Greenwich Council cuts £63m without a whimper

A newspaper journalist I chatted to took a camera along specially. I hid a little video camera just in case. But in the end, Greenwich Council cut £63m from its budget – said to be 30% of its outgoings – without a murmur of protest at Woolwich Town Hall on Wednesday night. In fact, when the fateful decision was made, just before 9pm, only 15 people were in the public gallery to see both Labour and Conservative councillors unite to back the cuts, without any dissent. Take away journalists/bloggers and local party activists, and that drops to single figures.

Granted, there was a group of 30 trade unionists outside the town hall’s front entrance – led by Socialist Party activist Onay Kasab – handing out leaflets compelling Labour councillors not to implement the government’s cuts (some went through a side door to avoid them). But that was it as protest went.

A long line of barriers was laid out in Wellington Street in anticipation of a big demonstration, but there were no banners, no chanting, and none of the protesters even entered the public gallery. No police (at least at 6.30pm) to keep an eye on them, either. I got in without bother, although I’m told council staff were on the door asking people if they represented the press, and discouraging others from entering the meeting.

So what happened inside? The blame game was definitely being played, but it wasn’t the all-out barney I expected. In fact, that came later, in a debate largely about council procedure which seemed to go on forever.

A couple of the speeches were even, well, good. Council leader Chris Roberts was asked earlier in the evening if he’d approve of citizen journalists filming or recording council meetings. He fudged the question, but actually if someone was recording his speech moving the budget motion, he might be pleasantly surprised with the response. He listed the council’s achievements over the past decade (that he has been in charge for), saying presenting budgets had been a “privilege”. “Tonight, we face a different proposition,” he said, saying the cuts were a result of a “crisis created by the private sector, but contained by the public sector”.

But this one, he said, was a “ticking timebomb”, with coalition government cuts – particularly in housing benefit in west and central London – threatening to put huge pressure on Greenwich’s finances. Eliminating bankers’ bonuses would have protected local councils from cuts, and for those worried about allotment charges, parking charges, and the Maryon Wilson Park animal park (which, incidentally, he said he was confident a solution could found for), he said the council needed to prioritise services for the elderly and for at-risk children. “There is a perspective which drives us on this side of the chamber,” he said.

There was a curious response later from Labour backbencher Don Austen, who hailed Roberts’ speech as one of the best he’d heard in 25 years on the council, and enthused about how Greenwich Labour had seen off the SDP and the Liberal Democrats, and the same fate would hit the latter party nationally. Which was odd, because he entered the council 25 years ago as a councillor for the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

Conservative leader Spencer Drury said his group largely supported the cuts, and anything else was “quibbling around the edges”. He called for Cleansweep – whose budget is being increased by £1m – to be put out to tender because it was “incapable of doing the job within budget”, but Labour’s Maureen O’Mara said it was because of increased visitor numbers to the borough, now approaching seven million. (I wonder if that’ll mean my Charlton backstreets will see the business end of a broom more than once a week?)

After Tory councillors Adam Thomas and Matt Clare blamed the last Labour government, their party’s deputy leader Nigel Fletcher – who’s just published a book called How To Be In Opposition inspired by his time as an aide to senior Tories – mused that “the blame game doesn’t go down well with residents”. He reminded councillors that he had spent 15 hours seeing the “human face of budget reductions” – the voluntary groups who are competing for a far smaller slice of council funds. They were the true “big society”, he added – “voluntary groups who give up their free time to support other people”.

All of which brought about an amazingly ungracious response from Labour’s Danny Thorpe, who spat out that Fletcher’s next book “should be called Fantasy Land”. Thorpe, whose best known contribution to Greenwich Council was spending a great chunk of his time as a councillor living in Australia, also commented that communities secretary Eric Pickles, whose cuts these are, knew nothing about local government.

He could have learned lessons in dignity from his Labour colleague David Grant, who said the budget was the best possible under the circumstances, but also managed to slip in a dig at Lewisham Council too. Referring to outsourcing public services, he implied Lewisham had allowed the festival on Blackheath because it has hived off management of its parks – including its side of the heath – to contractor Glendale, which stands to gain financially if the event goes ahead.

But with no dissent, and just two parties in the chamber, the cuts package went through with a shrug. Indeed, with all the cutbacks on the agenda, there were only two questions from the public on the order paper – both from former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood, still monitoring events for his party despite losing his seat last May.

There’s more to report, but it’s late and the cuts are the main thing, especially as they’re causing such rows elsewhere. Maybe the council leadership’s strategy to keep details of the cuts as vague as possible worked – or maybe nobody really genuinely cares. Cuts night didn’t turn out to be a nightmare on Wellington Street in the end – but Greenwich may well have sleepwalked into some very troubled times indeed.

