Fans of dark comedy would have been richly rewarded by Wednesday night’s torturous meeting of Greenwich Council. In fact, it’s hard to know where to start.
But running through the meeting were themes common to anyone who’s read this website over the past couple of years – the lack of transparency and an unwillingness to listen.
Labour mayor Angela Cornforth, who is on the longlist to be Greenwich & Woolwich’s next Labour candidate, announced she had refused permission for the meeting to be filmed. It’s understood the BBC wanted to bring a camera into the meeting, but the doors were closed to the corporation and so Greenwich residents won’t be able to see their councillors’ inaction.
Council leader Chris Roberts’ bullying voicemail hung over the meeting like a cloud, but it wasn’t just the local Labour outpost having problems.
The Tories’ attempts to capitalise on the issue were hampered by deselected councillor Eileen Glover consistently making digs at her former colleagues. When the Tories complained about another attempt by the Labour leadership to make changes to the way the council does business, Glover, sporting the biggest poppy in the room, turned on her own colleagues, saying they should have “tracked the changes” themselves.
“It’s past their bedtime,” she spat at youthful ex-colleagues Nigel Fletcher and Adam Thomas. Hell hath no fury like a Tory scorned.
The Tories plan to get Roberts hung on a clutch of motions designed to smoke any dissent on the Labour benches. One was about the way the council runs its scrutiny panels (no Tory ever gets to run one), hung on the back of a tweet from another wannabe MP, Matt Pennycook, declaring “the decades-old culture of machine politics must change”.
Challenged by Tory leader Spencer Drury to explain what he meant, Pennycook kept quiet. The situation was a lose/lose one for the Greenwich West councillor. Speak out and get disciplined, or keep schtum and look silly? Short-term embarrassment was the easier option rather than face the long-term difficulties of being ostracised by Roberts and his helpers.
With his own councillors staying quiet, Roberts made one of the oddest contributions himself – presumably to try to protect Pennycook. Talking about his early days in Greenwich Labour, during the days of rate-capping rows, he recalled how he and other young upstarts vowed to change matters.
“The most embarrassing political question you can be asked is ‘what’s the average age of your councillors?’ I’d be really worried if we didn’t have a group of talented twenty- and thirtysomethings saying ‘this is our time’. And believe me, after [the elections] in May, you will see some of those in this chamber.”
Nobody thought to ask why twentysomething councillor Hayley Fletcher is stepping down because of bullying.
Pennycook’s Greenwich West colleague, David Grant, wasn’t going to keep quiet – intervening several times to defend the embattled leader. When Drury made a passing reference to Roberts referring himself to the council’s standards panel, Grant blurted out “cheap!”. Greater love hath no man than this, that a Greenwich Labour councillor lay down his dignity for his Dear Leader.
Roberts did try to fight back, though – inserting motions into the evening which had barely even been discussed beforehand by his own councillors. The Tories made sport of this, inserting a sarcastic amendment into one attacking David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Eileen Glover, who’d earlier treated the council to a lengthy complaint about councillors’ IT woes, branded her former colleagues’ effort “a waste of time”.
But the Tories did leave a ticking timebomb. Another “get Roberts” motion, from Nigel Fletcher, suggested the council investigate the possibility of electing its leader by a secret ballot – it’s currently done by a show of hands.
But Labour mayor Cornforth, heavily guided by council chief executive Mary Ney showing her various bits of the council rulebook, withdrew it “for further advice” on the legality of electing a leader by secret ballot – despite it appearing in the agenda. Fletcher recorded the discussion himself – it’s very technical, but it’s illuminating nonetheless, especially towards the end. No wonder why they didn’t want it filmed.
Fletcher has now launched a formal complaint over the issue.
All of which overshadowed two significant bits of news. Firstly, the council voted to review its new “pavement tax” on shops’ outdoor displays, introduced earlier this year with no discussion or debate. Indeed, an unusually sheepish Chris Roberts even apologised for the way things had been handled.
Yet the bungled introduction of the charge goes to the heart of the political culture in Greenwich. One answer from Roberts suggests key decisions are being taken at weekly informal cabinet meetings, rather than in the monthly public meetings.
If the council leadership wasn’t so scared of debate, it might have got the charge right in the first place.
