New Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has pledged to stop having mayor-making ceremonies at the Old Royal Naval College and plans to move them back to Woolwich Town Hall.
While most councils make do with modest events at their own town halls, but since 2006 Greenwich has regularly blown a five-figure sum on a lavish invite-only do at the Painted Hall, first reported here in 2010 when the cost reached nearly £30,000.
After that the council negotiated free venue hire at the Old Royal Naval College, but after that ended costs crept back up and reached £20,000 in 2016. Earlier this year, Conservative leader Matt Hartley continued years of Conservative complaints about the ceremony, questioning a £14,030 catering bill.
While senior councillors have claimed the mayor-making ceremony (clips from 2015’s ceremony are seen above) is an essential part of community relations, past invitees have included representatives from Berkeley Homes, Ikea, the developers behind the Enderby Wharf cruise terminal and the New Wine Church.
Indeed, under past leader Chris Roberts, the council was even evasive about where one year’s ceremony had taken place, with its former weekly paper Greenwich Time twice reporting in 2013 that it had happened at Woolwich Town Hall. In fact, it took place at the Painted Hall, just hours after the terrorist murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
Now Thorpe plans to shake up the event, as part of creating “a new relationship with our residents and communities”.
The 13th event, which saw Middle Park and Sutcliffe councillor Christine May take up the ceremonial role, was held at the Old Royal Naval College on Wednesday evening.
‘Creating a new civic contract with residents’
Thorpe told the audience: “There is a tangible democratic deficit in many of our communities, for whom their only connection with the council is emptying the bins once a week.
“So we must create a new relationship with all of our residents and communities, a new civic contract. Starting with events like this.
“As of next year, the inauguration of the mayor will return to our civic home in Woolwich. We will squeeze in as many people as we can, and there will still be a celebration to mark the important event and welcome our new first citizen, but the time has come to do things differently.”
The announcement was welcomed by Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher, who has called for a more public event in the past.
Opposition leader Hartley also welcomed the decision, calling it “quite right”.
Greenwich is unusual in making such a big show of inaugurating a ceremonial mayor behind closed doors. Neighbouring Bexley and Bromley simply hold brief ceremonies before their annual council meetings, while Lambeth had speeches and a singer in its town hall in a meeting open to the public. Southwark is an exception, combining its mayor-making with a civic awards ceremony in a public event at Southwark Cathedral.
‘Challenging us to be more accountable’
Thorpe – who spent part of his childhood on the old Ferrier Estate – also signalled a new approach in dealing with residents’ concerns about redevelopment schemes in the borough.
He said: “Without question, regeneration has changed the face of the places I grew up in.
“But we cannot deny there are tensions, and we need to ensure that some communities, and some residents, are not getting left behind.
“And we need to be honest that not everyone is comfortable with change. So we need to engage more and explain the often impossible choices we face ourselves in, problems and dilemmas that extend well beyond the Twittersphere and couldn’t possibly be dealt with in 240 characters.”
He added: “The Mayor [of London] has set us challenging targets in the new London Plan and we stand ready to help deliver the homes, infrastructure and employment opportunities for our residents.
“But we will be clearer about ensuring growth is sustainable and inclusive. We will work in partnership with residents, and those keen to invest, to ensure we get the best deal for this borough, but let’s be clear that that means investment that delivers first, and foremost for our residents.
“We want truly affordable decent homes, with excellent living standards and we want our wider public realm to benefit from growth. We will do more to create healthy streets, so we work together for a cleaner, healthier Greenwich.”
Thorpe said that residents were “challenging us to be more accountable and to engage with them in a way that allows us to have real discussions about the things that matter to them”.
He continued: “Over the course of this administration, I will work with the whole council to respond to this call, making sure that we work with all of our residents, not just those with the loudest voices.”
‘Building council houses again’
The new leader has already pledged to step up the building of council housing, and said: “It is incredibly frustrating for us as councillors to be unable to provide the decent homes we know our residents so desperately need. To hear seemingly endless stories of people who need to be housed, or who need a bigger property for their family.
“That is why I am already working with my cabinet, and council officers, to see what resources we can identify to start building council housing again in our borough.
“But the reality is that until central government give us the resources we really need, we are in danger of just tinkering around the edges. So we must be a campaigning Council, of all political persuasions, engaging with government to ensure that we get the resources we need to deliver for our communities.”
11.15am update: Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook has called the scrapping of the Painted Hall ceremonies “long overdue”.
While former Peninsula councillor Mary Mills suggested the ceremonies move to the Borough Hall in west Greenwich, currently out of use (and recently occupied by squatters) after Greenwich Dance moved out four weeks ago.
A line in this story about the Conservatives’ attitude to the ceremony has been changed after Tory councillors provided a long list of past complaints about it, including ones featured on this website long ago. Former Conservative leader Spencer Drury said went to one then refused to attend again.
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