Greenwich Council bullying: Ex-town hall boss pitches up at scandal-hit Rotherham

Mary Ney (bottom right photo, second from right) picking up Greenwich's Local Government Chronicle Council of the Year prize in 2013. In 2008, LGC awarded the children's services price to Rotherham

Mary Ney (bottom right photo, second from right) picking up Greenwich’s Local Government Chronicle Council of the Year prize in 2013. In 2008, LGC awarded the children’s services price to Rotherham

Former Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney has been handed a new job trying to turn scandal-hit Rotherham Council around, despite trying to stop allegations of bullying in her old borough from being revealed.

Ney, who retired from Greenwich in October 2014, worked on Louise Casey’s report into child sexual exploitation in the South Yorkshire borough, which was published a month ago.

The report damned “a pervading culture of sexism, bullying and silencing debate” in Rotherham – a description that raised eyebrows in Greenwich, embroiled in its own accusations of bullying towards the end of former leader Chris Roberts’ spell in charge.

Two weeks ago, it was announced Ney would be a “supporting commissioner” at Rotherham, working as part of a five-strong team led by former Kensington & Chelsea Council boss Sir Derek Myers.

During Ney’s time as Greenwich’s senior council officer:

Many councillors and figures within Greenwich politics remain privately angry that the council’s standards structure meant incidents of bullying were easy to get away with, and are questioning how Ney managed to get the job trying to clear up Rotherham.

Councillors ‘routinely threatened’

The loss of two talented councillors in Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher was a blow to the borough’s Labour group. Both have now moved out of the borough, but Grant – who now lives in France – has been particularly outspoken on the issue.

In a lengthy blog post paying farewell to the borough in December, he said the stories about Greenwich were just “the tip of an iceberg”.

He wrote: “Councillors and council staff were routinely shouted at, threatened with disciplinary action for speaking their minds at internal meetings, or quite literally airbrushed out of [the council’s weekly paper] Greenwich Time like victims of a Stalinist purge.

“Those who raised concerns found that their confidential correspondence was hacked into without their knowledge or consent; they were then accused of “issuing publications critical of the party” and told to shut up or else. In my case, a ‘colleague’ once yelled at me aggressively in front of my daughter, then aged 7.

“On another occasion I was officially ‘warned’ to stop asking awkward questions about why council properties in my ward were standing empty for several months – or even years – before being sold off at auction for less than their real value (a ‘warning’ that was later found to be unlawful). Many, many other councillors and council employees had similar experiences.”

Greenwich Council meeting, 30 October

Ney (left of then-mayor Angela Cornforth) in a Greenwich Council meeting when the bullying issue came to a head

How Greenwich Council’s bullying dossier was successfully covered up

Grant also wrote a document for the council in May 2013 detailing some of the accusations, and proposing solutions to help rid the council of the problem.

I tried to obtain this via the Freedom of Information Act, originally without knowledge of who the author was. But my request was refused by Ney in December 2013 – just as further accusations about Roberts were emerging – on the grounds that it had been sent as an email attachment and it had no use for it.

I kept on challenging the decision, until a “first tier tribunal” last year, which upheld Ney’s decision as it had “no use for it” – a loophole which means that if the council decides it wants nothing to do with a document, it doesn’t have to release it (presumably to stop you submitting your shopping list to the council and then trying to get it through FOI).

Worringly, Judge Shanks claimed there “may have been an abuse of the process” because Grant – who was a serving councillor at the time the original FOI request was made – could have leaked the document himself, despite the risk of being intimidated and harassed himself.

Effectively, Ney’s rationale for the council having no use for the document was that accusations of bullying should be dealt within the Labour Group, and so wasn’t applicable to the council as an authority.

The Greenwich dossier revealed – ‘staff were also bullied’ 

Alex Grant used the council's font and logo on his document - but Greenwich refused to release it

Alex Grant used the council’s font and logo on his document – but Greenwich refused to release it

But once the tribunal was over, Grant quietly released the document on his own blog. Titled Forward, Together – Recommendations for a new anti-bullying strategy in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it openly states council staff were also being bullied.

It states: “Those who feel they are at the receiving end of bullying are not always threatened directly – sometimes they are warned verbally that they should “watch their back” as they [are] out of favour and may be victimised next.

“Councillors – and council staff – who do voice concerns about their treatment have from time to time been labelled as troublemakers, criticised for being over-sensitive, or even accused of bringing the council, and/or their political party, into disrepute.

“In some cases such behaviour has not lead to formal complaints – often because complainants do not feel their complaints will be listened to – but when complaints are made, these are rarely taken seriously, and in some cases complainants have felt intimidated or stigmatised for speaking out.

“There have been several cases of… complaints of bullying being investigated (and dismissed) by the very person who is accused of bullying.”

Greenwich Council’s argument for refusing to release the document was that it was solely applicable to the council’s Labour group, and was of no interest to the council as a whole.

Yet Grant’s allegations that staff were being bullied show this argument to be untrue. Furthermore, the council’s constitution states that councillors have a role in  “ensuring standards are properly established and monitored”.

Despite this, Ney still chose to prevent the release of the document.

The parallels with Rotherham

Nobody is pretending that what happened Greenwich is in any way comparable with the tragedy of Rotherham, which ignored widespread organised sexual abuse of children.

But Louise Casey’s report into Rotherham details a culture of bullying that chimes with experiences in Greenwich. Bullying and sexism had “cemented its failures”, Casey wrote.

