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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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 is the only Labour council in the country to run its own weekly newspaper. It’s hard work knocking this stuff out week after week, when nearly everyone else does it monthly or quarterly.
So when Greenwich Time is wheeled into action to promote another council tax freeze, it ends up taking inspiration from last year’s headline…
How can Greenwich Council trail an eight-year council tax freeze for two years on the trot?
Actually, last year’s story was an outright whopper, which nobody seemed to notice at the time. This year’s is nonsense too. In fact, the past few years of Greenwich Time’s council tax stories have stretched the truth.
The last time Greenwich Council upped its share of council tax was by 1.98% in 2008.
So this is the seventh year in a row that council tax has been frozen, not the eighth. It’s certainly the eighth year the tax has been set at £980.91 for a band D home, but the first year of that was an increase.
To get to the bottom of this, we have to delve into the Greenwich Time archive.
Here’s the first year of the freeze, in 2009. Look who we have to thank! It prompted this criticism from Andrew Gilligan on Greenwich.co.uk.
In 2010, ahead of the general election, a “GT reporter” plugged a freeze “for the second year running”. Which was right.
In 2011 (above), Greenwich Time dutifully reported the freeze, correctly saying it was the “third year in a row” the council’s share of council tax had been frozen, after freezes in 2009 and 2010.
In 2012, it’d suddenly become a five-year freeze. Where had the extra year come from?
By 2013, it’d leapt up to seven years, by including a two-year freeze.
But in 2014 yet another year was added. Eight years.
For 2015, the length of the freeze has been, er, frozen.
All of which proves that if you publish enough propaganda, people lose interest in scrutinising it, including your opponents, which is why Greenwich Time is so valuable to the Labour group’s old guard. Last night, Conservative leader Spencer Drury complained that Greenwich Time hadn’t mentioned Boris Johnson’s cut in the GLA’s portion of the bill. He’d have been better off reading Greenwich Time a bit more closely.
Incidentally, one thing you never read about in Greenwich Time is council rent increases – and tomorrow’s cabinet meeting is putting those up by 2.2%, while last year saw a rise of 4.76%. All in this together…
Update 5 March: I’ve added the stories from 2009 and 2010.
Campaigners against a planned Ikea in east Greenwich have stepped back from taking legal action over the proposed development after being advised they would be unlikely to win.
Five Greenwich councillors, including current leader Denise Hyland, defied local opposition to approve outline plans for the store just under a year ago, a choice which was later endorsed by London mayor Boris Johnson.
The decision was made just four months after plans for the store – to replace the current “eco-friendly” Sainsbury’s store, which is moving half-a-mile down Woolwich Road to Charlton – were first made public.
Greenwich Council talks up Ikea’s claims that the development will bring 400 jobs, but neighbours say the store will add to already-high levels of congestion and air pollution around the Blackwall Tunnel approach and Woolwich Road.
The No Ikea Greenwich campaign had hoped to force a judicial review of the approval, which had only been finalised by planning officers late last year after the Government temporarily halted the process. (Here’s the council’s decision notice.)
But now the campaign has received legal advice telling it that since Transport for London has agreed with Ikea’s claim that the development will not add any more traffic to the area, that any action is unlikely to succeed.
It says on its Facebook page:
“We’re really sorry it’s taken so long to post and doubly sorry, because our excellent barrister has advised us against a legal challenge. This is mainly because TfL has okayed Ikea’s transport assessment (that shows Ikea will have a neutral effect on the traffic). So even if we were to wheel out another transport expert that might disagree, it would come down to two disagreeing experts.”
TfL meekly going along with Ikea’s assessment is something that should alarm people across London, especially considering its role in promoting the Silvertown Tunnel, potentially funnelling more traffic from east and central London to east Greenwich. The wider implications of Greenwich’s decision was something Tower Hamlets Council woke up to last autumn, although by then it was too late.
The group isn’t completely ruling out legal action if the store gets built and fails to live up to promises, and is holding onto money it’s raised so far as a “future fighting fund”.
But for now, it looks like neighbours and others are left to pick up the pieces from one of the most notorious planning decisions in recent Greenwich history.
Ikea has recently been meeting community groups – including the new East Greenwich Residents’ Association, Charlton Society, Westcombe Society and Charlton Central Residents’ Association ahead of submitting a detailed planning application.
It also recently met Matt Pennycook, Labour’s general election candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich, along with current MP Nick Raynsford. Pennycook wrote a short piece for Greenwich.co.uk about his experiences.
Hamburg Altona? Last summer, Ikea opened its first “inner-city” store in Germany, aimed at public transport users, walkers and cyclists – although it still has 730 car parking spaces. The Altona store is aiming to keep drivers down to 50% of its customers; the Greenwich store (with a 1,000-space car park shared with B&Q and the Odeon) is aiming for 65%.
“We made clear that Ikea Greenwich must not be a standard out-of-town blue shed but instead needs to be a sustainable, public-transport friendly building that is appropriate to its unique setting.
We made clear to Ikea that the local community will want to see a store design that:
– Is a worthy replacement, both aesthetically and in terms of sustainability, for Paul Hinkin’s Sainsbury’s eco store;
– Is designed in such a way and with the relevant accompanying features (for example cargo bikes and bike trailers for locals that purchase bulky goods) to actively promote the levels of public transport use that we will need to see if Ikea’s optimistic transport assessments are to be realised;
– Sets extremely high sustainability standards (ie, it cannot simply be an Ecobling powered box) and;
– Can be adapted to changing circumstances.
Something, in short, that is more akin to Ikea Hamburg Altona than Ikea Croydon.”
If Greenwich policymakers want to hop over the North Sea to see what it’s all about, nobody in their right mind should begrudge them the trip. It’d be better value than some of the things the council spends its cash on.
