Greenwich councillors are to consider awarding the rarely-awarded freedom of the borough to former leader Chris Roberts next week – despite the politician-turned-developers’ consultant being embroiled in a series of bullying accusations before he stood down 18 months ago.
Roberts ran the council for 14 years but stepped down as a councillor at May 2014’s election, finally relinquishing his role as leader the following month. He is still in frequent contact with his successor, Denise Hyland, multiple sources have told this website, with some claiming he still wields considerable influence over the council.
His final months on the council were blighted by bullying accusations, notably in October 2013 when he threatened current deputy leader John Fahy with the removal of his cabinet position in a row over the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which raised funds for a charity Roberts set up as council leader, Greenwich Starting Blocks. He was let off any council punishment over the voicemail, but did get a written warning from the party.
Two councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – stood down from the authority, complaining of a bullying culture in Roberts’ Labour group. Grant has since said that intimidation of councillors was normal practice, particularly in planning matters.
The leader himself was also accused of throwing his keys at a council cleaner who woke him up while he was asleep in his office early one morning in 2009, a charge he denies. His conduct was explored in a BBC Sunday Politics investigation in December 2013. A secret Labour Party investigation declared no further action should be taken on his conduct.
Now Roberts is in line for an award reserved only for councillors if they have “distinguished themselves beyond that level of service normally expected”. “Recipients should have demonstrated commitment to the principles of public life and adherence to the relevant codes of conduct,” the paper for next Wednesday’s meeting says.
Past recipients include Nelson Mandela, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, the Duke of Edinburgh, and local institutions such as Charlton Athletic Football Club, Royal Museums Greenwich and the Royal Regiment of the Royal Artillery.
Roberts was known for his close relations with property developers, and is now the deputy chairman of Cratus Communications, a local authority lobbying firm chaired by former Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council Merrick Cockell. Bromley & Chislehurst’s Tory MP Bob Neill, a former local government minister, is a non-executive director.
“His passion for regeneration will provide Cratus with a platform to move to the next level of support for our development clients,” the firm’s website says of Roberts.
Long-serving Labour councillors Janet and Jim Gillman are also on the list of consideration for the honour, as is veteran Conservative Dermot Poston, who also stood down in 2014. Retired teacher Poston was first elected to the council in 1968, serving under the only Tory administration in the borough’s history. The honour for the former Eltham North councillor, a genuinely popular figure at Woolwich Town Hall, may make it difficult for the Conservatives to object to Roberts’ award.
Tariq Abbasi, former director of the Plumstead-based Greenwich Islamic Centre and now director general of the World Muslim Congress, is also in line for an honour.
The decision will be made at next Wednesday’s council meeting. If you’re a Greenwich resident and want to ask leading councillors a question about the council and its policies, email committees[at]royalgreenwich.gov.uk before noon on Wednesday 20 January with your question, your name and address.
Update, 26 March: Greenwich Council has denied the leak referred to in this story was about the leaked Chris Roberts voicemail. See the end of the second video in this story.
Greenwich Council used public resources to track down the whistleblower who leaked ex-leader Chris Roberts’ abusive voicemail to a cabinet member to the media, it has been suggested.
The council is said to have launched the investigation after a voicemail of Roberts abusing John Fahy was made public, according to a report on answers given to a freedom of information request made by journalism trade website Press Gazette.
Roberts can be heard threatening Labour colleague Fahy with the removal of his cabinet position, telling him to “get it through your fucking thick skull”. The voicemail’s existence was first revealed on this website, after which it was published by the News Shopper. The investigation was into who leaked the voicemail to the Shopper.
Roberts was angry because Fahy was challenging his assumption that he would decide whether or not the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired, should take place in 2014.
It’s worth noting here that Greenwich Council refused to reveal details of the investigation to Press Gazette, only saying the leaker was identified. Instead, it said the information was already in the public domain – and the “thick skull” voicemail was by far the most high profile story leaked out of the council in recent years.
It is certainly known that the council was planning a investigation of the voicemail leak at the time, in addition to investigations by the Labour party, and the council’s standards board met to discuss the matter in December 2013.
Roberts left the council last summer, with the council mired in accusations over a bullying culture that led to two Labour councillors stepping down. He was let off any council punishment over the voicemail, but did get a written warning from the party.
However, Fahy – the victim of the voicemail – was punished twice by Greenwich Labour group chief whip over the incident. He was given a verbal warning over the leak of the voicemail, and while selections were taking place for the 2014 elections, he was given a written warning for not saying who the message had been leaked to – something that could have put his candidacy at risk.
