The dust may never settle on the 2017 general election until the next one comes along. But the result was clear-cut in this part of south-east London – a big “up yours” to the woman currently barricading herself inside 10 Downing Street with the help of strange men in bowler hats.
So, only a few days late, and with the caveat that I spent the final week of the campaign sat reading Roger Moore’s autobiography in the Barcelona sunshine instead of attending hustings, here are a few observations on what election night meant for Greenwich, Woolwich, Eltham and beyond. (Declaration videos are from Sky News.)
1. Matthew Pennycook is now the King of Greenwich (and Woolwich)
Look at the size of that. 64.4% of the vote. Matt Pennycook scored Labour’s highest vote share since the Greenwich & Woolwich seat was created in 1997 (in Greenwich, you have to look to the 1971 by-election to see a higher share), beating anything his predecessor Nick Raynsford achieved. That’s a Lewisham-style share, for heaven’s sake. Voters evidently forgave his Brexit votes – or didn’t care that much anyway or prioritised other issues. Or maybe voters just hated the Tories.
His campaign saw him open up a little bit of space between him and his Labour colleagues – let’s call them the Berkeley Homes Party – running the council. His election literature referred to his anti-Silvertown Tunnel stance and his work in trying to amend the Berkeley Homes Party’s mistake of doing developers’ bidding at the Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal, things Raynsford would never have done. Whatever, this win should silence his local critics and remind the Berkeley Homes Party what Labour should be about in this area.
2. Clive Efford’s return means little change at Greenwich Council… for now
The result in Eltham mattered almost as much in Greenwich & Woolwich (and Erith & Thamesmead) as it did south of the A207. Clive Efford’s stunning victory almost – but not quite – matched the levels of his first win in 1997, landing 54.4% of the vote, up from 42.6% last time. Labour didn’t just throw the kitchen sink at Eltham, it threw the cooker, fridge, microwave and cutlery to leave the local Tories badly wounded. It was aided by the Tories slashing local school budgets – sprinkling Matt Hartley’s faltering campaign with poison from the off – but most of all by hordes of activists, notably from Lewisham. (However to pay them back?)
But the win also consolidates Efford’s vice-like grip on the Eltham Labour Party, which in turn consolidates the Eltham Labour Party’s vice-like grip on the Greenwich Council Labour group. While Matt Pennycook will be much stronger as a result of last week, anyone hoping for power to drain from the stale leadership currently running the council may have to wait a little while longer.
3. Matt Hartley has himself to blame for losing Eltham
Did the Tories take Eltham for granted? It was their 29th target seat. Their candidate failed to show up at hustings, and failed to defend local schools from cuts. But perhaps the problems started a year ago, when Matt Hartley was putting leaflets through doors insisting Britain was about to be flooded with Syrian refugees via Turkey, and breezily insisting that the Vote Leave campaign wasn’t fronted left, right and centre by lies and liars.
The EU referendum ushered in a period of huge political turmoil, of which last week’s poll – “only Theresa May can make these Brexit negotiations a success” – was just a part. In the end, the chaos that Hartley helped unleash also consumed his parliamentary ambitions – in this area, at least – and it’s made the local Tories look rather silly.
Would his predecessor as council leader and candidate, Spencer Drury, have done better? Maybe not – Hartley still added 3,100 votes to the Tories’ share, while Drury saw a small fall in 2015. But for now, Eltham is Labour territory once again, and it’ll take an earthquake – or a boundary change – to shift them.
4. The Liberal Democrats blew it with bullshit
Pardon the language. In Greenwich and Woolwich, this wasn’t an election for great political literature. The Labour leaflet was too wordy, the Tory one vacuous, the Green one vague. But the Lib Dem took the biscuit for bullshit. It was unfortunate that candidate Chris Adams had to move home shortly before the poll – his old SE8 address (even if on the Lewisham side) would have looked better on the ballot paper than “address in the Dulwich and West Norwood consituency”.
However, his literature let him down. Even if Brexit turned out to be a bigger issue, most people who feel stronger about remaining in the EU tend to be a bit more engaged and would never have fallen for “Jeremy Corbyn and Matthew Pennycook back the Tories’ hard Brexit”. It even featured a dodgy graph. And while the Lib Dems’ opposition to the Silvertown Tunnel was welcome, them getting key facts about it wrong in two separate leaflets wasn’t. (As someone who’s campaigned against the tunnel, they’d have been very welcome to ask.) It was idiotic not to have featured their key electoral asset in this field – their excellent London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, who has actually done things to help the anti-tunnel cause – and just looked like a weird vendetta against Matt Pennycook. It backfired, and deservedly so.
