Posts Tagged ‘chris roberts’
One of the more curious aspects of Greenwich Council’s response to the horrific events in Woolwich two weeks ago was leader Chris Roberts’ determination that the council’s business would carry on as normal, despite the scene of tragedy just yards from the council’s headquarters.
So, as the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler revealed last week, Roberts went on a cabinet awayday on the day the Prime Minister visited, leaving Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford to represent local people.
And the night before, just hours after Lee Rigby’s murder in Artillery Place, the council opted to hold its usual mayoral inauguration ceremony at the Old Royal Naval College – again, under the claim of “business as usual”.
But Greenwich’s mayor-making knees-up is nowhere near normal business. Most councils just inaugurate their mayors with a brief ceremony in the town hall. Indeed, Greenwich’s official event actually takes place at the town hall the week before – the ONRC event is just for show.
Even where there’s a bit of star glamour – such as in Camden, where new mayor Jonathan Simpson has enlisted singer Marcella Puppini to be his mayoress – these events tend to stay in town halls and are open to the public and press.
This isn’t good enough for Greenwich, which in the past has blown £30,000 holding an invite-only event, where favoured business execs, councillors and “community leaders” can schmooze and do whatever else you do when you’re having a drink at the taxpayers’ expense. Indeed, here’s 2011′s menu.
Following criticism during the initial phase of the cuts – and talk of one mayor refusing to have the ceremony – the cost was whittled down to about £12,500 by last year – partly due to the Naval College being persuaded to let the council have the venue for nothing. 2013′s costs aren’t yet available.
But it still leaves a sour taste with many councillors, so what should be a non-partisan event gets boycotted by a number of rebel Labour members as well as most Tories. You can see why it’s a touchy subject.
So touchy, in fact, that Greenwich Time hasn’t even mentioned it, in contrast to the front page splashes it’s earned in the past.
Yes, you can make out the Old Royal Naval College colonnade behind new mayor Angela Cornforth, but twice in three weeks, the council’s propaganda weekly has referred to Ms Cornforth’s ceremony in profile pieces as being “at Woolwich Town Hall”.
And as for what was said and done at what the event’s supporters claim is a highlight of the council year, there’s not a peep in Greenwich Time.
One misleading reference could be written off as a mistake. But twice? In a publication which is checked by the leader of the council before it goes to press? Perhaps there’ll be a correction in next week’s issue. I wouldn’t waste your breath waiting, though.
Greenwich Council’s propaganda weekly got an unlikely airing in the Midlands at the end of last week as Prime Minister David Cameron took aim at Greenwich Time when he launched the Conservatives’ local election campaign.
London boroughs won’t see an election for another year yet, but seats in English county councils are up for grabs on 2 May.
“And what about all those Labour councils shamelessly spending your money on their propaganda?
Greenwich – whose town-hall newspaper is about as balanced as Pravda. And about as interesting to read as well!
Tee-hee! Dave did a funny!
Lambeth – which scare-mongers about cuts – but funnily enough still has cash for posters all over the borough attacking the Government.
These people: when it comes to spending your money, they just cannot help themselves.”
Interestingly enough, I spend a fair bit of time near Shepherd’s Bush Green, where the lamp posts are covered in posters boasting about council tax cuts in Hammersmith & Fulham – a Conservative borough.
That aside, David Cameron’s speech shows how Greenwich Time has become an exposed target for opponents to kick – despite the fact that his government has failed to kill it off after promising to once already.
A recently-introduced code on council publicity was meant to put an end to the likes of GT – but it doesn’t have the force of law, and Greenwich has blithely continued publishing, and is likely to do so up to the next council election.
Now communities secretary Eric Pickles has launched a consultation on making that code law.
“Some councils are undermining the free press and wasting taxpayers’ money which should be spent carefully on the front line services that make a real difference to quality of life. It should not, under any circumstances, be used to fund political propaganda and town hall Pravdas and yet a hardcore minority of councils continue to ignore the rules despite public concern.”
