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…
Greenwich Council’s Conservative group has asked Transport for London to halt the controversial Silvertown Tunnel scheme – so it can be assessed along with rejected plans for a Docklands Light Railway extension to Eltham.
The borough’s main opposition group has lined alongside the Labour council’s leadership in backing the new road “in principle”, despite widespread concerns it will increase rather than decrease pollution.
However, it wants the process – which is being rushed through so the planning process can begin before Boris Johnson leaves office – paused so proposals for a DLR link to Eltham can be included in the scheme.
Johnson’s successor can continue with, pause, or scrap the Silvertown Tunnel scheme after May’s mayoral election. A “final” consultation into the proposal ended at the end of November.
In their response to the scheme, the Tories say the tunnel – which relies on the same southern approach road as the Blackwall Tunnel – will be “a much-needed improvement to the resilience of our local transport network.
But the report – from local party leader Matt Hartley and transport spokesman Matt Clare – says that not including a DLR link to Eltham in the scheme is a “missed opportunity” that “would take a significant amount of traffic off the road network” as well as being “transformative for the South East London economy”.
“Our area of London is suffering from decades of under-investment in transport infrastructure because bold decisions were not taken in the past – and we fear that not including the DLR extension is a further example of this,” it adds.
For a scheme that has been flatly rejected by Transport for London, the mythical DLR extension to Eltham has an amazing hold over Greenwich borough politicians – with an ability, in their minds, to magic away the congestion and pollution new road schemes can bring.
The return of the DLR on stilts
So what went wrong? In 2011, Greenwich Council spent £75,000 commissioning two reports into a proposal to build a link from Canning Town to Falconwood, following the A102 and A2, providing a service to and from Stratford International.
Hyder Consulting’s first report, which outlined the idea and costed it at £1 billion, was never released publicly – despite being discussed in a cabinet meeting – until this website obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act. Here it is. It was submitted to TfL for comments.
But the follow-up – which aimed to answer TfL’s concerns – was suppressed by the council, hidden for nearly two years, with misleading answers given to anyone who asked about it. It was also never submitted to TfL. It finally emerged in April 2014 after a former Liberal Democrat councillor asked to see it. (Here it is.)
Why wasn’t the report submitted to TfL? Unfortunately for the council, Hyder report concluded that only an extension to Kidbrooke would be feasible – any further would face “disproportionately higher costs”. (It also said the Silvertown Tunnel itself would overwhelm local roads with traffic, expensive advice that Greenwich Council also chose to ignore.)
And TfL itself dismissed the scheme, pointing out that the Jubilee Line at North Greenwich may not be able to cope with interchanging passengers, and better capacity on the existing DLR services were coming.
But the report did contain some startling images of the DLR on stilts as it weaved its way above dual carriageways and homes. It’s worth a read just for those alone.
The Eltham DLR flame still burns for some…
Of course, councillors are paid to be parochial rather than strategic. Which is why Greenwich frets about north/south links within its own borough, and TfL isn’t so fussed. Although if Greenwich councillors were that bothered, you think they’d have pressed TfL on why travelling from Woolwich to Eltham by bus is so lousy.
But there are still keepers of the Eltham DLR flame. After all, Eltham is still a place that can change elections. Less cynically, one of the causes of the Blackwall Tunnel’s jams is the lack of orbital transport in this part of London. A scheme to Kidbrooke, as the report says, could be a goer. But both Tories and Labour want the full Eltham version of a scheme which TfL simply isn’t interested in.
In its 2014 Silvertown Tunnel consultation response, Greenwich Council placed the Eltham DLR as a condition of its continuing support for the scheme. TfL ignored this, Greenwich’s 2015 response still backs the Silvertown Tunnel. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen, eh?
The Tories have started banging on about the scheme too – which is how we’ve ended up where we are today, with the Tories backing a scheme which was discredited in a report commissioned by a Labour council which didn’t bother to submit it to a Tory-run transport authority. Phew.
The real shame is that while Greenwich was messing around with the DLR on stilts, Lewisham Council was pursuing a Bakerloo Line extension through Lewisham and Catford – a scheme that’s got every chance of becoming reality. Politicians in Greenwich have belatedly woken up to the benefits of this – but putting Eltham on the Tube would have been a big, big prize.