“This was a culture where bullying and fear of repercussions if you spoke out was not met by any concerted challenge,” she continued.

Rotherham leader Roger Stone refused to take part in Casey’s report, but sent a statement outlining a his priorities for the borough, centring on regeneration projects – an echo of the emphasis of Roberts’ administration.

Whether Ney is the right person to assist in cleaning up Rotherham Council is a matter for Eric Pickles, whose Department of Communities and Local Government chose her for the role. I’ve asked the DCLG for a response. It has not replied.

Yet it is easy to understand why, considering past events under her watch in Greenwich – and attempts to block exposure of these incidents – many in south-east London are bemused by her new appointment.

After the Dear Leader – what’s happening now?

Greenwich Council leader and bully Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts: Now for hire as PSL Solutions

Since Denise Hyland became leader of the council in June 2014, “Dear Leader” Chris Roberts has kept a low profile, although he’s understood to still be in regular touch with Hyland.

After 20 years of working with them as a councillor and council leader, Roberts is now working as a consultant to property developers. Companies House records reveal he has set up his own company, PSL Solutions Ltd, based at his home address in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal.

Roberts’ chief whip, Ray Walker, who denied there ever was a bullying culture in the council, was deposed in a Labour group vote by newly-elected Peninsula councillor Stephen Brain.

But Walker, who accused those complaining of bullying of “jumping on a bandwagon”, remains the chair of the council’s planning board – the key hold-out for Roberts’ old guard of councillors.

The News Shopper spotted these small-hours tweets about a Labour row

The News Shopper grabbed a fine scoop by spotting these small-hours tweets about a Labour row

Keeping it in the party

More recent events have had more to do with the Labour Party itself than the council – though clearly there is some overlap.

Just as the London Labour Party turned a blind eye to bullying among councillors in Greenwich, it also ignored the bizarre attempt to stitch up cabinet member John Fahy, where someone sent emails purporting to be him routed via Portugal.

Another allegation was spotted by the News Shopper last month, where new councillor Ambreen Hisbani – who is close to the old council leadership – accused Eltham MP Clive Efford of abusing her Portuguese husband Rui Dias after drinking five pints of beer in small-hours tweets sent to Ed Miliband, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan and London Labour regional director Alan Olive.

Neither party has commented on the allegation, although it should be noted that Hisbani’s tweeting puts her at risk of disciplinary action.

The fractious relations within the Labour Party also have consequences outside it.

This website also understands that Labour councillors in the south of the borough were threatened with deselection by a senior party figure if they voted against the party’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel.

While Roberts has gone and there is a new chief whip in charge, it remains tough for many councillors to operate openly and honestly – with the council still at risk of passing bad policy because of Labour figures throwing their weight around.

Troubles with non-politicians

It’s not just those inside the Labour party that can feel a backlash for speaking their minds.

The nascent campaign for a community council in Charlton ended up being put on hold after a whispering campaign against individuals who supported it was promoted by figures within the party. This is despite community councils being Labour policy.

And even Denise Hyland – who as leader has aimed to strike a more emollient tone than her predecessor – betrayed impatience with residents who were impertinent enough to complain at a recent council meeting.

Last November, a delegation of people who live near the Rochester Way Social Club in Eltham presented a petition showing their unhappiness about the club’s closure. Here’s their impressive speech – “[you] are made up of a majority of Labour councillors – councillors we voted for” – and new cabinet member Chris Kirby’s conciliatory response. You can hear this up to the point where mayor Mick Hayes gives the residents a cue to leave.

Once the residents had gone, Conservative leader Spencer Drury raised the issue. With the petitioners safely on their way back to Eltham, Denise Hyland’s response was less cautious. “If the 600 people that put their names on the petition drank there, socialised there and paid a membership there, it wouldn’t be unviable, would it?”

Whether it’s harsh truth or an over-simplification of a complex situation, it’s not very nice to have a go at people once their backs are turned.

And the future?

Despite these issues, Greenwich’s current leadership knows it has a problem with the way the council relates to the people who it is set up to serve. With Roberts and Ney gone, it can start to fix them.

As an attempt to make the place more transparent, webcasting council meetings is promised soon, as are new proposals to get people more closely involved in decision-making.

But the council remains on the naughty step regarding its handling of freedom of information requests, a legacy left behind by Ney.

Returning to what Alex Grant wrote, things have certainly improved under the new regime.

Dropping the absurd way it continually refers to itself as “the Royal Borough” (what’s wrong with “we” or “us”?) would be a clearer sign of change, along with weaning itself off its dependency on Greenwich Time. But it’ll take a long time for the ship to be turned around.

Of course, local politics tends to be much a game of egos and power as it is serving the population. Especially as under the current electoral system, it’s always bound to be a slightly crap miniature version of Westminster.

But if members of the Labour party in Greenwich treated each other with a bit more kindness and a bit more respect – the rest of it might come a little bit more easily, and they might find all kinds of things become better for them. Just a thought.

Eric Pickles’ last stand? Greenwich Council told to close Greenwich Time… or else

This week's Greenwich Time. The smiling chap in hi-viz is cabinet member Sizwe James.

This week’s Greenwich Time promotes a council scheme. The smiling chap on the road is cabinet member Sizwe James.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles stepped up his battle to axe Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time today by formally demanding it ceases publication by the end of this month.

