Tagged: danny thorpe

Webcasting could be good for Greenwich Council – if councillors actually made use of it

Maureen O'Mara

Got a minute? Watch this video. It won’t take long.

The individual you can see spluttering “a minivan?!” like a south London Lady Bracknell is Greenwich Council cabinet member Maureen O’Mara. The person questioning her, off camera, is Matt Hartley, leader of Greenwich’s Tories.

This exchange, about why council meeting webcasts aren’t very well promoted, was probably the highlight of last month’s council meeting.

You might even have read about it in the Sutton-based News Shopper. Alright, you probably didn’t. So here it is.

News Shopper website

Transparency, eh? What a waste of bleedin’ time! All this stuff’s for geeks and berks! But it’s not. And O’Mara, Hartley, and the Sutton Shopper are all letting us down here.

Greenwich Council started streaming full council meetings last year. It’s a very good idea – people should be able to see what their councillors are up to. It’s a really simple system – works a treat on mobile phones too, so you can watch wherever you may be. It costs the council £9,400 per year, plus £1,040 for every 30 hours of broadcast. Most council meetings are about two and a half hours long. (See question 7.)

Alright, you’re not going to watch it live. And in practice, these meetings are hard to follow unless you’ve a) an agenda paper (available a week beforehand); b) a list of questions from councillors and the public (available 10-15 minutes beforehand in the town hall, not sure if this is available to online viewers). Like any sporting event, you can’t beat being there.

Maureen O'Mara

But the recordings stay online, so you can watch back later. And that’s where the value is. The bits that are worth watching are questions from the public and questions from (usually Tory) councillors; most of these are submitted in advance, although the latter also has a section for new questions that can be asked on the night. Public deputations and petitions are also worth a look.

The rest of it’s often peacock-strutting nonsense, unfortunately. Even hardened Town Hall watchers usually head to the pub once the members’ questions are through. But the first hour or so of a council meeting usually contains something interesting.

It’s important that people can see how councillors act to the public and to their peers. Most people have better things to do than watch Prime Minister’s Questions or Mayor’s Question Time live. But they’ll often see clips on the news later.

And just like the Commons and City Hall showpieces, Full Council isn’t usually very impressive either. Too many cabinet members come across as sanctimonious or just plain rude, one or two come across as out of their depth. Others manage to answer questions simply and honestly and without blaming the Tories for everything.

But even the good ones aren’t utilising webcasting properly. Individual councillors’ contributions can be highlighted – here is deputy council leader Danny Thorpe being rude to Matt Hartley – and even embedded, like this:

(Unfortunately, I can’t embed council content due to me having a cheapo site set-up. That’s something I’d like to fix one day. Instead, Lady Bracknell will have to do.)

There’s nothing stopping our councillors from posting links to their own contributions in the days after meetings, just as MPs can link to their speeches in the Commons. People are more likely to watch these clips via social media than to sit through the tedium of watching the thing live.

Here’s Matt Hartley presenting the Tories’ alternative budget (and complaining about council leader Denise Hyland’s absence) and cabinet member Chris Kirby tearing it to shreds.

Nobody’s making use of these clips, and it’s a big miss. The local press isn’t – not the Mercury, and not the News Shopper, which is grumbling that nobody’s watching in the first place. To be fair on the papers, maybe they don’t know it’s available. (Even if they’re writing about it.) But what excuse do the councillors have?

Maureen O'Mara

Maybe the councillors are all a bit embarrassed by their performances. In some cases, they bloody well should be. This stuff is never going to attract huge numbers. But if you aren’t using it yourself to its fullest extent, you can’t complain when nobody watches. Perhaps they just want this to just go away, so nobody writes blog posts peppered with screen grabs of councillors pulling funny faces.

But a few more viewers might lead to a real breakthrough – getting the committee rooms sorted so they can be filmed too. Big planning meetings would certainly attract an audience. Cabinet meetings are where the real decisions take place. And while scrutiny’s often dull, it should be available on the record. Actually, sometimes scrutiny does attract big numbers.

A week after Maureen O’Mara implied nobody was interested in watching council meetings, there was a packed health scrutiny panel meeting looking into the controversial handing of local musculoskeletal physiotherapy services to private provider Circle Health.

By all accounts, the scrutiny panel did themselves proud. But there’s no recording of this that’s publicly available so we can see for ourselves. And that’s a real shame. I think the scrutiny panel would probably appreciate a recording, too, so they can look back over points that may have been missed.

Sure, some embarrassing performances may find their way onto a server (indeed, they already have done). But that should be a cue for councillors to raise their game, not lash out at those who want to see more transparency.

Council website

There was another council meeting this week, but the system was broken. So we’ll never see what this was about.

Or this.

Cuts to school budgets are a massive issue, and people should have been able to see their local politicians’ responses to them, and engage with them.

The next normal council meeting won’t be until June – hopefully the cameras will have been fixed by then. But hopefully Greenwich councillors – both Labour and Conservative – will look again at webcasting. Who knows, with an election due next year, they might find their constituents like what they see.

You can see past council meetings at https://royalgreenwich.public-i.tv/core/portal/home.

Sadiq Khan backed Silvertown Tunnel five weeks after election – despite promising ‘joined-up review’

A102

The A102 on a polluted day: Campaigners fear the Silvertown Tunnel will increase pollution and congestion across east and south-east London

London mayor Sadiq Khan agreed to continue with Boris Johnson’s plans to build the controversial Silvertown Tunnel within weeks of taking office, despite promising a “proper joined-up review” into the project while standing for election.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Khan backed the tunnel after receiving a briefing from Transport for London representatives on 14 June, just five weeks after he took office.

Officials were then charged with making the proposals more palatable to the public, from offering free bus services and residents’ discounts to adding cycle racks to existing buses.

