Labour put party politics before defending Woolwich Fire Station

At the end of the full Council meeting on Wednesday the Labour Party rejected Conservative attempts to find cross-party consensus in opposing the closure of Woolwich Fire Station in favour of scoring party political points, resulting in confusion.


Item 17 on the agenda was a motion signed by almost the whole Labour Group ostensibly opposing the closure of the Fire Station in Woolwich, as is proposed in the current consultation being held by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA).  However, as was made clear during the debate, it was really an opportunity to rant about the Conservative Mayor and Tories in general, rather than a genuine attempt to find a way to save Woolwich Fire Station.


The debate was opened by Labour Cllr Maureen O’Mara telling us how she has spoken to a fireman and he had told her that Woolwich has the fourth highest level of primary fires in London and how it was a disgrace that the closure should be proposed.  Then she went on to state that Woolwich needed its fire station and it was truly awful that anyone should consider closing it, implying along the way that the Mayor of London was effectively trying to ensure Labour boroughs suffer much more from fires than Conservative boroughs.  It was a speech low on facts and high vitriol.


Cllr Peter Brookes formally seconded the motion and was followed by Conservative Leader Cllr Spencer Drury who proposed an amendment to the motion, effectively changing almost all the words (this is shown at the bottom of this piece with the original Labour motion) but maintaining the opposition to the closure of Woolwich Fire Station.  Spencer explained how the motion was not acceptable as it was highly political, wildly inaccurate and once again, placed Woolwich’s interest ahead of the whole borough.  The essence of Spencer’s points was that:-


·         The Labour motion was not in a genuine attempt to find the right way to prevent the closure of Woolwich Fire Station and instead a piece of political pantomime.

·         The motion itself was factually inaccurate and so an embarrassment to the Council in addition to undermining the case against closure.  In particular Spencer highlighted:-

o        There were 624 wards in London, not 568 as mentioned in the Labour motion.

o        There did not appear to be any figures for fires broken down by ward, so the assertion from Cllr O’Mara’s mystery fireman that Woolwich Riverside had the fourth highest in London was unlikely to be true. 

o        The target response time after the proposals are implemented is two seconds within the LFEPA target time of 6 minutes, not one second as Cllr O’Mara stated.

o        The Mayor of London was wrongly attributed responsibility for actions that were not his, like the LFEPA consultation or the Fire Brigade’s Draft Fifth London Safety Plan.

  • The motion was entirely about Woolwich, or one ward in Woolwich, which was ridiculous as the whole borough had to be considered in the response to the consultation.


Instead Spencer proposed a Conservative amendment, which was a genuine attempt to stop the Council looking stupid by once again passing inaccurate Labour motions, create cross-party consensus in opposing the closure of the Woolwich fire station and lastly to ensure that the main argument to save the fire station (increasing population had not been taken into account) was made clearly by the whole Council. 


Spencer also proposed that the Council investigate the cost of supporting the Fire Station within its own budget (something which it had done in the past with police teams) and ask the person in charge of the fire brigade in Greenwich to brief the whole Council about the proposals.  Blackheath Cllr Alex Wilson seconded the amendment.


However, Cllr O’Mara refused to accept the amendment and a string of Labour Members stood up to explain why they supported the original motion with its political, inaccurate, Woolwich-focus rather than the one which would have allowed the whole Council to speak with one voice in opposing the fire station closure.  Some of the Labour Councillors who spoke were:-


  • Cllr Jim Gillman, who gave a serious and thoughtful contribution about population increase and the need to maintain fire station cover, especially since the Shooters Hill Fire Station had been closed some years before.
  • Cllr John Fahy, who gave a nonsensical speech that this was not just about Woolwich (completely ignoring his own motion’s statement about “the threat it (the closure) would pose to the people and businesses of Woolwich”.
  • Cllr Don Austen, in full pantomime mode, lectured Council on police cuts, NHS cuts and the way consultations work while welcoming the Conservative agreement that the closure should be opposed.
  • Cllr Smith who stated that more Council Tax was all that was needed to keep the fire stations open.  We think she quoted 1p a day on all Band D properties, but this only adds up to £9.4m rather than the £45m needed to keep the fire stations open across London, so she must have meant much more than this.
  • Cllr Allan McCarthy, who spoke about his experiences in a fire and his admiration for fire fighters. 


At the end of this the Labour Party rejected the Conservative amendment basically without being able to find any fault in it.


To conclude, Cllr O’Mara wrapped up the debate with a bizarre speech in which she said it was a disgrace that the Conservatives wouldn’t oppose the fire station closure and she would be letting people know this in her leaflets.  This was met with widespread derision from the Conservative benches, because the Conservatives had consistently opposed the closure during the debate.


Spencer said “I am extremely disappointed that the Labour Party chose to put party politics and Council chamber pantomime behaviour before trying to get consensus against the closure of Woolwich fire station.  In my opinion, a response to the LFEPA which had cross-party agreement would have carried more weight and I am completely sure that our only way of opposing this closure is to prove that population growth has not been properly accounted for in the plans.”


“This motion was clearly about the Labour Party finding something to put in their leaflets which while wholly inaccurate will enable them to win an election by scare-mongering –something they have done in the past.  I am left wondering whether the Greenwich Labour Party would be quite pleased if the fire station closed as it would allow it to blame the Mayor of London and Conservatives generally.”




The motion and amendment read as follows:


Current Labour Motion


Council notes that the Woolwich Riverside council ward covering Woolwich Town Centre has the fourth highest level of primary fires of all London's 568 electoral wards.


Council is therefore shocked that Mayor Johnson should propose the closure of the Woolwich fire station in this ward which even on his figures will increase response times to within one second of that permitted in the fire authority's own guidelines.


Council notes that the Mayor's own Fire Authority Board Members have expressed deep concern about this closure and the threat it would pose to the safety of the people and businesses of Woolwich - an area where population growth is significant.


Council notes that Mayor Johnson has proposed closures in several inner London Labour boroughs including Greenwich, while proposing to transfer services to outer London Tory areas.


Council calls on the Mayor of London to abandon what looks like a politically biased consultation on fire station closures and to protect the existing and valuable service in Woolwich - London's fourth highest area for primary fires.


Amended motion to read:


“Council notes that Greenwich Borough has the fourth highest level of fires of all London Boroughs based upon the 2011/12 data.  Council is therefore concerned that the current plans being consulted upon by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) include the closure of the fire station in Woolwich.


Council considers that the proposals put forward by the London Fire Brigade in the Draft Fifth London Safety Plan 2013-2016 may have failed to adequately take account of the high level of population growth in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, especially with developments in Kidbrooke, Woolwich and the Greenwich Peninsula still to be completed. 


Hence Council requests that the Cabinet Member, in responding to the LFEPA consultation, makes clear the level of expected population increase across the whole borough and the resulting conclusion that the Royal Borough of Greenwich opposes the closure of Woolwich Fire Station.


In addition, Council requests that the Cabinet Member reports on the total cost of maintaining the fire station in Woolwich in order to establish whether it would be economic for the Council to retain the facility within its own budget. 


Finally, this Council resolves to invite the Fire Brigade Borough Commander to attend the next full Council meeting to brief councillors on the Draft Fifth London Safety Plan 2013-2016 proposals (including for closure of Woolwich Fire Station) and their impact on the fire brigade’s ability to responds to fires across the whole Royal Borough of Greenwich.”