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.
853 exclusive: Greenwich Council has agreed to stop publishing its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, by June, the government has announced.
Council leader Denise Hyland had planned to go to court to defend the paper, which is distributed to the vast majority of homes in the borough each week.
It is the only council weekly left in England following Tower Hamlets’ decision last week to phase out East End Life.
Greenwich has now agreed to comply with laws restricting local authority publications to four times a year, beginning from June.
A Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokesman said: “We have agreed that Royal Borough of Greenwich will be fully compliant with the Publicity Code from the end of June 2016, settling the matter without having to go to court.”
The department did not provide further details of the agreement.
A Greenwich Council spokesperson told this website: “We are pleased that Royal Borough and the Department of Communities and Local Government have settled the matter without having to go to court.
“We are pleased that the Department has accepted the Royal Borough’s need to continue to produce regular and frequent communication for residents, in order to keep them up to date on Council services, job opportunities and other important information.”
Greenwich says it will still be allowed to produce “regular and frequent communication of information” to residents who choose to receive it in whatever format, so long as it does not look like a newspaper, news-sheet or similar.
Last month, Hyland told a full council meeting that Greenwich had spent £35,350 on preparing for the court action, plus an estimated £12,893 on staff time.
The council has consistently claimed it saves money by publishing a weekly newspaper, as otherwise it would have to pay one of the local newspaper groups to carry its public notices advertising planning application, road works, and other formal announcements. In December, Hyland claimed it would save £21,000 per month.
But critics have dismissed the paper – which features council and community features rather than hard news – as merely a propaganda tool for the authority’s leadership.
Greenwich Time was a target of former communities secretary Eric Pickles, who announced plans to take legal action against the council last March. In response, the council announced it would seek a judicial review of the decision.
But Greenwich’s last line of defence – that government-appointed commissioners at Tower Hamlets were continuing to publish a weekly paper there – started crumbling last autumn, when its paper, East End Life, switched to fortnightly. Last week, Tower Hamlets’ elected Labour mayor John Biggs announced East End Life would cease publication altogether this spring in response to a direction from the commissioners.
Biggs said of East End Life: “In over 20 years of weekly publication the world has changed, particularly with the use of the internet, and it is time we looked again at it.”
Greenwich will now have to rethink its communications strategy, which largely revolves around the paper. For years, rumours have claimed Greenwich would attempt to transfer GT to Greenwich Leisure Limited, although Pickles’ direction to the council would appear to rule that possibility out.
Neighbouring Lewisham switched its Lewisham Life magazine to quarterly some years back, but also sends out weekly emails with information about council and community services.
The paper was first published in 1984 as a campaigning monthly, at a time when Labour councils were openly fighting decisions made by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
It went fortnightly in 1991, softening its tone during Len Duvall’s 1990s reign as council leader. But in 2002 it began to mimic the style of a local paper, going weekly six years later.
This has been kicking around for a few days, but as this website’s gong through a bit of an infrastructure phase, it’d be daft to ignore it – Transport for London’s commissioner has said the Bakerloo Line could be extended to Lewisham by 2030, running via the Old Kent Road and New Cross Gate. (See original London SE1 story and page 38 of the TfL commissioner’s report.)
But Mike Brown’s preferred plan is to build only a first phase to Lewisham – instead of extending the route over National Rail lines through Catford to Hayes.
It’s mixed news for Lewisham Council’s campaign to bring the Tube to the borough, as while Lewisham itself – undergoing rapid redevelopment – would get a much-needed Underground link, its southern neighbour faces being stuck with inferior overground services, despite also being home to big regeneration schemes.
On first sight, it appears a remarkably short-sighted proposal. If you consider how congested North Greenwich is now, a Bakerloo terminal at Lewisham – attracting passengers from all points south and east – could make that look calm and peaceful.
Furthermore, the really big costs would be in tunnelling to Lewisham – converting the old Mid-Kent rail route through Ladywell, Catford Bridge, Lower Sydenham and out to Hayes would be relatively cheap.
(Readers with very long memories will remember we’ve been here before – the original 1965 Jubilee Line (then Fleet Line) proposals would have seen the line extended in phases to run to Hayes by 1980.)
But as mentioned last year, Bromley Council has long been unhappy about losing direct trains to the City from Hayes – even though the Bakerloo can shift far more people, and is likely to be at least as quick for suburban travellers than existing services.
If Bromley’s rather inexplicable opposition continues, it’ll also remove one of the key benefits of the scheme – freeing up extra National Rail routes through Lewisham after the Hayes line is transferred to the Underground.
Of course, this does open up the opportunity for others to belatedly come in – last year the Eltham Labour Party agreed a motion backing a Bakerloo extension along the Bexleyheath line, a slightly more sensible proposal than the DLR on stilts on top of the A2.
