Greenwich Council’s lack of transparency over how it spends millions of pounds from developers was lambasted by councillors and residents’ groups last night – while the councillor in charge said the borough was not promoting its achievements enough.
Councillors on the overview and scrutiny panel picked apart how the council deals with Section 106 payments – money paid by developers to help mitigate a scheme’s impact on a neighbourhood – and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which is paid on larger schemes, part of which also has to go back into the community.
But they criticised the lack of information in the report, with one, Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy, saying: “I have no idea, as a member of this council, how this money is spent.”
Charlton councillor Gary Parker said trying to collate information on how the money was spent from various different report was “like chasing Pokemon”.
Fahy contrasted Greenwich’s treatment of the money with Southwark, which regularly publishes reports and discusses how that money is spent.
“It seems to be we have a very narrow view of how this money can be spent across the borough. Most other local authorities, in London and elsewhere, have a wider way of spending this money. As I understand it, if money comes from developers in Woolwich, it can be spent elsewhere,” he said.
“Other boroughs spend money across their areas. Two years ago, Southwark provided two-and-a-half million pounds for their parks and open spaces [yet] the money we’re spending is peanuts.”
Fahy said that spending on Section 106 and CIL was usually examined by an audit panel, but should instead be looked at by scrutiny panels, which are set up to be independent of the council’s cabinet.
But finance cabinet member Christine Grice dismissed Fahy’s comments as “rants”, and pointed out a report on spending went to cabinet in February, Fahy said it should have gone to the scrutiny panel. “That is your view,” Grice said.
Brandishing a print-out of a From The Murky Depths story about the report, Charlton councillor Gary Parker said: “There’s been a culture of not having reports about Section 106 that are not transparent enough. Somebody kindly sent me the From The Murky Depths blog about this report. I would suggest you read it, there are a lot of a very reasonable points about how report should be structured.
“What is the reason we don’t have any comparative data [with other boroughs]? We look at things in a bubble, a lot of the information t’s very confusing. There’s no ward-level data – why aren’t we getting data people can relate to? I don’t think there’s a conspiracy, but we have a very exclusive rather than inclusive culture, and that needs to change given the era we live in and the levels of public participation people want.”
Criticising a decision to set up a panel of officers set up to look at Section 106 and CIL spending, Parker said: “Think about how that looks in public. You need to find ways to connect that with the scrutiny panel. Or this kind of concern will go on. We need to look at ways to make this data more transparent.”
Grice said she would “take that away and look at it and think carefully about we can do”.
But then she said: “I think a lot of it is perhaps about communication; blogs play an important part in local communication but perhaps they are offering different opinions.”
Parker suggested that scrutinising the money being spent in various areas “could be quite a helpful way forward and could assuage some of the comments made tonight and elsewhere”.
Abbey Wood councillor Clive Mardner said a lot of people believed the council was not spending money in his ward – where the tatty and broken public realm often features on From The Murky Depths.
But rather than suggesting giving neighbourhood lamp posts a lick of paint or fixing some fences on estates, he said: “We are spending in Abbey Wood but we’re not getting that message across. I don’t understand why we haven’t been able to tell people that, it’s good news. We’ve got to do better on communications.”
In response, Grice said one of the “biggest ticket items” from Section 106 money was the new St Mary Magdalene secondary school on the Greenwich Peninsula, five miles from Abbey Wood.
That’s an investment that serves the whole of Greenwich [borough],” she said of the Church of England school. “I think it is communication. I can’t say we’re communications experts but we will meet with Katrina [Delaney, assistant chief executive] and her team and see what we can do.”
Fahy later picked up on Grice’s depiction of the school as a borough-wide investment and used it to call for money to be spent more widely. “All of our residents live in all of the borough – for goodness sake, look at other authorities.”
Challenged by Eltham North Conservative councillor Spencer Drury on how much in Community Infrastructure Levy – much of which is going to Woolwich’s Crossrail station – the council had to left to spend on large projects, planning officer Alex Wood could not come up with a precise sum. The process needed “clarity”, Drury said.
‘Growth Fund should be scrapped’
John Fahy also criticised the Greenwich Neighbourhood Growth Fund, which allows organised groups to bid for money from Community Infrastructure Levy. In Abbey Wood, Plumstead and Thamesmead, the pot available is just £30,000 because no big developments have yet got to a stage where they have to pay CIL; while in other areas groups have complained that the application process is too onerous.
“This allows somebody, somewhere in the council to decide on the basis of a community application, whereas we should be saying ‘what are the needs of this area? Our most deprived areas are no even getting a look-in,” Fahy said.
Glyndon councillor Adel Khaireh said his ward, which covers parts of Plumstead and Thamesmead, was getting nothing and said: “It looks terrible.” He called for the Growth Fund to be scrapped and started again.
“We need to put our hands in our pockets. £30,000? Triple it. Go into reserves if we need to – show communities we feel what they feel.”
Sheila Keeble, representing the Greenwich Society, Westcombe Society and East Greenwich Residents’ Association, pointed to a Growth Fund grant given to St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich town centre and said the money was going to “the usual suspects”.
“We have been banging our head against a brick wall since before it started,” she said, pointing out that groups had warned this would happen, and adding that communities that had put up with a decade of construction works had seen very little.
Senior council officer Pippa Hack admitted there had been “patchy interest” in the Growth Fund.
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