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.
Breaking news: Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook has been selected as Labour’s candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich at the next general election, after a meeting of local members at the Woolwich Grand Theatre.
The vote followed a hustings featuring Pennycook and his five rivals for the position – Len Duvall, Annie Keys, Kathy Peach, David Prescott and Angela Cornforth.
Pennycook’s selection to succeed Nick Raynsford in the safe Labour seat is likely to have ramifications in Greenwich Council, where he had been tipped by some to be a future leader.
He may now choose to stand down from the council at May’s election, where he has already been re-selected as a candidate for Greenwich West. There’s nothing stopping him staying on for a year (or even being a councillor and an MP), although he may wish to avoid the cost of a council election to follow a general election.
This would open up another vacant Labour seat. With two of leader Chris Roberts’ allies having been forced out of their seats earlier this year, the stage is set for a battle between those who back the embattled leader and others who want to see the council take a new direction.
With Roberts widely thought to be reconsidering his decision to step down at the next election, who gets picked for these seats could be crucial for the future of the council.
Pat Boadu-Darko has stepped down in Eltham North for personal reasons, while it’s also believed there’s a space in Blackheath Westcombe after Simon Thomson was selected for Dartford at the general election.
Kidbrooke with Hornfair has selected Christine Grice to replace Hayley Fletcher, who resigned her nomination citing the “culture of bullying”.
2.30pm update: According to Labour’s council candidate for Shooters Hill, Chris Kirby, the 2015 general election has just been cancelled in Greenwich and Woolwich.
2.45pm update: And this bloke:
Heaven forbid that any of the rest of us get a say…
7.30pm update: And there’s not really else to add. A curious fact: Matt Pennycook was the first man to be selected for Labour for the next election in a seat where an MP is retiring – all the others have been all-female shortlists.
I’ve been told but can’t confirm that it was a closer battle than some expected, with the gap between Matt Pennycook and Len Duvall being as close as 30 votes (out of about 500), with David Prescott coming third.
Questions put to candidates included: “How would you reconcile the need for jobs and transport improvements locally with the global imperative to reduce carbon emissions?” Tellingly for Greenwich Council’s claims of mass support, when it came to the Silvertown Tunnel, only Angela Cornforth was outright in her support for it.
So now it’s all over. Congratulations to Matt Pennycook – hopefully he’ll both champion the people of Greenwich & Woolwich (and points around and in between) and be a much-needed force for good in his own party and beyond. Good luck to him.
And as for Labour party members…
Political Animal (@politic_animal) November 30, 2013
It’s the biggest political battle Greenwich or Woolwich has seen for a generation, and it ends tomorrow. The winner will get the keys to a safe seat in Parliament and the chance to develop a career which could peak in one of the nation’s highest offices. The others are already working out their excuses.
But only 700 or so people will get a say, while the other 66,000 haven’t even been told the identities of the six candidates battling it out. Those local Labour members have had their doors knocked upon, their phones rung and their emails clogged by candidates in a way that those of normal civilians who live in a rock-solid safe seat can only wonder at. Welcome to the contest to be Labour’s candidate for the Greenwich & Woolwich parliamentary constituency.
The six shortlisted candidates who want to succeed Nick Raynsford were decided nearly three weeks ago, but no public announcement was ever made. Labour Party modernisers use this as an example to talk about primaries involving the public – but this is a world away from all that.
The shortlist is current borough mayor Angela Cornforth, London Assembly member Len Duvall, former councillor Annie Keys, charity professional Kathy Peach, Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook and public relations director David Prescott.
Pennycook remains the man to beat, with a well-funded and carefully-orchestrated campaign, with Duvall supporters still hopeful their candidate can mount a late surge to success. Peach and Keys appear to be leading the outsiders and can’t be written off yet. Neither can David Prescott, with heavyweight backing.
It’s been a bitter campaign, too. It’s pitted Greenwich versus Woolwich and the young and ambitious against the party old guard. Most of the barbs seem to be flying towards Pennycook, a senior research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation think tank.
