‘Skint’ Greenwich Council finds £2.5m for election kitty

Thought Greenwich Council was too skint to afford Blackheath fireworks, or to keep the animal park in Maryon Wilson Park going, or to keep up a number of other services?

Fear not – it’s just found £2.5m down a sofa, just in time for next May’s election. How convenient! So this cash is being spent, urgently, at the discretion of leader Chris Roberts, without discussion in his cabinet or the full council.

You’ll find details of the outlay buried on the council’s website, under an issue called Delivering the Council Priorities. “The Council has one-off resources of £2.574m which are currently unallocated and are therefore available,” it reads – so what’s the cash going on?

Firstly, there’s a one-year programme to inspect 1,000 privately-rented homes, mostly those in multiple occupation, as part of a drive to push up standards – so far, so laudable. But it’ll only cover 5% of such properties, and the £900,000 cash will run out this time next year – once the election’s done and dusted. There are bolder approaches – such as Newham’s landlord licensing scheme.

Greenwich Time, September 2009 and April 2013

Secondly, it’s an old favourite – more money for street cleaning. We’ve been here before, of course, with the creation of “green jobs” including council wardens in time for the 2010 election. Outside Greenwich and Woolwich town centres, the wardens largely vanished after the poll. And £6m has gone into a similar scheme for this election, this time presented as a programme to bring relief to those hit by social security cuts.

Now there’s another £1.6m on offer…

The additional resources proposed are a combination of extra cleansing staff, wardens, equipment and a new “bronze” senior manager to oversee all of the town centres (a single senior manager with overall lead responsibility for a specific geographic area, able to resolve problems quickly and ensure that a corporate, joined-up approach is taken)

Got that? These are targeted, as always, at Greenwich and Woolwich town centres. So poorly-maintained streets (like Farmdale Road, east Greenwich, pictured below last month), with weeds growing out of the pavement, once again tumble down the agenda. Yet Greenwich town centre – in the Greenwich West ward of Roberts ally and environment cabinet member Maureen O’Mara – is to have a wider area kept clean.

(Incidentally, I’ve seen reports of council staff threatening householders who leave furniture on the pavement outside their homes for others to collect with £1,000 fines. Greenwich Council used to collect this stuff for free – now it charges £30. )

Farmdale Road, Greenwich, 20 August 2013

Thirdly, there’s a three-year, £750,000 programme to “support small businesses”. No, that doesn’t include scrapping the pavement tax. Instead… “It is proposed that an E-Business programme be established for Greenwich businesses, creating a gradual uplift of local e-business skills and trading, to help SMEs grow and generate new and contemporary employment opportunities for residents of the borough.” This would support 600 businesses – but what’s on offer?

What will they be taught? How to build websites with WordPress, how to use Microsoft Excel, “social media in business”, and how to build shops on eBay and on craft site Etsy. Of course, if businesses really want to be cost-effective, they probably shouldn’t be encouraged to cough up for proprietary software like Excel, and encouraged to go for open source solutions.

This all feels an extension of the council leadership’s insistence that the borough – and in particular, the Greenwich Peninsula, is some kind of hub for digital businesses. Here’s the council’s Digital Enterprise Greenwich centre at Mitre Passage, North Greenwich, pictured last month.

Greenwich Digital Enterprise Hub, August 2013

A visitor to the suite tells me:

This is Mitre Passage brimming with activity on a working afternoon! It’s part of a 2-floor council taxpayer funded suite on the Peninsula. Above is a suite for the Leader, used for private meetings and presentations with developers.

The council took on the lease to secure the floors at over £900,000 per year to house a European HQ for Chinese digital company Crystal, which was promised after two high profile visits to Beijing by council leaders in 2008. The investment never came to Greenwich, so the taxpayer has been picking up the bill.

Lots, then for small businesses to learn from.

There’s also a lot for the leader to ponder while he’s in his suite at Mitre Passage. This week’s News Shopper features former Greenwich Time designer Graham Tuckwell branding Chris Roberts a “schoolyard bully”, and putting on the record for the first time just how the council’s unravelling propaganda weekly works.

“Chris Roberts, as we learnt over the years, runs the council offices pretty much like a school bully would organise his lackeys in the playground to intimidate the defenceless.

“Peter [Cordwell] and his team found it increasingly impossible to run any stories without the vetting of the communications team with orders from Roberts.”

Election bungs for services that should be funded properly all the time, tales of bullying – it’s just another day in the office at Greenwich Council. But the past couple of months have seen a whole heap of bad press for Roberts – and it doesn’t show any sign of stopping. Will the playground lackeys finally find some backbone?

9 comments

  1. Richard

    Crazy thought. They could just knock a couple of quid off our tax bills. I could spend mine at the Creaky Shed to help them pay their pavement tax.

  2. Paul Webbewood

    I think that any two members of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Lab or Con) can request that the decision is “called-in” after Chris Roberts makes it. This is unlikely to stop anything happening but can provide a forum to find out more about it and ro have a debate of sorts.

  3. fromthemurkydepths

    Great post. Nice succinct summary of a lot of what’s wrong with Greenwich. The cleaning issue is pretty frustrating. It’s clear for years normal cleaning and maintenance has been cut all over the borough. Neglect of public spaces is evident everywhere. It would be nice to think things will now improve but if the increased spending last election is anything to go by then it wont make much difference.

    That 900k spend on nothing seems very iffy.

  4. Gerlad

    Not just Eastwood Street that’s a tip. There are parts of my bit of the borough where there is buddlia and dandelions growing out the pavements.The streets hardly get swept and fly tipping multiplies as people can’t afford to have it taken away. Of course only the bits of Greenwich that get seen by visitors get the money. The councillors should stand up to Roberts but it is easy to be brave sitting in my chair at home. Facing him might be different. I just hope he does go as planned and doesnt come back like the living dead or a has been pop star to haunt us all again.

  5. Maggy May

    Christopher Roberts, an aspiring young man

    Sat down to day dream, concocted a plan

    To win some friends in the popular poll

    And climb his way up the old greasy pole.

    He got on the council and shoved to the top

    And made all his underlings wriggle and hop.

    He ruled all the borough with two fists of steel

    And never mind how the constituents feel.

    He brought in big business and let it run rife

    Causing disruption to loved ways of life.

    Now he is going, so some people say.

    But p’raps he’ll fight on for many a day.

    Let’s hope for better. It can’t get much worse.

    Bring on elections or bring on the hearse!

    Not sure whether the hearse is for me in despair or the rest of the council who might as well be deceased for all the good most seem to do.

  6. therealdecoy

    When I first heard Chris Roberts speak I was impressed by his intelligence. I can’t think of a reason for him to change his intention to stand down that would preserve this impression.