Local political and community activists are joining forces to push for a change in the way Greenwich Council is run, following last month’s failed attempt to oust Chris Roberts.
The Democracy Greenwich petition aims to curb Roberts’ power by triggering a referendum on how the council is set up.
Just 8,000 signatures are needed from Greenwich borough residents to force a poll on whether the council should replace its “leader and cabinet” system, from which Roberts derives his power, with a committee system which will enable closer scrutiny of new policies.
Membership of the committees is not just open to councillors – which the petition’s backers say will put the community at the heart of decision-making.
But for change to take effect quickly, the 8,000 signatures have to be found in just over two weeks – as the petition would have to be submitted by 2 May for it to be presented to the council’s annual general meeting.
A paper petition has already been doing the rounds, but now the campaign has launched online.
Roberts won a vote of his councillors by 24 votes to 15 when cabinet member John Fahy challenged him for the leadership, but has outraged ordinary Labour members with his cabinet reshuffle, which saw Fahy moved out of his culture portfolio and moved to a job looking after health and older people.
But the council leader is deeply unpopular with rank-and-file members, whose own representatives – the party’s “local government committee” – voted against Roberts staying in his post. However, councillors chose to ignore this when they decided to back Roberts.
While Fahy says he is comfortable with the move, what has really angered local party members is the replacement of one Asian councillor on the cabinet with another. Greener Greenwich cabinet member Rajwant Sidhu is due to trade places with Roberts loyalist Harry Singh, which fuming local activists have branded a token gesture. “It’s divide and rule politics at its worst,” one told me.
The push for the Democracy Greenwich campaign has come from members of the Greenwich & Woolwich and Eltham Labour Parties, rather than councillors, most of whom are unaware of the petition. However, one of the early signatories is David Gardner, chair of the Greenwich & Woolwich branch party.
Other senior party figures are also known to be supportive, but are wary of speaking out in public at the moment. Councillors can face sanctions from the London Labour Party for speaking against the party line, even on the most minor of disagreements. However, if the petition gathers strength, others may speak up.
Local Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green representatives have also been sounded out about the petition. Last month the Conservatives proposed a motion to switch to the committee system – to capitalise on their rivals’ leadership problems – but withdrew it so council officers could investigate the pros and cons of such a switch.
Until a decade ago, all councils made their decisions through committees, but rules brought in by Tony Blair’s government forced them to choose between a “leader and cabinet” model or a “mayor and cabinet” model, which put more power into the hands of a smaller group of individuals. Neighbouring Lewisham went for the elected mayor system, but Greenwich plumped for a leader and cabinet, the system which remains today.
It’s pretty obvious that major decisions in Greenwich borough aren’t beings scrutinised properly – such as the switch to being a royal borough, the decision to close Blackheath Bluecoat school, giving £3m to the Shooters Hill equestrian centre, the funding of festivals around the Olympics and the decision to continue publishing propaganda weekly Greenwich Time. The main check at present is an “overview and scrutiny panel” which can “call-in” issues – but for its Labour members to defy the leader is unheard of.
The coalition government’s new Localism Act enables councils to switch back to a committee system. Sutton Council has decided to make the change, prompting its leader to retire.
Campaigners hope a strong showing in the petition will persuade Greenwich to change without the cost and hassle of a referendum – and usher in a new style of leadership.
If you’re unhappy with the way the council’s run – sign the petition and pass it around. The more who sign, the more chance of forcing a change.
(Full disclosure: I’ve signed the petition and have done some of the legwork in getting in touch with people. Can’t really stay on the fence on this one…)
11pm update: Greenwich.co.uk has spotted that the democracygreenwich.co.uk domain name is registered to the home address of Cllr Rajwant Sidhu. Blimey.