Some people have strange hobbies. They might collect odd things, or have peculiar enthusiasms. Me, I go to Greenwich Council meetings. I often even ask questions, because it’s the only way I’ll find things out.
Actually, it’s not that strange. We all should take an interest in how we’re governed. We can watch, and be depressed by, Prime Minister’s Questions each week. But in the borough of Greenwich, there’s no such facility for us to do the same for our own local council. Yes, we can trot along to Woolwich Town Hall to take in a showcase full council meeting, study scrutiny panels, or watch planning decisions being made. But for most people, real life gets in the way.
I’ve sneakily recorded bits of meetings in the past, and they’ve seemed popular, even though to be frank, the quality’s crap. Woolwich Town Hall is due to undergo a £1.5m refurbishment soon, which will – in part – attempt to fix some of the notoriously bad acoustics in the committee rooms.
But even then, there’s no promise to start webcasting meetings, as Camden does. Here’s cabinet member Denise Hyland last month: “The proposal for the refurbishment of the Town Hall does include the delivery of improved meeting facilities for the public, and [we] will investigate the use of such technologies. However the decision regarding broadcasting committee meetings has yet to be considered by the Council.”
Last October’s council meeting was a particularly dramatic one, as the row over Greenwich Council’s pavement tax came to a head, and allegations over the leadership style of Chris Roberts were raised. But how to get hold of a decent recording?
The answer, as ever, came in the Freedom of Information Act. Greenwich Council records each meeting so minutes can be taken. Could I get hold of one of these recordings?
So, on 10 November, I emailed the council. On 12 February, three months later, I finally got the response I wanted – the council was going to send me a CD. I got it last week – it contains a 3-hour MP3 of the full meeting, from start to finish. The quality is crisp and clear, except for contributions from independent councillor Eileen Glover, whose microphone was switched off the whole way through. One of her (silent) contributions has been cut out, as well as one of the two short adjournments – otherwise, this is the whole thing.
Now the council’s found a way to convert its recordings to MP3, there’s no reason why it can’t do this for future meetings – such as this week’s one.
But in the meantime, here’s the council meeting of 30 October 2013, broken up into chunks. You can read all you like about what goes on at the council, and get a gutful of mine and other people’s opinions, but this will give you an insight into just how the Labour council leadership defends and promotes its policies, and how the Conservative opposition group holds them to account.
The recording may be nearly four months old, but the issues are still current – particularly the pavement tax, a belated consultation into which has recently opened. Indeed, I’d recommend listening to part 6, and comparing it with the way the council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time (that week’s cover pictured on the right) covered it.
COUNCIL – WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2013, 7.00PM (See full agenda and minutes)
Silent parts in the recording are where Councillor Eileen Glover’s microphone was not switched on.
PART 1. Apologies for absence, minutes, mayor’s announcements, declarations of interest, petitions.
This includes mayor Angela Cornforth mentioning that a request had been made to film the meeting “by a commercial operator”. This was for the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, on bullying allegations against Chris Roberts, aired in December and made by Juniper TV. It also includes Peninsula councillor Mary Mills handing in the 2,500-strong pavement tax petition.
PART 2. Public questions. (See written answers to questions.)
Here, questions can be asked by members of the public if they’re submitted at least a week in advance. If you turn up, you get to ask a supplementary – and these are what you hear here. Includes questions on the pavement tax, Run To The Beat and the Silvertown Tunnel.
PART 3. Questions from members. (See written responses.)
A similar format to the public questions, except from councillors. These are almost always from opposition councillors. Includes questions on council computer system issues, publishing recordings of council meetings, Silvertown Tunnel, severe weather preparations, car parking income, war memorials, Well Hall Pleasaunce, Andrew Gilligan, Blackheath fireworks and zero hours contracts.
PART 4. Oral questions to members of the cabinet.
More questions from councillors. Includes the pavement tax (including Chris Roberts’ admission of “informal” cabinet meetings), storm damage, World War I huts in a school in Eltham, and Denise Hyland declaring: “A group that calls itself ‘No to Silvertown‘ is hardly independent, is it?”
PART 5. Petition responses.
A member of the public speaks on speeding traffic on Westcombe Hill, Blackheath. Includes debate on Charlton Lido parking and speeding traffic on Sparrows Lane in New Eltham.
PART 6. Motion on the ‘street trading policy’ (pavement tax). (motion text)
Conservative and Labour councillors debate the controversial tax on shops placing items on the pavement outside their premises, and the way it was introduced. Worth a listen, and also worth seeing how council weekly Greenwich Time covered the debate.
PART 7. Labour motion on “management of public services by the Mayor of London and the Coalition Government”. (see motion text)
Chris Roberts lays into the Tories. Spencer Drury says “it reflects some brass neck”, and issues a sarcastic amendment about Roberts’ “interpersonal skills”.
PART 8. Revised code of conduct, Treasury management report, council functions on scrap metal dealers, “changes to the executive functions scheme of delegation”.
The dry drudgery of regular council business. But it picks up at the end, as opponents claim constant tinkering with the way the council works makes it harder to track just what the council is doing. Includes Eileen Glover having a pop at her former Conservative colleagues (well, it would if her mic was switched on).
PART 9. Labour motion on smoking and tobacco control.
Charlton councillor Janet Gillman speaks.
PART 10. Conservative motion on culture of politics in Greenwich. (see full item)
This motion followed comments made about the way Greenwich Council is run made by Greenwich West councillor (and now parliamentary candidate) Matt Pennycook and Lewisham councillor Kevin Bonavia, which themselves followed allegations of bullying in the Labour group. Notably, Pennycook does not speak in the debate. It proposes changes to the council’s scrutiny functions.
PART 11. Conservative motion calling for secret ballots for council leader.
Another motion designed to smoke out allegations of bullying in Greenwich’s Labour group. Mayor Angela Cornforth withdrew the motion “for further consideration”. It has not yet re-emerged.
So, there were are. Audio of a Greenwich Council meeting has been published. And nobody’s been hurt by it. I’ve also asked for recordings of the past two meetings, which I can only assume Greenwich is sitting on, now it knows how to convert these to MP3 – it’s made a habit of being late with responding to Freedom of Information requests, particularly those which cause it difficulty.
But when they come, if people find this recording useful, I’ll be happy to publish them here.