Greenwich has been pretty much alone among London boroughs in playing down the impact of Government cuts. It’s something that showed sharply last summer – while Greenwich was shouting and spending on tall ships, Lewisham was running The Big Budget Challenge, inviting people to play with the council’s budget and explaining the troubles ahead.
Last month’s Autumn Statement put an end to all that. So it’s good to see that Greenwich is holding a public meeting next Tuesday to discuss what happens next.
Despite us all having to pay council tax, most council funding comes from central government. Council tax rises don’t really amount to much extra in the kitty – especially since the government limited rises to 2% before local referenda have to be called. (The Autumn Statement allowed councils to whack an additional 2% on to cover rising social care costs, but this is seen as too little, too late.)
So councils can either defy the government (and end up with Whitehall staff taking over), or they have to cut. There have been dire predictions of councils going bust by 2020.
Cuts in Greenwich aren’t new. Greenwich has run cuts budgets for the best part of a decade. Stealthy cuts have included closing kids’ playschemes, quietly dispensing of Kidbrooke’s only library, cuts in grants to the voluntary sector, staff pay freezes, cutting senior council officers and threatening Maryon Wilson animal park.
People only notice cuts when they’re directly affected – like a certain Mr David Cameron of Witney, Oxfordshire. But so far, many cuts in Greenwich have been behind the scenes.
You can only chomp into those reserves so far. If you include “unusable reserves”, that figure rockets by almost a billion, but chipping into that sum means flogging off property, plant and other assets (such as the Blackwall Lane “pocket park”).
But with another £77m of cuts to the council’s annual budget expected to come, how long can that go on for?
So credit to Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland and deputy leader John Fahy for holding a “question time” event about all this – to be held at 6pm at Woolwich Town Hall on Tuesday 15 December.
If you want to submit a question and go, you need to register. Hopefully a recording will be made available for everyone else.
It’s curious that it’s been announced with only six days to go, in the run-up to Christmas, held at a time of day that’s not hugely convenient for people in work, and hasn’t featured in this week’s Pravda, but at least it’s a tiny nod towards transparency.
So, what are you asking the council?
The event came less than three weeks before Labour councillors met to discuss the prospect of future government budget squeezes, which are likely to see services cut further over the next five years.
Councillors and guests attended the event, on 19 May, which marked long-serving councillor Norman Adams replacing Mick Hayes as the borough’s first citizen. Representatives from Berkeley Homes and Ikea were also invited, according to details released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The cost of the event, which came to £19,300, excluding VAT, has shot up following the decision of the Greenwich Foundation, which runs the old naval college, to charge the council for the first time in some years. Last year’s event cost £13,385.
Greenwich negotiated free venue hire with the foundation, as well as began using cheaper PA systems, after this website revealed that 2010’s ceremony had cost nearly £30,000.
Last month’s ceremony was the 10th the council has held at the Old Royal Naval College, bringing the total bill over the years for council taxpayers to £220,000, according to responses to various Freedom of Information Act requests.
Most boroughs do not hold these lavish bashes. The same night Greenwich councillors and their guests were living it up at in the Painted Hall, Camden inaugurated its new mayor at a simple event at its town hall.
Indeed, Adams formally became mayor at the council’s annual general meeting the previous week – with a ceremony similar to this one at Waltham Forest – meaning there was no need for the Naval College event at all.
Southwark uses Southwark Cathedral for its mayor-making, but declares it an official council meeting, meaning the public can come and watch. It also combines the inauguration with a civic awards ceremony.
In Greenwich, the public are shut out, despite paying a £9,000 bill for food and drink (red wine was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Moncaro 2012; white wine was Galassia Garganega/Pinot Grigio 2013).Instead, while community representatives are invited, the event has traditionally been used for networking.
The invite list includes representatives from Ikea – whose plans for a store in east Greenwich have caused uproar – and property developers Berkeley Homes and Durkan. It is not known which of the 350 invitees actually attended.
Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon was also invited, as was the firm behind the Greenwich cruise liner terminal – two major planning schemes which have also angered local people. Indeed, just a few hundred yards from the ceremony, the East Greenwich Residents Association was discussing the effects of these schemes at its regular public meeting – without their Peninsula ward councillors present.
Despite blowing large sums of money on celebrating themselves at a time of cutbacks, Greenwich councillors have been largely oblivious to criticism of the Naval College bash, although some do deliberately stay away.
Indeed, in 2013, the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time lied about its location, claiming for two successive weeks that it was held at Woolwich Town Hall.
