It’s that time of year. News has emerged from Woolwich Town Hall that, once again, Greenwich Council is planning to celebrate the inauguration of another new mayor with another lavish bash at the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall. The event’s scheduled for 22 May.
Like most boroughs, Greenwich’s mayor is elected by councillors to be a figurehead for the borough and to chair full council meeting. Current mayor Jim Gillman – a Labour party stalwart in his mid-70s – indicated he was opposed to having a ceremony in his honour last year, after this website revealed the £30,000 cost of 2010’s event. But he eventually backtracked and went along with 2011’s ceremony, which cost £12,362 after the Old Royal Naval College’s management was persuaded to let the council have the painted hall for nothing. (That’s a little more than the £10,000 cabinet member John Fahy claimed it cost.)
While he and his wife, fellow councillor and twice ex-mayor Janet, exert huge influence in the Greenwich and Eltham Labour parties, Gillman’s spell as mayor has largely seen him act as a stooge for council leader Chris Roberts. Indeed, the couple’s backing has bolstered Roberts’ position. Council meetings were often held up while the mayor struggled to follow proceedings, with chief executive Mary Ney having to intervene to help him find his place at his final meeting last month.
This year will see current deputy David Grant become mayor. Once one of the small “awkward squad” of councillors who disagreed with the Dear Leader’s style of running the council, the Greenwich West councillor’s rebelliousness has faded since he was handed the chains and badges.
(Indeed, David Grant’s most recent contribution to life in Greenwich was to help block a licensing application for a champagne bar in Greenwich town centre. Punters at Black Vanilla will have to make do with non-alcoholic ice cream instead.)
But how much will his mayor-making cost? As yet, we don’t know – this website understands that the Old Royal Naval College only allowed Greenwich Council free use of the painted hall in 2011 on condition that it paid full whack in 2012. So it could be back up to £30,000 again – but we don’t know that for certain.
What we do know is that Greenwich has already been splashing cash on private booze-ups this year. Taken together, the three royal borough celebration events in February cost a total of £136,162, according to an answer given under the Freedom of Information Act. Of this, £35,000 was recouped by obtaining private sponsorship (it is believed New Wine Church had a role in the Woolwich fireworks).
But £16,100 of this was spent on private functions at the celebrations in Greenwich, Woolwich and Eltham, with catering accounting for £7,498 of the cost. Greenwich has not yet answered a question about who was invited to these events.
We do, though, know who was invited to last year’s mayor-making. This website has obtained the invite list for 2011’s mayor-making. It contains over 430 people, including every Greenwich councillor, senior council officers, MPs, police and church figures and a number of people from high-profile businesses in the borough.
The list of those invited last to get a free dinner at Greenwich taxpayers’ expense includes…
- Four figures from Berkeley Homes, which is developing Kidbrooke Village to replace the Ferrier Estate, as well as the Royal Arsenal development in Woolwich, where council leader Chris Roberts owns a property
- Three invites for figures from AEG, which owns and runs the O2, where the council rents a hospitality box
- Greenwich Leisure Limited chair Mark Sesnan, whose organisation later went on to take over the council’s libraries
- Various invites for the Friends of Greenwich Park, the Greenwich Society, the Blackheath Society, the Westcombe Society and the Eltham Society
- Frank Dowling, owner of the Inc group of pubs and restaurants which dominate central Greenwich
- Alastair Hook, boss of the Meantime Brewery and owner of the Greenwich Union and Old Brewery pubs. Endorsed Nick Raynsford in Labour Party publicity in the 2010 election
- the ambassadors of the Netherlands, Germany, China, Slovenia and Ghana
- council head of communications Katrina Delaney, in charge of Greenwich Time and its press office, as well as all 13 other senior council officers and all 51 councillors
- the “outside representatives” on the council’s scrutiny panels, which are supposed to check whether the council is acting properly, including past Conservative council candidate Toks Bailey, former diplomat Sir Michael Pike, who sits on the council’s conduct and probity panel, and Monsignor Nicholas Rothon, of St Mary’s Catholic church in Blackheath Village
- district auditor Susan Exton, who checks the council’s accounts
- Dr Tayo Adeyemi, pastor of the Pentecostal New Wine Church, who later posted this gushing praise for Chris Roberts in Greenwich Time in the aftermath of the Woolwich riots. Dr Tayo’s sermons are often critical of homosexuality
- Charlton Athletic chairman Michael Slater and chief executive Stephen Kavanagh
- University of Greenwich vice-chancellor Baroness Blackstone
- Trustees of the council’s Greenwich Starting Blocks sports charity
- Members of the Greenwich Strategic Partnership Board (which includes one Hugh Ridsdill-Smith, from an organisation called “Youth for Christ“)
- Various LOCOG and Olympic Delivery Authority figures, including Lord Coe
- Greenwich and Docklands Festivals artistic director Bradley Hemmings
- Two representatives of Hadlow College, which is due to operate the council’s controversial equestrian centre on Shooters Hill
- Past councillors including ex-leader Quentin Marsh, who posed as an ordinary resident on this Greenwich Labour election leaflet in 2010
- A host of figures from the local Labour Party, invited by Jim Gillman
Now, for a start, let me make it clear that there is absolutely no allegation of impropriety here. For a start, we don’t know how many of these people actually went – a fair number of councillors have boycotted the event, for example. And of course, a fair number of Greenwich Labour friends, hangers-on and others are to be expected. But this does show who matters in Greenwich Council’s world. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve found those “key stakeholders” they keep going on about.
The first, striking thing is the large numbers of faith groups represented here. If you want to get in with the council, get God. There’s no room for atheists or humanists here, but the borough deans get a bigger say instead, and a free dinner. When you’re boozing away thousands of pounds of other people’s money, it helps to call on great guardians of morality as Dr Tayo to ease your conscience.
It also shows how close the council is to several organisations and individuals who should be scrutinising its actions. Should the council be buying dinner for the person who audits its finances by law? Should those who are meant to checking all is above board at the town hall be taking drinks off those they should be keeping an eye on?
And finally, there’s a group of companies and organisations who will have applied to the council for planning permission, or licences, over recent years. Or they might be organisations bidding for contracts or funding. Four invites for Berkeley Homes proves the developer’s close relationship with a council which is depending on Kidbrooke Village to be a success. But if, say, you’d recently applied for an alcohol licence for a venue in Greenwich and were turned down, you’d be hacked off to find rival bar owners being wined and dined at the council’s expense, wouldn’t you?
It’s worth remembering that these are businesses already operating in Greenwich. This isn’t cash going on wooing a multinational to set up in the borough and create new jobs – these are outfits already based in the borough, and often ones the council does business with.
That said, conspiracy theories will only ever get you so far – last summer Inc Group was fined £11,500 for safety breaches, and owner Frank Dowling’s relations with the council are said to be glacial. But when you’ve a council with a track record for ignoring the concerns of its residents, viewed in a certain light this kind of event looks very shifty indeed.
When set against the fact that the council is still having to make millions of pounds worth of cutbacks, yet chooses to spend cash on slapping itself and its mates on the back, it just looks immoral. This website will be keeping a close eye on 2012’s event – and those who enjoy themselves at our expense.
I spent last night in Walthamstow, as local campaigners won an important victory in their battle to stop the disused EMD cinema from being turned into a church. Sat outside a Hoe Street pub, I watched as E17 residents, from lifelong locals to recent arrivals, celebrated, still not quite believing what they had achieved. New community bonds were being formed, and the party was still going strong when I made my excuses and left at midnight.
What struck me was the lavish praise being heaped upon local Labour MP Stella Creasy, and her colleagues on the council. Inside the Rose and Crown, local councillor Clare Coghill was being congratulated on a powerful speech accusing the church of showing “contempt” for local people. Elected representatives in tune with their constituents? Perish the thought.
I remarked that I couldn’t imagine such warm feelings for most Greenwich Labour councillors, with their planned mayoral bash at the Royal Naval College, despite them being in the same party. They could learn a lot from their Waltham Forest colleagues.
Though the grass certainly isn’t always greener on the other side, the thought stayed with me. On the way home, I tweeted that thought. At eight o’clock, I got my response.
Oh dear. And there it went personal. Sadly, culture and olympics cabinet member John Fahy’s Twitter account is locked down to private, so only a selected few people saw this.
But why would Cllr Fahy go personal like that? Yesterday, he did a piece for Greenwich.co.uk, in which he stoutly defended the mayor-making ceremony, comparing it to the City of London‘s Lord Mayor’s banquet. Whether an archaic fiefdom funded by taxes on the world’s richest companies is comparable with a London borough containing some of the country’s poorest wards is another matter. Anyhow, the Prime Minister shows up at the City’s party. Greenwich’s party gets council leader Chris Roberts.