5. The Greens actually need to tell people to vote for them
There’s no disguising that this was a terrible election for the Greens. It was always going to be tough. They were smart to stand down in Eltham, but the problem with pushing for a “progressive alliance” was identified by former London Assembly member Darren Johnson, who observed that if you keep standing down, that’s what all the headlines will be about, rather than your policies.
And so it proved, with the Greens getting terrible London results, even in their heartland constituencies. In Greenwich & Woolwich, the Berkeley Homes Party’s antics should have provided Dan Garrun with an open goal and a chance to hold Matt Pennycook’s feet to the fire. But their national problems were made worse by vague election literature (not living in the target Peninsula ward I didn’t see it all, but their website contained very little) and tweets that suggested they really weren’t bothered if people didn’t vote for them. So they didn’t – resulting in just 3% of the vote and a lost deposit. Pay attention next time, Greens.
6. In Greenwich borough, this was only the beginning
In inner London, Labour is an awesome, even fearsome machine. Their get-the-vote-out teams prowl the streets on election day, and the party’s stuffed full of old hands who know just how to run an election. You don’t know them, but they have a pretty good idea of just how you might vote. For them, much of this was a dry run for next May’s council election. Greenwich’s selections start now – always entertaining in a party where they largely hate each other, but with the added spice of Momentum-backed candidates ready to pounce. (There’s also the influence of the Pentecostal New Wine Church, but that’s for another time.) For Greenwich’s Labour (and Berkeley Homes Party) councillors, and those who want to replace them, the battle is only just beginning.
Bonus news from elsewhere: Millwall relegated at the polls
In 1990, Charlton Athletic fans who were enraged at Greenwich Council’s refusal to allow the club to return to The Valley formed their own political party to fight that year’s council elections. The Valley Party got 10.9% of the vote, unseated the chair of the planning committee, and forced the council to change its mind. This year, Millwall fans who were enraged at Lewisham Council’s plans to compulsorily-purchase part of the club’s land at The Den decided to follow suit.
But they cocked it up in fine style – standing in the general election (why?) in Lewisham East (some way from The Den, and – Downham/ Grove Park excepted – not really a heartland of Lions support) against Labour’s Heidi Alexander. But Alexander is a hugely popular figure locally, and has been effectively fire-proofed ever since her part in the campaign to save Lewisham Hospital from cuts. Candidate Willow Winston, an artist with a studio close to the Den, lost her deposit, netting a derisory 355 votes (0.75%) and showing that £500 is a big price to pay for securing some sympathetic Guardian coverage. Millwall may have been promoted back to the Championship last month, but their fans’ political nous remains in the relegation zone.
Your comments on the local issues raised here are welcome…
Boris Johnson, no less, once explained it: “Let us suppose you are losing an argument… Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.
“Everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
Well, a dead cat’s been thrown on the railway line that goes through Eltham and Blackheath. And it’s stinking out any chance of having a sensible discussion about how to make south-east London’s rail network work more efficiently.
It starts with Transport for London having an idea…
Last year, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling refused to allow Transport for London to take control of Southeastern’s metro train network. TfL had correctly identified the flaws that beset our trains, and wanted to set about fixing them.
Those flaws included:
- A fares system which means we pay more for a worse service than those on the Tube
- The network is too complicated, which makes it unreliable, and needs investment to make it simpler (through altering junctions and improving interchanges) into identifiable “lines” – reducing the number of terminal stations each line serves.
- There isn’t enough capacity on the network, but making it simpler would improve capacity
- Some services aren’t frequent enough, but could be more frequent if the network was made simpler
Instead, he’s putting a new Kent franchise up for grabs, which includes local London services, There’s a consultation on right now into what to do with it.
It includes the suggestion that the network is too complicated and could be made simpler – one line, one terminal station. It’s not a million miles from what TfL proposed. But there’s been outrage.
SE London’s train service is complexThe Southeastern metro lines through Lewisham and Greenwich are fiendishly complicated. Just heading to Dartford alone there are four different routes, with three different central London terminals.
- Cannon Street to Dartford via Greenwich and Woolwich – 6 trains per hour, evenly spaced out – this one is the simplest, as it can now only run to Cannon Street.
- Charing Cross, Cannon Street or Victoria to Dartford via Lewisham and Bexleyheath – 6 trains per hour, but unevenly spaced out and heading to/from different London terminals.
- Charing Cross or Cannon Street to Dartford via Sidcup – 4 trains per hour, half go to Charing Cross without calling at Lewisham, half to Cannon Street via Lewisham and New Cross.