And the council is finally meeting Andrew Gilligan to talk about belatedly signing up to City Hall’s big cycling plans – indeed, I understand regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland is due to meet him today. It’s another U-turn from the council’s troubled leader, who had refused to allow officers or councillors to talk to the journalist-turned-cycling advocate. Three months ago, Roberts and mayor Cornforth seemed desperate to stop his name even being mentioned.
Thankfully, sense has prevailed. What about that “irresolvable conflict of interest”? “Well, that was the situation at the time,” Hyland responded.
So, in the world of Greenwich Council, what was an outrageous suggestion in July becomes normality three months later. Maybe that’ll be the case with the Silvertown Tunnel. But clearly not yet, for the council is still in its denial phase. (Full disclosure: I’m involved in the No to Silvertown campaign.)
A question asking who knew what about the council’s pollution figures was “lost” by the council and wasn’t asked. Written answers about the tunnel told a questioner he was “misinformed” about the council not publishing air quality stats from its 42 monitoring sites. Yet it doesn’t – go looking on its website, and you won’t find a thing.
Even madder, another questioner was told he had “failed to properly convey the response given” from the council to the News Shopper about its support for Silvertown on economic grounds – appearing to deny telling reporter Mark Chandler that the tunnel would bring economic benefits, even though that’s the whole basis of its Bridge The Gap campaign.
When asked by Nigel Fletcher if the council would reconsider its policy given independent evidence of the damage the tunnel would have, Denise Hyland commented “a group that calls itself ‘No to Silvertown’ is hardly independent, is it?” What counts as “independent”, though, was not explained.
There are big problems at Greenwich Council. The council leadership’s bullying is out in the open, and it’s clear how it’s not just ruining the lives of those who entered local politics to do good, it’s also resulting in bad policy. Or it’s resulting in incoherent policy, like the current mess on air pollution and the Silvertown Tunnel. Treating people with legitimate questions like enemies to be vanquished isn’t healthy.
Those with the most power to do something are still sitting on their hands, though, content either to let others do the dirty work of trying to decapitate the leadership or to wait until May’s elections and see what happens. Yet while this happens, the bullying row is infecting the more high-profile battle to be the next Labour candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich, and causing problems outside the borough too. But that’s another story…
Audio of members’ questions:
Audio of public questions:
A Monday night at Woolwich Town Hall? Well, there’s been better ideas for start-of-week thrills, but turning up to the catchily-titled Sustainable Communities and Transport scrutiny panel was the only show in town if you wanted to catch up on what Greenwich Council is doing for cyclists.
There’s a fair bit going on below the radar – you can read about it here – and if you listened to Greenwich Council’s officers talk, you’d feel that cyclists (and potential cyclists) were in safe hands.
But there were not one, but two elephants in committee room 4 last night. One was council leader Chris Roberts’ personal refusal to speak to London cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan.
The other… where were all the other councillors?
On the seven-strong committee, only two – chair Hayley Fletcher, and Peninsula councillor Mary Mills – bothered to show up, along with independent Tory Eileen Glover, co-opted onto the panel. Labour councillors Mick Hayes, Don Austen, Matt Pennycook and Dick Quibell clearly had more pressing concerns than showing up to a meeting they’re paid to attend. The same went for Tories Nigel Fletcher and Adam Thomas.
One councillor had an illness in the family and another was on holiday; while Nigel Fletcher’s day job meant he, oddly, was at the Labour party conference. Matt Pennycook may well have been electioneering. As for the others… heaven knows. It’s not like these people get paid to represent us or anything. Oh.
So the meeting limped on, unable to make any decisions because there weren’t enough members there, but the discussion was interesting. Direct mention of the Gilligan farrago was delicately sidestepped by the officers, and it was made clear that council officers were trying to get hold of every (other) piece of funding available. But Greenwich’s senior transport planner, Kim Smith, added that these “paled into insignificance” compared with the sums available under the schemes Gilligan is promoting.
Not that Greenwich would have been able to get all of the loot. It was confirmed that Greenwich wouldn’t have been eligible for the “mini-Holland” funding which is being offered by City Hall, having been firmly told it doesn’t count as outer London, but neither does it qualify for sums being offered to central London boroughs. (This was a subject cabinet member Denise Hyland seemed a bit clueless about at back in July.)
But as for what Greenwich would be entitled to, we were told TfL hadn’t been in touch with the council for nearly a year on Cycle Superhighway 4, which is due to run from London Bridge to Woolwich. While all the routes are up for review, Andrew Gilligan told Lewisham Cyclists last week that CS4 will be the last to be developed because of the intransigence of Greenwich’s political leadership.
