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?
It’s been a big few days for Cllr John Fahy, de jure deputy leader of Greenwich Council and, when all is said and done, one of the few senior councillors on the Berkeley Homes Party’s benches who is open and approachable. For being open and approachable, he’s found himself the subject of constant investigations designed to throw him out of the party, and perhaps to hand his prized deputy role to a younger figure.
He’s one of the good guys – happy to goof around for a photocall, like this one for the ill-fated Dutch Olympic campsite planned for 2012 – and this website likes him for it. They don’t make many like that any more.
But such is his commitment to the Labour Party – the national political group led by Jeremy Corbyn that the ruling group in Greenwich still has some tenuous association to – that he has to contort himself into terrible positions to keep himself in his life’s work.
Take last week. Ex-council leader Chris Roberts, who oversaw a regime in Greenwich where councillors were routinely threatened and bullied, was given the freedom of the borough. Victims of Roberts’ wrath included Fahy, given a four-letter tirade by voicemail after he questioned the wisdom of holding a half-marathon that benefitted a charity the Dear Leader was involved in.
You can see the ceremony in the video below (from 1h 15m). After Roberts’ drinking pal Steve Offord proposed it, it was seconded by… John Fahy.
Roberts, of course, accepted along with praise for Berkeley Homes chief Tony Pidgeley and an apparent dig at his predecessor Len Duvall for apparently leaving council services in a state. Classy. It’s all in the video.
Of course, the trouble is with honouring a man who oversaw a regime of bullying and threats is that when you go and eulogise over mental health services a week later, it makes you look very silly indeed.
Until the end of last year, Fahy was also in charge of children’s services – education and a lot more – before he was quietly shunted out of his role without explanation. Cllr Fahy, an old-fashioned Labour man who abhors the Westminster Government’s plans to force schools to become academies, was replaced by Miranda Williams, whose political views are less pronounced. She duly wrote to schools ahead of the Budget suggesting they all become academies.
Now it’s emerged Cllr Fahy has got himself a new job – turning Greenwich into a “co-operative council”. Only a question at Wednesday night’s council meeting (watch it here) gave the game away, when Tory leader Matt Hartley congratulated him and asked if he would need a longer business card (see page five).
According to the newly-minted Cabinet Member for Development of Co-operative Council and Social Enterprise (phew), it’s all about building “on the Royal Borough’s strong track record of engaging local communities”. Stop laughing at the back.
But “co-operative council”? There is a network of co-operative councils, and old Labour hands like to hark back to the glory days of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, once a huge force in Woolwich and beyond and responsible for the creation of Abbey Wood as a suburb.
But in south London, it’s become a toxic term. Here’s why…
Lambeth Council adopted the “co-operative council” banner a few years back under former leader Steve Reed. Lambeth’s a very different council to Greenwich – dominated by the Blairite Progress wing of Labour rather than the old-fashioned, if curdled paternalistic attitudes that have ruled Greenwich for many years.
Essentially, Lambeth’s co-op council caper was an answer to David Cameron’s Big Society (remember that?). On the surface, it sought to get local people involved in the running of services, which would save the council money. Here’s an example that seems to have worked – getting locals involved in redesigning the council website.
But Lambeth has been less than co-operative in other fields, damaging its relationship with its community. When it sought to revamp the Cressingham Gardens estate in Tulse Hill, residents put together a fully-costed plan to save their homes. Lambeth rejected it – opting to demolish the whole lot.
More worrying for Greenwich – which has managed to protect and even enhance its library service, albeit through a controversial outsourcing deal with GLL that’s raised questions over workers’ conditions – is the fate of Lambeth’s libraries.
One of the affected libraries, Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, closed on Thursday night, and at the time of writing, protesters are into the second night of occupying the building.
With the “co-operative council” concept in tatters elsewhere in south London, why on earth would Greenwich belatedly rush to embrace it? It’s hard to see how “co-op council” values have been lived up to in Lambeth. As for Greenwich, where machine politics has long dominated, talk of “working cooperatively with communities” will raise a few hollow laughs – the legacy of Chris Roberts that many in the town hall are keen to step away from.