- Charing Cross to Gillingham via Lewisham, Woolwich and Dartford – 2 trains per hour. This is the one that goes through the tunnel under Blackheath, and a service TfL wouldn’t have taken over as it runs far beyond London.
And then there are the trains that run to Hayes and Orpington/Sevenoaks, some of which also skip Lewisham and New Cross. Confusing? Imagine if you could untie some of the knots and make this easier to understand.Already, there’s been some simplification. As we’ve dealt with already, trains through Greenwich now only go to Cannon Street. This is currently inconvenient as their London Bridge platforms are being rebuilt, but should be much less of an issue once the job’s finished next year.
In the document for the new Southeastern franchise, there is a suggestion for a natural progression – that maybe all trains via Bexleyheath should also go to Cannon Street.
And it’s all kicked off, because people like their direct trains to Charing Cross and Victoria. But hang on…
Shoddy service on the Bexleyheath line
The current train service on the Bexleyheath line is pretty crap compared to what Greenwich line users enjoy, which (outside rush hours) is a train every 10 minutes in both directions. (Note: I’ve tweaked the examples here as I’d got the directions wrong earlier.)
At Lewisham, there are trains to Kidbrooke at 02, 08, and 14 past the hour – then nothing for 18 minutes before another flurry at 32, 38 and 44 past each hour. Then another 18 minutes with nothing, and so on. Not much fun if you’ve just got off the DLR and you’ve missed the 14 past. (It’s more even in the other direction, granted.)
If you’re coming from central London, then one train leaves from Victoria, one leaves from Charing Cross, one from Cannon Street. You’ll have to plan your going-home time pretty carefully, compared with Greenwich line users who can just rock up at Cannon Street (or London Bridge from next year) and be on a train within 10 minutes. (This is also useless if you want to start a business in this area – where will your staff/clients go if they want to come to you by train?)
So, making the service consistent and basing it around Cannon Street means our passenger at Lewisham waiting to go to Kidbrooke would benefit from a train every 10 minutes. That makes train travel attractive and takes pressure off local buses. And someone coming home from central London can just turn up at Cannon Street or London Bridge and be on their way home reasonably quickly, rather than pick one of three terminals and hope they get there on time.
The trade-off is that if you were heading into central London from Kidbrooke and you didn’t want to go to Cannon Street, you’d have to change at London Bridge for Charing Cross, and Lewisham for Victoria.
Let’s assume – and this is a big assumption here – that all Sidcup line trains end up being routed into Victoria via Lewisham. The Sidcup line is only just down the road. If you live in Eltham and have a hospital appointment at King’s College Hospital, you can get a train from Mottingham or New Eltham to Denmark Hill. Or you can change at Lewisham. It shouldn’t be too bad.
Unfortunately, the Department for Transport has offered no detail, so it’s tough to come to an informed decision. But the principle isn’t a bad one – it needs investment to do right, though. And this is what TfL wanted to provide.
How do you solve a problem like Lewisham?Why simplify? Go to the London ends of the platforms at Lewisham and the answer will stare at you in the face – a junction where two sets of lines (from Blackheath and Hither Green) cross and go different ways (to Victoria/Charing Cross, and to Cannon Street).
A couple of years ago, this “diamond crossing” failed and services were disrupted for four weeks because the parts had to be specially-made.
So, if you’re Network Rail, you don’t want to be depending on it too much. Simplify the service, and if things do go wrong with this junction, there are fewer repercussions.
Transport for London talked about rebuilding this junction in its bid to take on Southeastern’s metro lines – which would enable more trains to get through, although it’s likely the flexibility of the current arrangement would go.
But the Department for Transport have no plans to rebuild this junction – this is essentially doing a chunk of what TfL wanted to do, but on the cheap. (Bidders for the new franchise are being told “no significant infrastructure projects are planned”).
And Lewisham station is, let’s be honest, a crap interchange. Some of the internal walls were knocked down a couple of years back to make things easier, but it needs flattening and rebuilding (and hopefully with the dangerous gap in the Hither Green/Ladywell-bound platform sorted out), with the interchange tunnels widened. Not a peep from the DfT about this either.
The TfL proposalTfL’s suggestion wasn’t quite one line, one terminal. But it did involve pulling Charing Cross trains from the Bexleyheath line (except during peak hours). With a rebuilt Lewisham, it planned to offer six trains to Cannon Street and three to Victoria each hour.
The Sidcup line would have six trains to Charing Cross and three to Victoria, with extra rush hour trains to Cannon Street.
A rebuilt Lewisham would mean changing trains wouldn’t be a hassle. But this row means nobody’s demanding that.
