We’ve been here before, and I make no apology for raising it again. As this website’s long-suffering readers will be aware, Greenwich Council embarrassed its residents in 2010 by withdrawing funding from the long-running Blackheath fireworks display, claiming it couldn’t afford it because of Conservative government cuts. Greenwich and Lewisham used to fund the display jointly, then Greenwich left its neighbour in the lurch.
However, while Lewisham Council has struggled to raise the money to keep the display going, Greenwich has been freely spending on its own events – fireworks to mark becoming a royal borough, fireworks to impress Tall Ships Race chiefs, private mayoral inauguration ceremonies (at £20,000 a pop), and last year, a £17,000 Hollywood-themed parade to publicise the forthcoming cinema in Eltham.
A couple of years back, Greenwich started paying £10,000 towards the £87,000 display. Last year, it refused to increase that sum, despite pleas from Lewisham.
It’s created a lot of bad feeling, even at the highest levels in Lewisham Council.
When the general election was called, and help was needed to save Clive Efford’s seat in Eltham, Lewisham Labour could have told their colleagues in Greenwich to get stuffed, and gone to help colleagues in Bermondsey and Croydon instead.
But they didn’t. They crossed the border in force, marching past Leegate and into their neighbouring borough to help keep Eltham a Labour seat. And they won – handsomely.
How to pay them back? It should be a no-brainer. As Labour activists will have realised in the past few weeks, us south-east Londoners are better and stronger united rather than divided by boundary lines. It’s time for Greenwich Council to finally right a wrong committed in the bad old days of Chris Roberts – and pay its fair share towards Blackheath fireworks again.
So the 2017 Tall Ships Regatta is over and the vessels are sailing off to the North Sea. How was it for you? It all seems to have gone well from the little I saw – you may be able to say more.
If you pay council tax in Greenwich borough, you’ve a direct interest in whether or not it was a success – it costs the council £2 million. They’ll have to have shifted a lot of £5 programmes to make that back. Local Tories have long grumbled that the event should be making money and it should be more heavily sponsored. Indeed, the list of sponsors did look like a roll-call of usual suspects – the developers and hotel firms that benefit from “brand Royal Greenwich”. You could have had your firm’s name all over the riverside walk for £19,000 plus VAT.
But for the council leadership this is an investment in local businesses – a good old-fashioned Labour intervention in the economy, like building a cinema in Eltham. (This argument never stretches to Blackheath fireworks, mind.)
The trouble with this kind of one-off event is that it’s hard to quantify any benefit. There’ll no doubt be a report within a few weeks that indicates the local economy benefitted by squillions, so there’ll be lots of back-slapping. Whether or not this is really the case will be harder to tell. That said, it certainly reinforces Greenwich’s position as one of the very few real tourist draws outside central London.
But it’s also meant to draw people to Woolwich, too. And this is a more difficult sell. Indeed, local business there weren’t impressed with 2014’s event, something this website reported on last year.
Essentially, because it takes place on the riverside, it benefits the businesses in Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development, and does nothing for those in the traditional town centre. A few plans were set out to fix this, including “a joined up event management plan that links the main town centre with the Arsenal Riverside Festival site”, “integrated way finding and high street dressing to link the town centre to the Arsenal Festival site”, and “animation of Beresford Square, Powis St and General Gordon Square”.
A draft business engagement report suggested the council should “host (non-competing) stalls and attractions in General Gordon Square and Powis Street to encourage footfall and dwell time in the main town centre”.
Except that there was – as far as I could tell – nothing outside the Royal Arsenal. I had a quick look in Woolwich on Saturday and – a few bits of bunting aside – it seemed to be a normal day. Nothing happening in General Gordon Square or Beresford Square, just the odd performer in fancy dress avoiding the costly food and drink in the Arsenal. General Gordon Square, with its big screen (pictured above on Saturday), was its usual mildly depressing self.
Instead, all the effort seemed to have gone into social media. Here, cabinet member Sizwe James pleads with us that if we visit the Earl of Chatham pub, his captors will set him free.
Woolwich being a hub for tall ships could be a brilliant thing – but the benefit seems to be flowing towards one particular developer rather than the town as a whole.