Greenwich Council has always maintained that Greenwich Time covers its own costs and that scrapping it would divert money away from frontline services. This is because the council would have to place its public notices (planning permission, consultations, that kind of thing) in the News Shopper or the Mercury.
Let’s deal with the value for money question first. The finances of Greenwich Time are difficult to quantify, since they don’t account for the involvement of the council’s seven-strong press office, which is as involved with GT as the freelancers whose names appear in the paper.
With Greenwich Time the central plank of all council communications – unlike other boroughs, Greenwich doesn’t have advertising space on bus shelters, for example – it’s nigh-on impossible to split it out from the schmoozing, scheming, talking and influencing press officers do. Without GT, Greenwich would have to completely reshape its press operation.
Yet most other councils manage without producing their own weekly newspaper – the only other one is Tower Hamlets’ East End Life. Hillingdon Council’s communications manager Charlotte Stamper says by using the law, “Pickles is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut” – adding that local councils effectively subsidise local papers by placing public notices in them.
If Pickles removed the need for councils to place so many public notices, the justification for Greenwich Time would vanish overnight.
“The line in the sand is clear, publicity material straying into propaganda clearly crosses that line, and this legislation will stop this disgraceful misuse of public money, which damages local democracy and threatens an independent, free and vibrant local press.”
Greenwich Time certainly gets in the way of honest reporting. On a financial level, it’s believed to undercut the ad rates demanded by traditional local papers (and making life hard for potential new entrants – remember Games Extra, the Olympics clone of the Greenwich Visitor?); while on a practical level, council news stories tend to be held so GT gets the exclusive and its rivals are left chasing.
But the problem in Greenwich is that there wasn’t an independent, free and vibrant local press to start with. Despite the work of talented reporters, the owners of the Mercury and the News Shopper have squeezed budgets to such an extent that their papers are barely able to cover the basics. Indeed, distribution is so poor that the only paper many residents will see is… Greenwich Time.
A good case study is Greenwich Council’s scheme to give jobs to residents hit by social security cuts. This has been known about since the end of January, and was launched last Monday with a press conference at the Woolwich Centre – as usual, too late for coverage in the print versions of the Mercury or News Shopper, but guaranteeing oodles of uncritical coverage in Greenwich Time.
On the left, Greenwich Time in September 2009, announcing a scheme to employ people in temporary jobs. On the right, Greenwich Time in April 2013, announcing a scheme to… yep, you got it.
But was the initial scheme a success? Did the people given “green jobs” in 2009 get back into work? We don’t know. An “independent, free and vibrant local press” would have scrutinised this and asked difficult questions. But it hasn’t. It’s a worthy-looking scheme, but we’ve no idea if it’s really going to do something to improve people’s lives for the long term.
So the only coverage most people will see is what they’ll read in Greenwich Time – not just because the council’s trying to smother the market, but because the traditional local press won’t invest to free reporters up to do any real, in-depth reporting. Greenwich Time undercutting their ad rates won’t help them do that, of course, but it’s the editors and proprietors who ceded the space to the council in the first place.
But there’s one other consideration – has Greenwich Time naturally had its day? Are people now seeing through the propaganda after five long years of weekly papers? Does anyone actually read it any more?
Essentially, GT stories tend to associate the council with community initiatives, good deeds with children, and regeneration schemes – this week’s issue sucks up to the developers of (The Heart of East) Greenwich Square. Its favoured worldview also promotes Chris Roberts’ pet projects and people – this week’s features an embarrassing photo of his deputy (and his preferred successor) Peter Brooks with swimmers and Duncan Goodhew at Charlton Lido. Expect to see a bit more of Brooksy over the next year. It’s all getting a bit samey.
Councillors and council officers might think they’ve got people’s attention when they tick off the box marked “get article in Greenwich Time”, but that’s no good if half your taxpayers are binning the thing, and you’ve no other publicity options. I was intrigued that the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign on river crossings only had 795 online pledges of support out of the 84,000 households Greenwich Time is delivered to, despite seven consecutive weeks of promotion there. I’m waiting to find out how many of those pledges actually came from within Greenwich borough.