Mary Ney, the chief executive who oversaw the investigation, also left the council last year after refusing to release a dossier about bullying submitted by a councillor, claiming it was solely a Labour party matter.
She is now working as a commissioner at scandal-hit Rotherham council, itself criticised for a bullying culture in an official report.
Chief whip Ray Walker, who oversaw the party’s disciplinary process against Fahy, was deposed by new councillor Stephen Brain last year.
When BBC London investigated the bullying at Greenwich Council in December 2013, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan promised to investigate complaints – but the complaints were ignored by the party.
Last night, the Tooting MP appeared at a comedy fundraiser in Greenwich called Stand Up For Labour – something he failed to do for his party’s own councillors in the borough.
2.10pm update: I’ve made a few tweaks to the story in light of information received just after it was published to stress it’s not fully certain whether the investigation was into the Fahy voicemail, although that is the only major leak story to have involved Greenwich in recent years.
Greenwich Council’s cabinet will challenge Eric Pickles’ decision to outlaw its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, it confirmed after a meeting yesterday.
Greenwich remains the only Labour council in the country to print a weekly paper – and yet has decided to seek a judicial review of a direction by the communities secretary telling the council to stop publishing by 31 March.
The council insists it saves money by using Greenwich Time as its exclusive advertising outlet, and says it will lose out by having to exit print and distribution contracts early.
A paper released on the day of the cabinet meeting put the cost of Greenwich Time as being nearly £590,000 – although much of this would have to be spent elsewhere anyway on advertising planning applications and other statutory notices.
After a recent tender for alternative publications to place advertising in, Greenwich head of legal Russell Power says axing Greenwich Time would cost the council an extra quarter of a million pounds each year.
There’s no news on just how much a judicial review will cost – but the bill will be faced by the same Greenwich council taxpayers who get the paper shoved through their letterboxes every week.
With a general election coming up, it may well prove to be a spoiling tactic to get any ban moved until after the general election.
But the decision also makes it very hard for local Labour representatives to complain about coalition cuts when they’re blowing cash on saving a weekly newspaper that no other Labour council feels the need to have.
Indeed, the decision – which came a day after Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook stood down to concentrate on the battle for Greenwich & Woolwich – could prove embarrassing for Labour candidates in the general election.
The council’s announcement of the judicial review on Twitter was greeted with universal criticism. Tweets included “time to close it down and get your councillors to engage with residents properly,” “Don’t ever tell me in the future that there’s no money available to improve services”, and “why exactly should we fund this?”
How did we end up here, though? Let me take you back in time, to the early 1980s…
If you ever find yourself with a day free, head down to the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal and ask to have a look at their old newspapers. The microfilm goes back centuries, but even looking back to the 1980s is fascinating – a time of deep political polarisation.
Until the early 1980s, Greenwich had always been seen as a moderate, or even right-wing, Labour council. After 1982’s elections, things changed somewhat – left-winger John Austin-Walker took control, and a new wave of Labour councillors began to push more radical policies, complementing Ken Livingstone’s programme at the Greater London Council.
Of course, this was set against a particularly right-wing Conservative government, plus a national press that couldn’t understand why all these lefties were giving money to gay groups, ethnic groups, women’s groups – and then there were the nuclear-free zones, solidarity with striking miners, and more besides.
These battles were fought out on billboards, in newspaper ads, in Sun editorials, even in ads on the side of dustcarts.
The local press was in a much healthier state back then. The Woolwich-based Kentish Independent – 20p each week – was the paper that followed Greenwich Council the closest. The small-“c” conservative weekly faithfully reported all this stuff – and the opposition to it. (Its editor, Frank Dunkley, wasn’t shy about expressing his own rather ripe views, branding Austin-Walker “Nonsense Talker” in his own column. That column may have played part in the eventual closure of the paper – but that’s another story.)
A new council logo? Could the council be sharpening up its communications act?
Greenwich had been publishing a news-sheet called Civic News six times a year. With the local press, particularly the KI, sceptical about the council’s policies – and the nationals on the hunt for “loony left” stories – it seems the Labour administration wanted to fight its corner a bit more robustly.
