After the Dear Leader: Greenwich tries to be a ‘co-operative council’

It’s been a big few days for Cllr John Fahy, de jure deputy leader of Greenwich Council and, when all is said and done, one of the few senior councillors on the Berkeley Homes Party’s benches who is open and approachable. For being open and approachable, he’s found himself the subject of constant investigations designed to throw him out of the party, and perhaps to hand his prized deputy role to a younger figure.

Oranjecamping launch, 15 September 2011

He’s one of the good guys – happy to goof around for a photocall, like this one for the ill-fated Dutch Olympic campsite planned for 2012 – and this website likes him for it. They don’t make many like that any more.

But such is his commitment to the Labour Party – the national political group led by Jeremy Corbyn that the ruling group in Greenwich still has some tenuous association to – that he has to contort himself into terrible positions to keep himself in his life’s work.

Take last week. Ex-council leader Chris Roberts, who oversaw a regime in Greenwich where councillors were routinely threatened and bullied, was given the freedom of the borough. Victims of Roberts’ wrath included Fahy, given a four-letter tirade by voicemail after he questioned the wisdom of holding a half-marathon that benefitted a charity the Dear Leader was involved in.

You can see the ceremony in the video below (from 1h 15m). After Roberts’ drinking pal Steve Offord proposed it, it was seconded by… John Fahy.

Roberts, of course, accepted along with praise for Berkeley Homes chief Tony Pidgeley and an apparent dig at his predecessor Len Duvall for apparently leaving council services in a state. Classy. It’s all in the video.

Of course, the trouble is with honouring a man who oversaw a regime of bullying and threats is that when you go and eulogise over mental health services a week later, it makes you look very silly indeed.

Anyway.

Until the end of last year, Fahy was also in charge of children’s services – education and a lot more – before he was quietly shunted out of his role without explanation. Cllr Fahy, an old-fashioned Labour man who abhors the Westminster Government’s plans to force schools to become academies, was replaced by Miranda Williams, whose political views are less pronounced. She duly wrote to schools ahead of the Budget suggesting they all become academies.

Now it’s emerged Cllr Fahy has got himself a new job – turning Greenwich into a “co-operative council”. Only a question at Wednesday night’s council meeting (watch it here) gave the game away, when Tory leader Matt Hartley congratulated him and asked if he would need a longer business card (see page five).

According to the newly-minted Cabinet Member for Development of Co-operative Council and Social Enterprise (phew), it’s all about building “on the Royal Borough’s strong track record of engaging local communities”. Stop laughing at the back.

Greenwich Council meeting, 30 March 2016

But “co-operative council”? There is a network of co-operative councils, and old Labour hands like to hark back to the glory days of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, once a huge force in Woolwich and beyond and responsible for the creation of Abbey Wood as a suburb.

But in south London, it’s become a toxic term. Here’s why…

Lambeth Council banner by Jason Cobb

Lambeth Council adopted the “co-operative council” banner a few years back under former leader Steve Reed. Lambeth’s a very different council to Greenwich – dominated by the Blairite Progress wing of Labour rather than the old-fashioned, if curdled paternalistic attitudes that have ruled Greenwich for many years.

Essentially, Lambeth’s co-op council caper was an answer to David Cameron’s Big Society (remember that?). On the surface, it sought to get local people involved in the running of services, which would save the council money. Here’s an example that seems to have worked – getting locals involved in redesigning the council website.

But Lambeth has been less than co-operative in other fields, damaging its relationship with its community. When it sought to revamp the Cressingham Gardens estate in Tulse Hill, residents put together a fully-costed plan to save their homes. Lambeth rejected it – opting to demolish the whole lot.

More worrying for Greenwich – which has managed to protect and even enhance its library service, albeit through a controversial outsourcing deal with GLL that’s raised questions over workers’ conditions – is the fate of Lambeth’s libraries.

Plans for residents to take over some of Lambeth’s libraries were binned last year and replaced with a bizarre plan to turn them into “community hubs” featuring “mini-gyms” run by… GLL.

One of the affected libraries, Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, closed on Thursday night, and at the time of writing, protesters are into the second night of occupying the building.

With the “co-operative council” concept in tatters elsewhere in south London, why on earth would Greenwich belatedly rush to embrace it? It’s hard to see how “co-op council” values have been lived up to in Lambeth. As for Greenwich, where machine politics has long dominated, talk of “working cooperatively with communities” will raise a few hollow laughs – the legacy of Chris Roberts that many in the town hall are keen to step away from.

There’s been a mixed record in residents taking over community facilities in Greenwich – the under-fives’ centres in East Greenwich Pleasaunce and Charlton Park are now flourishing as The Bridge and The Big Red Bus Club. But the Maryon Wilson Animal Park in Charlton has struggled, in part because the council badly under-estimated the cost of the community taking it on. More broadly, there’s already excellent support for community co-ops through Greenwich Co-Operative Development Association.

So perhaps this is about working more closely with existing organisations. It’s been long-rumoured that GLL could have some kind of involvement in a replacement for propaganda newspaper Greenwich Time, for example. Handily, John Fahy remains a trustee of a charity called Meridian Link, which develops education and sporting opportunities in Ghana, alongside GLL boss Mark Sesnan. (Of course, GLL itself was created out of Greenwich’s old leisure department as an answer to 1990s cuts.)

Austerity means council funding is drying up quickly, so Greenwich and all the rest will need to find imaginative solutions to keep services going. And, of course, making a big show of working with residents and social enterprises is a good way of stepping out of the shadows created by Chris Roberts’ toxic legacy.

But if Cllr Fahy wants to make all this “co-operative council” stuff work, he should take a look at the hash his colleagues in Lambeth have made of it. Unless he wants to look as silly as he did praising his old boss last week, he might want to bin the term before it comes back to bite him.

(Want to ask John about his new job? Ask him on Twitter on Saturday evening.)

(PS. Thank you to all who have got in touch since my accident four weeks ago – particularly those from inside the town hall. Things are still slow-going and may be for some time yet, but I’ll still try to highlight some interesting things here and there in the meantime.)

One comment

  1. lucyneville2013

    Good to see a new posting from you! Any views on proposals to build. Any news of the Thames gateway bridge?