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?
This website likes to rage against cynicism, and wants you to know that you really can make a difference if you get off your backside and do something.
Let’s be honest, though, under first-past-the-post, having to sit through a general election in a safe inner London seat feels a bit like being a hungry vegetarian being led through the world’s biggest meat-eating festival.
But you still have a role to play. You can give the winner a stonking mandate, or cheek them or their party by endorsing someone else. Hey, you could even save someone the humiliation of losing a £500 deposit. And if all else fails, there are many ways you can spoil a ballot paper – just don’t let your scrawlings look like they endorse anyone.
It shouldn’t be a spectator sport. Nominations closed today, and the candidates for Greenwich & Woolwich – an illogical north-west slab of Greenwich borough stretching out to Plumstead Common and the edges of Thamesmead, but missing out on bits of Charlton and Blackheath, have been announced.
Labour incumbent Nick Raynsford has stood down, so there’s a new cast of figures up for election. This is, of course, safe Labour territory – the Tories haven’t won around here since World War II – but both the old Greenwich and Woolwich seats went to the SDP during the 1980s (incumbent Woolwich MP and former Greenwich Council leader John Cartwright defected in 1981; Rosie Barnes won Greenwich in a hugely-publicised by-election in 1987) and held on until 1992, after their party had vanished.
The race for second
The winner may not be a shock. A good night for Labour will be getting more than 50% of the vote – Nick Raynsford bagged 49.2% of the vote in both 2005 and 2010. The champagne will be out if it tops 60%, as happened in 1997 and 2001.
But the fight for second is going to be interesting. Traditionally, the Liberal Democrats and Tories have shared the spoils for second. With a Lib Dem slump and a much-trailed Green surge – the party performed solidly in 2014’s council election – the runner-up spot is going to be the one to watch. Ukip can’t be ruled out either, buoyed by media “impartiality” rules that mean they are getting coverage out of proportion to their usual vote in inner London.
In alphabetical order, here’s who’s standing…
- Ryan Acty (Ukip) Former Conservative activist and ex-soldier who lives in west Greenwich and came within 170 votes of beating Chris Roberts’ henchman Ray Walker in last year’s council election. Indeed, if the BNP hadn’t stood in Eltham West, he might have got in. But Greenwich & Woolwich is different territory, and the party only stood in selected wards here in 2010. Local campaigning seems limited so far. Solid third-placed votes in Charlton, Woolwich Common and Woolwich Riverside suggest the hard-right party is poised for a respectable vote. Social media: Facebook, Twitter.
- Abbey Akinoshun (Green) As in many inner London seats, the local Greens fancy their chances at becoming Labour’s main challengers. They posted fairly healthy votes in the wards that make up Greenwich & Woolwich in 2014, coming an admittedly distant second in six out of seven wards (while bagging over 1,000 votes in the seventh). Not having the mandated media coverage that Ukip has may be a handicap. Abbey Akinoshun stood against the Greens in 2010, running as an independent in Erith & Thamesmead. But the local party are proud of their Abbey Wood-based candidate, describing him as “hugely charismatic”. This could be a pivotal poll for them if they play their cards right. Will they? Social media: Facebook, Twitter.
- Lynne Chamberlain (Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition) No relation to the author of this website, the Plumstead-based Greenwich Community College lecturer led her party to fourth place in Glyndon ward last year, notching up 359 votes. Success will be getting the anti-austerity message a wider hearing. Social media: Facebook, Twitter.
- Matt Pennycook (Labour) The former Greenwich West councillor, who lives in Deptford, has played a smart game since being named as Labour’s candidate in 2013, quietly acknowledging the local party’s problems without putting too many noses out of joint. Detractors brand him an “empty suit”, but he has set out positions that put clear red-ish water between predecessor Nick Raynsford (no directorships if elected) and the council of which he was a part (speaking out on both Greenwich Peninsula redevelopment and the Silvertown Tunnel, and the living wage while Chris Roberts was in charge of the council). He’s bound to go far – but how much of a lift-off will Greenwich & Woolwich voters give him? Social media: Facebook, Twitter.
- Tom Holder (Liberal Democrat) The Lib Dems’ truly awful performance in 2014’s council elections suggest things aren’t looking good for Tom Holder, a science communications professional who lives in Rotherhithe. This has traditionally been a difficult area for the Lib Dems – a legacy of local activists staying in the SDP in the 1980s – and the party has struggled to find a local candidate this time around. Success will be 5% of the vote, retaining his deposit – last year’s vote points to about 6%. Can he improve on that? Social media: Twitter.