Yet sometimes it’s best when other people do your publicity for you. Take a look at new-ish blogs The Only Way Is Woolwich and Seen In Greenwich talking about the council’s Environment Champions scheme. This stuff is far better than anything you’ll read in GT – and far more valuable because it removes the “well, they would say that anyway” factor you’d get from a council publication. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing and trust other people to be your messengers, be they journalists, bloggers or residents (or all three at once) instead of trying to force it down people’s throats.
Or maybe we could just gang together and use another Pickles innovation, the community right to challenge, to bid to run Greenwich Time and take it off the council’s hands altogether. Who’s got a few quid spare?
So, sledgehammer or not, I’ll be responding to the government’s consultation. I’m sorry for the other local councils that don’t break the rules – but this one’s screwed it up for the rest of you. Not out of nostalgia for a golden era of local journalism, but because it’s an abuse of power that’s increasingly looking anachronistic. If you’ve got a strong view on GT either way, you might like to do the same.
A gorgeous day for the London Marathon – a reminder of why this is easily the best weekend of the year in south-east London.
People come out and cheer and chat, pubs suddenly gain jazz bands and sound systems, and for a few precious hours, overlooked streets come alive. It’s London at its very best, and felt all the more special in light of the terrible events in Boston last week.
It’s also why the lesser, largely unwanted Run To The Beat event will never truly take off – when your race pounds the same streets, with fewer people, you’ll always be caught in its shadow.
Among the quirks of marathon day is the jazz band outside the headquarters of Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party on Woolwich Road, Greenwich – they’ve been playing When The Saints Go Marching In every race day for as long as I can remember.
Today was no exception. Indeed, today saw an impressive turnout of local Labour dignitaries, including MP Nick Raynsford and his possible successor, assembly member Len Duvall, out among the public. It’s always a nice surprise to see elected representatives out and about on a big community day, although it really shouldn’t be.
But one figure’s never seen there – council leader Chris Roberts. No mingling with the hoi polloi for him…
Thank you to the eagle-eyed 853 reader who spotted where the Dear Leader watched the London Marathon – from high up on the Cutty Sark (on the far right), away from the public and his party members. “It looked like one of those old Russian mayday parades! Just runners instead of tanks,” my spy suggests. (11pm Sunday update: I’ve been sent a clearer photo. I wonder who the people with Roberts are?)(11am Monday update: I’m told places on board the Cutty Sark were being sold for £40 to benefit the council-backed Greenwich Starting Blocks charity. Ahoy!)
Back among the great unwashed, with the area covered in ads for health drinks and sporting goods, it was curious to see a former newsagent in Charlton offer its own advice to runners…
But walking home after the traditional marathon morning pint, the same old question came into my head. With the streets blissfully free of traffic for an hour after the race ends, why don’t we do something with them? Even mid-demolition Woolwich Road in Charlton felt peaceful and serene in the Sunday sunshine – imagine what you could do with Greenwich town centre during the afternoon after the marathon.
Until we reclaim the streets after the runners have passed by, we’ll never make the most of this magical day in the calendar. But when you’re watching from the Cutty Sark, it’s perhaps not a thought that’s ever going to spring to mind.
It was meant to be a great week for Greenwich Council. Leader Chris Roberts had donned a penguin suit to collect the “council of the year” prize from the Local Government Chronicle, the trade paper for councils. “The event at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel followed a day of live judging for the top two categories in which finalists had to make a pitch to panels of expert judges,” trilled the LGC of the council’s efforts.
And guess what? It’s all over Greenwich Time.
Indeed, the award was a triumph for Greenwich’s “reputation-first” PR policy – obsessing with big projects and events, while ignoring the rather different situation on the ground or even the views of its own residents. This award is why Roberts’ PR chief bagged a 25% pay rise last year.
