Former Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts, who left the council after accusations of bullying were made against him, represented the borough on a trip to Berlin this summer, with accommodation paid for as part of a taxpayer-funded town twinning scheme.
Roberts, who is now deputy chairman of a company which lobbies for property developers, joined current council leader Denise Hyland and five other councillors on the beano to Reinickendorf, west Berlin, in July.
Berlin taxpayers stumped up the £1,585 accommodation costs for the group’s three-day trip, which marked the 50th anniversary of the two boroughs being twinned. Greenwich taxpayers had paid for a German delegation to visit south-east London earlier in the year.
While Roberts stepped down from the council’s top job two years ago, he retains a close relationship with the current council leadership – despite his new role at Cratus Communications, a company which specialises in lobbying local authorities.
His final year in charge saw allegations that he threw a set of keys at a council cleaner, while a leaked voicemail revealed him threatening former deputy leader John Fahy with the loss of his cabinet position in a row over a half-marathon that benefited a charity Roberts had set up.
In addition two councillors stepped down from their jobs complaining of a “culture of bullying” in his Labour group. One of them, former planning chair Alex Grant, later went public with claims that councillors were threatened and intimidated over planning matters.
Despite all this, both Labour and Tory councillors united to award Roberts the freedom of the borough earlier this year.
Fireworks and a VIP dinner
The trip, which took place between 14-17 July, saw Roberts, Hyland, Roberts’ former deputy Peter Brooks (Glyndon ward), Norman Adams (Kidbrooke with Hornfair), Steve Offord (Abbey Wood), Chris Lloyd (Peninsula) and cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald (Peninsula) treated to rooms at the four-star Hotel am Borgisturm in Tegel.
They were treated to a fireworks display on a lake to mark the relationship between the two councils, as well as a Saturday night stage show at the Friedrichstadtpalast theatre, in the centre of the German capital.
Roberts and the party also enjoyed a VIP dinner at the Tegel Harbour Festival, while they also attended a reception at Reinickendorf’s town hall.
One councillor, Chris Lloyd, tweeted about being presented with a medal.
Despite this clearly being a big deal in Reinickendorf, Greenwich did not announce the councillors’ trip to the media. Asked under England’s Freedom of Information Act about the councillors’ trip, Greenwich Council did not disclose Roberts’ attendance or the cost of the trip, although it did confirm the itinerary and pointed out each member of the party paid their own travel costs.
None of the councillors has disclosed the trip with Roberts on their register of interests, despite it being worth more than £100 each.
However, the trip was reported locally and officials in Reinickendorf released a photo showing Roberts with the party. They later confirmed the costs after a request made under Berlin’s state freedom of information laws.
Conflict of interests
Chris Roberts’ new employment as a lobbyist for developers opens up a possible conflict of interests, as Denise Hyland, Peter Brooks, Norman Adams and Steve Offord sit on the borough’s main planning committee, the grandly-titled Planning Board.
Hyland has been criticised for being the only council leader in London to be on such a committee, and earlier this month withdrew from a decision on a skate park in Charlton Park after objectors pointed out she had spoken in support of the scheme last year.
Roberts – who this website understands is still in regular contact with the council leadership – has recently been joined at Cratus Communications by Michael Stanworth, a former Labour Party organiser in Greenwich borough during his time in office.
The Cratus website recently published an article praising the views of another Roberts chum, Tony Pidgeley, the chairman of Berkeley Homes, which is behind the Royal Arsenal and Kidbrooke Village developments. Pidgeley was thanked in Roberts’ acceptance speech when he was given the freedom of the borough.
Greenwich taxpayers pay for return trips
While Greenwich taxpayers did not contribute directly to Roberts’ trip, they do fund accommodation costs when Reinickendorf councillors come to stay. In May, the council paid £4,140 for a Reinickendorf party to stay at the Hotel Ibis in Greenwich.
