Storm in a toilet bowl: Councillors row over £600,000 Plumstead café plan

Slade toilets, Plumstead Common
The disused toilet block is at the Slade triangle, which faces Plumstead Common

853 exclusive: A row has blown up inside Greenwich Council’s ruling Labour party after the borough’s deputy leader appeared to sign off over £600,000 in funding to convert a disused toilet in his ward into a café and community facility.

Councillors received an email last month telling them that Danny Thorpe had approved the £580,000 scheme to refurbish the shut-down block at The Slade, Plumstead, and extend it so a café could open.

The toilet is in Thorpe’s own ward of Shooters Hill, and council convention is that leading councillors do not sign off expenditure on their own wards.

The papers were switched so council leader Denise Hyland signed the money off, and 853 understands that senior councillors are putting the incident down to a mix-up where Thorpe’s name was added to the paper without his knowledge.

But in a highly unusual move, the decision was formally challenged by Labour councillors, who point out that Thorpe also appeared to have signed off £40,000 in ward budget funding for a feasibility study into the scheme last year.

The Slade scheme is now going ahead after Hyland endorsed the spending for a second time.

Slade toilets, Plumstead
The toilets have been closed for some years

Long-cherished plan for the Slade

The plan to convert the toilets, which have been shut down for many years, has been a long-cherished aim of the three councillors for Shooters Hill ward – Thorpe, Chris Kirby and Sarah Merrill.

It will provide “a community space to gather and socialise with a display space, a small stage for performers [and] a public toilet, all based around a café facility”.

The block sits just inside Shooters Hill ward, with the borders of Glyndon and Plumstead wards running alongside. It also sits at the point where the borough’s three parliamentary constituencies – Greenwich & Woolwich, Eltham and Erith & Thamesmead – meet.

Funding was first granted in August 2016, with ward budget money used to pay for a feasibility study into the proposal. Each of Greenwich’s 17 wards was given £30,000 in 2016 to pay for community schemes and improvement projects at councillors’ discretion.

£20,000 came from the Glyndon fund, and a further £20,000 came from Shooters Hill – with councillors told in an email sent on 15 August 2016 that the approval had come from Thorpe in Hyland’s absence. Plumstead ward did not contribute any money. The rules for ward budget funding state that projects must not be used to fund schemes that would result in ongoing expenditure for the council, although they do say “refurbishment of community facilities” and “renovating a community landmark” are permissible.

This was not challenged by either Labour or Conservative councillors at the time, and the document now shows Hyland as the decision-maker, except on the council’s web page where it still shows the decision as coming from the deputy leader.

But on 27 November this year councillors received an email telling them that Thorpe had approved £584,790 funding and would go ahead with the project. On 4 December, the decision was changed so Hyland gave it the go-ahead.

It was then “called in” by councillors, under a procedure where decisions can either sent back to be reconsidered by the decision-maker, away from public view, or sent to a committee of councillors for a formal hearing at the town hall.

The scheme was called in to be reconsidered by Hyland, who gave the project her backing on Monday.

Slade toilets, Plumstead
The plan would see an extension built at the back of the toilet block.

‘Favourable treatment’

But a number of other Labour councillors remain uncomfortable with the project, according to multiple sources, believing it should not have been given initial funding through ward budget money, particularly as it would benefit a commercial business.

“We don’t do this to provide support for other start-ups or small businesses within the council,” one source says.

They also claim that costs have been allowed to spiral from an initial estimate of £140,000, while some feel that Thorpe’s ward has been given favourable treatment because of the threat from disgruntled residents who have formed their own Plumstead Party to contest May’s council elections.

Some have suggested suggested that the money could be better spent refurbishing the nearby Slade community centre.

“If the scheme had been taken to cabinet, there would have been full consideration of all options,” the source adds.

“It’s just like the bad old days of Chris Roberts,” another source commented, recalling the dictatorial atmosphere under the former council leader.

“This £580,000 is coming out of a ‘priority investment fund’ – is this really a priority?”

Greenwich council website
The council website still shows the original ward budget funding as being approved by Thorpe (then contradicts itself later)

For their part, Thorpe’s allies feel he is being unfairly targeted by elements within the local party and the wider community, and add that the scheme has been through a number of public meetings and consultation phases.

Thorpe, who juggles the council’s demanding regeneration portfolio with a part-time teaching position, has been a leading defender of many of the council’s most unpopular decisions over recent years, such as the Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal and its backing for the Silvertown Tunnel, decisions which have resulted in deep divisions in the ruling group.

A series of errors in the planning department – which is part of Thorpe’s portfolio –
have also caused anger, particularly in Plumstead where a refusal to allow a bank to be turned into a branch of bookmaker William Hill was overturned after the council failed to defend its original decision.

Funding is ‘entirely appropriate’

A Greenwich Council spokesperson told this website: “Under the Leader’s General Scheme of Delegation of Executive Functions, this report would normally be assigned to the relevant Cabinet Member to sign off – in this case the Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Sustainability [Thorpe] and this is what was initially done. It was then felt that given this decision related to that Cabinet Member’s ward, it should be for the Leader to sign it off.

“This decision was then called-in to be reconsidered by the Leader. The Leader has examined the project again and stands by her original decision, so the decision is now approved.”

Council leader Denise Hyland told 853: “As a council we are committed to improving facilities for our communities and we make no apologies for investing in turning old disused toilets into a really exciting community cafe that will benefit residents from Shooters Hill and Glyndon as well as neighbouring wards.

“Ward funds are designed to be used to renovate community facilities. It is entirely appropriate for ward budgets to be used for a one-off project like the proposed Slade café.”

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