Greenwich Council’s former leader Denise Hyland is to be asked to appear before a scrutiny panel to discuss the controversial conversion of a public toilet in Plumstead into a café.
The Slade café opened in October 2018 after the council spent more than half a million pounds refurbishing the former conveniences opposite Plumstead Common.
While the café has been a hit with locals, the project has caused deep divisions in the council’s ruling Labour group, who have questioned why so much money has been spent on the cafe when council budgets are being sharply cut. The announcement of the cafe project came as the Labour party came under serious pressure for its perceived neglect of Plumstead, which included residents forming their own party to fight 2018’s council election.
No other similar projects have been announced since and the council now plans to sell off a number of disused toilets in other parts of the borough rather than also convert them into community facilities.
Councillors on the finance scrutiny panel had been due to discuss the issue on Wednesday, but voted to defer the issue until their next meeting because Hyland, who approved the project when she was leader, was not present.
A report to councillors said that while the project had been budgeted at £584,000, it had actually cost £550,000. Another £33,000 was spent on a feasibility study after the scheme was allocated £40,000 from the Shooters Hill and Glyndon ward budgets, which are pots of money councillors can spend in their own wards. The café sits on the border of the two wards as well as Plumstead ward, as well as at the point where the borough’s three parliamentary constituencies meet.
The report said the café, which has run live music nights and community events, “had a positive impact on the local area, not only for the local community but also for local businesses”, and said there had “been no reports of any negative impact on local businesses within the area”. The report said it employed nine Plumstead residents.
Councillors first raised concerns in December 2017 after papers appeared to show that Danny Thorpe, then the cabinet member for regeneration, had signed off funding for the project – despite the project being inside his own ward. This was put down to a mistake by a council officer, and Hyland stood in for him to sign it off. At the time, councillors complained that costs had been allowed to spiral and that other commercial enterprises had not been given this help from the council. The cafe was later given a discounted rent for the first five years.
Suspicion was also raised about the timing of the project, with a council election imminent, but local councillors in the area say refurbishing the toilets into something that could be used for the community was a long-term aim for them. Eltham MP Clive Efford has also been a staunch defender of the project.
“The purpose of scrutiny is to hold the executive to account and there are no cabinet members here this evening,” panel chair John Fahy said.
Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher called the report into the project “slightly odd”, saying that it lacked detail on why and how the decision to fund the café was made. “It seems to me to leave out the bit where the decision was taken by members,” he said. “If we are deferring, I wonder if we can ask for a report which expands on the process in which the decision was taken.”
After some discussion about exactly who it was that took the decision, the committee voted to defer studying the issue, with the Plumstead councillor Matt Morrow voting against.
Earlier in the evening, the council’s property strategy was discussed, where it was noted that Hadlow College was only paying a peppercorn rent for the equestrian centre in Shooters Hill – a project commissioned in the wake of the Olympics, when equestrian events were held in Greenwich Park.
“My understanding is that the peppercorn rents as based on the principle of depriving community support for a whole range of [things like] riding for the disabled … that never happened,” Fahy said.
Councillors were told that the council’s new property strategy would use a market rate as a starting point for future deals with property values, with decisions on whether a cheaper rent to come later. “It’s very difficult to go back over these legacy cases,” head of property Howard Lock said.
Labour councillor Mark James raised the issue of many properties having “tenancies at will”, which can be terminated at any time. This includes Greenwich Theatre, which Greenwich Council had wanted to move into the Borough Halls seven years ago. Many councillors fear that its future could be threatened by later plans to install theatre company Selladoor in the Borough Halls. Greenwich Theatre’s current lease was signed in 1999.
Lock said these were “legacy” deals and the council was making a “significant effort” to put these leases on a stronger footing. “It’s recognised that these are completely unacceptable,” he said.
Video of the discussion – including Fahy getting confused over assets of community value – can be watched above, with discussion about peppercorn rents starting 14 minutes in and tenancies at will starting 20 minutes in.
853 produces public interest journalism for Greenwich and SE London and is part-funded by its readers. If you would like to contribute to keeping the site running, please…
– NEW! Join our new membership scheme – now there’s need to pay in dollars. Sign up at presspatron.com/853
– switch power supplier! Low-cost renewable Bulb energy will pay you and this site £50 each if you switch
– buy the author a coffee at ko-fi.com
– find us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/853.