Beyond this avoidable mess, though, there was discussion of those under-the-radar things discussed earlier – work on finally sorting out Cutty Sark Gardens so people can legally and safely cycle through it to the foot tunnel; the “missing link” in the Thames Path between the Thames Barrier and King Henry’s Wharf in Woolwich; some work on Canberra Road, a useful cut-through in Charlton; pointing out to Royal Parks that its signs for cyclists in Greenwich Park aren’t much cop; a joint scheme with Lewisham (cripes!) to link Greenwich station with Deptford High Street and onto New Cross; and some work going on in Avery Hill Park, Eltham.
Nothing fancy and showy, but all good solid work. And if Greenwich councillors actually cared, they might even get some more work done.
It wasn’t just cyclists let down tonight – anyone that’s cursed trying to get from the south of Greenwich borough to the north by public transport also found their concerns ignored, as the councillors missed a report about just that. We learned Transport for London has decided Kidbrooke to North Greenwich is a “priority corridor” for a public transport boost, but also that there’s no news on the final “DLR on stilts to Eltham” report – commissioned by the council two years ago, but not through the transport department. Odd.
There were other issues raised too, but hey, if Greenwich’s councillors can’t be bothered to show, why should you be interested? Was it laziness, or pique at the Gilligan issue, or just a dreadful coincidence? Who knows?
Here’s a map showing how low the rates of cycling are in Greenwich compared with other London boroughs (click it for a larger version). If Greenwich councillors really want it to change, they’ll have to do a lot better than they did last night.
But perhaps this current crop of councillors simply don’t want it to change.
Cyclists in Greenwich borough face missing out on “superhubs” proposed for North Greenwich and Abbey Wood stations after Greenwich Council resisted NINE separate attempts to set up a meeting with City Hall cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, it has emerged.
The council’s attitude also appears to put plans for a cycle superhighway through Woolwich, Charlton and Greenwich to London Bridge in jeopardy.
Last week saw farcical scenes in a council meeting as the Labour leadership tried to avoid debating the issue with the Conservative opposition, who tabled a motion condemning leader Chris Roberts’ refusal to deal with the controversial journalist, charged by London mayor Boris Johnson with pushing his recently-published “vision for cycling in London”.
But the council’s Labour mayor Angela Cornforth allowed an amendment to the motion from the leadership which avoided the issue entirely, leading to angry scenes at Woolwich Town Hall.
It’s since emerged that Chris Roberts cancelled a meeting of Labour councillors two days before the meeting which would have discussed the Gilligan motion. Instead, the meeting was moved to an hour before the full council meeting, denying Labour councillors the chance to fully debate issue among themselves.
Greenwich is the only one of London’s 32 boroughs to have refused to deal with Gilligan, and it has claimed it can still take forward projects outlined in the mayor’s documents. However, this appears not to be the case.
Now documents released by City Hall reveal the extent to which Chris Roberts has avoided communicating with Andrew Gilligan – and how even approaches to politically neutral officers appear to have been clamped down upon by the leader.
The emails were released after a request to the Greater London Authority under the Freedom of Information Act – however, what’s been released goes far beyond the Act, indicating that City Hall has had enough of refusals from Roberts and council chief executive Mary Ney, who is supposed to act in an apolitical manner.
The emails also document attempts by the mayor’s chief of staff, Sir Edward Lister, and Labour assembly member Len Duvall to persuade Greenwich to talk.
A covering letter from City Hall information governance manager Albert Chan sets out the picture clearly. Where they’ve been made available, you can download the documents through the links in the text.
“Mr Gilligan informs me that since his appointment in January he or others acting on his behalf (Transport for London officials or members of the London Assembly) have made a total of nine approaches to the leader, portfolio holder or officers at the Royal Borough of Greenwich.
“On 13 February, Mr Gilligan contacted the office of the leader, Cllr Chris Roberts, introducing himself and asking for a meeting, but received no response.” (A separate FOI response from Greenwich Council claims Roberts did not receive a letter.)
“On 15 February he emailed Cllr Harry Singh, the cycling portfolio holder, introducing himself and asking for a meeting, but received no response.
“He emailed Cllr Singh again on 20 February, but received no response.” (See both the emails here, obtained under a separate FOI to Greenwich Council.)