The allegations of bullying in Greenwich Council’s leadership haven’t helped either. While council leader Chris Roberts is largely disliked within the wider Greenwich & Woolwich party, broaching the subject of his behaviour acknowledges there’s a problem. Particularly when the council your party runs refuses to investigate him, even though everyone else can smell the problem. Because ignoring it looks even worse.
Critics both outside and inside the party charge Pennycook with hypocrisy – and some claim he’s done a deal with Roberts, which he’s denied, although Roberts is believed to be backing him (some say to get a potential council leadership rival out of the race, with Roberts reconsidering his pledge to stand down). But any member of a group of Labour councillors which has failed to deal with bullying in its ranks will hit trouble on the subject.
Even a councillor outside Greenwich got into bother. Lewisham councillor Kevin Bonavia (pictured right), who didn’t make the shortlist but knows the toxic politics of Greenwich Labour well enough, tweeted that the “old-style culture in Greenwich must change”.
For his honesty, he found Greenwich councillors demanding he be disciplined by the Lewisham party for his comments. Lewisham Labour councillors, who worry about the stench coming from across this side of the border, quite rightly, told their embarrassing neighbours where to stick it.
Indeed, in this race, being a Greenwich councillor has been, unusally, a disadvantage. While Pennycook’s proud of his efforts to turn Greenwich into a living wage borough, the council’s PR department has been silent on the matter – allowing the local Tories to pitch to the left of Labour on the issue.
Kathy Peach, who’s run a lively and thought-provoking campaign, managed to get two birds with one stone when emailing local members about an event last week. First, she made a dig at an event Pennycook held with the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, then nailed the council’s lack of interest in the borough’s high streets.
Cosy chit-chats with Guardian contributors are pleasant enough, but won’t change anything in the real world.
For a glimpse of reality, head out from Woolwich Grand Theatre, look around General Gordon Square, and walk down Powis Street: once diverse community spaces that I remember from my childhood, but now lined with betting shops. Indeed Woolwich is home to 9 betting shops in total – nearly a third of the constituency’s 30 betting shops – all within a few hundred metres of each other.
Payday lenders, fast food takeaways and betting shops have proliferated all over our constituency. How did a council that won ‘council of the year’ for its regeneration efforts fail to stem this slow demise of our high streets – the social and commercial lifeblood of our constituency?
How, indeed. For the record, Polly Toynbee has told this website she is not endorsing any candidate in the selection.
But relentless campaigning – and funding from the Unite and GMB unions – has helped Matt. This week, rivals have been crying foul that he’s offering to buy breakfast for party members on Saturday morning, ahead of the final hustings and vote.
In a public election, “treating” – buying food, drink or entertainment to influence voters – is frowned upon, and can be illegal. But there isn’t the same provision in Labour’s rulebook, so members can dine out on Pennycook’s campaign on Saturday morning.
Supporters of rival candidates are seething – but there’s little they can do. As a current councillor yet still a relatively face, Pennycook can pitch himself as both an insurgent and a member of the establishment. Critics sneer that he’s an “empty suit” – but in an area when the party has struggled to adapt to 21st century communications, his promise of change has won people over.
He’ll be a loss to the council, where he could have proved himself as a leader and shaken up an ageing, out-of-touch authority. Perhaps if Nick Raynsford had held on for another term, this might have happened. But when you’ve the chance to appear on a bigger stage, why would you turn it down?
Len Duvall is pitching himself as the “unity” candidate, and his backers point to a track record of getting things done, including standing up to Roberts and the council he once led. This should have been his to lose. It could still be – he’s best placed to stop the Pennycook juggernaut.
He’s very much the favourite of the anti-Roberts councillors and activists in Greenwich – who remember a better-run council under his control – and is particularly strong in the Woolwich area.
But Duvall does represent the party’s old guard – this campaign should have been his to lose – indeed, his campaign is being run by Quentin Marsh, who ran Greenwich Council 25 years ago. In 2010, former councillor Marsh posed as an ordinary voter on a Labour leaflet imploring electors to back the party’s candidates in Charlton in Charlton. This isn’t forward to a shiny new future.
