Council meeting ends in shambles as Greenwich Info debate talked out

Greenwich Info
Greenwich Info was criticised by a scrutiny panel of councillors in December

Last night’s Greenwich Council meeting ended in shambolic fashion as a motion on council freesheet Greenwich Info, which is due to cost the council £300,000 next year, was effectively talked out by Labour councillors.

The fortnightly paper was criticised by a cross-party scrutiny panel in December, with all three rejecting a £1.3m contract to print and distribute the publication.

Council officers and the council leadership insist they need a regular publication that is delivered to every home in the borough, but the three councillors – two Labour and one Tory – all said they did not regularly receive the paper, with one, Woolwich Common councillor Ivis Williams, insisting she had never had a copy.

Leader Danny Thorpe ignored the scrutiny panel decision and went ahead with it anyway, off the back of a report from council officers claiming the paper was delivered to the councillors’ homes.

Hartley submitted a motion to the meeting calling for that decision on Greenwich Info to be paused – although Thorpe had at the same time made that decision anyway. Labour mayor Christine May placed Hartley’s motion at the end of the three-and-a-half hour meeting, after a motion on obesity.

In Greenwich, mayors chair full council meetings. They are effectively chosen by the Labour group, with the position usually given to a long-serving Labour councillor. A mayor earns an extra £9,849 on top of the usual £10,200 councillors’ allowance.

‘We’re happy to debate all day long’

Christine May
Mayor Christine May can be seen on the meeting webcast voting to end the meeting

With ten minutes to go before the end of the meeting, and with no sign of the Info motion being debated, May asked councillors to vote on whether to extend the meeting by half an hour. It was voted down by Labour councillors – including May – sparking a row between councillors, with the mayor briefly losing control of the meeting. (watch here) Councillors had voted to extend a meeting last October to debate a motion backing a fresh referendum on leaving the EU.

Hartley accused Thorpe of trying to “subvert democracy”. Thorpe responded: “We’re happy to debate [with] councillor Hartley and his colleagues all day long, but as regards subverting democracy – …”

He was then angrily interrupted by Conservative Charlie Davis: “If you’re happy to debate all day long, why won’t you debate until eleven o’clock? Come on, Dan.”

After returning to the obesity motion for a short contribution from Thorpe’s sometime leadership rival Averil Lekau – who promised “I’ll show a little bit more compassion” – Hartley’s colleague Spencer Drury invoked a standing order to put that issue to a vote, a move which seemed to catch May unawares until Labour chief whip Angela Cornforth then stepped in to agree. Instead of reading out the motion, May said “la la la” (watch here) and was unclear who had voted for and against.

Than even as she managed to finally bring the discussion onto the Greenwich Info motion, with five minutes to go, May even ended up shouting and banging her gavel at one of her own Labour councillors, when Greenwich West representative Mehboob Khan – looking baffled by what had just happened – raised a point of order to ask what exactly had been agreed.

“Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about Greenwich Labour and Greenwich Info?,” Hartley said. “How many times do we have to put a motion down like this before Greenwich Labour admit they’ve got it wrong?”

‘It goes straight in the bin’

Greenwich Info
Greenwich Info competes with local media for advertising

Hartley said the council’s case had “crumbled” and the paper was “an outdated form of communication”.

“The overwhelming feedback we hear from residents, if they even receive it, is that it goes straight in the bin,” he continued.

“That’s if they actually get it through their letterboxes, and it appears many residents don’t receive it. That includes the three members of the overview and scrutiny call-in sub-committee who, to my surprise, and to their great credit, referred this decision back to the decision-maker… together with a request for alternatives to be considered.

“Here we are in January, no such analysis has been produced and the request has been completely ignored.”

Hartley accused Thorpe of “doing everything in how power to avoid having this debate – including the filibuster we’ve gone through tonight”, complaining that as a “new leader” he was “clinging onto” the publication.

“The good news is that there’s a break clause in the [Greenwich Info] contract – if this council decides, in the one minute we have left, to finally see sense and end this disgraceful waste of council taxpayers’ money, we can exit those contracts tonight.”

‘Stop lecturing us’

Thorpe responded with a series of personal attacks on Hartley: “As a new leader I think I’ve done more in a few months than you’ve accomplished in a few years. And rather than sitting here lecturing us about all of this, stop hiding from the school cuts and get down to Charlton Manor [where Hartley had a social media row with its head last year] and see them for yourself.

“And equally, in relation to filibusters, he’s taken himself to the grand levels of American politics where he’s never going to reach. As regards overwhelming feedback from residents, the overwhelming feedback from residents in May was that they much preferred our ideas to your ideas, which is why they overwhelmingly returned us to this chamber.

“We will not stop communicating with people about the good work we are doing in the face of everything your party is doing to destroy their lives, by offering people housing and jobs. It says more about your party that you’d like to take information and access away from people and we’re going to keep doing with what we’re doing.”

“What you’ve seen tonight tells you everything you need to know,” Hartley said. “This is clearly going to carry on. It’s not about not communicating, it’s about communicating effectively.”

May then joined Labour councillors to vote down Hartley’s motion. “Thank you anyway, it’s been an interesting evening,” she said, winding the meeting up.

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