The £1 billion project – which would provide a new toll road from the Royal Docks to feed into the A102 at Greenwich Peninsula, and would toll the Blackwall Tunnel – is currently going through the planning process, with a series of public hearings taking place until April. Later this year, planning inspectors will recommend to the government whether to approve or refuse the scheme.

Full disclosure: I’m part of the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign that is challenging the scheme, however, the opinions expressed in this story do not represent the views of the campaign. I’m also a registered objector to the tunnel as an individual.

The joined-up review that didn’t happen

Khan had pledged “a proper joined up review, looking at river crossings and improved public transport connections east of Tower Bridge, but in a strategic fashion, not piecemeal like the current mayor”, when interviewed about the project by Transport Network in April 2016, ahead of May’s election.

By 27 May, this had become a commitment to “review the merits” of the scheme.

But a TfL briefing note says Khan agreed to its proposals less than three weeks later, and the review would merely be about “improvements”.

This is despite opposition to the tunnel from Labour councils in Lewisham, Southwark, Hackney and now Newham, which has reversed its earlier backing for the scheme.

Khan also appears to have quietly dropped plans for further road crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere. The Gallions crossing has been a long-cherished aim for London’s Labour councils, and was a supposed condition for Greenwich’s backing of the Silvertown scheme. Neither project appears in TfL’s latest business plan, released last month.

While politicians in Greenwich and Tower Hamlets are going through the motions in still supporting the scheme, the project has come under sustained attack from their council officers at planning hearings, which resume today.

The documents released by City Hall

Aspen Way

The proposed tunnel would feed straight into this existing morning traffic jam at Aspen Way, Poplar

The Greater London Authority was asked for the terms of reference of Khan’s review, as well as the advice sent to Khan and deputy mayor Val Shawcross, their responses, as well as details of who was consulted.

There is no record of anybody outside the GLA or TfL being consulted by the mayor’s office, despite the widespread concern about the proposals from neighbouring councils.

The GLA sent a Powerpoint presentation from TfL to the mayor from June, when he agreed to back the scheme; as well as a later presentation outlining options to make the scheme more palatable. There is also a note from GLA head of transport Tim Steer to Shawcross outlining the problems with residents’ discounts.

You can see the documents for yourself here (12MB PDF).

Cover letter with more details (added 26 January 2017)

Asked for the terms of reference, the GLA said:

“In requesting that TfL review the merits of the Silvertown Tunnel scheme, the Mayor asked that particular consideration be paid to the following:

 

 

 

 

  • a clear commitment to delivering much-needed cross river public transport links;
  • environmental assurances, both in terms of how it is constructed and once operational;
  • and benefits for pedestrians and cyclists, linking to the wider opportunities for new river crossings, such as the proposed Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf crossing.”

 

However, there is no sign that any of TfL’s assertions about the scheme – apart from on tolling – were scrutinised in any way by the mayor or his deputy.

This includes its claim that “no additional traffic will be generated”, which has been disputed by councils at the planning process.

A question of ‘further benefits’

Ford Trader Dartford Tunnel Cycle Bus

In October, Khan confirmed he was backing the scheme but making it “greener and more public transport-focused, and exploring further benefits for residents who use the tunnel”.

“Further benefits for residents who use the tunnel” – which campaigners fear mean concessions for local residents who drive through the tunnel – have the potential to wreck TfL’s traffic modelling by generating even more new trips and causing more congestion.

Despite this, both Labour and Conservative politicians on both sides of the Thames are still pressing for concessions.

Khan’s main idea to “green” the tunnel was to create a special bus service for cyclists – reminiscent of a short-lived service offered when the Dartford Tunnel first opened in 1963 (pictured above, below is one of the vehicles in a yard in Stratford in 1999).

Hackney Waterden Road Ford Thames bus

He also re-announced a series of bus services already planned for the tunnel, as well as reiterating his support for a pedestrian and cycle bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf.

The mayor also re-announced past proposals for a ferry between North Greenwich and Canary Wharf and an Overground extension from Barking Riverside to Thamesmead. There was one surprising addition – a pledge to investigate a DLR extension from Gallions Reach to Thamesmead, the first time this idea has surfaced without being attached to a new road.

Other plans suggested by TfL but not taken forward by Khan included free travel on the Emirates Air Line between 7am and 9am on weekdays, to be paid for by increasing “leisure fares” on the cable car.

Rocky reception at planning hearings

The Silvertown Tunnel planning hearing resumes at Excel today

The Silvertown Tunnel planning hearing resumes at Excel today

Planning hearings into the scheme began in October and resume today at the Excel centre in the Royal Docks. A three-strong panel is hearing arguments from TfL and interested parties, mainly boroughs and local landowners.

What has been striking so far has been the tough reception TfL’s plans got from all boroughs. None of them are happy with TfL’s traffic modelling. This is a problem for TfL, because all its other forecasts, from the economy to pollution, derive from how much traffic it thinks will use the tunnel.

Most strikingly, Greenwich Council’s senior transport planner, Kim Smith, told hearings last month that the council was worried the “local network would suffer” as a result of the tunnel’s construction – something campaigners have been warning about for four years, and that appears in a report the council buried nearly five years ago.

Her opposite number at Newham, Murray Woodburn, pointed out that TfL’s record in assessing demand for river crossings was “not exactly fantastic”, pointing out that the Woolwich Arsenal DLR extension proved to be twice as busy as predicted.

“We as host boroughs have no option other than to treat the highway impacts… with very little confidence,” he told the hearing.

Much of this depends on the calculations that go into the modelling itself – the boroughs challenged the “value of time” used in the forecasts, saying that economic conditions in this part of London are vastly different from the rest of the country.

But the tolling also plays a part – so we learned that TfL has only modelled what would happen if tolls increased by 20%, which would only take the maximum charge for a car up to £3.60.