The delegation, which included Reinickendorf leader Hinrich Luehmann and its former chief executive Frank Zemke, were shown around the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich and attended the private Old Royal Naval College inauguration of mayor Olu Babatola, a bash that cost council taxpayers £20,000.
A month later, Zemke was given the freedom of Greenwich borough – the council’s highest honour – for “pioneering the exchange of officials and trainees, as well as other institutions from the two boroughs”.
The borough of Reinickendorf, named after a leafy suburb of Berlin, is clearly proud of its links with Greenwich. A Greenwich Promenade runs alongside Lake Tegel, while memorabilia from Greenwich is proudly displayed in its town hall. A Greenwich borough crest is also on display at the local rail station. Coincidentally, Reinickendorf’s next-door borough, Charlottenberg, has a similar arrangement with Lewisham.
But evidence of Greenwich’s pride is less easy to come by. Until recently, the only public commemoration was a small and poorly-maintained road in Eltham’s Avery Hill Park, Reinickendorf Avenue. But earlier this year, a “buddy bear” was presented to Greenwich by Reinickendorf. It now sits, looking slightly marooned, in General Gordon Square, Woolwich.
Town twinning started in Europe after the second world war, and was aimed at repairing damaged relationships between nations. With two of Greenwich’s twin towns – the other is Maribor, Slovenia – in European Union states, it’s possible that these agreements may grow in importance if Britain goes through with the vote to leave the EU. A third town, Tema in Ghana, has received assistance and recycled council equipment.
But trips like this one to Reinickendorf make the whole arrangement look like a private jolly. Furthermore, inviting a property developer’s lobbyist along for a subsidised break raises questions about the whole arrangement, and bigger questions about just how the council’s main planning committee works. But will anyone on the council be brave enough to ask them?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
Update, 26 March: Greenwich Council has denied the leak referred to in this story was about the leaked Chris Roberts voicemail. See the end of the second video in this story.
Greenwich Council used public resources to track down the whistleblower who leaked ex-leader Chris Roberts’ abusive voicemail to a cabinet member to the media, it has been suggested.
The council is said to have launched the investigation after a voicemail of Roberts abusing John Fahy was made public, according to a report on answers given to a freedom of information request made by journalism trade website Press Gazette.
Roberts can be heard threatening Labour colleague Fahy with the removal of his cabinet position, telling him to “get it through your fucking thick skull”. The voicemail’s existence was first revealed on this website, after which it was published by the News Shopper. The investigation was into who leaked the voicemail to the Shopper.
Roberts was angry because Fahy was challenging his assumption that he would decide whether or not the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired, should take place in 2014.
It’s worth noting here that Greenwich Council refused to reveal details of the investigation to Press Gazette, only saying the leaker was identified. Instead, it said the information was already in the public domain – and the “thick skull” voicemail was by far the most high profile story leaked out of the council in recent years.
It is certainly known that the council was planning a investigation of the voicemail leak at the time, in addition to investigations by the Labour party, and the council’s standards board met to discuss the matter in December 2013.
Roberts left the council last summer, with the council mired in accusations over a bullying culture that led to two Labour councillors stepping down. He was let off any council punishment over the voicemail, but did get a written warning from the party.
However, Fahy – the victim of the voicemail – was punished twice by Greenwich Labour group chief whip over the incident. He was given a verbal warning over the leak of the voicemail, and while selections were taking place for the 2014 elections, he was given a written warning for not saying who the message had been leaked to – something that could have put his candidacy at risk.
Mary Ney, the chief executive who oversaw the investigation, also left the council last year after refusing to release a dossier about bullying submitted by a councillor, claiming it was solely a Labour party matter.
She is now working as a commissioner at scandal-hit Rotherham council, itself criticised for a bullying culture in an official report.
Chief whip Ray Walker, who oversaw the party’s disciplinary process against Fahy, was deposed by new councillor Stephen Brain last year.
When BBC London investigated the bullying at Greenwich Council in December 2013, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan promised to investigate complaints – but the complaints were ignored by the party.