“On the publication date of the cycling vision, 7 March, Mr Gilligan expressed concern to the council’s cycling officer, Sam Margolis, who attended one of the launch events, at the lack of response from Greenwich. Mr Margolis promised to feed this back, but nothing further was heard.
“During March, at Mr Gilligan’s request, Alex Williams, TfL’s head of borough partnerships, raised the issue with Cllr Denise Hyland, the cabinet member for transport. Mr Williams was assured that the council did wish to be involved in the Mayor’s cycling plans. Again, however, no contact followed.
“On 26 March, Mr Gilligan wrote to Mary Ney, the chief executive, and to Cllr Roberts expressing his hope that the council would still take part in the cycling programme and asking for a meeting. He received a holding response from Ms Ney on 4 April, saying that she would respond fully when she returned from holiday. No substantive response followed.” (See the letter to Chris Roberts, which mentions the hubs at North Greenwich and Abbey Wood, Cycle Superhighway 4 to Woolwich and Mary Ney’s response. Greenwich Council denies that a letter from Gilligan was ever received by Roberts’ office.)
“On 4 May, Mr Gilligan emailed Ms Ney asking for a response, but received none.
“On 20 May, he emailed again and received a response stating that the council would not meet him.
“In mid-June, Mr Gilligan, the Mayor’s chief of staff, Sir Edward Lister, and Len Duvall, the local Assembly member, agreed to make a final approach to Greenwich, through Mr Duvall. However, the council continued to refuse to meet Mr Gilligan and stated publicly that it would not do so.”
The email from Sir Edward Lister to Roberts states: “I was surprised to learn that Greenwich, alone in London, has declined to work with Andrew, stating that there is a conflict of interest. Both Greenwich and the Mayor in fact share a common interest in ensuring that cycling in the borough is as attractive and safe as possible. We are extremely keen to work with, and to fund, Greenwich on cycling.”
But there was no joy, and the email trail ends only eight days ago, on 29 July, with an email from Gilligan to Len Duvall. It reads: “This issue has been decided by Ed [Lister]. He’s quite clear, and has asked me to tell TfL, that Greenwich must deal with me, and can’t go through Isabel [Dedring, deputy mayor for transport], if they want to benefit from any of our new cycling funding, infrastructure or routes.”
Gilligan also discusses the Tories’ motion and voices his fear that it will drive Greenwich “even further into the bunker”. A month previously, Gilligan also turned down an offer from the London Cycling Campaign to make a fuss about Greenwich’s refusal for the same reason.
It appears the events of last Wednesday have persuaded City Hall that there’s nothing to lose by abandoning the softly-softly approach. What’s striking is that Chris Roberts doesn’t even have the guts to respond to Gilligan to tell him to go away – it’s as if he’s scared of him. He either hides behind Mary Ney, or simply orders council staff to block all contact. A parallel FOI response from Greenwich to me denied that Roberts’ office received any correspondence from Gilligan – a claim I now know to be false.
Indeed, this whole episode goes far beyond a spat over personalities and cycling, for it reveals just how dysfunctional Greenwich Council really is.
But for the sake of the people of the borough of Greenwich – and not just its cyclists – does anybody on that council have the guts to do anything about it?
PS. To put Chris Roberts’ refusal to talk about cycle safety improvements into context, Monday saw a cyclist die in a collision with a lorry at the Archway roundabout in north London, while there was an unconfirmed report of one being hit by a bus at Dog Kennel Hill in East Dulwich.
The main highlight of Wednesday night’s Greenwich Council meeting was meant to be the motion about Greenwich Council’s refusal to deal with Andrew Gilligan, London mayor Boris Johnson’s cycling ambassador.
But it ended up being a bad-tempered farce of a meeting, which somehow managed to drag on for three-and-a-half long hours, partisanly chaired by new mayor Angela Cornforth, even down to denying partially-sighted councillor Eileen Glover the chance to get amendment papers in large print so she could take part in debates. In five years of looking in on these meetings, it was the worst I’ve seen.
The ruling Labour group is opposed to webcasting their meetings – nobody has tried to video them from the gallery, and the rubbish acoustics make recording hard – and from performances like Wednesday night’s, you can see why. If people were able to see clips of what went on, Greenwich’s councillors would be laughing stocks. The rambling excuses of hapless cabinet members would be revealed, seeking to blame anyone but themselves for their own failings.
As for leader Chris Roberts, he looked like he wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else, hunched at his table, alternately sulking and snapping at anyone who dared to criticise what was going on.
