Denise Scott-McDonald and Danny Thorpe
Denise Scott-McDonald at the opening of Woolwich Public Market in 2018 – photo from

853 exclusive: The senior councillor in charge of Greenwich Council’s policy on the Silvertown Tunnel has lost her cabinet position in a wide-ranging shake-up of Danny Thorpe’s top team, 853 can reveal.

Denise Scott-McDonald, the cabinet member for transport and air quality, is one of a number of names who will leave the council’s ruling cabinet this spring as Thorpe – who was re-elected Labour group leader by his fellow councillors on Monday – consolidates his position at the head of the council.

Averil Lekau, the cabinet member for health and adult social care services, will also return to the backbenches, weeks after a court heard that she had been linked with the leaking of an investigation into disgraced councillor Tonia Ashikodi’s property ownership to a left-wing website.

The cabinet decides most major policies in the borough. In Greenwich, cabinet members are chosen by the council leader after an “indicative ballot” of councillors, with 15 candidates putting their names forward. David Gardner, the current deputy leader and cabinet member for public realm, chose not to put himself forward while Denise Hyland, the cabinet member for economy and skills, will take on the ceremonial position of deputy mayor and so also leaves the cabinet.

Labour councillors learned about the new cabinet last night, but the decisions will not take effect until May – this is effectively the Labour group deciding on the candidates for top jobs they will endorse at the council’s annual general meeting in two months’ time. The Tory opposition do not have enough councillors to block the Labour picks, and no other parties are represented in Woolwich Town Hall.

At last night’s meeting, they also voted on who should take other key positions on the council – which saw Peninsula ward councillor Stephen Brain become chair of planning by just one vote.

Planning chair switches to cabinet

Shooters Hill councillor Sarah Merrill comes into the cabinet after two years as chair of planning which have seen councillors take a far tougher line on developers than in previous years, when Greenwich was the only borough in London allow its council leaders to sit on its main planning committee.

Plumstead councillor Matt Morrow and Woolwich Common councillor Anthony Okereke step up to the cabinet after nearly two years of working as “project assistants” to the cabinet, for which they received £5,100 a year. Morrow was said to have been working on “community engagement” while Okereke was “developing a new approach to the work we do on learning disabilities within health and adult social care”, according to an answer given to opposition leader Matt Hartley last year. Adel Khaireh, a Glyndon ward councillor, also joins the cabinet.

Sizwe James, Chris Kirby, Jackie Smith, Miranda Williams and new deputy leader Christine Grice remain on the cabinet. However, their roles have not yet been assigned, and will not be formalised until the council’s annual general meeting in May.

Most cabinet members take home an extra £22,562 on top of their £10,415 councillor’s allowance. The exceptions are the deputy leader, who gets an additional £34,185, and the leader, who gets an extra £53,508.

Scott-McDonald struggled to deal with questions about the tunnel in council meetings. The new road will feed into this southbound A102 queue

Tunnel struggle

Scott-McDonald, who tried and failed to become Labour’s general election candidate for Cities of London & Westminster and Erith & Thamesmead, has had to take responsibility for the council’s fudged position on mayor Sadiq Khan’s controversial tunnel since taking up her role in May 2018, just after it received government approval.

The council had been an enthusiastic supporter of the tunnel – even launching a campaign in 2012 to get it built – but opposition within the ruling Labour group eventually led to Thorpe writing to Khan requesting the project be paused and reviewed. Khan rejected the request and Thorpe then declined to take part in a cross-borough campaign against the tunnel, fearing it could be used by “political opponents”.

While not the only cabinet member who performed poorly in public, Scott-McDonald frequently appeared in full council meetings as if her responsibilities had been sprung on her just before she entered the chamber.

Scott-McDonald often floundered on the tunnel, saved only by the Conservative opposition’s support for the scheme meaning they did not follow up residents’ questions about the project. A year ago, at a behind-closed-doors meeting, she voted against a Labour motion calling for the council to oppose the tunnel, months after associating herself with opposition to the tunnel in the council elections.

Last month she struggled to answer a question on why the council would not pass a motion against the scheme (watch here) or why the council was not following the wishes of rank and file Labour members in all three of the borough’s constituencies by challenging Khan on the tunnel (watch here).

Of the Labour group’s failed letter about the tunnel, she told one campaigner, “We’ve written a letter, I suggest you write a letter too,” before adding “I’m pretty much bound by what’s written in here,” pointing to a sheaf of papers.

Meanwhile, Lekau’s exit from the cabinet follows her pushing through controversial cuts to adult social care services that led campaigners to call for a independent review of how the social care budget is managed. She also returns to the back benches.

Denise Scott McDonald, Chris Lloyd, Stephen Brain
While Denise Scott-McDonald lost out, it was a good night for her Peninsula ward colleagues Chris Lloyd and Stephen Brain

Close votes

Last night also saw votes on other roles in the council, including the key posts chairing planning, and overview and scrutiny. These were decided by close votes, underscoring the deep divisions in the Labour group.

Merrill will replaced as chair of planning by Stephen Brain, the Peninsula ward councillor best known for his confrontational use of social media. 853 understands he beat Greenwich West councillor Mehboob Khan – a former leader of Kirklees council, the West Yorkshire authority that includes Huddersfield – by a single vote after David Gardner dropped out. Brain will get an extra £18,542 on top of his £10,415 allowance.

Brain’s elevation means a councillor in the area most affected by the council’s planning decisions over the past two decades finally gets a senior decision-making role in what happens on the Greenwich Peninsula, with projects like the Morden Wharf development in his in-tray. Last year, he spoke out against plans for a further stage of Greenwich Millennium Village. But his reputation as a loose cannon online will worry residents’ groups who had appreciated opportunities to build bridges with the council under Merrill, while he will also need to forge a trusted working relationship with senior council officers.

Brain’s Peninsula ward colleague Chris Lloyd retained his role as chair of overview and scrutiny (an extra £22,562), again winning by just one vote, this time over Gardner. Vice-chair remains John Fahy.

One big surprise came when one of the council’s lowest-profile councillors, Bill Freeman from Eltham West, usurped Aidan Smith as chair of the highways committee (an extra £10,046).

As for the other scrutiny panels, which deal with individual strands of the council’s work: Mark James remains as chair of health after fending off a challenge from Blackheath Westcombe councillor Mariam Lolovar by just three votes; David Stanley takes over community safety and environment after beating former ceremonial mayor Christine May by three votes; Gary Parker remains chair of the regeneration, transport and culture panel and Ivis Williams keeps her job leading the children and young people panel. Clive Mardner remains as chair of the housing scrutiny panel, John Fahy retains his job chairing the finance panel. These roles pay an extra £10,046 each.

5pm update: Small correction as David Stanley will take over community safety and environment from Adel Khaireh – he hasn’t remained in charge was we first said. And we managed to miss off John Fahy’s continuing role in charge of the finance scrutiny panel. Apologies.

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