I’m moving out of London later this week, with my partner and our daughter, after 35 years living in the borough of Greenwich – the last 16 of them as a Labour councillor here. There are few things more boring than ex-councillors hanging around the fringes of Greenwich politics like Jacob Marley’s Ghost, banging on about how everything was better in their day, or would be better now if only they still had a hand on the tiller. I’ve tried to resist the temptation to do either of those things, but moving out of Greenwich seems the best way of making sure I don’t. This blog will continue to cover Greenwich matters from time to time, but less frequently.
Aside from a few years in the mid-1990s I’ve lived here continuously since 1980, originally in Westcombe Park, then a couple of years in Charlton and for the last decade in a terraced house near Plumstead Common.
Leaving somewhere that’s been home for more than three-quarters of my life – I moved here aged six and I’m now 41 – does not make me an infallible oracle for the future. But having lived in Greenwich for nearly 35 years I’ll venture some predictions for the next 35.
It’s important to remember how dramatically the borough’s fortunes have improved since 1980. As a six-year-old moving to London I was told to look out for Slush Puppies (an iced soda drink that was all the rage at the time) and the plastic skateboard ramp in Greenwich Park. There was little else to do, be proud of, or look forward to other than the Thames Barrier (completed in 1982 and dubbed optimistically as the Eighth Wonder of the World by the GLC). Greenwich town centre had relatively few tourists (indeed, it was council policy at the time not to actively encourage them). The dead hand of the MOD and fears of IRA terrorism meant that much of the Royal Naval College, and all of the Arsenal, were out of bounds. The National Maritime Museum contained a dusty collection of model ships, and the Cutty Sark a dusty collection of old Figureheads. Tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs along the river had already gone or were going, fast. Schools and the old Greenwich District Hospital were crumbling.
My first encounter with council bureaucracy was as a 9-year-old in 1983, being presented with a plastic Greenwich Council ballpoint pen as a consolation prize having failed a cycling proficiency test in the Sherington School playground: nowadays I’d be given a much more substantial Olympic or Royal Borough trinket.
Although the local NHS still has its problems, public transport and schools in Greenwich are light years from what they were like in the early 80s. We should be glad that race relations have been generally good since the shocking murders of Stephen Lawrence, and a number of other black youngsters, in the early 1990s. Greenwich’s well-settled Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities has been supplemented by a big influx of west and north African immigrants from the 1990s onwards. I was pleased to see that in 2014 several councillors of Black African heritage were elected in Greenwich for the first time. But the council has been slow to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, Greenwich’s huge west African community (one of the largest in the UK): at the good primary school my daughter attends more than half the pupils are of black African ethnicity, but almost all the teachers are white.
If race relations are to remain good more work will need to be done to make sure that Greenwich’s councillors, senior council staff, police officers and other community leaders reflect the community better. Right now most of them have white faces, and voices, just like mine. As for the white working-class community, you can see some simmering tensions as the borough becomes more populous and diverse. One of my daughter’s friends recently had to move from insecure private rented accommodation in Woolwich to a damp flat in Dartford: the council can’t find the family an affordable home locally. The importance of delivering more genuinely affordable housing can’t be stressed too much. Compared to many other inner London boroughs Greenwich still has a relatively stable community (you could say too stable: I’ve met people who’ve never ventured out of Charlton or Abbey Wood), which will come under great strain as the population is predicted to swell from 255,000 now to 355,000 in 2041.
If I was still a councillor here I’d worry most about the widening inequality between places like Blackheath and Greenwich in the west, and places like Thamesmead in the east. A mansion tax, and restrictions on the Right to Buy, could help but politicians, both locally and nationally, need a whole new toolkit of tax, housing and planning policies to promote sustainable regeneration and prevent Greenwich and Blackheath becoming ghettoes for the super-rich in the next few decades. I hope they get one.
Once the Royal Arsenal development is finished and Crossrail makes Abbey Wood a viable location for luxury flats, I expect the current east-west divide in Greenwich to be gradually replaced by a more complicated pattern. By 2050 most parts of the borough will be a mixture of the very rich and the very poor, and the council will have to work hard to ensure they aren’t separated by security gates as some developers would like.