A quick clarification: This cuts for this financial year are worth £48.6m. The whole package, until 2015, is worth £63m, and it was the budget report including this as well as this year’s cuts which was endorsed by the council last night. Londonist is following the capital-wide picture.

16 comments

  1. Interesting. Chris Roberts is right that the crisis in funding has been caused by the private sector and is being absorbed by the public sector. There is, though, another step between the money having been lost and it being taken from libraries and schools and whatever else, and that is that the national government has determined to recover funds by cutting services provided by the state rather than recouping in corporate tax.

    I see that huge bonuses cause anger and I can see why, but they’re beside the point. Banning bonuses without reforming tax arrangements doesn’t provide any money to the Treasury. The banks should be free to carry out whatever counter-productive and suicidal remuneration policies they like as long as they pay a fair rate of tax.

    I can also see, mind you, that a long discussion about the causes of the cuts and which party is to blame is not very productive in local politics.

  2. This crisis was not caused by the private sector. It was caused by the last government running a suicidal pro cyclical fical policy. If it were only caused by the UK banking sector then why has Germany not had to cut its government spending like the UK. Germany, after all, had to bail out its savings bank and a huge property investemnt bank called HypoReal?

  3. Greenwich residents have been successfully kept in the dark then? In for such a rude awakening? In the last week, at council meetings in Camden, Barnet and Hackney, the police and private security have had to attend to deal with protestors. In Hackey, staff were sent home at 5.00pm to “protect” them from the protestors. (Sources: Twitter reports from @hangbitch, @rooftopjaxx and others.)

  4. (3rd time I’ve attempted to post this- ran out of signal once & batteries the second time but has at least allowed me a little more time to reflect!)

    Richard, the German government has had to make cuts of EUR 80bn, and while she was proposing them Angela Merkel made specific reference to the role of banks in the crisis. We agree that pro-cyclical fiscal policies are bad if that also means, as I understand it to, that you should not cut public spending while the economy is tanking.

    But it sounds like the councillors mostly avoided throwing blame around and perhaps we should too. Sadly Greenwich doesn’t have much choice but to heavily cut spending. The lack of protest could have been down to apathy, could have been down to the council’s communication strategy but could also just have been a recognition that the place to register displeasure with the state of affairs might not be at the town hall.

  5. German public debt hit a record high of 1.998 trillion euros in 2010. A lot of this money was used to keep many workers on who otherwise would have been laid off.

    But now Germany is leading the euro zone out of the Doldrums. Guess what’s driving that? Rising tax receipts. So much so that the Germans are looking to pay off their additional borrowing early (2015).

    If you fire someone they become a drain on the economy — even if you cut their benefits as the Tories are doing.

    If you keep them employed they continue paying tax, NI etc and don’t claim benefits.

    I’ve very much over-simplified the above, but it aint rocket science.

  6. The budget debate was indeed quite good with Messrs Roberts and Drury at their best.

    However the later debate was about much more than procedure and showed the unsavoury side of the Labour Group. At an earlier Council meeting Cabinet Member Steve Offord had strongly defended the principle of permanent secure tenancies for new council tenants. However subsequently he signed off a response to the Government’s consultation document which said that the Council would welcome the chance to award fixed-term tenacies.

    The Tories righly pointed out this inconsistency and Offord ended the meeting with credibility extinct. He didn’t try to explain his behaviour and was reduced to snivelling about personal abuse. Councillor Denise Hyland gave probably the worst speech I have ever heard in the Chamber while Chris Roberts tried to suppress debate by intervening with an unnecessary Point of Order.

  7. I agree with you Paul – unfortunately, while I can see the point the Tories were making, it did just end up in a procedural ping-pong which ended up in the usual sport of “councillors talking about each other”.

    The public couldn’t see the amendments handed out, so the debate may as well have been about fish for all we knew. I may well return to it.

  8. It looks from here as if a large part of the Greenwich population has had political awareness bred out of them, probably because of the lack of a local newspaper or two (and reading only Greenwich Time).

    The middle-class and the “well-heeled” (in the word of our hypocritical MP) will organise to survive the years of austerity: they will have paid off their debts, paid the children’s school fees in advance, retrenched. The Left love to joke that the Big Society won’t collect the bins but the middle-class will, actually, have no trouble organising matters such as their own street bin collection and derive local kudos from doing so.

    It is those on Housing Benefit, etc, who have been used to the Council doing everything, and with no sense of belonging to a community, who will be hit next month by the train coming down the track.

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