All this said though, Duvall’s well liked and much respected, can still definitely mount a late surge. Don’t write him off yet. As his supporters say, at least the old guard knew how to get things done.
Annie Keys and Kathy Peach will be pinning their hopes on squeezing through on second choices. Both mounted community-focused campaigns, with Keys coming out against the Silvertown Tunnel and Peach declaring herself sceptical. (Duvall is believed to be for the crossing, while Pennycook has not stated a view either way.)
Charlton-based Keys is popular in both the Greenwich and Woolwich parts of the constituency, while Peach has played up her Woolwich roots. There are many who wish this had been an all-woman selection to force a clean break from the area’s political past of bickering blokes not achieving very much – for generally, when Labour members get a choice of both genders, they tend to go for the man.
They’ll be competing for the votes of those who wish for a Stella Creasy or Heidi Alexander-style MP. Both have worked to emulate those community-rooted values. Neither can be written off just yet – those second choices could see either of them go well, particularly Keys, who has a strong network of local contacts. (Declaration of interest: I’m a trustee of a charity Annie set up to run an under-fives’ club in Charlton.)
David Prescott has homed in on problems with property developers in the area – the kind of issue you won’t read in Greenwich Time, and a brave one to raise when your own Labour council is in bed with those same developers. He’s also been talking up renationalising the railways – more radical than his dad, former deputy prime minister John – managed in office. He’s got heavyweight national Labour backing – notably shadow health secretary Andy Burnham and likely London mayoral hopeful Lord Adonis – and union backing too. Will this be enough to see him through?
Finally, the most perplexing candidate is Angela Cornforth – a Roberts ally said to be in the race solely to draw votes away from Keys and Peach. Earlier this year she stood for an area committee on the Co-op, claiming that “Greenwich councillors are taking the first steps to prepare for co-operative council status“ – which brought hollow laughter from those connected with the council that I’ve asked.
Most recently, Cornforth has been the subject of controversy for twice intervening in council meetings on matters that would embarrass Chris Roberts – even writing to the News Shopper to defend herself. Indeed, Greenwich Council’s weekly propaganda newspaper even misled the public about her inauguration, pretending it was at Woolwich Town Hall and not at a lavish ceremony at the old Royal Naval College. She’s as much chance of being the next MP as I have of scoring the winner at The Valley on Saturday.
So those are the candidates, and if you live in the Greenwich & Woolwich constituency, one of the six above is almost certain to be your next MP after 2015. There have been concerns raised about the amount of union money sloshing around the campaign – the days when a bright young upstart could reach the top through grit and hard work alone have gone. Such is modern politics.
Will this bad feeling be forgotten after Saturday’s selection? The winning candidate will need a lot of support in the months ahead if he or she is to take a leading role cleaning up the practices and reputation of the Labour party in Greenwich.
But with victory in the bag, will the winner really want to? We shall wait and see.
With a second councillor standing down over the bullying culture in Greenwich Council’s Labour group, the battle to be the party’s parliamentary candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich is, in truth, a bit of a sideshow.
But for those involved, the chance to succeed Nick Raynsford in what should be a safe seat for years to come means everything. Favours are being called, supporters marshalled, deals are being done and deals are being denied. If you could power the national grid with gripes, snipes and complaints, the Greenwich & Woolwich battle alone would make sure there’d be no blackouts this winter.
24 people threw their hats into the ring – mostly flotsam, jetsam, chancers and no-hopers. After pressing the flesh of ward parties and other groups, they’ve now been whittled down into a longlist consisting of most of those who were decent contenders in the first place.
- Angela Cornforth, Plumstead councillor and current Greenwich Council mayor.
- Len Duvall, Greenwich and Lewisham London Assembly member and former Greenwich Council leader.
- Annie Keys, former Blackheath Westcombe councillor and community activist.
- Matt Pennycook, Greenwich West councillor and analyst for the Resolution Foundation think-tank.
