Category: politics

Berkeley Homes and Boris Johnson’s £500 ceremonial trowel

Back page of Meridian magazine, September 2014 edition
There’s an interesting feature in this week’s Economist about Berkeley Homes, the developer which had a great influence on Greenwich Council during the Chris Roberts years.

It’s not just interesting because it features “a local blogger” commenting on the former Dear Leader, who’s still in close contact with the council leadership, and his ownership of a Berkeley home on the Royal Arsenal development in Woolwich. It also features the revelation that Boris Johnson was given a £500 ceremonial trowel by Berkeley’s chairman, Tony Pidgeley, last summer. (He was also given a glass paperweight in October.) Johnson is, of course, responsible for strategic planning approval for developments such as the Arsenal (which is GLA land) and Kidbrooke Village. (Mind you, at least you can find Johnson’s gifts and hospitality on the City Hall website – try having a look for the equivalent on the Greenwich site.)

It’s not just Berkeley, it’s not just Greenwich, it’s not just Boris Johnson. Developers’ demands are weighing heavily on many London boroughs, but some are more eager to be associated with them than others. And Berkeley’s particularly good at gaining influence, especially as Pidgeley is also president of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (chair: Chris Roberts’ friend Mark Adams) which has been pushing heavily for the Silvertown Tunnel and Gallions Reach Bridge. Indeed, this written answer from Johnson to London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon acknowledges the link between Berkeley and the LCCI.

Next month’s tall ships boondoggle will also feature another example of a developer wielding financial power – Barratt Homes, which is currently letting historic Enderby House rot away, is sponsoring the event and has its name on banners in Greenwich town centre. “Festival supporters” include Berkeley, Cathedral Group (Silvertown Tunnel supporter and Morden Wharf developer) and Knight Dragon (Greenwich Peninsula developer). Lots of lovely hospitality, no doubt.

It’s not just on tall ships where developers and councillors can get together. Earlier this summer Cathedral’s chief executive Richard Upton popped up at the unveiling of a tree dedicated to Vice Admiral Hardy at Devonport House, Greenwich, alongside Greenwich leader Denise Hyland and Lewisham’s deputy mayor Alan Smith. Cathedral owns Devonport House, alongside the Movement development by Greenwich station and the Deptford Project across the borough boundary. Naturally, it got a warm write-up in Greenwich Time.

So it’s worth keeping an eye on little things like this. As developers become more powerful, and with councils often unable to build their own housing, do we have representatives that can resist these charm offensives and fight for a good deal for us all?

Incidentally, the picture above is that of an ad for the latest phase of the Royal Arsenal – effectively, the flats that’ll pay for Berkeley’s contribution to the Crossrail station there. Note the little back-scratch for the mayor in the shape of a New Routemaster cruising along Beresford Street – in reality, it’s highly unlikely that the Roastmaster will ever make it to SE18.

Lib Dems endanger Lewisham Hospital – and themselves


Lewisham Hospital is back in the firing line after parliament voted last night to give the health secretary powers to close local hospitals – a clause inserted after Jeremy Hunt’s failure to close Lewisham Hospital.

Despite talk of concessions, there’ll now be renewed worries for the future of Lewisham, which now forms a joint NHS trust with Queen Elizabeth in Woolwich.

The bill was voted through with support from Liberal Democrat MPs, including Southwark & Bermondsey’s Simon Hughes – a slap in the face for local Lib Dems in south-east London who joined in the battle to save Lewisham Hospital (Lewisham Lib Dem leader Chris Maines is pictured above).

Beckenham’s Conservative MP Bob Stewart was among those who joined Labour MPs and rebelled against the government.

While the Lib Dems were never likely to win seats in Greenwich, they form the opposition on Lewisham Council – and last night’s vote, which comes ahead of elections in May, surely now increases the possibility that they’ll be completely wiped out in nine weeks’ time.

In fact, I’d like to know what the odds are on Labour winning every seat on Lewisham Council. While that result will delight local Labour activists, who see the Lib Dems as worse than dirt, a lack of opposition could prove dangerous in the long run – they don’t have to look far to see what can go wrong when councils are dominated by one party.

So the Lib Dem MPs could have put a lot more than healthcare at risk in SE London last night. If I was one of their council candidates, then this morning I’d seriously be wondering why I was bothering.

Matt’s the man: Pennycook picked by Greenwich Labour

Breaking news: Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook has been selected as Labour’s candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich at the next general election, after a meeting of local members at the Woolwich Grand Theatre.

The vote followed a hustings featuring Pennycook and his five rivals for the position – Len Duvall, Annie Keys, Kathy Peach, David Prescott and Angela Cornforth.

Pennycook’s selection to succeed Nick Raynsford in the safe Labour seat is likely to have ramifications in Greenwich Council, where he had been tipped by some to be a future leader.

