Please note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.
Before going into last night’s full council meeting – the first since the election and the first under the new Leader of the Council, Cllr Denise Hyland – I said that it was time to see if anything really had changed at Woolwich Town Hall. The answer is an unsurprising no – below are my first thoughts after the meeting, blogged at speed (so please forgive any typos). If any reader is only interested in the question of Greenwich Time, the main event last night, skip to about half way down!
Firstly, I was pleased that my first act in the chamber was as a ward councillor, handing in a petition signed by 34 residents of Spekehill on the Coldharbour estate, who are rightly concerned over road safety on their road, increasingly used as a cut-through by speeding traffic between William Barefoot and Kingsley Wood Drives. This is a long-running issue that myself, Cllr John Hills and Cllr Mandy Brinkhurst have been supporting residents with and I hope that the council will listen to their call for traffic calming measures. I also raised another issue of great relevance to Coldharbour residents, and also people living in the New Eltham and Mottingham parts of my ward – questioning Cllr Hyland on when and where the £309,488 of funding to help Greenwich repair potholes, announced by the Conservative-led government this week, will be spent. Her answer on potholes? She’s looking into them. Boom boom.
As blogged previously, I also raised questions over the nature of the council’s engagement with Marks & Spencer in advance of its disappointing decision to pull out of Woolwich Town Centre – and in particular, questioned the new Cabinet Member for Regeneration Cllr Danny Thorpe on the fact that the council has only previously dealt with store managers, who are of course not privy to strategic decisions in the company made at more senior levels. Since the announcement, the council has met with M&S headquarters to make the case for Woolwich. This is good news, but is of course happening in retrospect. My case was that Cllr Thorpe should look into how the council should engage at a more strategic level with companies like M&S, who are key local economic actors, on an ongoing basis to make the case for Woolwich and the borough more widely as a place to do business (he somewhat sidestepped the question).
But it was the opposition’s motion on Greenwich Time that was the main event last night. The motion, proposed by Cllr Spencer Drury and seconded by me, called on the council to do nothing more than abide by the legal requirement placed on it to cease publication of its council-run newspaper in its current form, which as Spencer pointed out in his remarks, is breaking the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity on at the very least, two fronts. Greenwich Time is distributed 50 weeks a year, far more than the Code’s limit of quarterly, and seeks to emulate a commercial newspaper – in fact, boasts of the fact that it does so.
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles wrote to Greenwich and four other London boroughs who persist in refusing to implement the Code of Recommended Practice – and singled out Greenwich Time and East End Life, the organ of Tower Hamlets council, for particular criticism (what wonderful company we are keeping). This extra criticism is on the basis that these two publications are “not objective” and “not even-handed” – as I said in my speech last night, perhaps the only two understatements of which Mr Pickles has ever been guilty. We know from the accounts of former employees that there is enormous political interference in the editorial process at Greenwich Time – and in November, after years of denials, it was finally admitted that the Leader of the Council has the final say.
My view on this is simple. How can it be right that in 2014, taxpayers’ money is being spent propping up and perpetuating one political party’s dominance of our local democracy? Greenwich Time consistently puts an unduly positive gloss on council services, decisions and the administration’s pet projects. Events in the council chamber – most notably over the Pavement Tax (pictured) and River Quaggy flooding debates last year – are reported in ways that bear no resemblance to what actually occurred. Not content with writing the news, the paper even takes to re-writing history. All the while, no opposition view is allowed – or even acknowledge to exist. Greenwich Time is nothing more than a relic of the machine politics that has ruled this borough for too long.
As I pointed out in seconding the motion, the new Leader of the Council has promised us a new era. This was her opportunity to prove it.
Instead, we were presented with deeply suspect figures on the costs of advertising statutory and recruitment notices in the News Shopper and Mercury should Greenwich Time be ditched (figures that were completely demolished by Spencer in his opening remarks) and a wrecking ‘wait-and-see’ amendment from Labour that merely noted that Mr Pickles had been sent the council’s case (a document, incidentally, that the council in this new era of openness and transparency is refusing to publish).
In the debate that followed, Cllr Hyland made the laughable claim that we opposition councillors were “showing a lack of respect” for Mr Pickles in calling on the council to abide by its legal requirements – unlike the administration, of course, which has been publishing Greenwich Time since April with a complete disregard for the Secretary of State’s direction. She told the chamber that she “could have a field day” with our arguments “on another occasion” – but chose not to show respect to the chamber by engaging with the debate there and then. Most galling of all, however, was the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr John Fahy’s claim that Mr Pickles’ intervention was a display of the “arrogance of power”. I could choose no better three words to sum up last night’s meeting.
In my view, our motion last night was an opportunity for the chamber to break its habit and settle this long-running issue now, so that we get on to debating the real questions that people sent us there to resolve. It is a shame that the administration did not agree.
In clinging on to Greenwich Time, the new administration has shown what we have suspected – that for all Cllr Hyland’s talk of a new era in Greenwich politics – nothing has changed. Regardless of last night’s vote, however, the ball on Greenwich Time remains in Mr Pickles’ court – and the evidence against this relic of old-fashioned machine politics is overwhelming.
One way or another – Greenwich Time’s day is nearly done.