I couldn’t track down any copies of Civic News at Greenwich Heritage Centre, so I can’t see if it had headlines to match the one about the missing maracas. But at the the bottom of a box, I found this…
In April 1984, just days after the Kentish Independent closed and Charlton Athletic had staved off the same fate, Greenwich Time was born as a monthly. It was distributed alongside the Mercury, which had just gone free (helping seal the old KI’s fate).
And yep, it was talking up the council’s role in helping save the Addicks from doom. A rate rise was promoted because it helped stop job cuts, while inside an editorial from John Austin-Walker said if it hadn’t been for government cuts, he would have been able to cut rates instead.
Looking through those early issues, it’s obvious Greenwich Time was a propaganda tool. But it’s clear those behind it saw it as a tool to champion the marginalised – the unemployed, women and minority groups. Greenwich councillors had found their most potent weapon to fight the decade’s culture wars.
It wasn’t all one way. A lively letters page contained a range of views, while a panel promoting council meetings cautioned: “it’s your council, keep an eye on it!”. Might have to revive that one.
It promoted discussion about just what the council should do about government cuts – and there was a surprisingly even-handed write-up of the all-night session which saw Greenwich finally, grudgingly, set a rate for 1985.
There was even a short-lived cartoon strip…
…while a council U-turn was owned up to.
This Socialist Worker-style campaigning fervour faded as the decade wore on, but Greenwich Time remained the place for a frustrated council to vent against Margaret Thatcher’s government.
12 years ahead of the Lewisham extension becoming reality, Greenwich Time praised the 1987 opening of the “space age” Docklands Light Railway, while rows with the government continued into the 1990s.
The paper went fortnightly in 1991 – still being distributed with the Mercury – and adopted a new look in 1993, when the council was run by Len Duvall. This era of Greenwich Time was almost benign – the news items were briefer and briskly-written, while council policies were still regularly challenged in the letters page.
The next big change came after this fresh-faced chap took over Greenwich Council in 2000.
Chris Roberts started with a blast at newly-elected mayor Ken Livingstone – then outside the Labour fold as an independent.
Another new look in 2002 saw Greenwich Time inch away from looking like a council newspaper and starting to ape the look of a local paper – specifically, the Mercury, whose former editor Peter Cordwell was drafted into work on it. (The relationship ended in acrimony a decade later.)
It’s here the personality cult also starts to kick in…
…and a 2004 story about Greenwich Peninsula which feels like it’s been repeated about 50 times since then.
There was also a campaign to bring Crossrail to Woolwich….
…and a “youth champion” becoming the youngest-ever councillor.
The final transformation came in May 2008, when Greenwich Time went weekly, carried a TV guide, was distributed on its own and started carrying council ads exclusively – making it much cheaper to run.
Strangely, that first weekly edition isn’t in the Heritage Centre, so here’s a council tax freeze – before it started telling porkies about long it’d lasted for – with our favourite picture of the Dear Leader.
Looking back over Greenwich Time’s history, you can see three key stages – the nakedly political, campaigning paper of the 1980s; the brisk information sheet of the 1990s; and the 21st-century imitation of being a local paper.
Under Austin-Walker it wanted to persuade you to support a particular viewpoint, and published monthly; the Duvall version was more about information, published fortnightly; while under Roberts it became something aimed at more subtly shaping opinions, and published weekly.
It’s also worth considering the wider media context – the free Mercury had a near-monopoly in Greenwich for much of the the 1980s after the Kentish Independent’s demise, although the paid-for Eltham Times still figured in the south of the borough along with the free News Shopper. By 1988, the local newspaper market was still strong enough for the Shopper to launch borough-wide.
Scroll forward to 2015, and the Mercury is a shadow of its former self while the former Eltham Times retreated to Bexley and Bromley some years back. Neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper have the reach of Greenwich Time – a near-reversal of the situation in 1984.
Much of this has been down to the greed and stupidity of the local newspaper industry – but Greenwich Time, once the paper that fought for minority causes, has taken advantage of this to get a dominant position in both distribution and advertising.
Back in the 1980s, Greenwich Time was run by councillors willing to risk their own finances for what they believed in – risking surcharges in battles over rates. Their 2015 successors have not nearly been as active in defying government cuts, except when it comes to risking taxpayers’ money to defend their own newspaper.
Now Greenwich Time’s life has flashed before our eyes, will we see it come to an end soon? We may find out the answer in court soon – as well as the bill for the council’s legal action.
Thanks to the staff at the Greenwich Heritage Centre in the Royal Arsenal for their help and patience in my trawl. You should go and visit some day.