The borough’s Tories have generally gone along with the ceremony, while occasionally pushing for it to be made more open to the public.
Labour councillors met at this weekend to discuss the effects of another five years of cuts under the new government. Can they really justify blowing another £20,000 on a private party?
The answer will lie with this year’s deputy mayor Olu Babatola, who will take the main job next year. Already a mould-breaker as the borough’s first African mayor, he could set an equally-welcome precedent by scrapping next year’s ceremony. Will he do it? It’s over to you, Olu.
To the High Court yesterday, where a judge backed a case brought by Greenwich Community Law Centre for a judicial review into the tendering process that led to it losing its grants.
The centre, on Trafalgar Road, lost its funding on 11 November following a vote taken by the council’s cabinet last month.
But the centre is challenging the way the decision was taken, arguing the timetable put in place by the council meant it was not possible to hand over cases to other agencies. It also says the decision was made without an assessment on equality in the borough, or the risks involved.
It lost its funding after failing to meet a deadline set by the council for submitting bids. However, it argues that council officers gave conflicting dates as when that deadline actually was.
The hearing largely relied on bundles of evidence presented to Deputy High Court Judge Ingrid Simler QC, with counsel for the law centre and for Greenwich briefly arguing their cases before a short judgment was made.
Tellingly, though, Greenwich wanted the case struck out because the decision not to fund the law centre was made by officers on in early August, and not by cabinet members in September (and again in October during a “call-in” hearing), arguing that the law centre’s claim was now “out of time” as it was over three months since the officers’ decision had been made.
But the law centre had argued that it had been told that proceedings could not have been brought until a final decision was made by the cabinet or the call-in process – and even Mrs Justice Simler said that Greenwich’s counsel “appeared to submit that the call-in process was a foregone conclusion”.
It doesn’t seem particularly encouraging for democracy in Greenwich when the council’s own barrister argues that its cabinet members’ decisions can be predicted in advance.
One bright spot for the council – and its taxpayers – was that the judge did not order Greenwich to continue funding the centre, whose counsel said it could continue in operation until the end of the year. It is apparently still receiving referrals from other centres, which are struggling to adapt to the new arrangements.
It’s thought the judicial review could set the council back £30,000, as well as the cost of seeing what appears to have been a poorly-run process laid open before the courts. Unless a settlement is agreed before then, a two-day hearing is due to take place by the end of December.
It won’t come as a surprise, but Greenwich Council’s cabinet voted tonight to uphold its decision to withdraw funding from Greenwich Community Law Centre on Trafalgar Road.
The decision was “called in” for review by Conservative opposition leader Spencer Drury, who voiced fears that the loss of the centre would leave the west of the borough with “little or no cover” for legal help, and that proposals for replacement services were short on detail.
Greenwich has decided to change the way it funds legal advice services, dividing up each area of welfare law into separate contracts that agencies can bid for. In the past, agencies had effectively acted as a consortium, which the council says costs too much money. GCLC won none of the contracts, and will lose its funding from November.
Barry Mills, who has worked at the centre for 21 years, told the cabinet that the centre is the only agency in the borough which provides free advice for all areas of welfare law, and is still getting referrals from the organisations that are supposed to be replacing it.
The centre’s work is complex, and so are the arguments surrounding this issue. But one particular aspect – immigration law – stood out. GCLC is the only agency in the borough with staff qualified to offer advice on immigration – it’s illegal to do so otherwise. But, despite having four staff who have passed the tests, it still lost out to Plumstead Community Law Centre, which currently has no such staff.
“No reasoning has been provided for this, nor explanation, and it is extremely surprising as the centre is the only provider of free immigration advice in the whole borough, and we have 137 open cases,” he said.
“We have been running the entire workload of immigration advice in this borough for at least a year now as the previous Plumstead worker was no accredited and did very basic advice only.
“Given the council’s commitment and agenda around equality and diversity, we believe it should be reconsidered in any event as it is woefully inadequate given that immigration clients are among the most vulnerable in the community, and in our experience often exploited by unscrupulous private practioners.”
He also added that losing the centre’s base on Trafalgar Road would leave clients without a familiar place to go – weekly “outreach” work was “rarely successful” while some clients were “not mobile, with some fearful of using public transport”.
Local mental health experts are among those who have spoken up for the centre.
“We are rooted in the local community and cannot be replaced by outreach and e-mails,” he said.
GCLC won more money in tribunal awards, welfare benefits in compensation than the grant allocated to it by the council, Mr Mills explained – raising at least £345,000 last year.
