Although I am a supporter of the Coalition Government, I worry about its approach to local authorities. While Nick Clegg fiddles around with alternative voting and House of Lords reform, Eric Pickles seems free to burn and slash his way through England’s town halls.
However after being given a chance to occupy the moral high ground Greenwich Council is determined to vacate it. The Council seems reluctant to take local people into its confidence over proposed cuts in services or to offer any comprehensive strategy. Its initial approach is to nibble at things which, although not life and death, add to the quality of life in the Borough - Blackheath Fireworks, Maryon Wilson Zoo and now Blackheath Halls - and at least in the case of the fireworks the timing of the announcement to stop funding was at best incompetent and at worst malicious. And we still haven’t officially heard whether Greenwich will implement the one cut that almost everybody wants - the £30k spent on the invitation-only Mayoral inauguration.
Another example of the Greenwich Way occurred on 21st February when the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee (O&S) commenced a marathon task of hearing representations from voluntary bodies whose grant may be removed or reduced. Effectively O&S has been asked to quality review the process adopted by the Council’s executive.
Now all credit to the O&S councillors for putting in the hours and there seems to be some merit in the idea. However this was negated by a unanimous vote by Labour and Conservative members to sit in secret, using a procedural device usually adopted when a committee is considering commercial tenders. Although there is an element of competition for the available funds, it seems far-fetched to claim that commercial confidentiality is involved when the Council decides how it allocates grants to voluntary organisations. In the past similar representations have been heard in public. However this time O&S chairman Councillor Mick Hayes (Labour) - normally a genial and popular figure - seemed rather put out when he was told that the Committee could vote on going into secret session, rather than meekly obey a recommendation to do so.
This seems part of a pattern of obfuscation. On February 14th the BBC 10 o’clock News ran an item on the cuts with Greenwich as a case study. There were contributions from voluntary sector supremo Naomi Goldberg, Mark Sesnan of Greenwich Leisure Ltd, a possible Big Society prototype, Union man Onay Kasab, plus Nick Raynsford MP. No contribution from the Council who had declined to speak to the Beeb. Don’t ask me why they passed up on the opportunity to address an audience even larger than the local blogosphere or that reached by Greenwich Time’s distribution network.
The Government’s answer to grumbles from Councils about funding is to say:
1) Pay Chief Executives less
2) Save money by working with neighbouring Councils.
In Lewisham Mayor Bullock has launched an all-party constitutional review which we are told will look at top salaries and whether the Borough needs its current number of councillors. Greenwich’s sole constitutional reform so far is a mean-minded measure to make it harder for planning objectors to access councillors.
Greenwich Leader Chris Roberts has said that he isn’t that keen on joint arrangements across Borough boundaries and prefers closer links with other public sector organisations in Greenwich, although I am not aware of any practical suggestions on what this might mean. Anyway Lewisham, our most obvious potential partner, perhaps scarred by the Blackheath fireworks debacle, inclines towards an alliance with Southwark and Lambeth.
Not for the first time I am tempted to conclude that, if London is Europe, then Greenwich is Belarus.