Got a minute? Watch this video. It won’t take long.
The individual you can see spluttering “a minivan?!” like a south London Lady Bracknell is Greenwich Council cabinet member Maureen O’Mara. The person questioning her, off camera, is Matt Hartley, leader of Greenwich’s Tories.
This exchange, about why council meeting webcasts aren’t very well promoted, was probably the highlight of last month’s council meeting.
You might even have read about it in the Sutton-based News Shopper. Alright, you probably didn’t. So here it is.
Transparency, eh? What a waste of bleedin’ time! All this stuff’s for geeks and berks! But it’s not. And O’Mara, Hartley, and the Sutton Shopper are all letting us down here.
Greenwich Council started streaming full council meetings last year. It’s a very good idea – people should be able to see what their councillors are up to. It’s a really simple system – works a treat on mobile phones too, so you can watch wherever you may be. It costs the council £9,400 per year, plus £1,040 for every 30 hours of broadcast. Most council meetings are about two and a half hours long. (See question 7.)
Alright, you’re not going to watch it live. And in practice, these meetings are hard to follow unless you’ve a) an agenda paper (available a week beforehand); b) a list of questions from councillors and the public (available 10-15 minutes beforehand in the town hall, not sure if this is available to online viewers). Like any sporting event, you can’t beat being there.
But the recordings stay online, so you can watch back later. And that’s where the value is. The bits that are worth watching are questions from the public and questions from (usually Tory) councillors; most of these are submitted in advance, although the latter also has a section for new questions that can be asked on the night. Public deputations and petitions are also worth a look.
The rest of it’s often peacock-strutting nonsense, unfortunately. Even hardened Town Hall watchers usually head to the pub once the members’ questions are through. But the first hour or so of a council meeting usually contains something interesting.
It’s important that people can see how councillors act to the public and to their peers. Most people have better things to do than watch Prime Minister’s Questions or Mayor’s Question Time live. But they’ll often see clips on the news later.
And just like the Commons and City Hall showpieces, Full Council isn’t usually very impressive either. Too many cabinet members come across as sanctimonious or just plain rude, one or two come across as out of their depth. Others manage to answer questions simply and honestly and without blaming the Tories for everything.
But even the good ones aren’t utilising webcasting properly. Individual councillors’ contributions can be highlighted – here is deputy council leader Danny Thorpe being rude to Matt Hartley – and even embedded, like this:
(Unfortunately, I can’t embed council content due to me having a cheapo site set-up. That’s something I’d like to fix one day. Instead, Lady Bracknell will have to do.)
There’s nothing stopping our councillors from posting links to their own contributions in the days after meetings, just as MPs can link to their speeches in the Commons. People are more likely to watch these clips via social media than to sit through the tedium of watching the thing live.
Here’s Matt Hartley presenting the Tories’ alternative budget (and complaining about council leader Denise Hyland’s absence) and cabinet member Chris Kirby tearing it to shreds.
Nobody’s making use of these clips, and it’s a big miss. The local press isn’t – not the Mercury, and not the News Shopper, which is grumbling that nobody’s watching in the first place. To be fair on the papers, maybe they don’t know it’s available. (Even if they’re writing about it.) But what excuse do the councillors have?
Maybe the councillors are all a bit embarrassed by their performances. In some cases, they bloody well should be. This stuff is never going to attract huge numbers. But if you aren’t using it yourself to its fullest extent, you can’t complain when nobody watches. Perhaps they just want this to just go away, so nobody writes blog posts peppered with screen grabs of councillors pulling funny faces.
But a few more viewers might lead to a real breakthrough – getting the committee rooms sorted so they can be filmed too. Big planning meetings would certainly attract an audience. Cabinet meetings are where the real decisions take place. And while scrutiny’s often dull, it should be available on the record. Actually, sometimes scrutiny does attract big numbers.
A week after Maureen O’Mara implied nobody was interested in watching council meetings, there was a packed health scrutiny panel meeting looking into the controversial handing of local musculoskeletal physiotherapy services to private provider Circle Health.
By all accounts, the scrutiny panel did themselves proud. But there’s no recording of this that’s publicly available so we can see for ourselves. And that’s a real shame. I think the scrutiny panel would probably appreciate a recording, too, so they can look back over points that may have been missed.
Sure, some embarrassing performances may find their way onto a server (indeed, they already have done). But that should be a cue for councillors to raise their game, not lash out at those who want to see more transparency.
There was another council meeting this week, but the system was broken. So we’ll never see what this was about.
Cuts to school budgets are a massive issue, and people should have been able to see their local politicians’ responses to them, and engage with them.
The next normal council meeting won’t be until June – hopefully the cameras will have been fixed by then. But hopefully Greenwich councillors – both Labour and Conservative – will look again at webcasting. Who knows, with an election due next year, they might find their constituents like what they see.
You can see past council meetings at https://royalgreenwich.public-i.tv/core/portal/home.
So, last week, Chris Roberts said his farewells as Dear Leader. I’m told he was still in his office at Woolwich Town Hall as the minutes ticked down until the end of his reign at 7pm last Wednesday. And as the effective editor of the council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, he got to pen his own farewell.
In case you were wondering, “leave this world a little better than you found it” is a quotation from Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement.
More telling, though, from a politician closely associated with huge building projects, is “make no small plans, for they have no power to stir men’s souls”. That’s attributed to Daniel Burnham, a US architect who worked on some of the world’s earliest skyscrapers, including New York City’s Flatiron Building. Something to remember when Berkeley Homes’ huge towers start to loom over Woolwich in the next few years.
Possibly more telling than that, though, is a revealing comment he made at his final full council meeting in March, which you can listen to below. He’s heavily tipped to end up in some consultancy or advisory role, so until he re-emerges, let’s leave this as the last word.
