Tagged: spencer drury

Labour Party gets ‘flytipping’ warning after Greenwich councillor’s documents found in Eltham street

Eltham Labour offices, 3 November 2016

Eltham Labour Party has been given a warning over flytipping after a councillor’s personal documents were found dumped by the side of its offices on Westmount Road.

Election posters and personal documents in the name of Peninsula ward councillor Chris Lloyd were found dumped on Greenvale Road, Eltham, by the side gate of the party’s constituency HQ.

Lloyd vehemently denies any involvement in the incident, and says he believes a “good Samaritan” left the items outside the party office after finding them in a previous home of his.

This website has seen correspondence which confirms Greenwich Council has written to the Eltham Labour Party to remind it of its responsibilities when dealing with rubbish after repeated complaints over items being left outside the office.

Eltham North, the council ward where the incident took place, faces a council by-election this Thursday, with the Conservatives aiming to regain a seat they lost to Labour in 2014.

Dumped rubbish in Eltham, August 2016

The incident happened in August, when local resident Nick Craddy – who acts as an “environment champion” for the area – discovered piles of items left on Greenvale Road.

They included a bilingual election poster for Lloyd’s attempt to become the MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, mid-Wales, in the 2010 general election.

Lloyd, who is originally from Knighton, a town in the constituency, came third in the election; a result he repeated in the Welsh Assembly election the following year, where he failed to unseat then-Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams. The former Greenwich University student was elected Peninsula councillor in 2014.

The items also included correspondence about a TV licence in Lloyd’s name, addressed to him at a student halls of residence in Deptford, as well as an induction pack for those halls.

Dumped rubbish in Eltham

Craddy told 853 he had spotted rubbish dumped on Greenvale Road “for quite a long time” after a tenant had moved into the flat above the Labour office.

But after Craddy arranged for the tenant to be supplied with recycling bins, the problem continued. He said he had spoken to people in the office, who “got sniffy” when he suggested they clean the rubbish up.

“One day, I walked down there, and lo and behold, there was a wodge of Welsh Labour posters out there,” he said.

‘I phoned [local Conservative councillor] Spencer Drury up, he came down with his camera, and we thought ‘gotcha’.

“Someone in the Labour office must have spotted us, because when I walked back from the shop after, there was a man taking it inside.

“The rubbish must have been there for 24, if not 48 hours.”

‘I’m not in the habit of leaving TV licences in the street’

Lloyd, who lives in Thamesmead, vehemently denies any involvement in how the items made their way to Eltham.

He told this website he believed someone who moved into an old address of his left the box there in an attempt to get his belongings back to him: “I used to live in a place in west Greenwich – I haven’t lived there for six years – and must have left a box of stuff in the attic.

“This person has tried to get it back to me, and it’s found its way to the Eltham Labour office. The day it was put out there, it was taken inside. But not before Cllr Drury walked by and got a picture.

“I had a call from someone in the Eltham office, telling me they came into work and found a box of my stuff. It was taken to the Greenwich office and it’s now in the boot of my car.”

Asked how the items were taken to Eltham when he lives in and represents a ward in the Greenwich & Woolwich constituency, he said: “Why it ended up in Eltham, I have no idea. I’m not in the habit of leaving old TV licences and bank statements in the street.”

Fly-tipping crackdown

The incident came as Greenwich Council launched a crackdown on flytipping in the borough. The council can now fine offenders £400 – a power first used in September on a trader based on Plumstead Road. Two more fines have been issued since, also in the Plumstead area.

More resources have also been put into street-cleaning services in Plumstead, Charlton and Abbey Wood.

Correspondence seen by this website states that a senior Greenwich Labour councillor gave council officers the name of an individual who it was believed had left the items at the side of the office.

But the individual concerned denied all knowledge of the incident, leaving council officers to conclude they had no evidence on which to take any further action beyond sending a letter to the Labour office and residents in the accommodation above “reminding them of their responsibilities in relation to managing their waste”.

Spencer Drury, who has been pursuing the incident since it took place, said the way it was handled cast doubt on the council’s ability to deal with those who dump rubbish.

