Greenwich Council’s opposition leader Matt Hartley is to stand down from his position next month, he revealed on Friday evening.
Hartley will remain one of the three councillors for Coldharbour and New Eltham, and said he plans to put his name forward to stand again in the 2022 election, but is stepping down as leader of the Conservative group after five years.
While the council has been a Labour stronghold for decades, nine of its 51 councillors are Tories. No other parties are represented on the council.
The party went into 2018’s council election fearing a possible wipeout – as has happened in neighbouring Lewisham – but the opposition actually won one more seat compared with the result from four years before.
“My first aim was always to take us through the 2018 elections and to be honest I’m still buzzing from that Team Greenwich campaign and the amazing result we achieved together, which has allowed us not only to carry on as a strong opposition, but also bring about some real positive change for residents too,” he wrote in an email to his party colleagues this evening.
“100% council tax support, the new parks fund, better support for care leavers and Armed Forces members/veterans, the cross-party commitment to net zero and a more tangible carbon neutral plan – the list goes on and all of these are things we should all be really proud of. None of them would have happened without our efforts as a group over the last 5 years.
“At the same time, we can point to millions of pounds of waste saved for the council taxpayer and other successes arising from our alternative budgets – as well as what we’ve done as a responsible opposition in uniting across party lines when we had the far right in the gallery, the recent anti-semitic graffiti and other incidents.”
The Tories in the council been split by the EU referendum and subsequent events, but unlike in other areas such as Tower Hamlets, none of them have resigned their seat.
“We’ve also held together united locally, during these last four divisive years since the referendum – which has been really difficult at times, but I’m so glad we’ve managed it,” he said.
Hartley stood for parliament in Greenwich & Woolwich in 2015 and in Eltham in 2017, but was beaten to the nomination for last year’s election by Bexley Council’s deputy leader, Louie French. He told his colleagues “I’m not going anywhere”, but added: “Five years is a long time to do any job like this one, and a change is always refreshing – I’m also conscious we’re about to enter a new electoral cycle, with the boundary changes and the run up to the 2022 elections – and it feels like this year is the right time for the leadership of the Group to pass to someone else. I’m looking forward to being a member of the team and contributing in a different way from now on.”
He also said he wanted to spend time on his role as a trustee of the Greenwich & Bexley Credit Union.
Hartley’s spell as opposition leader has been more recently marked by bruising – and often bitterly personal – exchanges with the council’s Labour leader, Danny Thorpe. The leading contender to replace him is likely to be his deputy, Nigel Fletcher, who once wrote a book called How To Be In Opposition, although Hartley’s predecessor Spencer Drury, Eltham South councillor Matt Clare and the twentysomething Eltham North councillor Charlie Davis could also find themselves pushed to stand for the post.
Fletcher said: “This is really sad news for us. Matt has been a superb leader, and is leaving at the absolute top of his game, with the budget debate showing just how effective he is at holding Labour to account whilst promoting a constructive, credible alternative.
“It’s a rare thing in opposition to have a record of genuine achievement, but he has managed it, delivering changes that will benefit the most vulnerable people in our borough. He can be rightly very proud of that.
”As we move to choose a new leader, we know they have a really hard act to follow, and on behalf of all my colleagues, I say a heartfelt thank you to Matt for all his hard work over many years.”
A new leader will be chosen at the Tory group’s annual general meeting early next month. The ruling Labour group is due to have its own leadership election later this month, with Danny Thorpe widely believed to be facing a challenge from his deputy, David Gardner.
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