“Many successes are unquantifiable,” he continued. “Stopping deportations, getting repairs done, keeping families together, stopping deportations.
“All of these things result in harmonious living and assist in social cohesion.”
But Greenwich Council’s project director Mark Baigent – in evidence barely audible thanks to the council’s shonky sound system – insisted that a “consortium approach” to providing legal help had not worked, and it had been decided to provide a “centre of excellence in each field”.
Deputy council leader Peter Brooks said the decision was “an officer’s recommendation which we thought was the right decision to make”.
“We have to make a decision, times are hard,” he added.
Council leader Chris Roberts said legal services had acted as a “cartel” before, artificially inflating costs.
“In this current climate, moving to one provider in each [legal] area is more cost effective. The council has been doing it this way, and we expect it of the voluntary sector too. It was inevitable that somebody would not succeed.”
Centre management will meet on Friday to decide their next steps – if there are any next steps to take. But their supporters are furious, and cite what they say are numerous contradictions in the council’s arguments.
Indeed, the centre and the council – which has long wanted to centralise advice services – seem so far apart, it’s hard to imagine them ever being reconciled.
Conspiracy theorists might like to look at the centre’s offices themselves – a tidy corner shop on Trafalgar Road, which looks from the outside to be in good nick… and owned by Greenwich Council. The loss to people in the Greenwich area looks very much like a potential council accountant’s gain.
853 exclusive: Greenwich Council is going ahead with plans to hold a “mayor-making” ceremony at the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall against the wishes of its incoming mayor, and despite cutting £48m from its budget for this year.
Last year’s event at the prestigious Greenwich venue cost £30,000 to stage, angering residents protesting against cuts to council services. Most other councils hold the ceremony at their town halls instead of hiring outside venues.
Funding for youth and children’s services has been targeted, while a host of voluntary groups have lost their funding altogether and staff warned of possible redundancy. Greenwich has stopped funding the Blackheath fireworks display, while allotment and parking charges have rocketed.
Children at a Charlton primary school cited the cost of the mayor-making party in posters they made to try to save the animal centre in Maryon Wilson Park, which faces losing £34,000 in funding.
Even incoming mayor Jim Gillman has objected to the ceremony taking place, with his wife Janet – a Charlton councillor – telling a local residents’ meeting that the ceremony “has a touch of ‘let them eat cake’ in these times.” London Labour MEP Mary Honeyball praised Cllr Gillman for objecting to the event, using Twitter to say he was “leading by example”.
But despite Cllr Gillman’s objections, invitations have been sent out by current mayor Barbara Barwick for a ceremony on 25 May. Council leader Chris Roberts – who is due to give a speech at the event – is believed to have made the decision alone to go ahead with the ceremony.
“Looking around Greenwich there is much to be proud of. The physical regeneration of our community continues apace, while there are many developments in our economic, social and community life,” the invite reads.
Conservative opposition leader Spencer Drury said the ceremony is “purely an opportunity for the Labour leadership to sell its view of what is happening in Greenwich”.
“I view the whole ceremony as an expensive vanity project and it should be returned to the Town Hall where it would be cheaper to run and in my opinion, would represent the life of the borough just as well as the Painted Hall.”
Last year, council deputy leader Peter Brooks referred to the council’s overall budget cut when he said there were “65 million reasons” not to spend £37,000 on the Blackheath fireworks ceremony it jointly held with Lewisham Council. He said there was “strict control over all expenditure”, and the cost was “equivalent to a job and a bit”.
Greenwich Council has not yet responded to a request for comment on this story.
3:45PM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. But former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood has said: “While the amount of money involved is fairly small in the overall scale of things, it amazes me that the council is persisting with this luxury, invitation-only event when so much else is being cut. It really is a case of the Labour council acting in the interests of the few and not the many.”
Mr Webbewood asked a question at the last Greenwich Council meeting about the possibility of a ceremony, to which deputy leader Peter Brooks replied:
“The inauguration of the mayor is an important event in the civic life of the borough, enabling the council and its new mayor to meet the increasing number of key stakeholders in our community.
Many of these are critical to the social cohesion and economic success of Greenwich, including leaders of all our faith communities, volunteers and local associations as well as businesses investing millions of pounds in our borough to create jobs and economic prosperity.
The council is very mindful of the need to secure value for money and will always endeavour to do this. However this is the only occasion in the calendar year when all stakeholders are brought together – for the very reasons of cost that Mr Webbewood articulates.
That this is done on the occasion which marks the inauguration of the First Citizen of Greenwich – a determinedly non-political event – seems the most prudent occasion on which to do it.”
