Only Labour councillors need to know how Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe picks his cabinet, councillors were told last night after opposition members questioned why his deputy had been “downgraded” to “cabinet member for bollards”.
The usually brief and uncontroversial annual general meeting – which chooses the ceremonial mayor and ratifies who will hold key positions in the year ahead – saw Conservative councillors complain that Thorpe had changed key cabinet positions with little notice or explanation.
As 853 reported yesterday, deputy leader David Gardner has had his children’s services portfolio removed, with him being given the role of cabinet member for public realm. Jackie Smith, the community safety cabinet member, will now take on children’s services. In another change, health and adult social care cabinet member Averil Lekau sees the words “anti-poverty” dropped from her title.
Eltham South councillor Nigel Fletcher questioned why Thorpe had not explained what the new roles entailed. After being ruled out of order by civic mayor Christine May when Thorpe proposed the cabinet line-up, Fletcher used an item about scrutiny panels to point out that it was difficult to scrutinise cabinet members when it was not clear what their jobs were. (Watch the exchange.)
“There are some significant changes made without any justification or explanation,” he said. “The deputy leader has been downgraded, to a degree,” he said. “Whilst it is welcome that we move the issue of the public realm up the agenda I’m not sure that making somebody of councillor Gardner’s undoubted ability and seniority the cabinet member for bollards is the best use of his talents.”
Fletcher also said Gardner’s former role for children’s services had been “downgraded” as it had been merged with Smith’s “substantial” community safety portfolio, while he also raised the disappearance of the “anti-poverty” title from Lekau’s job and asked: “What kind of message does that send about the leader’s priorities?”
‘He’s explained it to his group, that’s enough’
But Smith told Fletcher that the council leader’s reasons for selecting a cabinet – who between them claim over £175,000 in extra allowances for their roles – was no business of his, as Thorpe had already spoken to Labour councillors.
“You have to bring up all sorts of issues,” she said. “The leader of the council can speak for himself but he does not have to explain to you his rationale for changing portfolios. He does not have to do that. He’s explained it to his group, that’s enough.”
Thorpe said: “She’s right, this is the council AGM, not an interview with the leader.”
He added that he was a “bit worried” to hear councillors talk about Gardner’s new role in public realm as “a demotion”.
“When we do have council questions and lots of representations from members on opposition benches about how important the public realm is and all those things [sic] so to somehow suggest that it’s a second-grade service and not as good is missing the point really.”
Thorpe also said the council had been on “a journey” with anti-poverty initiatives and he would be chairing a new social mobility board to pick up that work.
The Conservatives also complained – as has become almost traditional at annual meetings – about yet another another Labour councillor becoming civic mayor. The Tories have not had a mayor in Greenwich since 1971.
Yet the talent pool for the ceremonial position appears to be smaller still judging by last night’s meeting. The Greenwich Labour group is formed from three local parties – Greenwich & Woolwich, Erith & Thamesmead and Eltham. Last night’s meeting was Eltham Labour party stalwart Christine May’s last meeting as civic mayor before handing over to another Eltham Labour party stalwart, Mick Hayes, for his second stint as mayor. A third Eltham Labour party stalwart, Linda Bird, will be his deputy, lining her up to be mayor in 2020.
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