There are Labour councillors who want change, but are biding their time. There are freshly-minted candidates for safe seats who’ll be on the council next year, who also want change. Wednesday night may well have been one of the last hurrahs for the Dear Leader and his cabinet of the walking dead. But what will come next?
Don’t mention Gilligan – running scared of the cycling debate
I’ve already mentioned the cynical manoeuvre of completely replacing a neither here nor there Tory motion on health with an amendment about Lewisham Hospital’s A&E, when Greenwich Labour councillors hadn’t even bothered to pass a motion opposing its closure when it was under threat.
A similar thing happened with the cycling motion. A motion criticising the council’s refusal to talk to Andrew Gilligan was replaced by a bizarre amendment which replaced the entire text with some meaningless words about how wonderful cycling is, grumbled that TfL is more interested in central London cycling, moaned that Greenwich wasn’t mentioned in the mayor’s cycling plan, and said the council would “press TfL to complete the Thames Path”, something that’s actually Greenwich Council’s job.
Tory councillor Matt Clare opened the debate. “One local blogger has described the Conservatives as, I quote, being to the left of the council’s authoritarian Labour leadership on cycling. I’m afraid that due to the lack of decent cycleways in the borough, all of us cyclists have to track to the far left.
“In the ward I represent, Eltham South, there are numerous examples of roads that are impassable to cyclists such as myself. On Court Road, many cyclists use the pavement, including council employees – I don’t judge them for that.
“Most importantly, however, the Woolwich Road flyover, where Adrianna Skryzypiec lost her life, needs urgent and radical solutions. And who better to bring the solutions we need, than someone who’s highly articulate, someone who’s already got an audience and is being heard out there, and lives in our own borough, and knows it far, far better than the others?”
Regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland cited figures which she says show Greenwich is one of London’s safest boroughs to cycle in – reeling off statistics at length. But what she failed to mention is that the low number of accidents reflects the low number of journeys taken by bike in Greenwich – which hasn’t seen the rise in cyclists seen in neighbouring Lewisham.
While she welcomed the mayor’s cycling policy, she added: “It is rather central London-centric – Crossrail for bikes, central London grid… and as an inner London borough, Greenwich is actually ineligible to apply for the [mini-Holland] process. I think some exceptions have been made for that, but we are ineligible as an inner London borough.”
So why didn’t Greenwich (which actually counts as an outer London borough in TfL’s recent Roads Task Force document) ask for an exemption? Hey-ho.
Even more weirdly, Hyland then referred to “the successful [sic] implementation of cycle superhighways from south of the Thames – Wandsworth to Westminster and Merton to the City – but they require a connecting bridge across the river. That reflects our case that more river crossings are needed”. It’s worth pointing out that cyclists would be barred from the Silvertown Tunnel that Hyland endorses.
You can hear more from Hyland and deputy leader Peter Brooks here:
Two words weren’t mentioned: Andrew Gilligan.
Labour’s amendment was passed around, and the fireworks were lit. Tory Nigel Fletcher said it was “quite clearly out of order”. “This is not a motion about cycling, it’s a very specific point about the relationship between this council and the mayor of London’s cycling commissioner.” Mayor Angela Cornforth, who you could feel flinch every time the council leader moved, wasn’t going to let her leader down and refused to entertain the Conservative objections.
An impatient Chris Roberts, hunched in his seat, twice objected to opposition councillors’ speeches, clearly trying to stop the “G” word from being mentioned
Worse was to come. When the Tory leader Spencer Drury tried to mention Gilligan, Cornforth intervened, claiming it was out of order as irrelevant to the amendment. He said that even local London Assembly member Len Duvall – an ex-Labour leader of the council – had intervened to try to persuade the council to talk to Gilligan.
Significantly, ousted Labour councillor Mary Mills made an intervention to ensure the work of her own cycling panel, which had included backbenchers and the general public, was recognised among the rowing.
“Wherever something is inconvenient to the party opposite, they chose to pretend it doesn’t exist,” added Nigel Fletcher – but Chris Roberts – doing his “I wasn’t going to speak but…” party trick – claimed he had Boris Johnson’s top team’s numbers on his mobile, and that relationships with City Hall were good.
Labour’s amended motion was carried – but they way the party leadership had carried on left a nasty taste in the mouth. You can read a full report from Mark Chandler at the News Shopper, while Tory candidate Matt Hartley has his own take on the issue.