Last night, the Tooting MP appeared at a comedy fundraiser in Greenwich called Stand Up For Labour – something he failed to do for his party’s own councillors in the borough.
2.10pm update: I’ve made a few tweaks to the story in light of information received just after it was published to stress it’s not fully certain whether the investigation was into the Fahy voicemail, although that is the only major leak story to have involved Greenwich in recent years.
Greenwich Council’s cabinet will challenge Eric Pickles’ decision to outlaw its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, it confirmed after a meeting yesterday.
Greenwich remains the only Labour council in the country to print a weekly paper – and yet has decided to seek a judicial review of a direction by the communities secretary telling the council to stop publishing by 31 March.
The council insists it saves money by using Greenwich Time as its exclusive advertising outlet, and says it will lose out by having to exit print and distribution contracts early.
A paper released on the day of the cabinet meeting put the cost of Greenwich Time as being nearly £590,000 – although much of this would have to be spent elsewhere anyway on advertising planning applications and other statutory notices.
After a recent tender for alternative publications to place advertising in, Greenwich head of legal Russell Power says axing Greenwich Time would cost the council an extra quarter of a million pounds each year.
There’s no news on just how much a judicial review will cost – but the bill will be faced by the same Greenwich council taxpayers who get the paper shoved through their letterboxes every week.
With a general election coming up, it may well prove to be a spoiling tactic to get any ban moved until after the general election.
But the decision also makes it very hard for local Labour representatives to complain about coalition cuts when they’re blowing cash on saving a weekly newspaper that no other Labour council feels the need to have.
Indeed, the decision – which came a day after Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook stood down to concentrate on the battle for Greenwich & Woolwich – could prove embarrassing for Labour candidates in the general election.
The council’s announcement of the judicial review on Twitter was greeted with universal criticism. Tweets included “time to close it down and get your councillors to engage with residents properly,” “Don’t ever tell me in the future that there’s no money available to improve services”, and “why exactly should we fund this?”
How did we end up here, though? Let me take you back in time, to the early 1980s…
If you ever find yourself with a day free, head down to the Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal and ask to have a look at their old newspapers. The microfilm goes back centuries, but even looking back to the 1980s is fascinating – a time of deep political polarisation.
Until the early 1980s, Greenwich had always been seen as a moderate, or even right-wing, Labour council. After 1982’s elections, things changed somewhat – left-winger John Austin-Walker took control, and a new wave of Labour councillors began to push more radical policies, complementing Ken Livingstone’s programme at the Greater London Council.
Of course, this was set against a particularly right-wing Conservative government, plus a national press that couldn’t understand why all these lefties were giving money to gay groups, ethnic groups, women’s groups – and then there were the nuclear-free zones, solidarity with striking miners, and more besides.
These battles were fought out on billboards, in newspaper ads, in Sun editorials, even in ads on the side of dustcarts.
The local press was in a much healthier state back then. The Woolwich-based Kentish Independent – 20p each week – was the paper that followed Greenwich Council the closest. The small-“c” conservative weekly faithfully reported all this stuff – and the opposition to it. (Its editor, Frank Dunkley, wasn’t shy about expressing his own rather ripe views, branding Austin-Walker “Nonsense Talker” in his own column. That column may have played part in the eventual closure of the paper – but that’s another story.)
A new council logo? Could the council be sharpening up its communications act?
Greenwich had been publishing a news-sheet called Civic News six times a year. With the local press, particularly the KI, sceptical about the council’s policies – and the nationals on the hunt for “loony left” stories – it seems the Labour administration wanted to fight its corner a bit more robustly.
I couldn’t track down any copies of Civic News at Greenwich Heritage Centre, so I can’t see if it had headlines to match the one about the missing maracas. But at the the bottom of a box, I found this…
In April 1984, just days after the Kentish Independent closed and Charlton Athletic had staved off the same fate, Greenwich Time was born as a monthly. It was distributed alongside the Mercury, which had just gone free (helping seal the old KI’s fate).