- Kathy Peach, head of campaigns at charity Scope.
- David Prescott, PR agency boss, former journalist and son of ex-deputy prime minister John.
This does mean the loss of Kevin Bonavia, the well-liked Lewisham councillor and solicitor who decided to throw his hat in the ring across the border. The Blackheath ward representative will live to fight another day. The other vanquished hopefuls, possibly not.
As party bigwigs drew up that longlist, a curious few paragraphs appeared in the Independent on Saturday, penned by veteran political correspondent Andy McSmith.
An email has gone to members of the Greenwich Labour Party, in south London, telling them that Polly Toynbee, queen of The Guardian commentariat, is heading their way to advise them to select Matt Pennycook, a promising young intellectual from the much respected Resolution Foundation, as their next Labour MP.
Polly Toynbee’s been involved in SE London politics before – campaigning against Labour in Lewisham East in 1983, when she stood for the SDP and came third. I’m told she also campaigned for Rosie Barnes in the 1987 Greenwich by-election.
And whoever is selected will be an MP because Greenwich is safely Labour. There are other contestants, including David Prescott, son of, and Kathy Peach, from Scope, but the word is that this is a two horse race.
A two-horse race? Really? One horse is Matt, says Andy, but the other is “the local candidate”, who is “exceptional”.
Len Duvall, who hails from a Woolwich council estate, entered politics via the 1970s Anti Nazi League, having had to cope with racist taunts because he is part Indian. He took a very hard line on the 2011 rioters, and paid the price when someone told the police that his son was out looting. This was untrue, but generated a lot of damaging publicity. In his long local government career, he has been hard on sleaze, which has left him with enduring enemies. If it were my choice, I would forego Ms Toynbee’s kind advice and back the guy with battle scars.
Both Matt and Len would make fine representatives. But take a look at the battle so far, and this certainly isn’t a two-horse race. Because if you look at who won the most ward nominations, it’s actually Annie Keys, as every bit as local as Len is, in front, after getting the backing of six out of the area’s seven ward parties. But Andy completely ignored her.
Matt’s on four, while Len ties with Kathy on three, with Angela on one – Glyndon, council leader Chris Roberts’ ward. Annie’s also the only candidate to win backing at the opposing Greenwich and Woolwich ends of the constituency – Andy McSmith neglected even to mention the latter place in its name.
In case you’re interested, here’s the breakdown.
- Blackheath Westcombe: Annie Keys, Matt Pennycook, Kathy Peach
- Charlton: Annie Keys, Matt Pennycook
- Glyndon: Angela Cornforth, Len Duvall
- Greenwich West: Annie Keys, Matt Pennycook, Kathy Peach
- Peninsula: Annie Keys, Matt Pennycook, Kathy Peach
- Woolwich Common: Annie Keys, Len Duvall
- Woolwich Riverside: Annie Keys, Len Duvall
So why did Andy McSmith ignore Annie Keys’ chances? Matt Pennycook’s certainly the frontrunner, but Len Duvall’s no underdog. Both have heavy union backing – particularly Matt.
But while Matt is weaker in Woolwich and Len is weaker in Greenwich, there’s every chance Annie can come through the middle. Last week she challenged the council to withdraw its unpopular “pavement tax” on small businesses – something none of the other candidates have done yet. In case you’re wondering how David Prescott’s on the longlist, he’s also been nominated by unions, so he gets a place. A shortlist will be drawn up in a couple of weeks, with the final hustings and vote taking place on 30 November.
I should point out I’ve known Annie since we were at school together, and I’m a trustee of the Mulberry True Children’s Trust, which she set up to manage the Big Red Bus Club play centre in Charlton. In fact, I’ve just found an invite to a party she threw 20 years ago. Maybe I’ll publish it in the next few weeks…
But what I would like to publish are your questions to the candidates. Once the shortlist’s drawn up, I’d like to pose some questions to them. So if there’s anything you’d like to know, leave it in the comments box below.
Of course, the battle for Greenwich & Woolwich comes at an awkward time for the Labour Party, as the Labour council remains mired in bullying accusations – a real story which Andy McSmith somehow managed to miss.
