Tories take aim at Greenwich Info and mayoral ceremony as councillors back tax rise

Greenwich Info
Greenwich Info: Dull as ditchwater, apparently

Greenwich councillors voted through a total council tax rise of nearly 6% on Wednesday night – rejecting proposals to scrap its fortnightly Greenwich Info paper, cut back on the mayor’s inauguration ceremony and introduce free bulky waste collections.

Councillors backed a rise of 2.99%, along with an additional increase of 3% approved last year to cover increased social care costs.

“The people of this borough will understand this rise when we tell them what it is for,” council leader Denise Hyland said.

But Tory leader Matt Hartley said the full rise was not necessary, and the main council tax increase could be pegged back to 1.99%.

The new tax rate, which was first passed by the council’s cabinet in a five-minute meeting on 21 February, will see residents in band D homes charged £1,429.33, which also includes £294 charged by the Greater London Authority. This is a 5.8% increase on current bills.

Greenwich’s council tax rates remain lower than both Lewisham (up 3.99% to £1,498.10) and Bexley (set to agree an overall 4.19% rise to £1,588.04 on 7 March).

The meeting was cut short because of the icy conditions in south-east London, meaning questions and petitions from the public were not heard.

Wednesday’s debate was characterised by two usual elements of Greenwich Council debates – Labour councillors refusing to admit to any fallibility, with Tory councillors declining to distance themselves from anything their party’s government had done.

And what wasn’t heard was the divisions in the Labour group over the council tax increase, with 853 understanding from several sources there have been sharp disagreements in the council leadership – including from Clive Efford, the Eltham MP who wields a huge amount of behind-the-scenes control over council policy.

These disagreements could yet have an impact on who leads the council after May’s poll.

Little information about the budget

Matt Hartley
Matt Hartley makes his point to Denise Hyland

Unlike other councils, very little information was presented to councillors about next year’s budget – indeed, two of the papers presented simply showed how Greenwich’s council tax was comparatively low compared to other boroughs.

Hyland said this was because many of the savings had already been agreed in its medium term financial strategy (wake up at the back)endorsed by the council’s cabinet in January 2016.

In a possible hint that council tax in Greenwich has actually been kept too low in recent years – it was frozen for seven years from 2009 – Hyland said it needed to “grow its council tax base”.

Greenwich council tax increases provided less money than in more affluent areas, she added, pointing out each rise of 1% would only raise £800,000, while in Richmond it brought in £1.2m.

Tory leader Matt Hartley presented a series of amendments to the budget which he said would peg the increase back.

They included regular Tory calls for cutting time off for trade union reps in the council and pegging back the PR budget. Hartley added the council could save £600,000 alone by cutting back on wasteful printing, photocopying and postage.

‘Dull as ditchwater’ Greenwich Info

‘Indepedent’ paper Greenwich Weekender also came under scrutiny

But it also included the scrapping of Greenwich Info – the fortnightly replacement for controversial weekly council paper Greenwich Time – which even Hyland said was “dull as ditchwater” compared to its predecessor. Spending on council-subsidised “independent” paper Greenwich Weekender – which dropped news coverage after pressure from the council over unflattering stories – was also in Hartley’s sights.

“Reducing non-statutory and non-housing publicity budgets – including that Greenwich Weekender contract – scrapping Greenwich Info and reducing those budgets by just one third would save this council £305,000 per year,” he said.

Hyland said Greenwich Info was “pure information” and “better than the Tory philospohy of ‘hide the facts’… I suspect that you don’t want to give information to residents because information is knowledge and knowledge is power and you don’t want to empower residents”.

Neighbouring Labour councils in Lewisham and Southwark make do with publishing magazines four times each year, rather than the 26 issues Greenwich Info publishes.

Peter Brooks and Olu Babatola
The mayor-making ceremony came under scrutiny for the first time at a council meeting in at least eight years

Remarkably, Hartley also took aim at the ceremonial mayor’s annual inauguration ceremony at the Old Royal Naval College. Most boroughs hold a brief mayor-making ceremony as part of a normal council meeting, but Greenwich regularly spends a five-figure sum on a private event in the Painted Hall. In 2016, this set the borough back £20,000.

Despite this ceremony being clearly different from how most other boroughs do business – Southwark has its mayor-making at Southwark Cathedral but opens it up to the public and combines it with a civic awards ceremony – it is the first time in at least eight years – maybe ever – that spending on the ceremony, introduced under past leader Chris Roberts, has been questioned in the council chamber.

Hartley didn’t take aim at the whole ceremony – just the catering (£14,030) – but this still drew sharp criticism from cabinet member Jackie Smith, who said that people going through citizenship ceremonies at Woolwich Town Hall were “amazed to meet the mayor”.

“The mayor’s inauguration is about voluntary groups, not a jolly for councillors,” she added, although past ceremonies have also included a number of property developers and religious groups such as New Wine Church.

Hyland also claimed the ceremony, held each May, “brought the community together” after the riot in Woolwich in August 2011. (You can judge this for yourself against the invite list for May 2012’s event, which shows it to be full of property developers, business representatives and other public sector organisations.)

Council tax reduction row

Woolwich Town Hall, 28 February 2017
The meeting was cut short after heavy snow

Half of Hartley’s savings would go on a scheme to increase the council tax support for working age residents from 85% to 100% of bills, which he said would benefit 15,000 of the borough’s poorest residents.

Hyland reacted by criticising the Conservative government: “How dare you come to this chamber and talk about taking 15,000 people out of council tax?”

She claimed the council was already planning to do this as part of recommendations from its fairness commission, but Hartley has since strongly disputed this, saying the council’s plans would only lift residents in receipt of disability benefits out of council tax.

He also proposed a one-year pilot of cutting charges for collecting bulky waste, which currently costs £10 per item, to attempt to combat fly-tipping.

However, Jackie Smith claimed that fly-tipping was still a problem when bulky waste collections were free.

‘Protecting borough from savage cuts’

Labour councillors lined up to take pot-shots at Hartley, who claimed Conservative cuts had made councils “work smarter and harder”.

“Like Northamptonshire?,” jeered Charlton councillor Gary Parker, who had earlier brought up the Tory council that has fallen into a financial crisis.

Former deputy leader John Fahy said Conservative councillors should apologise for a government which had “torn the heart and soul out of communities up and down the country in the name of austerity”.

“Residents are taking to us about this appalling government that is tearing our community apart. Local government is on its knees. This increase is about protecting borough from the savage cuts from this government,” he said.

Current deputy leader Danny Thorpe said the Tory budget was a “cynical election ploy”, while Hyland made several references to “the people of Eltham” – the battleground for May’s council poll, where Labour is hoping to wipe out most of the area’s Tory councillors.

Jackie Smith said Greenwich was “a well-run council” and that criticism of council services was an “insult to staff”. The Tory amendment was like being in a time warp, she added. “Tell me about it,” Hartley responded, rolling his eyes.

You can watch video of the debate on the Greenwich Council website.

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