TfL has also admitted it could reduce charges if the tunnel was less busy than forecast – jeopardising traffic levels on other roads and possibly increasing pollution.

You can see a Storify summary of one of December’s hearings here.

Greenwich councillors say one thing, officers say another

Silvertown Tunnel hearing at The Crystal

Bedtime reading: The planning documents for the Silvertown Tunnel scheme

But while Murray Woodburn’s boss, Newham elected mayor Sir Robin Wales, has “politically repositioned the council’s stance” on the tunnel, Kim Smith’s employers at Greenwich are still singing the same old songs written by former leader Chris Roberts.

Smith told the planning hearing the council only ever supported “a package of crossings” (ie, including the now-dropped Gallions crossing), which is consistent with the council’s submissions to earlier consultations on the scheme.

But a few days later she was contradicted by current transport cabinet member Sizwe James, who has been lumbered with the job of defending the council’s stance, at a scrutiny panel meeting. These are where backbench councillors interrogate (or at least gently probe) senior councillors and officers on how things are going.

Much of the Regeneration, Transport and Culture scrutiny meeting was about Greenwich’s policies on air pollution – which falls under the remit of deputy leader Danny Thorpe’s regeneration portfolio. Thorpe enlisted TfL’s David Rowe – a genial chap who’s in charge of much of the politics and practicalities around the proposal – to answer questions from councillors on the Silvertown Tunnel and air pollution.

This was largely a waste of time, as everything depends on the traffic modelling, which council officials are unhappy about. But nobody told the councillors that the modelling was hotly disputed, and Rowe’s presence presumably just gave Thorpe someone to hide behind. (Shaky video of almost the whole meeting can be found here.)

Too bright to come out with that crap

January 2013: Nick Raynsford, Denise Hyland and Chris Roberts promote their pro-tunnel Bridge The Gap campaign

January 2013: Nick Raynsford, Denise Hyland and Chris Roberts promote their pro-tunnel Bridge The Gap campaign

Even worse, by the time the meeting had got around to transport questions – where the meat of the Silvertown scheme could be dissected – almost everybody had cleared off, including Thorpe and Rowe, leaving James – who has only recently taken over transport from Thorpe – isolated.

James told the panel that the council supported the tunnel’s construction in isolation.

“We have been consistently supportive of a package of crossings… but that is not the only reason we’re supporting Silvertown, it’s also about resilience and supporting growth,” he told the meeting on 13 December.

But James then managed to contradict himself on that point, as well as Smith’s comments to the planning hearing.

Asked by former deputy leader John Fahy if it concerned him that the tunnel would attract more traffic than anticipated now the Gallions and Belvedere schemes have been canned, James replied: “Of course it does, there’ll be more pressure at one point, that’s why we support a package of crossings.”

Either the council supports the Silvertown Tunnel on its own, or it supports more than one crossing, surely?

After an awkward silence, Greenwich’s assistant director of transport, Tim Jackson, intervened to point out that “if TfL were here they would say” that tolling would control traffic levels.

But TfL had gone home – and Jackson’s colleagues have been taking TfL to task on the question of tolling at the planning hearings, something he didn’t tell the panel.

So Greenwich councillors were denied the chance to properly scrutinise the council’s line on the scheme, and learned nothing about how the council is approaching what is a complex set of public hearings on the scheme.

Then James was taken to task by Greenwich West councillor Mehboob Khan, who, in short, told him he was too bright to come out with that crap.

“Southwark have formally objected on the basis of increased traffic going through the west of our borough through Lewisham and Southwark towards Rotherhithe [Tunnel]. That’s the council’s official position,” he said.

“Lewisham have objected. Hackney have objected. Tower Hamlets objected [it did in an earlier consultation]. Greenwich didn’t. Someone’s right here, and somebody’s wrong here. Their objections aren’t, in principle, to Silvertown – it’s about the mitigation of the problems caused by it not being dealt with by TfL.

“You meet TfL on a regular basis – you’re new to this portfolio this year. And perhaps you don’t want to be tainted by past portfolio-holders’ stances.” At this point, John Fahy pretended to cuff Khan around the ear.

“Can you look at this afresh and and see why other boroughs have taken a completely polarised position to Greenwich? And maybe come forward with something more in line with what an intelligent, articulate cabinet member like yourself would come forward with?”

James responded: “This is not my personal position, this is the position of the Labour Group.” [Greenwich Labour councillors backed the scheme in 2012.]

Khan came back: “We’re not interested in Labour Group here. This forms part of the council’s scrutiny function. That political view is taken elsewhere.”

James agreed he would look again at the council’s position. But frankly, the damage has already been done by his predecessors, who mistook criticism of the council’s stance for politically-motivated attacks. It’s now left Greenwich in an embarrassing position of backing a scheme it knows will damage the borough.

Khan can still stop it – but do local politicians care enough?

Before Christmas, the West Ham constituency Labour party passed a motion against the scheme, and there are rumours of new rumblings against the Silvertown Tunnel south of the river too. But it’s too late to take their complaints to council leaders – they’ve already made their minds up.

If they really wanted to stop the scheme, they would be taking their concerns straight to Sadiq Khan and Val Shawcross, which would mean overcoming their reluctance to embarrass the Labour mayor and his transport deputy.

Even at this late stage, the tunnel certainly isn’t a done deal – especially with the fierce criticism it’s getting from the boroughs.

Just as with another dodgy scheme inherited from Boris Johnson, the Garden Bridge, many millions of pounds have already been spent on getting the Silvertown Tunnel through planning – and this planning inquiry itself is taking up huge amounts of TfL’s time when the organisation is having its budgets cut.

But now we know how slapdash Khan’s “review” was, will any of his friends have the courage to have a quiet word in his ear?