He was paying tribute to departing councillors. But it was pretty clear he wasn’t talking about them when he said: “The service of the public is a noble calling, whether you’re doing it as a councillor or as an officer. No-one in a democracy does it for the money. It can be long, it can be tiring, but as we all know, it can be rewarding.
“It can result in people delving into your personal lives, and as we all know it’s full of journalists, bloggers and tweeters who think that your moral compass and motives are as base as theirs sometimes seem to be – and that public works and public good are something to be denigrated by those who seek to pursue them [sic].”
That was then, this is now.
The Dear Leader is no more, so congratulations and welcome to Denise Hyland as the new Greenwich Council leader, as trumpted by – where else? – Greenwich Time.
It’s lucky for Hyland that one of the more controversial projects under her past watch as regeneration cabinet member, the botched refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, is finally nearing completion. Indeed, she’d also been saddled with fronting the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign to build the Silvertown Tunnel and a bridge at Gallions Reach – in spite of opposition from her own party.
The party members’ opposition meant Labour’s position in May’s election was subtly different. “Bridge The Gap is dead,” one Labour source insisted to me during the council election. And, indeed, look at what the Labour manifesto said…
A little bit of wiggle room emerged. And Labour candidates were telling people on the doorstep that things had changed. Here’s Stephen Brain, now Peninsula ward councillor, on 23 April.
But on 24 April, despite what was in the Labour party manifesto, here’s what Denise Hyland was telling Boris Johnson, responding to his London Plan…
Was Denise Hyland just following orders? Here she is from the News Shopper last week:
“I’m saying that we need a package of river crossings, absolutely we do.
I’m not going to get drawn into over whether we’ll accept or refuse a single crossing. I want to work with my colleagues, my Labour colleagues in the majority group and get a consensus after we’ve seen the proposals.”
That sounds like Bridge The Gap is still alive.
“Of course I’m concerned about air quality. I think it’s obviously a very difficult balance. If we actually look at our figures, 85 per cent of people thought we needed additional river crossings. 76 per cent wanting Silvertown, 73 per cent wanting a bridge at Gallions. People seem to think that doing nothing is not an option.”
Let’s not forget that Greenwich Council tried to rig that consultation, of course. Perhaps the new chief whip, one Stephen Brain, needs to get his leader into line…
Generally, the News Shopper interview seemed to promise more of the same than anything new. When asked about opening up the council, she said “I obviously want ward councillors to be frontline councillors, they’re the representatives of the council in the community and they represent their people and its for them to channel people’s voices through to the council” – ie, they should do their job. From this early interview, don’t expect any move away from the current top-down decision-making any time soon.
Then again, her Greenwich Time “interview” talked up the importance of listening to communities – since the Shopper’s piece went up on the website on Friday, shortly before GT goes to press, I can’t help wondering if the piece underwent a hasty rewrite as the introductory paragraph doesn’t match the headline. After all, Hyland is now the effective editor of GT…
It’s early days, and Hyland has to get her feet under the table first. While Roberts’ chief executive, Mary Ney, remains in place, big changes are probably unlikely – although a new cohort of Labour councillors will want to make their presence felt.
But who has her old job of regeneration cabinet member, the most important on the council?
Curiously, the job didn’t go to an big hitter such as Jackie Smith, John Fahy or David Gardner – but to Danny Thorpe, the 30-year-old Shooters Hill councillor best known for spending a year of his first term in office in Australia. When a skint Thorpe had to return to London after six months to attend a council meeting to avoid a by-election being triggered, the council’s Labour group had to pay his air fare.
Thorpe, who used to work in events management for Hackney Council, will be juggling his cabinet portfolio with teacher training at a primary school in Dartford. You could always try to follow him on Twitter, but his profile’s locked. Mind you, the last time I saw it, it was full of photos of him and singer Beverley Knight.
Hyland and Thorpe are also both on the planning board along with ex-deputy leader Peter Brooks and ex-chief whip Ray Walker – so the old guard are still represented there.
There are other new faces in the new cabinet. Highly-rated newcomer Sizwe James takes business, employment and skills, while fellow new councillor Chris Kirby gets housing. Miranda Williams, in her second term, joins the cabinet as member for cultural and creative industries. Returning councillor David Gardner takes health and adult social care.
Maureen O’Mara stays in the cabinet, taking community wellbeing and public health; while Jackie Smith also stays in the cabinet, but loses her highly-praised role in charge of children’s services to take on community safety and environment. John Fahy now takes on children’s services as well as being deputy leader. The “Greener Greenwich” portfolio (created by Roberts after the Greens broke through as an electoral force in 2006) has been dumped, with Harry Singh talking charge of customer and community services.
Cynics never the changed the world, so this website won’t be writing the new team off just yet. Denise Hyland and her team need to prove they are better than the unravelling shambles that came before them – and they’ll need to pick up some of the pieces, too.
Of course, Greenwich councillors should be held to account for past actions, but those actions may not necessarily be an accurate prediction of the future. It’d be good to see a review of past contracts signed with developers – as Hammersmith & Fulham’s new Labour administration is carrying out after usurping a Tory regime that also looked a bit too close to builders – but frankly that won’t happen.
Those who kept their head down and did as they were told under a bullying, stifling regime need the chance to find their feet and prove to us they can make a difference. The way Greenwich borough is run desperately needs to change – will they be the ones to deliver?
PS. Former Labour councillor Alex Grant has started a blog – and if you’ve made it down this far, his first post will be essential reading. Former Tory councillor Nigel Fletcher has also returned to being a digital scribe, and his account of losing his seat is also well worth reading.