So what about Greenwich Labour? Don’t hold your breath…
Meanwhile, Greenwich Council’s response to the Silvertown consultation – in the name of regeneration councillor Danny Thorpe – might as well have been written by former Dear Leader Chris Roberts, whose Bridge The Gap campaign ushered in unconditional support for the tunnel. He’s now working for regeneration PR agency Cratus, which is fretting over whether the Tories will win the mayoral election.
The response, which uses the phrase “royal borough” 57 times, backs the tunnel without hesitation despite outlining a host of concerns, from inadequate air pollution monitoring to the effects on traffic through Greenwich town centre. This continued support suggests it may not be entirely sincere about these concerns, which have been repeated in every consultation since 2012.
It continues to demand that Greenwich borough residents get cheaper car trips through the tunnel while wanting express buses to North Greenwich with priority on the A102 as well – surely contradictory aims for a council that once wanted to persuade people to switch to public transport.
One of the more baffling aspects of the response is a claim that the “opportunity should be taken to improve cross river cycling connections, particularly those between Greenwich Peninsula and the Isle of Dogs”. This is from a council which, when it considered the Greenwich Peninsula masterplan earlier this year, completely ignored a call for a fixed crossing between the peninsula and the Isle of Dogs, even though the cost of it could have been covered by the planning gain.
Instead, it appears to go touting for business for Thames Clippers, owned by O2 owner AEG, putting forward a proposal already included in the masterplan: “The Royal Borough [sic] asks that TfL agrees to explore opportunities to introduce a cross river vehicular or boat ‘cycle shuttle’, to address that demand, as part of ongoing work.”
The dear old Dangleway’s not forgotten, either: “Similarly, the Royal Borough [sic] would expect definitive proposals for a reduction in charges for cyclists using the Cable Car to be contained within the DCO submission.” It’s unclear why cyclists should get a discount ahead of pedestrians, but there you go.
Fiddling while London chokes
So while councils elsewhere pass motions against the Silvertown Tunnel and raise the alarm about the scheme, in Greenwich we have councillors who know full well the scheme will do harm, and are just content to fiddle around the edges rather than take a stand.
Essentially, Greenwich residents are having to rely on Lewisham councillors to defend their interests at the moment – a crazy situation.
We’ve got a mayoral election coming up where both main parties’ candidates will claim to be the “greenest mayor yet”. Their party colleagues in Greenwich seem to be doing their best to sabotage these claims – if they get their way, we’ll all pay for it in the end.
The 29-year-old succeeds Spencer Drury, whose dry barbs at the council’s Labour leadership have become a feature of life at Woolwich Town Hall. Drury remains a councillor and will no doubt be looking to shore up the Tories’ position in his home ward of Eltham North, where the party’s vote was shredded by a Ukip surge last year, handing two seats to Labour.
Being Tory leader in a London Labour borough when Iain Duncan Smith has just been reappointed social security secretary isn’t the easiest of jobs, but it’s a fair old progression from just missing out in a council election in Warwick in 2007.
Hartley’s comments suggest he’ll continue with Drury’s task of holding the council to account rather than simply making party political jabs.
“With the threat of a Lewisham-style one party state always hanging over us, being Leader of the Opposition in Greenwich means more than leading the Conservative council group – but rather giving all residents with a differing view the voice and the say that they are so often denied by this Labour council. That’s exactly what I plan to do.”
It’s worth noting one skill that Hartley can use to help the Tories punch above their weight – his day job is in communications for a personal finance charity, giving him an ability to spot stories that perhaps the local party has missed in the past.
Labour’s satisfaction at seeing Matt Pennycook elected alongside Clive Efford and Teresa Pearce will have been tempered by the party’s failures nationally. It’ll be interesting to see where the battle over Greenwich Time goes now Greg Clark has replaced Eric Pickles as communities secretary. This week’s Greenwich Time might as well carry the headline “Up yours, Pickles”.
Humility in victory has never been the local party’s strong point – Clive Efford’s response to success was to criticise Conservative Spencer Drury for campaigning on the state of the borough’s war memorials. But there’s pause for thought if you look into the polling figures.
The strong votes for Ukip (8% in Greenwich & Woolwich, 15% in Eltham) should ring alarm bells – with the Tory votes up in both seats, it looks as if the hard right party has started to eat into the potential Labour vote.