Lewisham Council studied a variety of different options in a report five years ago, but its findings were largely ignored this side of the border. More recently, Greenwich Council has lent its backing to a Lewisham extension. Local Tories are also supporting the idea.
Bakerloo campaigners will now look at persuading London’s next mayor to look afresh at the scheme so he/she opts to implement the whole extension, rather than just a link to Lewisham. But with TfL losing all its government grant from 2019, the future of the whole scheme isn’t fully guaranteed yet.
17 December update: TfL has now published its full report into the Bakerloo line extension, confirming the above – and indicating that a route through Catford has not so much been kicked into the long grass, but booted into the pond, but also opens up the possibility of a route through Eltham and Bexleyheath to Slade Green. “Planning and engineering work for options to Lewisham will be undertaken on the basis of avoiding preclusion of a future onwards extension including to Hayes and potential other locations such as towards Bexleyheath. This will include working with stakeholders to safeguard necessary delivery of the infrastructure that may be required.”
Greenwich has been pretty much alone among London boroughs in playing down the impact of Government cuts. It’s something that showed sharply last summer – while Greenwich was shouting and spending on tall ships, Lewisham was running The Big Budget Challenge, inviting people to play with the council’s budget and explaining the troubles ahead.
Last month’s Autumn Statement put an end to all that. So it’s good to see that Greenwich is holding a public meeting next Tuesday to discuss what happens next.
Despite us all having to pay council tax, most council funding comes from central government. Council tax rises don’t really amount to much extra in the kitty – especially since the government limited rises to 2% before local referenda have to be called. (The Autumn Statement allowed councils to whack an additional 2% on to cover rising social care costs, but this is seen as too little, too late.)
So councils can either defy the government (and end up with Whitehall staff taking over), or they have to cut. There have been dire predictions of councils going bust by 2020.
Cuts in Greenwich aren’t new. Greenwich has run cuts budgets for the best part of a decade. Stealthy cuts have included closing kids’ playschemes, quietly dispensing of Kidbrooke’s only library, cuts in grants to the voluntary sector, staff pay freezes, cutting senior council officers and threatening Maryon Wilson animal park.
People only notice cuts when they’re directly affected – like a certain Mr David Cameron of Witney, Oxfordshire. But so far, many cuts in Greenwich have been behind the scenes.
You can only chomp into those reserves so far. If you include “unusable reserves”, that figure rockets by almost a billion, but chipping into that sum means flogging off property, plant and other assets (such as the Blackwall Lane “pocket park”).
But with another £77m of cuts to the council’s annual budget expected to come, how long can that go on for?
So credit to Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland and deputy leader John Fahy for holding a “question time” event about all this – to be held at 6pm at Woolwich Town Hall on Tuesday 15 December.
If you want to submit a question and go, you need to register. Hopefully a recording will be made available for everyone else.
It’s curious that it’s been announced with only six days to go, in the run-up to Christmas, held at a time of day that’s not hugely convenient for people in work, and hasn’t featured in this week’s Pravda, but at least it’s a tiny nod towards transparency.
So, what are you asking the council?
Greenwich Council’s Conservative group has asked Transport for London to halt the controversial Silvertown Tunnel scheme – so it can be assessed along with rejected plans for a Docklands Light Railway extension to Eltham.
The borough’s main opposition group has lined alongside the Labour council’s leadership in backing the new road “in principle”, despite widespread concerns it will increase rather than decrease pollution.
However, it wants the process – which is being rushed through so the planning process can begin before Boris Johnson leaves office – paused so proposals for a DLR link to Eltham can be included in the scheme.
Johnson’s successor can continue with, pause, or scrap the Silvertown Tunnel scheme after May’s mayoral election. A “final” consultation into the proposal ended at the end of November.
In their response to the scheme, the Tories say the tunnel – which relies on the same southern approach road as the Blackwall Tunnel – will be “a much-needed improvement to the resilience of our local transport network.
But the report – from local party leader Matt Hartley and transport spokesman Matt Clare – says that not including a DLR link to Eltham in the scheme is a “missed opportunity” that “would take a significant amount of traffic off the road network” as well as being “transformative for the South East London economy”.
“Our area of London is suffering from decades of under-investment in transport infrastructure because bold decisions were not taken in the past – and we fear that not including the DLR extension is a further example of this,” it adds.
For a scheme that has been flatly rejected by Transport for London, the mythical DLR extension to Eltham has an amazing hold over Greenwich borough politicians – with an ability, in their minds, to magic away the congestion and pollution new road schemes can bring.
