Greenwich Council meetings to be webcast – here’s what you missed last month

Greenwich Council chamber

What are you doing tonight? There’s a pub quiz at the Crown in east Greenwich; comedy at the White Swan in Charlton; or a talk about researching local history in west Greenwich.

And of course, it’s the Brit Awards tonight up at the Dome.

Or you could make history and watch the first meeting of Greenwich Council to be webcast via www.royalgreenwich.public-i.tv. “Important local decisions can now be viewed online as they are made.” Woo!

This is a good thing, and it’s long, long overdue.

But let’s be honest, you won’t see the important decisions being made. They’re made behind closed doors – usually at the regular meetings of Greenwich’s Labour group of councillors. It’s all decided in advance. You’ll get to see a few things rubber-stamped – like the first council tax rise in years – but don’t dream you’ll see anything meaningful, unless a streaker rushes in and sits on the mayor’s lap.

The big ticket decisions are actually made at cabinet meetings (again, usually decided in advance) and planning board meetings (which aren’t supposed to be decided in advance). These aren’t being filmed.

But what you’ll see at full council meetings is still valuable. The early exchanges – public and councillors’ questions to cabinet members – are an important chance to find things out and get things on the record. I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to follow these online, as written answers only emerge in the hour before the meeting and don’t appear on the council website until the following day.

And you’ll see just what Greenwich councillors are really like. Sadly for them, I don’t think viewers will be too impressed. Think back to the year when Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood presented the Brits.

I went to last month’s, which was being filmed as a test. I never got around to putting anything up a the time so here’s some “highlights” as a preview, in case you’re thinking of watching live.

There’s been a few changes to the Woolwich Town Hall chamber over recent months. Councillors have now started using iPads for council meetings, rather than wielding huge bundles of paper. Together with some smart new lighting, the old place looks impressive these days. Just a shame that the proceedings displayed the same old petulance as usual.

Proceedings are now projected onto displays around the chamber, an effect slightly reminiscent of watching football at White Hart Lane, where you can also watch the match on screens above the stands. Sadly, there’s no Dele Alli or Harry Kane to liven things up in Woolwich.

Got a problem? It’s still your fault

That thing you care about? Chances are, they don’t care.

You may have heard about Greenwich Council applying to itself to increase the number of events held on Blackheath’s Circus Field – this would have been independent of what Lewisham does on its side of the heath. The application, which was snuck out before Christmas, has since been pulled after fears of increased noise and hassle.

Greenwich Council written response

But residents had misunderstood the licence application, according to a written response to Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty. Never apologise, never explain. According to cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald, most people don’t realise it’s split between two boroughs. McDonald should have known better than that, since she used to write for the Westcombe News, the organ of the Westcombe Society, the organisation that led public concern on this.

Sadly, Brighty didn’t pursue the questioning.

Greenwich Council written response

Or what about the current crisis at Charlton Athletic, where an absentee owner’s mismanagement has even prompted local MPs to investigate the off-field goings-on at one of the borough’s biggest employers?

While nobody was asking council leader Denise Hyland (or Matt Pennycook or Clive Efford) to get involved with team selection, the farcical events at The Valley under Roland Duchâtelet and hapless chief executive Katrien Meire threaten the future of a cherished local institution.

But fans were better off doing this, council leader Denise Hyland opined in another written response. This is a genuine shame, as the council could use its influence to bring about openness at the troubled club – there might even be some votes in it. Instead, it seeks to stay cosied up to the richest person in the room, the default position of this administration.

And then there’s the water feature in Cutty Sark Gardens, a frequently-broken embarrassment that’s now being removed, a story – like the Blackheath one – broken in The Greenwich Visitor.

How much was this costing, asked Brighty? Regeneration cabinet member – and Hyland’s de facto deputy – Danny Thorpe wouldn’t say. Instead, he tried to deflect the blame onto Brighty’s question. “‘Cleaning up the mess’ isn’t how I’d describe it,” he said.

Brighty had another go. Thorpe tried to burble on about the council “investing” money instead.

Geoff Brighty’s since been in touch with the answer – £90,000. So why the petulance from Danny Thorpe?

I suspect that inside the Wellington Street bubble, these are just flippant concerns compared with the threats to social security and council housing posed by the current Westminster government.

But these issues are broadly-felt concerns too – everyone is affected by the local environment and the issues at The Valley worry many.