But reality crashed in with news that Blackheath Westcombe councillor Alex Grant is standing down at the next election – with a parting shot at a “culture of bullying” and “sinister threats”. Fellow councillor Dick Quibell, who represents neighbouring Peninsula, is also on is way out.
And guess what? None of that is in Greenwich Time!
As reported by the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler, Alex’s email read:
“I am also finding the Labour Group in Greenwich an increasing unpleasant environment to work in. All too often, decisions are made with little or no consultation with the community, the party, or backbench Labour councillors.
“All too often, Labour councillors and party members find themselves at the receiving end of verbal abuse, or sinister threats of disciplinary action, and then find that their concerns about this bullying are simply ignored.
“Like others, I have found this culture of bullying difficult to tolerate, to the extent that it is beginning to harm my health.”
It’ll be very easy for the council leadership to dismiss Alex’s words as those of a man whose ambitions for leadership have been thwarted.
But anyone who knows anything about Greenwich borough politics over the past few years will recognise his picture of a borough where councillors are even disciplined for speaking out during their own private meetings, never mind in public.
This stuff isn’t unique to Greenwich, and nor is it unique to Labour, but it has the tacit approval of the London Labour Party, which is in charge of disciplinary matters.
Neither Alex Grant nor Dick Quibell are red-blooded socialist firebrands. But they’re both decent men, with extensive experience on the council, and more so, of winning local elections without having to do “chicken runs” – Blackheath Westcombe is the borough’s most marginal seat, and all four parties in the borough have eyed up Peninsula, with its shifting population (been there, got the T-shirt). In Alex’s case, he was brought up in the ward he now represents (his father edits the Westcombe Society’s newsletter) – indeed, he lived opposite me in nearby east Greenwich for a spell in the late 1990s.
So you’d think that they’d know a thing or two about what ordinary people think about the council of which they’re a part.
“Labour has much to be proud of in Greenwich. But we could achieve so much more if the Labour Group at the council showed greater civility, if it worked more closely with the party and the community to tackle the problems the borough faces, and ensured our limited resources are spent more wisely.
“The council leadership has also adopted bizarre policy positions – such as aggressive demonisation of council tenants after the riots of 2011, and unconditional support for new road crossings across the Thames in 2013 – that have not reflected the views of the Labour Party locally, or even the majority of Greenwich’s Labour councillors.”
The Bridge The Gap fiasco was large-scale proof of how the council has drifted away from its members, but there’s a smaller example in Charlton, where local Labour activists are campaigning against the route of the Run To The Beat half-marathon. That’s the same Run To The Beat half-marathon that’s been endorsed by… Labour-run Greenwich Council.
So you end up with Labour party members campaigning against decisions made by the Labour council. And the worst of all worlds is that those councillors who are being ignored by their own council have to keep schtum in public, or face disciplinary action. Insane, isn’t it?
The real shame is that many of those Labour activists are the best community workers you’ll find – yet what incentive to they have to stand and serve their community at a level where it really matters? Already, Greenwich Labour is overwhelmingly male and middle-aged. The local parties’ selection processes have begun for the 2014 elections, and the results may well show the continued damage caused by the current heavy-handed leadership.
So while Alex Grant blowing the lid on the party’s culture is welcome in some respects, in the long term, it could make things worse – reducing the ranks of the small number of councillors prepared to risk their careers to stand up to the council leadership. In the short term, he may well get the boot from the Labour group on the council for his comments.
It’s a tragic, no-win situation, and it’s why this website drones on and on about Greenwich Council so much. This is a fantastic part of London with so much potential. Yet we’re governed by a clique who can’t take criticism, and treat anyone who disagrees with them – even within their own party – as enemies. I went to a council meeting the other week and watched a chap from Shooters Hill address the council on a conservation area. Regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland treated him as if he’d insulted her mother.