He told 853: “The warning is fine if you’re consistent. But if every single person says ‘it wasn’t me, it was someone down the road’ – how will they fine anyone? If we all use that as an excuse, presumably you can’t fine anyone.”

What does Greenwich Council say?

A spokesperson for Greenwich Council said: “Back in the summer there were some incidences of flytipping and discarded waste around the Greenvale Road area of Eltham.

“At the time the Council wrote to local businesses and residents in the immediate area reminding them of how to dispose of waste correctly.

“We continue to regularly inspect the area and are pleased to report that there have been no further incidences of discarded waste that have come to our attention.

“No one local business/proprietor was singled out when the group of locals were written to at the time.”

Eltham Labour did not respond to a request for comment.

By-election spice

The row adds spice to a rare thing in Greenwich borough politics – a genuinely close by-election in Eltham North. While Labour seized two out of three seats in 2014 – their first ever success in the area –  Eltham North voters backed Zac Goldsmith in May’s mayoral poll, and sided with leaving the European Union in June’s referendum.

The poll was called after Labour’s Wynn Davies – one of the few on the council to openly support Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election bid this summer, and by all accounts a hard-working councillor – moved out of the area due to a change in personal circumstances. This website understands he resisted pressure to stay in the seat and represent voters from his new home in Shropshire, avoiding the awkward poll.

Labour is standing popular local party stalwart Simon Peirce, who came fifth in 2014’s poll. The Tories have gone for youth in the shape of 22-year-old activist Charlie Davis. Ukip, who split the vote in 2014,  have picked Lee-based Barbara Ray. The Liberal Democrats will be testing their hopes of a revival by fielding Sam Macaulay, who only joined the party in July.

But it’s the Greens who have raised eyebrows by fielding someone who stood as a Conservative candidate in the Glyndon by-election in May.

Matt Browne, who used to be involved with Tory thinktank Bright Blue, says he decided to jump ship after the EU referendum. “Over six years, as a very, very small cog in the Conservative machine, I saw that warm words weren’t enough,” he said. “On the grim morning of June 24th, I had definitive proof.”

Do a few dumped election posters matter?

Nick Craddy

While few will make as huge a political leap as Matt Browne, the ongoing consequences of the EU referendum will probably have a bigger impact on those who turn up to vote in Eltham North on Thursday than a row about some stuff dumped outside the Labour Party offices.

But you would expect the borough’s governing party to be a little bit more careful with its rubbish.

Thankfully for the residents of Greenvale Road, Nick Craddy (pictured above) remains an environment champion. The voluntary role sees him help pick up rubbish, liaise with the council and talk to neighbours about litter problems.

“I enjoy it – I’ve lived in this street for 30 years and I’ve spoken to neighbours I’ve never spoken to before. And once the street’s clean – it stays clean.”

And despite the embarrassment for Labour politicians, there has been a good result from all this – Craddy says the flytipping has stopped in Greenvale Road. “You could eat your dinner off the pavement now.”

To report flytipping in Greenwich (or anywhere else), visit fixmystreet.com or download its smartphone app. For more about becoming an environment champion, visit the Greenwich Council website.

Greenwich Council meetings to be webcast – here’s what you missed last month

Greenwich Council chamber

What are you doing tonight? There’s a pub quiz at the Crown in east Greenwich; comedy at the White Swan in Charlton; or a talk about researching local history in west Greenwich.

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.

Greenwich Council written response

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.

Greenwich Council written response

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.

And then there’s the water feature in Cutty Sark Gardens, a frequently-broken embarrassment that’s now being removed, a story – like the Blackheath one – broken in The Greenwich Visitor.

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.

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

Bizarre intervention: Eileen Glover puts the boot into her former Tory colleagues

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 Time: Council leader mocks ‘shut it down’ petition

Images of Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland feature three times in this week's Greenwich Time, the last before the council has to abide by strict election impartiality rules

Images of Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland feature three times in this week’s Greenwich Time, the last before the council has to abide by strict election impartiality rules. Four cabinet members also feature.

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.

Of these, Hackney, Newham and Waltham Forest have been given until the end of April to close their fortnightly publications – Hackney Today, Newham Mag and Waltham Forest News.