Few inside Woolwich Town Hall seem to realise it’s perfectly possible to be repelled by both a hard-right Westminster government and some Labour-branded local tantrum-throwers.

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

Greenwich Time – same old, same old

But for now, the delusions continue. On Greenwich Time, Tory leader Matt Hartley made the strategic error of suggesting that Denise Hyland might want to apologise for spending £80,000 on a court battle with the government that doesn’t appear to have won the council very much.

When you’re in the same party as Iain Duncan Smith, that’s not a wise idea. Viewers with an aversion to sanctimony might like to look away.

“Lies, lies and damned statistics, eh? Whatever, you will spin it your way,” Denise Hyland responded.

She plonked a bundle of old Greenwich Times on the unused press bench to sycophantic applause from councillors who happily criticise the paper in private, but are too terrified to come out and say anything in public.

Yet the whole Greenwich Time debate has been based on lies and spin the first place. The true finances of the council paper have always been hard to track down, as council departments subsidise the paper by placing ads there which wouldn’t go elsewhere.

What’s more, organisations that are funded by the council are “encouraged” to place their advertising exclusively in GT – making its finances look better than they actually are.

Not that the Tories are above mischief – GT isn’t necessarily a Labour-biased paper. Indeed, in constantly promoting the demolition of council estates and their replacement with partly-private housing, GT is actually pushing current Conservative policy.

Instead, the continuation of Greenwich Time is all about promoting the clique that runs the council, their allies, and their strategic ambitions – and making it much more difficult for dissenting or even independent views to gain traction.

Here’s how Matt Hartley presented his motion demanding Hyland apologise.

Then, an oddity, as a member of public got to speak in the debate. Heaven knows how this happened, but it reflected poorly on all involved.

Former Tory councillor Eileen Glover, long estranged from her former colleagues, was wheeled out to lambast them from the public gallery. Glover lost in her bid to be elected as an independent in 2014, but still got to speak anyway. At best, this was taking advantage of a tedious personal beef. At worst, this was something more cynical.

Hartley’s attempt to get Hyland to apologise for the £80,000 legal bills was “arrogant and foolish”, she declared.

Glover claimed it was “insulting” to suggest that Greenwich Time influenced voters. Yet that’s exactly what Labour councillors say it does, if you ask them privately.

The charade went on. Denise Hyland and de jure deputy leader John Fahy came out with a counter-motion.

“Don’t you shake your head at me,” Hyland growled at Hartley at one point, claiming the government had no problem with Greenwich Time’s content, just the frequency. “It did seem a bit ridiculous that we were seeking to resolve our differences through courts.” There was no apology for pursuing it through the courts, though.

She also praised the work of Mercury/South London Press reporter Mandy Little, sat in the public gallery, as “a good, independent journalist”.

Perhaps this is an indication of where some of the council’s ad spend will go without a weekly GT – the SLP’s management bought the papers from octogenarian press baron Ray Tindle last month. This may free the way for the papers to drop the massage ads that councillors object to – and for council notices for appear in the Mercury once again.

News Shopper reporter Jess Bell, sat behind Hyland, understandably looked a bit miffed at the lack of recognition.

But you could tell what really mattered to Hyland when a GT front page lauding Labour’s general election wins was raised. “It was factual reporting. You lost, we won.”

Next to her, John Fahy – still being pursued for cooked-up wrongdoings by party bullies who’d like to see him out – burbled on about the laws on council newspapers being “cooked up in the Carlton Club with the press barons”.

That may be so, but it’s hardly a defence for the council’s actions.

Danny Thorpe started demanding apologies for the Tories’ policy on the NHS – nothing to do with Greenwich Labour’s policies on self-promotion – while Eltham West councillor Mick Hayes said “tonight should be a vote of thanks for those who have produced Greenwich Time in an even-handed way” (ie, the council press office).

“When you walk the streets and talk to people, Greenwich Time will be missed by the people of the borough,” Hayes added. Presumably by those with cat-litter trays.

“Don’t think you speak for the people of this borough,” cabinet member Maureen O’Mara – chosen in 2014 by less than 20% of the population of Greenwich West ward – glowered at the Tories. “If you did, you wouldn’t be sat there.”

O’Mara then calmed down and made her usual point about council tenants needing Greenwich Time because housing ads are placed there. The fact that council tenants in every other Labour borough seem to manage without a weekly propaganda paper seemed to escape her, as always. This was just going through the motions.