An increasing number of key stakeholders, eh? Can’t move for them. Conservative deputy leader Nigel Fletcher, who also comments below, has said his group “proposed a small Town Hall Inauguration, then a public celebration, sponsored to be cost-neutral”. More reaction as it comes in.
6:35PM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. However, Tim Anderson, chair of the Friends of Maryon and Maryon Wilson Parks, said:
“It is very hard to understand why the council should opt to go ahead with an expensive mayoral ceremony when other council services such as the Maryon Wilson Animal Park in Charlton face closure in April 2012.
The Animal Park is greatly appreciated by thousands of people, especially children and families. The campaign petition to save the Animal Care Centre in Maryon Wilson Park, has reached over 4,500 signatures and is likely to reach 10,000 signatures by the end of this year.
Prioritising expenditure on its own ceremonies that could be made available for front line and community services must send out the wrong message to people who are facing losing their jobs or to organisations who face Council cuts.”
WEDNESDAY 11:45AM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. But Paul Callanan, of anti-cuts group Greenwich Save Our Services, condemned the council’s plans.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful that while working class people face the biggest attacks on jobs and services seen in generations and are being told to tighten our belts, the council chooses to spend our money on a party. This shows just how far out of touch with reality this council is.”
WEDNESDAY 6:15PM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. But the Green Party’s Arthur Hayles, who stood as a parliamentary candidate in Eltham last year, said:
“Even if there were no programme of cuts to Greenwich Council services, the use of an expensive venue for a council ceremony should be avoided in favour of using every penny for the welfare of the people of Greenwich.”
Amid all the heat of the cuts debate last night, a little light was shone on Greenwich Council’s communications strategy, which largely revolves giving all its stories to its own weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, before anybody else.
It came in a question from former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood, whose relationship with council leader Chris Roberts isn’t the friendliest. Usually Webbewood will turn up and ask a question relating to the leader’s conduct, and Roberts will deny everything in a bad-tempered manner, and maybe get a dig back in return. It was like that when the Lib Dems had councillors, too.
But there’s more to this one than meets the eye. A couple of weeks ago, BBC News home editor Mark Easton reported for its TV bulletins on the effects of the cuts on voluntary groups in the borough. Greenwich declined to put anyone up for an interview – instead, Easton had to go to Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford for a defence of the council’s plans.
Webbewood asked why the council ducked the chance to explain itself to its taxpayers – and the country as a whole – on the Ten O’Clock News. Roberts’ answer… because of cutbacks imposed by the government.
Pressed further, Roberts said talking to organisations like the BBC “take second place to the people of this borough and their political representatives” – even though BBC News probably reaches more people in the borough than any other media outlet, including its own Greenwich Time.
Perhaps the content of the package – with tricky questions about priorities, and how Greenwich Leisure Limited (spun off during a 90s round of cuts) has become a Big Society poster child – had more to do with the council’s decision not to speak to the BBC.
Last summer, when there was good news, Chris Roberts had all the time in the world to speak to the BBC to endorse plans for the east Greenwich cruise liner terminal – indeed, he informed BBC London News (and ITV’s London Tonight) before he told the people of the borough, and many of their political representatives.
But when there’s bad news, Greenwich Council hides. Just as it’s been doing with the cuts.
All over the place, councils have held public consultations (like in Bexley), stuck posters up (in Lambeth), created “fairness commissions” (like in Islington), and generally tried to at least give the impression of taking their populations with them in the most painful cuts for a generation.
Greenwich has done nothing of the sort, and in the case of this BBC interview, has actively hidden from public scrutiny.
Even councillors were told last night there were no plans to close any libraries – when in Kidbrooke’s Ferrier Library is due for the bulldozer and won’t be replaced. If they can’t be honest about cuts to their own councillors, it’s not looking good for the rest of us.
Perhaps that strategy worked last night – with only 15 people witnessing the fateful decision to lop £63m off the budget, and not a word of dissent. But as the cuts bite, and people find services are more expensive (parking charges, allotments) or vanish altogether (one o’clock clubs), can Greenwich Council really carry on getting away with it?
A newspaper journalist I chatted to took a camera along specially. I hid a little video camera just in case. But in the end, Greenwich Council cut £63m from its budget – said to be 30% of its outgoings – without a murmur of protest at Woolwich Town Hall on Wednesday night. In fact, when the fateful decision was made, just before 9pm, only 15 people were in the public gallery to see both Labour and Conservative councillors unite to back the cuts, without any dissent. Take away journalists/bloggers and local party activists, and that drops to single figures.