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.

Tower Hamlets' East End Life is the only other weekly council newspaper. Its fate lies with the council's commissioners.

Tower Hamlets’ East End Life is the only other weekly council newspaper. Its fate lies with the council’s commissioners.

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.

New to this? See a brief history of Greenwich Time as well as how the issue could be solved tomorrow.

Greenwich Tories’ tall ships scrap scheme scuttled by Labour

Woolwich Town Hall, 25 February 2015

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.

Greenwich Council meeting, 25 February 2015

In the fevered world of the Greenwich Labour group, being seen with a Mercury is probably a disciplinary offence. Fingers crossed for John Fahy…

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 Time: Eric Pickles turns up the heat on Greenwich Council’s weekly paper

Greenwich Time

Greenwich Council has been given 14 days to respond to a demand from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to close its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, MPs have been told.

A written statement from junior minister Kris Hopkins says the council has been told it’ll be directed to close the controversial freesheet by 31 March.

Greenwich Time is one of only two weekly council newspapers in the country, along with Tower Hamlets’ title East End Life.

Pickles has long been trying to clamp down on such papers, demanding that councils publish newssheets no more than four times per year. Neighbouring Lewisham cut its Lewisham Life magazine from monthly to quarterly some years ago.

The council was first warned in September 2014, but it has argued that by using Greenwich Time to publish local information, it is saving taxpayers money.

The true costs of Greenwich Time have been notoriously difficult to quantify. While the paper relies on a lot of freelance labour, quoted costs do not include the time spent by council staff and officers in producing it. In 2013 this website found out that GT cost £124,000 per year to produce, without counting the work put in by the council’s paid staff.

Its opponents say GT, which is signed off by the council leader and chief executive each issue, stifles debate while local newspaper publishers argue it competes unfairly for advertising revenue. A move by the owners of the South London Press to buy the title was rebuffed in 2011.

Last November, Greenwich Council put its advertising contract out for tender – the £400,000 annual fee roughly matching GT’s distribution costs. But council leader Denise Hyland later called this a “Plan B”. Last night, she told Conservative leader Spencer Drury it was “business as usual” at the paper.

You can see the exchange at 1 minute 29 minutes into this video:

The role of the paper in pushing the council’s line was highlighted this week in the bizarre row over the council’s proposals to incentivise local business to pay the London Living Wage.

Despite the scheme first being publicly proposed by Conservative councillors, Greenwich Time placed the story on its front page and credited it to Labour leader Denise Hyland.

Greenwich Time, 27 January 2015

This week’s paper also contains a two-page spread boasting about the council’s plans for the future of Eltham. Promoting improvements in Eltham are a regular feature of Greenwich Time, and few other areas of the borough have had plans publicised in this manner.

It’s widely believed the council is using GT to boost the chances of the marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford being re-elected.

Whether Pickles’ threat will mean the end of GT is a moot point – the closure deadline of 31 March runs so close to the general election that any legal response from Greenwich may mean it can simply carry on through the campaign and leave the issue to whatever government is elected in May.

Listen to a Greenwich Council meeting – just a few months late

Some people have strange hobbies. They might collect odd things, or have peculiar enthusiasms. Me, I go to Greenwich Council meetings. I often even ask questions, because it’s the only way I’ll find things out.

Actually, it’s not that strange. We all should take an interest in how we’re governed. We can watch, and be depressed by, Prime Minister’s Questions each week. But in the borough of Greenwich, there’s no such facility for us to do the same for our own local council. Yes, we can trot along to Woolwich Town Hall to take in a showcase full council meeting, study scrutiny panels, or watch planning decisions being made. But for most people, real life gets in the way.

Greenwich Council meeting, 30 October 2013

Greenwich has resisted any form of recording or broadcast of its meetings, despite pushes for openness from both the government and the Labour party at Westminster.

I’ve sneakily recorded bits of meetings in the past, and they’ve seemed popular, even though to be frank, the quality’s crap. Woolwich Town Hall is due to undergo a £1.5m refurbishment soon, which will – in part – attempt to fix some of the notoriously bad acoustics in the committee rooms.