There’s been a mixed record in residents taking over community facilities in Greenwich – the under-fives’ centres in East Greenwich Pleasaunce and Charlton Park are now flourishing as The Bridge and The Big Red Bus Club. But the Maryon Wilson Animal Park in Charlton has struggled, in part because the council badly under-estimated the cost of the community taking it on. More broadly, there’s already excellent support for community co-ops through Greenwich Co-Operative Development Association.
So perhaps this is about working more closely with existing organisations. It’s been long-rumoured that GLL could have some kind of involvement in a replacement for propaganda newspaper Greenwich Time, for example. Handily, John Fahy remains a trustee of a charity called Meridian Link, which develops education and sporting opportunities in Ghana, alongside GLL boss Mark Sesnan. (Of course, GLL itself was created out of Greenwich’s old leisure department as an answer to 1990s cuts.)
Austerity means council funding is drying up quickly, so Greenwich and all the rest will need to find imaginative solutions to keep services going. And, of course, making a big show of working with residents and social enterprises is a good way of stepping out of the shadows created by Chris Roberts’ toxic legacy.
But if Cllr Fahy wants to make all this “co-operative council” stuff work, he should take a look at the hash his colleagues in Lambeth have made of it. Unless he wants to look as silly as he did praising his old boss last week, he might want to bin the term before it comes back to bite him.
(Want to ask John about his new job? Ask him on Twitter on Saturday evening.)
(PS. Thank you to all who have got in touch since my accident four weeks ago – particularly those from inside the town hall. Things are still slow-going and may be for some time yet, but I’ll still try to highlight some interesting things here and there in the meantime.)
And of course, it’s the Brit Awards tonight up at the Dome.
Or you could make history and watch the first meeting of Greenwich Council to be webcast via www.royalgreenwich.public-i.tv. “Important local decisions can now be viewed online as they are made.” Woo!
This is a good thing, and it’s long, long overdue.
But let’s be honest, you won’t see the important decisions being made. They’re made behind closed doors – usually at the regular meetings of Greenwich’s Labour group of councillors. It’s all decided in advance. You’ll get to see a few things rubber-stamped – like the first council tax rise in years – but don’t dream you’ll see anything meaningful, unless a streaker rushes in and sits on the mayor’s lap.
The big ticket decisions are actually made at cabinet meetings (again, usually decided in advance) and planning board meetings (which aren’t supposed to be decided in advance). These aren’t being filmed.
But what you’ll see at full council meetings is still valuable. The early exchanges – public and councillors’ questions to cabinet members – are an important chance to find things out and get things on the record. I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to follow these online, as written answers only emerge in the hour before the meeting and don’t appear on the council website until the following day.
And you’ll see just what Greenwich councillors are really like. Sadly for them, I don’t think viewers will be too impressed. Think back to the year when Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood presented the Brits.
I went to last month’s, which was being filmed as a test. I never got around to putting anything up a the time so here’s some “highlights” as a preview, in case you’re thinking of watching live.
There’s been a few changes to the Woolwich Town Hall chamber over recent months. Councillors have now started using iPads for council meetings, rather than wielding huge bundles of paper. Together with some smart new lighting, the old place looks impressive these days. Just a shame that the proceedings displayed the same old petulance as usual.
Proceedings are now projected onto displays around the chamber, an effect slightly reminiscent of watching football at White Hart Lane, where you can also watch the match on screens above the stands. Sadly, there’s no Dele Alli or Harry Kane to liven things up in Woolwich.
Got a problem? It’s still your fault
That thing you care about? Chances are, they don’t care.
You may have heard about Greenwich Council applying to itself to increase the number of events held on Blackheath’s Circus Field – this would have been independent of what Lewisham does on its side of the heath. The application, which was snuck out before Christmas, has since been pulled after fears of increased noise and hassle.