The Royal Arsenal and Peninsula mustn’t become ghettoes of smart housing, with the affordable housing crammed into an undesirable corner or exported off-site. Knight Dragon (the Hong Kong consortium which took over from Lend Lease and Quintain a few years ago) promises that “Just one Tube stop from Canary Wharf, Greenwich Peninsula will be a thriving district outlined by 1.6 miles of waterfront”. What its slick marketing material doesn’t tell you is that they want to keep affordable housing away from the best riverside plots: the council will need to watch them like a hawk in the coming decades.
Developers like Berkeley Homes have done some good but the council should remember that they are not charities. In return for helping to build a Crossrail station in Woolwich Berkeley has obliged the council to grant it planning permission for many hundreds more homes than previously planned. Berkeley is, incredibly, now proposing to demolish a listed building near the Crossrail station’s entrance (see the From the Murky Depths blog for the full story). Berkeley has spent the last decade making big promises about its “Kidbrooke Village” development in place of the old Ferrier estate. But Berkeley is now proposing 800 more homes than it originally got planning permission for. The best community project in Kidbrooke – One Space – faces demolition to allow yet more blocks of flats to be built. Kidbrooke station is being rebuilt without lifts to its platforms, while alongside it a 25-storey tower is now proposed, four times higher than the six-storey hotel previously planned. And we can expect much more development pressure in suburban Eltham – where the seven-storey Grove Market redevelopment has already caused a rumpus – in the next few decades.
Criticism of Berkeley Homes has too often been stifled (I was once excluded from chairing a planning meeting to discuss Kidbrooke because my then boss, Nick Raynsford MP, had raised concerns and the council feared I would follow suit). Sooner rather than later the council needs to tell such developers that it doesn’t just want “regeneration” at any price, but good-quality buildings that won’t turn out to be the slums of tomorrow. Before long a Greenwich Design Panel will be set up to assess the design quality of new buildings rather than just their quantity, and I hope it won’t come too late.
Woolwich – where a new DLR station and a huge new Tesco’s meant that many historic buildings, such as the 1890s Post Office, had to be demolished – is a sobering warning that there is more to regeneration than just building new transport connections, flats and supermarkets. Crossrail is predicted to “revolutionise” Woolwich when it arrives in 2018 but I’m not so sure it will. The arrival of the DLR in 2009 was preceded by similar hype but Woolwich’s recovery since then has been decidedly shaky: although the new General Gordon Square has been success, Marks and Spencer has closed down and the poorly-managed Firepower Museum is expected to follow suit in 2017.
Woolwich IS on the up, but largely despite the council rather than because of it. The council needs to move on from the outdated ambition to make Woolwich a “Metropolitan Centre” on a par with Bromley and Croydon by 2026: it just won’t happen. But what Woolwich can be is a place of quirky, independent places to work, eat, drink and shop. In the last few months a tiny, award-winning Eritrean restaurant – Blue Nile – has done more to put Woolwich on the map than the huge, Carbuncle-Cup-winning Tesco’s that the council helped to build over the road.
It’s easy to ridicule Hipsters – I’ve ridiculed them myself – but like them or loathe them, attracting young creative types is the future for places like Woolwich. I only hope that the council’s new masterplan for the area between Plumstead Road and Spray Street will result in a proper piece of townscape and a revitalised covered market, not just more identikit chainstores.
What Woolwich needs above all is more effective local champions who aren’t politicians or Berkeley Homes. The town is completely hopeless at marketing itself. The Woolwich Grand Theatre, based in the old cinema next door to the Town Hall, could have done much more to stop its landlord knocking the building down for a block of flats. In November 2013 it hosted hundreds of Labour Party members who packed in to choose a new parliamentary candidate for the Greenwich and Woolwich constituency. But a perfect opportunity to lobby the local Labour establishment was bungled: toilets were overflowing, the auditorium was freezing, and a captive audience (like a Papal conclave, punters were not allowed to leave until a candidate had been anointed) were charged £4 for a soggy bacon roll and £2 for a cup of tea in a polystyrene cup. The experience did not motivate anyone to go out of their way to fight for its future as a thriving arts venue, and was a sad symbol of how Woolwich can fail to put its best foot forward.