Enderby Wharf: Greenwich cruise terminal battle to be debated in Parliament as residents plan appeal

Residents say the ships' engines can be as polluting as 688 lorries idling all day.

Residents say the ships’ engines can be as polluting as 688 lorries idling all day

The battle over the Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal in Greenwich will be debated in Parliament next Wednesday, while local residents have confirmed they are planning to appeal against a decision to throw out a judicial review into Greenwich Council’s decision to approve the scheme.

Poplar MP Jim Fitzpatrick, who has backed Isle of Dogs residents concerned about pollution from the terminal, will lead the half-hour debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday afternoon.

Residents on both sides of the Thames object to the terminal allowing cruise ships to use their own generators while on extended stays at the terminals, which they say will hugely increase air pollution in the area. They say the emissions are comparable to 688 lorries idling all day, and are demanding a switch to shore-based power supplies instead.

A judicial review into the decision was thrown out last month, with Mr Justice Collins stating that no errors had been made in making the decision. It is believed that council leader Denise Hyland’s meetings with the developer before the decision was made were not raised in court. Hyland is the only council leader in London to regularly sit on her borough’s main planning committee, and voted for the scheme.

Fitzpatrick’s intervention will be embarrassing for his Labour Party colleague Hyland as well as her deputy leader Danny Thorpe, who also voted for the scheme and called criticism of it “scaremongering”.

Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook has also sided with residents, tweeting that the judicial review’s failure was “not the end of the matter”. London mayor Sadiq Khan also offered his backing while campaigning for the position.

Now the East Greenwich Residents Association is supporting a second attempt at the High Court. While Mr Justice Collins refused leave to appeal, lawyers for the anonymous plaintiff bringing the case claim there were errors in his judgment.

EGRA’s Ian Blore said this afternoon: “We half expected an appeal. Residents and others who attended the two-day fullHigh Court hearing were surprised when Mr Justice Collins joked that he would issue his decision before going on an Antarctic cruise. The 9,500 Londoners who die of air pollution each year may not find that funny.

“It is sad that a potentially highly polluting development is still being pursued when air quality is at the top of everyone’s agenda and when a remedy, onshore power supply to the berthed ships, is possible.

“It’s doubly sad that citizens have to pay to crowdfund a legal action to prevent this and to pay council taxes to fund the legal costs of the Royal Borough of Greenwich.”

Update 4.25pm: Ian Blore adds: “Greenwich MP Matt Pennycook applied in the ballot to have this issue discussed but Jim Fitzpatrick won it.  Nevertheless our MP will be speaking in the debate.  With such a consensus to redesign this scheme can’t we please go back to the drawing board and save a lot of time and legal fees?”

Sadiq Khan sides with Enderby Wharf campaigners in clean air battle with Greenwich Council

The new proposals for a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf

The proposals for a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf

Labour’s mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan has backed campaigners who are taking Greenwich Council to court over the planned Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal.

Khan has issued a statement of support backing the East Greenwich Residents’ Association, which is crowdfunding a legal action against the council’s decision to allow the terminal to permit ships to use their own generators when berthed for an extended period of time – emitting hundreds of heavy lorries’ worth of pollution each day.

Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland – the only borough leader in London who regularly sits on their own planning committee – backed the scheme after she said she couldn’t “see” any pollution while visiting Southampton’s liner terminal with an executive from its developer, London City Cruise Port. Air pollution is normally invisible. Greenwich’s decision was later ratified by Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor, Sir Edward Lister.

EGRA wants to see the terminal use power generated on-shore, with many residents suggesting London Underground’s Greenwich power station on Old Woolwich Road could be used.

Khan, the bookies’ favourite to succeed Boris Johnson next month, said in a statement issued on Saturday: “I praise the dogged campaigning of the East Greenwich Residents Association who are right to be fighting for cleaner air. Too many lives in London are blighted by filthy, polluted air and we should be doing more to clean it up, not make it worse as the proposal at Enderby Wharf risks doing.

“I support bringing everyone involved back to the drawing board to discuss how a clean solution to this can be found involving an onshore energy supply, and as Mayor I’ll do all I can to help this.”

EGRA also secured the backing of Conservative contender Zac Goldsmith at a meeting earlier this month, and have also been backed by Green candidate Sian Berry and Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon – increasing the chances that Boris Johnson’s successor will take steps to make sure the terminal uses onshore power.

The crowdfunding campaign – which has so far raised over £11,000 – is to bring a judicial review of Greenwich’s decision to approve the terminal in September 2015. There will be an initial hearing in front of a judge on 19 April.

An earlier version of the scheme, which did not involve ships effectively being used as floating hotels for extended stays at the terminal, was backed by the council in 2011. Hyland was insistent that objectors should have made their case back then, despite the major changes to the scheme.

Khan’s intervention will be deeply embarrassing for a Greenwich Council leadership that has been ambivalent at best about the effects of air pollution on the community, and that has tried to paint criticism of the cruise liner scheme as being a political plot.

Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe has called criticism of the terminal “scaremongering” by the Green Party, even though the Labour MPs for both sides of the Thames, Matt Pennycook and Jim Fitzpatrick, have both made clear their unhappiness about Greenwich’s decision to back the scheme.

Indeed, given the cautiousness of Khan’s campaign for the mayoralty and his reluctance to criticise schemes backed by other Labour boroughs – such as Lambeth’s support of the deeply controversial Garden Bridge – his comments will be seen as all the more damning of Greenwich’s approach.

But they will also give strength to those Labour councillors – and other figures within the party – who want to see the council adopt a different attitude in its dealings with both developers and local residents.