He may now choose to stand down from the council at May’s election, where he has already been re-selected as a candidate for Greenwich West. There’s nothing stopping him staying on for a year (or even being a councillor and an MP), although he may wish to avoid the cost of a council election to follow a general election.

This would open up another vacant Labour seat. With two of leader Chris Roberts’ allies having been forced out of their seats earlier this year, the stage is set for a battle between those who back the embattled leader and others who want to see the council take a new direction.

With Roberts widely thought to be reconsidering his decision to step down at the next election, who gets picked for these seats could be crucial for the future of the council.

Pat Boadu-Darko has stepped down in Eltham North for personal reasons, while it’s also believed there’s a space in Blackheath Westcombe after Simon Thomson was selected for Dartford at the general election.

Kidbrooke with Hornfair has selected Christine Grice to replace Hayley Fletcher, who resigned her nomination citing the “culture of bullying”.

2.30pm update: According to Labour’s council candidate for Shooters Hill, Chris Kirby, the 2015 general election has just been cancelled in Greenwich and Woolwich.

Chris Kirby's tweet

2.45pm update: And this bloke:

oo

Heaven forbid that any of the rest of us get a say…

7.30pm update: And there’s not really else to add. A curious fact: Matt Pennycook was the first man to be selected for Labour for the next election in a seat where an MP is retiring – all the others have been all-female shortlists.

I’ve been told but can’t confirm that it was a closer battle than some expected, with the gap between Matt Pennycook and Len Duvall being as close as 30 votes (out of about 500), with David Prescott coming third.

Questions put to candidates included: “How would you reconcile the need for jobs and transport improvements locally with the global imperative to reduce carbon emissions?” Tellingly for Greenwich Council’s claims of mass support, when it came to the Silvertown Tunnel, only Angela Cornforth was outright in her support for it.

So now it’s all over. Congratulations to Matt Pennycook – hopefully he’ll both champion the people of Greenwich & Woolwich (and points around and in between) and be a much-needed force for good in his own party and beyond. Good luck to him.

And as for Labour party members…

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

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.

Greenwich Tory mauls Mail over Ed Miliband hatchet job

While Greenwich Labour is still not acting over its bullying council leader, the party’s national leader Ed Miliband is having abusive problems of his own, having to endure remarkably below-the-belt tirades of abuse about his late father from the Daily Mail.

Daily Mail, 1 October 2013That’s Ralph Miliband, who fought the Nazis in World War II, being criticised by the Daily Mail, which supported the Nazis in the 1930s.

What’s with the sudden diversion into national issues? Well, today, Greenwich Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher got a mailshot from the Mail inviting him to advertise his business on Mail Online. Nigel’s day job is running a think-tank called the Centre For Opposition Studies, studying the art and influence of those who aspire to the top job, but haven’t quite made it. An apt choice for a Tory in Greenwich borough, many would say.

The Eltham North councillor shared his response on Twitter, and I thought it worth sharing here.

Nigel Fletcher's email to the Mail

Good on you, Nigel. Now, how about a word with Jeremy Hunt?

Greenwich Tories protest over council’s cycle tsar snub

Trafalgar Road, Greenwich

Greenwich Council’s refusal to deal with London’s cycling tsar Andrew Gilligan is to be raised by Conservative councillors at this Wednesday’s full council meeting.

It’s a move that will raise eyebrows among watchers of the capital’s cycling issues – Conservatives on the London Assembly have walked out of debates on cycling safety in tantrums over unrelated issues.

But as often happens in Greenwich borough’s through-the-looking-glass politics, the Tories are staking out a position to the left of the council’s authoritarian Labour leadership.

Council leader Chris Roberts is personally refusing to deal with the journalist, appointed by mayor Boris Johnson to be his one-day-per week cycling commissioner earlier this year, and launched an ambitious – if only partially-funded – programme of improvements to boost cycling and make it safer.

Roberts has ordered that the whole council should have nothing to do with Gilligan, who lives in west Greenwich and has criticised the leader and his council in his Telegraph and Greenwich.co.uk columns – even though this means Greenwich is believed to be the only one of London’s 32 boroughs to refuse to speak to him.

Last month, cabinet member Denise Hyland attempted to justify the snub, saying Gilligan “is a journalist who has blogged and written about significant issues of public policy within Greenwich and it is our view that he has an irresolvable conflict of interest”, adding that the council would deal with officers at City Hall and TfL rather than with Gilligan.

The Tory motion reads:

Council disagrees with the Cabinet Member’s suggestion that Mr Gilligan has “an irresolvable conflict of interest” and considers that his superior knowledge of our Borough should be something which works to Greenwich residents’ advantage.