Granted, there was a group of 30 trade unionists outside the town hall’s front entrance – led by Socialist Party activist Onay Kasab – handing out leaflets compelling Labour councillors not to implement the government’s cuts (some went through a side door to avoid them). But that was it as protest went.
A long line of barriers was laid out in Wellington Street in anticipation of a big demonstration, but there were no banners, no chanting, and none of the protesters even entered the public gallery. No police (at least at 6.30pm) to keep an eye on them, either. I got in without bother, although I’m told council staff were on the door asking people if they represented the press, and discouraging others from entering the meeting.
So what happened inside? The blame game was definitely being played, but it wasn’t the all-out barney I expected. In fact, that came later, in a debate largely about council procedure which seemed to go on forever.
A couple of the speeches were even, well, good. Council leader Chris Roberts was asked earlier in the evening if he’d approve of citizen journalists filming or recording council meetings. He fudged the question, but actually if someone was recording his speech moving the budget motion, he might be pleasantly surprised with the response. He listed the council’s achievements over the past decade (that he has been in charge for), saying presenting budgets had been a “privilege”. “Tonight, we face a different proposition,” he said, saying the cuts were a result of a “crisis created by the private sector, but contained by the public sector”.
But this one, he said, was a “ticking timebomb”, with coalition government cuts – particularly in housing benefit in west and central London – threatening to put huge pressure on Greenwich’s finances. Eliminating bankers’ bonuses would have protected local councils from cuts, and for those worried about allotment charges, parking charges, and the Maryon Wilson Park animal park (which, incidentally, he said he was confident a solution could found for), he said the council needed to prioritise services for the elderly and for at-risk children. “There is a perspective which drives us on this side of the chamber,” he said.
There was a curious response later from Labour backbencher Don Austen, who hailed Roberts’ speech as one of the best he’d heard in 25 years on the council, and enthused about how Greenwich Labour had seen off the SDP and the Liberal Democrats, and the same fate would hit the latter party nationally. Which was odd, because he entered the council 25 years ago as a councillor for the SDP/Liberal Alliance.
Conservative leader Spencer Drury said his group largely supported the cuts, and anything else was “quibbling around the edges”. He called for Cleansweep – whose budget is being increased by £1m – to be put out to tender because it was “incapable of doing the job within budget”, but Labour’s Maureen O’Mara said it was because of increased visitor numbers to the borough, now approaching seven million. (I wonder if that’ll mean my Charlton backstreets will see the business end of a broom more than once a week?)
After Tory councillors Adam Thomas and Matt Clare blamed the last Labour government, their party’s deputy leader Nigel Fletcher – who’s just published a book called How To Be In Opposition inspired by his time as an aide to senior Tories – mused that “the blame game doesn’t go down well with residents”. He reminded councillors that he had spent 15 hours seeing the “human face of budget reductions” – the voluntary groups who are competing for a far smaller slice of council funds. They were the true “big society”, he added – “voluntary groups who give up their free time to support other people”.
All of which brought about an amazingly ungracious response from Labour’s Danny Thorpe, who spat out that Fletcher’s next book “should be called Fantasy Land”. Thorpe, whose best known contribution to Greenwich Council was spending a great chunk of his time as a councillor living in Australia, also commented that communities secretary Eric Pickles, whose cuts these are, knew nothing about local government.
He could have learned lessons in dignity from his Labour colleague David Grant, who said the budget was the best possible under the circumstances, but also managed to slip in a dig at Lewisham Council too. Referring to outsourcing public services, he implied Lewisham had allowed the festival on Blackheath because it has hived off management of its parks – including its side of the heath – to contractor Glendale, which stands to gain financially if the event goes ahead.
But with no dissent, and just two parties in the chamber, the cuts package went through with a shrug. Indeed, with all the cutbacks on the agenda, there were only two questions from the public on the order paper – both from former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood, still monitoring events for his party despite losing his seat last May.
There’s more to report, but it’s late and the cuts are the main thing, especially as they’re causing such rows elsewhere. Maybe the council leadership’s strategy to keep details of the cuts as vague as possible worked – or maybe nobody really genuinely cares. Cuts night didn’t turn out to be a nightmare on Wellington Street in the end – but Greenwich may well have sleepwalked into some very troubled times indeed.
A quick clarification: This cuts for this financial year are worth £48.6m. The whole package, until 2015, is worth £63m, and it was the budget report including this as well as this year’s cuts which was endorsed by the council last night. Londonist is following the capital-wide picture.