But even then, there’s no promise to start webcasting meetings, as Camden does. Here’s cabinet member Denise Hyland last month: “The proposal for the refurbishment of the Town Hall does include the delivery of improved meeting facilities for the public, and [we] will investigate the use of such technologies. However the decision regarding broadcasting committee meetings has yet to be considered by the Council.”

Last October’s council meeting was a particularly dramatic one, as the row over Greenwich Council’s pavement tax came to a head, and allegations over the leadership style of Chris Roberts were raised. But how to get hold of a decent recording?

The answer, as ever, came in the Freedom of Information Act. Greenwich Council records each meeting so minutes can be taken. Could I get hold of one of these recordings?

So, on 10 November, I emailed the council. On 12 February, three months later, I finally got the response I wanted – the council was going to send me a CD. I got it last week – it contains a 3-hour MP3 of the full meeting, from start to finish. The quality is crisp and clear, except for contributions from independent councillor Eileen Glover, whose microphone was switched off the whole way through. One of her (silent) contributions has been cut out, as well as one of the two short adjournments – otherwise, this is the whole thing.

Greenwich Time, 5 NovemberNow the council’s found a way to convert its recordings to MP3, there’s no reason why it can’t do this for future meetings – such as this week’s one.

But in the meantime, here’s the council meeting of 30 October 2013, broken up into chunks. You can read all you like about what goes on at the council, and get a gutful of mine and other people’s opinions, but this will give you an insight into just how the Labour council leadership defends and promotes its policies, and how the Conservative opposition group holds them to account.

The recording may be nearly four months old, but the issues are still current – particularly the pavement tax, a belated consultation into which has recently opened. Indeed, I’d recommend listening to part 6, and comparing it with the way the council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time (that week’s cover pictured on the right) covered it.

COUNCIL – WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2013, 7.00PM (See full agenda and minutes)
Silent parts in the recording are where Councillor Eileen Glover’s microphone was not switched on.


PART 1. Apologies for absence, minutes, mayor’s announcements, declarations of interest, petitions.
This includes mayor Angela Cornforth mentioning that a request had been made to film the meeting “by a commercial operator”. This was for the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, on bullying allegations against Chris Roberts, aired in December and made by Juniper TV. It also includes Peninsula councillor Mary Mills handing in the 2,500-strong pavement tax petition.


PART 2. Public questions. (See written answers to questions.)
Here, questions can be asked by members of the public if they’re submitted at least a week in advance. If you turn up, you get to ask a supplementary – and these are what you hear here. Includes questions on the pavement tax, Run To The Beat and the Silvertown Tunnel.


PART 3. Questions from members. (See written responses.)
A similar format to the public questions, except from councillors. These are almost always from opposition councillors. Includes questions on council computer system issues, publishing recordings of council meetings, Silvertown Tunnel, severe weather preparations, car parking income, war memorials, Well Hall Pleasaunce, Andrew Gilligan, Blackheath fireworks and zero hours contracts.


PART 4. Oral questions to members of the cabinet.
More questions from councillors. Includes the pavement tax (including Chris Roberts’ admission of “informal” cabinet meetings), storm damage, World War I huts in a school in Eltham, and Denise Hyland declaring: “A group that calls itself ‘No to Silvertown‘ is hardly independent, is it?”


PART 5. Petition responses.
A member of the public speaks on speeding traffic on Westcombe Hill, Blackheath. Includes debate on Charlton Lido parking and speeding traffic on Sparrows Lane in New Eltham.


PART 6. Motion on the ‘street trading policy’ (pavement tax). (motion text)
Conservative and Labour councillors debate the controversial tax on shops placing items on the pavement outside their premises, and the way it was introduced. Worth a listen, and also worth seeing how council weekly Greenwich Time covered the debate.


PART 7. Labour motion on “management of public services by the Mayor of London and the Coalition Government”. (see motion text)
Chris Roberts lays into the Tories. Spencer Drury says “it reflects some brass neck”, and issues a sarcastic amendment about Roberts’ “interpersonal skills”.


