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!
Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, has only weeks left to live – but the council’s communications empire is actually expanding by taking on work for another London borough.
GT will close in its current format next month after an out-of-court settlement with the Government, which has outlawed “town hall Pravdas”.
But, weeks before the end, Greenwich Time’s advertising team has started selling ad space in Hackney Council’s fortnightly paper, Hackney Today.
The names of GT’s highly-regarded ad team, Nicola McGuire and Gaynor Granger, appear as advertising contacts in recent editions of the east London council’s paper.
Independent local paper Hackney Citizen reports that this is a “temporary arrangement” while Hackney looks for a new ad sales person for its fortnightly paper, with Greenwich receiving a cut of the revenue.
Greenwich’s insistence on publishing Greenwich Time weekly saw it become an early target for former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles’ war on such papers, which can now only be published four times a year. The only other council weekly in England, Tower Hamlets’ East End Life, closed this week.
Hackney is one of a band of councils who continue to defy the law by publishing fortnightly, and have been threatened with action by chancellor George Osborne, who recently allowed local newspaper premises to allow for business rate relief in an attempt to boost the sector.
It’s not thought any premises in Greenwich borough will qualify (neither Lewisham nor Bexley have any local newspaper premises either) and with Greenwich Council still active in seeking advertising for council publications – and strongly encouraging partner organisations not to place ads with rivals – any new entrant will still find life difficult.
As for Greenwich Time, it remains stubbornly wedded to the agenda of council reputation management over information, with the current edition even ignoring the sinkhole that appeared in Charlton last week, along with printing an out-of-date “what’s on” guide. With some residents not getting the paper until Friday, five days after publication, much of what’s inside is old news by the time it limps onto doormats.
The council leadership is keeping its cards close to its chest on plans for the future. For all the Tories’ bluster over council papers, it took several years to kill off weekly town hall papers and it will no doubt be looking to push the out of court settlement to the letter.
The settlement says the council can publish “regular and frequent communications to those residents who choose to receive such information by whatever medium they they decide (eg, paper or electronic) providing it does not have the appearance of a newspaper, newsletter or similar publication”.
Neighbouring Lewisham has published a weekly email for some years (you can subscribe here and have a chance of winning a trip to Diggerland, the inspiration for the Lewisham Gateway scheme) supported by quarterly magazine Lewisham Life. A tie-up with Greenwich Leisure Limited, the not-for-profit group that runs leisure centres and libraries, has also long been mooted.
Another option is a tie-up with an existing local paper. The Mercury’s publishers have long been keen on recapturing the council’s advertising budget, lost many years ago.
The Mercury was recently bought from octogenarian local news baron Ray Tindle by its South London Press management, quietly reversing his eccentric policy of publishing “hyperlocal” editions for certain areas of Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs and more recently giving the ailing paper a much-needed redesign.
The Greenwich edition of the Streatham-based paper now carries the words “Royal Borough of Greenwich” above the masthead, while it also recently featured a worthy “get fit and stay healthy with Royal Greenwich” supplement – also inflicted on Lewisham readers – no doubt intended as a demonstration of what it could do. This week’s edition features a similar supplement, “Let’s do business in Royal Greenwich”.
Whether this will lead to a tie-up between the council and the Mercury remains to be seen. Greenwich residents will find out by the end of June. But for now, Greenwich Time’s ad sales department doesn’t seem to be going away.
Greenwich Council has drafted in the UK’s former top civil servant to lead a commission to recommend policies to help it combat poverty in the borough.
Lord Kerslake, who as Sir Bob Kerslake was the head of the Home Civil Service for five years until 2015, will chair the Greenwich Fairness Commission, which will have “a particular focus on tackling child poverty and making Greenwich a fairer place for our residents”.
The council’s decision to launch the commission is an acknowledgement that developers’ investment in the area isn’t trickling down to those who need help – or in Woolwich’s case, across the A206. While unaffordable residential towers sprout up by the Thames, the council report announcing Kerslake’s appointment notes “a sharp increase over the past two years in the number of people presenting to the council as homeless”.
