As I sat down opposite Cllr John Fahy, I remarked that this would not be the first time his words would be recorded this week.
Our interview was taking place a few days after local journalist Darryl Chamberlain broke new ground by posting audio clips from the council chamber onto the internet.
But Cllr Fahy was not bothered by his sudden appearance online.
“It’s important we keep up with modern day communication strategies so I haven’t any hang ups about it,” he said.
“The council meetings are a public venue where people come along, quite rightly, and represent their interests and the interests of their community.
“We have the press there who can take notes, so what’s the difference, really?”
His relaxed outlook on what may prove to be an important step forward for council transparency is not atypical for the genial Irishman.
Hailing from a small village east of Cork, John Fahy moved to the UK at the end of the 1950s. He first made his home in Guildford, where he started a career in the trade union movement.
He moved to London in 1987 and was first elected to Greenwich Council three years later. He has been the cabinet member responsible for culture, including the Olympics, for four years.
We met at the café in East Greenwich Pleasaunce, a park he describes as “absolutely wonderful”. Getting people back into parks is one of his priorities – and cafés have a big role to play.
“I became interested in creating an environment whereby the parks would be successful if we had cafés so people had an opportunity to come, walk their dog or play sport.
“Having a café here also has the element of security because people are here, the staff are here and so it brings it all together in a positive way.
“We’ve got this café, we’ve got a café in Eltham Park South, we’ve got Avery Hill and we’ve been discussing the prospect of a café in St Alfege Park”.
“It will probably mean converting an existing building and we’re working with the friends of the park to achieve that.”
The improvements at the pleasaunce in recent years have seen it handed a prestigious Green Flag Award.
Greenwich Council has five-and-a-half Green Flag parks – the half being Blackheath, shared with Lewisham. Does he have ambitions to increase Greenwich’s Green Flag tally?
“We’re aiming for twelve by 2012 but obviously we want to create more. For instance, the Friends of St Alfege Park are talking of achieving Green Flag status by 2013/14 so the Green Flag parks will continue in a very positive away”.
But with Greenwich lagging behind Lewisham – which already has 12 and a half Green Flag parks – is there a sense of competition with neighbouring boroughs?
“No, no, no – I talk a lot with my counterparts in Lewisham and Bexley so we’re up to speed with what others are doing but it’s not competitive in that sense.”
Greenwich and Lewisham had worked together for many years on the Blackheath firework display, but Greenwich abandoned the event at short notice in 2010. Lewisham was left to set up a public appeal to cover the shortfall.
Had he apologised to his Lewisham counterpart or been embarrassed at the way it was handled?
He begins defensively.
“I’m very keen to talk about the future rather than the past.
“Human frailties exist in councillors as well as everywhere else really. It seems to me that we could have reflected further on what were doing.
“But I think you have to put it in the context that we knew that whichever government was in power post the election, that there was going to be cuts so we deliberately took a decision to find savings where we could and build up some resources so that when it came to the cuts, we had a bit of a fair wind to seek to minimise the effects.
“I think we did reasonably well in terms of that, unlike Lewisham who are now closing five libraries and a whole range of other things.”
Do the Blackheath fireworks have a future?
“It will be difficult,” he says.
“I think there’s a balance to be struck between the private sector contribution and the council contribution and I don’t think in terms of the fireworks that the balance is sufficient. We’re happy to support projects. but in the next few years it’s going to be about doing more for less.”
Lewisham is looking at closing libraries and Cllr Fahy is proud that Greenwich isn’t doing the same. But with any internet-connected computer able to access more information than most libraries, I wondered about the future for libraries, and if the trend for usership was up or down.
“Before the fire in the Eltham Centre, figures were going up. But because the library was closed for a few months, we’ve had problems.
“With the opening of the new Woolwich Library, there’s going to be a significant improvement in IT provision so therefore the balance between readership and all of that will change.
“We need to develop life-long learning centres where it’s not only about taking out a book, it’s about going to the library, researching, using the IT. Kids going in after school to do research, improving their knowledge and all of that. That’s the thing we need to develop.”
The tech-savvy councillor says he is keeping an eye on the effect the Kindle is having on e-book reading and says he is “very interested in the concept” of people able to download music at libraries.
The council’s claim that no libraries are closing in Greenwich has been called into question after the Kidbrooke Kite blog revealed the library at the Ferrier Estate was closing and wouldn’t be reopened or replaced.
“Yes, but I mean, the library in the Ferrier was only open two days a week. It’s a bloody awful place in terms of the quality of the books we have in there so it’s not fit for purpose.”
Cllr Fahy points to “extensive library provision in Eltham… and increasing space in Woolwich”.
“The amount of floor space for libraries has increased dramatically across the borough, and of course we’ve put significant investment in.”
