Not Better Together: Greenwich Council cancels its public meetings

Better Together meeting
Woolwich Common councillor Anthony Okereke at a Better Together meeting in Charlton (photo: twitter.com/iviswill)

Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has scrapped the borough’s consultation roadshow, Better Together, just two years after it was introduced.

Launched by former leader Denise Hyland, Better Together was a series of meetings held to discuss council issues with local people.

They were also used to gauge public opinion on council priorities, required under legislation for the Community Infrastructure Levy, a surcharge on developers which is used to pay into local services.

But this month’s meetings have been quietly cancelled, with council officials promising a replacement will be announced soon.

Better Together was an attempt to address Greenwich’s notorious problems at engaging with its residents, which until then had been allowed to dwindle to one event per year – the Great Get Together event in Woolwich.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Lewisham was holding – and continues to hold – regular assemblies in each ward, where councillors, police and other officials update residents on issues; and attendees can vote to give small grants to local causes.

‘Open public criticism’

But the Better Together format had been criticised internally, with the borough divided into four areas which would each host regular meetings to discuss specific topics. A decision to include Shooters Hill in the Eltham area meetings – diluting the influence of the Tory councillors in the south of the borough – was also criticised.

Attendees have grumbled to 853 about questions being shut down or ignored, with one reporting that the event was like “being talked at”.

Others said the format simply didn’t go far enough when compared with Lewisham and other boroughs. One internal critic of the council leadership told 853: “[Eltham MP] Clive Efford and his allies have long opposed area committees because they fear that it gives the Tories a platform to criticise Labour in the Eltham wards.

“The council leadership also dislike having open public criticism from community groups at meetings.”

Earlier this year, the council was mocked on social media for scheduling an Abbey Wood and Thamesmead meeting for the same evening as England’s opening World Cup match against Tunisia.

Labour councillors were told of the decision to cancel this round of Better Together meetings more than two weeks ago, yet no public announcement has been made until today.

‘Residents’ priorities’

A council spokesperson told 853: “Better Together was a series of seasonal meetings across the borough that was part of an overall programme of community engagement. They were just one of the ways for residents to meet local ward councillors and have discussions about their area.

“Attendance at meetings in the last two rounds of Better Together was regularly fewer than 30 people.

“Although the meetings are on hold, other elements of our work are ongoing. The next Leader and Deputy Leader Q&A takes place next month and is open to the whole borough, giving residents opportunity to discuss any aspect of Council business with our Leaders.

“The Leader and Cabinet members are also carrying out a series of community visits to see first-hand the work going on in our schools, estates, community centres and businesses. A new series of breakfasts has also been introduced to bring people together involved in various sectors of borough life.

“So far, we have welcomed people from the voluntary, business and faith sectors into the Town Hall to discuss their work, challenges and opportunities.

“The Royal Borough of Greenwich wants to change the way residents are engaged to give people more opportunities to talk about the issues that matter to them most at their convenience.

“We want to better understand residents’ priorities and issues and we are now developing a new programme to replace the Better Together meetings which will help us reach more people in a more effective and efficient way.”

Thursday update: Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe said on social media: “Can I just assure you, and your readers that we have simply had a ‘pause’ to this round of Better Together meetings so we can make sure we get the right type of engagement and respond to people who have been critical of the format in the past.

“I’ll continue to work with David Gardner and the whole team of councillors so we can build even better engagement across the borough, and give all of our communities the chance to shape our decision making as we continue to deliver on our manifesto promises.

“Since becoming Leader, I’ve been working flat out to engage with residents, community groups and businesses across the borough and we have to extend that dialogue so that engagement is meaningful and has an impact. Not everyone wants to go to a meeting to have their say.”

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