Will Labour be the party to reform Greenwich Council?

Greenwich Council meeting, 29 January 2014

This Guardian website comment piece caught my eye…

“The public think Westminster is dominated by a London-centric, elite class but they are also not oblivious to the fact that a municipal mafia frequently dominates their town halls. These are often run by an elite which even backbench councillors can’t penetrate never mind the public.

“I know of councils that still refuse to allow their full council meetings to be filmed. Senior councillors who avoid social media like the plague and cabinet members who actively avoid or aren’t capable of interacting with the media. Open and accessible politics it isn’t. (more)

You’d think it was written about Greenwich, wouldn’t you? Interestingly, the piece was written by Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale and a member of the local government select committee. And he must have known that his own party has a fair few councils like that.

Do pieces like this suggest Labour’s getting set to reform councils like Greenwich? Danczuk is only a backbench MP, so it’s hard to say. But it’s good to know that at least some MPs are aware of what’s going on and are prepared to speak up.

Funnily enough, I’m told a former business partner of Danczuk, one Oswin Baker, was the chair of the Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party who helped Chris Roberts to power way back in 2000. It’s funny how things turn out.

Chris Roberts in Greenwich Time

Speaking of the council leader, he’s barely been seen since the year began. He’s not been seen at a council meeting, nor has he been fulfilling his Labour party duties. Roberts is known for “going missing” from time to time, but this spell of absence has raised eyebrows.

In particular, he didn’t show for a scrutiny panel meeting last week, leaving chief executive Mary Ney to stand in for him. Since very little goes ahead at Greenwich Council without his say-so, rumour mills have gone into overdrive. He’s even not been seen in the past two editions of Greenwich Time (last appearance shown above).

There’s a new GT out today, a planning board tonight, and a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, so he may well reappear. But with elections due soon, Roberts’ own future undecided and potential successors quietly jockeying for position, these are strange times at Woolwich Town Hall. Well, stranger than usual, anyway…

(Real life’s got in the way of this website lately, but if you’re looking for some decent local reading, I can recommend From The Murky Depths on more iffy-looking Peninsula developments (which go to planning tonight), and new site Blackheath Revolt on the Blackheath Society.)


  1. Does anyone know if Councillor Roberts has mental health issues?
    His behaviour suggests he may have.
    Bullies usually have psychological problems, which exhibits itself through the bullying of others.
    Also, if he has “gone missing” before, it would suggest he has bouts of Depression, so just shuts himself away from people.
    He may be a very tortured soul.

  2. He may well be, but I don’t think speculating over someone’s health is helpful.

    That said, there’s one important point. If you are suffering, then you need to have people around you who will be honest with you – not those who simply do as they’re told. The best friend or colleague you’ll ever have is the person who tells you when you’re out of order – and it doesn’t seem like he’s had many of those over the years.

  3. Hmmm. I think that comment is out of order Trevor.

    I am no fan of Mr Roberts but to speculate about his health in public is in poor taste, if not potentially libellous IMHO.

    Darryl, hope real life is treating you well!

  4. Merely an honest question.

    As a sufferer of Depression since a childhood, its a pattern I recognise.

  5. No, I don’t think Labour are the party to reform or even save Greenwich Council but I do think that there are local elections on the horizon which prompted this Grauniad article.
    The subject I feel, is far bigger. Government both local and national has grown so large that reliance on it is increasing whilst at the same time, it is becoming unwieldy and unaffordable.
    Until these points are addressed, I see a death spiral of democracy and interest in politics across the country wane to the point where the postal vote (that well known bastion of free and fair democracy – cough) will rule the day.

  6. Correct.

    And there is speculation as to why Councillor Roberts is now noticeable by his absence.

  7. Totally out of order to speculate on someone’s mental health in a blog like this. Should not have got through and, in my opinion, should be removed. It’s not libellous, nowhere near, but it IS unacceptable. It also deviates from the main question of reforming councils like Greenwich, which is crying out for a democratic overhaul. A few years ago Cllr Roberts and I shared a long evening in a Woolwich pub where, towards the end of four pints, he put his socialist vision to me. I was suitably impressed but argued back: “Great, Chris, but you and New Labour have got to stop the spinning! You’ve got to have more confidence in people. You’ve got to listen!” In all honesty, most of us know that this has not happened locally. One look at the zombie voting at council meetings is enough. The diabolical line adopted by Blair, Brown and Campbell has taken much of Labour (and I’m a lifelong supporter) to the dark side – and everyone who cares about the future of this country, very much including Greenwich, has got to do something about it.

  8. Can we please have the boundaries laid down as to what can and can’t be speculated about when a blog speculating on something comes up in future?

    Basically those uncomfortable about talking about mental health issues are part of the problem that those of us who suffer with mental health issues have with society.

  9. The lack of democratic accountability goes far wider than the regime at Greenwich Council under the leadership of Cllr Chris Roberts.

    The council was under the control of a mere handful of people even during my time as a Councillor (1986-90), with the rest of the Labour Group being mere voting-fodder. So this is a long standing issue in Greenwich, as in many other parts of the state apparatus at local and national level, and exposes the lack of democratic accountability throughout our alleged democratic society.