The problem isn’t simplifying the lines – it’s that TfL isn’t doing it
So there’s a genuine problem that TfL has tried to solve – it even gave it a name, “metroisation” – and the DfT is also pondering it, albeit in a more cack-handed, tight-fisted manner.
So cue the outrage. Early out of the traps were the Bexley Tories, launching a campaign to Keep Bexley On Track – even though Bexley Council leader Teresa O’Neill wrote a foreword to the document proposing what she is opposing. (The tweet below also pictures Labour’s Teresa Pearce, representing Erith & Thamesmead.)
All this achieves is to shield the Tories from being criticised over Grayling’s refusal to let TfL have the train service.
Then Eltham MP Clive Efford joined the angry brigade. This became about “Tory cuts” – not about Grayling’s refusal to work with Sadiq Khan to give us all a better train service.
None of this screaming and shouting is going to get anyone to work on time. It’ll just perpetuate a run-down, knackered network that needs a revamp. None of this is going to take a single car off the road or relieve pressure on buses and other forms of transport. It won’t cut our fares to the level that the rest of London pays.
And none of this is going to get any more trains through Lewisham, which is what’s badly needed here. And the only people who were going to get this done were TfL. And this row has neatly distracted attention from Chris Grayling’s failure to give Londoners control over our trains.
I would have expected our local politicians to have seen through this and taken the opportunity to campaign on this and tell us all to tell the DfT to just hand them over. But instead, with one exception (Greenwich & Woolwich’s Labour candidate Matt Pennycook, who has taken a more nuanced view) they just went on about trains from Blackheath, Eltham and Bexleyheath. It’s disappointing, to put it politely.
A more sensible answer would simply be to demand no simplification takes place until Transport for London is given control of the Southeastern Metro network.
Rowing over trains at Blackheath allows the government to dodge more serious issues
In any case, there are a heap of more serious issues that aren’t being addressed. In effect, the “no trains to Victoria” issue is a dead cat, stinking out issues that are more pressing.
- Why can’t we have TfL control our trains?
- Why are south-east Londoners paying more to use trains than those who use TfL services? Deptford to Slade Green is £2.80 off-peak – the equivalent journey on a TfL service would cost £1.50.
- Why is the Greenwich line’s rush hour service so unforgivably crap – it’s less frequent than the off-peak service, and is set to remain this way in 2018’s timetable – and what are the plans to fix this?
- Why on earth is the DfT working with out of date housebuilding figures?
- What planet is the DfT on when it expects passenger growth to be so slow?
- Why can’t we have TfL control our trains?
- Why can’t stations be staffed from first train to last, as happens on London Overground?
- What on earth is happening with the Gillingham to Charing Cross service? Is it going to be switched into a Thameslink service to Luton – as TfL’s business case for Southeastern suggests it may be – possibly cutting a rail link from Woolwich to Lewisham (and – incredibly, which is why I’m sceptical about this – leaving a huge piece of infrastructure, the Blackheath tunnel, little-used)?
- Are there any plans to cut service frequencies on any of our lines?
- Can we have the Bakerloo Line to Lewisham, then through Catford to Hayes as soon as possible, please?
- Why can’t we have TfL control our trains?
But no, the conversation has been derailed because of a row over where trains go from Blackheath and Eltham.
Have your say, and do it now
So there’s a consultation about all this, and a long questionnaire. It’s worth taking some time to read and respond. Replies need to be in by Friday 30 June (the deadline has been extended).
If you want to reply yourself, feel free to add to and play with this version of the response I’m sending. That’s if you want to try to shoehorn in as many references to TfL as possible, which is something you should be doing. The actual online form is restrictive, so it’s better if you send your response to the email address given.
In short, tell the government not to simplify Southeastern services unless they are handed to Transport for London, so the necessary improvement works can be carried out at Lewisham.
Oh look, a Tory candidate claims to be saving the day
On Wednesday, Bexleyheath & Crayford’s Tory candidate David Evenett posted that he had written to Chris Grayling. And guess what Grayling’s response was?
“To be clear, we are not proposing to reduce or change specific services.”
So, yes, dead cat. Of course, it’s only a consultation – any proposal to change services would come later. But this row has served its purpose in getting Chris Grayling off the hook for not devolving our trains so that Londoners can make decisions about their own trains. And MPs, councillors, passenger groups and amenity societies have fallen for it.This isn’t about you – or me. It’s about the neighbours we don’t yet have
It’s easy to see how this came about. There have been various consultations and documents about rail in south-east London (and Kent) over the past year or so, and many have been poorly and ambiguously presented.