Just as in the rest of England, how Labour communicates with white voters who feel left behind will be a question that needs addressing sooner rather than later. Engaging with campaigns such as the one for a memorial to Lee Rigby rather than simply ignoring them is key, I suspect.
(A few miles down the A2, it’s startling to discover from Alex Grant that Dartford, which tends to swing with the incoming government, was abandoned by the national party, which threw resources at ousting Lib Dems – potential coalition partners – instead. Madness.)
The Greenwich West ward by-election provides the strongest indication to the local party’s future – former Kirklees council leader Mehboob Khan topped the poll, and is strongly tipped as a future leader in Greenwich, too. Smart enough to steal the Greens’ clothes on the Divest Greenwich campaign, he was also generous enough to publicly commiserate with losing candidates – like I said, humilty’s rare in these parts. One to watch.Green gaffes, but did anyone notice?
The Greens can feel pleased with themselves after getting well over double their 2010 vote in Greenwich & Woolwich. Could their candidates have done better? It’s hard to say, but they certainly were weak links in a strong local party operation. I dealt with Greenwich & Woolwich’s Abbey Akinoshun’s no-shows at hustings, but his worst moment was tweeting a photo of himself carrying a “vote Green” slogan next to an appeal for the victims of the Nepal earthquake. It was quickly deleted. While some Labour councillors’ messages about Nepal certainly had the whiff of opportunism, this was just crassly stupid.
Worse was to come on polling day itself, when Eltham candidate James Parker, a magician from Folkestone, told the Guardian voters should pick Labour instead – a warning sign that perhaps could have been picked up after a tweet a couple of days beforehand saying he was suffering from a “crisis of conscience”. (The party says he was misquoted.)
Warning bells rang for others much earlier – I met Parker in the bar of Mycenae House, Blackheath after he was selected in January – the No to Silvertown Tunnel AGM coincided with a Green meeting upstairs.
I mentioned how pleased we were at our turnout, but he became very dismissive and suggested we should be addressing a meeting of thousands and the campaign should be linked to corporate greed, etc, etc. He later seemed to understand, but things got more awkward later when he was involved in an angry confrontation with former Green party member Trevor Allman.
But these incidents were only seen by a handful of obsessives who know the party too well, like me. Most people would have entered the polling booth blissfully unaware. Hopefully the recent surge in local Green membership will mean the Greenwich party will be able to grow and nurture its own candidates for future polls. Getting more actively involved in local grassroots campaigns will serve the party well as it looks to next year’s mayoral poll and beyond.
Is the worst over for the Lib Dems?
As for the Lib Dems, the national party didn’t even bother supplying the Greenwich & Woolwich candidate with a freepost leaflet to send out. That said, though, if you compare their result in the constituency (5.6%) with last year’s average council election score (6%), it’s arguable that they’ve bottomed out already, although whether they’ve the capability, capacity or desire to bounce back is another question. A period of national soul-searching will surely come first.
So, that’s the 2015 election done with. We’re next at the polls on 5 May 2016 to decide on Boris Johnson’s successor as mayor and London’s assembly members. I suspect it’ll be a tough year ahead…
So it’s congratulations to Matt Pennycook, who scored 24,384 votes – 52.2% of all cast, a little up on predecessor Nick Raynsford five years back. Pennycook was by far the most impressive candidate, neatly placing distance between the records of both Raynsford and the council of which he was a part. Good luck to him, and I’m looking forward to following his progress.
Congratulations too to Matt Hartley, who scored a very impressive 12,438 – at 26.6%, a record for the Tories since the seat was created in 1997. He also campaigned smartly – raising the state of Southeastern trains, for one. I suspect he’ll be feeling the happiest out of all the candidates today…
Ukip’s success will have raised eyebrows – Ryan Acty came third with 3,888 (8.3%), a similar result to other seats in south-east London.
If the Greens are downhearted at coming fourth, they really shouldn’t be. Abbey Akinoshun more than doubled their vote as they notched up 2,991 votes, a deposit-saving 6.4% – pretty good by London standards.
The Lib Dems performed in line with their council election results last year, with Tom Holder picking up 2,645 votes (5.7%) – just enough to hang onto his deposit.
