It was the first full meeting of Greenwich Council in three months. Indeed, it was the first meeting of Greenwich Council since riots tore apart Woolwich town centre some two-and-a-half months ago. A quarter of a million people live in this borough – with such a long gap, you’d think there’d be a lot to discuss.
Not in the London Borough of Greenwich, of course. Why bother talking about what’s happening when there’s backs to be slapped and wine to be drunk over the road? Because that is exactly what happened last night – in front of an audience of schoolchildren. There’s your lesson in democracy, kids.
The News Shopper’s Mark Chandler has painted the scene well. Outside the town hall, Blackheath Bluecoat schoolchildren protested against the planned closure of their school, council staff shouted about threatened job cuts, while campaigners for Greenwich Law Centre joined the noise.
Inside, Bluecoat pupils, staff and parents packed the gallery, along with other campaigners. The photo above, taken before the meeting started, shows the scene. It was a tight squeeze to get in. Usually there’s only a handful of people there, but the big gap in meetings had allowed issues to fester and campaigns to build up.
So, was there fierce debate among the councillors about the big issues? The riot which had caused millions of pounds of damage? The proposal to shut down one of the borough’s best-known schools? The continuing effects of savage cuts on local government budgets?
There was none.
Instead, the meeting was cut short so that the former Conservative opposition leader, Peter King, could be awarded the freedom of the borough at a ceremony at the glitzy new Woolwich Centre over the road.
Wine and sausage rolls were evidently more important than children’s futures here, from the number of times Labour mayor Jim Gillman asked questioners to “be brief” as he aimed to get the meeting done and dusted in under an hour.
Usually at council meetings you get petitions (including the Maryon Wilson Park one and one from 1,400 people objecting to car parking charges on Old Dover Road, Blackheath), public deputations (statements on behalf of campaigns), public questions (submitted in advance, you can then ask a follow-up), then two sets of questions from councillors – one set submitted in advance and replied to in writing, the other asked on the night. But last night a procedural motion was invoked meaning there were no questions from councillors at all, other than those replied to in writing.
So the first time Conservative leader Spencer Drury spoke up, it was to query a motion about moving polling stations. Nothing about closing a school, the riots, or even the parking on Old Dover Road.
Instead, it was down to the public to ask the questions. They did the job well – on the missing report into the Eltham DLR extension that should have been published last year (it’s very complicated, apparently, but it is coming); on the future of Maryon Wilson Park animal centre (likely to become a trust, no word on money); job cuts at the council’s arms-length service contractor GS Plus (ask them, not us); plans for libraries to be run by a trust (under consideration); Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels (early 2012 reopening for Greenwich); the future of secondary schools (the council still wants to build one on Greenwich Peninsula after closing Blackheath Bluecoat), and various issues regarding the Ferrier Estate (where seven people have been taken to court to get them out for redevelopment).
From councillors? Nothing. Apart from some quibbles over finances. And polling stations.
A representative of the Blackheath Bluecoat campaign stood up to give a speech. It was one of the most sensible things heard in that chamber in years. She pointing out that the school had been given three years to improve, but was being shut after two years of improvement, adding that it seemed the council was “sabotaging” the following year’s intake – and the school’s chances of survival – by suddenly announcing closure plans.
“Every pupil who transfers from Blackheath Bluecoat is likely to struggle to integrate,” she continued. “Some have come to Blackheath Bluecoat because they were bullied elsewhere” – and face being sent back to where they’d been bullied. The council should work with the school to help it continue to improve, she said, although the frustration showed: “All Greenwich schools have got a bad name – I don’t know why you’re picking on us.”
“They all have names, personalities, and plans for the future,” she said of the pupils, who sat quietly in the chamber and watched. From outside, the chant of “save our school!” got louder. The gallery applauded her speech when she sat down. But it was all to no avail, as no councillor raised the issue themselves. The young people sat in that chamber wanted someone to represent them last night – they had nobody, with the councillors seemingly inhabiting a different world.
The mayor succeeded in getting the meeting down to an hour. Then the councillors were asked to reconvene in the Greenwich Gallery, the lit-up upstairs floor of the Woolwich Centre, for a special meeting to award the freedom of the borough.
And off the councillors went, Labour and Conservative alike, past the protesting schoolchildren, to drink their wine and eat their sausage rolls, and share witty speeches about that time in the council chamber in 1985. Can you spot yours here?
You might have little sympathy with the Blackheath Bluecoat schoolchildren.
But collectively, the councillors of Greenwich trouser over half a million pounds in allowances to listen to, and represent the people of the borough – and that includes the Bluecoats pupils, staff and parents. Instead, though, under the gaze of schoolchildren, they seemed more concerned with getting things over and done with so they could head over the road and talk about themselves, away from the public gaze.
If the council wants to honour one of its own – fine. But should it be eating into time when they should be debating issues that affect all our lives?
Those kids learned a harsh lesson about democracy in Greenwich tonight – their views, and their futures, took second place to a night on the wine. If Bluecoats was in Brixton, Harlesden, or Tottenham, I suspect it’d be getting a bit more publicity than it is at the moment. Maybe that time will come, as I’d expect a lot more noise from the Bluecoats kids as the weeks pass – but whether any Greenwich councillor will stand up for them, on tonight’s performance, is looking doubtful.
The next council meeting? Only another seven weeks to go. Chin chin!
(Want to find out how much the wine and sausage rolls cost? Read on…)