Charlton Road/A102 bridge, 2 April 2014

Air pollution has been one of the biggest issues in the election

Khan coughs on Silvertown Tunnel

Khan has also appeared to distance himself from the Silvertown Tunnel – another scheme backed by Greenwich’s leadership in the teeth of opposition from its Labour neighbours. He told industry publication Transport Network that while he wanted to see more road river crossings east of Tower Bridge, he was unhappy with the current proposal and wanted all current plans – which would also include plans for crossings at Thamesmead and Belvedere – to be reviewed.

“Plans as they stand for the Silvertown Tunnel do not fully take into consideration the importance of greener transport, and imposing a toll is in many people’s minds a tax on East and South East Londoners,” he said.

“We need a proper joined up review, looking at river crossings and improved public transport connections east of Tower Bridge, but in a strategic fashion, not piecemeal like the current mayor.”

Khan’s comments leave former environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith as the tunnel’s only outright supporter in the race for City Hall. At the very least, they reflect his need to win second-choice votes from supporters of Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon and the Green Party’s Sian Berry, who are both opposed to the scheme. The No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign is currently asking supporters to send the two leading mayoral candidates postcards telling them to oppose the plans.

Greenwich is the only affected borough to have continued backing the scheme, despite opposition from rank and file party members and many councillors.

Newham submitted an objection last year after originally supporting the idea, while Lewisham, Southwark, Hackney and Waltham Forest have all criticised the tunnel.

You can contribute to the Enderby Wharf crowdfunding campaign at www.crowdjustice.co.uk/case/cruise-liner. Full disclosure: I’m a founder member of the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign.

Greenwich Council meetings to be webcast – here’s what you missed last month

Greenwich Council chamber

What are you doing tonight? There’s a pub quiz at the Crown in east Greenwich; comedy at the White Swan in Charlton; or a talk about researching local history in west Greenwich.

And of course, it’s the Brit Awards tonight up at the Dome.

Or you could make history and watch the first meeting of Greenwich Council to be webcast via www.royalgreenwich.public-i.tv. “Important local decisions can now be viewed online as they are made.” Woo!

This is a good thing, and it’s long, long overdue.

But let’s be honest, you won’t see the important decisions being made. They’re made behind closed doors – usually at the regular meetings of Greenwich’s Labour group of councillors. It’s all decided in advance. You’ll get to see a few things rubber-stamped – like the first council tax rise in years – but don’t dream you’ll see anything meaningful, unless a streaker rushes in and sits on the mayor’s lap.

The big ticket decisions are actually made at cabinet meetings (again, usually decided in advance) and planning board meetings (which aren’t supposed to be decided in advance). These aren’t being filmed.

But what you’ll see at full council meetings is still valuable. The early exchanges – public and councillors’ questions to cabinet members – are an important chance to find things out and get things on the record. I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to follow these online, as written answers only emerge in the hour before the meeting and don’t appear on the council website until the following day.

And you’ll see just what Greenwich councillors are really like. Sadly for them, I don’t think viewers will be too impressed. Think back to the year when Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood presented the Brits.

I went to last month’s, which was being filmed as a test. I never got around to putting anything up a the time so here’s some “highlights” as a preview, in case you’re thinking of watching live.

There’s been a few changes to the Woolwich Town Hall chamber over recent months. Councillors have now started using iPads for council meetings, rather than wielding huge bundles of paper. Together with some smart new lighting, the old place looks impressive these days. Just a shame that the proceedings displayed the same old petulance as usual.

Proceedings are now projected onto displays around the chamber, an effect slightly reminiscent of watching football at White Hart Lane, where you can also watch the match on screens above the stands. Sadly, there’s no Dele Alli or Harry Kane to liven things up in Woolwich.

Got a problem? It’s still your fault

That thing you care about? Chances are, they don’t care.

You may have heard about Greenwich Council applying to itself to increase the number of events held on Blackheath’s Circus Field – this would have been independent of what Lewisham does on its side of the heath. The application, which was snuck out before Christmas, has since been pulled after fears of increased noise and hassle.

Greenwich Council written response

But residents had misunderstood the licence application, according to a written response to Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty. Never apologise, never explain. According to cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald, most people don’t realise it’s split between two boroughs. McDonald should have known better than that, since she used to write for the Westcombe News, the organ of the Westcombe Society, the organisation that led public concern on this.

Sadly, Brighty didn’t pursue the questioning.

Greenwich Council written response

Or what about the current crisis at Charlton Athletic, where an absentee owner’s mismanagement has even prompted local MPs to investigate the off-field goings-on at one of the borough’s biggest employers?

While nobody was asking council leader Denise Hyland (or Matt Pennycook or Clive Efford) to get involved with team selection, the farcical events at The Valley under Roland Duchâtelet and hapless chief executive Katrien Meire threaten the future of a cherished local institution.

But fans were better off doing this, council leader Denise Hyland opined in another written response. This is a genuine shame, as the council could use its influence to bring about openness at the troubled club – there might even be some votes in it. Instead, it seeks to stay cosied up to the richest person in the room, the default position of this administration.

And then there’s the water feature in Cutty Sark Gardens, a frequently-broken embarrassment that’s now being removed, a story – like the Blackheath one – broken in The Greenwich Visitor.

How much was this costing, asked Brighty? Regeneration cabinet member – and Hyland’s de facto deputy – Danny Thorpe wouldn’t say. Instead, he tried to deflect the blame onto Brighty’s question. “‘Cleaning up the mess’ isn’t how I’d describe it,” he said.

Brighty had another go. Thorpe tried to burble on about the council “investing” money instead.

Geoff Brighty’s since been in touch with the answer – £90,000. So why the petulance from Danny Thorpe?

I suspect that inside the Wellington Street bubble, these are just flippant concerns compared with the threats to social security and council housing posed by the current Westminster government.

But these issues are broadly-felt concerns too – everyone is affected by the local environment and the issues at The Valley worry many.