Add this to the fact that many of our local politicians are simply clueless on infrastructure matters and are happy to parrot whatever they’re told, then you can see why a poorly-explained proposal can suddenly become a smokescreen for others to avoid scrutiny for their own clueless and dangerous decisions.
And frankly, this is about fairness. These campaigns are often led by people who have never had to avoid zone 1 to save money, or traded down to the bus to avoid Southeastern’s fares altogether. The vitally-important issue of TfL taking over and making our fares fairer often doesn’t even occur to them.
We may get a new transport secretary in the reshuffle that will follow the general election. And that may put a TfL takeover back on the table. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
The future of transport in our part of London isn’t about your right to get an uninterrupted journey from Blackheath to your well-paid job near Victoria, nor is it about my right to cruise to from Charlton to Charing Cross. Even if you live in Eltham or Blackheath, you’ll be getting new neighbours soon, who’ll want to travel just as you do. It’s about the coping with fast-rising populations – and shifting me, you, and our new neighbours around the capital as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The days of gentlemen turning up in pin-stripes to get one of the three daily trains to Holborn Viaduct have long gone. We need frequent and reliable services that don’t rely on junctions that are shot to pieces.
If the price of extra trains and extra capacity is you or I having to wait five minutes at Lewisham for another train, then so be it. Our train network will be simplified eventually because it’s the only way to cope with greater demand. The real battle is over who’s in charge of it – people who understand London transport, or people who don’t.
So, please make time to read the document and respond to the consultation (here are some points worth making – please customise and add your own concerns – will work better if you email your response rather than use the online form). Demand TfL runs our railways, and gets the chance to sort out the tracks at Lewisham. It’s not the sexiest of rallying cries, but it might make all our lives easier in years to come.
Update 21 May: I’ve made a few tweaks to the response as the online form is very restrictive in how you can answer (and seems to think we all live near the high speed line…) Incidentally, below is an example of a well-meaning politician campaigning on this issue but getting it hopelessly wrong; Lewisham East Liberal Democrat Emily Frith prioritising the demands of well-heeled Blackheath over the needs of Hither Green and Lee.
Update 22 May: Lewisham East Lib Dem candidate Emily Frith has been in touch to say she has responded to the consultation and said TfL should take over Southeastern’s London services. See also her comment below.
It’s just a shame, though, that candidates seem to be prioritising the demands of narrowly-focused amenity societies in their campaigning rather than taking a broader view. What’s this? Oh, no, not the Greens as well…
Greenwich borough’s Green Party has withdrawn plans to stand candidate against Labour’s Clive Efford in Eltham at the general election “to protect a marginal seat from falling into Conservative hands”.
Efford is defending a slim 2,693 majority in the highly marginal constituency, which is 29th on the Tories’ national target list. Council opposition leader Matt Hartley is hoping to take the seat back for the Conservatives, 20 years after Efford first won Eltham.
The Labour win in 2015 was aided by Ukip scoring 6,481, denying Conservative candidate Spencer Drury victory.
Ukip is not standing here, so now the battle is on to secure those votes – and those of any other party. Labour volunteers have been flooding over the border from Lewisham and elsewhere to help Efford, while Hartley has been tapping up top Tories such as Liz Truss and Priti Patel along with neighbouring MPs David Evenett and Jo Johnson.
Now the Greens have made a last-minute move to drop their candidate, Bromley-based campaigner Ann Garratt, to try to stop Eltham being part of any Tory advance. This follows the example of Green parties in other London marginal seats such as Ealing Central & Acton, Brentford & Isleworth and Ilford North, where Green candidates have also been stood down. Party co-leader Caroline Lucas has been actively encouraging local parties to come to deals.
The move comes after talks with local Labour representatives, although no deal was made and the Greens say the decision was theirs alone. Last week, local party co-ordinator Dan Garrun cited Labour’s poor local elections showing in saying: “It’s essential we give people the opportunity to vote for a genuinely progressive party.”
But a party statement released half an hour after nominations closed said: “Members of the Greenwich Green Party have voted to stand aside their candidate in Eltham and will not contest the constituency in the General Election to be held on June 8th.
“The decision was not made as part of a so-called electoral alliance but to protect a marginal seat from falling into Conservative hands.
“In our discussion with the local Labour Party, we were pleased to elicit a promise that they will push for a better electoral system based on proportional representation. Clive Efford MP has also assured us of his intentions to stand up for the environment, protect the NHS and oppose a harmful Brexit. We will hold Labour to it.