Work soon on the foot tunnels… but report kicked into long grass?
This is a big one – Greenwich Council has started the process of finding contractors to restart work on the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, despite an independent report into the fiasco of their refurbishment not being finished. In October 2012, independent expert John Wilmoth was called in to write a report on the council’s processes when dealing with large projects, followed by one on the tunnels project itself. The first was done quickly, the second still hasn’t emerged. Originally, it was said the council would need to wait for these reports to be completed before restarting work.
Now it’s changed tack, and work’s going ahead.
According to Denise Hyland: “In discussions with our independent expert, we [have decided] the most important thing is to get those tunnels finished. So we have decided, within the boundaries of the October 2012 report to cabinet, to proceed with a procurement exercise to get those tunnels finished.
“As for the report by the independent person, I think this council would agree that the most important thing is for this council to finish the tunnels, both for our residents and those of Newham and Tower Hamlets. As for a timetable, I’m afraid it’s too early to say.”
What of the report? It’s likely to be sharply critical of the council, and particularly the department that Denise Hyland runs. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it was now delayed until after May 2014’s council election – particularly as there are rumours that Hyland fancies herself as the next council leader.
Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park
Listen to the end of that clip of Denise Hyland above and you’ll hear something that never normally happens – a Labour councillor asking a question. Peninsula Labour councillor Mary Mills broke convention to ask Denise Hyland for recognition that the Greenwich Ecology Park’s Green Flag award be recognised by the council – Labour councillors are usually forbidden from asking questions in council meetings.
The threat to the park from a 20-storey tower was mentioned in public questions – but Denise Hyland, who despite being in charge of regeneration also sits on the planning board – could only be non-committal.
A clash and some facts on Greenwich Time
Chris Smith, the leader of Greenwich borough’s Liberal Democrats, criticised the propaganda in council weekly Greenwich Time in public questions. In response, Chris Roberts slagged off the Liberal Democrats.
But we know now how much advertising revenue Greenwich Time has made in the past three years, both from external sources and from within the council. This came in an answer to a question from me.
2010/11: Internal – £379,754.35 External – £198,982.31
2011/12: Internal – £411,538.55 External – £224,893.26
2012/13: Internal – £403,938.56 External – £254,272.45
We also know how much it spends on freelance editorial and sales staff.
2010/11 – £227,621.63
2011/12 – £177,192.59
2012/13 – £206,880.90
Council leader Chris Roberts claims the council saves £2.3m each year in using Greenwich Time rather than existing local papers for ads, and that no council staff work on editorial or sales for GT.
Pavement charges for small shops
Environment cabinet member Maureen O’Mara was quizzed about charges being brought in for small shops to put things on the pavement. She claims some businesses support it as it’ll bring certainty as to whether or not what they’re doing is legal.
She was questioned later by Tory Geoff Brighty, who asked if it was such a good idea, why the council hadn’t introduced it before. When a front page story about the issue in the Mercury was mentioned, she responded: “I must admit I don’t read the Mercury, so I have no idea what’s on its front page.”
Fires on Plumstead Common blamed on Boris Johnson
A spate of fires on Plumstead Common was brought up from the public gallery by Liberal Democrat candidate Stewart Christie. Maureen O’Mara’s response? To go on about Boris Johnson’s fire service cuts, which haven’t happened yet (and to which her own official response was pitiful).
There was another fire on the common yesterday afternoon. A blond-haired man was nowhere near the scene.
Greenwich Council’s refusal to deal with London’s cycling tsar Andrew Gilligan is to be raised by Conservative councillors at this Wednesday’s full council meeting.
It’s a move that will raise eyebrows among watchers of the capital’s cycling issues – Conservatives on the London Assembly have walked out of debates on cycling safety in tantrums over unrelated issues.
But as often happens in Greenwich borough’s through-the-looking-glass politics, the Tories are staking out a position to the left of the council’s authoritarian Labour leadership.
Council leader Chris Roberts is personally refusing to deal with the journalist, appointed by mayor Boris Johnson to be his one-day-per week cycling commissioner earlier this year, and launched an ambitious – if only partially-funded – programme of improvements to boost cycling and make it safer.
Roberts has ordered that the whole council should have nothing to do with Gilligan, who lives in west Greenwich and has criticised the leader and his council in his Telegraph and Greenwich.co.uk columns – even though this means Greenwich is believed to be the only one of London’s 32 boroughs to refuse to speak to him.
