Hot air and tempers at last council meeting for a while

Woolwich Town HallPlease note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.

Last night’s meeting of the full council was the last such meeting until September or more likely October, and just to make up for it went on well into the evening with hot-tempered councillors barracking each other until 10pm.

During members questions’ I raised two issues that have been raised with me in recent weeks.  One was on the issue of the re-zoning of Woolwich Arsenal station.  I am supporting this petition being organised by residents and calling for Transport for London to be re-zoned into Zone 3, in the wake of Stratford’s re-zoning announced last week.  Darryl at 853 has a good piece on the arguments here.  For me this is a simple issue of fairness and parity – a re-zoning is long overdue.

Last night I asked the Leader of the Council Denise Hyland whether (and when) the council had made a case to Transport for London on this issue, and invited her to join with us on the Conservative benches in a cross-party approach to the Mayor of London to try and secure the re-zoning that residents so obviously deserve.  The question was somewhat sidestepped, with a remark about the matter not having yet been discussed at Labour group.  Not quite the answer I wanted, but I will continue to try and broker a cross-party agreement to make a joint case to City Hall on this one.  We are ready to work across party lines in the interests of Woolwich residents – all Labour need to do is say yes.

Secondly, I again raised the issue of the distribution of Royal road signs to replace many signs in an appalling condition across the borough – calling for the administration to review the criteria being used for replacement.  This might sound like a small issue, but the signs are the only visible manifestation of the borough’s Royal status in vast swathes of our area, and I think it is an important one.  (I’ll return to both issues on the blog and in greater detail shortly)

The main business

The main business of the meeting kicked off with the approval of the council’s Statement of Accounts for 2013/14 – something we on the Conservative benches supported, despite Leader of the Opposition Spencer Drury raising our very valid concerns over the fact that the council’s complex web of subsidiary companies’ finances are still not included in the accounts for transparency.  We then voted for a resolution to more than a decade of anguish for residents on Waterside Close, a development in Thamesmead where the developer went bust, leaving an unadopted road in a terrible state.

Then came the first contentious item – the proposed adoption of the Royal Greenwich Local Plan Core Strategy with detailed policies to guide the development of the borough.  We voted against – doing anything else would have involved an acceptance of the borough’s Masterplans, which we continue to oppose.  Hackles on the Conservative benches began to be raised at this point when Leader of the Council Denise Hyland made the rather irritating boast that the reason that none of her councillors saw fit to speak on the Core Strategy was that it had already been debated in Labour Group.  Yet again, another key debate held away from the public gaze in an unhealthy and undemocratic manner.

Motions for debate

At last, we got to the motions put forward to the meeting.  The first, proposed by Cllr Maureen O’Mara, was an overtly party political one criticising the government’s welfare reforms – specifically, the ending of the spare room subsidy.  It was a stuff and nonsense motion, not committing the council to doing anything other than “[continuing] to highlight” the impact of the Coalition Government’s policies “in the run up to the 2015 General Election”.

The fact that Labour in Greenwich use taxpayers’ resources to win elections is nothing new – but at least they had the decency to put it in writing this time.  Whatever their argument, they somewhat gave the game away – and laid themselves open to entirely valid questioning over whether the motion committed non-partisan council officers to entering the General Election fray.

Our amendment to this motion removed the laughably overblown partisan rhetoric, and proposed very specific measures that would help Greenwich residents affected by the welfare reforms, including an end to the practice of adding ‘legal costs’ to Council Tax bills for those residents who claim Council Tax support but who are in arrears and receive a summons, and a new exemption to Council Tax for residents who qualify for Council Tax support and are households in receipt of disability benefit or lone parents with a child under five years old.  In his speech introducing the amendment the Leader of the Opposition Cllr Spencer Drury made a strong case for these and other measures.

It was clear in the debate on the amendment, however, that Labour councillors weren’t interested in actually providing help for residents affected – merely the partisan political point-scoring with which the last administration was so associated.  We sat through endless irrelevant national political grandstanding, with showboating contributions from Labour members at times leading us to wonder whether they realised they were standing in Woolwich Town Hall, not the House of Commons.

I got to my feet to express my frustration at the nature of the debate and in an attempt to steer the discussion back to our amendment.  To be fair to Cllr Hyland, as I said in my contribution, unlike her colleagues on the front and backbenches, she had at least engaged with our proposals.  According to the Leader, the council is not in a position to introduce a blanket ban on legal costs (despite the fact that other boroughs have done so), and is unable to introduce an exemption to Council Tax in the way we described because of a purported £3m cost to the taxpayer.  As I pointed out, with a £2.5m price tag for the Tall Ships Regatta – the ultimate Greenwich Labour vanity project – this somewhat shows where the administration’s priorities lie.

Needless to say the Labour majority carried the motion.  Given what went on last night, no wonder they have resisted web streaming of council meetings for so long.

In contrast to this spectacle, our motion at last night’s meeting was a genuine and constructive one focused on improving council housing.  The council’s own forecasts suggest that more than 2,500 homes will not meet the Decent Homes Standard by next April, rising to 2,615 the following year.  We know from Conservative surveys of council housing conducted over the last year that there are significant problems with damp and mould, and our motion last night called on the Cabinet to agree to commission a “full and independent condition survey of properties owned by the Council.”.

Labour amended the motion to say, well, nothing at all.  Upon seeing it last night it was hard not to wonder whether it was copied and pasted from Greenwich Time’s recent news story on the matter – with the odd omission of making homes wind and watertight, which seemed a bit of a missed opportunity.  We supported the amendment, as there was no reason not to – but it’s a shame that they couldn’t bring themselves to support our plan for a full independent condition survey.  This is something we will continue to push for.

Hot air and hot tempers

So, another long blog post, befitting a long and frustrating evening.  It was a meeting of hot air, hot tempers and very little achieved for Greenwich residents, despite our best efforts.

I really do wonder what residents, had there been more of them in the gallery, would have thought of what we were doing with the responsibilities they have given us as their representatives.  We can only hope that web-streaming – which now seems to at long last be on the cards with the council chamber refurbishment – will put an end to the kind of pointless political showboating that we sat through last night.


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