TUSC’s Lynne Chamberlain rounded off the poll with just 370 votes – but will no doubt be pleased with having given her anti-austerity message a wide airing.
Sitting up all night watching the results doesn’t lead to wise and sharp analysis the following afternoon, but one very local issue deserves an airing.
One of the big jibes aimed at Matt Pennycook is that by being selected he was effectively getting himself a safe seat for life. Now the Conservatives have an overally majority, they’re in prime position to implement a bit of unfinished business from coalition days – boundary changes.
The Tories wanted to cut parliament down to 600 seats – in a proposal that would have given their chances a boost – and that meant London’s constitency map would have to be redrawn. This website featured the first proposals back in 2011.
Now there’s nothing stopping the Tories taking those revised plans out of the drawer – and they’re an odd bunch to say the least.
Pennycook’s hard-fought prize of Greenwich & Woolwich would vanish – leaving him to challenge Lewisham East’s Heidi Alexander (and maybe Lewisham Deptford’s Vicky Foxcroft) for a new seat of Greenwich & Lewisham Central, which would stretch from Greenwich to Catford.
Or he could have to lock horns with Clive Efford for the oddly-shaped Eltham & Charlton seat, which curves round from New Eltham, through most of Charlton to Woolwich town centre.
Don’t be surprised if this issue comes up in the coming months – especially with electoral reform a hot topic once again. See a full map of the proposed constituencies for more.
Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland has mocked the the number of signatures on a petition calling for the closure of its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, saying: “I didn’t know the Tories and Liberal Democrats had so many members.”
Hyland also predicted other boroughs would join Greenwich’s judicial review into communities secretary Eric Pickles’ order demanding the council closes the controversial weekly.
The petition, started last Thursday by Stewart Christie – a Liberal Democrat candidate in last year’s council election – had gained 106 signatures ahead of last night’s full council meeting, the last before 7 May’s general election.
Responding to a question from Conservative group leader Spencer Drury, Hyland launched into a defence of the paper that lasted nearly seven minutes, reiterating the council’s claim that GT actually saves it money.
“Our advice from our QC is that the Secretary of State has acted illegally, and that is why we are applying to the court to judicially review the decision,” she said.
“And as for the people who set up the website ‘cease Greenwich Time publication now’, which I believe has 106 [signatures] on it – given the Tories and Lib Dems seem to have formed a coalition around Greenwich Time, I didn’t know they had so many members,” Hyland added to laughter from her own councillors.
Hyland also refused to give details of costs for the judicial review when pressed by Conservative deputy leader Matt Hartley.
“Essentially, I don’t think we’ll lose. I think we have a strong case, and in addition I fully expect other boroughs to join in on that JR [judicial review]. That would be my expectation,” she said.
Pressed again for a “worst case scenario” figure, she added: “We’ll wait and see what the lawyers say it will cost us, but obviously, it will not cost us a penny when we win.”
Hyland’s confidence may be explained by Greenwich sharing its Greenwich Time printing contract with eight other boroughs – Brent, Havering, Hackney, Hounslow, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, who all use Trinity Mirror to print a variety of council publications.
The general election – with its “purdah” rules on public bodies making controversial decisions – complicates matters, but Pickles’ direction states that Greenwich must not produce more than four council publications in the year from 31 March. This means the weekly GT would not breach the order until late April – giving other councils plenty of time to join in any legal action.
The Tower Hamlets question
Earlier, Hyland had questioned why Tower Hamlets Council – which is being partly-run by commissioners sent in by Pickles following allegations of malpractice – was still being allowed to publish England’s only other weekly council publication, East End Life.
“I find it extraordinary that Eric Pickles has sent commissioners into Tower Hamlets, yet Tower Hamlets is still producing East End Life on a weekly basis.
“The commissioner himself has even put an article in there,” she said to laughter.
“They haven’t had a notice, they haven’t had a direction,” she added.
In fact, Pickles did begin the process of taking action against East End Life in September, although has pulled back since sending commissioners into Tower Hamlets in December.
As for the article by a commissioner, East End Life merely reported a decision by Sir Ken Knight in its 16 March issue – he didn’t write a piece for it.
The situation with Tower Hamlets and East End Life may become clearer in the coming weeks, as Sir Ken and colleague Max Casey were given three months to draw up a plan to rectify the problems with Tower Hamlets – including a “plan for publicity”.