PART 8. Revised code of conduct, Treasury management report, council functions on scrap metal dealers, “changes to the executive functions scheme of delegation”.
The dry drudgery of regular council business. But it picks up at the end, as opponents claim constant tinkering with the way the council works makes it harder to track just what the council is doing. Includes Eileen Glover having a pop at her former Conservative colleagues (well, it would if her mic was switched on).


PART 9. Labour motion on smoking and tobacco control.
Charlton councillor Janet Gillman speaks.


PART 10. Conservative motion on culture of politics in Greenwich. (see full item)
This motion followed comments made about the way Greenwich Council is run made by Greenwich West councillor (and now parliamentary candidate) Matt Pennycook and Lewisham councillor Kevin Bonavia, which themselves followed allegations of bullying in the Labour group. Notably, Pennycook does not speak in the debate. It proposes changes to the council’s scrutiny functions.


PART 11. Conservative motion calling for secret ballots for council leader.
Another motion designed to smoke out allegations of bullying in Greenwich’s Labour group. Mayor Angela Cornforth withdrew the motion “for further consideration”. It has not yet re-emerged.

So, there were are. Audio of a Greenwich Council meeting has been published. And nobody’s been hurt by it. I’ve also asked for recordings of the past two meetings, which I can only assume Greenwich is sitting on, now it knows how to convert these to MP3 – it’s made a habit of being late with responding to Freedom of Information requests, particularly those which cause it difficulty.

But when they come, if people find this recording useful, I’ll be happy to publish them here.

Greenwich Council’s pavement tax ‘could be illegal’

Greenwich town centre, 17 August 2013

Those plants could cost…

New Greenwich Council charges for small businesses which use pavements outside their premises could be illegal, opposition politicians are warning.

But while the council is defending the policy, the cabinet member in charge of it has ducked out of defending it herself – leaving it to the council’s legal executive instead.

Conservative leader Spencer Drury wrote to environment cabinet member Maureen O’Mara last week to outline his concerns about the forecourt trading licence charges, which start at £7 per square metre of pavement used outside businesses, per week. (See the letter here.)

Greenwich Council budget proposal, January 2013

The scheme is buried in budget documents which were presented to the council’s cabinet in January. Drury says the wording of the documents mean that the cabinet only agreed to the policy being introduced via a report which would include the fee structure.

But no such report has ever been presented to the council – meaning backbench and opposition councillors have been unable to specifically object to it, or call it in for scrutiny.

“This leaves the whole policy open to judicial review, and I would expect any legal challenge or complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman to succeed,” he wrote.

“This is not democratic and you need to go back to the drawing board, refunding all the fees collected under this illegal system.”

But O’Mara, usually a combative figure in council meetings, did not respond to the letter – instead, leaving it to the council’s head of legal services, Russell Power, who responded that the decision to introduce charges was actually one for officers, not councillors. (See his response here.)

Whoever is right – and the charges do operate in other boroughs – the whole affair shines another light on the secretive way the council is run. The introduction of the pavement tax is very similar to the way Greenwich Council tried to cut funding for the Maryon Wilson animal park in Charlton two years ago – snuck in via a line in the budget.

Maureen O’Mara’s decision not to respond to Spencer Drury’s letter is notable, though – it’s normally considered a breach of protocol to leave non-political council officers to write what are political letters.

At July’s council meeting, O’Mara claimed some traders supported the scheme because it gave them certainty about whether they could place items on the street.

When a front page story about the issue in the Mercury was mentioned, she responded: “I must admit I don’t read the Mercury, so I have no idea what’s on its front page.”

However, away from her bully pulpit in the town hall, she has evidently become rather shy about justifying the scheme, which will affect many traders in her Greenwich West ward, and the way it has been introduced. (A petition has been set up against the scheme.)

Greenwich Council’s forecourt licences start from £7 per square metre per week, with a £35 application fee. Lewisham’s start from £5.50 with a £30 fee, with similar charges in Bromley. Bexley charges up to £75 per month, but exempts smaller businesses.

9.40am update: A street trading policy has been quietly snuck onto the council website, but with no opportunities for councillors to discuss or debate it. Load the PDF into a web browser, and you’ll see it appears to have been adapted from Ealing Council.