“The decision was not an easy one and we urge our supporters in Eltham to rally around our candidates in Greenwich & Woolwich and Erith & Thamesmead. We look forward to campaigning as usual after the election and in the run up to the 2018 council elections.”
The Greens scored 1,275 votes in 2015, so a close Tory win this time around would have left the party in line for criticism. Since the party also lost its Eltham deposit in 2015, it also rather handily saves them £500 – an important consideration for a smaller party.
It remains to be seen whether the Greens’ move sweetens relations in a borough with a remarkably sour political atmosphere. The departure of ex-council leader Chris Roberts has left Efford in a hugely influential position over the way the area’s Labour politicians conduct themselves. Indeed, he’s credited with getting current council leader Denise Hyland involved in politics.
Efford’s slim majority – and a recent council by-election defeat in Eltham North – goes some way to explaining why those around him can often seem to be in fight mode, which can look out of place from over the fence in Greenwich & Woolwich, where the Tories ceased to be a threat three decades ago. So this could be a bitter battle.
On paper, this should be Matt Hartley’s to lose. Some simple analysis – taken together, the wards that make up the Eltham seat recorded more votes to leave the EU than remain in last year’s referendum, with Hartley an enthusiastic leave campaigner. (Efford abstained in February’s vote to trigger Article 50.) So you might expect him to be the rightful inheritor of the 6,481 votes Ukip got in 2015, which would take him to victory.
But there’s more to it than that. The Eltham constituency narrowly awarded more first choice votes to Sadiq Khan than Zac Goldsmith in the mayoral election.
Drilling down to ward level, you can see the divide. Coldharbour & New Eltham, Eltham North and Eltham South plumped for Goldsmith, the remaining wards – Eltham West, Middle Park & Sutcliffe, Kidbrooke with Hornfair and Shooters Hill – preferred the Labour man. Expect a huge Labour “get the vote out” operation in those four Khan-backing seats as polling day approaches.
Clapham-based academic David Hall-Matthews, a former senior lecturer in international development at the University of Leeds, is representing the Liberal Democrats this time around after previously standing for seats in Leeds and Bradford.
John Clarke is standing for the British National Party with the slogan “Local People First”, despite having a Croydon address.
7.45pm update: While the Greens have given Clive Efford a hand, Jeremy Corbyn-backing group Momentum doesn’t seem to be doing the same. A new website, My Nearest Marginal, directs keen activists to their nearest marginal seat. But if you enter an Eltham address, it sends you to… Croydon.
Eltham consituency candidates: John Clarke (BNP), Clive Efford (Labour), Ann Garratt (Green), David Hall-Matthews (Liberal Democrats), Matt Hartley (Conservative).
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Greenwich Council refused a request to increase its funding for Blackheath fireworks after spending £17,000 on a Mickey Mouse stunt to promote a new cinema in Eltham, it has emerged.
Lewisham Council is now turning to controversial minicab service Uber to help fund the £87,000 display after Greenwich rebuffed a plea to up its funding from just £10,000.
The event, which regularly attracts 100,000 spectators, used to be jointly funded between the two boroughs, who share responsibility for the heath.
Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of the funding in 2010, claiming it could not afford to pay for the display because of government cuts. This left Lewisham to shoulder the costs alone, appealing for sponsorship and public donations while trimming the length of the display.
Since then, Greenwich has partly relented, offering £10,000 towards the cost of last year’s £96,000 display. Lewisham managed to raise £48,000 in sponsorship and public donations, but was still saddled with a £38,000 shortfall.
Greenwich is paying the same for this year’s display, but after spending £17,000 on a press launch for a new cinema in Eltham featuring Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear characters. In May, it also blew £20,000 on an invite-only event to celebrate the borough’s new ceremonial mayor.
With public displays acknowledged as a key tool in keeping fireworks injuries down, Lewisham has been determined to keep the display going. This is despite the council coming under severe pressure from central government cuts and other changes to local authority funding.
The display also funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas of both boroughs within walking distance such as Lee, Charlton and Deptford.
Seven weeks to confirm funding
Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act and passed to this website reveal that Lewisham unsuccessfully asked Greenwich to increase its share of the funding.
On 5 August, Lewisham head of culture and community development Liz Dart wrote to Greenwich assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney, pointing out: “We are under pressure to try and bring our subsidy down so if there was any way you could consider an increase to the £10,000 that would be greatly appreciated.”
Some of the correspondence has been redacted, so it is unclear whether Delaney addressed the request directly.
But it took over seven weeks and a follow-up email from Kellie Blake, Lewisham’s community engagement manager, for Delaney to confirm on 26 September that Greenwich would repeat its £10,000 donation.