But residents had misunderstood the licence application, according to a written response to Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty. Never apologise, never explain. According to cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald, most people don’t realise it’s split between two boroughs. McDonald should have known better than that, since she used to write for the Westcombe News, the organ of the Westcombe Society, the organisation that led public concern on this.
Sadly, Brighty didn’t pursue the questioning.
Or what about the current crisis at Charlton Athletic, where an absentee owner’s mismanagement has even prompted local MPs to investigate the off-field goings-on at one of the borough’s biggest employers?
While nobody was asking council leader Denise Hyland (or Matt Pennycook or Clive Efford) to get involved with team selection, the farcical events at The Valley under Roland Duchâtelet and hapless chief executive Katrien Meire threaten the future of a cherished local institution.
But fans were better off doing this, council leader Denise Hyland opined in another written response. This is a genuine shame, as the council could use its influence to bring about openness at the troubled club – there might even be some votes in it. Instead, it seeks to stay cosied up to the richest person in the room, the default position of this administration.
How much was this costing, asked Brighty? Regeneration cabinet member – and Hyland’s de facto deputy – Danny Thorpe wouldn’t say. Instead, he tried to deflect the blame onto Brighty’s question. “‘Cleaning up the mess’ isn’t how I’d describe it,” he said.
Brighty had another go. Thorpe tried to burble on about the council “investing” money instead.
Geoff Brighty’s since been in touch with the answer – £90,000. So why the petulance from Danny Thorpe?
I suspect that inside the Wellington Street bubble, these are just flippant concerns compared with the threats to social security and council housing posed by the current Westminster government.
But these issues are broadly-felt concerns too – everyone is affected by the local environment and the issues at The Valley worry many.
Few inside Woolwich Town Hall seem to realise it’s perfectly possible to be repelled by both a hard-right Westminster government and some Labour-branded local tantrum-throwers.
Greenwich Time – same old, same old
But for now, the delusions continue. On Greenwich Time, Tory leader Matt Hartley made the strategic error of suggesting that Denise Hyland might want to apologise for spending £80,000 on a court battle with the government that doesn’t appear to have won the council very much.
When you’re in the same party as Iain Duncan Smith, that’s not a wise idea. Viewers with an aversion to sanctimony might like to look away.
“Lies, lies and damned statistics, eh? Whatever, you will spin it your way,” Denise Hyland responded.
She plonked a bundle of old Greenwich Times on the unused press bench to sycophantic applause from councillors who happily criticise the paper in private, but are too terrified to come out and say anything in public.
Yet the whole Greenwich Time debate has been based on lies and spin the first place. The true finances of the council paper have always been hard to track down, as council departments subsidise the paper by placing ads there which wouldn’t go elsewhere.
What’s more, organisations that are funded by the council are “encouraged” to place their advertising exclusively in GT – making its finances look better than they actually are.
Not that the Tories are above mischief – GT isn’t necessarily a Labour-biased paper. Indeed, in constantly promoting the demolition of council estates and their replacement with partly-private housing, GT is actually pushing current Conservative policy.
Instead, the continuation of Greenwich Time is all about promoting the clique that runs the council, their allies, and their strategic ambitions – and making it much more difficult for dissenting or even independent views to gain traction.
Here’s how Matt Hartley presented his motion demanding Hyland apologise.
Then, an oddity, as a member of public got to speak in the debate. Heaven knows how this happened, but it reflected poorly on all involved.
Former Tory councillor Eileen Glover, long estranged from her former colleagues, was wheeled out to lambast them from the public gallery. Glover lost in her bid to be elected as an independent in 2014, but still got to speak anyway. At best, this was taking advantage of a tedious personal beef. At worst, this was something more cynical.
Hartley’s attempt to get Hyland to apologise for the £80,000 legal bills was “arrogant and foolish”, she declared.