Now, I may have missed something – and if you saw a choir of Jack Russells performing sea shanties in front of the big screen, please use the comments box below – but by neglecting the traditional town centre again, I can’t help thinking the council has unwittingly made the divide between Woolwich town centre and the Royal Arsenal that little bit wider.
Anyway, the best place to watch Easter Sunday’s Parade of Sail wasn’t Greenwich, it wasn’t Woolwich, it was the Thames Barrier. If the tall ships return – and I’m sure they will – make a note for next time.
11pm update: Greenwich Council deputy leader Danny Thorpe says “loads happened” in Woolwich town centre “and all over the borough”. I’ve added an image of the report which made recommendations for Woolwich.
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.
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.
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?
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.
There was another council meeting this week, but the system was broken. So we’ll never see what this was about.
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.
Greenwich borough is all set to get a new weekly newspaper after Greenwich Council agreed to sign an advertising deal with the publisher of the weekly Southwark News.
Councils must, by law, publish certain public notices – such as for planning and highways matters – in at least one local newspaper.
Until 2016, Greenwich had used this as a pretext for publishing its own weekly paper, Greenwich Time. It closed last summer after an out-of-court settlement following a government crackdown on “council Pravdas”.
Since then, Greenwich has been publishing some of its notices in the Penge-based Mercury newspaper, a free offshoot of the South London Press series; while placing its vanity stuff… sorry, vital public information in a dull fortnightly called Greenwich Info.
But now Greenwich, after a lengthy tender process, has opted to take its ad money to a new entrant to the area, Southwark Newspaper Ltd. The contract could be worth up to £1.2m over three years. (For its part, the council claims the equivalent cost of Greenwich Time would only be £738,000, but this doesn’t take into account the cost of in-house advertising, while local organisations were strongly encouraged to place ads in GT rather than other publications.)
The firm is best known for Southwark News, the only independent paid-for newspaper in the capital, which contains Southwark Council’s public notices. It’s a very good paper and has an excellent reputation. There’s also a free spin-off, Southwark Weekender, which focuses on events in the borough.
It also publishes Lambeth Weekender, which features Lambeth Council’s notices as well as a rotating opinion column between the three parties represented at the town hall – Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens.
Greenwich’s choice to give the contract to Southwark Newspaper Ltd was ratified by a scrutiny panel last week after the borough’s Conservatives “called in” the decision. (I asked the Tories why, but they never got back to me. You’ll have to ask them yourself.)
Is the Greenwich Weekender coming?
Whether this means we’re in line for Greenwich Weekender isn’t clear. Hopefully, the council will keep its mitts off. Whether it has “Royal” in the title might be a clue. Greenwich wants its ads “published… in the context of engaging local editorial content which helps to positively inform local residents about the measures that their neighbours and local service providers are undertaking to make the borough a great place to live, work, learn and visit”. No moaning about dirty streets or pollution or Plumstead High Street falling to bits, y’hear? LOOK AT THE TALL SHIPS!
In practice, sticking council ads in a pan-south London “what’s on”-style publication with a couple of pages of council editorial will tick that box nicely. This is pretty much how Lambeth Weekender started.
Since the council’s latest Big Idea is creating a “cultural quarter” in Berkeley Homes’s Royal Arsenal development in Woolwich, this could actually work well for all sides. We get an interesting local weekly, the council gets its ads and some puff pieces, a south London business gets money and can employ more people.
Don’t expect to get a copy through your letterbox, though – no bidder was willing to fulfil the council’s demand that 95% of households got a paper, which was the alleged distribution of Greenwich Time. Now fewer than one in three households will get a paper, although 8,500 will be made available at 80 pick-up points across the borough. Hopefully this will include dump bins in public places rather than the usual council network.
Fingers crossed that the Southwark team can pull it off. While money from public notices represents a subsidy that can be open to abuse (and has been for many, many years), it is good to see the cash going to a reputable independent publisher, based reasonably near the borough, rather than the media groups that have steadily starved the existing local titles. So good luck to them.
