Chris Roberts’ departure from Greenwich Council had been rumoured on and off for some time – but that’s what happens when you’ve been in charge of something for ages. But even then, when the news broke yesterday that the council leader would step down at next year’s election, it still came as a surprise to many.

But he can look back on a job that’s been pretty much completed – with the one big exception, as he acknowledged himself, of funding the Crossrail station in Woolwich, which is key to his efforts to revive the town centre. From the establishment of the council’s own jobs agency to delivering a chunk of the London Olympics, through to freezing council tax and bludgeoning through development masterplans that’ll last into the next decade, the big jobs are pretty much done.

He’s also had the council dancing to his tune for over a decade – and don’t councillors and officers know it. It’s possible Roberts’ departure will also see close ally and chief executive Mary Ney also step down, paving the way for wholesale change at a council’s that resistant to just that. Some of the councillors that have benefited under his rule may also be looking at their own futures.

Suddenly, the disenchanted and disillusioned have reason to look up.

Greenwich Time, May 2009

But who would take over? A new leader would have to win a vote of Labour councillors after 2014’s election, so the change starts with rank and file members; who’ll begin to choose candidates later this year. Which ones they pick will be key to who becomes leader – will they pick time-servers, happy to collect the cash to do a leader’s bidding; or will they go for new faces with new ideas?

Unlike other London Labour councils, there’s a shortage of younger faces on the council – under Roberts, some promising councillors pitched in, then became sick of it all and packed it in. So the pickings for successors are fairly slim.

If you had to ask me to pick a new leader, I’d plump for Jackie Smith. Known as someone that can deal with both the Roberts old guard and the “awkward squad” who occasionally say no to him, she knows the council well – her husband is former leader and current London Assembly member Len Duvall. But there are other names – those who could run, or those who could be king- or queen-makers, but I’m not sure anyone else will want to have their ambitions jinxed by being talked up here. And it’s very early days yet.

But whoever does take over will have a lot of work to do – and a lot of bridges to build. There’s a yawning gap between the council and the public it serves. How to fix things? Here’s some thoughts.

1. Consider changing the way the council is run. The mayoral system works well in Lewisham, where Sir Steve Bullock has been the face of the council for a decade. Chris Roberts has been able to hide behind cabinet members (see Bridge The Gap) and council officers – there’s no such protection for Sir Steve. Are we ready for a Mayor of Royal Greenwich?

2. Open up the council. Make an effort to get the public involved in meetings. Use the council website and Greenwich Time to solicit contributions from the public – the London Assembly does a really good job of this. Why can’t council scrutiny panels?

3. Junk that bloody website and start again. Greenwich Council’s website is infuriatingly bad – it’s almost as if things are being deliberately hidden. Here’s my favourite page – the always-empty document library. It needs sorting out.

4. What to do about Greenwich Time? A council publishing a regular journal of information isn’t a bad thing. Publishing a propaganda weekly probably is, though. Should a new leader start to rebuild bridges with the local media, and explore other ways of reaching out to people?

5. Get local. Lewisham’s local assemblies can spend small sums on improving their local areas. Camden has ward meetings. Southwark has community councils – and takes its council meetings out on the road. Greenwich, however, remains centralised and distant. It’s a great opportunity for change.

6. Bin the “royal borough”. We’re officially a royal borough now, and that won’t change, but going on and on about it makes the council look ridiculous. Ceasing endless references to “the royal borough” would be a good first step and an indication of a new direction.

7. Start talking to the neighbours again. Work on some ideas with other SE London boroughs. Southwark Council wants a Bakerloo Line extension to Peckham. Why not team up with Lewisham and put in a bid to extend it even further?

8. Stop obsessing exclusively with big projects, and look at small businesses. Lewisham bid for government money to boost Sydenham and Forest Hill as pat of the “Portas project”, while Catford’s had money from the mayor’s Outer London Fund. Further out of town, Dartford’s got some Portas cash. Greenwich seems to be relying solely on a mega-Tesco in Woolwich to solve all its ills, while neglecting to pay attention to smaller shops and smaller shopping areas which could do with some help. If that’s not the case, it needs to change people’s views – and quickly.

Any more suggestions? What should a new leader do to reconnect the council with the people of Greenwich borough? Feel free to add suggestions below.

14 replies on “After Chris Roberts – what next for Greenwich Council?”

  1. Lewisham isn’t all brilliant by any means, but I do think a “Lewisham Life”-style council information paper is better than the Greenwich Time local rag output (I think Tower Hamlets also used to do some kind of weekly propaganda rag too from what I remember). It’s obviously from the council, it has lots of information in it and a bit about what the council are doing. They supplement it with regular emails that you can sign up to too. At least that way no one is fooled into thinking it’s a “news” paper.