The return of the DLR on stilts
So what went wrong? In 2011, Greenwich Council spent £75,000 commissioning two reports into a proposal to build a link from Canning Town to Falconwood, following the A102 and A2, providing a service to and from Stratford International.
Hyder Consulting’s first report, which outlined the idea and costed it at £1 billion, was never released publicly – despite being discussed in a cabinet meeting – until this website obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act. Here it is. It was submitted to TfL for comments.
But the follow-up – which aimed to answer TfL’s concerns – was suppressed by the council, hidden for nearly two years, with misleading answers given to anyone who asked about it. It was also never submitted to TfL. It finally emerged in April 2014 after a former Liberal Democrat councillor asked to see it. (Here it is.)
Why wasn’t the report submitted to TfL? Unfortunately for the council, Hyder report concluded that only an extension to Kidbrooke would be feasible – any further would face “disproportionately higher costs”. (It also said the Silvertown Tunnel itself would overwhelm local roads with traffic, expensive advice that Greenwich Council also chose to ignore.)
And TfL itself dismissed the scheme, pointing out that the Jubilee Line at North Greenwich may not be able to cope with interchanging passengers, and better capacity on the existing DLR services were coming.
But the report did contain some startling images of the DLR on stilts as it weaved its way above dual carriageways and homes. It’s worth a read just for those alone.
The Eltham DLR flame still burns for some…
Of course, councillors are paid to be parochial rather than strategic. Which is why Greenwich frets about north/south links within its own borough, and TfL isn’t so fussed. Although if Greenwich councillors were that bothered, you think they’d have pressed TfL on why travelling from Woolwich to Eltham by bus is so lousy.
But there are still keepers of the Eltham DLR flame. After all, Eltham is still a place that can change elections. Less cynically, one of the causes of the Blackwall Tunnel’s jams is the lack of orbital transport in this part of London. A scheme to Kidbrooke, as the report says, could be a goer. But both Tories and Labour want the full Eltham version of a scheme which TfL simply isn’t interested in.
In its 2014 Silvertown Tunnel consultation response, Greenwich Council placed the Eltham DLR as a condition of its continuing support for the scheme. TfL ignored this, Greenwich’s 2015 response still backs the Silvertown Tunnel. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen, eh?
The Tories have started banging on about the scheme too – which is how we’ve ended up where we are today, with the Tories backing a scheme which was discredited in a report commissioned by a Labour council which didn’t bother to submit it to a Tory-run transport authority. Phew.
The real shame is that while Greenwich was messing around with the DLR on stilts, Lewisham Council was pursuing a Bakerloo Line extension through Lewisham and Catford – a scheme that’s got every chance of becoming reality. Politicians in Greenwich have belatedly woken up to the benefits of this – but putting Eltham on the Tube would have been a big, big prize.
So what about Greenwich Labour? Don’t hold your breath…
Meanwhile, Greenwich Council’s response to the Silvertown consultation – in the name of regeneration councillor Danny Thorpe – might as well have been written by former Dear Leader Chris Roberts, whose Bridge The Gap campaign ushered in unconditional support for the tunnel. He’s now working for regeneration PR agency Cratus, which is fretting over whether the Tories will win the mayoral election.
The response, which uses the phrase “royal borough” 57 times, backs the tunnel without hesitation despite outlining a host of concerns, from inadequate air pollution monitoring to the effects on traffic through Greenwich town centre. This continued support suggests it may not be entirely sincere about these concerns, which have been repeated in every consultation since 2012.
It continues to demand that Greenwich borough residents get cheaper car trips through the tunnel while wanting express buses to North Greenwich with priority on the A102 as well – surely contradictory aims for a council that once wanted to persuade people to switch to public transport.
One of the more baffling aspects of the response is a claim that the “opportunity should be taken to improve cross river cycling connections, particularly those between Greenwich Peninsula and the Isle of Dogs”. This is from a council which, when it considered the Greenwich Peninsula masterplan earlier this year, completely ignored a call for a fixed crossing between the peninsula and the Isle of Dogs, even though the cost of it could have been covered by the planning gain.
Instead, it appears to go touting for business for Thames Clippers, owned by O2 owner AEG, putting forward a proposal already included in the masterplan: “The Royal Borough [sic] asks that TfL agrees to explore opportunities to introduce a cross river vehicular or boat ‘cycle shuttle’, to address that demand, as part of ongoing work.”
The dear old Dangleway’s not forgotten, either: “Similarly, the Royal Borough [sic] would expect definitive proposals for a reduction in charges for cyclists using the Cable Car to be contained within the DCO submission.” It’s unclear why cyclists should get a discount ahead of pedestrians, but there you go.
Fiddling while London chokes
So while councils elsewhere pass motions against the Silvertown Tunnel and raise the alarm about the scheme, in Greenwich we have councillors who know full well the scheme will do harm, and are just content to fiddle around the edges rather than take a stand.
