat have the borough’s streets cheaply – Royal Parks gets at least £10,000 for allowing it use of Greenwich Park alone.

And there’s no real destination for the cash other than “sports legacy work”.

But then again it’s paid nothing at all so far. “We need to think – well, what does this bring into the borough?,” cabinet member Maureen O’Mara said of the race last year. So far, that seems to be an unpaid bill, a heap of aggravation, and more questions about the council leader. How long will local councillors put up with it for?

11.55pm update: At tonight’s council meeting, Chris Roberts denied any knowledge of donations from RTTB to Greenwich Starting Blocks when questioned by opposition leader Spencer Drury. Deputy leader Peter Brooks said no decision had been made about 2014′s race, and “ward councillors might have something to say”. Poor quality audio below:

Written by Darryl

18 December, 2013 at 8:27 am

Greenwich councillor’s bullying document kept secret

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Woolwich Town Hall

A document drawn up by a Greenwich councillor to deal with bullying at the authority is being withheld from the public – because it was sent as an attachment to an email.

Two Labour councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – are standing down after citing the party’s bullying culture, while last weekend the BBC aired accusations that council leader Chris Roberts threw a set of keys at a council cleaner who woke him up while he was asleep in his office.

Roberts has also been accused of bullying after leaving a threatening voicemail for cabinet colleague John Fahy – which the News Shopper reported last week has resulted in just a warning from the Greenwich Labour group. The standards committee of the council itself will consider the voicemail this Friday.

But now Greenwich is refusing to release a document drawn up by a councillor this summer proposing ways of dealing with bullying.

The council has acknowledged that a document was submitted by the unnamed councillor in May this year. But in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from this website to release the document, the council says it does not have to release it because it was sent as an attachment to an email, as opposed to being in the body of the mail.

Ray Walker, Chris Roberts and Mary Ney

Decision makers: Labour chief whip Ray Walker, Chris Roberts and chief executive Mary Ney

“The document was not produced by the Council and is not held on its systems, other than as an attachment to an email which the Council was copied into,” its response says.

“It is considered that the Council is not holding the document for its own purposes and therefore does not hold it within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

Greenwich Council could still have to release the document if told to by the Information Commissioner’s Office. But this is a lengthy process, so it’s possibly the council is merely playing for time, in the hope that the bullying furore will go away.

In any event, the next stage is unclear because the council has already breached the Freedom of Information Act by taking 49 working days to come up with a response, rather than 20 working days prescribed by law.

But this throws the spotlight on how the council itself, led by chief executive Mary Ney, appears to be striving to protect Roberts from criticism. Ney has refused to investigate allegations of a conflict of interest which arise from Roberts’ abusive voicemail, which concerned his desire to be in charge of the council when the decision to host next year’s Run to the Beat race is made. A charity which Roberts chairs gets free places from race organisers each year.

The Greenwich Labour group’s decision to let Roberts off with a warning means the matter is now in the hands of the London Labour Party, while locally, a witch hunt is launched for whoever leaked the email.

But chief whip Ray Walker’s decision to speak to the News Shopper ahead of telling councillors, while criticising those who speak to the media, has raised eyebrows.

Indeed, his comments – “I’m not so certain this isn’t people just trying to jump on a bandwagon. If you talk to most councillors, there’s no bullying culture” – raise the question of whether the Eltham West councillor actually approached this with an open mind, or is even interested in hearing in any other allegations.

But dealing with a culture of intimidation which appears to be happening in plain sight is now for the London Labour Party. Will it have the courage to do something about the festering sores in Greenwich? Let-down party members and voters will have to wait and see.

Written by Darryl

17 December, 2013 at 7:30 am

Greenwich Council bullying: The cleaner’s story revealed by BBC

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Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts threw a set of keys at a cleaner after she woke him up in his office, according to a report aired on BBC1′s Sunday Politics London this morning.

The incident, believed to have taken place early one morning in 2009, has long been talked about in council circles, but journalists have struggled to stand up the allegations.