Glover claimed it was “insulting” to suggest that Greenwich Time influenced voters. Yet that’s exactly what Labour councillors say it does, if you ask them privately.
The charade went on. Denise Hyland and de jure deputy leader John Fahy came out with a counter-motion.
“Don’t you shake your head at me,” Hyland growled at Hartley at one point, claiming the government had no problem with Greenwich Time’s content, just the frequency. “It did seem a bit ridiculous that we were seeking to resolve our differences through courts.” There was no apology for pursuing it through the courts, though.
She also praised the work of Mercury/South London Press reporter Mandy Little, sat in the public gallery, as “a good, independent journalist”.
Perhaps this is an indication of where some of the council’s ad spend will go without a weekly GT – the SLP’s management bought the papers from octogenarian press baron Ray Tindle last month. This may free the way for the papers to drop the massage ads that councillors object to – and for council notices for appear in the Mercury once again.
News Shopper reporter Jess Bell, sat behind Hyland, understandably looked a bit miffed at the lack of recognition.
But you could tell what really mattered to Hyland when a GT front page lauding Labour’s general election wins was raised. “It was factual reporting. You lost, we won.”
Next to her, John Fahy – still being pursued for cooked-up wrongdoings by party bullies who’d like to see him out – burbled on about the laws on council newspapers being “cooked up in the Carlton Club with the press barons”.
That may be so, but it’s hardly a defence for the council’s actions.
Danny Thorpe started demanding apologies for the Tories’ policy on the NHS – nothing to do with Greenwich Labour’s policies on self-promotion – while Eltham West councillor Mick Hayes said “tonight should be a vote of thanks for those who have produced Greenwich Time in an even-handed way” (ie, the council press office).
“When you walk the streets and talk to people, Greenwich Time will be missed by the people of the borough,” Hayes added. Presumably by those with cat-litter trays.
“Don’t think you speak for the people of this borough,” cabinet member Maureen O’Mara – chosen in 2014 by less than 20% of the population of Greenwich West ward – glowered at the Tories. “If you did, you wouldn’t be sat there.”
O’Mara then calmed down and made her usual point about council tenants needing Greenwich Time because housing ads are placed there. The fact that council tenants in every other Labour borough seem to manage without a weekly propaganda paper seemed to escape her, as always. This was just going through the motions.
As for the Tories, Coldharbour & New Eltham councillor Mark Elliott said the council needed to think more creatively about its communications – a silly thing to say in a Greenwich Council meeting, because it was sensible.
And former opposition leader Spencer Drury rightly pointed out how coverage of the bullying scandal surrounding Chris Roberts wasn’t covered in GT. Ah, hold on a second.
Crawling to a bully
Only an hour previously, Drury was telling the chamber how Roberts was worthy of the freedom of the borough.
“There will be people in this chamber who struggle to get it into their thick skulls how he’ll get this honour,” he quipped.
“Love him or hate him – and I know there are people in both groups in this chamber tonight – Chris had a vision for the borough,” he added. (You can see the rest from two minutes in below.)
In probably one of the most shameful votes in the borough’s recent history, councillors unanimously voted to give Roberts the freedom of the borough. Even John Fahy, recipient of the “get it into your thick skull” voicemail, stuck his hand up to endorse giving his tormentor an award. Party loyalty and dignity never fit together in Greenwich.
And with the possibility of a council advertising contract now hanging in the air, the issue has barely been reported in the local press – instead, it’s featured in the past two issues of Private Eye.
You’d have expected better from Spencer Drury, the man who moved a sarcastic motion about Roberts’ “interpersonal skills” at the height of the bullying row. But the Tories have been bounced into a corner, with long-standing former councillor Dermot Poston – who has been in poor health recently – also on the list to be honoured.
It wasn’t all dismal. There was a decent discussion on the government’s trade union bill – which directly affects the council – which managed to steer away from tedious grandstanding. Labour councillor Don Austen joked that if the rules had been in place in the 1980s, he’d have had “300 Asbos and a spell in Belmarsh”.