Last month, cabinet member Denise Hyland attempted to justify the snub, saying Gilligan “is a journalist who has blogged and written about significant issues of public policy within Greenwich and it is our view that he has an irresolvable conflict of interest”, adding that the council would deal with officers at City Hall and TfL rather than with Gilligan.
The Tory motion reads:
Council disagrees with the Cabinet Member’s suggestion that Mr Gilligan has “an irresolvable conflict of interest” and considers that his superior knowledge of our Borough should be something which works to Greenwich residents’ advantage.
Council regrets that Greenwich is the only Borough not to meet with the Cycling Commissioner to help plan spending on infrastructure to support cycling across London.
Council considers that the actions and comments of the Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member with regard to the Cycling Commissioner places our residents at a clear disadvantage as plans are developed to improve cycling across London.
In particular Council wishes to express clear support for the ‘Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London’, most notably in its plans for a network of direct, high-capacity, joined-up cycle routes. In addition Council supports the Vision’s plan for ‘Mini-Hollands’ in the suburbs and Mr Gilligan’s support for the linked Dutch ideas of bike-specific traffic lights, station cycle hire, and streets designs that could be implemented in London.
Council calls upon the Leader of the Council or Cabinet Member to meet with the Cycling Commissioner as soon as possible to ensure that Greenwich residents (like Mr Gilligan) are not disadvantaged by the Executive’s failure to engage fully with the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London.
While it’s good that this issue is being given a proper airing in a council meeting – especially from a party which, nationally and at a London level, has a poor record in taking cycling seriously – the motion is certain to fail, and be replaced by one praising the council’s current approach, which backbench Labour councillors will be bullied into voting for, with a few digs at the coalition and Boris put in for good measure.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if the motion has been placed with one eye on giving outgoing leader Roberts maximum discomfort at the last council meeting for three months. Greenwich certainly isn’t an anti-cycling borough, but under the current regime improvements and welcome initiatives such as creating a borough-wide cycle map have been given a low profile. It’s something some potential new leaders may be keen to change, to emulate other Labour boroughs such as Camden, Hackney and Lambeth.
Incidentally, this London-wide map of where people cycle to work from is telling – based on figures from the 2011 census, you can see how figures fall off sharply beyond Charlton and Blackheath (apart from an area around Woolwich Common – cycling squaddies?) – obviously distance is a factor, but if there’s any politicians in this area who want to take cycling seriously, there’s a challenge for them to consider.
Greenwich Council has admitted it is refusing to deal with City Hall’s cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan because he has criticised the authority in his work as a journalist.
Cabinet member Denise Hyland told a council meeting there was an “irresolvable conflict of interest” because he had written about “public policy” in the borough.
Greenwich is the only one of London’s 32 boroughs to have refused to speak to Gilligan, who launched plans to make cycling in the capital easier and safer earlier this year.
Hyland’s admission that the council wasn’t speaking to Gilligan came two days after a cyclist was killed in a collision in Lewisham, just outside the borough boundary.
In a written reply to a question from Greenwich Cyclists co-ordinator Anthony Austin, she said the council was engaging with TfL over the Mayor’s Vision For Cycling – just not with Gilligan.
“I can confirm that Officers have met with senior representatives from Transport for London to discuss the Royal Borough’s priorities and how they relate to both the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling and the funding packages available. The meeting was extremely constructive with Transport for London indicating that they were very supportive of the work the Borough has undertaken so far and confirming they would work with us to bring forward future proposals in line with the Council’s agreed priorities.
“In relation to the Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner, this is a part time post awarded to a Greenwich resident who is a journalist who has blogged and written about significant issues of public policy within Greenwich and it is our view that he has an irresolvable conflict of interest.
“The Leader of the Council met with his boss, the Deputy Mayor for Transport [Isabel Dedring] to agree that liaison on cycling matters would continue to be, as previously, through the officer networks and where necessary at senior political level.”
Gilligan, who lives in west Greenwich, wrote regularly about issues in the area in a column for Greenwich.co.uk for two years until 2010 and has also touched on local issues in his work for the Daily Telegraph. Abrasive and provocative, his targets included the Olympics in Greenwich Park, market owner Greenwich Hospital, the Inc chain of bars and restaurants, and this very website as well as the council (“forty-watt burghers“).