In January, the council was given two weeks to respond to Pickles’ decision to tell it to close the paper, one of only two council weeklies left in the country.

Now Pickles has rejected the council’s arguments, and a statement issued to the House of Commons today declares Greenwich has been told it must not publish Greenwich Time more than four times in the year starting from 31 March.

The council is also barred from outsourcing Greenwich Time – which would appear to prevent the long-mooted idea of putting the paper out to tender. (See the full Government statement.)

While council-linked leisure supplier GLL has long been connected with a possible takeover of Greenwich Time, last November Greenwich put its advertising contract out for a three-year tender at £400,000 per year – roughly the cost of distributing GT, a move called “Plan B” by council leader Denise Hyland.

Arguments over Greenwich Time have raged long and hard for many years – particularly as local newspaper coverage has traditionally been poor, arguably in quality but unarguably in distribution.

But with a general election approaching, the rhetoric has ramped up – not least because of the potential for GT to be promoting a Labour council’s good works at a politically-sensitive time. Last month, this website showed how Greenwich Time had played fast and loose with the truth over council tax freezes.

Greenwich Time, 26 January 2015

Five weeks back, the council used a centre spread to puff work it is doing in Eltham – not that there was much new to promote, but a reminder of council achivements would reflect well on the once-marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford, who has increasing influence at Woolwich Town Hall.

Of course, regular readers will know that what’s left out of Greenwich Time is as important as what’s left in – indeed, it’s been four years since the controversy over GT last featured in its own pages.

Is this really the end, though? Today’s announcement seeks to ensure that with a fortnight, Greenwich “will take the necessary decisions in order that the Council will be in a position to comply with the requirement on publication from 31 March 2015 onwards”.

This is important, because the approaching election gives Pickles very little room for manoeuvre. Both the Westminster Government and local government go into “purdah” from 30 March – the day Parliament is dissolved.

Advice issued before the last election states:

“It is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character. Decisions on matters of policy on which a new Government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present Government should be postponed until after the Election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.”

So whether Pickles could take any action against Greenwich after 30 March is open to question.

Furthermore, it’s also been suggested that Pickles’ own “localism” legislation, which allows local groups to bid to run council services, could be used against him. A “community right to challenge” for Greenwich Time could disrupt the process.

Asked about this at the last council meeting by Tory leader Spencer Drury, council leader Denise Hyland simply said “my Plan B is a Labour government in May”.

So Greenwich Time ain’t dead yet, and remains likely to stagger on – which is why Greenwich’s Labour councillors chuckle so heartily when it’s mentioned in the council chamber. After the 2010 council election, one cabinet member declared in a Labour group meeting that Greenwich Time had helped the party win seats.

Other councils adjusted easily to cutting back their council publications when Pickles demanded – Lewisham, for example, has outdoor advertising space to promote its messages.

But Greenwich – which is the only Labour borough to publish weekly – sets its whole communications strategy around Greenwich Time, publishing news releases only when GT has gone to the printers and the local papers have gone to press. Losing GT would be an enormous blow.

But the final decision may well rest with the next government, which, looking at the electoral maths right now, could well have a lot more on its mind than one errant south London council.

See past stories on Greenwich Time.

5.40pm update: A feisty response from the council’s Twitter feed:

Worth pointing out that despite this victim mentality, the only other council to publish weekly is Tower Hamlets, which is now being partly-run by commissioners appointed by the Government, putting the future of its own paper in doubt.

Will Greenwich Council buy Avery Hill Park’s Mansion site?

Greenwich Council is considering whether or not it should buy the University of Greenwich’s Mansion site in Eltham, according to a written answer given at Wednesday night’s council meeting.

The university announced last December that it planned to sell the campus at Avery Hill Park, home to the historic Winter Garden, a Grade-II listed Victorian conservatory on English Heritage’s “at risk” register.

Student halls will remain at the nearby Southwood site, but many of the teaching departments have moved to the university’s new accommodation in Greenwich.

The university has already started looking for a buyer, and it’s been reported that 300 new homes could be built there. Greenwich’s regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe says he and council leader Denise Hyland have met the university to discuss the situation.

The question came from Eltham South councillor Nuala Geary. (It’s question 21.)

Is the Royal Borough of Greenwich exploring the possibility of acquiring University of Greenwich’s Avery Hill Mansion site, which has recently been put on the market, and can the Leader confirm that discussions have taken place between the Council, the University and potential developers, prior to the formal sale literature being published?

Thorpe’s response:

I can confirm that the Leader and I, with the Chief Executive, have met with the University of Greenwich to discuss the proposed sale of the Avery Hill Mansion site.

At the meeting, the University confirmed that it had undergone some soft market testing in advance of the formal sale.

During 2014 the Council met with a developer and advised them of the current planning status of the site. The Council were also approached by the University and their agent GVA Grimley and again advised them of the current planning status of the site.

At this stage, the Council has not made any decisions on whether or not to acquire the site and continues to talk to the University.

Cllr Geary wasn’t at the meeting, and none of her Conservative colleagues followed the issue up, so nothing was spoken on the issue last night.

The Mansion Site and Winter Gardens were once owned by the old London County Council, so going back into local government ownership isn’t so far-fetched.

Greenwich recently spun off many of its heritage assets – including Charlton House and Eltham’s Tudor Barn – into an independent charity, Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, but last month Denise Hyland indicated its finances may not be strong enough to bid for the site.

