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?
Next year’s Transatlantic Tall Ships Regatta in Greenwich and Woolwich has been hit by news that major engineering works will cancel most National Rail trains in the area that weekend, making it harder for visitors to attend the spectacle.
The event, which is costing Greenwich Council £2 million, will take place over Easter, from 13 to 16 April. It follows 2014’s Tall Ships Festival, which the council says brought 1.1 million visitors to the area, generating a claimed “£17 million of economic activity”.
Between 35 and 40 ships are due to be moored at two sites, in Greenwich and Woolwich, across the weekend. The ships will then sail across the Atlantic and back, with stops in Simes, Portugal; Bermuda; Boston; a to-be-confirmed Canadian port; Quebec; and Le Havre, France.
But visitors will find it much harder to reach the event as the National Rail line through Greenwich will be closed all weekend to accommodate Thameslink Programme rebuilding works at London Bridge station. There will be no service at Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Westcombe Park stations all weekend, with Charing Cross and Waterloo East closed on Good Friday and Easter Saturday.
According to a report to be presented to Greenwich Council’s overview and scrutiny committee next week, Southeastern is planning to run a miserly two direct trains per hour between Victoria or Charing Cross and Woolwich Arsenal, with an additional service running to and from New Cross, with passengers expected to change for central London trains at Lewisham.
One solution to provide an additional service to central London, which would avoid possible overcrowding at Lewisham station, could be to swap rail services around so the New Cross trains run in and out of Blackfriars instead. This happened during the early stages of the Thameslink Programme closures, but there is no sign that this is being considered.
Buses could also be hit if there is a need for road closures in Greenwich town centre to accommodate expected crowds – but a whole closure of the town centre, which happened in 2014, is being ruled out because of the effects of the cut in rail services.
The report says: “In order to accommodate the crowds expected at the event in Greenwich Town Centre, some temporary road closures may be required.
“Road closures will improve the festival ambience, encourage visitors to use the shops in the town centre, and improve pedestrian safety. The newly available space can be animated with performers and temporary stalls. The proposed closure… is still to be agreed internally and with TfL and other stakeholders.
“Subject to internal and external agreement, the likely road closure will resemble the arrangements made for the successful Greenwich Car Free Day with the addition of Welland Street closed to traffic to accommodate a queuing system for the Cutty Sark DLR station.”
Travellers are to be advised to use Docklands Light Railway services – which will run every five minutes to Greenwich and Woolwich Arsenal across the weekend – and Thames Clippers boats.
Conservative councillors tried to cancel the Tall Ships Regatta last year, saying the money should be used to help vulnerable residents and improve local engagement. Their budget amendment was thrown out after the council’s Labour leadership said the event would help boost businesses in the area.
While most said the event benefitted “Royal Greenwich” (it is not made clear whether this means Greenwich borough or Greenwich itself), 65% of businesses strongly disagreed that the Tall Ships Regatta was a good thing for Woolwich or Woolwich residents, adding that most of the benefits were felt within Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development rather than the town centre.
The report points out that Woolwich has fewer hospitality businesses than Greenwich, and outlines plans to better link the town centre with the Arsenal complex.
It adds 84% of businesses did not take on extra staff for the 2014 event.
Next year’s festival has also been sluggish at attracting tall ships trainees, who will sail with a ship on the first leg to Portugal. The council originally hoped to attract 179, but estimates have been scaled back after just 39 signed up. Greenwich taxpayers are due to pay for 30 trainees, at a total cost of £27,000, although 31 are paying their own costs.
The report also reveals £20,000 in sponsorship from the controversial London City Cruise Port at Enderby Wharf (whose impact on the environment is discussed in this Radio 4 documentary) and £12,500 from developer U+I, which last week announced major plans to develop part of the Woolwich/Charlton riverside. Intercontinental Hotels is donating a venue (costed at £30,000) for the Captain’s Party, while Charlton Athletic Football Club – currently in turmoil with its own supporters – is also offering The Valley (£1,500) for a crew party.
It also admits some staff working on the event may not get London Living Wage. “All contractors will be encouraged to pay staff working on the event London Living Wage or higher, although the nature of some business sectors, where staff may be sub-contracted, makes enforcing the payment of London Living Wage difficult or impossible,” it says.
Greenwich Council refused a request to increase its funding for Blackheath fireworks after spending £17,000 on a Mickey Mouse stunt to promote a new cinema in Eltham, it has emerged.
Lewisham Council is now turning to controversial minicab service Uber to help fund the £87,000 display after Greenwich rebuffed a plea to up its funding from just £10,000.
The event, which regularly attracts 100,000 spectators, used to be jointly funded between the two boroughs, who share responsibility for the heath.
Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of the funding in 2010, claiming it could not afford to pay for the display because of government cuts. This left Lewisham to shoulder the costs alone, appealing for sponsorship and public donations while trimming the length of the display.
Since then, Greenwich has partly relented, offering £10,000 towards the cost of last year’s £96,000 display. Lewisham managed to raise £48,000 in sponsorship and public donations, but was still saddled with a £38,000 shortfall.
Greenwich is paying the same for this year’s display, but after spending £17,000 on a press launch for a new cinema in Eltham featuring Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear characters. In May, it also blew £20,000 on an invite-only event to celebrate the borough’s new ceremonial mayor.
