After hearing lots about other south London councils’ plans for cuts, I was wondering when Greenwich would make its move. Turns out it already has – there’s plans to shave £25 million off the council’s budget in the next four years.
The figure is in a document handed out at the last full council meeting at the end of June – clearly, the place to go when you want to keep something secret, since neither the News Shopper nor the Mercury regularly attend these things. Those who were there tell me it was dominated by a childish spat between the Labour leadership and Conservative opposition about the coalition government. (The Tories beg to differ.) As ever, this was a sideshow which distracted from the real story.
And that’s about it. Can you really save £25m on efficiencies alone? If you can, then you must be running a seriously unsteady ship. Worryingly, it looks like plans to build a new council centre in Greenwich – the “third service centre” (after Eltham and Woolwich) – have been kicked into the long grass. The Greenwich Council website still trills on about it opening in 2012 – but now it has moved to “later on”, whatever that means.
The Heart of East Greenwich scheme, on which the “service centre” depended, stalled in April after developer First Base was booted off the project by the former government – the old hospital land has been a derelict wasteland for four years now (the hospital closed nine years ago) and it has to be a fair bet that it’ll now stay that way for a few years yet. It puts the council into a pickle, for without the HoEG scheme, the council can’t flog the Arches Leisure Centre and/or East Greenwich Library and raise more funds.
So what was this document outlining these cuts? Apparently, it was the Greenwich Labour manifesto for the 2010 elections. But did you ever read anything about planned cuts before the election? In November, a leaked report outlined what cuts could be made, but the council refused to comment in public. And the manifesto on the Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party website mentions nothing about these plans.
The opposition Conservatives are enraged at what they see as duplicity – understandable, given the bitterness of the election battle in marginal Eltham, where Labour accused the Tories of planning swingeing cuts. “Labour say one thing in private and quite another in public, however, I have never seen this made so clear in one document,” says opposition leader Spencer Drury. But with so little scrutiny of council affairs from the outside – after all, why do the boring stuff when there’s birds, blondes and boobs to concentrate on? – then Greenwich Labour can quite happily get away with this kind of caper.
One big cut has already been quietly announced – voluntary groups will see funding slashed by half next year. So much for the “big society“.
How much involvement people in Greenwich will have in deciding what happens next is up for question. The three other south London Labour councils have already spoken in public about their plans – it’s only Greenwich which is keeping quiet. Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham are thinking of merging some council services – cautiously welcomed by union leaders. Would Greenwich join such a scheme? Perhaps more pertinently, would the other councils want to work with Greenwich?
Lambeth’s “co-operative council” wheeze has already attracted vast column inches, while Southwark leader Peter John was brave enough to address a public meeting last night. Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock flagged up his council’s cuts early on – but then dropped a clanger by calling protesters “fucking idiots”.
Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts will no doubt want to avoid “dropping a Bullock” – but at some point, he’s going to have to show his hand and outline, in public, just where he thinks cuts should come. Greenwich Labour went through an election hiding their plans for cuts – but they can’t go on like this forever.