Communities are ignored, yet property developers treated like gods and allowed to dictate planning for the future – which has led the council into the Bridge The Gap hole, but also got it stuck in other issues like cutting bus routes in Kidbrooke – a decision it’s furiously trying to blame TfL for, when the roads have actually been closed by Berkeley Homes, the council’s development partner.
The grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side, but you only have to look at councils like Lewisham (local assemblies) and Camden (“get involved with the decisions Camden makes“) to see there’s another way of doing things. Even the local Tories are ahead of them on this, with a restrained proposal for “area councils” thrown out a couple of months back. But Greenwich Council’s leadership won’t even engage with its own councillors, never mind listen to us great unwashed.
With potential councillors now being selected, it’d down to local Labour party rank-and-file members to clear out the rubbish and start again. There’s only one party which is going to win an election here in the next few years, so they’ve more power than they think at the moment.
But senior Labour figures should take a closer look at what goes on in Greenwich. Alex Grant’s accusations are serious, and deserve proper scrutiny, with the ability of others to contribute without fear of recriminations. Ed Miliband talks a good talk about trust in politics.
If he wants to find a place to start rebuilding that trust, then the “royal” borough of Greenwich is ready, waiting, and in desperate need of it – no matter how many awards it wins.
You’ve probably heard about last week’s launch of Transport for London’s plans to boost cycling in the capital. There’s lots to like there, with eye-catching schemes like creating cycle lanes on the Victoria Embankment and the Westway. Whether they’ll actually happen will be another matter, though, as much of this will depend on London boroughs, who’ll be invited to compete for funds to turn their patches into “mini-Hollands”.
Other ideas which could get TfL backing include “quietways” (cycle routes in back streets) and suburban cycle hubs at public transport interchanges (which I’ve been banging on about for North Greenwich for about a trillion years, while Eltham or Kidbrooke stations would also make great locations.)
But it’s a start, and for now Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan is talking a good talk. Unfortunately, Greenwich Council has decided not to talk to him. Of all London’s 32 boroughs, Greenwich is the only one to not respond to Boris’s pal’s overtures. Even barmy Tower Hamlets, to which the controversial journalist dishes out frequent written kickings, has responded.
The news is particularly disappointing, particularly as inviting Gilligan along to a meeting of councillors was discussed at a recent scrutiny meeting. It’s unknown what’s happened to that independent spark of thought, so whether this actually happens will be one to watch. On top of the lack of action over Greenwich town centre and the cycle superhighway, things aren’t looking good.
Heaven knows what’s going on inside the heads of the council’s leadership. You can disapprove of how Gilligan got the job. But if the mayor’s messenger comes offering goodies that’ll benefit the borough, then you talk to him. Anything else is self-defeating.
It must sound good at the next Labour Party coffee morning, though. “Oh, we just ignored Andrew Gilligan when he came along offering half a million for cycling. That’ll show the Tory bastards!”
Of course, this isn’t party political – London’s most cycle-friendly borough is Labour-run Hackney – but more a symptom of how Greenwich Council’s leadership wants to isolate its fiefdom from the rest of the capital. It’s rejected opportunities to bid for City Hall or government cash to improve local high streets, and at last week’s council meeting leader Chris Roberts even declared the council could run bus services better than TfL could.
Greenwich isn’t an anti-cycling borough. But most of what it does caters for those who already cycle – little tweaks to cycling routes as part of wider road safety improvements. What it doesn’t do, on the whole, is make changes that would encourage new cyclists – closing rat runs, opening up new routes – and it continues to denigrate cyclists by running critical letters in propaganda weekly Greenwich Time. The gem above appeared last week, while cyclists were instructed to “stop moaning” last year. Such a shame, when it could be promoting the free cycle training courses it offers both new and experienced riders.
This refusal to talk about serious change makes the council look like a laughing stock. But there are far more serious consequences to this pig-headed determination to isolate Greenwich borough from a process that should benefit the rest of London.
