Fear and Loathing in Woolwich

Greenwich Council meetings are always strange affairs but the full Council of July 30th was even weirder than most. Matt Hartley, Conservative councillor for Coldharbour & New Eltham and Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich, has already covered some of this meeting at length on his website.

Things are fairly fast-paced at these events and it’s impossible for one person to cover everything, although this will change soon as this was the last meeting where filming or audio recording will not be allowed due to the Local Audit and Accountabilty Act 2014.

The meeting opened with congratulations for local groups and eulogies for three recently deceased former councillors that included speeches from many backbenchers who normally never utter a word.

David Gardner

David Gardner
Labour – Woolwich Common
Cabinet Member for Health & Adult Social Care

First up on normal business was the presentation of a number of petitions from local people by their ward councillors, including David Gardner (Labour – Woolwich Common) with one about his favourite subject, Living Streets.

David’s a passionate advocate of closing off streets for pedestrians and, combined with his new role as Cabinet member for Health and Social Care, I hope he’ll continue to argue the case for more sensible transport policies and stand firm against the pro-roadbuilding agenda of the past. This was the only time I heard him speak all evening.

Apologies for missing the others but I’m sure they’ll pop up in the minutes on the council website in a few months.

Public Questions

It was then swiftly on to public questions where things quickly took on a touch of the surreal. Malcolm Reid from Greenwich asked a question about the increase in council tax revenues from the house-building projects across the borough. It turns out that the 8,233 additional properties built across the last seven years are now generating an additional £8m a year for the council coffers.

Denise Hyland

Denise Hyland
Labour – Abbey Wood
Leader of the Council

When Malcolm pressed Cllr Hyland (Labour – Abbey Wood & Leader of the Council) for a council tax cut she replied that she couldn’t “due to government cuts” (more later) but residents should “complain about construction traffic not washing their wheels”. How this related to council tax or Malcolm’s question was a mystery to everybody in the room.

Next up was ex-councillor Eileen Glover, looking far more subdued than last month when she grabbed the microphone and refused to stop talking or give it back, with questions about the delay in installing wet rooms for elderly council tenants and another about directing Greenwich Time to publish articles about the investigation into community engagement that was recently started by the Overview & Scrutiny committee.

140730PQ4The usual, blunt answer from RBG when you’re an “enemy to be defeated” or, as anybody else would call it, a resident with different views. When Eileen pressed the issue Hyland said Greenwich Time would soon feature an announcement about improved community engagement and there would be “better social media use”.

Next up were a series of questions about the impact on Plumstead of air pollution, extra traffic and congestion from the proposed Gallions Bridge. The Gallions scheme is now back on the table after Hyland and the previous administration successfully skewed a previous consultation on river crossings by promoting “Bridge the Gap”. The air quality data is also a bone of contention as it took a Freedom of Information request for No to Silvertown to get the council to publish the data in the first place.

140730PQ6-8

This composite reply showed a distinct lack of respect for residentsconcerns given that this will be the last public forum to question councillors until after the latest consultation has ended and it’s only marginally better than the one I received myself last month when Danny Thorpe (Lab – Shooters Hill and Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Transport) quoted my question back at me in response. It’s also not the first time that residents’ concerns have been brushed aside as the same thing happened over Silvertown Tunnel in January 2013.

Other public questions were also submitted on Greenwich Theatre, historic child abuse in Greenwich’s care homes, wildflower meadows to commemorate the First World War and a rather intriguing one from 853blog’s Darryl Chamberlain on a book being written on Chris Roberts’ 14 years in charge in Greenwich.

Members’ Questions

Spencer Drury

Spencer Drury
Conservative – Eltham North
Leader of the Opposition

Moving on to Members’ Questions, Spencer Drury (Con – Eltham North, Opposition Leader and PPC for Eltham) asked questions on the council’s proposed car park over part of Sutcliffe Park, educational results for white working class children, neglect of the public realm around Middle Park and the number of weeds in streets around the borough. This last question is asked on a yearly basis and the answer is usually either the wrong type of weedkiller, contractor or weather.

Matt Hartley asked another perennial question about OpenData and the council releasing information to third-parties in order to benefit the public at large. This is a subject close to my own heart, and one I’ve asked about myself in the past, but from the answer it doesn’t look there will be any major movement any time soon.

After a number of questions from Matt Clare (Con – Eltham South) on parking and town-twinning, John Hills (Con – Coldharbour & New Eltham) on homelessness and temporary accommodation, Mandy Brinkhurst (Con – Coldharbour and New Eltham) on youth services and Mark Elliot (Con – Eltham South) on domestic violence it was the turn of Nuala Geary (Con – Eltham South).

Geary was concerned about visits and walkabouts in her ward by council officers and others where she hasn’t been informed in advance. Cllr Drury later confirmed the same had happened to him on numerous occasions, even not being invited to openings in Eltham North. Could this be a sneaky tactic to freeze out the opposition? That was certainly the implication.