But Sunday Politics London’s Andrew Cryan has revealed that chief executive Mary Ney held three meetings over the incident with the cleaner, one which also featured Roberts, but no minutes were taken, and the leader did not apologise.

Greenwich Council leader and bully Chris RobertsBarbara Clarke, the cleaner who was allegedly injured by Roberts, died last year. But her son, Jerome Clarke, told Sunday Politics London: “Mum accidentally opened the door on him, not realising someone was there. He woke up in a tantrum, and started shouting at her.

“Mum was all apologetic… [and asked] ‘if you don’t mind I can collect the keys and come back when you’re ready’.

“Again, he just went beserk, went into a tantrum and just threw the keys at my mum. The keys were almost going for her face, she put her hands up to protect herself and the keys smashed onto her wrist. It was sprained and bruised.”

Ms Clarke complained to Greenwich Council, which told Sunday Politics London her account did not tally with her son’s account, but it would not explain how.

But it claimed that Ms Clarke had changed her version of events, saying that she had left her keys in Roberts’ office, and he had tossed the keys to her over the balcony, but she lost her balance after catching them – a version of events her son disagrees with.

“She was upset and stressed and felt nobody was listening to her,” Jerome Clarke told the programme.

Roberts would not appear on camera, but said in a statement he “categorically rejected” Jerome Clarke’s version of events.

The incident has been widely-rumoured for years, but this is the first time the story has been told in public. Earlier this year, this website was passed an anonymous statement reiterating the allegations, but when I tried to stand it up, I hit a wall of silence. Sunday Politics London has been working on the story for some weeks.

Greenwich Council meeting minutes, 27 October 2010Elements of the incident have been hinted at in public. In October 2010, former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood once asked Roberts in a full council meeting if he had ever slept overnight in Woolwich Town Hall. He said no.

Most Labour councillors have been reluctant to face the issue.

One who challenged Roberts on the issue changed his tune after he was made mayor. Greenwich West councillor David Grant challenged Roberts for the leadership, telling his colleagues he “wouldn’t be the kind of leader who throws keys at cleaners”.

But since spending a year as mayor in 2012/13, Grant has become one of Roberts’ most loyal public defenders, yelling “cheap!” when a reference was made to his behaviour at last October’s council meeting. Sunday Politics London wanted to film that meeting, but were refused permission by current mayor Angela Cornforth, who also threw out a motion designed to highlight intimidation in the council, asking that it investigate the possibility of choosing a leader by secret ballot.

Chris Roberts and David Grant

One-time critic David Grant became one of Roberts’ defenders after a year as ceremonial mayor

Labour’s shadow minister for London, Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, told the programme that if any allegations were made of bullying, then they should be investigated.

He told presenter Jo Coburn: “Allegations of bullying are very serious, and if they are made they will be investigated.

“There is no place in politics, or any other way of life for bullying. And if there are allegations, then please – if somebody’s watching this, please make them to the Labour Party.”

The programme also featured Roberts’ abusive voicemail to cabinet member John Fahy, the existence of which was first revealed on this website.

But it is unclear what has happened to a standards committee investigation into this, and Greenwich Council is refusing to investigate a possible conflict of interest involving a charity Roberts chairs which is indicated by the voicemail.

Indeed, there are rumours that Greenwich Council’s Labour group, headed by chief whip Ray Walker, has decided to pursue the leak of the voicemail, rather than the bullying behaviour it reveals.

Following Sadiq Khan’s pledge on television today – and Jerome Clarke’s damning testimony – hopefully now councillors will see sense, see beyond their own self-interest, and do something to finally clean up the issue.

5.45pm update: I should point out, of course, that the London Labour Party was first alerted to bullying in Greenwich Council when Lewisham East MP Heidi Alexander referred the voicemail claims to it two months ago. The London Labour Party then passed the issue to the Greenwich Council Labour group – nothing has been heard of the complaint since.

Greenwich residents who want to know more about how the council is handling bullying claims can submit a question to next week’s council meeting by emailing committees[at]royalgreenwich.gov.uk before noon this Wednesday.