There is one fly in the ointment – since Greenwich made its initial decision, Lambeth has decided to switch its public notice contract away from Lambeth Weekender and back to the South London Press, swallowing concerns about ads for sexual services in the SLP. Whether that loss of income upsets the plan remains to be seen.
The distant Mercury
This is bad news for the Mercury, once the area’s main local paper, but long reduced to being a free offshoot of the South London Press. Despite the efforts of the paper’s one remaining reporter/editor, resources have been slashed to the bone and beyond in recent years.
The paper was recently sold to its management and was given a revamp, with the council ad contract seen as a lifeline.
Indeed, a second bidder had been rejected by the council after due diligence found it presented an “unacceptable risk to the council”.
It is not known who the second bidder was. It may not even have been the Mercury/SLP.
An amateurish effort at a local paper – Greenwich Gazette – briefly appeared and then disappeared during the council tender process (but not before lifting copy from this website about Blackheath fireworks). The Gazette did not carry any details of any publisher, but it appears to have been linked to a design and PR business based in west Greenwich for which only limited financial information is available.
Hopefully not having to worry about council ad money will make the Mercury a bit more fearless. Even if few people ever see a copy because the distribution is terrible.
The stumbling Shopper – and a BBC bailout
Tough times continue at the News Shopper too, which is now produced from Sutton and is effectively the same newspaper as the South London Guardian/Surrey Comet series, making it some kind of quasi-regional freesheet. Recent editions available in Greenwich have featured news from Biggin Hill, Crayford and even Enfield.
Cutbacks have also led to cock-ups like this – the Surrey Comet (which covers Kingston) effectively getting a News Shopper letters page.
Publisher Newsquest has been bleeding its titles dry across the UK – recently slashing jobs at a production hub in south Wales after collecting £340,000 in Welsh government subsidies.
There’s more bailout money for the asset-strippers on offer from the BBC, and we’ll soon see the results of that in south-east London. The Beeb is setting up a Local Democracy Reporters Scheme, which will see reporters based at local news organisations start to cover local council meetings, like the old days. Except the BBC will be funding them, and the results will be available to the news barons who cut council coverage in the first place, like Newsquest.
One reporter will cover Greenwich, Bexley and Bromley; another has the enormous task of covering Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth. I can’t see it working very well. If you’ve read this far and you’re interested, here’s why the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme, as it stands, is a terrible idea.
Former Eltham North councillor Dermot Poston, who was first elected to Woolwich Town Hall in 1968, has died, his colleague Spencer Drury announced on Friday.
A former teacher at Haberdasher’s Askes Hatcham Boys’ School in New Cross, Poston was a stalwart of the local Conservatives, and clocked up 40 years’ service in the town hall.
His first win – in the former Horn Park ward – came in highly unusual circumstances, when the Conservatives won a landslide on Greenwich Council.
Most of London’s boroughs went Tory that night, but it wasn’t to last and he lost his seat – and the Tories lost power, never to return, at the 1971 poll.
He returned again in New Eltham in 1974, serving until 1990, before returning in a by-election at Eltham Park in 1993. He stayed on until 2014 as that seat was incorporated into Eltham North.
One of the things that looking at council meetings can do is to break your political prejudices; you can find yourself looking forward to hearing contributions by representatives whose national parties you simply can’t abide.
So it was for me with Dermot Poston, who was as likely to take the mickey out of himself as he was to lambast the council’s policies. On one occasion he had the council chamber in stitches by recalling his days as a roller-skater – something you could never imagine this dignified gentleman doing. In a council chamber dominated by spite and petty digs, Poston would tackle opponents hard, but fairly.
He was an astute critic of former leader Chris Roberts and, as an opposition councillor, was able to speak freely on an increasingly politicised planning board – coming out against the Ikea development in Greenwich, a position which saw him accused of “playing to the gallery” by Roberts; even though most of his Eltham constituents would probably back it.
A glance at 1968’s clippings from the South East London Mercury (as was) and the long-defunct Kentish Independent show little of Poston – he was one of a number of people no doubt slightly surprised to find themselves on the council and running it.
