A newspaper journalist I chatted to took a camera along specially. I hid a little video camera just in case. But in the end, Greenwich Council cut £63m from its budget – said to be 30% of its outgoings – without a murmur of protest at Woolwich Town Hall on Wednesday night. In fact, when the fateful decision was made, just before 9pm, only 15 people were in the public gallery to see both Labour and Conservative councillors unite to back the cuts, without any dissent. Take away journalists/bloggers and local party activists, and that drops to single figures.
Granted, there was a group of 30 trade unionists outside the town hall’s front entrance – led by Socialist Party activist Onay Kasab – handing out leaflets compelling Labour councillors not to implement the government’s cuts (some went through a side door to avoid them). But that was it as protest went.
A long line of barriers was laid out in Wellington Street in anticipation of a big demonstration, but there were no banners, no chanting, and none of the protesters even entered the public gallery. No police (at least at 6.30pm) to keep an eye on them, either. I got in without bother, although I’m told council staff were on the door asking people if they represented the press, and discouraging others from entering the meeting.
So what happened inside? The blame game was definitely being played, but it wasn’t the all-out barney I expected. In fact, that came later, in a debate largely about council procedure which seemed to go on forever.
A couple of the speeches were even, well, good. Council leader Chris Roberts was asked earlier in the evening if he’d approve of citizen journalists filming or recording council meetings. He fudged the question, but actually if someone was recording his speech moving the budget motion, he might be pleasantly surprised with the response. He listed the council’s achievements over the past decade (that he has been in charge for), saying presenting budgets had been a “privilege”. “Tonight, we face a different proposition,” he said, saying the cuts were a result of a “crisis created by the private sector, but contained by the public sector”.
But this one, he said, was a “ticking timebomb”, with coalition government cuts – particularly in housing benefit in west and central London – threatening to put huge pressure on Greenwich’s finances. Eliminating bankers’ bonuses would have protected local councils from cuts, and for those worried about allotment charges, parking charges, and the Maryon Wilson Park animal park (which, incidentally, he said he was confident a solution could found for), he said the council needed to prioritise services for the elderly and for at-risk children. “There is a perspective which drives us on this side of the chamber,” he said.
There was a curious response later from Labour backbencher Don Austen, who hailed Roberts’ speech as one of the best he’d heard in 25 years on the council, and enthused about how Greenwich Labour had seen off the SDP and the Liberal Democrats, and the same fate would hit the latter party nationally. Which was odd, because he entered the council 25 years ago as a councillor for the SDP/Liberal Alliance.
Conservative leader Spencer Drury said his group largely supported the cuts, and anything else was “quibbling around the edges”. He called for Cleansweep – whose budget is being increased by £1m – to be put out to tender because it was “incapable of doing the job within budget”, but Labour’s Maureen O’Mara said it was because of increased visitor numbers to the borough, now approaching seven million. (I wonder if that’ll mean my Charlton backstreets will see the business end of a broom more than once a week?)
After Tory councillors Adam Thomas and Matt Clare blamed the last Labour government, their party’s deputy leader Nigel Fletcher – who’s just published a book called How To Be In Opposition inspired by his time as an aide to senior Tories – mused that “the blame game doesn’t go down well with residents”. He reminded councillors that he had spent 15 hours seeing the “human face of budget reductions” – the voluntary groups who are competing for a far smaller slice of council funds. They were the true “big society”, he added – “voluntary groups who give up their free time to support other people”.
All of which brought about an amazingly ungracious response from Labour’s Danny Thorpe, who spat out that Fletcher’s next book “should be called Fantasy Land”. Thorpe, whose best known contribution to Greenwich Council was spending a great chunk of his time as a councillor living in Australia, also commented that communities secretary Eric Pickles, whose cuts these are, knew nothing about local government.
He could have learned lessons in dignity from his Labour colleague David Grant, who said the budget was the best possible under the circumstances, but also managed to slip in a dig at Lewisham Council too. Referring to outsourcing public services, he implied Lewisham had allowed the festival on Blackheath because it has hived off management of its parks – including its side of the heath – to contractor Glendale, which stands to gain financially if the event goes ahead.
But with no dissent, and just two parties in the chamber, the cuts package went through with a shrug. Indeed, with all the cutbacks on the agenda, there were only two questions from the public on the order paper – both from former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood, still monitoring events for his party despite losing his seat last May.
There’s more to report, but it’s late and the cuts are the main thing, especially as they’re causing such rows elsewhere. Maybe the council leadership’s strategy to keep details of the cuts as vague as possible worked – or maybe nobody really genuinely cares. Cuts night didn’t turn out to be a nightmare on Wellington Street in the end – but Greenwich may well have sleepwalked into some very troubled times indeed.
A quick clarification: This cuts for this financial year are worth £48.6m. The whole package, until 2015, is worth £63m, and it was the budget report including this as well as this year’s cuts which was endorsed by the council last night. Londonist is following the capital-wide picture.