The report can also be seen on BBC iPlayer until 15 December. The London edition of the programme can also be seen on BBC Parliament tonight at midnight. Story updated at 3.10pm to include the town hall question.

Lewisham tells Greenwich: Cough up for Blackheath fireworks

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Lewisham Council is asking Greenwich Council to start paying towards the annual Blackheath fireworks display again, after revealing fundraising for this year’s event fell nearly £30,000 short of covering its costs.

Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of funding for what was a jointly-run display in 2010, with council 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.

But 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.

Lewisham has continued to set aside £36,000 each year for the display, which this year cost £108,673, and has relied on public donations and private sponsorship to make up the rest.

Lewisham Council meeting response

But a cut in private sponsorship money this year has meant the shortfall has widened from £7,919 to £29,656 this year, according to an answer from Lewisham’s culture and community services cabinet member Chris Best given at a council meeting last Wednesday.

Responding to Blackheath councillor Kevin Bonavia, she said in a written reply: “Officers continually look for different ways to attract funding for the event. We will continue to request financial and other support from the Royal Borough of Greenwich.”

At the time Greenwich Council’s Peter Brooks was claiming the borough was too hard-up to pay for Blackheath fireworks, Greenwich was paying £30,000 each year on a private party to inaugurate the borough’s ceremonial mayor.

While that cost has come down to £10,000 – thanks to the Royal Naval College no longer charging – this summer the council contributed £20,000 to fireworks displays to support Sail Royal Greenwich, a private company working out of the council’s Mitre Passage offices in North Greenwich.

In 2011, it effectively bailed out Greenwich and Docklands Festival with a £100,000 payout, and spent £110,000 on events to mark becoming a royal borough in 2012.

And while supporters of leader Chris Roberts point to Lewisham’s controversial decision to cut library funding in response to a government funding squeeze, Greenwich has been cutting under-fives’ play centres, outsourcing youth and library services and trying to cut funding from Charlton’s Maryon Wilson animal park.

Relations between the two Labour groups have got worse recently, with Lewisham councillors looking on in alarm at the bullying accusations levelled at Greenwich leader Chris Roberts, with the bad smell drifting across the border.

Greenwich councillors complained to their Lewisham counterparts after Bonavia referred to the accusations in his unsuccessful campaign to be the parliamentary candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich, demanding he be disciplined for disloyalty. They were flatly turned down.

Lewisham council also reaffirmed its reservations about the proposed Silvertown Tunnel – which is backed by Greenwich – at the same meeting.

Deputy mayor Alan Smith said: “The proposed Silvertown Tunnel relies on the same southern approaches as the existing Blackwall Tunnel. These routes, including the A2 area and the South Circular, already suffer from daily congestion. As the only primary alternative to the Dartford crossings, these routes come under extreme pressure when the M25 is not operating smoothly. The council therefore has reservations about the impact of an additional 6,000 vehicles per hour on these routes.”

Other London boroughs, including Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Barking & Dagenham and Redbridge, have also voiced opposition or reservations about mayor Boris Johnson’s plan. In the affected area, only Greenwich and Tory Bexley are wholly for it.

Will breakfast boy Matt rise and shine as Labour’s winner?

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It’s the biggest political battle Greenwich or Woolwich has seen for a generation, and it ends tomorrow. The winner will get the keys to a safe seat in Parliament and the chance to develop a career which could peak in one of the nation’s highest offices. The others are already working out their excuses.

But only 700 or so people will get a say, while the other 66,000 haven’t even been told the identities of the six candidates battling it out. Those local Labour members have had their doors knocked upon, their phones rung and their emails clogged by candidates in a way that those of normal civilians who live in a rock-solid safe seat can only wonder at. Welcome to the contest to be Labour’s candidate for the Greenwich & Woolwich parliamentary constituency.

The six shortlisted candidates who want to succeed Nick Raynsford were decided nearly three weeks ago, but no public announcement was ever made. Labour Party modernisers use this as an example to talk about primaries involving the public – but this is a world away from all that.

