Why democracy doesn’t work in Greenwich

Written by Cllr Spencer Drury


Wednesday night was a meeting of the Full Council for the Royal Borough of Greenwich.  It is the main democratic body for Greenwich and in theory should be where Councillors debate issues and make key decisions, however, on Wednesday it was a farce which revealed all of the reasons that democracy in the council isn't working.


To keep this manageable, I think I’ll try to limit myself to three examples in order to show why Council meetings generally, and this one in particular,  are a bad joke. 


The first reason is simply that Labour Councillors refuse to engage with the democratic process; not asking questions, making speeches or commenting on the items on the agenda.  This is completely normal in Greenwich – only the Cabinet (including Labour Leader Chris Roberts) seem to be allowed to speak on these occasions.  I suppose the fact that backbench Cllrs, Mary Mills and David Grant both spoke at the meeting should be celebrated as they don’t normally and I wonder if the fact they are both standing down from the Council at the end of the year has given them more freedom to speak their own minds on issues.  Other than that though, when the failure of the Council to care about Plumstead through its own Masterplan was raised by members of the public, not one Plumstead Councillor spoke.  When we talked about hospitals, cycling, the ‘pavement tax’ on shops or reducing maintenance of Council housing, not a single Labour backbench Councillor felt it was important to speak.  We have raised in the past the fact that these Council meetings should be webcast (as many other boroughs do) but I suspect Labour don’t want this as their voters might see how little they actually do for them.  They mostly seem desperate for the meeting to end rather then to stand up for the areas they have been elected by.


The second reason is the failure of Labour Cabinet Members to answer the questions they are asked.  On Wednesday this was shown in the ‘Oral Questions’ section where I asked the Cabinet Member for Health, Cllr Fahy, what implications he thought the decision by the High Court regarding Lewisham A&E would have for Greenwich.  He simply said he wasn’t going to answer the question as he would deal with it later on.  I repeated the question twice and finally the Mayor stated that Cllr Fahy’s refusal to answer the question was fine.  Of course the Mayor is Labour, but normally they do try to ensure that the Council meetings do mean something and that there is a sort of democratic requirement to answer the questions asked – but not this week.  Of course later on, Cllr Fahy (in the debate on health) did speak about A&E at Lewisham but made no attempt to address the difficult implications for the QE.  As he had commented previously, the original plan was not a bad deal for Greenwich and with Eltham MP Clive Efford’s call for a review of all A&E provision, I am seriously concerned that Woolwich’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital might lose its A&E.  However, Labour in Greenwich don’t seem to have a plan for this – Lewisham have been completely committed to saving their A&E, but in Greenwich the Council won’t even answer questions on the situation, let alone outline their plans for standing up for our hospital.  


Which leads me on to the third anti-democratic event of the night – amending motions.  A motion is where at least two Councillors try to lay out a policy or view which they think should inform Council policy.  In theory the Cabinet and Leader should then stick to this.  In this case, the Conservative Group tried to force the Cabinet to deal with the Mayor of London’s Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan, who they have refused to meet or talk to.  Andrew Gilligan has around £900m in funding to distribute between all London Boroughs over the next ten years.  Labour claimed at the last Council meeting that Mr Gilligan has a conflict of interest (although they could not say what this was beyond occasionally criticising the Council) and so Greenwich is the only Borough where no one had met with him to see what plans he might wish to develop here (where he lives incidentally).  In my opinion, this means we will not get our fair share of Boris Johnson’s substantial funds for cycling as Greenwich simply won’t co-operate with the process.  For this reason we thought it was important to put forward a  motion asking that the council enter negtiations with Mr Gilligan for the good of the borough's cycling strategy.


The motion was proposed by Conservative Councillor Matt Clare (who spoke about how important it was for cycling to be supported across Greenwich) and seconded by Nigel Fletcher (outlining how the Cabinet and Leader’s attitude to Boris was handicapping Greenwich’s ability to get the support it needed from the Greater London Authority).  Labour however, moved an amendment (a change) to the motion which they had not distributed previously which completely removed all mention of Andrew Gilligan. 

Now in theory, every amendment should be on the same subject as the motion that has been proposed, otherwise every meeting could be sabotaged by the Labour Councillors changing the whole subject of debate to something they wanted to talk about (can’t think what this would be, but there must be something).  In this case, it did not seem that the amendment’s failure to deal with the Gilligan question (although it was about cycling) was on the same  subject. I spoke with the Mayor and Chief Executive protesting that they should not allow the amendment.  I was informed that the Chief Legal Officer had approved it, but when I spoke to him he said he had not seen it before.  it left me feeling that between them they had stitched together the opinion that the amendment was on the same subject and so allowable under the Council’s Constitution.  Even though we were not allowed to address the core issue of the council not dealing with Mr Gilligan.   This situation isn’t acceptable, but it is completely normal in Greenwich; changing the meaning of the motion to crush the debate.  This was a particulary extreme example,  and when Conservatives raised the issue after the adjournment, we were told that the amendment was fine. 

So we moved on to the debate where the Independant, Cllr Glover tried to speak about her disagreement with the Conservative motion, but was not allowed on the basis she could not now mention Gilligan as he was not part of the amendment.  Now this was ridiculous, as the Mayor had just ruled that the amendment was acceptable as it was on the same subject as the motion itself.  So up I stood and tried to make the points I wanted to make about the way Greenwich would lose out on a decade of cycling funding if they did not deal with Gilligan through the amendment (for instance pointing out that negotiating with TfL about the Thames Path cycling route would require dealing with Gilligan) but under pressure from the Labour Leader and her Deputy Mayor,  the Mayor interrupted me and asked me not to mention Gilligan.  I pointed out that she had to be kidding as the amendment did mention the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in critical terms and so any debate about this required mentioning the Cycling Commissioner.  Eventually she backed down, but it was genuinely a disgraceful attempt by Labour to close down a legitimate subject of debate. A subject which was for the potential benefit of all Greenwich Residents.


The end result was that the Leader of the Council and the Cabinet made no attempt to defend their actions with regard to Andrew Gilligan and the borough now faces the potential loss of a Cycling Superhighway from Woolwich to Central London or bike hubs at North Greenwich & Abbey Wood stations.  Essentially we are losing about £3m each year in terms of cycling grants because the Cabinet and Officers won’t talk to one of the Mayor of London’s appointments.  It is a disgrace and the people of Greenwich are losing out in terms of safety and better provision for cycling. 


Democracy in Greenwich is being sadly undermined by this charade and unless the Labour Majority declines at the next election it is going to carry on in this way, with residents’ interests being sacrificed on the altar of the Labour Party’s arrogance.