Former Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts, who left the council after accusations of bullying were made against him, represented the borough on a trip to Berlin this summer, with accommodation paid for as part of a taxpayer-funded town twinning scheme.
Roberts, who is now deputy chairman of a company which lobbies for property developers, joined current council leader Denise Hyland and five other councillors on the beano to Reinickendorf, west Berlin, in July.
Berlin taxpayers stumped up the £1,585 accommodation costs for the group’s three-day trip, which marked the 50th anniversary of the two boroughs being twinned. Greenwich taxpayers had paid for a German delegation to visit south-east London earlier in the year.
While Roberts stepped down from the council’s top job two years ago, he retains a close relationship with the current council leadership – despite his new role at Cratus Communications, a company which specialises in lobbying local authorities.
His final year in charge saw allegations that he threw a set of keys at a council cleaner, while a leaked voicemail revealed him threatening former deputy leader John Fahy with the loss of his cabinet position in a row over a half-marathon that benefited a charity Roberts had set up.
In addition two councillors stepped down from their jobs complaining of a “culture of bullying” in his Labour group. One of them, former planning chair Alex Grant, later went public with claims that councillors were threatened and intimidated over planning matters.
Despite all this, both Labour and Tory councillors united to award Roberts the freedom of the borough earlier this year.
Fireworks and a VIP dinner
The trip, which took place between 14-17 July, saw Roberts, Hyland, Roberts’ former deputy Peter Brooks (Glyndon ward), Norman Adams (Kidbrooke with Hornfair), Steve Offord (Abbey Wood), Chris Lloyd (Peninsula) and cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald (Peninsula) treated to rooms at the four-star Hotel am Borgisturm in Tegel.
They were treated to a fireworks display on a lake to mark the relationship between the two councils, as well as a Saturday night stage show at the Friedrichstadtpalast theatre, in the centre of the German capital.
Roberts and the party also enjoyed a VIP dinner at the Tegel Harbour Festival, while they also attended a reception at Reinickendorf’s town hall.
One councillor, Chris Lloyd, tweeted about being presented with a medal.
Despite this clearly being a big deal in Reinickendorf, Greenwich did not announce the councillors’ trip to the media. Asked under England’s Freedom of Information Act about the councillors’ trip, Greenwich Council did not disclose Roberts’ attendance or the cost of the trip, although it did confirm the itinerary and pointed out each member of the party paid their own travel costs.
None of the councillors has disclosed the trip with Roberts on their register of interests, despite it being worth more than £100 each.
However, the trip was reported locally and officials in Reinickendorf released a photo showing Roberts with the party. They later confirmed the costs after a request made under Berlin’s state freedom of information laws.
Conflict of interests
Chris Roberts’ new employment as a lobbyist for developers opens up a possible conflict of interests, as Denise Hyland, Peter Brooks, Norman Adams and Steve Offord sit on the borough’s main planning committee, the grandly-titled Planning Board.
Hyland has been criticised for being the only council leader in London to be on such a committee, and earlier this month withdrew from a decision on a skate park in Charlton Park after objectors pointed out she had spoken in support of the scheme last year.
Roberts – who this website understands is still in regular contact with the council leadership – has recently been joined at Cratus Communications by Michael Stanworth, a former Labour Party organiser in Greenwich borough during his time in office.
The Cratus website recently published an article praising the views of another Roberts chum, Tony Pidgeley, the chairman of Berkeley Homes, which is behind the Royal Arsenal and Kidbrooke Village developments. Pidgeley was thanked in Roberts’ acceptance speech when he was given the freedom of the borough.
Greenwich taxpayers pay for return trips
While Greenwich taxpayers did not contribute directly to Roberts’ trip, they do fund accommodation costs when Reinickendorf councillors come to stay. In May, the council paid £4,140 for a Reinickendorf party to stay at the Hotel Ibis in Greenwich.
The delegation, which included Reinickendorf leader Hinrich Luehmann and its former chief executive Frank Zemke, were shown around the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich and attended the private Old Royal Naval College inauguration of mayor Olu Babatola, a bash that cost council taxpayers £20,000.
A month later, Zemke was given the freedom of Greenwich borough – the council’s highest honour – for “pioneering the exchange of officials and trainees, as well as other institutions from the two boroughs”.
The borough of Reinickendorf, named after a leafy suburb of Berlin, is clearly proud of its links with Greenwich. A Greenwich Promenade runs alongside Lake Tegel, while memorabilia from Greenwich is proudly displayed in its town hall. A Greenwich borough crest is also on display at the local rail station. Coincidentally, Reinickendorf’s next-door borough, Charlottenberg, has a similar arrangement with Lewisham.
But evidence of Greenwich’s pride is less easy to come by. Until recently, the only public commemoration was a small and poorly-maintained road in Eltham’s Avery Hill Park, Reinickendorf Avenue. But earlier this year, a “buddy bear” was presented to Greenwich by Reinickendorf. It now sits, looking slightly marooned, in General Gordon Square, Woolwich.