It’s striking, though, that at a time of cuts that Greenwich Council is considering stepping in and buying the site itself.

But compared with other London boroughs – particularly neighbouring Lewisham – Greenwich’s finances appear in fine health, with a usable surplus over £360 million (out of an eye-popping £1.2 billion) put down to a decade of frugal spending.

This graph prepared for Lambeth Council’s cabinet compares the inner London boroughs’ reserves with what they spend, with Greenwich second only to Kensington & Chelsea.

Lambeth Council graph

That said, it’s not clear how much of Greenwich’s reserves are committed to other projects, such as the Woolwich Crossrail station. Nothing to do with Greenwich’s finances are ever clear.

But considering the affection locals hold the mansion site in, few will complain if Greenwich does end up splashing the cash. It’s one to watch.

The Friends of Avery Hill Park are holding a public meeting on the Mansion Site’s sale on 19 March.

9am update: I’ve tweaked the surplus figure to reflect the true usable sum (you can see the full accounts here).

Greenwich Tories’ tall ships scrap scheme scuttled by Labour

Woolwich Town Hall, 25 February 2015

Proposals by Greenwich Council’s Conservatives to cancel 2017’s return of the tall ships were thrown out last night as councillors passed the borough’s annual budget.

There was very little detail to last night’s budget – much of it had been decided last year as part of a plan to freeze council tax for two years – and so Greenwich avoided the anti-cuts protests that hit Lewisham and Lambeth councils.

But the Tories had suggested scrapping the return of the Tall Ships Race in 2017 – said to cost the council £1.7million – to spend the money on a “welfare assistance plus” scheme instead, to help residents in need.

It was a clear attempt to attack Labour from the left – but councillors from the ruling party insisted the tall ships event was money well spent, as it provided a boost to the borough’s businesses.

Here’s some video of the debate. The sound’s a bit iffy, but I hope it’s useful. Want to read along? It’s point 11 of the agenda.

It kicks off with council leader Denise Hyland introducing the budget. This isn’t massively interesting (not her fault, it never is) but it’s here so you have as much of the debate as possible.

Then things start to liven up as Conservative leader Spencer Drury responds, and introduces the Tories’ amendment that would scrap the tall ships and fund Lewisham-style local assemblies (although the Tories only planned to have four of these).

Deputy leader John Fahy wasn’t impressed and laid into the Tories’ national record.

Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe, who’s after Fahy’s job, competed with the deputy leader for who could criticise the Tories the most.

Then Charlton councillor Gary Parker addressed the Tories’ motion itself, criticising plans to axe funding for trade union representatives. Health cabinet member David Gardner said the council’s existing policies would help people in “desperate need”, compared Greenwich with Tory Bexley (this happens fairly regularly), and said the £1.7m tall ships funding had already been spent (a claim disputed by Spencer Drury).

Environment cabinet member Jackie Smith and Labour backbencher Aidan Smith piled into the Tories. “If you really care about the poor,” asked Aidan, “why don’t you publicly condemn the bedroom tax?”

For the Tories, Matt Hartley said he was offering “constructive suggestions” and complained about the response, channelling Neil Kinnock.

“And they call us the nasty party? How on earth can Labour councillors – Labour councillors – prioritise spending £1.7 million on the tall ships over extra help for the people most in need in this borough.”

Labour leader Denise Hyland was unimpressed. “It’s no good shakng your head… you want to pretend you are the nice party. My God.

“It is the most vulnerable people, people who need that spare room – for the partner to get a good night’s rest, or for children, or they have noisy equipment – those people come to our surgeries and tell us they need a spare room, despite your party’s bedroom tax.”

Labour’s version of the budget was passed, with the Tories abstaining.

Otherwise, it was pretty uneventful – councillors amused themselves afterwards by spending a whole hour on a motion criticising the Tories, providing a cue for non-masochists to retire to the pub. So much now seems to come down to Tories complaining about Greenwich Time, and Labour members laughing at them.

But here’s Denise Hyland saying she knows nothing about any councillor resigning so there can be a by-election on general election day (Matt Hartley is asking because Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook is his rival in Greenwich & Woolwich). (This is a repeat of a question asked last month.)

Here’s Denise Hyland talking about plans to step up “community engagement” – and why they’re not being shared with Tory leader Spencer Drury, who’ll have to read about them first in Greenwich Time.

Here’s Spencer Drury asking about the future of Greenwich Time

…and Geoff Brighty asking about impartiality and Greenwich Time during the election.

At one point in the meeting, cabinet member Miranda Williams was waving a copy of Greenwich Time about to make a point about libraries. So kudos to John Fahy, who had a copy of a real local newspaper on his desk.

Greenwich Council meeting, 25 February 2015

In the fevered world of the Greenwich Labour group, being seen with a Mercury is probably a disciplinary offence. Fingers crossed for John Fahy…

5.15pm update: Buried in a written answer (question eight) – Greenwich will start webcasting meetings later this year. “The introduction of webcasting for some Council meetings later this year will enable even more residents to engage with Council decision making,” Denise Hyland says.

Greenwich Tory candidate comes out for Silvertown Tunnel

Essex boys: Alex Wilson, Matt Hartley, Thomas Turrell, Harry Methley and James Worron hit the campaign trail in Thurrock

Essex boys: Alex Wilson, Matt Hartley, Thomas Turrell, Harry Methley and James Worron hit the campaign trail in Thurrock

Greenwich & Woolwich’s Conservative candidate Matt Hartley has come out in favour of the Silvertown Tunnel, the same day he helped canvass for a MP who supports the controversial road scheme.

