Chris Roberts’ departure from Greenwich Council had been rumoured on and off for some time – but that’s what happens when you’ve been in charge of something for ages. But even then, when the news broke yesterday that the council leader would step down at next year’s election, it still came as a surprise to many.
But he can look back on a job that’s been pretty much completed – with the one big exception, as he acknowledged himself, of funding the Crossrail station in Woolwich, which is key to his efforts to revive the town centre. From the establishment of the council’s own jobs agency to delivering a chunk of the London Olympics, through to freezing council tax and bludgeoning through development masterplans that’ll last into the next decade, the big jobs are pretty much done.
He’s also had the council dancing to his tune for over a decade – and don’t councillors and officers know it. It’s possible Roberts’ departure will also see close ally and chief executive Mary Ney also step down, paving the way for wholesale change at a council’s that resistant to just that. Some of the councillors that have benefited under his rule may also be looking at their own futures.
Suddenly, the disenchanted and disillusioned have reason to look up.
But who would take over? A new leader would have to win a vote of Labour councillors after 2014’s election, so the change starts with rank and file members; who’ll begin to choose candidates later this year. Which ones they pick will be key to who becomes leader – will they pick time-servers, happy to collect the cash to do a leader’s bidding; or will they go for new faces with new ideas?
Unlike other London Labour councils, there’s a shortage of younger faces on the council – under Roberts, some promising councillors pitched in, then became sick of it all and packed it in. So the pickings for successors are fairly slim.
If you had to ask me to pick a new leader, I’d plump for Jackie Smith. Known as someone that can deal with both the Roberts old guard and the “awkward squad” who occasionally say no to him, she knows the council well – her husband is former leader and current London Assembly member Len Duvall. But there are other names – those who could run, or those who could be king- or queen-makers, but I’m not sure anyone else will want to have their ambitions jinxed by being talked up here. And it’s very early days yet.
But whoever does take over will have a lot of work to do – and a lot of bridges to build. There’s a yawning gap between the council and the public it serves. How to fix things? Here’s some thoughts.
1. Consider changing the way the council is run. The mayoral system works well in Lewisham, where Sir Steve Bullock has been the face of the council for a decade. Chris Roberts has been able to hide behind cabinet members (see Bridge The Gap) and council officers – there’s no such protection for Sir Steve. Are we ready for a Mayor of Royal Greenwich?
2. Open up the council. Make an effort to get the public involved in meetings. Use the council website and Greenwich Time to solicit contributions from the public – the London Assembly does a really good job of this. Why can’t council scrutiny panels?
3. Junk that bloody website and start again. Greenwich Council’s website is infuriatingly bad – it’s almost as if things are being deliberately hidden. Here’s my favourite page – the always-empty document library. It needs sorting out.
4. What to do about Greenwich Time? A council publishing a regular journal of information isn’t a bad thing. Publishing a propaganda weekly probably is, though. Should a new leader start to rebuild bridges with the local media, and explore other ways of reaching out to people?
5. Get local. Lewisham’s local assemblies can spend small sums on improving their local areas. Camden has ward meetings. Southwark has community councils – and takes its council meetings out on the road. Greenwich, however, remains centralised and distant. It’s a great opportunity for change.
6. Bin the “royal borough”. We’re officially a royal borough now, and that won’t change, but going on and on about it makes the council look ridiculous. Ceasing endless references to “the royal borough” would be a good first step and an indication of a new direction.
7. Start talking to the neighbours again. Work on some ideas with other SE London boroughs. Southwark Council wants a Bakerloo Line extension to Peckham. Why not team up with Lewisham and put in a bid to extend it even further?
8. Stop obsessing exclusively with big projects, and look at small businesses. Lewisham bid for government money to boost Sydenham and Forest Hill as pat of the “Portas project”, while Catford’s had money from the mayor’s Outer London Fund. Further out of town, Dartford’s got some Portas cash. Greenwich seems to be relying solely on a mega-Tesco in Woolwich to solve all its ills, while neglecting to pay attention to smaller shops and smaller shopping areas which could do with some help. If that’s not the case, it needs to change people’s views – and quickly.
Any more suggestions? What should a new leader do to reconnect the council with the people of Greenwich borough? Feel free to add suggestions below.