While the new Crossrail station at Abbey Wood is a step forward, Thamesmead badly needs the proper rail connection it was promised 50 years ago – not just a Thames road bridge with a few buses – to become the visionary town that was anticipated back in the 1960s. Peabody’s vision of a “garden suburb” is a good vision as visions go, but Peabody has its work cut out to turn Thamesmead into a real place rather than a collection of housing estates.
Much of the riverside between the peninsula and Woolwich is still a mixture of industry and housing, just as it was in the early 1980s. Given its location, by the 2020s developers will be falling over themselves to build flats along the riverside in Charlton once a new masterplan gives them permission to. Charlton Athletic will follow the lead of most London football clubs in the 2020s and will move to a purpose-built ground off the M25 nearer to its North Kent fanbase, releasing The Valley for yet more residential development. I only hope the council manages to keep employers such as Cory’s, a barge operator that has been based on Bugsby’s Reach since 1896. Developers will, as always, argue that such industrial uses are unsightly, unwelcome and sustain fewer jobs than residential development would. But construction jobs are only temporary, and once wharves and warehouses are redeveloped as housing they never come back. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The best way to secure Greenwich’s regeneration is to attract large employers here – the borough currently has very few other than the council itself and the NHS – rather than turn it into a residential dormitory.
But despite all the development in places like the Greenwich Peninsula much of the borough hasn’t changed all that much physically in the last 35 years. Just about every development has proceeded more slowly than promised, partly because of the recent credit crunch. The most important changes taking places are more subtle than demolition, and often unwelcome: – cinemas have become evangelical churches, pubs and banks have become betting shops and pawnbrokers.
For too long Greenwich has had a “one size fits all” approach to regeneration that treats over-heated Greenwich the same as more sluggish places like Thamesmead and Abbey Wood. Instead the borough needs to be considered as a rag-bag of different places, each with their own character and challenges. Greenwich itself and the Peninsula do not need intervention to make them attractive to inward investment – if anything they need to be cooled down to stop them becoming over-developed ghettoes of the super-rich, and to stop tourists from overwhelming the town on summer weekends.
Yes, I agree it’s a horrible term over-used by regeneration consultants. By what sort of place will Greenwich be like in 2050, and how will we attract new entrepreneurs, institutions and employers here as well as just tourists?
There’s a lot about living in this part of London I will miss. Two weekends ago I walked my eight-year-old daughter across Blackheath to grab a coffee at a new cafe in the village and see the King’s Troop cavalry parade through. We then walked over to Greenwich Park (bumping into old friends on the way) and did some Christmas shopping in the market before heading over to the playground. In the afternoon we explored the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, imbibing a few drinks at the Hop Stuff brewery and then a few more at the new pub in the Equitable Building. The historic buildings we passed – the Observatory, Ranger’s House, the Royal Hospital and Queen’s House – are ones I’ve visited dozens of times but although I’m an architectural writer I’ve taken them for granted. It’s only now that I’m leaving I’ve started to properly appreciate them (even my daughter asked me for a potted history of some of them – a previously unheard-of request that could only be prompted by the fact that we’re about to move away).
Few places in London offer these sorts of experiences without huge crowds, or a huge pricetag. Even though Greenwich is undeniably on the up, housing is still relatively affordable, unemployment is now close to the London average, and there’s a lot more green space than most other boroughs. The borough still possesses an undiscovered rawness. Yet Greenwich also prompts an immediate emotional reaction. It has a WOW factor that more austere historic towns I’ve lived in (Oxford, for example) do not.
As a birthplace of the Labour Party, the Co-operative Movement and several Tudor monarchs Greenwich has a richer heritage than almost any other London borough. But the hysteria that accompanied Greenwich’s designation as a Royal Borough in 2012 showed that the council – and the local Labour Party – can be deeply conservative institutions. The then council leader, Chris Roberts, even said that being handed the “Letters Patent” by the Head of the Crown Office in the Queen’s Robing Room in the Palace of Westminster (a ceremony that marked the borough’s official designation as Royal) was “undoubtedly the proudest moment” of his 20-year political career in Greenwich. The effect that one meaningless bit of parchment can have is quite something.