Our meeting came just after the council increased the cost of tennis at its courts in line with inflation and, more controversially, decided to extend the enforcement of charging to Plumstead Common.
Local players were surprised to learn of the charges when a notice appeared and the courts were padlocked shut.
The councillor is aware of the criticisms that had surfaced on local blogs and a popular tennis website and anticipates my question.
Could he clarify the situation?
“Let me say this. The charges have only increased by the rate of inflation. The charges have always been there.
“But we have to look at these issues in the round, really, and we are developing a tennis strategy as we have been around a whole range of sports.”
He says the council is looking at ways to develop tennis across the borough and to create an elite tennis squad.
“Why can’t we provide opportunities for the next McEnroe or Murray to come from Greenwich or from Woolwich?
“But what we want to create is an opportunity for people, which has been the case for years at Plumstead, whereby mum and dad and the kids with a tennis racket and a few balls can come out and have some time on the courts.
“Would we charge for that? I doubt it because we would have to someone sitting there all day.
“I didn’t know the signs at Plumstead were going up. Was I aware, I would have probably said, well, you know, ‘we know what the score is’.”
It sounds like there won’t be an immediate change to the situation at Plumstead, I say.
He agrees, adding he was unaware of the courts being padlocked shut.
“Why do we need to wind people up like that? This is a tough call for all of us in terms of trying to achieve budget reductions.
“We don’t want to persecute people, we want to work with them to improve our sports.”
“Councils work like a bureaucracy and we need to be mindful… it is about collecting money but it’s also about making sure that we increase the number of people participating and if the barrier is one of finance, then we need to be flexible.”
Cllr Fahy says the council does need to improve revenues from tennis, and as with the libraries, he has an eye on greater use of technology.
“We have to find ways to maximising income within a flexible arrangement and I think a swipe card may be one way of doing it.
“We need to have different charges for different areas. The Greenwich Card may become a swipe card so a person who wants to engage in tennis can join on an annual basis, swipe their card and play.”
May 4, 2011 by Rob Powell
The referendum to determine the voting system that will be used in future general elections will take place tomorrow.
After listening to months of campaigning, voters will have to decide whether to opt for the Alternative Vote (AV) or to retain the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system.
Borough-wide podcast, In the Meantime, hosted a debate on the issue in its most recent episode featuring Cllr Alex Wilson against AV and local politics student, Alex Brooks in favour of AV.
Polling stations will be open tomorrow between 7am and 10pm. Visit the council’s website for details of where your polling station is.
Greenwich Council’s cabinet member for Culture and the Olympics has raised the prospect of a concert being held in Greenwich Park next year.
Speaking to Greenwich.co.uk, Cllr John Fahy has proposed using London 2012′s temporary stadium for a cultural event during the gap between the Olympic and Paralympic equestrian events.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had Bono in Greenwich Park in 2012?”, he says in the interview for this website which will be published in two parts beginning tomorrow. The proposal is in its infancy and would require the agreement of London 2012 organisers before it could go ahead.
“It’s a space that’s there and we need to talk to LOCOG and the police … to see if it’s possible to use it”, he says.
Elsewhere in the interview, he:
- Reveals his ambition to secure a ticket to an Olympic event for every child in the borough.
- Says he has “no hang ups” about council meetings being recorded and put online.
- Sets a target of 12 Green Flag Award winning parks in Greenwich by 2012.
- Calls the decision to charge £10 to stand on the Meridian Line at the Royal Observatory “overkill”.
- Backs away from plans to enforce charging for tennis at Plumstead Common in the short term.
Part one of Greenwich.co.uk’s interview with Cllr John Fahy will be published on Greenwich.co.uk tomorrow.
May 3, 2011 by Rob Powell
I took this photo on Sunday whilst taking part in a one day photo workshop with local photographer, Fergus Noone, and digital imaging guru, Richard Riddick.
I joined Fergus and ten others at Richard’s DPC studio in Peyton Place where we were taught the basics of ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings. The aim of this was to understand how to take photos once moving your digital SLR off of the ‘Auto’ mode and into the previously intimidating world of manual settings!
We then strolled over to the Old Royal Naval College and through the foot tunnel to Island Gardens to put our new found knowledge to the test. It was great to get our work reviewed by the professionals throughout the tour and to benefit from their tips and suggestions for improvement.
Once back at the studio, we each selected our best photo, with help from Fergus, and then Richard showed us some of the post production magic he could do in Photoshop to further enhance them.
It was a really enjoyable day – I’d certainly recommend booking yourself on a future event if you’re interested in learning more about photography. The rest of the ‘best’ photos from the day can be found on Fergus’ Facebook page, along with his and Richard’s feedback, so do take a look.
Here’s a couple of behind the scenes photos I took on my phone during the day.