As for the Tories, Coldharbour & New Eltham councillor Mark Elliott said the council needed to think more creatively about its communications – a silly thing to say in a Greenwich Council meeting, because it was sensible.

And former opposition leader Spencer Drury rightly pointed out how coverage of the bullying scandal surrounding Chris Roberts wasn’t covered in GT. Ah, hold on a second.

Crawling to a bully

Only an hour previously, Drury was telling the chamber how Roberts was worthy of the freedom of the borough.

“There will be people in this chamber who struggle to get it into their thick skulls how he’ll get this honour,” he quipped.

“Love him or hate him – and I know there are people in both groups in this chamber tonight – Chris had a vision for the borough,” he added. (You can see the rest from two minutes in below.)

In probably one of the most shameful votes in the borough’s recent history, councillors unanimously voted to give Roberts the freedom of the borough. Even John Fahy, recipient of the “get it into your thick skull” voicemail, stuck his hand up to endorse giving his tormentor an award. Party loyalty and dignity never fit together in Greenwich.

And with the possibility of a council advertising contract now hanging in the air, the issue has barely been reported in the local press – instead, it’s featured in the past two issues of Private Eye.

You’d have expected better from Spencer Drury, the man who moved a sarcastic motion about Roberts’ “interpersonal skills” at the height of the bullying row. But the Tories have been bounced into a corner, with long-standing former councillor Dermot Poston – who has been in poor health recently – also on the list to be honoured.

It wasn’t all dismal. There was a decent discussion on the government’s trade union bill – which directly affects the council – which managed to steer away from tedious grandstanding. Labour councillor Don Austen joked that if the rules had been in place in the 1980s, he’d have had “300 Asbos and a spell in Belmarsh”.

But it was really a wake for Greenwich Time. And when the paper finally goes, you’ll be able to see it all online when they do it again in the summer.

So what’s happening tonight?

Tonight’s meeting should be fairly uneventful. The council tax rise will be rubber-stamped and there’ll be some comments on it from either side. (The Tories have alternative ideas, such as diverting money from the council’s PR budget into street cleaning.)

There’ll also be a Labour motion endorsing the UK staying in the EU, which will be a cue for a pointless barney with Tory leader Matt Hartley, who backs leaving.

Hartley’s views aren’t shared by all his fellow councillors, so there’ll be some finger-pointing about how the Tories are all divided. Whether that’s any better than being bullied and cowed into submission is for you to decide.

The really interesting stuff is likely to come in public questions – I’d be surprised if there aren’t any protesting about local schools becoming academies, which the government wants all schools to be by 2020.

Campaigners are unhappy about a letter sent by education cabinet member Miranda Williams – who replaced John Fahy in mysterious circumstances late last year – to school governors which essentially dropped a heavy hint that Greenwich wants them to start forming academies as soon as they can, presumably so the council can still keep some informal influence over them.

This is either a sensible reaction to an imposition from Westminster or a dismal capitulation by a Labour council to Tory demands. The unexplained replacement of Fahy with Williams has already aroused campaigners’ suspicions that it’s the latter, with John Roan already planning to make the switch. This will be an issue to watch over the coming months.

Anyhow, if you tune in tonight, I’d be interested to know what you make of it. I’m sure they’ll be on their best behaviour…

4 comments

  1. Simon Edge

    I’m still waiting for Denise Hyland to answer the formal question tabled by Greenwich Greens about the methodology of her research trip to Southampton cruise terminal where she didn’t find any pollution from hotelling ships. Oddly, she seems not to want to tell us.

  2. Kevin

    Watched tonight. Surprisingly interesting. But where did denise hyland learn to speak in public or even debate. She is woeful. Surely greenwich council can stump up a few quid for some coaching.

    Really did go to show that if politics is showbiz for ugly people then local politics is politics for ugly people.

    Got my thinking cap on as to how i make a public question…….

  3. Jill

    I was one of the John Roan supporters at last night’s meeting and, afterwards in the pub, I was dismayed to observe the disappointment from first timers to Council meetings in the process that ought to be a defining indication of our democracy. I messaged them this morning with words like ‘monoply’ and ‘not held to account’ when Darryl’s blog appeared (why do I always get mine a day later?) and it said everything I couldn’t – so it just got forwarded! Thanks – erudite and informative as always!

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