Greenwich councillors remembered their late colleague Christine Grice last night as they elected a new ceremonial mayor in the borough’s first full council meeting to be conducted remotely.
Labour and Conservative councillors gathered around their webcams to elect the Labour councillor for Eltham North, Linda Bird, as the borough’s new mayor. She will chair meetings and carry out civic duties for the year ahead.
However, the loss of Grice, who died two weeks ago after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer, was on the minds of councillors from both parties as they held their annual meeting, which starts the new business year for the council.
Only 15 weeks earlier, they had been at Woolwich Town Hall celebrating her being given the all-clear from breast cancer, and she had been due to be elected deputy leader at last night’s meeting – a position that was brought forward before her death.
Bird, a close friend of the Kidbrooke with Hornfair councillor, spoke of how they were achieving their ambitions together – and how they took a walk in Oxleas Woods just two weeks before her death.
“Our chat was full of optimism – I was to be the mayor, she was to be the deputy leader,” she said. “As I approach this year without my colleague and friend, much of my vision for the mayoral year is based on that relationship, and our many conversations.”
She shared memories of playing the piano with her friend as well as dancing at the town hall. “We practised salsa in the members’ room so that Christine could perform at her son’s wedding,” she said.
“When Christine was diagnosed with breast cancer, we went together to sort out her wig situation. Which also involved lunch, of course.
“We also went to St Thomas’ Hospital together when Christine started treatment. Plus a lunch, of course.
“There is a lot of together in this, two very similar northern women with almost identical beliefs and common interests. How lucky am I to have had such a good friend and to have these memories of Christine.”
Council leader Danny Thorpe spoke of how Grice, who was 68, had convinced officers that Kidbrooke Park primary school’s buildings, in her ward, were not “fit for purpose”. The school is now being rebuilt. He also spoke of her influence in setting up the council’s fairness commission – and of the holiday meals scheme which now offers food for children when schools are closed.
“She was delighted to be becoming deputy leader and was really looking forward to getting going. I have no doubt that Christine would have been an outstanding deputy.”
Outgoing opposition leader Matt Hartley said Grice was “a wonderful person, always thinking of others… her passing has hit us all hard”. His successor, Nigel Fletcher, spoke of the council meeting where she marked her all-clear from breast cancer, saying: “At least we had the opportunity then to tell her how much we valued her, and to show her our appreciation for all that she did.”
Grice’s fellow cabinet member Jackie Smith said: “I will miss her greatly. My last memory of Christine was in the sky bar at the Intercontinental hotel after the [council’s] business awards, sipping cocktails. That is dearly how I would love to remember her.”
Councillors paused for a minute’s silence to remember Grice, as well as Frank Lerner – a former head teacher at Fossdene primary school in Charlton and school governor – and Russell Power, the council’s former legal chief, as well as council staff who had died over the past year.
They also thanked council staff, key workers and members of the community for their work during the coronavirus emergency.
Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher was confirmed as the new opposition leader. Referring to the last council election, when the Tories feared losing all their council seats – they held all nine – he joked: “We were able to give him a gift to mark his greatest achievement – the fact that we are all still here.”
Despite the unusual circumstances of the meeting, proceedings went smoothly with few hitches, with council officer Daniel Wilkinson suddenly thrust into the limelight to guide proceedings along and to spot if anybody fell offline.
The Zoom meeting was streamed to YouTube – sparking memories of the classic game show Celebrity Squares – and viewers saw Peninsula councillor Chris Kirby’s cat making a cameo appearance during Fletcher’s acceptance speech.
One consequence of the pandemic shutting down the town hall chamber and committee rooms is that many more council meetings, including scrutiny, licensing and planning sessions, will have to be streamed to fulfil the requirement that they be held in public – opening up proceedings to residents.
Councillors approved a calendar of remote meetings for the next six weeks, and will gather around their webcams again for another full meeting on 24 June.
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