This Wednesday’s council meeting will see two motions put forward by Conservative councillors in an attempt to go for the jugular on the issue – although whether they’ll actually be heard is another matter, with competing anti-Tory motions being pushed onto the agenda by leader Chris Roberts without consulting his Labour colleagues. It remains to be seen how the mayor – one Angela Cornforth – will treat them.
Now a second councillor, Kidbrooke with Hornfair’s Hayley Fletcher, has decided to step down, as the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler reported on Friday. Her decision to go follows that of Alex Grant earlier this year.
Regular readers will be familiar with Hayley’s contributions to this website’s comments, and the loss of a promising councillor in her 20s will be a deep blow to a council already desperately short of younger members.
Her resignation email, as seen by this website, refers to her beginning a new job and a masters’ degree. Then there’s the sad conclusion:
As you’re all too acutely aware, Labour group is a toxic and unhealthy environment to be in. The bullying culture is rife and I see little prospect of that changing anytime soon.
I simply cannot sustain my own wellbeing in this environment and, for my own mental health if nothing else, have decided that walking away from it is the healthiest thing for me right now.
To lose one councillor to bullying accusations should be a wake-up call. Losing two should, in any normal organisation, demand a full investigation.
But the local Labour party remains in denial. This website understands that it’s more likely that Greenwich’s Labour group will pursue and punish any whistleblowers, particularly in regard to the leaked “thick skull” voicemail in which Chris Roberts threatened cabinet member John Fahy, rather than take action against the party hierarchy, or the clear conflict of interest over the Run to the Beat half-marathon which the Dear Leader’s voicemail reveals.
Several of the candidates for Greenwich & Woolwich have connections with Greenwich Council, with two going back decades. Hopefully local Labour members will ask the right questions to ensure they select a potential MP who will be part of the solution, and not part of the problem in a self-lacerating local party.
City Hall officials have been asked to investigate the handling of Greenwich Council’s botched £11.5m redevelopment of the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, where work has been stalled for over a year.
Greenwich & Lewisham assembly member Len Duvall has referred the matter to auditors at the Greater London Authority to establish what went wrong with the project, which had been funded by the Government’s Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) before being switched to City Hall last year.
It’s emerged an HCA official signed off the project after a site visit in March 2011, handing the project over to Greenwich Council the following month, on the understanding work would be finished by September 2011.
The HCA stopped scrutinising the project after the site visit, and the matter was not looked at again until City Hall took over the HCA’s work in London in April 2012. Now Duvall has asked the authority’s audit panel and district auditor to investigate. The London Assembly’s budget and performance committee has also been asked to look at the issue.
Duvall’s move comes after campaigning from Greenwich Cyclists on the issue.
Both Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels remain in a poor state after the collapse of the project in late 2011, at around the time cabinet member Denise Hyland was blaming the problems at both tunnels on “hidden structures” which didn’t actually exist.
The council itself, which sacked the three contractors in charge of the job, admitted in October 2012 that there was “an unacceptable and deteriorating environment for users” in the tunnels.
Last November, it emerged Greenwich Council had previously told the HCA the work had been completed – even though that simply wasn’t the case, and that should have been clear on any site visit.
Indeed, when the Woolwich Foot Tunnel reopened in December 2011 after at least a 15-month closure, the poor state of the tunnel demonstrated the difficulty the project was in. When Greenwich’s lifts reopened in early 2012, lights were failing and lifts kept breaking.
In a letter to Duvall seen by this website, the GLA’s Housing and Land executive director David Lunts says “the project remains a concern for the GLA”, and says it is now in “regular dialogue” with the council as it struggles to complete the project.
No work has taken place at either tunnel for over a year, with no new contractors appointed to finish the job. Woolwich Foot Tunnel remains without lifts, Greenwich had new lifts fitted but they have been plagued by breakdowns.
Greenwich Council commissioned an independent report from John Willmoth into the fiasco six months ago. After completing a report into the council’s handling of big projects in general, he has yet to report back on the foot tunnels issue.