Hartley revealed his support for the tunnel in a blog post discussing last week’s council scrutiny meeting with officials from Transport for London and rail operator Southeastern.

“I support the Silvertown Tunnel in principle with two significant caveats,” he wrote.

“That TfL make a stronger case over how it intends to mitigate the environmental impact, and that the tunnel brings with it a significant public transport element to address congestion concerns (namely, bringing the DLR to Eltham as Greenwich Conservatives have long been lobbying for).”

When asked on Twitter if he’d withdraw his support if TfL didn’t come up with the goods, he didn’t respond.

Hartley’s comments came the same day he and a team from Greenwich Conservatives went to Essex to help canvass for Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price, who claims the Silvertown Tunnel is “desperately needed” to alleviate problems at the Dartford Crossing.

Doyle-Price objects to a new crossing between Dartford and Thurrock on the grounds that it will cause more congestion and pollution in the area – precisely the same flaw the Silvertown proposal suffers from.

TfL admits the Silvertown Tunnel will increase traffic levels by 20%, while deputy mayor Isabel Dedring told MPs last month that its river crossings proposals could see traffic on local roads double.

There is also a strong body of evidence linking road-building to generating traffic, a phenomenon known as “induced traffic”.

Hartley’s position is much the same as Labour-run Greenwich Council, which has added a long set of caveats to its past unconditional support for the crossing.

But it’s unclear quite how the environmental impact of building a new road can be mitigated beyond planting a few token trees, while a report suppressed by Greenwich Council concluded that a DLR extension along the A102 would not be feasible unless it only ran as far as Kidbrooke. TfL has also said it is unwilling to back an Eltham DLR link.

Labour candidate Matt Pennycook has previously indicated his doubts about the Silvertown Tunnel scheme; Green candidate Abbey Akinoshun has said he is opposed, although the local party has left campaigning on the issue to colleagues at City Hall.

The Liberal Democrats are also opposed, althouh the local party is in such disarray it has not yet selected a Greenwich & Woolwich candidate. It is not known what Ukip candidate Ryan Acty thinks of the scheme.

(See also: Silvertown Tunnel: The perils of the path of least resistance)

Silvertown Tunnel: The perils of the path of least resistance

As with most propaganda, it’s not what they tell you that matters – it’s what they’re not telling you.

So it’s striking that Greenwich Council’s weekly Pravda, Greenwich Time, has neglected to tell readers about leader Denise Hyland’s trip to Westminster last month to lobby MPs for the Silvertown Tunnel.

Think the Bridge The Gap campaign is dead? Think again. The language may have changed, but Greenwich still wants the Silvertown Tunnel.

Back on 12 January, Hyland travelled from Woolwich Town Hall to Portcullis House to meet the Transport Select Committee (which, by DLR and Jubilee Line, involves crossing the Thames five times) along with others demanding more roads across the river. She was accompanied by Newham’s elected mayor, Sir Robin Wales.

Not that the MPs took much persuading, mind. As a scrutiny exercise, it was largely a waste of time. It wasn’t a session about whether strategic river crossings (across England, not just in London) are any good – it was a session about why these things can’t be built quickly. It was also barely reported. So here’s an attempt to play catch-up.

Two more evidence sessions followed Hyland’s, the final of which took place last Monday. I sat through most of them, so I hope I can fit what happened in some proper context.

I should point out I’m on the committee of No to Silvertown Tunnel, so I’m not exactly coming at this from a neutral angle, which won’t surprise you. This enormous post doesn’t represent that group’s views.

The last of the three evidence sessions was held in the Palace of Westminster itself

The last of the three evidence sessions was held in the Palace of Westminster itself

A cosy committee, a flawed inquiry

Those who remember the days of the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody using these sessions to tear hapless policymakers to shred will be a little disappointed. Of the eight others who joined Hyland to give evidence on 12 January, eight wanted more roads across the Thames.

In all three sessions, the only dissenter from the assumption that all roadbuilding is good roadbuilding was the Campaign for Better Transport‘s boss, Stephen Joseph. He snuck some doubts about Thames crossings into a session on a bridge across the Mersey.

One of the MPs on the select committee has certainly made his views known in the past. Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick is already a keen backer of the Silvertown Tunnel. In 2007, the Poplar and Limehouse MP accepted a free trip to Bangladesh for him and his wife from Canary Wharf Group, which is also a keen backer of the Silvertown Tunnel.

Fitzpatrick, whose recently-expressed views on cycle superhighways eerily coincides with those of Canary Wharf Group, spent the session bowling low balls for Hyland and Newham’s elected mayor Sir Robin Wales, as well as TfL’s director of planning Michele Dix and Boris Johnson’s transport deputy Isabel Dedring.

The session featuring Hyland and Wales wasn’t a brilliantly-conceived one. The committee bundled the vexed question of east London crossings – which have more to do with urban traffic issues than moving freight across the country – in with the equally difficult subject of crossings between Kent and Essex.

The committee came looking for consensus – but by bundling these issues together, it wasn’t going to get it.

There’d been no previous indication that the London crossings would be on the agenda for the committee’s inquiry – after all, this is a devolved issue, where Westminster MPs should arguably keep their beaks out.