But it was really a wake for Greenwich Time. And when the paper finally goes, you’ll be able to see it all online when they do it again in the summer.
So what’s happening tonight?
Tonight’s meeting should be fairly uneventful. The council tax rise will be rubber-stamped and there’ll be some comments on it from either side. (The Tories have alternative ideas, such as diverting money from the council’s PR budget into street cleaning.)
There’ll also be a Labour motion endorsing the UK staying in the EU, which will be a cue for a pointless barney with Tory leader Matt Hartley, who backs leaving.
Hartley’s views aren’t shared by all his fellow councillors, so there’ll be some finger-pointing about how the Tories are all divided. Whether that’s any better than being bullied and cowed into submission is for you to decide.
The really interesting stuff is likely to come in public questions – I’d be surprised if there aren’t any protesting about local schools becoming academies, which the government wants all schools to be by 2020.
Campaigners are unhappy about a letter sent by education cabinet member Miranda Williams – who replaced John Fahy in mysterious circumstances late last year – to school governors which essentially dropped a heavy hint that Greenwich wants them to start forming academies as soon as they can, presumably so the council can still keep some informal influence over them.
This is either a sensible reaction to an imposition from Westminster or a dismal capitulation by a Labour council to Tory demands. The unexplained replacement of Fahy with Williams has already aroused campaigners’ suspicions that it’s the latter, with John Roan already planning to make the switch. This will be an issue to watch over the coming months.
Anyhow, if you tune in tonight, I’d be interested to know what you make of it. I’m sure they’ll be on their best behaviour…
Update, 26 March: Greenwich Council has denied the leak referred to in this story was about the leaked Chris Roberts voicemail. See the end of the second video in this story.
Greenwich Council used public resources to track down the whistleblower who leaked ex-leader Chris Roberts’ abusive voicemail to a cabinet member to the media, it has been suggested.
The council is said to have launched the investigation after a voicemail of Roberts abusing John Fahy was made public, according to a report on answers given to a freedom of information request made by journalism trade website Press Gazette.
Roberts can be heard threatening Labour colleague Fahy with the removal of his cabinet position, telling him to “get it through your fucking thick skull”. The voicemail’s existence was first revealed on this website, after which it was published by the News Shopper. The investigation was into who leaked the voicemail to the Shopper.
Roberts was angry because Fahy was challenging his assumption that he would decide whether or not the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which benefited a charity that Roberts chaired, should take place in 2014.
It’s worth noting here that Greenwich Council refused to reveal details of the investigation to Press Gazette, only saying the leaker was identified. Instead, it said the information was already in the public domain – and the “thick skull” voicemail was by far the most high profile story leaked out of the council in recent years.
It is certainly known that the council was planning a investigation of the voicemail leak at the time, in addition to investigations by the Labour party, and the council’s standards board met to discuss the matter in December 2013.
Roberts left the council last summer, with the council mired in accusations over a bullying culture that led to two Labour councillors stepping down. He was let off any council punishment over the voicemail, but did get a written warning from the party.
However, Fahy – the victim of the voicemail – was punished twice by Greenwich Labour group chief whip over the incident. He was given a verbal warning over the leak of the voicemail, and while selections were taking place for the 2014 elections, he was given a written warning for not saying who the message had been leaked to – something that could have put his candidacy at risk.
Mary Ney, the chief executive who oversaw the investigation, also left the council last year after refusing to release a dossier about bullying submitted by a councillor, claiming it was solely a Labour party matter.
She is now working as a commissioner at scandal-hit Rotherham council, itself criticised for a bullying culture in an official report.
Chief whip Ray Walker, who oversaw the party’s disciplinary process against Fahy, was deposed by new councillor Stephen Brain last year.
When BBC London investigated the bullying at Greenwich Council in December 2013, shadow London minister Sadiq Khan promised to investigate complaints – but the complaints were ignored by the party.