    Most council websites are dire. Largely because they’ve been put together on a shoestring by someone well meaning but with little clue about how the web works, or because they’ve been bought in at great expense from outside but no one in the council knows how to maintain them. I’m not sure what the answer is to that one.

  2. That’s how they do their electronic biz. There’s also a (quarterly?) paper version. Used to be monthly but they cut it back to save ££.

  3. Local assemblies are a great idea to get everyone involved, residents, workers and small businesses, rather than just special interest groups. I hope we can work for these. They would help to bring Greenwich towards a culture of real substance before image, too, just by enabling honest information transmission.

  4. Sort out Greenwich town centre by stopping planners letting developers ram any old rubbish through – even the Cutty Sark has been looted. Strive for better shops for locals in Greenwich, save our pubs and old buildings, push for transport improvements (I miss our Charing X services!), raise your expectations from planners such as the Lovells people, just too much silliness going on!

  5. I think Darryl’s right about small things rather than big. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather have a smooth road surface than different coloured tarmacs that just peel off and crumble. White lines on black tarmac is the way forward!

  6. I’m with ‘therealdecoy’.

    I’ve often spouted the benefits of such groups (although I tagged them ‘Ward Associations’!) where residents and businesses can come together to discuss local issues and possible solutions. They would not just foster a pro-active community spirit but also provide a forum where police, councillors and MPs can be held to account in a ‘town hall’ format.

    As I also regularly spout, the *vast* majority of society (surely 90%+) are decent, law-abiding citizens who want to live in safe, pleasant and friendly communities.

    But, irritatingly, it is the tiny minority who prevent that from happening, be it the car thief who plagues the streets around Maze Hill station, to the white-van flytippers and the persistent litter-droppers (such as the blue-hoodied individual from Leamington Court – I caught him red-handed – who created the pile of empty Stella cans on Vanbrugh Hill footbridge).

    If the 90% mobilised in this way, I am convinced that we would quickly have that close-knit neighbourhood we all seek.

    But can enough people be bothered to get off their backsides or will they instead remain indoors and endlessly complain about ‘the state of society today’??

  7. Agreed that under Roberts the council has recently had too strong a focus on ‘grands projets’ regeneration to the detriment of the meat and bones everyday stuff. Much effort and publicity has been focused towards the main town centres, and much of what has been achieved has been admirable and is to be congratulated. There’s a lot of achievements. It’s a shame though that routine maintenance on borough streets elsewhere are lacking. The culture still seems to be to put in crap paving, street furniture, clutter, and not think about the users of public spaces. There needs to be a step change so everyday actions are to analyse and improve.

    The contrast from central Greenwich, or the Arsenal/New squares (where attention has been put) to other areas is stark. When guardrails are removed it would be nice if the council officer/highways/contractors thought if they really need to be there instead of expensively putting back/replacing/extending! It’s the same when installing new street furniture. Think what matches the environment. Other sources of funding such as outer London fund and LIP aren’t generally secured or used wisely to improve the urban realm in areas not in the favoured sports. Areas such as lower Plumstead, Plumstead Common, Charlton, Abbey Wood, Kidbrooke etc. It seems at times as though the culture is that if a million can’t be secured for wholesale change let’s forget about it. That thinking then leads to those sprightly new areas becoming abandoned as routine maintenance is lacking.

    The council have just decided to spend more on cleansweep so hopefully an audit of council streets can be taken, cheap but effective short term improvements made with additional staff and funds, and a longer term plan drawn up for rolling improvements when bidding for funds.

  8. I am concerned to hear from Nelson’s Left Eye about the “pile of empty Stella cans on Vanbrugh Hill footbridge”. Unfortunately this has long been a blackspot for flytipping due to the way the footbridge is designed (separately for the road) so it is not overlooked so people often throw rubbish over the handrail onto the railway embankment

    As a Labour cllr for the area I am asking for this to be cleared up.

    Alex Grant

  9. Let’s hope the next leader can look beyond Woolwich and actually take an interest in wards outside this area. The fact that he has gone ahead with the Bridge the Gap campaign with no research carried out and no consultation with any residents that would be directly affected is surely a concern. Especially when his employees – with the exception of those representing Peninsula Ward – all backed it.

  10. I don’t think you are with me Nelson’s Left Eye – no special interest groups – ie police, councillors, businesses who are not small and local. This would skew the discussion, which is the problem.

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