11.20am update: Len Duvall has told this site:
“What took place over the work on the foot tunnels work should not have happened.
Greenwich are learning from this experience internally and I look forward to the publication of the second of John Wilmoth’s independent reports examining what happened in this case more closely.
My intervention is to make the GLA take its responsibilities seriously, not just ‘shrug their shoulders’ when public money from bodies that have since become part of the GLA is involved. There are lessons for us to learn at the GLA and I hope that Greenwich Council are equally keen to ensure that events like this don’t occur in the future. Most importantly Greenwich need to press on with the completion of the works – monitored closely by the GLA – to ensure that both foot tunnels are accessible to everyone.”
The dangerous road junction at Bugsby’s Way in Greenwich will be brought before Mayor Boris Johnson’s attention next week when local London Assembly member Len Duvall demands “radical changes” at at a crossing which has seen now seen eight accidents in the past three years, one fatal. Two weeks ago, a 14-year-old boy was injured after being knocked down by a bus at the Millennium Retail Park junction.
In September, Greenwich Council decided to install a speed hump for buses leaving the retail park, resurface the bus lane red and improve road markings at the junction. But Duvall, Labour assembly member for Greenwich & Lewisham and former Greenwich Council leader, has asked the mayor:
There have been a number of pedestrian fatalities at the Bugsby Way junction in Greenwich as a result of bus collisions. Will the Mayor press TfL and the Royal Borough of Greenwich to make radical changes at this junction to prevent further and unnecessary threats to pedestrian safety?
A follow-up, as TfL runs traffic lights, asks:
Will the Mayor consider special measures such as phasing of the lights or speed tables at Bugsby Way to increase public safety at the junction?
The question’s been submitted for next Wednesday’s mayor’s question time, and it’ll almost certainly get a written response, probably a further week after that.
Aside from the obvious need to do something at a poorly-designed junction where buses belt across to avoid getting stuck at the lights, there’s a other curious aspect to this about Greenwich Council’s currently-fractious internal politics.
Why on earth is the former Labour leader of Greenwich Council asking a Tory mayor to put pressure on Labour-run Greenwich Council? You’d think they all hated each other and didn’t trust the council leadership. After cabinet member Maureen O’Mara’s attack on her own backbenchers a couple of weeks ago, something’s definitely up.
Hopefully, common sense will triumph over stubborness before anyone else is killed at Bugsby’s Way.
This crept out while I was on my travels. On one hand, it’s amazing nobody’s made a big deal of this. On the other hand… maybe not.
Greenwich and Lewisham’s London Assembly member, Len Duvall, put a question to the Mayor of London last month about the proposed rail cuts through Deptford, Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich and Kidbrooke during next summer’s Olympics.
Here’s the answer from Boris Johnson, elected advocate for the capital city in which we live.
I am not responsible for Southeastern’s train planning during the Olympics (or indeed at any other time)… Southeastern believe it [sic] will still provide a good level of service sufficient for commuters. It has been consulting stakeholders about the timetable. It will investigate whether it is able to make changes as a result of the feedback received, including that from London TravelWatch which says that some of the suggestions are ‘unacceptable’.
So, even with an election coming up, our mayor really doesn’t seem to give a damn about a key element of what’s going to be one of London’s biggest challenges next year – keeping ordinary Londoners happy while the Olympics are on. While Boris doesn’t have legal responsibility for Southeastern, TfL is certainly the biggest “stakeholder” in the whole process – if Southeastern’s plans go wrong, the mayor will cop a load of the flak.
Two political questions spring to mind. After all, we’ve an election next year.
Local Conservatives – are you really happy to see your mayor shrug off concerns about public transport during the Olympics?
Local Labour types – why aren’t you making a big deal of Boris’s lack of interest? What would Ken Livingstone do instead?
Greenwich and Woolwich’s Labour MP Nick Raynsford is due to meet Southeastern bosses this week to discuss their plans. He’s already called the proposals “unduly disruptive“.