Concerns about the expense of the rebranding, or how it could be a distraction from the overdue rebuilding of crumbling schools or tackling the council’s ailing housing repairs service, were all swept aside as self-indulgent, middle-class republicanism. Becoming a Royal Borough, we were told, would help “engage” disaffected white working-class voters and give them renewed pride – a ridiculously patronising, and outdated, view of the white working class that merely showed how removed from reality many of us councillors had become.
The council increasingly calls itself “Royal Greenwich”, leading to more and more confusion between the borough itself and the council that serves it. But in fact many great things that have happened in Greenwich in recent years – the energetic Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, the restoration of Severndroog Castle, the growth of Woodlands Farm, the success of Second Floor studios and other cultural industries by the river in Charlton, and many of the festivals at the Royal Naval College – had little or nothing to do with the council, either in its Royal or commoner guise.
There’s too much fixation with Greenwich’s – and to a lesser extent Woolwich’s – royal heritage embodied by the Royal Arsenal, the Royal Naval College and Queen’s House, and not enough attention paid to the borough’s working-class heritage, sadly under relentless attack by developers large and small. Old Charlton pubs such as the White Horse (currently subject to yet another planning application for its demolition and replacement by a mediocre block of flats) and the White Swan (facing possible closure) are just as important as the listed buildings of Greenwich town centre. It’s shocking that amidst the new buildings of the Peninsula Enderby House, where the world’s first Atlantic cable was made, lies rotting.
The Royal Borough tag already seems a bit stale. Instead Greenwich should be just as proud of its co-operative and industrial heritage, and the new institutions and communities starting life here today, as of the blood-splattered Tudor monarchs who happened to be born here 500 years ago.
It’s been a huge boon to have two higher education institutions – Ravensbourne and Trinity Laban – move into Greenwich in the last 15 years. Greenwich University, and its fantastic new Stockwell Street building, are another great resource, but apart from the University Technical College links with local schools are poor and need to be improved. I predict that by the 2020s the university will struggle to afford to buy more land in Greenwich town centre and will instead look to expand in Woolwich (currently only it’s drama department is there). After a checkered few years the voluntary sector in Greenwich is in fine fettle, as are traders associations in Eltham, East Greenwich and the Royal Standard.
The Mercury and the News Shopper are still good local papers despite their squeezed budgets, but both will migrate online in the next five years. Social media got off to a bad start in Greenwich – the borough’s first politics blog was the short-lived GreenwichWatch, run by an anonymous neo-con who slung mud at the Labour council at random. But sites like 853 and the Greenwich Phantom now cover local news, and hold the council to account, much more effectively and fairly than equivalent blogs in most other parts of London. By the 2050s there will be dozens of such hyper-local platforms in Greenwich, and politicians will pay as much attention to what they say as they do today to the front page of the Evening Standard.
One thing I won’t miss is Greenwich Time and its cringeworthy headlines which leave no cliché or bad pun unturned (recent highlights include ‘Paws for Thought’ about a dog microchipping drive, ‘The Butt Stops Here’ about an anti-smoking campaign, and ‘A Wheelie Good Grant’ – a reference to a special school winning funds for a new minibus, not me). Greenwich and Tower Hamlets are now the only two councils in London that still print a weekly newspaper, despite Communities Secretary Eric Pickles ordering them not to. Although there is an economic case for such papers (archaically, the law still demands that councils publish highways notices, planning applications and so on in a weekly paper), this is one battle that isn’t worth picking with Pickles. I predict the council will raise the white flag and put Greenwich Tine out of its misery early in 2015. The irony is that the council will then communicate much more effectively through Twitter and other social media than via squirting ink onto dead trees.
There’s a persistent myth that Greenwich is difficult to get to: in fact it was the first place in the world to get a commuter railway (the line between Greenwich and London Bridge opened as early as 1836). When I was a child Greenwich line stations were dimly lit and covered with graffiti, and trains only ran twice an hour: now stations are better maintained and trains run every ten minutes. People grumble about SouthEastern but it’s better than both its predecessors, Connex and British Rail. Greenwich has benefitted hugely from the Jubilee Line and DLR extensions, and will benefit further from Crossrail once it opens in 2018.