But there are lots to show what a different place Greenwich borough was at that point in time – Thamesmead’s first residents were just moving in, the riverside industries were still clinging on, and the A102 was under construction. Indeed, Greenwich borough itself had only just been created out of the old metropolitan boroughs.
Around the time of his retirement, I had thought about contacting him for an interview, to find out what it was like to have been that rarest of creatures – a Tory who could remember being on the winning side in Greenwich – and his thoughts on how politics, his party, and the role of being a councillor had changed over the years. I never got around to doing it, which is something I regret.
In Greenwich, watching council meetings can be as depressing as it can be enlightening – while you will sometimes learn new things about the area you live in, you are just as likely to come away feeling cheapened having been exposed to a intensive dose of arrogance, ignorance and rudeness.
In the time I watched him on the council, you never got that with Dermot Poston, who treated the sometimes dull, sometimes bitter business of the town hall with dignity and wit. Hopefully there will be some way of commemorating his contribution – even if it is just councillors treating each other – and the public who pay their allowances – with a little more respect. He’ll be much missed in local public life, and my condolences go to his family, friends and colleagues.
Clippings above from the South East London Mercury (top and bottom) and Kentish Independent (centre) from May 1968, courtesy of Greenwich Heritage Centre.
Matthew Norwell, Greenwich’s director of community services, left before Christmas “by mutual agreement”, the council has confirmed.
Councillors were frustrated at the failure of his department to respond to mounting complaints about filthy streets, with some streets still covered in autumn leaves in January.
Mr Norwell, who earned £140,000 a year, also resigned his directorships at two council companies – GS Plus and Greenwich Service Solutions – on 13 December.
A council spokesperson told 853: “Matthew Norwell left the Council by mutual agreement before Christmas. We would like to wish him well with his future endeavours.”Local councillors had faced the brunt of anger from residents at the deteriorating state of their streets, particularly in Plumstead and Charlton, with the service sharply criticised at a scrutiny meeting in November.
There is no recording of this meeting available, but minutes state: “There was a general perception amongst the Panel that some areas of the borough received an inferior street cleansing service in comparison to others.
“Those Members of the Panel who represented wards in the Woolwich and Plumstead areas had received numerous complaints from residents and were finding it increasingly difficult to defend the perceived lack of street cleansing in these areas.”
The minutes also record Greenwich environment cabinet member Jackie Smith saying “a discussion needed to be had” about the level of resources put into the service, with just £29 per resident spent on keeping the borough clean – much less than neighbouring Lewisham or Southwark.
However, despite the historic underfunding of the service and the failure of her department, Smith decided to blame the Conservative Party when questioned at a council meeting in December.
In Plumstead, Smith insisted Plumstead High Street – the focus of many residents’ complaints – had been given a “deep clean” by council staff during the summer, even though it appears that the clean failed to have any effect.
And in Charlton, residents complained of streets covered in leaves for months on end, with sweeping – when it was carried out – seemingly carried out on an arbitrary basis, and often half-completed.
While government cutbacks are unhelpful, the council’s previous underfunding of the service left it vulnerable to failings.
The council has stepped up its act by signing up to a customised version of the FixMyStreet app, which works across many UK authorities.
But while FixMyStreet allows the council to see where there are litter and flytipping hotspots, its response to them still seems to be influenced by lobbying rather than data, with areas of Charlton being ignored despite the introduction of a “taskforce” to fix street issues.
Town hall insiders say Norwell’s department had struggled after taking on responsibility for council housing in a reorganisation designed to slim down the number of senior management posts.
While Greenwich Council has traditionally resisted suggestions that it spin off its housing stock into an arms-length company, preferring to keep direct control and hold rents down, critics say this has left much of the borough’s council housing stock in a poor state.
Norwell’s successor will take charge of a department with a huge remit – from licensing and trading standards to parks, sport and leisure and the council’s mortuary.
Whoever takes over will need to deal with the legacies of past underfunding as well as government cuts. For the sake of the whole borough – because living in an area that looks like a dump has an effect on us all, frankly – hopefully they will have the skills to turn it around.
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”.
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
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.
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’
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.
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).
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
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
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
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?