The pressure on City Hall to do something positive about cycling came as a reaction to the number of riders dying in accidents. In 2009, 31-year-old Adrianna Skrzypiec was killed under the Woolwich Road flyover; a few months later, 66-year-old Stella Chandler died after an accident at the foot of Vanburgh Hill.
But of course, sticking it to Boris’s buddy is better than taking action to protect the health and well-being of your citizens, isn’t it? To be the only one of 32 boroughs not to engage with a plan which could save lives should be a source of shame. Hopefully Greenwich Council’s leadership will get over themselves, grow up, and talk to Andrew Gilligan. I can think of a couple of people who aren’t around any more that they owe it to.
Chris Roberts’ departure from Greenwich Council had been rumoured on and off for some time – but that’s what happens when you’ve been in charge of something for ages. But even then, when the news broke yesterday that the council leader would step down at next year’s election, it still came as a surprise to many.
But he can look back on a job that’s been pretty much completed – with the one big exception, as he acknowledged himself, of funding the Crossrail station in Woolwich, which is key to his efforts to revive the town centre. From the establishment of the council’s own jobs agency to delivering a chunk of the London Olympics, through to freezing council tax and bludgeoning through development masterplans that’ll last into the next decade, the big jobs are pretty much done.
He’s also had the council dancing to his tune for over a decade – and don’t councillors and officers know it. It’s possible Roberts’ departure will also see close ally and chief executive Mary Ney also step down, paving the way for wholesale change at a council’s that resistant to just that. Some of the councillors that have benefited under his rule may also be looking at their own futures.
Suddenly, the disenchanted and disillusioned have reason to look up.
But who would take over? A new leader would have to win a vote of Labour councillors after 2014′s election, so the change starts with rank and file members; who’ll begin to choose candidates later this year. Which ones they pick will be key to who becomes leader – will they pick time-servers, happy to collect the cash to do a leader’s bidding; or will they go for new faces with new ideas?
Unlike other London Labour councils, there’s a shortage of younger faces on the council – under Roberts, some promising councillors pitched in, then became sick of it all and packed it in. So the pickings for successors are fairly slim.
If you had to ask me to pick a new leader, I’d plump for Jackie Smith. Known as someone that can deal with both the Roberts old guard and the “awkward squad” who occasionally say no to him, she knows the council well – her husband is former leader and current London Assembly member Len Duvall. But there are other names – those who could run, or those who could be king- or queen-makers, but I’m not sure anyone else will want to have their ambitions jinxed by being talked up here. And it’s very early days yet.
But whoever does take over will have a lot of work to do – and a lot of bridges to build. There’s a yawning gap between the council and the public it serves. How to fix things? Here’s some thoughts.
1. Consider changing the way the council is run. The mayoral system works well in Lewisham, where Sir Steve Bullock has been the face of the council for a decade. Chris Roberts has been able to hide behind cabinet members (see Bridge The Gap) and council officers – there’s no such protection for Sir Steve. Are we ready for a Mayor of Royal Greenwich?
2. Open up the council. Make an effort to get the public involved in meetings. Use the council website and Greenwich Time to solicit contributions from the public – the London Assembly does a really good job of this. Why can’t council scrutiny panels?
3. Junk that bloody website and start again. Greenwich Council’s website is infuriatingly bad – it’s almost as if things are being deliberately hidden. Here’s my favourite page – the always-empty document library. It needs sorting out.
4. What to do about Greenwich Time? A council publishing a regular journal of information isn’t a bad thing. Publishing a propaganda weekly probably is, though. Should a new leader start to rebuild bridges with the local media, and explore other ways of reaching out to people?
5. Get local. Lewisham’s local assemblies can spend small sums on improving their local areas. Camden has ward meetings. Southwark has community councils – and takes its council meetings out on the road. Greenwich, however, remains centralised and distant. It’s a great opportunity for change.
6. Bin the “royal borough”. We’re officially a royal borough now, and that won’t change, but going on and on about it makes the council look ridiculous. Ceasing endless references to “the royal borough” would be a good first step and an indication of a new direction.