Labour's candidates for Greenwich and Woolwich

The shortlist is current borough mayor Angela Cornforth, London Assembly member Len Duvall, former councillor Annie Keys, charity professional Kathy Peach, Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook and public relations director David Prescott.

Pennycook remains the man to beat, with a well-funded and carefully-orchestrated campaign, with Duvall supporters still hopeful their candidate can mount a late surge to success. Peach and Keys appear to be leading the outsiders and can’t be written off yet. Neither can David Prescott, with heavyweight backing.

It’s been a bitter campaign, too. It’s pitted Greenwich versus Woolwich and the young and ambitious against the party old guard. Most of the barbs seem to be flying towards Pennycook, a senior research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation think tank.

The allegations of bullying in Greenwich Council’s leadership haven’t helped either. While council leader Chris Roberts is largely disliked within the wider Greenwich & Woolwich party, broaching the subject of his behaviour acknowledges there’s a problem. Particularly when the council your party runs refuses to investigate him, even though everyone else can smell the problem. Because ignoring it looks even worse.

Candidates and supporters were told to keep their rows off the internet after pointed criticisms of Matt Pennycook were made in the comments section of this website.

This was followed by a minor Twitter spat over his refusal to discuss in a council meeting comments he’d made about “the decades-old culture of machine politics in Greenwich”.

Critics both outside and inside the party charge Pennycook with hypocrisy – and some claim he’s done a deal with Roberts, which he’s denied, although Roberts is believed to be backing him (some say to get a potential council leadership rival out of the race, with Roberts reconsidering his pledge to stand down). But any member of a group of Labour councillors which has failed to deal with bullying in its ranks will hit trouble on the subject.

Kevin BonaviaEven a councillor outside Greenwich got into bother. Lewisham councillor Kevin Bonavia (pictured right), who didn’t make the shortlist but knows the toxic politics of Greenwich Labour well enough, tweeted that the “old-style culture in Greenwich must change”.

For his honesty, he found Greenwich councillors demanding he be disciplined by the Lewisham party for his comments. Lewisham Labour councillors, who worry about the stench coming from across this side of the border, quite rightly, told their embarrassing neighbours where to stick it.

Indeed, in this race, being a Greenwich councillor has been, unusally, a disadvantage. While Pennycook’s proud of his efforts to turn Greenwich into a living wage borough, the council’s PR department has been silent on the matter – allowing the local Tories to pitch to the left of Labour on the issue.

Kathy Peach, who’s run a lively and thought-provoking campaign, managed to get two birds with one stone when emailing local members about an event last week. First, she made a dig at an event Pennycook held with the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, then nailed the council’s lack of interest in the borough’s high streets.

Cosy chit-chats with Guardian contributors are pleasant enough, but won’t change anything in the real world.

For a glimpse of reality, head out from Woolwich Grand Theatre, look around General Gordon Square, and walk down Powis Street: once diverse community spaces that I remember from my childhood, but now lined with betting shops. Indeed Woolwich is home to 9 betting shops in total – nearly a third of the constituency’s 30 betting shops – all within a few hundred metres of each other.

Payday lenders, fast food takeaways and betting shops have proliferated all over our constituency. How did a council that won ‘council of the year’ for its regeneration efforts fail to stem this slow demise of our high streets – the social and commercial lifeblood of our constituency?

How, indeed. For the record, Polly Toynbee has told this website she is not endorsing any candidate in the selection.

But relentless campaigning – and funding from the Unite and GMB unions – has helped Matt. This week, rivals have been crying foul that he’s offering to buy breakfast for party members on Saturday morning, ahead of the final hustings and vote.

Matt Pennycook campaign website

In a public election, “treating” – buying food, drink or entertainment to influence voters – is frowned upon, and can be illegal. But there isn’t the same provision in Labour’s rulebook, so members can dine out on Pennycook’s campaign on Saturday morning.

Supporters of rival candidates are seething – but there’s little they can do. As a current councillor yet still a relatively face, Pennycook can pitch himself as both an insurgent and a member of the establishment. Critics sneer that he’s an “empty suit” – but in an area when the party has struggled to adapt to 21st century communications, his promise of change has won people over.