And yep, it was talking up the council’s role in helping save the Addicks from doom. A rate rise was promoted because it helped stop job cuts, while inside an editorial from John Austin-Walker said if it hadn’t been for government cuts, he would have been able to cut rates instead.
Looking through those early issues, it’s obvious Greenwich Time was a propaganda tool. But it’s clear those behind it saw it as a tool to champion the marginalised – the unemployed, women and minority groups. Greenwich councillors had found their most potent weapon to fight the decade’s culture wars.
It wasn’t all one way. A lively letters page contained a range of views, while a panel promoting council meetings cautioned: “it’s your council, keep an eye on it!”. Might have to revive that one.
It promoted discussion about just what the council should do about government cuts – and there was a surprisingly even-handed write-up of the all-night session which saw Greenwich finally, grudgingly, set a rate for 1985.
There was even a short-lived cartoon strip…
…while a council U-turn was owned up to.
This Socialist Worker-style campaigning fervour faded as the decade wore on, but Greenwich Time remained the place for a frustrated council to vent against Margaret Thatcher’s government.
12 years ahead of the Lewisham extension becoming reality, Greenwich Time praised the 1987 opening of the “space age” Docklands Light Railway, while rows with the government continued into the 1990s.
The paper went fortnightly in 1991 – still being distributed with the Mercury – and adopted a new look in 1993, when the council was run by Len Duvall. This era of Greenwich Time was almost benign – the news items were briefer and briskly-written, while council policies were still regularly challenged in the letters page.
The next big change came after this fresh-faced chap took over Greenwich Council in 2000.
Chris Roberts started with a blast at newly-elected mayor Ken Livingstone – then outside the Labour fold as an independent.
Another new look in 2002 saw Greenwich Time inch away from looking like a council newspaper and starting to ape the look of a local paper – specifically, the Mercury, whose former editor Peter Cordwell was drafted into work on it. (The relationship ended in acrimony a decade later.)
It’s here the personality cult also starts to kick in…
…and a 2004 story about Greenwich Peninsula which feels like it’s been repeated about 50 times since then.
There was also a campaign to bring Crossrail to Woolwich….
…and a “youth champion” becoming the youngest-ever councillor.
The final transformation came in May 2008, when Greenwich Time went weekly, carried a TV guide, was distributed on its own and started carrying council ads exclusively – making it much cheaper to run.
Strangely, that first weekly edition isn’t in the Heritage Centre, so here’s a council tax freeze – before it started telling porkies about long it’d lasted for – with our favourite picture of the Dear Leader.
Looking back over Greenwich Time’s history, you can see three key stages – the nakedly political, campaigning paper of the 1980s; the brisk information sheet of the 1990s; and the 21st-century imitation of being a local paper.
Under Austin-Walker it wanted to persuade you to support a particular viewpoint, and published monthly; the Duvall version was more about information, published fortnightly; while under Roberts it became something aimed at more subtly shaping opinions, and published weekly.
It’s also worth considering the wider media context – the free Mercury had a near-monopoly in Greenwich for much of the the 1980s after the Kentish Independent’s demise, although the paid-for Eltham Times still figured in the south of the borough along with the free News Shopper. By 1988, the local newspaper market was still strong enough for the Shopper to launch borough-wide.
Scroll forward to 2015, and the Mercury is a shadow of its former self while the former Eltham Times retreated to Bexley and Bromley some years back. Neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper have the reach of Greenwich Time – a near-reversal of the situation in 1984.
Much of this has been down to the greed and stupidity of the local newspaper industry – but Greenwich Time, once the paper that fought for minority causes, has taken advantage of this to get a dominant position in both distribution and advertising.
Back in the 1980s, Greenwich Time was run by councillors willing to risk their own finances for what they believed in – risking surcharges in battles over rates. Their 2015 successors have not nearly been as active in defying government cuts, except when it comes to risking taxpayers’ money to defend their own newspaper.
Now Greenwich Time’s life has flashed before our eyes, will we see it come to an end soon? We may find out the answer in court soon – as well as the bill for the council’s legal action.