7. Start talking to the neighbours again. Work on some ideas with other SE London boroughs. Southwark Council wants a Bakerloo Line extension to Peckham. Why not team up with Lewisham and put in a bid to extend it even further?
8. Stop obsessing exclusively with big projects, and look at small businesses. Lewisham bid for government money to boost Sydenham and Forest Hill as pat of the “Portas project”, while Catford’s had money from the mayor’s Outer London Fund. Further out of town, Dartford’s got some Portas cash. Greenwich seems to be relying solely on a mega-Tesco in Woolwich to solve all its ills, while neglecting to pay attention to smaller shops and smaller shopping areas which could do with some help. If that’s not the case, it needs to change people’s views – and quickly.
Any more suggestions? What should a new leader do to reconnect the council with the people of Greenwich borough? Feel free to add suggestions below.
Breaking news: Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts is to stand down at next year’s election, he has told the borough’s councillors by email.
The leader will have been in the job for 14 years by the time of next May’s poll.
Roberts’ announcement, 15 months ahead of the election, will now spark a battle to succeed him among a Labour group certain to stay in power.
A controversial figure who acquired the nickname “Dear Leader” for his management style, Roberts saw the council through 2012′s Olympic year and has been closely associated with the borough’s major regeneration projects.
But projects like the ill-fated bid for a casino at the O2, and the current campaign to build a Silvertown Tunnel, also caused fury in the borough, with the latter being rejected by the Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party.
Last year he survived a leadership challenge from cabinet member John Fahy.
4.30pm: Staggeringly pompous press announcement from the council, and his email to “partners”.
4.50pm: Roberts’ cabinet colleague Maureen O’Mara refuses to give a quote to the News Shopper, neatly illustrating the wide gulf between council and community that has built up under Roberts.
9.00pm: Curiously, none of the borough’s tweeting Labour councillors have said a word on Twitter about Roberts’ departure – again, a reminder of the “keep your heads down” culture within the group. One councillor has paid tribute, though – Tower Hamlets’ Labour group leader Joshua Peck says Roberts’ departure will be a “sad loss for Greenwich”.
But what will the leader’s next move be? It’s possible he could run for Parliament at the 2015 election – and his decision comes the week after the Tories’ attempt to redraw constituency boundaries failed. There’s a nearby vacancy already, as Lewisham Deptford MP Dame Joan Ruddock is already standing down, although frosty cross-borough relationships would make that unlikely. But is Roberts eyeing up Nick Raynsford’s Greenwich & Woolwich seat? Of course, there’s no suggestion that Raynsford, who’ll have had the seat for 23 years by then, is standing down. More pertinently, Greenwich.co.uk asked him about his ambitions in December. “It was suggested to me before the last election and I looked at it and I thought in all honesty I’d be bored,” he said.
Maybe a position with one of the firms which Roberts has worked closely with over the years might follow – but for a really off the wall idea, this tweet intrigued me…
Chris Roberts for London mayor in 2016? Stranger things have happened. Feel free to add your thoughts on today’s news below, tomorrow there’ll be some thoughts on life after the Dear Leader.
Odd goings-on at a meeting of Greenwich Council last night. It should have been an important night if you live in the riverside part of Charlton, as a long-standing application to build a new Sainsbury’s store on Woolwich Road, on the site of the old Wickes branch, was to have been have been approved or rejected.
In short, Sainsbury’s has run out of space in its Greenwich store, and would like to open a new store half a mile down the road, to the same environmental principles as its 13-year-old current branch.
Marks & Spencer would take up space in the building too, and developer LXB – which has bought up much of the Charlton retail space – has spent a lot of time wooing local residents’ groups and pledging that it’ll bring a bit of life back to the Woolwich Road.
The planning application was submitted in May, and these things are meant to take 13 weeks to come to a decision. In “Royal” Greenwich, this actually took until the penultimate day of November to be scheduled for a decision.
