Amid all the heat of the cuts debate last night, a little light was shone on Greenwich Council’s communications strategy, which largely revolves giving all its stories to its own weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, before anybody else.
It came in a question from former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood, whose relationship with council leader Chris Roberts isn’t the friendliest. Usually Webbewood will turn up and ask a question relating to the leader’s conduct, and Roberts will deny everything in a bad-tempered manner, and maybe get a dig back in return. It was like that when the Lib Dems had councillors, too.
But there’s more to this one than meets the eye. A couple of weeks ago, BBC News home editor Mark Easton reported for its TV bulletins on the effects of the cuts on voluntary groups in the borough. Greenwich declined to put anyone up for an interview – instead, Easton had to go to Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford for a defence of the council’s plans.
Webbewood asked why the council ducked the chance to explain itself to its taxpayers – and the country as a whole – on the Ten O’Clock News. Roberts’ answer… because of cutbacks imposed by the government.
Pressed further, Roberts said talking to organisations like the BBC “take second place to the people of this borough and their political representatives” – even though BBC News probably reaches more people in the borough than any other media outlet, including its own Greenwich Time.
Perhaps the content of the package – with tricky questions about priorities, and how Greenwich Leisure Limited (spun off during a 90s round of cuts) has become a Big Society poster child – had more to do with the council’s decision not to speak to the BBC.
Last summer, when there was good news, Chris Roberts had all the time in the world to speak to the BBC to endorse plans for the east Greenwich cruise liner terminal – indeed, he informed BBC London News (and ITV’s London Tonight) before he told the people of the borough, and many of their political representatives.
But when there’s bad news, Greenwich Council hides. Just as it’s been doing with the cuts.
All over the place, councils have held public consultations (like in Bexley), stuck posters up (in Lambeth), created “fairness commissions” (like in Islington), and generally tried to at least give the impression of taking their populations with them in the most painful cuts for a generation.
Greenwich has done nothing of the sort, and in the case of this BBC interview, has actively hidden from public scrutiny.
Even councillors were told last night there were no plans to close any libraries – when in Kidbrooke’s Ferrier Library is due for the bulldozer and won’t be replaced. If they can’t be honest about cuts to their own councillors, it’s not looking good for the rest of us.
Perhaps that strategy worked last night – with only 15 people witnessing the fateful decision to lop £63m off the budget, and not a word of dissent. But as the cuts bite, and people find services are more expensive (parking charges, allotments) or vanish altogether (one o’clock clubs), can Greenwich Council really carry on getting away with it?