Proposals by Greenwich Council’s Conservatives to cancel 2017’s return of the tall ships were thrown out last night as councillors passed the borough’s annual budget.
There was very little detail to last night’s budget – much of it had been decided last year as part of a plan to freeze council tax for two years – and so Greenwich avoided the anti-cuts protests that hit Lewisham and Lambeth councils.
But the Tories had suggested scrapping the return of the Tall Ships Race in 2017 – said to cost the council £1.7million – to spend the money on a “welfare assistance plus” scheme instead, to help residents in need.
It was a clear attempt to attack Labour from the left – but councillors from the ruling party insisted the tall ships event was money well spent, as it provided a boost to the borough’s businesses.
Here’s some video of the debate. The sound’s a bit iffy, but I hope it’s useful. Want to read along? It’s point 11 of the agenda.
It kicks off with council leader Denise Hyland introducing the budget. This isn’t massively interesting (not her fault, it never is) but it’s here so you have as much of the debate as possible.
Then things start to liven up as Conservative leader Spencer Drury responds, and introduces the Tories’ amendment that would scrap the tall ships and fund Lewisham-style local assemblies (although the Tories only planned to have four of these).
Deputy leader John Fahy wasn’t impressed and laid into the Tories’ national record.
Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe, who’s after Fahy’s job, competed with the deputy leader for who could criticise the Tories the most.
Then Charlton councillor Gary Parker addressed the Tories’ motion itself, criticising plans to axe funding for trade union representatives. Health cabinet member David Gardner said the council’s existing policies would help people in “desperate need”, compared Greenwich with Tory Bexley (this happens fairly regularly), and said the £1.7m tall ships funding had already been spent (a claim disputed by Spencer Drury).
Environment cabinet member Jackie Smith and Labour backbencher Aidan Smith piled into the Tories. “If you really care about the poor,” asked Aidan, “why don’t you publicly condemn the bedroom tax?”
For the Tories, Matt Hartley said he was offering “constructive suggestions” and complained about the response, channelling Neil Kinnock.
“And they call us the nasty party? How on earth can Labour councillors – Labour councillors – prioritise spending £1.7 million on the tall ships over extra help for the people most in need in this borough.”
Labour leader Denise Hyland was unimpressed. “It’s no good shakng your head… you want to pretend you are the nice party. My God.
“It is the most vulnerable people, people who need that spare room – for the partner to get a good night’s rest, or for children, or they have noisy equipment – those people come to our surgeries and tell us they need a spare room, despite your party’s bedroom tax.”
Labour’s version of the budget was passed, with the Tories abstaining.
Otherwise, it was pretty uneventful – councillors amused themselves afterwards by spending a whole hour on a motion criticising the Tories, providing a cue for non-masochists to retire to the pub. So much now seems to come down to Tories complaining about Greenwich Time, and Labour members laughing at them.
But here’s Denise Hyland saying she knows nothing about any councillor resigning so there can be a by-election on general election day (Matt Hartley is asking because Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook is his rival in Greenwich & Woolwich). (This is a repeat of a question asked last month.)
Here’s Denise Hyland talking about plans to step up “community engagement” – and why they’re not being shared with Tory leader Spencer Drury, who’ll have to read about them first in Greenwich Time.
Here’s Spencer Drury asking about the future of Greenwich Time…
…and Geoff Brighty asking about impartiality and Greenwich Time during the election.
At one point in the meeting, cabinet member Miranda Williams was waving a copy of Greenwich Time about to make a point about libraries. So kudos to John Fahy, who had a copy of a real local newspaper on his desk.
5.15pm update: Buried in a written answer (question eight) – Greenwich will start webcasting meetings later this year. “The introduction of webcasting for some Council meetings later this year will enable even more residents to engage with Council decision making,” Denise Hyland says.
Chris Roberts’ departure from Greenwich Council had been rumoured on and off for some time – but that’s what happens when you’ve been in charge of something for ages. But even then, when the news broke yesterday that the council leader would step down at next year’s election, it still came as a surprise to many.