Few inside Woolwich Town Hall seem to realise it’s perfectly possible to be repelled by both a hard-right Westminster government and some Labour-branded local tantrum-throwers.

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

Greenwich Time – same old, same old

But for now, the delusions continue. On Greenwich Time, Tory leader Matt Hartley made the strategic error of suggesting that Denise Hyland might want to apologise for spending £80,000 on a court battle with the government that doesn’t appear to have won the council very much.

When you’re in the same party as Iain Duncan Smith, that’s not a wise idea. Viewers with an aversion to sanctimony might like to look away.

“Lies, lies and damned statistics, eh? Whatever, you will spin it your way,” Denise Hyland responded.

She plonked a bundle of old Greenwich Times on the unused press bench to sycophantic applause from councillors who happily criticise the paper in private, but are too terrified to come out and say anything in public.

Yet the whole Greenwich Time debate has been based on lies and spin the first place. The true finances of the council paper have always been hard to track down, as council departments subsidise the paper by placing ads there which wouldn’t go elsewhere.

What’s more, organisations that are funded by the council are “encouraged” to place their advertising exclusively in GT – making its finances look better than they actually are.

Not that the Tories are above mischief – GT isn’t necessarily a Labour-biased paper. Indeed, in constantly promoting the demolition of council estates and their replacement with partly-private housing, GT is actually pushing current Conservative policy.

Instead, the continuation of Greenwich Time is all about promoting the clique that runs the council, their allies, and their strategic ambitions – and making it much more difficult for dissenting or even independent views to gain traction.

Here’s how Matt Hartley presented his motion demanding Hyland apologise.

Then, an oddity, as a member of public got to speak in the debate. Heaven knows how this happened, but it reflected poorly on all involved.

Former Tory councillor Eileen Glover, long estranged from her former colleagues, was wheeled out to lambast them from the public gallery. Glover lost in her bid to be elected as an independent in 2014, but still got to speak anyway. At best, this was taking advantage of a tedious personal beef. At worst, this was something more cynical.

Hartley’s attempt to get Hyland to apologise for the £80,000 legal bills was “arrogant and foolish”, she declared.

Glover claimed it was “insulting” to suggest that Greenwich Time influenced voters. Yet that’s exactly what Labour councillors say it does, if you ask them privately.

The charade went on. Denise Hyland and de jure deputy leader John Fahy came out with a counter-motion.

“Don’t you shake your head at me,” Hyland growled at Hartley at one point, claiming the government had no problem with Greenwich Time’s content, just the frequency. “It did seem a bit ridiculous that we were seeking to resolve our differences through courts.” There was no apology for pursuing it through the courts, though.

She also praised the work of Mercury/South London Press reporter Mandy Little, sat in the public gallery, as “a good, independent journalist”.

Perhaps this is an indication of where some of the council’s ad spend will go without a weekly GT – the SLP’s management bought the papers from octogenarian press baron Ray Tindle last month. This may free the way for the papers to drop the massage ads that councillors object to – and for council notices for appear in the Mercury once again.

News Shopper reporter Jess Bell, sat behind Hyland, understandably looked a bit miffed at the lack of recognition.

But you could tell what really mattered to Hyland when a GT front page lauding Labour’s general election wins was raised. “It was factual reporting. You lost, we won.”

Next to her, John Fahy – still being pursued for cooked-up wrongdoings by party bullies who’d like to see him out – burbled on about the laws on council newspapers being “cooked up in the Carlton Club with the press barons”.

That may be so, but it’s hardly a defence for the council’s actions.

Danny Thorpe started demanding apologies for the Tories’ policy on the NHS – nothing to do with Greenwich Labour’s policies on self-promotion – while Eltham West councillor Mick Hayes said “tonight should be a vote of thanks for those who have produced Greenwich Time in an even-handed way” (ie, the council press office).

“When you walk the streets and talk to people, Greenwich Time will be missed by the people of the borough,” Hayes added. Presumably by those with cat-litter trays.

“Don’t think you speak for the people of this borough,” cabinet member Maureen O’Mara – chosen in 2014 by less than 20% of the population of Greenwich West ward – glowered at the Tories. “If you did, you wouldn’t be sat there.”

O’Mara then calmed down and made her usual point about council tenants needing Greenwich Time because housing ads are placed there. The fact that council tenants in every other Labour borough seem to manage without a weekly propaganda paper seemed to escape her, as always. This was just going through the motions.

As for the Tories, Coldharbour & New Eltham councillor Mark Elliott said the council needed to think more creatively about its communications – a silly thing to say in a Greenwich Council meeting, because it was sensible.

And former opposition leader Spencer Drury rightly pointed out how coverage of the bullying scandal surrounding Chris Roberts wasn’t covered in GT. Ah, hold on a second.

Crawling to a bully

Only an hour previously, Drury was telling the chamber how Roberts was worthy of the freedom of the borough.

“There will be people in this chamber who struggle to get it into their thick skulls how he’ll get this honour,” he quipped.

“Love him or hate him – and I know there are people in both groups in this chamber tonight – Chris had a vision for the borough,” he added. (You can see the rest from two minutes in below.)

In probably one of the most shameful votes in the borough’s recent history, councillors unanimously voted to give Roberts the freedom of the borough. Even John Fahy, recipient of the “get it into your thick skull” voicemail, stuck his hand up to endorse giving his tormentor an award. Party loyalty and dignity never fit together in Greenwich.

And with the possibility of a council advertising contract now hanging in the air, the issue has barely been reported in the local press – instead, it’s featured in the past two issues of Private Eye.

You’d have expected better from Spencer Drury, the man who moved a sarcastic motion about Roberts’ “interpersonal skills” at the height of the bullying row. But the Tories have been bounced into a corner, with long-standing former councillor Dermot Poston – who has been in poor health recently – also on the list to be honoured.