Town twinning started in Europe after the second world war, and was aimed at repairing damaged relationships between nations. With two of Greenwich’s twin towns – the other is Maribor, Slovenia – in European Union states, it’s possible that these agreements may grow in importance if Britain goes through with the vote to leave the EU. A third town, Tema in Ghana, has received assistance and recycled council equipment.
But trips like this one to Reinickendorf make the whole arrangement look like a private jolly. Furthermore, inviting a property developer’s lobbyist along for a subsidised break raises questions about the whole arrangement, and bigger questions about just how the council’s main planning committee works. But will anyone on the council be brave enough to ask them?
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?”
Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper – Greenwich Time – has published its final edition, bringing to an end a lengthy battle with the Government over its existence.
The council spent £80,000 fighting a Government order to close it (with the Government spending £23,770), before the two parties reached an out-of-court settlement in December.
This week’s edition brings the title to a close after 32 years, of which its final eight were spent as a weekly. It launched in 1984 as a monthly publication, going fortnightly in 1991.
It was the last weekly council paper in England, following the closure of Tower Hamlets’ East End Life earlier this year.
You’ll have to read carefully to spot it’s the final paper – its closure is mentioned in a letter to residents on page two from council leader Denise Hyland, claiming it was “a reliable source of local information… reflective of the incredible history and characteristics of our area”.
But the paper, long targeted by a Government which aimed to outlaw “council Pravdas”, had been limping on for years following the sacking of chief reporter Peter Cordwell and assistant editor Rod Kitson.
Indeed, in its final years, the paper looked increasingly like the Soviet propaganda paper its detractors accused it of aping – a long way from the original intention of emulating genuine local newspapers.
The final front page features a bland statement on the council’s reaction to the EU referendum result and one of the council’s regular obsessions – the army, with a photograph of veterans at its Great Get Together event.
Inside, the redevelopment of estates in Woolwich is reannounced, while the Greenwich Heritage Trust’s creation of an exhibition commemorating the history of the Royal Artillery in Woolwich is featured – without mentioning it is a replacement for the failed Firepower museum, which closes next month.
It is not clear what comes next – the council is keeping its cards very close to its chest. We do know that Greenwich has put its statutory notices – planning applications, highway works, etc – out to tender again.
For now, the council leadership has lost a tool it used to paint a portrait of a borough that many simply didn’t recognise. It could have created a genuine community paper, allowing dissenting views and helping fill a vacuum left by the slow demise of the independent local press. But its leadership didn’t trust its residents, and instead used Greenwich Time to attempt to set the agenda – possibly angering as many as it persuaded.
Hyland’s letter continues: “I hope that the enormous legacy left by Greenwich Time will continue online in digital communities.” Well, hello!
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.
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.
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 is facing a judicial review over its decision to back a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf in east Greenwich – and local residents are appealling for help in funding the challenge.
The council’s planning board backed the scheme last July, ignoring objections from neighbours on both sides of the river, as well as Tower Hamlets Council and Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook.
Residents fear pollution from ships berthed at the terminal, on the west side of the Greenwich peninsula. As the terminal will have no means of generating its own electricity for ships, the vessels will have to power themselves – burning at least 700 litres of diesel an hour.
A single ship will generate the same emissions as 688 permanently-running HGVs, residents say, using far dirtier fuels. Residents want to see power for the terminal provided on shore, as happens at at ports in New York and Amsterdam, but the developers say this will cost too much.
Now a crowdfunding campaign has been launched to raise £6,000 to challenge the council’s decision in the High Court. If you’d like to chip in, visit www.crowdjustice.co.uk/case/cruise-liner.
The council is already defending the challenge, Dr Paul Stookes of legal firm Richard Buxton says. The High Court will now decide whether to allow the judicial review.
Dan Hayes, chair of the East Greenwich Residents Association, says: “We believe that the planning decision is short-sighted and ruinous to Londoners’ health. Nearly 10,000 people die of air pollution in our capital each year and far more suffer ill-health because of bad air.
“We have been constantly exhorted to use public transport, buy cleaner cars or cycle, only to have dirty developments thrust on our communities. It’s time to call a halt on decision-making that makes air pollution much worse for Londoners, and the cruise terminal proposal, without on-shore power, is a striking example of this.”
Why did council leader vote on issue?
The terminal has been vehemently defended by council leader Denise Hyland – who sat on the planning board that gave the terminal the go-ahead. She is the only council leader in London who regularly sits on their borough’s main planning committee.
Hyland chose to sat in judgement on the cruise liner terminal despite having previously publicly endorsed the scheme. In the months before the planning board meeting, she held four meetings with terminal promoters and their associates without most other board members being present – including one just five days before the planning board meeting, according to information provided in response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by this website.
Advice from the Local Government Association says that “members of a planning committee… need to avoid any appearance of bias or of having predetermined their views before taking a decision on a planning application or on planning policies”.
Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe – regarded as Hyland’s effective deputy on the council – also chose to sit on the planning board, despite being present at three of those meetings.
Thorpe joined Hyland on a trip to inspect a cruise liner terminal in Southampton. Hyland spoke about this during the meeting, saying she could not “see” any air pollution there – despite the fact that it is usually invisible.