But in the meantime another “improvement” will actually make Greenwich’s connections worse. The necessary rebuilding of London Bridge station means that from December 23rd onwards, Greenwich will no longer have a direct rail link to Charing Cross for the first time in 150 years: all trains will now go to and from Cannon Street for evermore. Because of Southeastern’s woeful publicity I’m shocked how few commuters know what’s about to hit them (there will also be two years of trains going through London Bridge station without stopping in 2016-2018). I predict a huge outcry from people who live or work in Greenwich , starting in early 2015 and leading to demands for better river, DLR and bus services to compensate. The Bakerloo line extension through Lewisham will help, especially if there is a branch to Blackheath, Kidbrooke and Eltham, but it’s unlikely to be built before the early 2030s.
The London Bridge problem is not just a four-year headache for rail commuters: longer term, it threatens to reinforce the perception that southeast London, and Greenwich in particular, is inaccessible by public transport. As well as banging on about Crossrail coming in 2018, the council need to do more to make sure commuters can get from A to B in the meantime. A new Greenwich Line user’s group has done what it can to argue for a better deal, as have Greenwich’s current MP Nick Raynsford (and his likely successor Matt Pennycook). Matt Hartley, the Conservative candidate for Greenwich and Woolwich, is cheekily arguing for Charing cross trains to be maintained, knowing full well that the battle that was lost many years ago.
Under both Conservative and Labour governments, Greenwich is only one squeaky wheel among many when it comes to national infrastructure projects. As more and more homes are built on the Peninsula the Jubilee Line will be at bursting point until Crossrail Four is at last built in the 2040s with a station on the Peninsula. The much-maligned Emirates Airline will be running at capacity by the 2020s, given that Earl’s Court has closed and more and more trade shows are held at Excel instead.
Before the Silvertown Tunnel (which I discussed in detail on this blog last week) opens in 2021 Greenwich will have to fight hard for a tolling regime, and other mitigations, to limit the environmental damage. Rather than launch its ridiculous “Bridge the Gap” pro-roads campaign in 2012 I only wish the council had argued harder for the DLR to come across the river to the peninsula and Thamesmead. Although the council is more insistent now about the need for public transport connections as well as new roads, I fear the horse has already bolted.
I predict that congestion and pollution will only get worse if new road bridges are built without heavy tolls and rail links. By the 2030s there will be renewed proposals for “relief roads” southwards from the river to the A2, partly tunnelled but also entailing some demolition above ground. As with the East London River Crossing in the 1980s and 90s, an active community campaign will spring up to oppose them, but new road bridges built in the 2020s will have let the genie out of the bottle. If the government and Mayor of London really want to build new motorways in London they will eventually get built.
The paradox will be that just as Greenwich is “regenerated” by new roads, car ownership levels will continue to fall. Although more and more Greenwich residents can afford to own a car, more and more of them will choose not to out of lifestyle choice, particularly once a Labour Mayor gives all carless Londoners a 50% discount on transport fares in the 2020s. So expect more and more anger from Greenwich dwellers in the 2020s about the pollution and congestion caused by new roads which they don’t use.
Climate change will also have some more unexpected consequences: by the 2030s, rising sea levels will mean the Thames Barrier will be replaced by a tidal barrage downriver in the Thames estuary. Three of its nine metallic piers will have been converted into a viewing platform, a destination Jamie Oliver restaurant and a boutique hotel. The fall in car ownership will see many car parks turned into “grow your own” allotments.
This brings me on to the thorny matter of Greenwich politics. I’ve gone a bit cold turkey since I stood down as a councillor in May (see the farewell piece I wrote just before the elections, and a more candid analysis of the results just after) and I’ve attended very few political events. But I’ve kept half an ear to the ground.
My first, unexciting prediction is that Greenwich will continue to elect Labour MPs. Matt Pennycook is a clever guy who did well to beat the front-runner Len Duvall and get adopted as Labour’s candidate for the Greenwich and Woolwich constituency last November. Since then Matt has been magnanimous and has helped avert the infighting and bitterness that often follow candidate selections in a safe labour seat. Matt’s already found his voice, breaking ranks with most other senior Labour politicians in Greenwich to express doubts about the Silvertown Link and holding a well-attended Jobs Fair. I predict Matt will get elected next May with a majority close to the 10,000 Nick Raynsford achieved in 2010, and that he’ll be just as hardworking and effective an MP as Nick has been. Given that it’s a safe seat and Matt’s still in his early thirties, I can easily imagine a sixty-something Matt Pennycook still being its MP in 2050.