It wasn’t all dismal. There was a decent discussion on the government’s trade union bill – which directly affects the council – which managed to steer away from tedious grandstanding. Labour councillor Don Austen joked that if the rules had been in place in the 1980s, he’d have had “300 Asbos and a spell in Belmarsh”.

But it was really a wake for Greenwich Time. And when the paper finally goes, you’ll be able to see it all online when they do it again in the summer.

So what’s happening tonight?

Tonight’s meeting should be fairly uneventful. The council tax rise will be rubber-stamped and there’ll be some comments on it from either side. (The Tories have alternative ideas, such as diverting money from the council’s PR budget into street cleaning.)

There’ll also be a Labour motion endorsing the UK staying in the EU, which will be a cue for a pointless barney with Tory leader Matt Hartley, who backs leaving.

Hartley’s views aren’t shared by all his fellow councillors, so there’ll be some finger-pointing about how the Tories are all divided. Whether that’s any better than being bullied and cowed into submission is for you to decide.

The really interesting stuff is likely to come in public questions – I’d be surprised if there aren’t any protesting about local schools becoming academies, which the government wants all schools to be by 2020.

Campaigners are unhappy about a letter sent by education cabinet member Miranda Williams – who replaced John Fahy in mysterious circumstances late last year – to school governors which essentially dropped a heavy hint that Greenwich wants them to start forming academies as soon as they can, presumably so the council can still keep some informal influence over them.

This is either a sensible reaction to an imposition from Westminster or a dismal capitulation by a Labour council to Tory demands. The unexplained replacement of Fahy with Williams has already aroused campaigners’ suspicions that it’s the latter, with John Roan already planning to make the switch. This will be an issue to watch over the coming months.

Anyhow, if you tune in tonight, I’d be interested to know what you make of it. I’m sure they’ll be on their best behaviour…

Greenwich Tories want Silvertown Tunnel paused for Eltham DLR

DLR extension report mock-up

The mocked-up DLR extension over Woolwich Road, as depicted in the suppressed 2012 Greenwich Council report

Greenwich Council’s Conservative group has asked Transport for London to halt the controversial Silvertown Tunnel scheme – so it can be assessed along with rejected plans for a Docklands Light Railway extension to Eltham.

The borough’s main opposition group has lined alongside the Labour council’s leadership in backing the new road “in principle”, despite widespread concerns it will increase rather than decrease pollution.

However, it wants the process – which is being rushed through so the planning process can begin before Boris Johnson leaves office – paused so proposals for a DLR link to Eltham can be included in the scheme.

Johnson’s successor can continue with, pause, or scrap the Silvertown Tunnel scheme after May’s mayoral election. A “final” consultation into the proposal ended at the end of November.

In their response to the scheme, the Tories say the tunnel – which relies on the same southern approach road as the Blackwall Tunnel – will be “a much-needed improvement to the resilience of our local transport network.

But the report – from local party leader Matt Hartley and transport spokesman Matt Clare – says that not including a DLR link to Eltham in the scheme is a “missed opportunity” that “would take a significant amount of traffic off the road network” as well as being “transformative for the South East London economy”.

“Our area of London is suffering from decades of under-investment in transport infrastructure because bold decisions were not taken in the past – and we fear that not including the DLR extension is a further example of this,” it adds.

For a scheme that has been flatly rejected by Transport for London, the mythical DLR extension to Eltham has an amazing hold over Greenwich borough politicians – with an ability, in their minds, to magic away the congestion and pollution new road schemes can bring.

The mythical DLR swings across the Kidbrooke interchange

The mythical DLR swings across the Kidbrooke interchange

The return of the DLR on stilts

So what went wrong? In 2011, Greenwich Council spent £75,000 commissioning two reports into a proposal to build a link from Canning Town to Falconwood, following the A102 and A2, providing a service to and from Stratford International.

Hyder Consulting’s first report, which outlined the idea and costed it at £1 billion, was never released publicly – despite being discussed in a cabinet meeting – until this website obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act. Here it is. It was submitted to TfL for comments.

But the follow-up – which aimed to answer TfL’s concerns – was suppressed by the council, hidden for nearly two years, with misleading answers given to anyone who asked about it. It was also never submitted to TfL. It finally emerged in April 2014 after a former Liberal Democrat councillor asked to see it. (Here it is.)

Why wasn’t the report submitted to TfL? Unfortunately for the council, Hyder report concluded that only an extension to Kidbrooke would be feasible – any further would face “disproportionately higher costs”. (It also said the Silvertown Tunnel itself would overwhelm local roads with traffic, expensive advice that Greenwich Council also chose to ignore.)

DLR report, Hyder Consulting

And TfL itself dismissed the scheme, pointing out that the Jubilee Line at North Greenwich may not be able to cope with interchanging passengers, and better capacity on the existing DLR services were coming.

But the report did contain some startling images of the DLR on stilts as it weaved its way above dual carriageways and homes. It’s worth a read just for those alone.

DLR extension mock-up

The Eltham DLR flame still burns for some…

Of course, councillors are paid to be parochial rather than strategic. Which is why Greenwich frets about north/south links within its own borough, and TfL isn’t so fussed. Although if Greenwich councillors were that bothered, you think they’d have pressed TfL on why travelling from Woolwich to Eltham by bus is so lousy.

But there are still keepers of the Eltham DLR flame. After all, Eltham is still a place that can change elections. Less cynically, one of the causes of the Blackwall Tunnel’s jams is the lack of orbital transport in this part of London. A scheme to Kidbrooke, as the report says, could be a goer. But both Tories and Labour want the full Eltham version of a scheme which TfL simply isn’t interested in.