Last night, the Tooting MP appeared at a comedy fundraiser in Greenwich called Stand Up For Labour – something he failed to do for his party’s own councillors in the borough.
2.10pm update: I’ve made a few tweaks to the story in light of information received just after it was published to stress it’s not fully certain whether the investigation was into the Fahy voicemail, although that is the only major leak story to have involved Greenwich in recent years.
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.
So, last week, Chris Roberts said his farewells as Dear Leader. I’m told he was still in his office at Woolwich Town Hall as the minutes ticked down until the end of his reign at 7pm last Wednesday. And as the effective editor of the council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, he got to pen his own farewell.
In case you were wondering, “leave this world a little better than you found it” is a quotation from Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement.
More telling, though, from a politician closely associated with huge building projects, is “make no small plans, for they have no power to stir men’s souls”. That’s attributed to Daniel Burnham, a US architect who worked on some of the world’s earliest skyscrapers, including New York City’s Flatiron Building. Something to remember when Berkeley Homes’ huge towers start to loom over Woolwich in the next few years.
Possibly more telling than that, though, is a revealing comment he made at his final full council meeting in March, which you can listen to below. He’s heavily tipped to end up in some consultancy or advisory role, so until he re-emerges, let’s leave this as the last word.
He was paying tribute to departing councillors. But it was pretty clear he wasn’t talking about them when he said: “The service of the public is a noble calling, whether you’re doing it as a councillor or as an officer. No-one in a democracy does it for the money. It can be long, it can be tiring, but as we all know, it can be rewarding.
“It can result in people delving into your personal lives, and as we all know it’s full of journalists, bloggers and tweeters who think that your moral compass and motives are as base as theirs sometimes seem to be – and that public works and public good are something to be denigrated by those who seek to pursue them [sic].”
That was then, this is now.
The Dear Leader is no more, so congratulations and welcome to Denise Hyland as the new Greenwich Council leader, as trumpted by – where else? – Greenwich Time.
It’s lucky for Hyland that one of the more controversial projects under her past watch as regeneration cabinet member, the botched refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, is finally nearing completion. Indeed, she’d also been saddled with fronting the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign to build the Silvertown Tunnel and a bridge at Gallions Reach – in spite of opposition from her own party.
The party members’ opposition meant Labour’s position in May’s election was subtly different. “Bridge The Gap is dead,” one Labour source insisted to me during the council election. And, indeed, look at what the Labour manifesto said…
A little bit of wiggle room emerged. And Labour candidates were telling people on the doorstep that things had changed. Here’s Stephen Brain, now Peninsula ward councillor, on 23 April.
But on 24 April, despite what was in the Labour party manifesto, here’s what Denise Hyland was telling Boris Johnson, responding to his London Plan…
Was Denise Hyland just following orders? Here she is from the News Shopper last week:
“I’m saying that we need a package of river crossings, absolutely we do.
I’m not going to get drawn into over whether we’ll accept or refuse a single crossing. I want to work with my colleagues, my Labour colleagues in the majority group and get a consensus after we’ve seen the proposals.”
That sounds like Bridge The Gap is still alive.
“Of course I’m concerned about air quality. I think it’s obviously a very difficult balance. If we actually look at our figures, 85 per cent of people thought we needed additional river crossings. 76 per cent wanting Silvertown, 73 per cent wanting a bridge at Gallions. People seem to think that doing nothing is not an option.”
Let’s not forget that Greenwich Council tried to rig that consultation, of course. Perhaps the new chief whip, one Stephen Brain, needs to get his leader into line…
Generally, the News Shopper interview seemed to promise more of the same than anything new. When asked about opening up the council, she said “I obviously want ward councillors to be frontline councillors, they’re the representatives of the council in the community and they represent their people and its for them to channel people’s voices through to the council” – ie, they should do their job. From this early interview, don’t expect any move away from the current top-down decision-making any time soon.