The Erith and Thamesmead constituency – which also covers Abbey Wood and most of Plumstead – will also remain Labour and the able Teresa Pearce can remain its MP as long as she likes. The more marginal Eltham will also remain Labour in 2015, despite an energetic campaign by local Tory councillor Spencer Drury (Clive Efford’s incumbency and hard work, and an active UKIP candidate who will pick up more ex-Tory voters than ex-Labour ones, will help Labour over the line). But when Clive retires – probably sometime in the 2020s – Eltham will become more of a toss-up.
The council is more of an enigma. Greenwich has always been an insular place: Labour’s rock-solid grip on the borough has bred a form of McCarthyism (by which I mean Senator Joe McCarthy, not Councillor Allan MacCarthy, a Charlton stalwart and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in Greenwich). Ideas that originate outside Greenwich’s Labour Group are often seen as automatically suspect. Although things are changing under the council’s new leader Denise Hyland, some habits die hard.
In the run-up to the 2014 elections there was a succession of media stories about bullying, cronyism, abusive voicemail messages – and, most shocking of all, allegations that a senior councillor had assaulted a Town Hall cleaner. These stories were only the tip of an iceberg: bullying was absolutely rife in Greenwich until May. Councillors and council staff were routinely shouted at, threatened with disciplinary action for speaking their minds at internal meetings, or quite literally airbrushed out of Greenwich Time like victims of a Stalinist purge. Those who raised concerns found that their confidential correspondence was hacked into without their knowledge or consent; they were then accused of “issuing publications critical of the party” and told to shut up or else. In my case, a “colleague” once yelled at me aggressively in front of my daughter, then aged 7. On another occasion I was officially “warned” to stop asking awkward questions about why council properties in my ward were standing empty for several months – or even years – before being sold off at auction for less than their real value (a “warning” that was later found to be unlawful). Many, many other councillors and council employees had similar experiences.
The most tragic consequences of this bullying were not borne by its immediate victims. The real scandal is that all the dysfunction and aggression in the council distracted it from its most important job, ensuring that Greenwich’s poorest residents can get decent jobs, decent homes and decent public services. Too many people in Greenwich face grinding poverty, loan sharks, and overcrowded homes rented from landlords who can turf them out with little or no notice – problems only worsened by the awful policies of the Coalition government. Although Greenwich has had success in lowering unemployment, too few youngsters go into higher education and too many go into insecure, low-paid jobs. But politicians like me ended up spending far too much time grappling with the council’s toxic internal politics, not problems like these.
An unprecedented 21 new councillors were elected in May (almost half the total) and since then Greenwich Council’s Chief Executive, Leader, Deputy Leader and Chief Whip have all quit or been unseated. Refreshingly, I haven’t heard about any new scandals since Denise Hyland became the council’s new leader in May. She’s generally seen to be doing a good job (though it’s a pity that Greenwich has just appointed a new chief executive who’s already worked here for 20 years, rather than bring in new blood).
The council’s problems go deeper than just personnel and changing its culture will take many years – possibly a decade or two. But even the most hardened cynic – and there are plenty of those in Greenwich – would agree that the new administration has taken several steps to show it is different from the old. The media – both print and online – is no longer treated with contempt (both Denise and her deputy John Fahy have given interviews to the Mercury and News Shopper and others, and written pieces for Greenwich.co.uk). Denise Hyland has joined Twitter and John Fahy has even undergone the Ice Bucket challenge – two things that no leading Labour councillor in Greenwich would have been seen dead doing prior to last May.