But the presence of the London Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive Colin Stanbridge, whose literature was left around the committee room after the session, suggests the lobbying organisation may have helped get them on the agenda.

Local bridges for local people – really?

This was a session on “strategic crossings”, yet Hyland told the committee she wanted “local bridges for local people”. One obvious question would have been for an MP to ask how the Silvertown Tunnel fitted into that – but it didn’t come.

Even Sir Robin Wales, an ardent fan of road-building who may as well have brought a kitten and a shotgun into the session to back up his demand for a bridge at Gallions, was lukewarm about Silvertown.

“We are not opposed to Silvertown — we get its congestion — but we do not think it contributes to regeneration in the way that Gallions will do,” he told the committee.

Greenwich will also get Silvertown’s congestion, but Hyland didn’t acknowledge this. Her opening gambit, in response to chair Louise Ellman, revealed the flaws in the current process.

“The Royal Borough of Greenwich supports the construction of a new tunnel at Silvertown and a vehicular crossing at Gallions Reach, but as part of a package of crossings between Blackwall and Dartford,” she replied.

“In our view, it needs to recognise that the provision of public transport must be integral with any vehicular crossing. For example, we would like to see a London Overground extension come over to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood.

“In terms of Silvertown, we would like to see the DLR extension coming out as far as Eltham, and for the DLR as well to go to Thamesmead [via Gallions].”

Yet there isn’t a package on the agenda other than more new roads.

This website understands Hyland has been lobbying City Hall for the Overground to Thamesmead – yet so far, TfL is sticking its head in the sand, preferring only to extend it to Barking Riverside in the short-term.

TfL also sees the DLR from Silvertown to Eltham – which would have to be built on stilts above the A102, and risks overloading North Greenwich tube station – as a non-starter.

Michele Dix offered a glimmer of hope for the DLR to Thamesmead – “we will also be looking at Gallions for the possibility of potentially having the DLR run along that bridge”. But that was all.

(You can read the full transcript here, and watch video too.)

Southbound traffic on the A102 during the evening rush hour - an issue the Silvertown Tunnel will make worse

Southbound traffic on the A102 during the evening rush hour – an issue the Silvertown Tunnel will make worse

Silvertown sacrifice – traffic could double

What remains undeniable is that people who live close to roads that’ll be hit by Silvertown are being offered up as sacrifices to get construction going elsewhere.

And this appeasement by Hyland and Wales – effectively, “let them have Silvertown and we’ll get Gallions” – could have disastrous consequences if you’re in an affected area.

Isabel Dedring admitted traffic on some local roads could double under TfL’s plans.

“There is going to be significant growth in local concerns as we go through the process, because now we are bringing forward the actual details of the proposals and people are going to say, ‘I like the idea of a bridge but not when I discover that it is going to lead to a doubling of traffic on my road.’ That is inevitable with these kinds of projects,” she said.

“Hopefully, we can make the case that the strategic importance of it for London, and indeed for the local areas, outweighs the local issues.

“There is going to be that noise. That will be the immediate issue for the consensus. It is how loud the local issues become.”

Essentially, the more people find out, the more they don’t like it. That’s why TfL has been so consistently vague on its Silvertown proposals – and why you read so little about it in Greenwich Time.

Bridge The Gap: The corpse twitches

Batting away another simple ball from Jim Fitzpatrick, Denise Hyland claimed “we have put a lot of pressure on TfL to put public transport as an integral part of the crossings”.

That’s a marked difference from the approach taken by predecessor Chris Roberts, but is simply not true as far as the Silvertown Tunnel is concerned.

Indeed, the council’s report into extending the DLR to Eltham via the Silvertown Tunnel – which concluded that a link as far as Kidbrooke was feasible, but was doubtful about proceeding further – was not even presented to City Hall.

While a tunnel at Silvertown would provide an opportunity to run new bus routes across the Thames, there is nothing stopping TfL making more use of the existing tunnel to run services to Canary Wharf and points north – something the council has failed to lobby for.

The Blackwall Tunnel may be good enough for Kent commuter coaches to Canary Wharf, but local politicians and TfL seem to content simply to route services into North Greenwich station instead, piling more pressure on it.

Greenwich Council’s response to last autumn’s Silvertown Tunnel consultation was to back it, but demand the mythical Eltham DLR extension as well as other measures.

But what happens when TfL turns around and refuses the DLR to Eltham?

The question the MPs didn’t ask – and a futile search for consenus

Real scrutiny would have been asking if Hyland’s support for Silvertown or Gallions was conditional on them carrying public transport. That question didn’t come.

Because nobody’s asking that question, it’s storing up problems for the future.

On Silvertown alone, the consensus the Transport Committee hoped to find simply doesn’t exist. Locally, rank and file Labour members in both Greenwich & Woolwich and Eltham voted to oppose the Silvertown Tunnel – but were ignored by the council their party purports to control.

Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich – and Greenwich West councillor – Matt Pennycook has written about his grave doubts about the scheme.

Worse still, the old problem of bullying in Greenwich Labour was also used to secure support for the tunnel. This website understands some newer councillors in the south of Greenwich borough were threatened with deselection by a senior party figure if they didn’t back the Silvertown Tunnel in an internal group vote.

Nobody expects a panel of Westminster MPs to be fully conversant with the murky underbelly of local politics in different areas. But none of them asked Hyland – or any of the other council representatives there – if her views really represented local opinion.