So despite the event taking place on an open space shared between the two boroughs – and the possibility that the fireworks may actually be launched from within Greenwich, as has happened in the past – Greenwich is just classed as a sponsor of the event.
To help make ends meet this year, Lewisham has accepted backing from Uber, which is offering £5 for every free ride taken by new customers who sign up with a code.
Uber has been criticised for paying just £22,000 in UK corporation tax, while the GMB union has taken it to court claiming it treats drivers unlawfully. The firm is also the subject of frequent protests from traditional black taxi drivers. Only today, concerns about Uber have been linked to an inquiry by MPs into the “gig economy”.
This year’s display is expected to cost £87,700. Other sources of funding include housing association L&Q (£7,000), parks management company Glendale (£5,000), with a further £3,000 hoped to come from other donors such as Uber and estate agency Hamptons.
Lewisham is hoping to raise £11,000 in public donations and make £15,700 in sales at bars and food stands, leaving it with a £36,000 subsidy.
A Mickey Mouse affair in Eltham
Earlier this month, Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland claimed finances were “down the bone”. But on 3 August, it found £17,000 for a stunt which featured Hollywood star lookalikes parading up and down Eltham High Street to promote its scheme to build a new cinema there.
The event on 3 August, which featured on little-watched local TV channel London Live, also appears in Eltham Labour publicity promoting MP Clive Efford.
Costs included £2,400 on 10 Disney and Marvel characters such as Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man, and £6,580 on 14 lookalikes, which included likenesses of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Will Smith and Daniel Craig.
The figures were obtained by Conservative councillor Spencer Drury, who wrote about them in a letter to the Mercury newspaper, asking why cinema operator Vue could not have funded the stunt, or the event could not have been held when the venue opens in autumn 2018.
The Mercury – which now carries Greenwich Council’s public notices following Greenwich Time’s closure – chose not to run Drury’s revelation as a story. Instead, it was buried on the letters page with a reply from council leader Denise Hyland.
She said: “Sometimes, even in times of austerity, it is important to design events for the community that bring people together to have fun and celebrate their local area with friends and neighbours.”
Like a fireworks display, perhaps.
Residents were invited to post selfies from the event on social media to win prizes. Only five people appear to have taken part on Twitter, with the same number appearing to participate on Instagram.
£20,000 on mayor’s party
Despite claiming to be too poor to fund Blackheath fireworks, Greenwich has also continued to spend £20,000 each year on a private event at the Royal Naval College to celebrate the inauguration of the borough’s ceremonial mayor.
This year’s invitees included Berkeley Homes chief John Anderson and Neil Smith, head of planning at Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon, according to documents released to this website under the Freedom of Information Act.
There had been some rumours that this year’s mayor, Olu Babatola, would ditch the event. But instead 400 guests saw a 40-strong choir perform while enjoying 90 bottles of wine as well as a menu including salmon goujons, tomato & goat’s cheese tart and crumbled spicy hake.
Most boroughs – including Lewisham – make do with much smaller events at their own town halls, with the public able to watch.
If Babatola did not cancel the event, then it’s unlikely his successor will – next year’s mayor is Peter Brooks, Chris Roberts’ former deputy, who cancelled the fireworks funding in 2010, claiming it would save “a job and a bit”.
Getting a fireworks display on the cheap
Greenwich’s parsimonious attitude to Blackheath fireworks has been a long-running embarrassment for many of the borough’s residents, who can see with their own eyes the benefits it brings to local businesses in both boroughs.
It remains one of the few remaining free displays in London, and funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas.
It’s not even as if Greenwich needs to increase its own funding directly – the council is proud of its close links with developers, and could surely tap up the likes of Berkeley Homes or Knight Dragon for a donation or sponsorship to help ease Lewisham’s burden.
But Greenwich’s lack of interest shows us the council leadership is still more concerned with promoting itself through stunts like the Eltham lookalike parade, or retreating into a world of self-congratulation in the Old Royal Naval College.
Unlike their colleagues across the border, Lewisham Labour has made protecting the display a key policy, and both councillors and staff there go to great efforts to keep it going.
But with elected mayor Sir Steve Bullock stepping down at the 2018 election, his successor – who will take charge of an increasingly cash-strapped council – may take a different view.
If Greenwich councillors – and the Labour members who pick them – want to see the Blackheath fireworks continue, they may need to change their attitude – and fast.
To donate to Blackheath fireworks, visit http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.
Greenwich, Charlton and Woolwich could get direct trains to Luton Airport under plans that are about to go out to consultation.
