Wellington Street Diary: Drummers herald the end of term at Greenwich Council

Greenwich Council meeting, 21 March 2018
Nine Tories on Greenwich Council… but how many after May?

A round-up of stories and observations from last week’s Greenwich Council meeting, the last one before elections on 3 May. A lot happened, so it seems to make sense to bring them all together like this.

Strange things happen in London’s town halls every four years. On Monday in Camden, it was a veteran Tory swigging his own home-brewed wine. Last Wednesday in Greenwich, it was ceremonial mayor Peter Brooks sending the drummers in… and he’s not even standing down.

The last council meeting before an election is always a weird one. Your always-enquiring correspondent would have sent them off with the haunting sounds of Richard Hawley – a bit of Tonight The Streets Are Ours would be apt for the following 40 evenings of doorstep-bothering. But Brooksy was impressed by the air cadets he heard the other week, and got them into the town hall to entertain the troops for his last session in the mayor’s chair.

This time four years ago, the last meeting of the Chris Roberts regime saw warm tributes to councillors who knew their time was up. But there were few of these last Wednesday – despite the many years of service the likes of Labour stalwarts Allan MacCarthy, Barbara Barwick and Don Austen have piled up.

Tory leader Matt Hartley did, however, have warm words for departing representatives Mandy Brinkhurst and Nuala Geary – one of the opposition’s more effective voices and departing for her new home in Sussex (“send us some rock”, Hyland joked later). He also paid tribute to his deputy leader Mark Elliott – also stepping down, noting that he was “usually the wiser and cooler of our two heads”. (watch here)

But with Labour poised to rack up big gains in May’s poll, and the rare sight of all nine Tory councillors in the same place at the same time, one question hung in the air: will we ever see nine Tories in Woolwich Town Hall again?

Labour leadership questions

Oh, and there was a second question, too. Who will lead the council after May? For years, the smart money was on deputy leader Danny Thorpe. Then his manoevres were discovered by leader Denise Hyland, rupturing their double-act.

So, Denise, Danny, or AN Other?

Tory leader Matt Hartley had evidently caught wind of where the smart money was heading, noting the absence of housing cabinet member Averil Lekau and looking forward to seeing her in “the forthcoming Labour leadership contest”. (watch here)

“Rather cheeky, I must say,” Hyland responded.

Environment cabinet member Jackie Smith, a woman unable to see an abandoned bin bag without blaming it on the Tories, was in a less forgiving mood.

“It is incredibly inappropriate to be speculating about the future leadership of the council,” she finger-wagged, adding that the Tories would be struggling to choose a leader come May because there wouldn’t be many of them. Labour councillors fell about laughing.

Hartley wasn’t going to stop, though, commenting that a speech by Thorpe was “yet more leadership hustings”, to a tut from Smith as loud as a sonic boom.

Far right Twitter user targeting Charlton Manor school
A Twitter user, earlier this month

A schooling for Matt Hartley?

Arguably, one of the Tories’ biggest problems in Greenwich is that they, well, act too much like Tories.

Under Matt Hartley, the opposition has become less inclined to wear its party colours lightly – even if that means saying things that won’t exactly endear them to the neutral observer.

The weekend before the meeting, Hartley had become embroiled in a row on Twitter with Charlton Manor primary school over government policy on free school meals. He objected to the school account retweeting a complaint about “Tory MPs guzzling champagne”.

Charlton Manor School tweet

Cue an extremely popular and well-respected school being deluged in abuse by by the far right.

Abuse sent to Charlton Manor School

If Hartley thought he was seizing a moral high ground, it’d just sunk away from him. Taking on a state school in a staunchly Labour borough is never going to end well.

This episode was brought up in an unusual question from Labour’s Christine Grice to deputy leader Danny Thorpe. Hartley asked if he could make a personal statement on the matter, and… doubled down on his actions.

“It amounted to a school using its Twitter feed for party political content. And that, I’m sorry, is unacceptable.” (Watch here)

Perhaps a quiet word with the school away from the echoing sewer of social media would have done a better job for Hartley.

If Labour achieve their dream of a clean sweep of the Greenwich Council chamber – which could actually happen this time – then this row, however well-intentioned, would provide an unfortunate epitaph for Conservative politics in the borough.

