Greenwich councillors are to consider awarding the rarely-awarded freedom of the borough to former leader Chris Roberts next week – despite the politician-turned-developers’ consultant being embroiled in a series of bullying accusations before he stood down 18 months ago.
Roberts ran the council for 14 years but stepped down as a councillor at May 2014’s election, finally relinquishing his role as leader the following month. He is still in frequent contact with his successor, Denise Hyland, multiple sources have told this website, with some claiming he still wields considerable influence over the council.
His final months on the council were blighted by bullying accusations, notably in October 2013 when he threatened current deputy leader John Fahy with the removal of his cabinet position in a row over the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which raised funds for a charity Roberts set up as council leader, Greenwich Starting Blocks. He was let off any council punishment over the voicemail, but did get a written warning from the party.
Two councillors – Alex Grant and Hayley Fletcher – stood down from the authority, complaining of a bullying culture in Roberts’ Labour group. Grant has since said that intimidation of councillors was normal practice, particularly in planning matters.
The leader himself was also accused of throwing his keys at a council cleaner who woke him up while he was asleep in his office early one morning in 2009, a charge he denies. His conduct was explored in a BBC Sunday Politics investigation in December 2013. A secret Labour Party investigation declared no further action should be taken on his conduct.
Now Roberts is in line for an award reserved only for councillors if they have “distinguished themselves beyond that level of service normally expected”. “Recipients should have demonstrated commitment to the principles of public life and adherence to the relevant codes of conduct,” the paper for next Wednesday’s meeting says.
Past recipients include Nelson Mandela, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, the Duke of Edinburgh, and local institutions such as Charlton Athletic Football Club, Royal Museums Greenwich and the Royal Regiment of the Royal Artillery.
Roberts was known for his close relations with property developers, and is now the deputy chairman of Cratus Communications, a local authority lobbying firm chaired by former Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council Merrick Cockell. Bromley & Chislehurst’s Tory MP Bob Neill, a former local government minister, is a non-executive director.
“His passion for regeneration will provide Cratus with a platform to move to the next level of support for our development clients,” the firm’s website says of Roberts.
Long-serving Labour councillors Janet and Jim Gillman are also on the list of consideration for the honour, as is veteran Conservative Dermot Poston, who also stood down in 2014. Retired teacher Poston was first elected to the council in 1968, serving under the only Tory administration in the borough’s history. The honour for the former Eltham North councillor, a genuinely popular figure at Woolwich Town Hall, may make it difficult for the Conservatives to object to Roberts’ award.
Tariq Abbasi, former director of the Plumstead-based Greenwich Islamic Centre and now director general of the World Muslim Congress, is also in line for an honour.
The decision will be made at next Wednesday’s council meeting. If you’re a Greenwich resident and want to ask leading councillors a question about the council and its policies, email committees[at]royalgreenwich.gov.uk before noon on Wednesday 20 January with your question, your name and address.
It’s hard to support such an award for Roberts (though I doubt any member of the public really gives a shit about it) simply because of the state so much of the borough (mainly the east) got into when he was leader. Decline and neglect was pretty substantial in places like Thamesmead, Abbey Wood and Plumstead. All while the economy was strong and money increasing for local authorities. The amount of attention for the east of the borough under his 14 years seemed minimal. They focused on Woolwich to the detriment of elsewhere. Residents and visitors impressions went through the floor due to widespread council neglect of services, public spaces, parks and facilities.
Much more positive steps have happened since he left.
Having served on the Council with all four of the members under consideration, I would have no objections to Janet, Jim or Dermot receiving the honour. It just seems a shame that the Council is likely to discredit the award by giving it to Mr. Roberts at the same time.
I don’t think anybody in the borough of Greenwich’s political circles is in anyway surprised that Chris Roberts still holds influence over the Labour Group on Greenwich Council.
Only the most naïve or deluded would believe that a megalomaniac like Roberts would just walk away from an organisation over which he wielded a vice-like grip.
For the Labour Group to lavish such an honour on someone who personally attracted negative publicity to the Borough of Greenwich is an insult to its residents, but then Labour Party in this borough have become well versed in insulting us over the years.
I’m probably in the minority on this one but I don’t see the harm in Chris being awarded this, fairly pointless, honour.
There may have been a lot I disagreed with during his reign, including the “Bridge the Gap” fiasco, the blatant propaganda of Greenwich Time, ignoring everything that wasn’t Greenwich or Woolwich and the pet projects like Tall Ships. Saying that, my favourite moment of the latter was seeing him rowed up the Thames on the Gloriana with a string quartet playing in the background.
However, on the plus side, we did get a council that finally managed to get spending under some control – long before the crash and any external pressures – and gain some much needed inward investment.
You also knew where you stood with Chris, unlike most of the current lot. If I had to choose it would have to be a tough, yet flawed, negotiator over the snide, two-faced flim-flammers we have now.
Thank you Stewart – ~Darryl, wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of a lot of regurgitated tittle tattle about Chris, if you had done a proper assessment of his time as leader, taking in all the many different activities of the Council, and their performance, then and now.. You could have done that against the background of Greenwich’s emergence from the Thatcher years with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, some exclusion from regeneration bodies, and much else – and how Chris built on the work done by Len Duval to rebuild a borough devastated by industrial collapse. Sorry – I wouldn’t recognise your portrait of Chris as the person I shared a ward with for 8 years. Goodness knows we all have our failings (one of mine is to contribute here) but hopefully we have strengths too.
Have you tried Greenwich Time, Mary?
I think I said ‘proper assessment’ – sorry I should also have said ‘serious, from a neutral standpoint’.
You’re perfectly capable of doing it
I’ll save it for National Anti-Bullying Day.
whether this time was net positive or not is irrelevant. If a requirement for a recipient is that they ‘“should have demonstrated commitment to the principles of public life and adherence to the relevant codes of conduct,” then he has ruled himself out of the running. His bullying phone call and key chucking incidents alone should rule him out on those grounds.
I, too, endorse this award being made to Roberts. The heady days of 2012, the Olympics and Royal Greenwich, from which many close to Roberts expected him to emerge with a life peerage and Ney with a DBE, must have brought bitter disappointment at the time as the parchment envelopes failed to bring the desired news. Many felt that even if a peerage was over-ambitious, Roberts deserved at least a K, to put him on par with the successful and charismatic Sir Robin Wales. In vain did we scan the honours lists; no mention in the KBEs, none in the CBEs, no trace in the OBEs and a conspicious absence from the MBEs. I gave up reading through the tiny print of the myriad BEM awards after ten minutes. And nothing, of course, for Ney either.
So let’s back this award to Roberts from his old borough; it may not come with a ribbon and some sparkly bling, but it comes from those whom this councillor served with energy and diligence for many years, with thanks, and for that it rates more highly in my opinion than some meretricious life peerage and the dubious comforts of a seat in the Lords.
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