The nearest they got was when Jim Fitzpatrick asked if the Labour group on the London Assembly was on board. He knew the answer, but the question was clearly designed to demonstrate some kind of consensus.

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Surrender over Silvertown – but defending Dartford?

There’s also the case of the brave Labour representative who knows that if you add extra capacity to an already-existing river crossing, you’re simply going to make surrounding roads worse.

Simon Thomson, Labour candidate for Dartford, should know – he was originally selected as a candidate for Greenwich Council in Blackheath Westcombe ward, before bagging the chance to go toe-to-toe with the Tories in this bellwether seat.

When Boris Johnson pledged to build a further Dartford crossing (he doesn’t have the power, of course) Thompson wrote and complained. When Johnson pledges a similar threat in Greenwich – where he actually does have power – Hyland and her colleagues have backed away.

Indeed, Greenwich recently advertised for a “director of regeneration”, with a job description which includes lobbying for Silvertown.

Maybe it’s a reflection of the differing political cultures in Dartford and Greenwich – Labour can never get complacent in a seat like Dartford – but it’s a real indication of just what’s gone wrong in Greenwich.

Regeneration, regeneration, regeneration

Perhaps Dartford Labour’s Simon Thomson should have been at the final committee hearing, held last Monday inside the Palace of Westminster itself. Here, the committee heard from Tim Healey, deputy chair of the Association of Civil Engineers’ Roads Sector Interest Group (essentially, a group of roadbuilders) that extra crossings at Dartford had boosted regeneration there.

Yes, that’s the same Dartford as the Kent town that’s been dying on its backside for years. The roads had brought Bluewater shopping centre, which lies in Dartford borough – but there was no mention that this was at the expense of Dartford itself.

Futureproofing? Be careful what you wish for

Another absurd piece of evidence accepted without questioning by the committee came from Healey’s colleague, Roads Sector Interest Group chair Mike Llywelyn-Jones. He suggested that new roads should be “futureproofed” so they can cope with anticipated demand in 30 years’ time – ignoring a body of evidence that indicates roads generate demand, rather than simply accommodate it.

The GLC's South Cross Route from 1966, which would have smashed through Brockley - image from cbrd.co.uk.

The GLC’s South Cross Route from 1966, which would have smashed through Brockley – image from cbrd.co.uk.

If London’s roads had been “futureproofed” in the 1970s to cope with anticipated demand today, some of the capital’s most popular neighbourhoods simply wouldn’t exist today.

Brockley Central is a local blog that has come out in support of the Silvertown Tunnel. Yet the heart of the area would have been ripped out if the Ringways scheme had gone ahead, smashing the South Cross Route through Brockley Cross.

Instead, Brockley has undergone a remarkable revitalisation led by public transport investment, making it a desirable place to live. Where there once would have been motorway gantries, there’s now a tasteful bar called The Gantry.

Those who love seeing Brockley’s Victorian terraces on Location, Location, Location might want to think about the fate of SE4 if the Ringways had gone ahead before they condemn other areas to more traffic, traffic, traffic.

‘Silvertown should the last built… or never be built’

Here’s the bit that those who skip straight to the comments box to write “something must be done” will ignore. It’s worth pointing out the views of former Greater London Council transport planner John Elliott, who twice submitted evidence to the inquiry but wasn’t asked to speak to the committee. He did get to speak to the Wharf newspaper.

“”The historical record for these kinds of packages is they build one and run out of money,” he said. “There are big gaps along the Thames and yet they want to build it next to one already there, and a very busy one at that.

“Silvertown should be the last crossing built or, preferably, never built.”

He wants to see a pan-London congestion charge before any new roads are built.

“It’s time for a congestion charge within the M25,” he wrote. “It could be relatively popular, keeping out long distance car commuters and tackling the problem across the whole of London, freeing up more space for essential commercial traffic.

“Rather than tolls on individual crossings, we need other congestion charges.”

Essentially, he argues that building a tunnel at Silvertown, or even bridges at Gallions Reach or Belvedere, will be a waste of time until London politicians have the courage to get to grip with traffic levels in the capital.

But in a committee that had made its mind up anyway, this voice wasn’t heard. He wasn’t called to give evidence.

(No to Silvertown Tunnel also submitted evidence. So did television weatherman Francis Wilson, concerned about the Lower Thames proposals.)

The London Chamber of Commerce left leaflets all over the Transport Select Committee hearing last month

The London Chamber of Commerce left leaflets all over the Transport Select Committee hearing last month

Flawed committee, flawed scrutiny – time for councillors to step up

By allowing Boris Johnson to have boxed her in over the Silvertown Tunnel, Denise Hyland could be about to wreak incalculable harm to the people of Greenwich she purports to represent. Getting across the river may be a hassle, but putting more traffic onto the borough’s streets won’t help.

Greenwich Council’s failure to properly challenge the Silvertown Tunnel is all the more worrying because of the failure of others to properly scrutinise it. The MPs on the Transport Scrutiny Committee had clearly made their minds up that new roads were good things. And here in the capital, Tories and Labour on the London Assembly teamed up to vote down a motion criticising the mayor’s spending on river crossings (see video).

While individual assembly members – notably Caroline Pidgeon and Darren Johnson – have done exemplary work on Boris Johnson’s road-building plans, the assembly as a body has been rendered largely useless on this issue because of the Labour group at City Hall’s blindness to the issue.

