Eltham MP Clive Efford has piled into the controversy over the £600,000 conversion of a public toilet in Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe’s ward after confusion at the council’s press office led to 853 publishing an inaccurate story about extra work having to be done.
The website ran a story last week about £44,000 being spent on alterations to the building at the Slade, off Plumstead Common, which opened as a cafe last October after the costly conversion.
While appreciated by locals in the area, the cafe has been the source of deep controversy within the ruling Labour group on Greenwich Council, with some councillors privately accusing the leadership of spending way too much on a scheme which they say is purely win votes. Those who back the scheme say it has been planned for a long time and brings a former facility back into community use.
After receiving a tip-off that extra cash was being spent, 853 contacted the Greenwich Council press office – as the council owns and is responsible for the building – to ask if it was true. On Friday 4 January, a press officer responded, not denying the story and stating “design changes were required”, and a story was published on the site reflecting that.
However, six days later, on Thursday, a different press officer responded to say that the changes were actually made before the cafe opened. Had the previous press officer said this, the story would not have appeared. The story was amended as soon as possible and has now been deleted from the website front page.
The cafe sits just inside Efford’s constituency, at the border with both Teresa Pearce’s Erith & Thamesmead and Matt Pennycook’s Greenwich & Woolwich seats. Late on Thursday evening, he used the confusion over the cafe to criticise councillors who are unhappy with the project, in a tweet likely to inflame an already vicious argument over the scheme, but “liked” by council leader Thorpe.
“Can I gently point out that there are people who’s [sic] livelihoods are dependent on this business at the Slade Cafe,” he said.
“If councillors have questions about the funding there are more appropriate ways than complaining to an online blog. I wonder where [sic] their motives are?”
The issue of Efford also washing dirty linen in public aside, a couple of Twitter users responded to point out that the council leadership has trouble dealing with criticism. One respondent said: “There is, sadly, an endemic problem with the council where, if you have a contrary viewpoint, you’re ignored or wrong. Until that changes, nothing will.”
Why this story matters
With councils suffering from continued austerity cuts, the decision to spend £40,000 on a feasibility study on the project, followed by £580,000 on the actual work, raised eyebrows – particularly when a council officer’s blunder meant the paperwork appeared to have been signed off by Thorpe when he was cabinet member for regeneration, a breach of normal protocol.
Some Labour members feel Thorpe’s ward has been singled out for special treatment – particularly as it and the two neighbouring wards were targeted by the independent Plumstead Party in last May’s election. No other projects to bring redundant council facilities back to life have been suggested, and much of the borough’s public realm is neglected – essentially, critics say this is spending money on a few lucky residents rather than the many. In this context, Thorpe’s comment on its opening day that the cafe was “politically important” only seemed to raise suspicion more.
Thorpe’s allies deny this strongly, but the council has been under pressure in recent years from various residents’ groups to pay more attention to Plumstead – pressure that has paid off in plans for a new library and applications for grant funding to improve the area, something that other areas can learn from.
While Plumstead residents toast the success of the pressure they have applied to the council in their new cafe, the rows about how it came about are unlikely to go away any time soon. 853’s mistaken story appears to have been down to cock-up rather than conspiracy – the blind anger of a Thorpe critic, perhaps, who was not as familiar with the project as claimed; and a council press office which has spent so long being schooled in reputation management rather than reacting to events that it can struggle to spot stories that need to be firmly denied rather than spun.
The spending of a huge wodge of public money on a cafe is, obviously, a matter of public interest and 853 will continue to watch this story. However, the site will be a little more sceptical about the steers it gets on this issue – from both sides.