Of course a bucket of ice-cold water does not in itself signal a cultural shift, but suddenly the council no longer seems to take itself so seriously. I’m told that there’s less factionalism as new Labour councillors have yet to work out who their enemies (and friends) are. As one put it to me recently: “The new councillors are great as they don’t all know each other that well yet – there’s no historical baggage.” Others say the new regime is “bliss” and say that the contrast between Labour Group meetings before the May 2014 elections, and since, is “like chalk and cheese”. Labour Group meetings have recently featured workshops on touchy subjects like community engagement (code for “Do we kill off Greenwich Time before Eric Pickles does?”) and river crossings: before May, one senior councillor tells me, difficult subjects would have tucked in at “number 13 on the agenda” to minimise the risk of discussion or dissent. Aidan Smith, a newly-elected Greenwich West councillor, recently tweeted “the #SilvertownTunnel must be stopped. It promises more congestion and more pollution for #Greenwich” and lived to tell the tale. Before May, when the council’s “Bridge the Gap” campaign was in full swing, he would have been hung, drawn and quartered.
And Greenwich has moved on from some of the pointless partisanship that used to be rife in the council chamber: Labour councillors put forward an anti-gambling motion at a recent meeting and accepted a Tory amendment to strengthen its wording (doubly surprising, given that many Labour and Tory councillors enthusiastically supported a “Super-Casino” at the 02 as recently as 2007).
Conservative and Liberal Democrats wanting to see public mud-slinging as scientific proof that Greenwich has changed will be disappointed. Politicians often speak in code but you don’t need an Enigma machine to read between the lines. Shortly after her election in June incoming Leader Denise Hyland paid tribute her predecessor Chris Roberts’ “focus”, “vision”, and “fantastic commitment”: any comment from an incoming leader would look contemptuous without any reference to her predecessor. But it was striking how oddly impersonal the words she used were: there was noting about what Chris was like to work for, or with.
Denise Hyland’s promise to “listen to the public” can be dismissed by cynics as hot air – but it matters. The last regime made few promises to listen to the voters, so could easily deflect criticism that it hadn’t. The council never made any secret of the fact that it thought it knew best, but now it’s not so sure. Welcome u-turns on a memorial for Lee Rigby and the Blackheath fireworks (both of which the council had refused to support prior to May) have taken many by surprise. But it still needs to do more to reassure residents that it is as interested in day-to-day services as in knees-ups like the Tall Ships festival. The council should not have to choose between hosting such events and delivering basic services well, but sooner or later it may have to as the financial squeeze on local government continues.
Many people will doubt that the council can really change while it’s still Labour-run. But they forget that all political parties are organic coalitions, and that the differences within parties are often greater than between them. Political parties are rarely personality cults whose members follow blindly the lead of their leaders. Greenwich Council’s Labour Group is no exception: it’s an uneasy coalition of at least four factions. The first faction is the old-fashioned paternalists – ‘Council knows best’ – who can make firm decisions but which had by 2014 ossified into a bullying, arrogant clique. The second is an established modernising tendency, eager to look outside the borough for new ideas and sceptical that the paternalists know best. The third category are the hardworking mavericks, deeply rooted in the community and quietly working away in their wards, often unnoticed by the leadership. The fourth and final group is more of an unknown quantity: the 18 Labour councillors newly elected in May 2014, many of them ambitious and eager for even more rapid change than the established modernisers. (As a councillor I straddled groups two and three, in case you’re interested.)
Greenwich now has the best group of Labour councillors I can remember and I predict that the council can remain Labour-controlled until 2050, and beyond – but only if the latter three factions work together and aren’t outwitted by the first. There are no grounds for complacency. Although the Lib Dems seem to be a spent force, the Tories are in retreat and Greenwich stayed firmly Labour at the council elections in 2014, there was a surprisingly strong UKIP vote in parts of Eltham and a strong Green vote in the north of the borough. In the 1980s SDP MPs were elected in both of Greenwich’s supposedly “safe” Labour parliamentary seats because the party looked inwards and stopped listening to voters. There’s no reason why the same couldn’t happen to the council in the 2020s or 2030s if Labour stops listening now.
The litmus test will come when Greenwich is hit by a really big scandal, as is bound at happen at some point in the next decade or two. If a whitewash is attempted, recent events in Tower Hamlets show that the consequences for Greenwich could be serious indeed. In the meantime the council’s ineffective Standards Committee, which consists solely of councillors acting as judge and jury on their own alleged misdemeanours while non-voting independent members look on, needs to be overhauled and a proper anti-bullying strategy put in place. I put forward recommendations for such an overhaul last year (they can be read here) and I hope they will be properly debated before long.