Greenwich Council website
Found it!

Council website woes

Among the public questions: why is Greenwich Council’s website so crap? Or, to put it as Plumstead resident David Poole said – why does it block search engines from looking for documents such as committee reports?

According to cabinet member Maureen O’Mara, it was all about “ensuring that key search results on the main Council website weren’t being drowned out by the huge number of PDF documents sitting on the Committees section of the website”.

The trouble is, of course, even searching for anything to do with decision-making on the council website is a pain in the behind. Even a basic search for “council meeting calendar” can throw up unpredictable results.

O’Mara continued: “We made some changes to the robots file recently, but appreciate we still haven’t got the perfect solution. However we are upgrading the Council’s website software this summer so will go back to the drawing board on this one to work out a better way of getting website customers straight to the documents and webpages they are looking for.”

Hopefully David will be invited to the user testing.

Woolwich tower plans
Meyer Homes wants to build on green space outside Tesco

Speak Out… no, shut up

While most of the meeting was relatively good-natured, a unedifying moment came when Speak Out Woolwich housing campaigner John Edwards spoke against Meyer Homes’ plans for a 27-storey tower with no social housing in front of Tesco.

It proved to be one of those clashes where residents and teh council are on completely different planets.

“Something has gone badly wrong with this development over a number of years, there has been a lack of transparency and a breakdown of trust in the democratic process,” Edwards told councillors. (watch here)

But Edwards was only given two minutes to speak, and the clock stopped just as he was getting into his stride.

“Up until now, there has been a lack of an organised voice for residents in Woolwich. We have allowed development – the clock has stopped, if you’ll give me thirty seconds Mr Mayor, you gave Councillor Thorpe a minute earlier.”

For some reason, Brooks wasn’t having it. “Your time’s up…”

Many residents would have been intimidated, but Edwards continued.

“Oh carry on, you’re ignoring me, I don’t mind,” said Brooks, turning Edwards’ mic off.

Forty seconds later, Edwards wound up just as the situation became excruciatingly awkward.

With the row over the Tesco tower starting to feel like a dress rehearsal for the battle over the Spray Street demolitions, expect more of this next term unless there is a change in the way the council treats residents with grievances.

Winds Common, Plumstead
Members of the Gurkha community are left wandering around Plumstead by unscrupulous landlords, the council heard (Photo: Nico Hogg, used under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0.)

Plumstead’s slum landlords exposed

Right at the end of the council meeting, something that happens all too rarely – an urgent issue is raised that that everybody agrees on.

Labour councillor Sarah Merrill proposed a motion on landlords who lock tenants out of their homes during the day. (watch here)

“We;ve a really nasty issue here – our borough is tackling it, but the more we do to tackle it, the more the government throws things in our way to make the situation worse, while making it easier for slum landlords to grow their employers and exploit the most vulnerable in our society.”

Merrill’s plain speaking – of slumlords turning family homes into shoddy bedsits, an issue spreading across her Shooters Hill ward, and of government plans to allow them to add a storey onto houses without planning permission – struck a chord, because it was shorn of the usual knee-jerk defensiveness.

“These so-called landlords seem to be locking landlords out from nine in the morning to about seven in the evening,” she continued.

“It seems to be the Gurkhas that are targeted by this. These are a proud people to whom the Labour government granted the right to settle, and who fought for this country. And these are the people we understand are being locked out, spending their days walking around Plumstead Common and in the betting shops.

“Even worse, there are landlords who are letting beds on a bed-share basis – so you pay for a bed either during the day, or during the night.”

“The purpose of this motion is to flag up to the people of the Royal Borough of Greenwich the cause of this problem, and to outline what the council is doing to tackle this.”

A clearly moved Matt Hartley signalled the Tories would be agreeing with the motion. “It’s atrocious – in fact, atrocious is not strong enough a word.”

Merrill’s motion was a reminder that for all that for all its PR bluster, there are real issues that the council is trying to address – if only it wasn’t buried in heaps of reputation management.

And it showed that for all the rudeness and evasion, there are people inside the town hall who do care deeply.

You can even stand for election to join them. And you have until 4pm next Friday to get your nominations in…

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