But he can look back on a job that’s been pretty much completed – with the one big exception, as he acknowledged himself, of funding the Crossrail station in Woolwich, which is key to his efforts to revive the town centre. From the establishment of the council’s own jobs agency to delivering a chunk of the London Olympics, through to freezing council tax and bludgeoning through development masterplans that’ll last into the next decade, the big jobs are pretty much done.
He’s also had the council dancing to his tune for over a decade – and don’t councillors and officers know it. It’s possible Roberts’ departure will also see close ally and chief executive Mary Ney also step down, paving the way for wholesale change at a council’s that resistant to just that. Some of the councillors that have benefited under his rule may also be looking at their own futures.
Suddenly, the disenchanted and disillusioned have reason to look up.
But who would take over? A new leader would have to win a vote of Labour councillors after 2014’s election, so the change starts with rank and file members; who’ll begin to choose candidates later this year. Which ones they pick will be key to who becomes leader – will they pick time-servers, happy to collect the cash to do a leader’s bidding; or will they go for new faces with new ideas?
Unlike other London Labour councils, there’s a shortage of younger faces on the council – under Roberts, some promising councillors pitched in, then became sick of it all and packed it in. So the pickings for successors are fairly slim.
If you had to ask me to pick a new leader, I’d plump for Jackie Smith. Known as someone that can deal with both the Roberts old guard and the “awkward squad” who occasionally say no to him, she knows the council well – her husband is former leader and current London Assembly member Len Duvall. But there are other names – those who could run, or those who could be king- or queen-makers, but I’m not sure anyone else will want to have their ambitions jinxed by being talked up here. And it’s very early days yet.
But whoever does take over will have a lot of work to do – and a lot of bridges to build. There’s a yawning gap between the council and the public it serves. How to fix things? Here’s some thoughts.
1. Consider changing the way the council is run. The mayoral system works well in Lewisham, where Sir Steve Bullock has been the face of the council for a decade. Chris Roberts has been able to hide behind cabinet members (see Bridge The Gap) and council officers – there’s no such protection for Sir Steve. Are we ready for a Mayor of Royal Greenwich?
2. Open up the council. Make an effort to get the public involved in meetings. Use the council website and Greenwich Time to solicit contributions from the public – the London Assembly does a really good job of this. Why can’t council scrutiny panels?
3. Junk that bloody website and start again. Greenwich Council’s website is infuriatingly bad – it’s almost as if things are being deliberately hidden. Here’s my favourite page – the always-empty document library. It needs sorting out.
4. What to do about Greenwich Time? A council publishing a regular journal of information isn’t a bad thing. Publishing a propaganda weekly probably is, though. Should a new leader start to rebuild bridges with the local media, and explore other ways of reaching out to people?
5. Get local. Lewisham’s local assemblies can spend small sums on improving their local areas. Camden has ward meetings. Southwark has community councils – and takes its council meetings out on the road. Greenwich, however, remains centralised and distant. It’s a great opportunity for change.
6. Bin the “royal borough”. We’re officially a royal borough now, and that won’t change, but going on and on about it makes the council look ridiculous. Ceasing endless references to “the royal borough” would be a good first step and an indication of a new direction.
7. Start talking to the neighbours again. Work on some ideas with other SE London boroughs. Southwark Council wants a Bakerloo Line extension to Peckham. Why not team up with Lewisham and put in a bid to extend it even further?
8. Stop obsessing exclusively with big projects, and look at small businesses. Lewisham bid for government money to boost Sydenham and Forest Hill as pat of the “Portas project”, while Catford’s had money from the mayor’s Outer London Fund. Further out of town, Dartford’s got some Portas cash. Greenwich seems to be relying solely on a mega-Tesco in Woolwich to solve all its ills, while neglecting to pay attention to smaller shops and smaller shopping areas which could do with some help. If that’s not the case, it needs to change people’s views – and quickly.
Any more suggestions? What should a new leader do to reconnect the council with the people of Greenwich borough? Feel free to add suggestions below.