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.