(This post was updated at 10.10am on Wednesday 8 April to include a Labour councillor’s hitherto unknown blog – major changes are in italics. Thank you for the tip-off- that’s two out of 51!)
My eye was caught this morning by a Twitter message from a pal lauding the mayor of Lambeth. No, really.
Jason_Cobb The tweeting @mayoroflambeth – good on you, Sir. It’s not exactly breaking news, but great that local democracy is at least engaging.
Yup, Christopher Wellbelove has not only got himself some nifty gold chains but also a Twitter account as he struts his stuff as the south London borough’s first citizen. Is it really that gripping that he’s attending the West Norwood Townswomens Guild 50th birthday celebrations? Probably not, but it does mean that from West Norwood up to Waterloo, people are able to keep an eye on what he’s up to and communicate back to him. And, hey, if you were the West Norwood Townswomens’ Guild, you’d be delighted with the mention, wouldn’t you?
In Greenwich… (bet you saw that coming)… things are different. They’re both Labour councils, but their approaches to dealing directly with the people who pay for them are wildly different. Even in traditional media, they just can’t manage it. Yesterday I found myself swerving around the streets on the weekly Wheelie Bin Slalom; the mess the streets are left in during (and often after) the bin collections. Except this one was different. A load of recycling bins hadn’t been touched, except for the addition of a red tag.
“Your bin has not been emptied as it contains the wrong type of waste. Please leave it at the edge of your property, leaving the label on to identify it for collection. We will return later today to empty it. Thank you. Visit www.greenwich.gov.uk to see what you can put in your bins.”
Huh? A cursory glance at the bags squeezed under the bulging lids seemed to indicate all was well – they were all full of probably-recyclable stuff. What struck me more was the “we will return later today to collect it” message – a fat load of good when many residents are out of their homes for 12 hours or more each day. I used to be one of them. It’s interesting what you miss.
An hour or so later, it dawned on me what was so wrong – the recycled rubbish had not been placed in clear bags. And I dimly remembered a leaflet from the council arriving while I was on holiday which mentioned something about recycled rubbish going in clear bags, which I hadn’t taken much notice of. Not that they’d sent me any clear bags with which to comply with this. And, along my travel, some houses had been left with clear bags, others hadn’t. This was going to confuse the hell out of a lot of people, and get a lot of people’s backs up. As someone that believes in recycling and reducing waste, my heart sank – the council had scored another own goal, and given more ammunition to the kind of people who can’t be bothered to look after their own environment. (Clear sacks can be obtained from the council by calling 020 8921 4661, but it doesn’t mention this on its website.)
And this is why so many people moan about Greenwich Council – it simply can’t communicate properly. It funds a weekly, folksy propaganda newspaper, Greenwich Time, has a lousy website, an awful e-news mailout full of rubbish propaganda about school results, and everything else is a bit piecemeal. The leaflet I got while on holiday should have had something about clear sacks, right at the top – maybe even been delievered with a bundle. But no, so people are left scratching their heads and wondering why they bother. It’s an authority that prefers to issue commands from on high, rather than engage with people on the streets.
Surely, as the Tweeting mayor of Lambeth shows, this attitude is running out of time? Not yet. As mentioned before, only
one two out of 51 Greenwich councillors bother to keep a blog – one is Eltham North Conservative Nigel Fletcher, who occasionally shines a light on local matters, but usually seems too in awe of life in Westminster, where he works. And when I asked him where the Tories would save us some cash, he didn’t reply. Another Tory, wannabe councillor Simon Emmett – who used to write a blog called The Last Boy Scout – is a bit more frequent, but still seems too full of righteous anger at the national government to realise he’s actually only standing for a single council ward, Shooters Hill. A second national humilation? It’s a long way from Red Lion Lane.
The other, I discovered the day after writing this, is Peninsula councillor Mary Mills – much loved by Greenwich Phantom readers and a respected local historian – who keeps an occasional, chatty diary and also compiles an e-mail newsletter for her and her Labour colleagues.
But what about the other 35 Labour councillors? I did hear somewhere years back that they were forbidden from blogging – I’ve no idea if this is true or not, although it does ring true. (Although perhaps not now I’ve found one.) I do know some councillors do engage with local bloggers offline – credit to them for doing that, but without actually putting their heads above the parapet and engaging with a wider public online, they simply aren’t going to get their message across. Perhaps they want to avoid difficult discussions about the Olympics, or the widely unpopular planned move of John Roan school – but when you charge hundreds of pounds a year and can’t even get a simple message about recycling rubbish right, it’s nowhere near good enough.
But just gettting a blog, even responding publicly on one, or joining Twitter, would be a start. Sure, these people hold down jobs too, and we don’t want to know what they had for breakfast. But even just a weekly message – what’s on residents’ minds, what’s going on down at the town hall, will my street ever get swept – would transform the council. And, who knows? It might help them do their job.
Any tips on coaxing them out of their silence would be appreciated…