Labour councillors fought back on how the council spends money from developers at Tuesday night’s Peninsula ward hustings – insisting it isn’t letting millions of pounds of funding go to waste.
Development, pollution and congestion were among the main topics at the event, held at Christ Church East Greenwich and organised with the East Greenwich Residents’ Association.
Despite past angry exchanges on social media the event was largely good-natured, although Labour incumbent Chris Lloyd was warned by moderator Rev Margaret Cave after referring to Green opponent Matt Browne’s past job as a PR for developers – a job which Browne says turned him against the industry and into becoming a Green member.
“I learned some councils think concrete is the same as progress – councils like Greenwich,” he added.
Lloyd called the election a “two-horse race” between Labour and the Conservatives – despite the Greens’ past strong showings in the ward and Labour’s current dominant position on the council of 42 out of 51 seats.
Eight of the 12 candidates showed up for the question-and-answer session – Labour’s Lloyd, Denise Scott-McDonald and Stephen Brain; Green candidates Dan Garrun and Matt Browne; Conservatives Ben Green, Antony Higginbotham and Reece Smith; and Liberal Democrat Richard Chamberlain.
The question of Section 106 money – cash paid by developers to councils to ease the effects of their projects for communities, that has to be spent within a certain time limit – first came up in a question about children’s facilities.
The council has come under severe criticism over the way it deals with Section 106 payments – with money often spent outside the areas affected the most by new developments.
Green candidate Matt Browne brought up a Huffington Post story which said Greenwich was sitting on £5 million on funding from the past three years that could be used for new community facilities.
“Our own calculations and that of local bloggers suggest that for every £10 that has come from Peninsula, just £2 has been spent so far,” he said.
“Now that’s a lot of wonderful parks for children, and green spaces for teenagers.”
But Lloyd said the “decks are stacked against us” in dealings with developers and added: “Yes, there is a lot of Section 106 money that comes in from developers, but the council pools it. We don’t just spend it profligately on little projects here and there – a park bench here, a park bench there – we save it up until we’ve something decent to spend it on; improved urban realm, that new school [St Mary Magdalene] is being paid for with money we have levered from developers.”
Browne said councillors could hold dedicated “planning surgeries” with constituents to help them understand what was going on in their neighbourhoods. “We need a real focus on planning, to say to residents ‘we know how worried you are’.”
But Lloyd said: “We always promote and talk about the big decisions as and when they come.”
On air pollution, Stephen Brain said the money from City Hall for the Low Emissions Neighbourhood scheme – which covers a small area of the ward around Trafalgar Road – was matched by Section 106 money, “so when people say we’re not spending Section 106 money, it’s not true”.
For the Greens, Browne said Greenwich Council could make sure that all developments in the area included measures that would lessen air pollution, rather than simply not make it worse. “I can already hear the Labour councillors say ‘it’s not possible, the deck’s stacked against us’, but actually it is possible. The Labour council has the ability to change that planning legislation – they just haven’t got around to it yet.”
As with previous hustings in Blackheath Westcombe and Plumstead, Labour candidates representing the north of the borough spoke out against decisions made by colleagues from the south.
Asked about how to cope with traffic disruption from the forthcoming Ikea store, Liberal Democrat Richard Chamberlain was the only candidate to welcome the arrival of Ikea – or at least to admit to welcoming it – but still called for the store to offer subsidised deliveries, something it is not planning to do.
Conservative Antony Higginbotham said the approval of Ikea showed why the council needed a “strong opposition to ask difficult questions about the assumptions big developers are making”.
Browne said Section 106 money from Ikea should be spent on schemes to promote car pooling, but Brain said “it was another myth from the Greens that the money isn’t being spent – we have £750,000 in Section 106 money”, adding some was going to the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park. He added parking restrictions would be “brought into the 21st century”.
Asked about the Silvertown Tunnel and traffic, Conservative Ben Green managed to avoid mentioning the tunnel – introduced by Tory mayor Boris Johnson and carried forward by his Labour successor – at all.
Lib Dem Chamberlain referred to long-cancelled plans for a tram between North Greenwich and Thamesmead. “I don’t know what happened to that,” he said. (It was downgraded to a bus and then cancelled in 2009.)
Green Dan Garrun emphasised the party’s long-standing opposition to the tunnel, while Labour’s Chris Lloyd agreed and said there was a clear demand for a crossing in the east of the borough – at Gallions Reach – instead, adding Section 106 money was funding changes to Trafalgar Road to remove one set of traffic lights.
All candidates opposed the London City Cruise Port not having shoreside power – with Dan Garrun saying the council could revoke the 2015 planning permission, citing an example in Alnwick, Northumberland, where consent for a supermarket had been withdrawn (but by the Secretary of State rather than the council).
Lloyd said it was “the wrong call” but claimed in the Alnwick case, the district council had been “nearly bankrupted“. (Alnwick lost a court case against the Secretary of State over the decision and then faced a compensation claim from the supermarket chain which had bought the land – the chain eventually sold the site back to the previous landowner.)
“We want to work within the council leadership to get it changed – and personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen anyway,” Lloyd added.
Tory Reece Smith said “money should not be put before public health” while Richard Chamberlain said the site – which is up for sale – was likely to be mothballed and on-shore power could be made a condition of any future planning permission.
In the summing up, Matt Browne said: “The Labour councillors have tried, but they haven’t succeeded. They’re in a group that opposes everything they want to do. They haven’t even managed to get clean power in the cruise port in their manifesto – I’ve had a look, it’s not there.
“So what does that mean if three Labour councillors are elected in Peninsula on 3 May? It means that for the Labour leadership that has done these dreadful things, business can carry on as usual. And we know what business as usual looks like in Peninsula – it’s not good enough, is it?”
But colleague Dan Garrun had an unusual message from a Green candidate: “There’s really no doubt that Labour’s going to come back with a thumping majority on the council. There are very few places in the entire borough where it’s possible to elect anyone other than Labour – one is here in Peninsula, we’re the Greens, we came second last time.
“But other places down in the south, such as Eltham, it’s the Conservatives who are clinging on. So if you want an opposition to keep Labour on its toes, those are your choices – Green here, Conservative in the south of the borough.”
Labour’s Denise Scott-McDonald said the current councillors had “a track record of working really hard for this local community” and wanted to “create a stronger and healthier community” across the ward, including the Peninsula and Charlton.
“We also want to create a fairer Greenwich – we are the voices of those who are not heard: the elderly, mothers, those in poverty, who would like a fairer Greenwich so all people can benefit.”
Richard Chamberlain – who had earlier got the biggest applause of the night for calling Brexit “the biggest disaster since World War II” – paid tribute to former Peninsula Labour councillor Mary Mills during his summing-up. Mills could be seen pulling faces during the Conservatives’ summing-up speeches.
You can see some other parts of the hustings not mentioned in this story on this YouTube playlist.
Peninsula candidates (3 councillors are elected): Stephen Brain (Labour), Matt Browne (Green), Richard Chamberlain (Lib Dem), Matthew Ferguson (Lib Dem), Dan Garrun (Green), Antony Higginbotham (Conservative), Chris Lloyd (Labour), Jenny Murphy (Green), Denise Scott-McDonald (Labour), Andrew Smith (Lib Dem), Reece Smith (Lib Dem). Polls are open from 7am to 10pm on Thursday 3 May.
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