- Matt Hartley (Conservative) An impressive performer in the Greenwich Council chamber, Matt Hartley – who lives in Blackheath, just a few metres outside the constituency – has continued the Greenwich Tories’ tactic of tacking to the left of Greenwich’s right-leaning council leadership on key issues (except on the Silvertown Tunnel, where he is even helping a pro-tunnel MP in Essex). His consumer campaign on shambolic rail firm Southeastern has also caused a stir – although only the truly dedicated would have swallowed its “rail minister listens to Greenwich concerns” finale. Tipped to lead the local Tories in the future, is this a dry run for a winnable seat at the next election? Social media: Facebook, Twitter.
Meet and quiz the candidates
You can quiz the candidates at hustings across the constituency over the next few weeks. All of these are open to the public, although questions may reflect the priorities of the organisation running the hustings.
Wednesday 15 April, 7.30pm, at Mycenae House, Blackheath (Blackheath and Greenwich United Nations Association).
Friday 17 April, 6:30pm, Greenwich West Community Centre (organised by Breast Cancer Care – register for free ticket).
Sunday 19 April, 11.30am, Greenwich Dance Agency, Royal Hill (Christian Life Fellowship).
Wednesday 22 April, 1pm, Greenwich Community College Plumstead campus.
Thursday 23 April, 7.30pm, Christ Church East Greenwich (local Church of England).
Saturday 25 April, 2.30pm, Charlton Assembly Rooms (Charlton Society).
Tuesday 28 April, 6.30pm, Forum at Greenwich (Greenwich NUT).
Wednesday 29 April, 6pm, Forum at Greenwich (Greenwich Association of Disabled People).
Mycenae House is also holding an “alternative hustings for those fed up with politics as usual” called We The People, which will be on Tuesday 14 April at 7.30pm.
Not had a polling card yet?
Isn’t there a council by-election?
Yes, but only if you live in Greenwich West ward. I wrote about front-runner Mehboob Khan – tipped as a future council leader – last month. Candidates: Paul Butler (Ukip), Christina Charles (Independent), Sonia Dunlop (Liberal Democrat), Sara Kasab (TUSC), Mehboob Khan (Labour), Robin Stott (Green), Thomas Turrell (Conservative).
What’s happening elsewhere?
Eltham used to be a marginal Labour/Tory seat, but the rise of Ukip looks to have put paid to serious Conservative hopes here – bad news for Spencer Drury, the affable opposition leader on Greenwich Council. Earlier this year, the party managed to accidentally leak that Eltham had become a “non-target” seat – a contrast to five years ago, when “A-lister” David Gold came into contest the seat. Expect Clive Efford to romp home for Labour – and don’t be surprised if Ukip’s Peter Whittle, another ex-Tory, comes second. Candidates: Alex Cunliffe (Lib Dem), Spencer Drury (Conservative), Clive Efford (Labour), James Parker (Green), Peter Whittle (Ukip).
Erith & Thamesmead: Labour’s Teresa Pearce should hold onto a seat that combines the north-east of Greenwich borough with Bexley’s strongest Labour area. Again, expect a strong Ukip vote to dent Tory hopes – Abbey Wood was the party’s other high point in last year’s council election. There’s a party leader standing: Sid Cordle of the Christian People’s Alliance. Candidates: Sid Cordle (Christian People’s Alliance), Anna Firth (Conservative), Ann Garrett (Green), Simon Waddington (Lib Dem), Ronie Johnson (Ukip), Graham Moore (English Democrats), Teresa Pearce (Labour).
Lewisham East‘s Labour MP Heidi Alexander is pretty much guaranteed sainthood, never mind a place in Parliament, for campaigning prominently to save Lewisham Hospital. It’ll be interesting to see where the formerly strong Liberal Democrat vote goes here. Ukip candidate Anne Marie Waters has been accused of linking Islam with child abuse, leading to her being disowned by an anti-Sharia law group she used to work with. Candidates: Heidi Alexander (Labour), Julia Fletcher (Lib Dem), Peter Fortune (Conservative), Nick Long (People Before Profit), Maureen Martin (Christian People’s Alliance), Störm Poorun (Green), Anne Marie Waters (Ukip).
Lewisham, Deptford: Pretty much a foregone conclusion, with former councillor Vicky Foxcroft poised to take the Labour mantle from retiring MP Dame Joan Ruddock. As in Lewisham East, People Before Profit are worth watching here, as the spiky left-wing group make their debut in a Lewisham parliamentary election. Candidates: Bim Afolami (Conservative), Phillip Badger (Democratic Reform Party), Michael Bukola (Lib Dem), John Coughlin (Green), Massimo Dimambro (Ukip), Chris Flood (TUSC), Vicky Foxcroft (Labour), David Harvey (independent), Malcolm Martin (Christian People’s Alliance), Helen Mercer (People Before Profit).
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.