Thanks to the staff at the Greenwich Heritage Centre in the Royal Arsenal for their help and patience in my trawl. You should go and visit some day.
Former Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney has been handed a new job trying to turn scandal-hit Rotherham Council around, despite trying to stop allegations of bullying in her old borough from being revealed.
Ney, who retired from Greenwich in October 2014, worked on Louise Casey’s report into child sexual exploitation in the South Yorkshire borough, which was published a month ago.
The report damned “a pervading culture of sexism, bullying and silencing debate” in Rotherham – a description that raised eyebrows in Greenwich, embroiled in its own accusations of bullying towards the end of former leader Chris Roberts’ spell in charge.
Two weeks ago, it was announced Ney would be a “supporting commissioner” at Rotherham, working as part of a five-strong team led by former Kensington & Chelsea Council boss Sir Derek Myers.
During Ney’s time as Greenwich’s senior council officer:
- Two councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – stepped down, citing bullying in the ruling Labour group among their reasons.
- Ney blocked an attempt by this website to obtain a document detailing allegations of bullying in the council.
- Former leader Chris Roberts, who left the council in June 2014, was let off with a slap on the wrist after a threatening voicemail to a cabinet member was made public.
- Ney refused to investigate a conflict of interest that arose from the voicemail concerning the council’s handling of the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired.
- Roberts also escaped any discplinary procedure over an incident where he is alleged to have thrown a set of keys at a cleaner who woke him up early one morning when he was asleep in his office. This incident was highlighted by the BBC’s Sunday Politics London in December 2013.
Many councillors and figures within Greenwich politics remain privately angry that the council’s standards structure meant incidents of bullying were easy to get away with, and are questioning how Ney managed to get the job trying to clear up Rotherham.
Councillors ‘routinely threatened’
The loss of two talented councillors in Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher was a blow to the borough’s Labour group. Both have now moved out of the borough, but Grant – who now lives in France – has been particularly outspoken on the issue.
In a lengthy blog post paying farewell to the borough in December, he said the stories about Greenwich were just “the tip of an iceberg”.
He wrote: “Councillors and council staff were routinely shouted at, threatened with disciplinary action for speaking their minds at internal meetings, or quite literally airbrushed out of [the council’s weekly paper] Greenwich Time like victims of a Stalinist purge.
“Those who raised concerns found that their confidential correspondence was hacked into without their knowledge or consent; they were then accused of “issuing publications critical of the party” and told to shut up or else. In my case, a ‘colleague’ once yelled at me aggressively in front of my daughter, then aged 7.
“On another occasion I was officially ‘warned’ to stop asking awkward questions about why council properties in my ward were standing empty for several months – or even years – before being sold off at auction for less than their real value (a ‘warning’ that was later found to be unlawful). Many, many other councillors and council employees had similar experiences.”
How Greenwich Council’s bullying dossier was successfully covered up
Grant also wrote a document for the council in May 2013 detailing some of the accusations, and proposing solutions to help rid the council of the problem.
I tried to obtain this via the Freedom of Information Act, originally without knowledge of who the author was. But my request was refused by Ney in December 2013 – just as further accusations about Roberts were emerging – on the grounds that it had been sent as an email attachment and it had no use for it.
I kept on challenging the decision, until a “first tier tribunal” last year, which upheld Ney’s decision as it had “no use for it” – a loophole which means that if the council decides it wants nothing to do with a document, it doesn’t have to release it (presumably to stop you submitting your shopping list to the council and then trying to get it through FOI).
Worringly, Judge Shanks claimed there “may have been an abuse of the process” because Grant – who was a serving councillor at the time the original FOI request was made – could have leaked the document himself, despite the risk of being intimidated and harassed himself.
Effectively, Ney’s rationale for the council having no use for the document was that accusations of bullying should be dealt within the Labour Group, and so wasn’t applicable to the council as an authority.