The plans would see trains seven days a week from Luton to Rainham, Kent, via Blackfriars, London Bridge, Greenwich and Dartford.
More services through London Bridge to north London and beyond will be possible when the Thameslink works are completed in 2018.
It would give passengers at Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Westcombe Park – who currently rely on trains to Cannon Street – a choice of London terminals after trains to Charing Cross permanently ended in January 2015.
The new lines through London Bridge to Blackfriars will run in between those to Charing Cross and Cannon Street, severing the old connection between Greenwich and the Charing Cross lines (although trains can still run in emergencies).
Trains would also stop at Charlton, Woolwich Arsenal, Plumstead, Abbey Wood and Dartford, but not at Woolwich Dockyard, Belvedere or Erith.
As well as connections to Luton Airport, passengers would also have direct links to Eurostar at St Pancras and Crossrail at Abbey Wood, as well as north-west London destinations at West Hampstead.
The trains would be operated by Thameslink rather than Southeastern, and the consultation is now on its website.
Elsewhere in south east London, Govia Thameslink Railway’s proposals also include increasing the miserly train service through Crofton Park and Catford from two to four trains per hour.
Meanwhile, local MPs have been pressing goverment ministers on the state of Southeastern with little success. Transport minister Paul Maynard couldn’t be bothered to answer a question from Lewisham East’s Heidi Alexander on whether Southeastern would be given new rolling stock in a debate on Thursday morning, although he was more forthcoming when asked for a meeting about Southeastern by the Conservative MP for Bromley, Bob Neill. Pressed by Eltham’s MP Clive Efford, he confirmed all local MPs would be able to attend.
But asked by Greenwich and Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook if he backed plans to devolve SE London’s rail services to TfL, transport secretary Chris Grayling was non-committal, saying he wanted to see proposals from mayor Sadiq Khan first.
1.15pm update: What gets given can also be taken away, and buried away in the full proposals are plans to cut little-advertised direct trains from New Cross Gate to Gatwick Airport and other destinations in Surrey and Sussex, with passengers expected to take slow Overground trains and change at Norwood Junction.
There’s a huge consultation survey, which covers a vast number of changes and makes some peculiar assumptions, available to fill in. The new Greenwich line trains are covered by questions 15, 16 and 31, Catford line in questions 17, 29 and 30 and New Cross Gate cuts in questions 45 and 56.
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.
Greenwich Council has been given 14 days to respond to a demand from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to close its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, MPs have been told.
A written statement from junior minister Kris Hopkins says the council has been told it’ll be directed to close the controversial freesheet by 31 March.
Greenwich Time is one of only two weekly council newspapers in the country, along with Tower Hamlets’ title East End Life.
Pickles has long been trying to clamp down on such papers, demanding that councils publish newssheets no more than four times per year. Neighbouring Lewisham cut its Lewisham Life magazine from monthly to quarterly some years ago.
The council was first warned in September 2014, but it has argued that by using Greenwich Time to publish local information, it is saving taxpayers money.
The true costs of Greenwich Time have been notoriously difficult to quantify. While the paper relies on a lot of freelance labour, quoted costs do not include the time spent by council staff and officers in producing it. In 2013 this website found out that GT cost £124,000 per year to produce, without counting the work put in by the council’s paid staff.
Its opponents say GT, which is signed off by the council leader and chief executive each issue, stifles debate while local newspaper publishers argue it competes unfairly for advertising revenue. A move by the owners of the South London Press to buy the title was rebuffed in 2011.
Last November, Greenwich Council put its advertising contract out for tender – the £400,000 annual fee roughly matching GT’s distribution costs. But council leader Denise Hyland later called this a “Plan B”. Last night, she told Conservative leader Spencer Drury it was “business as usual” at the paper.
You can see the exchange at 1 minute 29 minutes into this video:
The role of the paper in pushing the council’s line was highlighted this week in the bizarre row over the council’s proposals to incentivise local business to pay the London Living Wage.
Despite the scheme first being publicly proposed by Conservative councillors, Greenwich Time placed the story on its front page and credited it to Labour leader Denise Hyland.
This week’s paper also contains a two-page spread boasting about the council’s plans for the future of Eltham. Promoting improvements in Eltham are a regular feature of Greenwich Time, and few other areas of the borough have had plans publicised in this manner.
It’s widely believed the council is using GT to boost the chances of the marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford being re-elected.
Whether Pickles’ threat will mean the end of GT is a moot point – the closure deadline of 31 March runs so close to the general election that any legal response from Greenwich may mean it can simply carry on through the campaign and leave the issue to whatever government is elected in May.