He’ll be a loss to the council, where he could have proved himself as a leader and shaken up an ageing, out-of-touch authority. Perhaps if Nick Raynsford had held on for another term, this might have happened. But when you’ve the chance to appear on a bigger stage, why would you turn it down?

Len Duvall is pitching himself as the “unity” candidate, and his backers point to a track record of getting things done, including standing up to Roberts and the council he once led. This should have been his to lose. It could still be – he’s best placed to stop the Pennycook juggernaut.

He’s very much the favourite of the anti-Roberts councillors and activists in Greenwich – who remember a better-run council under his control – and is particularly strong in the Woolwich area.

Quentin Marsh and Debbie Smith, Labour leaflet 2010But Duvall does represent the party’s old guard – this campaign should have been his to lose – indeed, his campaign is being run by Quentin Marsh, who ran Greenwich Council 25 years ago. In 2010, former councillor Marsh posed as an ordinary voter on a Labour leaflet imploring electors to back the party’s candidates in Charlton in Charlton. This isn’t forward to a shiny new future.

All this said though, Duvall’s well liked and much respected, can still definitely mount a late surge. Don’t write him off yet. As his supporters say, at least the old guard knew how to get things done.

Annie Keys and Kathy Peach will be pinning their hopes on squeezing through on second choices. Both mounted community-focused campaigns, with Keys coming out against the Silvertown Tunnel and Peach declaring herself sceptical. (Duvall is believed to be for the crossing, while Pennycook has not stated a view either way.)

Charlton-based Keys is popular in both the Greenwich and Woolwich parts of the constituency, while Peach has played up her Woolwich roots. There are many who wish this had been an all-woman selection to force a clean break from the area’s political past of bickering blokes not achieving very much – for generally, when Labour members get a choice of both genders, they tend to go for the man.

They’ll be competing for the votes of those who wish for a Stella Creasy or Heidi Alexander-style MP. Both have worked to emulate those community-rooted values. Neither can be written off just yet – those second choices could see either of them go well, particularly Keys, who has a strong network of local contacts. (Declaration of interest: I’m a trustee of a charity Annie set up to run an under-fives’ club in Charlton.)

David Prescott has homed in on problems with property developers in the area – the kind of issue you won’t read in Greenwich Time, and a brave one to raise when your own Labour council is in bed with those same developers. He’s also been talking up renationalising the railways – more radical than his dad, former deputy prime minister John – managed in office. He’s got heavyweight national Labour backing – notably shadow health secretary Andy Burnham and likely London mayoral hopeful Lord Adonis – and union backing too. Will this be enough to see him through?

Finally, the most perplexing candidate is Angela Cornforth – a Roberts ally said to be in the race solely to draw votes away from Keys and Peach. Earlier this year she stood for an area committee on the Co-op, claiming that “Greenwich councillors are taking the first steps to prepare for co-operative council status – which brought hollow laughter from those connected with the council that I’ve asked.

Most recently, Cornforth has been the subject of controversy for twice intervening in council meetings on matters that would embarrass Chris Roberts – even writing to the News Shopper to defend herself. Indeed, Greenwich Council’s weekly propaganda newspaper even misled the public about her inauguration, pretending it was at Woolwich Town Hall and not at a lavish ceremony at the old Royal Naval College. She’s as much chance of being the next MP as I have of scoring the winner at The Valley on Saturday.

So those are the candidates, and if you live in the Greenwich & Woolwich constituency, one of the six above is almost certain to be your next MP after 2015. There have been concerns raised about the amount of union money sloshing around the campaign – the days when a bright young upstart could reach the top through grit and hard work alone have gone. Such is modern politics.

Will this bad feeling be forgotten after Saturday’s selection? The winning candidate will need a lot of support in the months ahead if he or she is to take a leading role cleaning up the practices and reputation of the Labour party in Greenwich.

But with victory in the bag, will the winner really want to? We shall wait and see.


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