Asked by Spencer Drury (hear audio above) if Greenwich would close GT if Tower Hamlets closed East End Life, Hyland said: “Look, we all have choices about things and it’s this Labour administration’s choice to inform the public of different events and publish our statutory adverts that the government still say need to be published in the press. Essentially, its our choice to do that and we think it’s the most cost-effective way.
“There may be a few people – and we know who they are – who don’t agree with that. And you’re entitled to your opinion.”
“But you’re not in charge of the council,” she added, to laughter from her Labour colleagues.
No research into households without internet
After she used the “digital divide” as a justification for publishing GT, Hyland was asked what research the council had done into households without internet access. She only said this was work for “our digital centre” to take on.
She added: “What we do know is that vast numbers of people head to our public libraries to use the IT that’s there, and how valued that is. And I know from the people who go into my surgery – and I’m sure that’s relicated right around this chamber – that many people may have an email address but they don’t have broadband, and therefore they have to come into these facilities.
“With the amount of money this council has to save we will promote more and more online, but at the same time, we will do everything we can do lower that digital divide and make sure people have access to the web.”
Low newspaper distribution
Hyland also pointed out the low circulation of the News Shopper and Mercury titles in the borough.
“In Charlton, only 63 homes get the Mercury, so 99% of Charlton don’t get the Mercury,” she said.
“Greenwich – less than 1% get the Mercury, 99% don’t get it. Eltham – 88% don’t get it. Blackheath – three-quarters don’t get it. Abbey Wood – more than two-thirds don’t get it. And the News Shopper’s similar.”
Hyland also claimed there were small businesses in Greenwich borough that “just will not pay for adverts in the independent press – whereas they can buy space in Greenwich Time that is a lot cheaper”.
“And also we don’t use massage parlours. We don’t advertise those, and thank goodness, and we would find it hard to give our business to organisations that include adverts in that way.”
Neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper were present in Woolwich Town Hall last night to report on proceedings.
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.
Greenwich & Woolwich’s Conservative candidate Matt Hartley has come out in favour of the Silvertown Tunnel, the same day he helped canvass for a MP who supports the controversial road scheme.
Hartley revealed his support for the tunnel in a blog post discussing last week’s council scrutiny meeting with officials from Transport for London and rail operator Southeastern.
“I support the Silvertown Tunnel in principle with two significant caveats,” he wrote.
“That TfL make a stronger case over how it intends to mitigate the environmental impact, and that the tunnel brings with it a significant public transport element to address congestion concerns (namely, bringing the DLR to Eltham as Greenwich Conservatives have long been lobbying for).”
When asked on Twitter if he’d withdraw his support if TfL didn’t come up with the goods, he didn’t respond.
Hartley’s comments came the same day he and a team from Greenwich Conservatives went to Essex to help canvass for Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price, who claims the Silvertown Tunnel is “desperately needed” to alleviate problems at the Dartford Crossing.
Doyle-Price objects to a new crossing between Dartford and Thurrock on the grounds that it will cause more congestion and pollution in the area – precisely the same flaw the Silvertown proposal suffers from.
TfL admits the Silvertown Tunnel will increase traffic levels by 20%, while deputy mayor Isabel Dedring told MPs last month that its river crossings proposals could see traffic on local roads double.
There is also a strong body of evidence linking road-building to generating traffic, a phenomenon known as “induced traffic”.
Hartley’s position is much the same as Labour-run Greenwich Council, which has added a long set of caveats to its past unconditional support for the crossing.
But it’s unclear quite how the environmental impact of building a new road can be mitigated beyond planting a few token trees, while a report suppressed by Greenwich Council concluded that a DLR extension along the A102 would not be feasible unless it only ran as far as Kidbrooke. TfL has also said it is unwilling to back an Eltham DLR link.
Labour candidate Matt Pennycook has previously indicated his doubts about the Silvertown Tunnel scheme; Green candidate Abbey Akinoshun has said he is opposed, although the local party has left campaigning on the issue to colleagues at City Hall.
The Liberal Democrats are also opposed, althouh the local party is in such disarray it has not yet selected a Greenwich & Woolwich candidate. It is not known what Ukip candidate Ryan Acty thinks of the scheme.