“I have not had a single constituent complain about this event,” he wrote, ignoring the children’s posters up outside Thorntree School, a few feet outside his Woolwich Riverside ward, comparing the £30,000 cost of last year’s event with the £43,000 the council is withdrawing from the Maryon Wilson Park animal centre.
I put this to Cllr Fahy, and he responded that the costs of the event have been cut to £10,000. “Darryl complaint a bit late in the Day. [sic] Costs of event reduced to £10,000 and yes I have seen the Thorntree Posters.”
Now, you may think that a mayoral party at one of London’s most prestigious venues still sends out the wrong message. But others might take a kinder view of the event now that its costs are down by two thirds.
So how did Greenwich Council’s leadership manage to blow this chance of softening criticism? Part of the reason is its press office has stopped answering my questions. I e-mailed the council’s head of press twice to see if there was a statement for my original story about the mayoral party – once before publication, once a few days after. No response. I e-mailed about another story a few days later – again, no response.
It’s a common tactic among some PR people – don’t answer the question and hopefully they’ll go away. I’ve encountered it loads of times before. It’d be much easier if there was an honest dialogue between local media outlets and the council – because if there isn’t one, bad feeling will only fill the vacuum.
Mind you, it wasn’t just me – when the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler followed the story up yesterday, he wasn’t given the £10,000 figure either, although he did get a statement – leading to the Shopper estimating the cost at £30,000, and listing a load of things that are being cut while the councillors party. The statement described this year’s mayor-making as “poignant”.
You may think the mayor-making bash may not be such a waste of money after all. You may still think it’s £10,000 too much at a time of cutbacks and austerity. But if it’s now costing £10,000, why didn’t it cost £10,000 last year? There are still questions to be asked. It’s just a shame that Greenwich won’t engage with the debate, and one of its leading councillors sticks his fingers in his ears and shouts “BORING!” instead.
You might like to e-mail your local councillor and ask if they’re going, and what they think of the whole thing.
Incidentally, while on value for money, local residents might like to know that Greenwich employs an assistant chief executive in charge of communications, who takes home at least £100,000 a year for running the council’s press office, website, Greenwich Time, and “community engagement“.
Basically, it’s all about making sure the council communicates its messages effectively. With councillors now facing a demonstration outside next Wednesday’s ceremony thanks to the mayor-making row, I’ll leave you to decide whether the people of Greenwich are getting value out of that £100,000 a year.
Council staff and anti-cuts campaigners are planning to picket Greenwich’s controversial mayor-making ceremony at the Old Royal Naval College next week.
The Greenwich Save Our Services group says it will demonstrate outside the event on 25 May, which the council is going ahead with despite cutting £48m from this year’s budget, including cuts to funding for youth, children’s and voluntary services, as well as the Blackheath fireworks and Maryon Wilson animal park in Charlton.
A similar ceremony in the Painted Hall last year cost council taxpayers £30,000, although this year’s costs are not confirmed.
Other boroughs – such as fellow Labour borough Camden – hold their ceremonies at their town halls at minimal cost.
The Unite union’s Greenwich branch secretary, Onay Kasab, said: “This is a disgusting waste of money at a time when the council claims that it hasn’t got enough money to fund jobs and services. While members of my branch don’t know if they will be able to put food on the table the councillors will be living it up and we’ll be paying for it. That money should used to fund services like libraries, care for the sick and elderly, schools and parks.
“Council workers will rightly see this as a slap in the face. We will be protesting to tell the council that we will not accept these cuts and to demand that they stop wasting our money.”
Greenwich Save Our Services spokesperson Paul Callanan added: “This is an absolute travesty. We have seen the biggest attacks on education in generation and the council wants throw a party. And to rub salt into the wound they are holding at a campus that faces the closure of a popular philosophy course.
“While youth unemployment stands at almost one million and graduate unemployment is at 20%, the councillors will be gorging themselves on food and drink. This shows just how out of touch they are.”
Politicians from across the political divide have condemned the ceremony – except for the 40 councillors which make up Greenwich’s ruling Labour group.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Brian Woodcraft said he had returned his invite to the ceremony, with a note reading “I do not see how it is justified to hold this event… this amount could be better spent elsewhere”.
Greenwich Council has not responded to requests to comment on the ceremony, although cabinet member for culture John Fahy said via Twitter on Tuesday morning that he thought the “decision of the Council to hold the inaguration of the Mayor at the Painted Hall is the right one”.