Five other London boroughs – Islington, Camden, Tower Hamlets, Croydon and Redbridge – have already set up commissions, making recommendations aimed at making sure disadvantaged residents have the best chance of improving their lives and getting out of poverty.
For example, Islington’s recommendations aimed to tackle issues such as childcare, literacy, poor health, use of community space, and public safety.
The appointment of Kerslake, who was also the permanent secretary to the Department of Communities and Local Government under Sir Eric Pickles, will no doubt be aimed at hushing grumbles from local Tories that the commission will simply be a stick to beat the government with. One council cabinet member – likely to be community wellbeing member Denise Scott-McDonald – is likely to sit on what is otherwise billed as an independent panel “drawn from the local private, voluntary and further/higher education sectors”.
That said, Kerslake is not an entirely disinterested party – these days, he is chair of Peabody, the housing association which is now redeveloping much of Thamesmead, on the borough’s eastern boundary.
The commission will hold four or five meetings to gather evidence and is expected to cost £20,000. It will report back to the council by the end of the year.
In a separate development, a vital stage in attempting to rejuvenate Woolwich’s fortunes has been reached, with Greenwich Council’s cabinet set to ratify a decision to sell the crumbling block containing Woolwich’s covered market to developers St Modwen and Notting Hill Housing Association to build 650 homes, a cinema and a new public square.
7pm update: A High Court judge today allowed the judicial review against Greenwich Council’s decision to proceed. Greenwich Council said it was “disappointed at the further delay“.
On Tuesday morning, a High Court judge will hear an application to hold a judicial review into Greenwich Council’s decision to allow the London City Cruise Port to be built at Enderby Wharf, east Greenwich. The hearing begins at 10.30am in Court 19 at the Royal Courts of Justice.
Local residents 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.
A similar issue has happened in Sydney, where a cruise liner terminal that opened three years ago is being blamed for rocketing pollution levels in the district of Balmain. Just as in Greenwich, the operators of the White Bay cruise liner terminal say it will be too expensive to switch to “shore side” power.
A resident of Balmain has sent this message to the people of east Greenwich about what it’s like to live in the shadow of a polluting cruise liner terminal.
I live 100 metres from a cruise ship terminal in inner Sydney. Residents had no say in the development and were told the same myth as you regarding shore power.
The cruise ships cannot comply with their noise approval conditions with many of the measuring over 70dB.
We have begged for shore power for 3 years now. When there is a ship berthed out front we can’t open our doors and windows because of the particle matter. In February there was a ship berthed here nearly every day and night. No one could open doors or windows in the hottest summer Sydney has had to date.
We were told we could expect 60-70 ships a year with no overnight stays. Last year there were nearly 160 ships with approximately 12 overnight stays. The overnight stays are a nightmare because of the engine noise and light spillage.
The PA announcements often go all day and they are extremely loud & intrusive. There have been many hundreds of complaints made about this terminal.
After 3 years nothing has been complied with or resolved despite a Senate inquiry saying it should never have been installed here. The inquiry recommended shore power and immediate noise mitigation. That was over a year ago.
The inquiry validated all of the residents’ health concerns. The stench of bunker fuel and the thick black smoke coming from these old ships is appalling. Residents have grave concerns for their health. Interestingly the oldest an dirtiest and noisiest ships are fitted out for shore power.
The real truth about shore power appears to be that the cruise lines do not want to spend the money on retrofitting their fleet for shore power.
Residents near the White Bay terminal have started their own campaign: Stop Cruise Ship Pollution.
Labour’s mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan has backed campaigners who are taking Greenwich Council to court over the planned Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal.
Khan has issued a statement of support backing the East Greenwich Residents’ Association, which is crowdfunding a legal action against the council’s decision to allow the terminal to permit ships to use their own generators when berthed for an extended period of time – emitting hundreds of heavy lorries’ worth of pollution each day.
Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland – the only borough leader in London who regularly sits on their own planning committee – backed the scheme after she said she couldn’t “see” any pollution while visiting Southampton’s liner terminal with an executive from its developer, London City Cruise Port. Air pollution is normally invisible. Greenwich’s decision was later ratified by Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor, Sir Edward Lister.
EGRA wants to see the terminal use power generated on-shore, with many residents suggesting London Underground’s Greenwich power station on Old Woolwich Road could be used.
Khan, the bookies’ favourite to succeed Boris Johnson next month, said in a statement issued on Saturday: “I praise the dogged campaigning of the East Greenwich Residents Association who are right to be fighting for cleaner air. Too many lives in London are blighted by filthy, polluted air and we should be doing more to clean it up, not make it worse as the proposal at Enderby Wharf risks doing.
“I support bringing everyone involved back to the drawing board to discuss how a clean solution to this can be found involving an onshore energy supply, and as Mayor I’ll do all I can to help this.”
EGRA also secured the backing of Conservative contender Zac Goldsmith at a meeting earlier this month, and have also been backed by Green candidate Sian Berry and Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon – increasing the chances that Boris Johnson’s successor will take steps to make sure the terminal uses onshore power.
The crowdfunding campaign – which has so far raised over £11,000 – is to bring a judicial review of Greenwich’s decision to approve the terminal in September 2015. There will be an initial hearing in front of a judge on 19 April.
An earlier version of the scheme, which did not involve ships effectively being used as floating hotels for extended stays at the terminal, was backed by the council in 2011. Hyland was insistent that objectors should have made their case back then, despite the major changes to the scheme.
Khan’s intervention will be deeply embarrassing for a Greenwich Council leadership that has been ambivalent at best about the effects of air pollution on the community, and that has tried to paint criticism of the cruise liner scheme as being a political plot.
Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe has called criticism of the terminal “scaremongering” by the Green Party, even though the Labour MPs for both sides of the Thames, Matt Pennycook and Jim Fitzpatrick, have both made clear their unhappiness about Greenwich’s decision to back the scheme.
Indeed, given the cautiousness of Khan’s campaign for the mayoralty and his reluctance to criticise schemes backed by other Labour boroughs – such as Lambeth’s support of the deeply controversial Garden Bridge – his comments will be seen as all the more damning of Greenwich’s approach.
But they will also give strength to those Labour councillors – and other figures within the party – who want to see the council adopt a different attitude in its dealings with both developers and local residents.
Khan coughs on Silvertown Tunnel
Khan has also appeared to distance himself from the Silvertown Tunnel – another scheme backed by Greenwich’s leadership in the teeth of opposition from its Labour neighbours. He told industry publication Transport Network that while he wanted to see more road river crossings east of Tower Bridge, he was unhappy with the current proposal and wanted all current plans – which would also include plans for crossings at Thamesmead and Belvedere – to be reviewed.
“Plans as they stand for the Silvertown Tunnel do not fully take into consideration the importance of greener transport, and imposing a toll is in many people’s minds a tax on East and South East Londoners,” he said.
“We need a proper joined up review, looking at river crossings and improved public transport connections east of Tower Bridge, but in a strategic fashion, not piecemeal like the current mayor.”
Khan’s comments leave former environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith as the tunnel’s only outright supporter in the race for City Hall. At the very least, they reflect his need to win second-choice votes from supporters of Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon and the Green Party’s Sian Berry, who are both opposed to the scheme. The No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign is currently asking supporters to send the two leading mayoral candidates postcards telling them to oppose the plans.
Greenwich is the only affected borough to have continued backing the scheme, despite opposition from rank and file party members and many councillors.
You can contribute to the Enderby Wharf crowdfunding campaign at www.crowdjustice.co.uk/case/cruise-liner. Full disclosure: I’m a founder member of the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign.