It’s Greenwich Foot Tunnel that gets all the attention, but if you want a graphic example of the chaos that’s surrounded Greenwich Council’s handling of the foot tunnels fiasco, now to be the subject of an independent inquiry, you need to head to Woolwich. For months after the tunnel was reopened, it still bore a sign claiming it was closed. It’s finally been replaced, with the quality of information that you’d expect of an authority with a generously-funded communications department.
See, the government’s beastly cutbacks meant the felt tip ran out before they could colour in the arrow properly.
But there are several questions left unanswered by the unusually damning report into the botched refurbishment programme. I’ve a few, have you got any more?
Why didn’t council officers undertake “intensive scrutiny” of the project fron the start? After all, the report makes clear this was a “uniquely complex and specialist project”, yet “intense scrutiny” only took place 17 months into the scheme, when it was clear things were going wrong. Why was this?
Has the £11 million from the government run out? The funding came from a government programme. Last month, the cabinet member in charge, Denise Hyland, was asked in a council meeting if the money had run out. Her answer was that the budget was “considered sufficient to complete the project, subject to the contractual issues being resolved with the contractors involved in the first phase of the works” – the first, tiny hint of a problem. Yet this didn’t answer the question – has the money run out?
Did cabinet member Denise Hyland knowingly mislead the public? On 26 October 2011, Denise Hyland blamed the delays on “hidden structures” in an answer to the co-ordinator of Greenwich Cyclists. We now know this answer was nonsense. This was at least a month after council officers started “much more intense scrutiny” of the project. As someone that’s a full-time cabinet member with a big portfolio (“regeneration, enterprise and skills”) she must have known what was going on. If not, why not?
Will heads roll as a consequence of this inquiry? Again, as the politician in charge, and the one that should be giving direction to council staff, what exactly was Denise Hyland’s role? After all, big projects in other parts of the council (such as schools) have gone smoothly, once work has begun. Her lead council officer, John Comber, who earns £155,000 per year, also surely has questions to answer.
Will we ever get to see the results of this inquiry? Will the report be published? The two foot tunnels are important crossings used by hundreds of thousands of people from across London and far beyond. Will Greenwich Council try to cover up the findings?
The issues surrounding the foot tunnels fiasco go to the heart of the way the council is run. This isn’t a party political issue – the opposition Conservatives have also failed to ask questions in council meetings about this. (Away from the council benches, local Lib Dems* and Greens have also failed to apply pressure.) The failure of the foot tunnels project should shame every Greenwich councillor. But what are they going to do to put things right?
(* I should acknowledge that Lib Dem assembly member Caroline Pidgeon has pursued the issue from City Hall.)