In its 2014 Silvertown Tunnel consultation response, Greenwich Council placed the Eltham DLR as a condition of its continuing support for the scheme. TfL ignored this, Greenwich’s 2015 response still backs the Silvertown Tunnel. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen, eh?

The Tories have started banging on about the scheme too – which is how we’ve ended up where we are today, with the Tories backing a scheme which was discredited in a report commissioned by a Labour council which didn’t bother to submit it to a Tory-run transport authority. Phew.

The real shame is that while Greenwich was messing around with the DLR on stilts, Lewisham Council was pursuing a Bakerloo Line extension through Lewisham and Catford – a scheme that’s got every chance of becoming reality. Politicians in Greenwich have belatedly woken up to the benefits of this – but putting Eltham on the Tube would have been a big, big prize.

A2 traffic jam in Eltham

So what about Greenwich Labour? Don’t hold your breath…

Meanwhile, Greenwich Council’s response to the Silvertown consultation – in the name of regeneration councillor Danny Thorpe – might as well have been written by former Dear Leader Chris Roberts, whose Bridge The Gap campaign ushered in unconditional support for the tunnel. He’s now working for regeneration PR agency Cratus, which is fretting over whether the Tories will win the mayoral election.

The response, which uses the phrase “royal borough” 57 times, backs the tunnel without hesitation despite outlining a host of concerns, from inadequate air pollution monitoring to the effects on traffic through Greenwich town centre. This continued support suggests it may not be entirely sincere about these concerns, which have been repeated in every consultation since 2012.

It continues to demand that Greenwich borough residents get cheaper car trips through the tunnel while wanting express buses to North Greenwich with priority on the A102 as well – surely contradictory aims for a council that once wanted to persuade people to switch to public transport.

One of the more baffling aspects of the response is a claim that the “opportunity should be taken to improve cross river cycling connections, particularly those between Greenwich Peninsula and the Isle of Dogs”. This is from a council which, when it considered the Greenwich Peninsula masterplan earlier this year, completely ignored a call for a fixed crossing between the peninsula and the Isle of Dogs, even though the cost of it could have been covered by the planning gain.

Instead, it appears to go touting for business for Thames Clippers, owned by O2 owner AEG, putting forward a proposal already included in the masterplan: “The Royal Borough [sic] asks that TfL agrees to explore opportunities to introduce a cross river vehicular or boat ‘cycle shuttle’, to address that demand, as part of ongoing work.”

The dear old Dangleway’s not forgotten, either: “Similarly, the Royal Borough [sic] would expect definitive proposals for a reduction in charges for cyclists using the Cable Car to be contained within the DCO submission.” It’s unclear why cyclists should get a discount ahead of pedestrians, but there you go.

Fiddling while London chokes

So while councils elsewhere pass motions against the Silvertown Tunnel and raise the alarm about the scheme, in Greenwich we have councillors who know full well the scheme will do harm, and are just content to fiddle around the edges rather than take a stand.

Essentially, Greenwich residents are having to rely on Lewisham councillors to defend their interests at the moment – a crazy situation.

We’ve got a mayoral election coming up where both main parties’ candidates will claim to be the “greenest mayor yet”. Their party colleagues in Greenwich seem to be doing their best to sabotage these claims – if they get their way, we’ll all pay for it in the end.

Greenwich cruise liner terminal: City Hall sides with council despite pollution fears

The new proposals for a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf

The planned new London City Cruise Port is expected to be up and running by 2017 and will feature a 31-storey tower block

Mayor Boris Johnson’s deputy has backed Greenwich Council’s decision to allow a cruise liner terminal to be built at Enderby Wharf, east Greenwich, despite residents’ fears that it will increase air pollution in the area.

The Conservative administration at City Hall sided with the Labour council on last month’s go-ahead for the scheme, even though locals are demanding the terminal is fitted with on-shore power generation to save the area from being exposed to emissions from the dirty fuel that cruise ships usually use.

A version of the scheme was originally approved in 2011, but new plans put forward this year propose ships staying longer at the site, using their own fuel, rather than shore-side power as recommended by the European Union.

Despite councillors hearing last month that the scheme will actually only create 88 jobs, a City Hall press release persists with the original claim that the scheme will lead to 500 jobs.

Deputy mayor Edward Lister – a former leader of Wandsworth Council – took the decision, saying: “We have worked with the local authority and the developer to ensure the new terminal and surrounding infrastructure will meet the needs of thousands of tourists coming to the city each year.

“It will provide a major boost to tourism, benefit the local economy and further contribute to London’s status as a world leading city.”

City Hall said it relied on an separate independent assessment to the one revealed to Greenwich councillors just days before last month’s planning meeting.

“While it recognised there could be some moderate adverse impact on occasion, it also acknowledged the height, speed and heat of ship emissions disperse more efficiently in comparison to motor vehicles,” it said.

“Recognising the levels of background pollution already experienced in the borough, £400,000 has been secured towards ongoing environmental monitoring or improving air quality through the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s Air Quality Action Plan.”

For Greenwich Council, regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe said: “This landmark cruise liner development will bring many thousands more visitors to the borough, and provide a major boost to tourism.

“The council is committed to improving air quality in the borough, and recognises that this was an area of concern for local residents. I hope that it will be reassuring for residents to learn that the Mayor has submitted our measures to independent scrutiny and found them to be satisfactory.”

Residents in the area already complain of feeling under siege by politicians and developers, and many may find hearing a Labour councillor endorse Boris Johnson’s administration on air pollution – not the Conservative mayor’s strongest point – represents a new smack in the face.

Last week, the East Greenwich Residents Association called on council leader Denise Hyland to step down from its main planning committee after it emerged she was the only one of London’s 28 council leaders to take a direct role in deciding whether new developments should go ahead.

Hyland’s comments during the meeting were also leaked to Private Eye magazine, leading to the council’s first appearance in the satirical publication for many years.