But Gilligan’s criticisms of Greenwich are nothing compared with his trenchant attacks on Tower Hamlets, whose elected mayor Lutfur Rahman he brands “extremist-linked“.
However, Tower Hamlets council seems to have a thicker skin than Greenwich – it’s co-operating with Gilligan on the cycling plan. Indeed, even TfL’s top brass are having to swallow their pride to work with someone who repeatedly dubbed it “Transport for Livingstone”.
Whatever your views on Gilligan’s skills or failings as a journalist, it’s pretty clear that he got to council leader Chris Roberts. In 2010, Roberts yelled “chicken run, my arse!” at an election count following a Gilligan story about him doing a ‘chicken run’ to a safer seat.
With this background, they were never going to be best buddies. But the leader’s ego means Greenwich is set to miss out on improvements which could make the streets safer for all road users, providing many with a new way of getting around the area.
Indeed, even Bexley Council has announced it’s bidding for “mini-Holland” funding to try to significantly boost the low levels of cycling in its borough. Cyclists in Greenwich will have to wait until at least the next council election in May before such enlightened thinking is seen on the streets of the self-styled royal borough.
You’ve probably heard about last week’s launch of Transport for London’s plans to boost cycling in the capital. There’s lots to like there, with eye-catching schemes like creating cycle lanes on the Victoria Embankment and the Westway. Whether they’ll actually happen will be another matter, though, as much of this will depend on London boroughs, who’ll be invited to compete for funds to turn their patches into “mini-Hollands”.
Other ideas which could get TfL backing include “quietways” (cycle routes in back streets) and suburban cycle hubs at public transport interchanges (which I’ve been banging on about for North Greenwich for about a trillion years, while Eltham or Kidbrooke stations would also make great locations.)
But it’s a start, and for now Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan is talking a good talk. Unfortunately, Greenwich Council has decided not to talk to him. Of all London’s 32 boroughs, Greenwich is the only one to not respond to Boris’s pal’s overtures. Even barmy Tower Hamlets, to which the controversial journalist dishes out frequent written kickings, has responded.
The news is particularly disappointing, particularly as inviting Gilligan along to a meeting of councillors was discussed at a recent scrutiny meeting. It’s unknown what’s happened to that independent spark of thought, so whether this actually happens will be one to watch. On top of the lack of action over Greenwich town centre and the cycle superhighway, things aren’t looking good.
Heaven knows what’s going on inside the heads of the council’s leadership. You can disapprove of how Gilligan got the job. But if the mayor’s messenger comes offering goodies that’ll benefit the borough, then you talk to him. Anything else is self-defeating.
It must sound good at the next Labour Party coffee morning, though. “Oh, we just ignored Andrew Gilligan when he came along offering half a million for cycling. That’ll show the Tory bastards!”
Of course, this isn’t party political – London’s most cycle-friendly borough is Labour-run Hackney – but more a symptom of how Greenwich Council’s leadership wants to isolate its fiefdom from the rest of the capital. It’s rejected opportunities to bid for City Hall or government cash to improve local high streets, and at last week’s council meeting leader Chris Roberts even declared the council could run bus services better than TfL could.
Greenwich isn’t an anti-cycling borough. But most of what it does caters for those who already cycle – little tweaks to cycling routes as part of wider road safety improvements. What it doesn’t do, on the whole, is make changes that would encourage new cyclists – closing rat runs, opening up new routes – and it continues to denigrate cyclists by running critical letters in propaganda weekly Greenwich Time. The gem above appeared last week, while cyclists were instructed to “stop moaning” last year. Such a shame, when it could be promoting the free cycle training courses it offers both new and experienced riders.
This refusal to talk about serious change makes the council look like a laughing stock. But there are far more serious consequences to this pig-headed determination to isolate Greenwich borough from a process that should benefit the rest of London.
The pressure on City Hall to do something positive about cycling came as a reaction to the number of riders dying in accidents. In 2009, 31-year-old Adrianna Skrzypiec was killed under the Woolwich Road flyover; a few months later, 66-year-old Stella Chandler died after an accident at the foot of Vanburgh Hill.
But of course, sticking it to Boris’s buddy is better than taking action to protect the health and well-being of your citizens, isn’t it? To be the only one of 32 boroughs not to engage with a plan which could save lives should be a source of shame. Hopefully Greenwich Council’s leadership will get over themselves, grow up, and talk to Andrew Gilligan. I can think of a couple of people who aren’t around any more that they owe it to.