New Greenwich Council charges for small businesses which use pavements outside their premises could be illegal, opposition politicians are warning.
But while the council is defending the policy, the cabinet member in charge of it has ducked out of defending it herself – leaving it to the council’s legal executive instead.
Conservative leader Spencer Drury wrote to environment cabinet member Maureen O’Mara last week to outline his concerns about the forecourt trading licence charges, which start at £7 per square metre of pavement used outside businesses, per week. (See the letter here.)
The scheme is buried in budget documents which were presented to the council’s cabinet in January. Drury says the wording of the documents mean that the cabinet only agreed to the policy being introduced via a report which would include the fee structure.
But no such report has ever been presented to the council – meaning backbench and opposition councillors have been unable to specifically object to it, or call it in for scrutiny.
“This leaves the whole policy open to judicial review, and I would expect any legal challenge or complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman to succeed,” he wrote.
“This is not democratic and you need to go back to the drawing board, refunding all the fees collected under this illegal system.”
But O’Mara, usually a combative figure in council meetings, did not respond to the letter – instead, leaving it to the council’s head of legal services, Russell Power, who responded that the decision to introduce charges was actually one for officers, not councillors. (See his response here.)
Whoever is right – and the charges do operate in other boroughs – the whole affair shines another light on the secretive way the council is run. The introduction of the pavement tax is very similar to the way Greenwich Council tried to cut funding for the Maryon Wilson animal park in Charlton two years ago – snuck in via a line in the budget.
Maureen O’Mara’s decision not to respond to Spencer Drury’s letter is notable, though – it’s normally considered a breach of protocol to leave non-political council officers to write what are political letters.
At July’s council meeting, O’Mara claimed some traders supported the scheme because it gave them certainty about whether they could place items on the street.
When a front page story about the issue in the Mercury was mentioned, she responded: “I must admit I don’t read the Mercury, so I have no idea what’s on its front page.”
However, away from her bully pulpit in the town hall, she has evidently become rather shy about justifying the scheme, which will affect many traders in her Greenwich West ward, and the way it has been introduced. (A petition has been set up against the scheme.)
Greenwich Council’s forecourt licences start from £7 per square metre per week, with a £35 application fee. Lewisham’s start from £5.50 with a £30 fee, with similar charges in Bromley. Bexley charges up to £75 per month, but exempts smaller businesses.
9.40am update: A street trading policy has been quietly snuck onto the council website, but with no opportunities for councillors to discuss or debate it. Load the PDF into a web browser, and you’ll see it appears to have been adapted from Ealing Council.