Opponents have also had their blind spots – falling for TfL’s narrative of treating the crossings as a whole, rather than scrutinising each one and spotting the individual flaws. After all, the problem of traffic trumps the problem of getting across the river, which can be eased with public transport initiatives.

Treated individually, TfL’s rationales quickly fall apart. Silvertown’s easily the barmiest of the lot, yet still casts a spell over the easily-led. It’s claimed Silvertown will relieve congestion, but there’s enough evidence to show it will simply increase traffic right across south-east London. Will Hyland stand up to this issue?

Proponents of the Gallions Bridge claim it will regenerate the area, but will Thamesmead really be regenerated by warehousing and other space-hungry businesses that depend on road traffic, when London is crying out for more homes? Leaving Thamesmead to depend on roads has been a self-defeating act of cruelty by London’s politicians. Denise Hyland has the opportunity to seize the agenda here, to champion Thamesmead and her own ward of Abbey Wood, instead of meekly following the desires of Sir Robin Wales (who has little interest in the south side of the river).

A Labour politician who rolled over for Tory plans for the NHS or social security would rightly be hounded. Yet too many in Labour treat the Silvertown Tunnel, with the extra traffic and congestion it will bring, as if it’s inevitable, and go for a policy of appeasement rather than challenge.

Yet the failure of both the London Assembly and MPs to properly scrutinise this scheme gives the likes of Denise Hyland a chance to think big and set the agenda. Forget parochial dead-ends, forget borough borders. It’s time for councillors to step up and really interrogate these schemes – and engage with both sides of the debate. Why not start a big campaign for public transport?

Too many awkward questions have gone unanswered, many in the little-explored grey areas between “yes” and “no”. (For example, if the original Blackwall Tunnel isn’t fit for purpose, why is the Silvertown Tunnel adding to it rather than replacing it?)

We’re in an interesting time for London politics – the current mayor’s a lame duck, and the big parties will soon start to choose their replacements. Labour outsider Christian Wolmar – who knows more about transport than most of us will ever forget – has spoken out against the tunnel. His colleagues should heed his warnings.

So right now, even the most humble councillor has more influence than they think. It’s time for them to get to work and properly engage with this, rather than accepting others’ half-baked assumptions – because on the Silvertown Tunnel, the path of least resistance is a road to disaster.

1.30pm update: I’m indebted to Greenwich councillor Aidan Smith for tweeting some details of a scrutiny meeting councillors held last night with TfL and Southeastern. (I missed it because I wanted to finish writing this enormous post.)

The meeting was told that analysis of the effects of the Sivertown Tunnel on local roads still hasn’t been done – this should be enough to raise alarm bells.

TfL’s representative also didn’t know how much work had been done on a business case for extending the Overground to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood – surely if TfL took it seriously, its representative should have been briefed? Again, this should be ringing bells.

Both issues should be enough to make Greenwich councillors realise they should be kicking up a stink. Claiming they are just “stakeholders”, as they have done in the past, really isn’t good enough now.

Southeastern and Jubilee Line shutdowns to hit Easter travellers

Cannon Street station

If you’ve got any big plans to go anywhere by rail over Easter, check your plans – there’ll be a big shutdown of lines through London Bridge over the holiday weekend, together with works on the Jubilee Line.

The rail works are part of the Thameslink Programme, the long-term scheme to remodel the lines from south-east London and Kent to accommodate new services to north London, Cambridge, and other destinations.

No trains will run from Charing Cross or Cannon Street between 3 and 6 April, as the lines through London Bridge will be closed. Trains will be less frequent and will run to and from Victoria, Blackfriars or New Cross instead.

Separately, works on the Jubilee Line mean services will only run between Waterloo and Stratford over Easter – causing problems for travellers seeking alternative routes to the West End.

A similar London Bridge closure last month was given minimal advance publicity, and while there was at least some better warning of this shutdown, it appears on the Southeastern website under the less than eye-catching headline of “Easter timetable changes”. There’s currently nothing on the Thameslink Programme site.

Southeastern website, 17 February 2015

Hopefully they’ll ramp up the effort after the shambolic efforts seen in past months.

If you’re affected, it’s worth playing with Real Time Trains to see what’s happening from your local station, but here’s a rough guide to what’s happening on the metro lines in south-east London between Good Friday and Easter Monday.

Woolwich line (to Dartford): Every half-hour to/from Blackfriars, and diverted via Lewisham.
(Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill, Westcombe Park: Buses will run between Lewisham and Charlton.)
Woolwich line (to Gillingham): Every half-hour to/from Victoria.
Bexleyheath line: Every half-hour to/from Victoria.
Sidcup line: Every half-hour to/from New Cross (Victoria on Sunday only).
Hayes line: Half-hourly to/from Victoria.
Grove Park line: Half-hourly between New Cross and Tonbridge (Sevenoaks on Sunday only).

The Jubilee Line works see no service between Waterloo and Wembley Park from Good Friday to Easter Sunday; and Waterloo to Stanmore on Easter Monday. This is likely to be connected with badly-needed works to replace tunnel linings at Green Park.

There’s also no escape from if you’re planning to use London Overground, with East London Line services only running between Shadwell and Clapham Junction, West Croydon and New Cross between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

(Thanks to the brilliant London SE1 site for spotting this yesterday.)