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:
- Two councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – stepped down, citing bullying in the ruling Labour group among their reasons.
- Ney blocked an attempt by this website to obtain a document detailing allegations of bullying in the council.
- Former leader Chris Roberts, who left the council in June 2014, was let off with a slap on the wrist after a threatening voicemail to a cabinet member was made public.
- Ney refused to investigate a conflict of interest that arose from the voicemail concerning the council’s handling of the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired.
- Roberts also escaped any discplinary procedure over an incident where he is alleged to have thrown a set of keys at a cleaner who woke him up early one morning when he was asleep in his office. This incident was highlighted by the BBC’s Sunday Politics London in December 2013.
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.”
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’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?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.
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.
Want to get your hands on Greenwich borough’s biggest job, plus a salary of at least £185,000? Get yourself to royalgreenwichchiefexecutive.com and see what’s on offer as Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney gets set to retire.
Ney’s approaching retirement has been well-known around the council for some time, and the quote given to the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler back in July when he asked to confirm the details – “this is old news” – pretty much sums up the petulant, entitled and secretive attitude that spread at the top of the council under her watch.
Recruited by former leader Chris Roberts shortly after he took over the council, Ney – a former head of Harrow social services – failed to act when alerted to the bullying culture within the council under Roberts and ex-chief whip Ray Walker’s watch.
Indeed, Ney is still trying to prevent the release of a document about bullying sent by a Greenwich councillor, a case that has now gone to a freedom of information tribunal.
Writing on his blog yesterday, former Labour councillor Alex Grant shines some light on the broken culture of what now calls itself ‘Royal Greenwich’:
“In my 16 years as a councillor in Greenwich I lost count of the number of times that hard-working councillors were told to look away from problems rather than scrutinise them.
“It was worryingly common for councillors who asked innocent questions about what the council was doing – either publicly or privately – to be shouted at, receive abusive voicemail messages, or even be officially ‘warned’ to shut up or face the consequences.
The problems I encountered in my time as a councillor in Greenwich [included] bullying, a culture of secrecy, discouraging councillors and members of staff from raising concerns, particularly about the council’s finances and use of resources.”
A new chief executive will be a bigger opportunity to flush out the old culture at Greenwich than the election of a new political leader – here’s hoping it’s an outside appointment. Alas, it doesn’t look like an offer’s gone out to share Lewisham’s hugely-respected chief executive, Barry Quirk.
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.
So, last week, Chris Roberts said his farewells as Dear Leader. I’m told he was still in his office at Woolwich Town Hall as the minutes ticked down until the end of his reign at 7pm last Wednesday. And as the effective editor of the council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, he got to pen his own farewell.
In case you were wondering, “leave this world a little better than you found it” is a quotation from Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement.
More telling, though, from a politician closely associated with huge building projects, is “make no small plans, for they have no power to stir men’s souls”. That’s attributed to Daniel Burnham, a US architect who worked on some of the world’s earliest skyscrapers, including New York City’s Flatiron Building. Something to remember when Berkeley Homes’ huge towers start to loom over Woolwich in the next few years.
Possibly more telling than that, though, is a revealing comment he made at his final full council meeting in March, which you can listen to below. He’s heavily tipped to end up in some consultancy or advisory role, so until he re-emerges, let’s leave this as the last word.
He was paying tribute to departing councillors. But it was pretty clear he wasn’t talking about them when he said: “The service of the public is a noble calling, whether you’re doing it as a councillor or as an officer. No-one in a democracy does it for the money. It can be long, it can be tiring, but as we all know, it can be rewarding.
“It can result in people delving into your personal lives, and as we all know it’s full of journalists, bloggers and tweeters who think that your moral compass and motives are as base as theirs sometimes seem to be – and that public works and public good are something to be denigrated by those who seek to pursue them [sic].”
That was then, this is now.
The Dear Leader is no more, so congratulations and welcome to Denise Hyland as the new Greenwich Council leader, as trumpted by – where else? – Greenwich Time.
It’s lucky for Hyland that one of the more controversial projects under her past watch as regeneration cabinet member, the botched refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, is finally nearing completion. Indeed, she’d also been saddled with fronting the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign to build the Silvertown Tunnel and a bridge at Gallions Reach – in spite of opposition from her own party.
The party members’ opposition meant Labour’s position in May’s election was subtly different. “Bridge The Gap is dead,” one Labour source insisted to me during the council election. And, indeed, look at what the Labour manifesto said…
A little bit of wiggle room emerged. And Labour candidates were telling people on the doorstep that things had changed. Here’s Stephen Brain, now Peninsula ward councillor, on 23 April.
