Greenwich Conservative councillor predicts Tory losses in 2018’s election

Spencer Drury via Twitter
Eltham North councillor Spencer Drury fears he may have a little more time to relax with a beer after May’s election

A senior Greenwich Conservative councillor has predicted his party will lose seats in May’s council election because their Labour rivals will “promise gifts for everyone”.

Former leader Spencer Drury was speaking during last week’s full council meeting, where he said the government’s austerity programme had “failed” and that the public sector pay cap had “gone on too long”.

Drury’s frank comments came during a debate on a motion on the pay cap, when councillors resolved to write to the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer to call for the cap to be lifted and funds provided so councils could improve staff pay.

Public sector pay has been restricted since 2011, when a two-year pay freeze was implemented. Since then, pay rises have been restricted to 1%, alongside steep cuts to grants given to fund local authorities.

Drury told the meeting that while he had sympathy with public sector workers, the motion did not outline how a pay rise would be funded.

He said: “I honestly feel these are just cheap words tonight. It would be lovely to give a pay rise, but you’ve got to figure out how you are going to do it.

“The country feels to me like it’s still in deep trouble and Labour’s solution to me appears to be more borrowing. I have to say that I suspect many of us will lose our seats in May as Labour promise gifts for everyone.

“They won’t have to think how they’re going to pay for it, it’s just ‘the Conservatives have got it wrong and we can do everything – it’ll all be great’. That’s simply not true.”

Wafer-thin majorities

Spencer Drury
Drury was speaking in a council debate on the public sector pay cap

The Conservatives won just eight of 51 council seats in 2014’s election, clawing back a ninth in November 2016 when Charlie Davis won a by-election in Eltham North.

While the Tories have only ever had one period in office – from 1968 to 1971 – since the current borough was formed, they have always considered Eltham as their stronghold, with a smaller presence in Blackheath.

But most of their majorities are now wafer-thin, leaving councillors in Eltham North, Eltham South and Blackheath Westcombe vulnerable. Even a small rise in the Labour vote would leave only the three Tories in Coldharbour & New Eltham, in the far south of the borough, in office.

Tory fears of a historic defeat have also been compounded by Eltham Labour MP’s Clive Efford’s thumping win in June’s general election.

Spencer Drury’s speech

An edited version of Spencer Drury’s frank speech to the Greenwich Council chamber, in response to Unite union representative Danny Hoggan. (Watch here – 1 hour 55 minutes in.)

Thank you Mr Mayor. I’ve a range of issues with the caricature of the Conservatives that’s been presented this evening by Danny – I’ve done a enormous amount of work on social housing as have many of my colleagues and a serious look at the record would show that.

But he’s absolutely right to point out – my, how the Labour party’s changed. I don’t know how comfortable Cllr [Denise] Hyland was in saying ‘comrade’ in the council chamber, but it’s been a while.

Mr Mayor, I am a Conservative, I feel I ought to say that.I’m afraid our philosophy of living in our means simply cannot be avoided in the long run. In 2010, there was a complete mess, our commitment was to balance the budget, and to be absolutely honest – and again, as a Conservative, I can at least be honest about this – we failed. We haven’t come close to balancing that budget.

The finances of this country are still not good enough for us to feel confident about the future. So I have to say I have every sympathy with the people asking to raise the salary cap tonight – it’s gone on for far too long.

The reasons for it, I think, were justifiable. But it’s just gone on for far too long.

The problem I have is how would we pay for such a measure. And that’s where I really have problems with the Labour Party. So if we don’t raise taxes, presumably we borrow more. And then we wouldn’t want to borrow that much more because – as Cllr [Christine] Grice pointed out – interest rates would go up, which would hit people in other ways.

We mustn’t raise pay by cutting staff because I accept they are already at a level at which it is extremely hard for staff to carry on with and to deliver the services that we want.

And so we’ve got to look for bigger solutions. The Labour motion before us is simply just a small part of that. Saying ‘we want this’ without looking at all the other problems that exist and all the solutions seems to me to be incomplete at best.

Public and private sector pay has been basically stagnant for the past five years. The core problem is a lack of productivity, growth, and it seems to me that it’s not clear on any side exactly what the answer to that problem is.