But that wasn’t enough. Four days after Woolwich’s new mega-Tesco opened, on the night of the meeting, Greenwich Council’s planning board decided to delay the Sainsbury’s application even further. But why?
Apparently, a site visit was needed. Even though this is a prominent site, sat between two A-roads, and a visit could have been arranged at any time within the past five months. Also, a “retail impact assessment” was required – but why couldn’t have been done in the five months it took this application to come before the planning board? After all, it’s 13 months since a councillor voiced reservations on he effect this would have on Woolwich.
All of this came as a surprise to the council’s planning officers, but it was to no avail – Sainsbury’s application, submitted in May, was booted well into the long grass.
How did this happen? Well, there was an exchange of scribbled notes, which started with regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland (of foot tunnels fame), and involved council leader Chris Roberts, planning director Steve Pallett and planning chair Ray Walker. And then, mysteriously, the item was struck off the agenda.
Incidentally, across the road from Woolwich Town Hall, and a couple of miles from the Sainsbury’s site, a new mega-Tesco has just opened. Tesco built the council’s new HQ as part of the deal, and council leader Chris Roberts has spoken warmly about the job opportunities the new store has brought.
Wisely, though, as a member of the planning board, Chris Roberts didn’t appear in the photos marking the store’s opening on Monday – leaving that to mayor David Grant, MP Nick Raynsford and Abbey Wood-based Olympian Zoe Smith, with a cheque from Tesco to the council’s charity.
But despite his endorsements of Tesco in Woolwich, he was still able to take part in an exchange of notes which resulted in a planning decision about a rival’s store being deferred for a “retail impact assessment”. (Even though one had already been done – see below.)
So, what on earth is going on? Local campaigners in Charlton want to use the Sainsbury’s scheme (and the long-delayed Travelodge, also backed by LXB) as leverage to make the Woolwich Road less of a filthy rat-run and more of a pleasant place to live.
Yet despite months of prevarication, Greenwich Council has kicked it into the long grass, just as a rival’s store opens. What is going on in a council run by a party which, on a national level, brands Tesco “an almighty conglomerate”?
11.45am update: It’s been pointed out to me that a retail impact assessment had already been done – it’s two documents in this enormous bundle here. Council officers, meanwhile, had been working under the belief that the issue would be discussed last night. What is going on?
You might have seen by now how Greenwich Council is bidding to bring the Tall Ships Race to the borough in 2016 – and how leader Chris Roberts led a five-strong council team to Riga, Latvia a couple of weeks back to meet and greet the great and the good of the tall ships world, with council taxpayers picking up the £5,500 bill for their trip to the Tall Ships Conference.
While the trip’s already sprouted one success – the borough’s been asked to host a regatta in 2014 – it’s raised eyebrows among councillors; most didn’t know about the bid until Roberts returned from Riga. And why did it take five people – including chief executive Mary Ney, Roberts’ spin chief Katrina Delaney and cabinet member Peter Kotz – to make the journey, at a cool £1,140 each?
And as the Tall Ships Race would start from Woolwich rather than Greenwich, couldn’t the council’s buddies at Berkeley Homes, which is developing the Royal Arsenal site and would benefit from the attention, have coughed up the costs? Or the backers of Sail Royal Greenwich, pictured above at its launch last year, which started this enthusiasm for hoisting masts on the Thames?
As their neighbours in Lewisham display unity over the threat to Lewisham Hospital, Greenwich’s Labour councillors have been left wondering quite what their leader is up to once again.
Still, that might not be the worst of it. You can watch the video of the Riga conference here…
Skip forward, beyond the bit about the bar running out of booze, to 17min 20secs in, where a Dutchman introduces how he works with young people… by dancing to Rednex’s novelty 1994 hit Cotton-Eye Joe. And then at 19 mins 20 secs in, where he gets all the delegates to join in.
Did the Dear Leader and his jolly crew shake their funky stuff? Time to keep a close eye out for photos…