Greenwich councillor threatens libel action over developers’ cash blog story

Stephen Brain at Greenwich Ikea launch
Stephen Brain (right) with deputy leader Danny Thorpe, civic mayor Peter Brooks and fellow Peninsula councillor Denise Scott-McDonald at last month’s Greenwich Ikea launch (Photo from Danny Thorpe’s Twitter feed)

A Greenwich Labour councillor has threatened a local blog author with legal action after he was criticised over the council’s record with large developments in his ward.

Peninsula ward’s Stephen Brain, who recently took part in a photocall marking the start of work on the area’s new Ikea, hit back at the writer of From The Murky Depths after he was accused of ignoring residents’ concerns about the impact of new development in the area.

In a Facebook comment, Brain branded the story “nonsense” and said “I would remind the author that social media is subject to the laws of libel but in this case would ask only for an apology and published retraction”.

But the site’s anonymous author has rejected Brain’s complaint, telling 853: “I hope his colleagues have a word.”

Stephen Brain's Facebook post

The row was sparked after The Murky Depths site, which focuses on planning and transport schemes in SE London and Docklands, examined Greenwich’s records on Section 106 payments – money that goes from developers to councils to mitigate the impacts that large developments have on their communities.

These are now being proactively published for the first time because of changes in the law. Other boroughs, such as Southwark have published these payments as a matter of routine.

The Murky Depths highlighted the large sums of money coming into council coffers from developments around Bugsby’s Way in Charlton, within Brain’s ward. The site noted that none had been spent in an area where streets and pavements – the public realm – are in poor and off-putting condition.

In particular, over half a million pounds for public realm allocated from the Sainsbury’s/M&S development remains unspent.

The post added: “Greenwich councillors have either ignored repeated requests as to why this is happening… or blocked people on Twitter after raising issues, such as Stephen Brain.”

But 853 is aware of at least four cases where Brain has blocked people who have raised issues with them – or where Brain took issue with comments that were not addressed to him, but intervened anyway.

On Facebook, Brain said: “I have sought to unlock CIL [Community Infrastructure Levy] monies but as a backbench councillor I have little influence, ie, a non-cabinet member.

“What concerns me is this statement is made by an anonymous author LibDem Tory Green [sic] without the backbone to say who she or he is.”

Brain continued: “I hope readers of this nonsense respect the truth. My record is clear: opposed Ikea oppose Silvertown and the Cruise Liner terminal even with onshore power generation, always represent residents’ views at Planning and Licensing Committees.”

Stephen Brain at Ikea ceremony
Stephen Brain (right) told this website that attending the Ikea launch was the “adult” thing to do, even though he still opposes the store (Photo from Danny Thorpe’s Twitter feed)

While Brain has made clear his unhappiness about Ikea, his Facebook post came two weeks after he joined council colleagues at a photocall to mark the start of construction work on the store. The photos appeared in press releases which were published almost verbatim in the borough’s remaining printed press, without reference to the controversy surrounding the store, which residents fear will bring already-congested streets to a standstill.

The incident highlights the strained relations some Greenwich councillors have with residents on social media, with many feeling that questions about their areas are being ignored.

For their part, councillors often complain of being barracked by anonymous accounts. While some anonymous accounts – particularly in the Woolwich and Plumstead area – have certainly sought to cause ill-feeling, From The Murky Depths has built up a large following, and has been praised by local MP Matt Pennycook. Like 853, it recently launched a fund-raising appeal.

853 understands that the site author stays anonymous because of personal connections with Greenwich Council staff. In 2014 a former councillor wrote about bullying and threats over the kind of planning issues From The Murky Depths concentrates on.

The site author told 853: “Many councillors do not see social media as a place to engage but instead put out propaganda, where they either ignore questions or become very defensive. They’re failing to use the many varied means of modern communication to engage with residents.”

Brain told 853: “I’ve blocked people who have been unpleasant or threatening. I’ve also had to take my address off the council website having received a very serious threat, also [fellow councillor] Denise Scott-McDonald and I were subjected to threats by a man currently serving a second year’s ban from our surgeries.

“The first rule of journalism is to check your sources. I’ve rarely had a conversation about CIL and until the recent council decision had no power to do anything and I’m certainly not forbidding anyone or debate. The statement published is totally inaccurate and should be rectified, just because it’s social media doesn’t make it OK to spread false information or damage someone’s reputation.

“It came out of the blue and we have enough of that with POTUS [Donald Trump].”

On his visit to the Ikea press launch, he said: “I attended the ground break because it was the adult thing to do. My opposition to it continues and I will monitor what they do. I appealed to Mayor Johnson who said no, I then appealed to (then-communities secretary) Eric Pickles who looked at it for some time then turned me down. I tried appealing against his decision and that was knocked back.

“So I lost, therefore as a ward councillor I am honour bound to go with the majority decision despite my best efforts. Also I represent all residents of Peninsula and many want the store and its jobs. I look forward to 38% of shoppers taking their bookcases home on the bus.”

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