Greenwich councillors are to consider awarding the rarely-awarded freedom of the borough to former leader Chris Roberts next week – despite the politician-turned-developers’ consultant being embroiled in a series of bullying accusations before he stood down 18 months ago.
Roberts ran the council for 14 years but stepped down as a councillor at May 2014’s election, finally relinquishing his role as leader the following month. He is still in frequent contact with his successor, Denise Hyland, multiple sources have told this website, with some claiming he still wields considerable influence over the council.
His final months on the council were blighted by bullying accusations, notably in October 2013 when he threatened current deputy leader John Fahy with the removal of his cabinet position in a row over the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which raised funds for a charity Roberts set up as council leader, Greenwich Starting Blocks. He was let off any council punishment over the voicemail, but did get a written warning from the party.
Two councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – stood down from the authority, complaining of a bullying culture in Roberts’ Labour group. Grant has since said that intimidation of councillors was normal practice, particularly in planning matters.
The leader himself was also accused of throwing his keys at a council cleaner who woke him up while he was asleep in his office early one morning in 2009, a charge he denies. His conduct was explored in a BBC Sunday Politics investigation in December 2013. A secret Labour Party investigation declared no further action should be taken on his conduct.
Now Roberts is in line for an award reserved only for councillors if they have “distinguished themselves beyond that level of service normally expected”. “Recipients should have demonstrated commitment to the principles of public life and adherence to the relevant codes of conduct,” the paper for next Wednesday’s meeting says.
Past recipients include Nelson Mandela, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, the Duke of Edinburgh, and local institutions such as Charlton Athletic Football Club, Royal Museums Greenwich and the Royal Regiment of the Royal Artillery.
Roberts was known for his close relations with property developers, and is now the deputy chairman of Cratus Communications, a local authority lobbying firm chaired by former Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council Merrick Cockell. Bromley & Chislehurst’s Tory MP Bob Neill, a former local government minister, is a non-executive director.
“His passion for regeneration will provide Cratus with a platform to move to the next level of support for our development clients,” the firm’s website says of Roberts.
Long-serving Labour councillors Janet and Jim Gillman are also on the list of consideration for the honour, as is veteran Conservative Dermot Poston, who also stood down in 2014. Retired teacher Poston was first elected to the council in 1968, serving under the only Tory administration in the borough’s history. The honour for the former Eltham North councillor, a genuinely popular figure at Woolwich Town Hall, may make it difficult for the Conservatives to object to Roberts’ award.
Tariq Abbasi, former director of the Plumstead-based Greenwich Islamic Centre and now director general of the World Muslim Congress, is also in line for an honour.
The decision will be made at next Wednesday’s council meeting. If you’re a Greenwich resident and want to ask leading councillors a question about the council and its policies, email committees[at]royalgreenwich.gov.uk before noon on Wednesday 20 January with your question, your name and address.