It was meant to be a great week for Greenwich Council. Leader Chris Roberts had donned a penguin suit to collect the “council of the year” prize from the Local Government Chronicle, the trade paper for councils. “The event at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel followed a day of live judging for the top two categories in which finalists had to make a pitch to panels of expert judges,” trilled the LGC of the council’s efforts.
And guess what? It’s all over Greenwich Time.
Indeed, the award was a triumph for Greenwich’s “reputation-first” PR policy – obsessing with big projects and events, while ignoring the rather different situation on the ground or even the views of its own residents. This award is why Roberts’ PR chief bagged a 25% pay rise last year.
But reality crashed in with news that Blackheath Westcombe councillor Alex Grant is standing down at the next election – with a parting shot at a “culture of bullying” and “sinister threats”. Fellow councillor Dick Quibell, who represents neighbouring Peninsula, is also on is way out.
And guess what? None of that is in Greenwich Time!
As reported by the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler, Alex’s email read:
“I am also finding the Labour Group in Greenwich an increasing unpleasant environment to work in. All too often, decisions are made with little or no consultation with the community, the party, or backbench Labour councillors.
“All too often, Labour councillors and party members find themselves at the receiving end of verbal abuse, or sinister threats of disciplinary action, and then find that their concerns about this bullying are simply ignored.
“Like others, I have found this culture of bullying difficult to tolerate, to the extent that it is beginning to harm my health.”
It’ll be very easy for the council leadership to dismiss Alex’s words as those of a man whose ambitions for leadership have been thwarted.
But anyone who knows anything about Greenwich borough politics over the past few years will recognise his picture of a borough where councillors are even disciplined for speaking out during their own private meetings, never mind in public.
This stuff isn’t unique to Greenwich, and nor is it unique to Labour, but it has the tacit approval of the London Labour Party, which is in charge of disciplinary matters.
Neither Alex Grant nor Dick Quibell are red-blooded socialist firebrands. But they’re both decent men, with extensive experience on the council, and more so, of winning local elections without having to do “chicken runs” – Blackheath Westcombe is the borough’s most marginal seat, and all four parties in the borough have eyed up Peninsula, with its shifting population (been there, got the T-shirt). In Alex’s case, he was brought up in the ward he now represents (his father edits the Westcombe Society’s newsletter) – indeed, he lived opposite me in nearby east Greenwich for a spell in the late 1990s.
So you’d think that they’d know a thing or two about what ordinary people think about the council of which they’re a part.
“Labour has much to be proud of in Greenwich. But we could achieve so much more if the Labour Group at the council showed greater civility, if it worked more closely with the party and the community to tackle the problems the borough faces, and ensured our limited resources are spent more wisely.
“The council leadership has also adopted bizarre policy positions – such as aggressive demonisation of council tenants after the riots of 2011, and unconditional support for new road crossings across the Thames in 2013 – that have not reflected the views of the Labour Party locally, or even the majority of Greenwich’s Labour councillors.”
The Bridge The Gap fiasco was large-scale proof of how the council has drifted away from its members, but there’s a smaller example in Charlton, where local Labour activists are campaigning against the route of the Run To The Beat half-marathon. That’s the same Run To The Beat half-marathon that’s been endorsed by… Labour-run Greenwich Council.
So you end up with Labour party members campaigning against decisions made by the Labour council. And the worst of all worlds is that those councillors who are being ignored by their own council have to keep schtum in public, or face disciplinary action. Insane, isn’t it?
The real shame is that many of those Labour activists are the best community workers you’ll find – yet what incentive to they have to stand and serve their community at a level where it really matters? Already, Greenwich Labour is overwhelmingly male and middle-aged. The local parties’ selection processes have begun for the 2014 elections, and the results may well show the continued damage caused by the current heavy-handed leadership.
So while Alex Grant blowing the lid on the party’s culture is welcome in some respects, in the long term, it could make things worse – reducing the ranks of the small number of councillors prepared to risk their careers to stand up to the council leadership. In the short term, he may well get the boot from the Labour group on the council for his comments.
It’s a tragic, no-win situation, and it’s why this website drones on and on about Greenwich Council so much. This is a fantastic part of London with so much potential. Yet we’re governed by a clique who can’t take criticism, and treat anyone who disagrees with them – even within their own party – as enemies. I went to a council meeting the other week and watched a chap from Shooters Hill address the council on a conservation area. Regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland treated him as if he’d insulted her mother.
Communities are ignored, yet property developers treated like gods and allowed to dictate planning for the future – which has led the council into the Bridge The Gap hole, but also got it stuck in other issues like cutting bus routes in Kidbrooke – a decision it’s furiously trying to blame TfL for, when the roads have actually been closed by Berkeley Homes, the council’s development partner.
The grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side, but you only have to look at councils like Lewisham (local assemblies) and Camden (“get involved with the decisions Camden makes“) to see there’s another way of doing things. Even the local Tories are ahead of them on this, with a restrained proposal for “area councils” thrown out a couple of months back. But Greenwich Council’s leadership won’t even engage with its own councillors, never mind listen to us great unwashed.
With potential councillors now being selected, it’d down to local Labour party rank-and-file members to clear out the rubbish and start again. There’s only one party which is going to win an election here in the next few years, so they’ve more power than they think at the moment.
But senior Labour figures should take a closer look at what goes on in Greenwich. Alex Grant’s accusations are serious, and deserve proper scrutiny, with the ability of others to contribute without fear of recriminations. Ed Miliband talks a good talk about trust in politics.
If he wants to find a place to start rebuilding that trust, then the “royal” borough of Greenwich is ready, waiting, and in desperate need of it – no matter how many awards it wins.