So Mr Mayor, I don’t see how I could reasonably support a motion that feels to me something that’s nice to say – cheap words. Yes, we’d all love everyone to have a massive pay rise. But how are you going to pay for it? If Danny really wanted our support, he obviously wouldn’t have put in the words he’s put in this motion.

Just to conclude, Mr Mayor. I honestly feel these are just cheap words tonight. It would be lovely to give a pay rise, but you’ve got to figure out how you are going to do it. The country feels to me like it’s still in deep trouble and Labour’s solution to me appears to be more borrowing.

I have to say – another area where I agree with Danny – that I suspect many of us will lose our seats in May as Labour promise gifts for everyone. They won’t have to think how they’re going to pay for it, it’s just ‘the Conservatives have got it wrong and we can do everything – it’ll all be great’. That’s simply not true. And motions like this feel to me to be irresponsible. Thank you, Mr Mayor.

Also at last week’s council meeting…

Greenwich Council meeting, October 2017
Protesters concerned about Avery Hill Winter Garden packed the meeting

The “watch here” links should lead directly to video of the relevant part of the meeting on most devices.

  • Council leader Denise Hyland denied “gagging” Greenwich Weekender after this website revealed that the new local paper stopped its news coverage after pressure from the council. After a question from Conservative leader Matt Hartley, Hyland said the government had stopped it producing Greenwich Time (“a loved, loved rag”) and claimed council fortnightly Greenwich Info had led to there being a packed public gallery. “I’m very proud that we’ve got both Greenwich Weekender and Greenwich Information [sic] and . As for ‘do we gag them?’ – of course we don’t, they’re a free and independent press.” Several sources within her own party disagree…
    (Watch here – 43 minutes, 30 seconds in)
  • Acting chief executive Debbie Warren was formally confirmed as being in charge of the council’s services and staff by being named Head of Paid Service. Former chief executive John Comber retired in August after 21 years with the council, including three in the top job. Council leader Denise Hyland called Warren “an absolutely fine and outstanding officer of this council”.
    (Watch here – 50 minutes)
  • Mayor Peter Brooks told a petitioner about tower block safety she was “wasting her time” when she asked councillors how many of them lived in a tower block. The comment, meant as a friendly reminder that Emily Bell, a resident of Chesterford House off Shooters Hill Road, had little time to speak, came when Bell and her mother Maggie commented on a petition calling for increased safety measures including sprinters and alarms, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Cabinet member Averil Lekau said the council was following fire brigade advice, and that her daughter lived in a tower block. The Bells’ local councillor, Christine Grice, said it was important for the council to recognise “the high level of anxiety” among residents.
    (Watch here – 57 mins)
  • 40 protesters saw a motion passed by the council which backs applying for Heritage Lottery Fund money to restore Avery Hill Winter Garden, which is threatened by Greenwich University’s plans to sell the site. Protesters want the council to buy the site from the university for £1 – the sum it was sold for in 1992. A 5,000-name petition calling for action was presented to the council.
    (Watch here – 01:04:47)
  • Greenwich Council meeting, October 2017
    The near-empty public gallery after the Avery Hill protesters had gone. Unite’s Danny Hoggan is addressing councillors.
  • Councillors united to back a campaign to get more Greenwich residents to sign up to the organ donor registeras revealed by 853’s Mercury Man earlier this month. Moving the motion, Kidbrooke with Hornfair councillor David Stanley said the aim was to “save lives”. Conservative leader Matt Hartley said his father’s life had been saved by a kidney transplant. “His life was saved by an old friend who turned up at the door and said he was giving him one of his kidneys, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I could live to be 100 years old and never see a greater act of friendship than that.” 17 people in Greenwich borough are on the waiting list for an organ transplant. You can sign up to be an organ donor here.
    (Watch here – 02:28:25)
  • A Conservative motion calling for a full review of problems in the planning department was thrown out. Blackheath Westcombe Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty told the meeting that problems were still going on, with one planning application in his ward stalled for almost a year. But regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe said 98% of applications were being dealt with in time, and that the issues in planning were to be looked at by a council scrutiny panel.
    (Watch here – 02:39:30)

No other reporters were present at last week’s meeting. I’m hoping council meeting write-ups will be a regular feature on 853 in future. Help support 853’s coverage of issues in Greenwich and south-east London: patreon.com/853

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