Then again, her Greenwich Time “interview” talked up the importance of listening to communities – since the Shopper’s piece went up on the website on Friday, shortly before GT goes to press, I can’t help wondering if the piece underwent a hasty rewrite as the introductory paragraph doesn’t match the headline. After all, Hyland is now the effective editor of GT…
It’s early days, and Hyland has to get her feet under the table first. While Roberts’ chief executive, Mary Ney, remains in place, big changes are probably unlikely – although a new cohort of Labour councillors will want to make their presence felt.
But who has her old job of regeneration cabinet member, the most important on the council?
Curiously, the job didn’t go to an big hitter such as Jackie Smith, John Fahy or David Gardner – but to Danny Thorpe, the 30-year-old Shooters Hill councillor best known for spending a year of his first term in office in Australia. When a skint Thorpe had to return to London after six months to attend a council meeting to avoid a by-election being triggered, the council’s Labour group had to pay his air fare.
Thorpe, who used to work in events management for Hackney Council, will be juggling his cabinet portfolio with teacher training at a primary school in Dartford. You could always try to follow him on Twitter, but his profile’s locked. Mind you, the last time I saw it, it was full of photos of him and singer Beverley Knight.
Hyland and Thorpe are also both on the planning board along with ex-deputy leader Peter Brooks and ex-chief whip Ray Walker – so the old guard are still represented there.
There are other new faces in the new cabinet. Highly-rated newcomer Sizwe James takes business, employment and skills, while fellow new councillor Chris Kirby gets housing. Miranda Williams, in her second term, joins the cabinet as member for cultural and creative industries. Returning councillor David Gardner takes health and adult social care.
Maureen O’Mara stays in the cabinet, taking community wellbeing and public health; while Jackie Smith also stays in the cabinet, but loses her highly-praised role in charge of children’s services to take on community safety and environment. John Fahy now takes on children’s services as well as being deputy leader. The “Greener Greenwich” portfolio (created by Roberts after the Greens broke through as an electoral force in 2006) has been dumped, with Harry Singh talking charge of customer and community services.
Cynics never the changed the world, so this website won’t be writing the new team off just yet. Denise Hyland and her team need to prove they are better than the unravelling shambles that came before them – and they’ll need to pick up some of the pieces, too.
Of course, Greenwich councillors should be held to account for past actions, but those actions may not necessarily be an accurate prediction of the future. It’d be good to see a review of past contracts signed with developers – as Hammersmith & Fulham’s new Labour administration is carrying out after usurping a Tory regime that also looked a bit too close to builders – but frankly that won’t happen.
Those who kept their head down and did as they were told under a bullying, stifling regime need the chance to find their feet and prove to us they can make a difference. The way Greenwich borough is run desperately needs to change – will they be the ones to deliver?
PS. Former Labour councillor Alex Grant has started a blog – and if you’ve made it down this far, his first post will be essential reading. Former Tory councillor Nigel Fletcher has also returned to being a digital scribe, and his account of losing his seat is also well worth reading.
An anonymous hoax emailer has been posing as Greenwich councillor John Fahy in an attempt to get incriminating information about whether or not he leaked a bullying voicemail left by council leader Chris Roberts, this website can reveal.
Fahy was at the centre of controversy last year when Roberts left a foul-mouthed message on his phone threatening him with the removal of his cabinet position in a row over the Run to the Beat half-marathon.
The message was later published by the News Shopper, and featured in a BBC1 Sunday Politics London investigation into Roberts’ behaviour as council leader.
While Roberts was given a written warning over the incident, this website understands Fahy, the victim of Roberts’ threats, was punished twice over the incident. He was given a verbal warning over the leak of the email, but earlier this year he was given a written warning for not saying who the message had been leaked to.
Fahy has previously challenged Roberts for the position of council leader, which led to him being literally airbrushed out of an edition of the council’s weekly Greenwich Time newspaper.