  10. Very helpful, Trevor – “it’s always been a problem in Greenwich for opposition politicians to have their say” etc. I’m sure that kind of winning argument will make the removal of Roberts so much easier, perhaps that’s why he’s been absent for the past month in fear of it.

  11. PC, agree on the mental health aspects, but perhaps you were a willing victim on the being lulled into false security on Roberts’ beliefs (or lack thereof). It’s been wholly obvious to anyone who’s spent any significant time with the man that he’s merely into for the money and longevity (which, fair play to him, in absence of any credible alternative he’s managed to pull off for what feels like almost infinity in SE18). The politics of Greenwich have, Raynsford’s ministerial career aside, always been on the traditional end of the Labour spectrum, so Roberts was hardly any kind of New Labour apparatchik, as easy as that appears to on-side but off-kilter types like yourself. I suspect that gave him the kind of bluff he needed to keep the local parties on side.

    New Labour is for all intents and purposes history now (there’s an iffy Coalition in Number 10 if you’d not noticed), while the invisible Roberts but omnipresent “municipal mafia” (quoth the Guardian article) are very much the here and now. Concentrate on that and what can be done to ouster them, rather speculate on the past, especially a motley crew like Blair, Campbell and Mandelson who never cast a second thought about local democracy in any case.

  12. Merely putting the issue of Greenwich’s democratic deficit in its historical perspective. It is nothing new. And unless you know the history you can’t change the future.
    Merely getting rid of Chris Roberts will not change the undemocratic culture within the Labour Party on Greenwich Council. If you think it would, you are sadly deluded.

  13. Noting the comments on democracy and the Grove Market (and similar) decisions. How about a real discussion on the role of the Planning Inspectorate and democratic local decision making? (or is it just easier to moan about the Council)

  14. I hope you don’t mean me – BUT it would be a nice change to take on the real issues. The role of the Planning Inspectorate is a very real one indeed.

  15. You could write about it on your blog, Mary.

    Or the Labour Party could campaign on it. After all, we are asking if the Labour Party is fit to reform rotten structures.

  16. I might even do that – but far more people read you. And if I write now it will be compromised – whereas you could be seen as disinterested. The inspectorate is of course a national body – but locally people need to realise how much of the environment – particularly the bits they don’t like – are shaped by them.

  17. My great Labour Party friend, Mike Power, previously from Sydenham and now a real bright spark in north London (where he says it’s so much healthier!), makes the point that patriarchal loyalty can be almost immovable in the party, making mincemeat of the likes of integrity, honesty and individual courage. Unless we’re all blind, that’s what’s happened in Greenwich over the last 10 years. Do you have the integrity, honesty and courage to say anything about it here, Mary? Or are the rest of us simply wrong?

  18. As one of the main objectors to the Grove proposal last night I was interested to read this exchange. Mary Mills is correct – the planning inspectors decision to allow a similar size and shape scheme in 2009 loomed large over the meeting last night – almost as large as the eight storey tower will loom over our home if it gets built. There is a debate to be had about the Inspectorate’s bias in allowing developments and overturning the decisions of local planning boards as happened on this site.Having said that too much emphasis was placed on the inspectors decision last night and the excuse from the members voting for the application that they did not want to incur the risk of costs on an appeal was pretty lame and arguably not a planning concern given the planning policies they have adopted for Eltham over the last two years. When a member of the board says this is “bad for Eltham”, asks the developer to do something about the height of the development (recognising implicitly that it is too high to comply with the planning policies for Eltham) but then votes in favour of the development anyway thereby casting the deciding vote, it just seemed to me and the other objectors in the room that something odd was going on.

  19. Mary, It’s well known that many issues are beyond local control. That doesn’t excuse the failures of Greenwich council on issues that are within its control. This crops up on various issues. A throwing up of the hands and claiming powerlessness. Greenwich can’t keep blaming others for things such as the awful public realm across the borough. Travel all over London and other UK towns and cities and its clearly better in many areas.

    Even on issues of planning where the council does have to seriously consider the planning inspectorate and the chances of loses at appeal and subsequent loss of money, there could be more effort made in engaging with developers before planning to ensure satisfactory submissions. And publicise those discussions. Use the tool of publicity. That won’t work every time but it would yield results in many instances. Other authorities do it. There’s a major harbourside development in Bristol where the developers were continuously pushing for something the council and people didn’t want. They probably could have steamrollered it through on appeal but after a long campaign and public pressure they were persuaded to adjust the plans to something closer to what the council and public wanted.

    What discussions did the council have with Knight Dragon before they submitted plans that ruins the carefully crafted master plan? Did they fight it? What will happen when future stages come up for pre planning discussions?

  20. Murky Depths – thanks for a reasonably sensible answer. Some of those questions you need to address to the lead member for Regeneration. The one area I could personally have done something about is the public realm in east Greenwich – which I would have been delighted to do more work on with the community – too late now but none of you took up my previous invitation.

  21. On the mental health question….. EVERYBODY has mental health issues , just as everybody has physical health issues – and as the mind is far more delicate and sensitive than the body – is it not about time we all acknowledge that ?
    Or are we all super men and super women without any health issues ?
    Yes , some may have more – and different forms of – “issues” than others…..

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