Pennycook also did something very unusual for a Greenwich politician – he revealed the Section 106 agreement which outlines what Ikea will have to do for its planning permission.
- £750,000 to fund travel plan improvements that will be reviewed on an annual basis over five years by an independent assessor;
– £500,000 for improvements to public transport namely the provision of extra buses to serve the development, and the upgrade of two bus stops adjacent to it;
– £115,000 for enhancements to the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park including the improvement of the range of water bodies and linked habitats within the Park, enhancement of ponds and ditches and the provision of classroom facilities;
– £243,000 for measures associated with the Borough’s Air Quality Action Plan;
– £486,000 for the provision of local skills and training which will include contributions towards training as part of the Greenwich Local Labour and Construction (GLLaB) project;
– Local highway and junction improvements including new and improved signage;
– The promotion of travel by sustainable modes of travel for staff and customers of Ikea travelling to and from the development;
– £24,000 for the provision of public art on and around the development;
– The development of a car park management plan to tighten up what has been, until now, pretty much a free-for-all for commuters and visitors to the O2 arena.
While Ikea’s refusing to budge on the one thing that it could cut on car use – its delivery charges, which start at £35 for large items, Pennycook’s “cautiously optimistic” about coming out with a decent result for the area.
This is going to need Greenwich Council to start playing hardball with a company it bent over backwards for at the beginning of last year. That’s not impossible.
But what happens from here will need to be a great deal more transparent than the process followed a year ago, the pungent stink from which has yet to go away. Ikea’s not yet communicating directly with residents, but if you have strong views, get in touch (and get involved) with those community groups, and bend your local councillors’ ears.
(See past stories about Ikea Greenwich.)
Greenwich Council is quietly doing some very good things on cycling – like boosting cycle lanes, and experimenting with new on-street parking facilities.
But it’s still capable of doing some very dumb things – such as closing a cycle lane on the Greenwich Peninsula so it can be used for trials of driverless cars.
The council won a bid last year to test out the technology, getting an £8 million grant to carry out the tests.
In December, the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time claimed the trials would not take place on public roads.
But a stretch of dedicated cycle path next to the Thames Cable Car has been commandeered for the tests, with riders told to share an adjacent footpath with pedestrians.
There was no consultation about the decision, instead there’s just a tiny notice on a lamp post and cycle markings scrubbed out and replaced with the word “SHUTTLE”.
The notice cites “danger to the public” for the decision. But if the trial’s organisers think they can avoid danger by closing off a length of cycle path, they’ve chosen the wrong place.
I cycle along this stretch regularly, and most days there are pedestrians wandering into the cycle track – often glued to tablets with headphones plugged in.
In fact, when I first saw the closure yesterday, there was a small child crawling over the “SHUTTLE” marking. Returning home in the evening rush hour, there were plenty of people wandering down the cycle path.
Nobody walking in the path this time, but sooner or later somebody’s going to get a shock when they look up from their phone. As driverless technology evolves, it’s going to have the potential to clash with other road users – four-wheeled, two-wheeled, or two-footed.
Greenwich’s decision to prioritise driverless cars over cyclists and pedestrians without consultation, while on a parochial level is pretty much typical of the way it does things, isn’t a good omen for the future.
In the meantime, if you’re walking along the Thames Path any time soon, keep an eye – and ear – out for a little driverless car…
Update, 17 February: The path has now reopened. So what was all that about, and was it really worth burning off road markings, putting on new ones, burning them off again and reinstating old markings? A weird episode.
Greenwich Council has been given 14 days to respond to a demand from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to close its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, MPs have been told.
A written statement from junior minister Kris Hopkins says the council has been told it’ll be directed to close the controversial freesheet by 31 March.
Greenwich Time is one of only two weekly council newspapers in the country, along with Tower Hamlets’ title East End Life.
Pickles has long been trying to clamp down on such papers, demanding that councils publish newssheets no more than four times per year. Neighbouring Lewisham cut its Lewisham Life magazine from monthly to quarterly some years ago.
The council was first warned in September 2014, but it has argued that by using Greenwich Time to publish local information, it is saving taxpayers money.
The true costs of Greenwich Time have been notoriously difficult to quantify. While the paper relies on a lot of freelance labour, quoted costs do not include the time spent by council staff and officers in producing it. In 2013 this website found out that GT cost £124,000 per year to produce, without counting the work put in by the council’s paid staff.
Its opponents say GT, which is signed off by the council leader and chief executive each issue, stifles debate while local newspaper publishers argue it competes unfairly for advertising revenue. A move by the owners of the South London Press to buy the title was rebuffed in 2011.
Last November, Greenwich Council put its advertising contract out for tender – the £400,000 annual fee roughly matching GT’s distribution costs. But council leader Denise Hyland later called this a “Plan B”. Last night, she told Conservative leader Spencer Drury it was “business as usual” at the paper.
You can see the exchange at 1 minute 29 minutes into this video:
The role of the paper in pushing the council’s line was highlighted this week in the bizarre row over the council’s proposals to incentivise local business to pay the London Living Wage.
Despite the scheme first being publicly proposed by Conservative councillors, Greenwich Time placed the story on its front page and credited it to Labour leader Denise Hyland.
This week’s paper also contains a two-page spread boasting about the council’s plans for the future of Eltham. Promoting improvements in Eltham are a regular feature of Greenwich Time, and few other areas of the borough have had plans publicised in this manner.
It’s widely believed the council is using GT to boost the chances of the marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford being re-elected.
Whether Pickles’ threat will mean the end of GT is a moot point – the closure deadline of 31 March runs so close to the general election that any legal response from Greenwich may mean it can simply carry on through the campaign and leave the issue to whatever government is elected in May.