Essentially, Greenwich residents are having to rely on Lewisham councillors to defend their interests at the moment – a crazy situation.
We’ve got a mayoral election coming up where both main parties’ candidates will claim to be the “greenest mayor yet”. Their party colleagues in Greenwich seem to be doing their best to sabotage these claims – if they get their way, we’ll all pay for it in the end.
Back in June, this website reported Boris Johnson giving his backing for cycle hire bikes coming to Greenwich.
A few weeks back, Greenwich’s Tories decided to put a motion before the council suggesting it talk to City Hall about introducing such a scheme in Greenwich town centre, where the bikes are a regular sight. The motion was thrown out, and a bit of a daft row ensued. I’ve written about it this week for Londonist – Will Cycle Hire ever come to Greenwich?
Here’s a spoiler, though – nobody wants to pay for them. Despite Johnson promising the scheme would be self-financing, London Cycle Hire is a gigantic loss-maker. That’s not a bad thing in itself – most public transport loses money, but the wider economic and social benefits tend to be judged worth it.
There’s a good debate on whether the cycle hire scheme – still largely used by affluent men – is actually worth having. I’d argue that it is, as it frees up space on public transport and gets you fit – I used it as part of my commute for a few months last year and found it very useful.
But the main failing is that at £95 for an annual membership it’s absurdly cheap, but the £2 daily hire if you aren’t a member is worse value than taking a bus. Recent figures show that problem still hasn’t been cracked, despite changes to the pricing structure.
But it’s probably less of a priority than investing in safe facilities for people to ride their own bikes in. And that’s something Greenwich Council has been quietly doing over the past couple of years – either with TfL money or when a bit of road needs renewing. The bad old days of the Dear Leader’s tantrums are, in this arena at least, long gone.
Indeed, next year it’s likely we’ll start seeing plans emerge for the first cycle superhighway to Greenwich – phase one of CS4 from Tower Bridge Road to the Old Royal Naval College. If the scheme survives May’s change of mayor, it could revolutionise thousands of commutes. Less revolutionary is Quietway 1, a long-delayed backstreet route from Greenwich station to Waterloo, which is finally due next year.
Ignoring the logistical difficulties of getting the bikes to and from Greenwich, and the absurdity of not having any stands anywhere else in south-east London, let’s take the Greenwich Tories’ scheme at its word.
They wanted four or five cycle stands in Greenwich town centre. Lambeth paid £200,000 for 11 around Stockwell a couple of years back, so let’s say Greenwich would have to pay £100,000 for five, plus an annual £20,000 (a mayor’s booze-up) towards running costs. Good value? You decide.
See also Will Cycle Hire ever come to Greenwich? at Londonist.
More than 1 in 50 Greenwich borough residents could lose their right to vote due to Government changes to the way electoral registers are compiled.
Greenwich Council says 4,293 electors are at risk of falling off the roll when it is forced to switch to individual electoral registration in December.
Broken down by ward, the difference is enough to unseat two of Greenwich’s current councillors, judging by 2014’s election results.
Previously, the electoral roll was compiled by one member of each household filling in a survey form. Now, everybody who wants a vote will has to apply individually.
Even if you had a vote in May’s general election, you may still be at risk of falling off the register as voters who’d registered under the old method were still included then.
If you’re unsure you’re on the register, you can check with Greenwich Council’s electoral registration office (or Lewisham’s, or anywhere else). You can get yourself on the roll by visiting www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.
186,340 people were registered to vote in Greenwich in May 2015, up from 174,522 at the time of 2014’s council poll.
The Labour Party launched a “missing million” campaign last weekend focused on driving up electoral registration – it fears that it will lose votes in poorer areas.
That analysis is borne out in Greenwich borough – a ward-by-ward breakdown of where the missing voters are shows more in Thamesmead Moorings and the two wards covering Woolwich. While Labour has little to fear in those three seats, it will need every vote it can get in next year’s mayoral election if Sadiq Khan is to beat Zac Goldsmith to City Hall.
|Coldharbour & New Eltham||147|
|Kidbrooke with Hornfair||232|
|Middle Park and Sutcliffe||158|
Total “red matches” – those due to come off electoral register in 1 December 2015. Source: Greenwich Council
In marginal seats, the effects of missing votes could go both ways. Judging by 2014’s results, two more Labour councillors could have been elected in Blackheath Westcombe and Eltham South if all the “red matches” were Tory voters and had already been removed.
The figures were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request to Greenwich Council. A similar request was made to Lewisham.
PS. Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling today accused journalists of “misusing” Freedom of Information laws to “generate” news stories. The government is currently reviewing FOI laws.