As for the Conservatives, it’s healthy that they’re fielding home-grown parliamentary candidates in 2015 (Spencer Drury in Eltham and Matt Hartley in Greenwich and Woolwich): previous candidates like David Gold, Richard Forsdyke and Alistair Craig were able outsiders who were hardly heard of in Greenwich again. The problem with the Tories in Greenwich is twofold. Firstly, they almost always miss the open goals left to them by the Labour council’s mistakes. The council should not have spent as much as £2.5m on a Tall Ships Festival but Spencer Drury – a man I’ve known and respected for more than a decade – is silly to complain that there wasn’t enough benefit for Eltham (a town three miles from the river). Secondly the Tories have little or nothing to say about the borough’s real problems: low pay, low aspirations and poor housing. The Tories’ obsession with a new grammar school in Eltham shows that they need to modernise even more than the Labour party does.
But it can’t be easy being a Tory councillor in Greenwich, where there’s more chance of England winning the World Cup than your party ever winning control of the Town Hall. By the end of my 16 years as a councillor I had a lot of respect for the two Conservatives who represented Blackheath Westcombe ward alongside me – Geoff Brighty and Alex Wilson – and we now greet each other as old friends, not enemies. Perhaps our biggest achievement was that we survived at all. As an anomalous ultra-marginal ward in a safe Labour borough Blackheath Westcombe was of no strategic importance whatsoever, but of London’s 600-plus council wards it’s the only one to have always been represented by a mix of Labour and Conservative councillors.
It was a huge privilege to have been elected at the tender age of 24 and to serve for 16 years. The council gave me some life-skills – like how to chair large public meetings – that few people acquire that young. When I stepped down as a councillor in 2014 I was touched by the number of people who said thank you and that my work would be missed (surprisingly, I did not receive a single message from anyone saying thank goodness).
I saw many unsavoury things as a councillor in Greenwich but I also encountered much dedication and generosity. Most councillors, both Labour and Conservative, are dedicated and put in full-time hours for a part-time allowance. One councillor I knew regularly got up at 5am to go out with the street-sweepers and caretakers – not to micro-manage, but to see how services could be improved. Plenty of councillors would respond to incoming casework with a personal phone call or visit, and not leave it to their PA in the Town Hall as I often did. Such a hands-on approach is often discouraged but this is time more usefully spent than almost all Town Hall meetings. There is a tradition of active political representation in Greenwich which was steadily sidelined in my time as a councillor but is now undergoing a renaissance.
Greenwich politics has its faults but it’s still a lot cleaner than neighbouring Tower Hamlets, where foul-mouthed, homophobic abuse at council meetings is common. Whatever grumblers say, Greenwich has a bedrock of competence and gets many of the basics right: rubbish gets collected efficiently and on time, open spaces are generally managed well, and the council keeps council tax low. I only hope it soon acquires an equally good reputation for listening to residents rather than lecturing them: Greenwich could do well to follow Lewisham’s lead and start asking residents how the next round of cuts should be made.
One final prediction. The borough’s boundaries are arbitrary and they leave many important places – Deptford, Blackheath, Lee Green, Abbey Wood and Thamesmead – split between Greenwich and other boroughs. I used to be a sceptic about borough mergers – elected Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas – but now I’m not so sure. It’s arguable that Greenwich is too small a unit to really pull its weight, and that a south-east London “super-borough” could help knit these places together more effectively. For all its self-importance Greenwich is still just one suburb among many, not a city in its own right.
I predict that at some point in the 2020s London boroughs will voluntarily merge, to stand up more strongly to a Mayor who is bound to be given more and more powers by central government. There’s already pressure for community councils in places like Shooter’s Hill and Charlton, and the council’s hostility to them is a serious error. London boroughs can’t easily argue for more freedom from central government while denying it to its own local communities. Expect lots of rows between Greenwich, Bexley and Lewisham at some point over the next 30 years about what a new super-borough will be called. As with the 1965 borough re-organisation, Greenwich will win. Greenwich has something that Bexley, Lewisham and Newham all lack: name recognition. I only hope its great name will be recognised in the years ahead for all the right reasons, not the wrong ones.