The Greenwich dossier revealed – ‘staff were also bullied’But once the tribunal was over, Grant quietly released the document on his own blog. Titled Forward, Together – Recommendations for a new anti-bullying strategy in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it openly states council staff were also being bullied.
It states: “Those who feel they are at the receiving end of bullying are not always threatened directly – sometimes they are warned verbally that they should “watch their back” as they [are] out of favour and may be victimised next.
“Councillors – and council staff – who do voice concerns about their treatment have from time to time been labelled as troublemakers, criticised for being over-sensitive, or even accused of bringing the council, and/or their political party, into disrepute.
“In some cases such behaviour has not lead to formal complaints – often because complainants do not feel their complaints will be listened to – but when complaints are made, these are rarely taken seriously, and in some cases complainants have felt intimidated or stigmatised for speaking out.
“There have been several cases of… complaints of bullying being investigated (and dismissed) by the very person who is accused of bullying.”
Greenwich Council’s argument for refusing to release the document was that it was solely applicable to the council’s Labour group, and was of no interest to the council as a whole.
Yet Grant’s allegations that staff were being bullied show this argument to be untrue. Furthermore, the council’s constitution states that councillors have a role in “ensuring standards are properly established and monitored”.
Despite this, Ney still chose to prevent the release of the document.
The parallels with Rotherham
Nobody is pretending that what happened Greenwich is in any way comparable with the tragedy of Rotherham, which ignored widespread organised sexual abuse of children.
But Louise Casey’s report into Rotherham details a culture of bullying that chimes with experiences in Greenwich. Bullying and sexism had “cemented its failures”, Casey wrote.
“This was a culture where bullying and fear of repercussions if you spoke out was not met by any concerted challenge,” she continued.
Rotherham leader Roger Stone refused to take part in Casey’s report, but sent a statement outlining a his priorities for the borough, centring on regeneration projects – an echo of the emphasis of Roberts’ administration.
Whether Ney is the right person to assist in cleaning up Rotherham Council is a matter for Eric Pickles, whose Department of Communities and Local Government chose her for the role. I’ve asked the DCLG for a response. It has not replied.
Yet it is easy to understand why, considering past events under her watch in Greenwich – and attempts to block exposure of these incidents – many in south-east London are bemused by her new appointment.
After the Dear Leader – what’s happening now?Since Denise Hyland became leader of the council in June 2014, “Dear Leader” Chris Roberts has kept a low profile, although he’s understood to still be in regular touch with Hyland.
After 20 years of working with them as a councillor and council leader, Roberts is now working as a consultant to property developers. Companies House records reveal he has set up his own company, PSL Solutions Ltd, based at his home address in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal.
Roberts’ chief whip, Ray Walker, who denied there ever was a bullying culture in the council, was deposed in a Labour group vote by newly-elected Peninsula councillor Stephen Brain.
But Walker, who accused those complaining of bullying of “jumping on a bandwagon”, remains the chair of the council’s planning board – the key hold-out for Roberts’ old guard of councillors.
Keeping it in the party
More recent events have had more to do with the Labour Party itself than the council – though clearly there is some overlap.
Just as the London Labour Party turned a blind eye to bullying among councillors in Greenwich, it also ignored the bizarre attempt to stitch up cabinet member John Fahy, where someone sent emails purporting to be him routed via Portugal.
Another allegation was spotted by the News Shopper last month, where new councillor Ambreen Hisbani – who is close to the old council leadership – accused Eltham MP Clive Efford of abusing her Portuguese husband Rui Dias after drinking five pints of beer in small-hours tweets sent to Ed Miliband, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan and London Labour regional director Alan Olive.
Neither party has commented on the allegation, although it should be noted that Hisbani’s tweeting puts her at risk of disciplinary action.
The fractious relations within the Labour Party also have consequences outside it.
This website also understands that Labour councillors in the south of the borough were threatened with deselection by a senior party figure if they voted against the party’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel.
While Roberts has gone and there is a new chief whip in charge, it remains tough for many councillors to operate openly and honestly – with the council still at risk of passing bad policy because of Labour figures throwing their weight around.