Hyland also criticised residents for not bringing up air pollution fears when the proposals first came before the planning committee some years back – even though plans for the terminal have substantially changed since then.
The court challenge has the potential to embarrass both Labour and Conservative candidates in this spring’s mayoral elections, since outgoing Conservative mayor Boris Johnson has joined Labour’s Hyland in defending the terminal, to the discomfort of grassroots members of both parties.
Green mayoral candidate Sian Berry and Lib Dem counterpart Caroline Pidgeon have both supported the legal challenge.
Isolated on cruise liner and Silvertown Tunnel
Indeed, this website understands Hyland’s ambivalent attitude to air pollution – an issue which remains high on the political agenda – is causing unease within her party’s ranks. As well as leading Greenwich to an isolated position on the cruise liner terminal, she has now been left in a similar position on the Silvertown Tunnel.
Greenwich is now the only one of the three boroughs closest to the tunnel to remain offering unconditional support; with Lewisham, Southwark, Hackney and Waltham Forest opposing the scheme on air pollution and congestion grounds, and Newham withdrawing its support over congestion fears.
Asked at a council Q&A in December about Southwark’s opposition, she said she continued to support the tunnel because “it arrives in Greenwich and it helps our residents”.
She also told the Q&A she believed air pollution would not be an issue by the time TfL plans to open the tunnel, in 2023, even though the current Conservative government is showing few signs of wanting to tackle the issue, and plans for a central London ultra-low emissions zone do not cover Greenwich.
If the residents’ judicial review over the cruise liner terminal is accepted by the High Court, it will put her stewardship of the council on this issue under a harsh spotlight.
20 months after Marks and Spencer revealed it was closing its Woolwich store, it was revealed last week that it’s returning. But not to the traditional town centre.
It’ll be opening a food store by the new Crossrail station – good news for Royal Arsenal developer Berkeley Homes, but not so good for beleagured Powis Street, where a pound store now occupies the store giant’s old site.
Karl Whiteman, Divisional Managing Director at Berkeley Homes, said: “We are delighted to announce that Marks & Spencer will be joining our development in Woolwich, adding to the growing commercial and cultural offer in the area. Royal Arsenal Riverside is becoming a first rate destination for people to live as well as a place where visitors can shop, eat and relax, surrounded by historic buildings and the River Thames.”
Nothing, of course, about the rest of Woolwich. M&S’s arrival entrenches the growing division of Woolwich into two towns – the struggling one south of the A206, with the rich new one rising north of the dual carriageway.
The job of being Greenwich Council leader demands complete loyalty to Berkeley Homes, and Denise Hyland obliges in its press release announcing the move.
Cllr Denise Hyland, Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, said: “We shared the disappointment of local residents when Marks & Spencer departed Woolwich town centre 18 months ago, and have kept in close contact with the company since then. News that they are to return so soon is a clear sign that they recognise that Woolwich is growing and developing – with the Crossrail link acting as a key driving force in that growth.”
It’s nothing of the sort. If anything, it shows that Woolwich is moving – not east towards Tesco as first envisaged, but north, across the Plumstead Road, leaving everyone else behind. Each evening, commuters scurry out of the DLR through deserted Beresford Market and across the road, without much of a reason to look up and notice the battered old town around them.
Absurd divisions between newcomers and established locals aren’t uncommon in London – try visiting Brixton or Peckham. But the Woolwich of 2016 is even more unsettling because the newer arrivals are tucked behind a big brick wall. Once Crossrail opens, how many will be crossing the A206 at all?
How to fix it? Hyland herself floated a dramatic solution at a public Q&A held before Christmas – burying the A206 into a tunnel at Beresford Street.
But there appear to be simpler solutions – the rotting covered market could become home to a Lewisham Model Market-style venture (gentrification fears notwithstanding), new traders could be encouraged to diversify the traditional Beresford Square market.
Instead, though, the council seems to be reinforcing the divide, with propaganda weekly Greenwich Time regularly droning on about the “creative quarter” it is trying to create inside the Arsenal, filling the hole left by the failed Firepower museum. (This council press release talks about putting the area “on the map”, but doesn’t name Woolwich until the seventh paragraph.) With old buildings lying empty around Woolwich town centre – and the Woolwich Grand Theatre now rubble – opportunities to bring creative businesses to the area already exist. But they’ve just been ignored.
There’s no help from City Hall, either – there’s no interest from TfL in rezoning Woolwich Arsenal to zones 3/4, despite successful lobbying from Newham to get Stratford and nearby stations shifted to zones 2/3. If an incoming mayor freezes fares, it’ll reduce the scope for a similar move to be done to benefit Woolwich.
There’s also now an opportunity for new thinking on Powis Street itself. Around the time M&S pulled out of Woolwich, most of the freeholds around the town centre were sold by the secretive Powis Street Estates. They are now owned by investment firm Mansford, which promises “refurbishment” and “residential development”. What Mansford does with its estate will be worth watching – and will show if the decline is terminal, or if there’s life in old Woolwich yet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…