Geoff Brighty (Con – Blackheath Westcombe) closed the written questions with concerns over the Circus Field at Blackheath becoming a “default parking lot” after its proposed used for the Tall Ships Regatta and road closures and noise in the surrounding area for On Blackheath festival.

Matt Hartley has already covered the subsequent oral questions over on his website but I have to share this gem from the night on the question of moving Woolwich Arsenal to TfL zone 3.

Council Accounts

By this time it was already pushing 8 o’clock and the first main item of business was the approval of the council’s accounts for 2013/2014. Despite talk of government cuts impacting on services due to the “nasty, ideological policies of the coalition government” it appears the borough is in good shape. Reserves have increased by £220m in the space of a year to reach £1.2bn.

Yes, you heard it right – £1.2 billion. If even a fraction of this was used to benefit the people of the borough then a lot could change, fairly quickly and for the better. Instead we had the usual grandstanding speech from Hyland about the state of the finances – it could almost have been written by Chris Roberts. Cllr Drury complained about the lack of transparency with the ballooning number of council subsidiaries to deaf ears.

Petition Responses

Nigel Fletcher's letter to Greenwich Council regarding the Woolwich Grand petitionBack at the end of last year I started an online petition to save the Woolwich Grand and register it as an Asset of Community Value. The petition gained over 900 signatures, I submitted it as evidence against the planning application and Nigel Fletcher submitted it to the council during the last session.

The response was finally given here. I wasn’t informed in advance or asked to speak. Luckily, Nigel had been told about it and he submitted his usual, eloquent response in writing.

The other petition discussed here was against the council’s car park and sports centre plans for Sutcliffe Park, already mentioned by Cllr Drury, which is being sponsored by the council and will be built on Metropolitan Open Land. MOL is meant to be kept for the people but the council already has a poor record of this in its deals with Hadlow College for the Equestrian and Horticultural Centres on Shooters Hill.

Mark James (Lab – Middle Park and Sutcliffe) made a speech saying that “two of the things we do with pride in Greenwich are looking after green spaces and community engagement” – it’s rather ironic that his own council group is the body proposing and championing this scheme rather than any outside force.

Waterside Close

It looks like the residents of Waterside Close in Thamesmead will now finally get the roads they deserve after over a decade of inaction. 150 properties have been suffering with:-

  • no (top) wearing course to the road or footways
  • areas of the road have subsided
  • areas of footway are incomplete
  • extensive lengths of kerbs are damaged
  • manhole covers & gully grates are proud of the road
  • street lighting is defective
  • required road markings and signs have not been installed

I’m sure if this had happened in Woolwich or Greenwich it wouldn’t have taken so long to sort out.

Core Strategy

The Royal Greenwich Local Plan: Core Strategy with Detailed Policies was finally adopted at the meeting.

Too late for the Woolwich Grand, and still without a plan for areas like Plumstead, the Conservatives continued to voice their ongoing reservations. Spencer Drury went as far as condemning the Labour councillors for staying silent but Denise Hyland said that it had already been debated in private and the lack of talk from the ruling benches was due to deep-seated agreement.

He did.

Motions

Time for the national politics bit…

Once again, the motions have already been covered at length by Matt Hartley in his recent post but it’s worth going over some of the same ground. In the Bizarro-world of Greenwich politics some of this can’t be said enough, and you’ll never see it in Pravda Greenwich Time newspaper.

The ruling Labour Group delivered a partisan motion about benefit cuts with a resolution to “highlight the effects of these attacks on the most vulnerable by the Coalition Government in the run up to the 2015 General Election”. There were no ideas to mitigate the effects in there but the local Conservatives offered an amendment that would, if agreed, have:-

  • Ceased “legal costs” of £95 on Council Tax bills in arrears for residents in receipt of Council Tax support. (Note: A recent FoI request has shown that these cost £3 each – a 3000% mark-up)
  • Introduced a Council Tax exemption for residents in receipt of disability benefit or lone parents with children under 5
  • Amended the Eltham Masterplan to save the Greenwich Foodbank (currently scheduled for demolition)
  • Commissioned an independent review of the Emergency Support Scheme to ensure funds went to those who needed it most

The debate dragged on for over an hour with partisan mud-slinging from the Labour benches, with rare gems from Don Austen (Labour – Glyndon):-

Needless to say, the amendment was lost.

The next motion was one from the Conservatives who wanted to ensure that all council homes were improved to ensure they were wind and watertight. It was amended to nothing by the Labour benches by removing everything after the opening line of “Council welcomes the news published in Greenwich Time that council homes will be improved…”

I would tell you what the amendment was but by that time it was 10pm and they didn’t see fit to print it for those of us in the gallery.

In conclusion

I’d like to tell you that this meeting ushered in the “new era of openness and engagement” that’s been talked about by the ruling group over the last few weeks but this meeting was worse than most that had gone before.

If you don’t believe me, come along on October 29th, 2014. If you’d like to ask questions you should get them in before midday on October 22nd, 2014.

Comments
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  5. The Woolwich Grand Theatre
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