Troubles with non-politicians
It’s not just those inside the Labour party that can feel a backlash for speaking their minds.
The nascent campaign for a community council in Charlton ended up being put on hold after a whispering campaign against individuals who supported it was promoted by figures within the party. This is despite community councils being Labour policy.
And even Denise Hyland – who as leader has aimed to strike a more emollient tone than her predecessor – betrayed impatience with residents who were impertinent enough to complain at a recent council meeting.
Last November, a delegation of people who live near the Rochester Way Social Club in Eltham presented a petition showing their unhappiness about the club’s closure. Here’s their impressive speech – “[you] are made up of a majority of Labour councillors – councillors we voted for” – and new cabinet member Chris Kirby’s conciliatory response. You can hear this up to the point where mayor Mick Hayes gives the residents a cue to leave.
Once the residents had gone, Conservative leader Spencer Drury raised the issue. With the petitioners safely on their way back to Eltham, Denise Hyland’s response was less cautious. “If the 600 people that put their names on the petition drank there, socialised there and paid a membership there, it wouldn’t be unviable, would it?”
Whether it’s harsh truth or an over-simplification of a complex situation, it’s not very nice to have a go at people once their backs are turned.
And the future?
Despite these issues, Greenwich’s current leadership knows it has a problem with the way the council relates to the people who it is set up to serve. With Roberts and Ney gone, it can start to fix them.
As an attempt to make the place more transparent, webcasting council meetings is promised soon, as are new proposals to get people more closely involved in decision-making.
But the council remains on the naughty step regarding its handling of freedom of information requests, a legacy left behind by Ney.
Returning to what Alex Grant wrote, things have certainly improved under the new regime.
Dropping the absurd way it continually refers to itself as “the Royal Borough” (what’s wrong with “we” or “us”?) would be a clearer sign of change, along with weaning itself off its dependency on Greenwich Time. But it’ll take a long time for the ship to be turned around.
Of course, local politics tends to be much a game of egos and power as it is serving the population. Especially as under the current electoral system, it’s always bound to be a slightly crap miniature version of Westminster.
But if members of the Labour party in Greenwich treated each other with a bit more kindness and a bit more respect – the rest of it might come a little bit more easily, and they might find all kinds of things become better for them. Just a thought.
Want to get your hands on Greenwich borough’s biggest job, plus a salary of at least £185,000? Get yourself to royalgreenwichchiefexecutive.com and see what’s on offer as Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney gets set to retire.
Ney’s approaching retirement has been well-known around the council for some time, and the quote given to the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler back in July when he asked to confirm the details – “this is old news” – pretty much sums up the petulant, entitled and secretive attitude that spread at the top of the council under her watch.
Recruited by former leader Chris Roberts shortly after he took over the council, Ney – a former head of Harrow social services – failed to act when alerted to the bullying culture within the council under Roberts and ex-chief whip Ray Walker’s watch.
Indeed, Ney is still trying to prevent the release of a document about bullying sent by a Greenwich councillor, a case that has now gone to a freedom of information tribunal.
Writing on his blog yesterday, former Labour councillor Alex Grant shines some light on the broken culture of what now calls itself ‘Royal Greenwich’:
“In my 16 years as a councillor in Greenwich I lost count of the number of times that hard-working councillors were told to look away from problems rather than scrutinise them.
“It was worryingly common for councillors who asked innocent questions about what the council was doing – either publicly or privately – to be shouted at, receive abusive voicemail messages, or even be officially ‘warned’ to shut up or face the consequences.
The problems I encountered in my time as a councillor in Greenwich [included] bullying, a culture of secrecy, discouraging councillors and members of staff from raising concerns, particularly about the council’s finances and use of resources.”
A new chief executive will be a bigger opportunity to flush out the old culture at Greenwich than the election of a new political leader – here’s hoping it’s an outside appointment. Alas, it doesn’t look like an offer’s gone out to share Lewisham’s hugely-respected chief executive, Barry Quirk.