Council regrets that Greenwich is the only Borough not to meet with the Cycling Commissioner to help plan spending on infrastructure to support cycling across London.

Council considers that the actions and comments of the Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member with regard to the Cycling Commissioner places our residents at a clear disadvantage as plans are developed to improve cycling across London.

In particular Council wishes to express clear support for the ‘Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London’, most notably in its plans for a network of direct, high-capacity, joined-up cycle routes. In addition Council supports the Vision’s plan for ‘Mini-Hollands’ in the suburbs and Mr Gilligan’s support for the linked Dutch ideas of bike-specific traffic lights, station cycle hire, and streets designs that could be implemented in London.

Council calls upon the Leader of the Council or Cabinet Member to meet with the Cycling Commissioner as soon as possible to ensure that Greenwich residents (like Mr Gilligan) are not disadvantaged by the Executive’s failure to engage fully with the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London.

While it’s good that this issue is being given a proper airing in a council meeting – especially from a party which, nationally and at a London level, has a poor record in taking cycling seriously – the motion is certain to fail, and be replaced by one praising the council’s current approach, which backbench Labour councillors will be bullied into voting for, with a few digs at the coalition and Boris put in for good measure.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if the motion has been placed with one eye on giving outgoing leader Roberts maximum discomfort at the last council meeting for three months. Greenwich certainly isn’t an anti-cycling borough, but under the current regime improvements and welcome initiatives such as creating a borough-wide cycle map have been given a low profile. It’s something some potential new leaders may be keen to change, to emulate other Labour boroughs such as Camden, Hackney and Lambeth.

Incidentally, this London-wide map of where people cycle to work from is telling – based on figures from the 2011 census, you can see how figures fall off sharply beyond Charlton and Blackheath (apart from an area around Woolwich Common – cycling squaddies?) – obviously distance is a factor, but if there’s any politicians in this area who want to take cycling seriously, there’s a challenge for them to consider.

Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford to stand down

Breaking news: Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford is to stand down at the next general election, he told Labour Party members at a meeting in Charlton tonight.

Nick RaynsfordRaynsford, who will be 70 at the time of May 2015’s election, has represented the local area since 1992, when he was elected MP for the old Greenwich seat after beating incumbent Social Democrat Rosie Barnes by a slim majority. He also spent just over a year as MP for Fulham after winning a by-election there in 1986.

Since 1997 he has won Greenwich & Woolwich with comfortable five-figure majorities, and his decision is likely to spark a scramble among local Labour figures keen on almost-certain entry into parliament. The party may choose to go for an all-female shortlist, like neighbouring Lewisham Deptford.

Raynsford is known for his expertise in housing and construction – but criticised for his closeness to the construction industry, where he earns a sizeable income from other interests, including the chairmanship of Triathlon Homes, responsible for affordable housing in Stratford’s Olympic Park.

He has controversially backed the almost universally-unpopular Greenwich Market hotel development plans, since scrapped, as well as two schemes supported by Conservative mayor Boris Johnson: the Silvertown Tunnel and his idea for an airport in the Thames Estuary.

But he was also credited with helping bring Crossrail to Woolwich, as well as backing other regeneration schemes in the area. He’s recently laid into plans to downgrade Lewisham Hospital’s A&E, as well as cuts to police and fire services.

As minister for London under Tony Blair, Raynsford was also instrumental in the creation of the capital’s mayoralty, and even put himself forward to be Labour’s candidate in the 2000 election. Former mayor Ken Livingstone has credited him for his work in getting the GLA’s City Hall HQ built in time and on budget.

Livingstone said in 2010 that Raynsford would have been “a much more effective cabinet Minister than many of those who were [appointed]. There’s clearly something wrong about Tony Blair that he didn’t recognise that.”

11pm update: Expect a flood of applicants to replace Nick Raynsford, all-woman shortlist or not. All-female shortlists are decided beyond local level, although local activists will have a say.

Outgoing Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts will be many people’s favourite. But he said last year he’d be “bored” as an MP, is believed to want to remain in the council cabinet, and he’s also unpopular with local party members. David Prescott, son of former deputy prime minister John, will be a front-runner, as will Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook. I mentioned Greenwich cabinet member Jackie Smith for the council leadership – would she fancy Westminster rather than Woolwich?

Whatever’s decided, expect a wide open field – if you can design websites, get friendly with Labour party members now. Some of them might want you to do a bit of work for them…

Friday 8.40am update: I’ve been I reminded of one person I missed out above… Len Duvall, current Greenwich and Lewisham London Assembly member, ex-Greenwich Council leader and Jackie Smith’s husband. If Duvall was to get it, it may prompt a by-election for his seat on City Hall, which he has held since 2000.

Friday 12.20pm update: Len Duvall has confirmed on Twitter he would put his name forward if the party did not go for an all-woman shortlist.