853 exclusive: Incoming Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has promised he will shake up the borough’s planning system – and will not sit on the borough’s main planning committee.
No cabinet member will sit on the Planning Board, the committee which decides on major developments across the borough, he told Labour councillors in a manifesto sent out ahead of Wednesday night’s internal election, which saw him succeed Denise Hyland as Labour leader.
Thorpe won the election by just one vote after a councillor who was due to back rival candidate Averil Lekau turned up late for the meeting.
His manifesto to Labour councillors promises that the board will be comprised of members from across the borough – currently it is heavily slanted towards Eltham, which is less affected by major new developments – with Labour councillors choosing nominees in area-based votes.
“I will lead on boosting fairness and engagement in the planning process,” he told councillors.
“Under my leadership, we were the first council in the country to bring greater transparency to planning viability assessments. But some residents still feel uncertain as changes happen around them.
“We will be responsive to their concerns and be strong in our messages about the impact of Tory policies at national level.”
He promises to “increase community engagement in planning and regeneration, explaining the choices that the council has in relation to community benefits”.
In addition, he also wants residents to develop “neighbourhood planning forums to underpin evidence-based policies that result in good planning decisions”.
As cabinet member for regeneration, Thorpe has been at the forefront of some of Greenwich’s most controversial decisions, especially one to allow a cruise liner terminal in east Greenwich to have ships powering themselves using highly polluting generators.
Most recently, residents in Charlton were angry after a controversial development on Victoria Way was approved with councillors on the planning board not asked to explain why they backed it – Thorpe was the only one to acknowledge objectors. Residents’ groups have also been critical of the “stakeholder forums” set up to discuss major schemes.
Hyland sat on planning for all of her time as leader, following in the footsteps of predecessor Chris Roberts. She was the only London borough leader to regularly sit on her borough’s main planning committee – even though the process is supported to be separate from party politics.
One ally of Thorpe told 853 that fellow cabinet members pleaded in vain for Hyland to step down from planning after getting criticism from residents, adding: “She just couldn’t see the political hit we were taking.”
Hyland stepped down after losing support from councillors who had felt the administration lacked direction, 853 understands. She remains in charge until Wednesday 23 May’s annual meeting of the council.
‘More social housing’
Thorpe’s manifesto also promises a housing delivery board to “deliver more social housing and accelerate our local authority new-build scheme”, as well as reviewing all financial commitments to ensure additional resources for house building and exploring how the borough can expand its private landlord licensing scheme. It does not mention Meridian Home Start, the independent company set up by the council to build homes at 65% market rent (about twice council rents).
He also promises greater transparency – including establishing a cabinet member for finance and resources; a common position in most boroughs but in Greenwich, Hyland and Roberts took on this role as part of their leadership jobs.
“My cabinet members will take ownership of their portfolios, and I will not tolerate poor performance from any cabinet member,” his manifesto added – following concerns raised by residents that cabinet members seemed to know very little about key issues.
Thorpe also promises to “build on” the council’s Better Together public meetings – criticised by some residents for being too tightly controlled and not taking accounts of their concerns.
‘Focus on environment’
At least half of his cabinet will be women, he says, while the council will commission independent research to tackle “the worrying disproportionality in outcomes we see in some black and ethnic minority communities”.
He also promises to give environmental issues an “unprecedented focus”, establishing “a programme of healthy streets across the borough” and holding a full internal debate on river crossings.
Thorpe currently works part-time as a primary school teacher, and is likely to remain in that role until the end of the school year. He will formally become leader after the council’s annual meeting on Wednesday.
His manifesto references his difficult upbringing in Kidbrooke’s Ferrier Estate and Eltham’s Page Estate and how he joined Labour because he saw “first-hand the positive impact of Labour in power”.
“I saw improvements in my community. Decent homes became a right for everyone, Sure Start centres supported our local estates. Things became much easier for LGBT people like me as Labour pursued greater equality,” he says.
He adds that he “left home at 16, [having] somewhat blown the doors off the closet at this point”, crediting support from Thomas Tallis School in helping him restart his A-levels.
“I want to lead a Labour council that deals with the root causes of poverty head on, delivering change that benefits the whole community,” he says.
“My political activism instilled in me the will to never grow complacent. To persist in the face of adversity. That is reflected in our party – we never give up on our community, we want the best for local people.”
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