But when the new council returns after the election, this website understands he will challenge Peter Brooks for the deputy leadership. Brooks is Roberts’ current deputy and was selected for the outgoing leader’s Glyndon seat at the last minute. (The leadership will be contested by Denise Hyland and Jackie Smith.)
Now somebody has taken it upon themselves to pose as Fahy, fishing for information about the leak of the voicemail.
On Easter Monday, I received an email from “John Fahy”, reading: “Darryl, they know it… I am not confortable with this situation. We should talk.
Did you keep the recording on your personal email?”
But the mail wasn’t from John Fahy. It came from someone aping his personal email address, using the letter “l” instead of the figure “1”.
And oddly, the IP address in the email header suggested it’d been sent from a computer connected to Portugal Telecom’s network. What was all that about?
Impersonating somebody online is potentially illegal under the Computer Misuse Act. So why would somebody go to the extent of risking breaking the law to try to con me into giving up information about a serving councillor’s personal issues within the Labour Party?
I sought some advice, and a few days later I responded asking “John” to look at a dummy post on this website. It was a crude method – those who read this site via an RSS feed may have seen something odd a couple of weeks ago, which was live temporarily before I changed the address.
None of these companies will be directly connected with this incident. The Facebook references indicate that the link has been shared on Facebook Messenger. Exponential-E provides IT services for small firms, so this could be one of its clients. It’s a sub-contractor to Focus Telecom, which provides IT services for the Labour Party.
Was my response to the fake Fahy seen on a Labour Party computer?
Then I had another go, again asking “John” to have a look at a document (“roberts_email.pdf”) supposedly hosted on another website. The document didn’t exist, but the error logs would show if the address was requested. On May Day bank holiday, it sprang into life.
Someone had clearly wised up to the fact they were being watched. Now, the IP addresses were designed to obscure the sender’s real location, although it appears the same brower was used each time.
But someone had added the words “we know everything” to the address I’d supplied. Hmmm.
A response email came with a small graphics file, too, presumably designed to track me opening the email.
It’s hosted on a free hosting service and difficult to track.
It appears to have been sent from Portugal again, too. Strange.
So for people who claim “we know everything”, why were they doing this? But there was one extra bit of the jigsaw to fall into place.
Back on Easter Monday, Rob Powell, who runs Greenwich.co.uk, received this odd email:
But I never heard anything from “Yasmin” at “Local Health Service”. Guess where the email appears to have been sent from?
Another Portugal Telecom connection. Does this mean the emails were sent from there? Not necessarily – one IT expert I’ve spoken to says some web traffic is sent via there to obscure the sender’s true location.
But this common link between all three emails indicates somebody’s gone to great lengths to try to trick me, and stitch up John Fahy. But why?
Of course, this could have nothing to do with rivalries in the Greenwich Council Labour group, the Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party or the Eltham Labour Party. But frankly, it’s highly unlikely – somebody seems to know what they’re doing.
Considering Fahy has already been disciplined twice for being the victim of an abusive phone call, it looks like someone decided to break the law to go for a hat-trick.
I wish I’d been able to investigate some more, but I was doing what Labour Party members should have been doing instead of fighting each other – helping with a campaign against the Tory mayor’s Silvertown Tunnel.
The real John Fahy declined to comment when asked.
I’ve sent Labour’s minister for London Sadiq Khan – who last year promised to investigate bullying accusations in Greenwich – general secretary Iain McNicol and London regional director Alan Olive details of what happened.
Khan, McNicol and Olive have been happy to continue to let the Greenwich Council Labour group police itself – despite its witch hunts against whistle-blowers.
Local MP Nick Raynsford, along with Greenwich and Woolwich candidate Matt Pennycook have also been informed. I’ve said I’ll be willing to help with any investigation.
Neither of these five individuals have yet responded.
I’ve also passed on details of this incident to Ray Walker, the Greenwich Labour group chief whip in charge of party discipline under Chris Roberts, and Eltham party secretary, who worked as an IT analyst for the Labour Party for nearly 20 years. He has also not responded.