But on 24 April, despite what was in the Labour party manifesto, here’s what Denise Hyland was telling Boris Johnson, responding to his London Plan…
Was Denise Hyland just following orders? Here she is from the News Shopper last week:
“I’m saying that we need a package of river crossings, absolutely we do.
I’m not going to get drawn into over whether we’ll accept or refuse a single crossing. I want to work with my colleagues, my Labour colleagues in the majority group and get a consensus after we’ve seen the proposals.”
That sounds like Bridge The Gap is still alive.
“Of course I’m concerned about air quality. I think it’s obviously a very difficult balance. If we actually look at our figures, 85 per cent of people thought we needed additional river crossings. 76 per cent wanting Silvertown, 73 per cent wanting a bridge at Gallions. People seem to think that doing nothing is not an option.”
Let’s not forget that Greenwich Council tried to rig that consultation, of course. Perhaps the new chief whip, one Stephen Brain, needs to get his leader into line…
Generally, the News Shopper interview seemed to promise more of the same than anything new. When asked about opening up the council, she said “I obviously want ward councillors to be frontline councillors, they’re the representatives of the council in the community and they represent their people and its for them to channel people’s voices through to the council” – ie, they should do their job. From this early interview, don’t expect any move away from the current top-down decision-making any time soon.
Then again, her Greenwich Time “interview” talked up the importance of listening to communities – since the Shopper’s piece went up on the website on Friday, shortly before GT goes to press, I can’t help wondering if the piece underwent a hasty rewrite as the introductory paragraph doesn’t match the headline. After all, Hyland is now the effective editor of GT…
It’s early days, and Hyland has to get her feet under the table first. While Roberts’ chief executive, Mary Ney, remains in place, big changes are probably unlikely – although a new cohort of Labour councillors will want to make their presence felt.
But who has her old job of regeneration cabinet member, the most important on the council?
Curiously, the job didn’t go to an big hitter such as Jackie Smith, John Fahy or David Gardner – but to Danny Thorpe, the 30-year-old Shooters Hill councillor best known for spending a year of his first term in office in Australia. When a skint Thorpe had to return to London after six months to attend a council meeting to avoid a by-election being triggered, the council’s Labour group had to pay his air fare.
Thorpe, who used to work in events management for Hackney Council, will be juggling his cabinet portfolio with teacher training at a primary school in Dartford. You could always try to follow him on Twitter, but his profile’s locked. Mind you, the last time I saw it, it was full of photos of him and singer Beverley Knight.
Hyland and Thorpe are also both on the planning board along with ex-deputy leader Peter Brooks and ex-chief whip Ray Walker – so the old guard are still represented there.
There are other new faces in the new cabinet. Highly-rated newcomer Sizwe James takes business, employment and skills, while fellow new councillor Chris Kirby gets housing. Miranda Williams, in her second term, joins the cabinet as member for cultural and creative industries. Returning councillor David Gardner takes health and adult social care.
Maureen O’Mara stays in the cabinet, taking community wellbeing and public health; while Jackie Smith also stays in the cabinet, but loses her highly-praised role in charge of children’s services to take on community safety and environment. John Fahy now takes on children’s services as well as being deputy leader. The “Greener Greenwich” portfolio (created by Roberts after the Greens broke through as an electoral force in 2006) has been dumped, with Harry Singh talking charge of customer and community services.
Cynics never the changed the world, so this website won’t be writing the new team off just yet. Denise Hyland and her team need to prove they are better than the unravelling shambles that came before them – and they’ll need to pick up some of the pieces, too.
Of course, Greenwich councillors should be held to account for past actions, but those actions may not necessarily be an accurate prediction of the future. It’d be good to see a review of past contracts signed with developers – as Hammersmith & Fulham’s new Labour administration is carrying out after usurping a Tory regime that also looked a bit too close to builders – but frankly that won’t happen.
Those who kept their head down and did as they were told under a bullying, stifling regime need the chance to find their feet and prove to us they can make a difference. The way Greenwich borough is run desperately needs to change – will they be the ones to deliver?
PS. Former Labour councillor Alex Grant has started a blog – and if you’ve made it down this far, his first post will be essential reading. Former Tory councillor Nigel Fletcher has also returned to being a digital scribe, and his account of losing his seat is also well worth reading.