With public displays acknowledged as a key tool in keeping fireworks injuries down, Lewisham has been determined to keep the display going. This is despite the council coming under severe pressure from central government cuts and other changes to local authority funding.
The display also funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas within walking distance such as Lee Green, Deptford and Charlton – districts which straddle both boroughs.
Seven weeks to confirm funding
Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act and passed to this website reveal that Lewisham unsuccessfully asked Greenwich to increase its share of the funding.
On 5 August, Lewisham head of culture and community development Liz Dart wrote to Greenwich assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney, pointing out: “We are under pressure to try and bring our subsidy down so if there was any way you could consider an increase to the £10,000 that would be greatly appreciated.”
Some of the correspondence has been redacted, so it is unclear whether Delaney addressed the request directly.
But it took over seven weeks and a follow-up email from Kellie Blake, Lewisham’s community engagement manager, for Delaney to confirm on 26 September that Greenwich would repeat its £10,000 donation.
So despite the event taking place on an open space shared between the two boroughs – and the possibility that the fireworks may actually be launched from within Greenwich, as has happened in the past – Greenwich is just classed as a sponsor of the event.
To help make ends meet this year, Lewisham has accepted backing from Uber, which is offering £5 for every free ride taken by new customers who sign up with a code.
Uber has been criticised for paying just £22,000 in UK corporation tax, while the GMB union has taken it to court claiming it treats drivers unlawfully. The firm is also the subject of frequent protests from traditional black taxi drivers. Only today, concerns about Uber have been linked to an inquiry by MPs into the “gig economy”.
This year’s display is expected to cost £87,700. Other sources of funding include housing association L&Q (£7,000), parks management company Glendale (£5,000), with a further £3,000 hoped to come from other donors such as Uber and estate agency Hamptons.
Lewisham is hoping to raise £11,000 in public donations and make £15,700 in sales at bars and food stands, leaving it with a £36,000 subsidy.
A Mickey Mouse affair in Eltham
Earlier this month, Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland claimed finances were “down the bone”. But on 3 August, it found £17,000 for a stunt which featured Hollywood star lookalikes parading up and down Eltham High Street to promote its scheme to build a new cinema there.
The event on 3 August, which featured on little-watched local TV channel London Live, also appears in Eltham Labour publicity promoting MP Clive Efford.
Costs included £2,400 on 10 Disney and Marvel characters such as Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man, and £6,580 on 14 lookalikes, which included likenesses of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Will Smith and Daniel Craig.
The figures were obtained by Conservative councillor Spencer Drury, who wrote about them in a letter to the Mercury newspaper, asking why cinema operator Vue could not have funded the stunt, or the event could not have been held when the venue opens in autumn 2018.
The Mercury – which now carries Greenwich Council’s public notices following Greenwich Time’s closure – chose not to run Drury’s revelation as a story. Instead, it was buried on the letters page with a reply from council leader Denise Hyland.
She said: “Sometimes, even in times of austerity, it is important to design events for the community that bring people together to have fun and celebrate their local area with friends and neighbours.”
Like a fireworks display, perhaps.
Residents were invited to post selfies from the event on social media to win prizes. Only five people appear to have taken part on Twitter, with the same number appearing to participate on Instagram.
£20,000 on mayor’s party
Despite claiming to be too poor to fund Blackheath fireworks, Greenwich has also continued to spend £20,000 each year on a private event at the Royal Naval College to celebrate the inauguration of the borough’s ceremonial mayor.
This year’s invitees included Berkeley Homes chief John Anderson and Neil Smith, head of planning at Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon, according to documents released to this website under the Freedom of Information Act.
There had been some rumours that this year’s mayor, Olu Babatola, would ditch the event. But instead 400 guests saw a 40-strong choir perform while enjoying 90 bottles of wine as well as a menu including salmon goujons, tomato & goat’s cheese tart and crumbled spicy hake.
Most boroughs – including Lewisham – make do with much smaller events at their own town halls, with the public able to watch.
If Babatola did not cancel the event, then it’s unlikely his successor will – next year’s mayor is Peter Brooks, Chris Roberts’ former deputy, who cancelled the fireworks funding in 2010, claiming it would save “a job and a bit”.
Getting a fireworks display on the cheap
Greenwich’s parsimonious attitude to Blackheath fireworks has been a long-running embarrassment for many of the borough’s residents, who can see with their own eyes the benefits it brings to local businesses in both boroughs.
It remains one of the few remaining free displays in London, and funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas within walking distance such as Lee, Deptford and Charlton.
It’s not even as if Greenwich needs to increase its own funding directly – the council is proud of its close links with developers, and could surely tap up the likes of Berkeley Homes or Knight Dragon for a donation or sponsorship to help ease Lewisham’s burden.
But Greenwich’s lack of interest shows us the council leadership is still more concerned with promoting itself through stunts like the Eltham lookalike parade, or retreating into a world of self-congratulation in the Old Royal Naval College.
Unlike their colleagues across the border, Lewisham Labour has made protecting the display a key policy, and both councillors and staff there go to great efforts to keep it going.
But with elected mayor Sir Steve Bullock stepping down at the 2018 election, his successor – who will take charge of an increasingly cash-strapped council – may take a different view.
If Greenwich councillors – and the Labour members who pick them – want to see the Blackheath fireworks continue, they may need to change their attitude – and fast.
To donate to Blackheath fireworks, visit http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.
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!