Glyndon by-election: Candidate blocked from addressing councillors on HMOs

Stewart Christie
Stewart Christie was told with half-an-hour to go that he could not speak

A residents’ group representative was blocked at the last minute from speaking in a Greenwich Council meeting because he is standing in a by-election this week.

Stewart Christie, of the Positive Plumstead Project, was due to address a scrutiny panel discussion about houses of multiple occupation, but was told shortly before Tuesday’s meeting that he would not be allowed to speak because he is a candidate in the Glyndon ward poll. He is representing the Liberal Democrats in Thursday’s election to replace disgraced Labour councillor Tonia Ashikodi, who quit after being convicted of housing fraud last year.

Plumstead has a high concentration of HMOs, and the late notice meant that the residents’ group was unable to be represented in the discussion between councillors and council officers about the Labour council’s licensing scheme for bedsits.

Scrutiny meetings are one of the few ways that backbench councillors can feed into the running of a council where most decisions are made by leader Danny Thorpe and his cabinet – although they are often little-publicised and little-noticed outside the town hall. An hour into the meeting, which also discussed the council’s “integrated enforcement” strategy, just four people were watching the live YouTube feed. No other residents addressed the committee.

They are supposed to be run independently of the council leadership, and Christie was told in an email sent on Monday that environment committee chair David Stanley was happy for him to speak. However, the decision was overturned the following day.

Screengrab of scrutiny panel meeting
Not much of a platform: Just four people were watching the meeting after an hour

Speakers from the Positive Plumstead Project – which was founded to address what they see as neglect of the area by the council – have regularly addressed council meetings about issues in the area, and its members are drawn from across the political spectrum, including Labour.

Christie said he was “extremely disappointed” not to be able to speak. “Our group prides itself on our impartiality and we have been working with the council and councillors on HMOs for a number of years,” he said. “This would have been an important moment to comment on the latest situation report and offer ideas and further information to the scrutiny committee.”

853 asked Greenwich Council who decided to block Christie from attending the meeting. It did not address that point, but a spokesperson said: “We would like to apologise to a candidate standing in one of next week’s by-elections that he was unable to address the recent Community Safety & Environment Scrutiny Panel. The decision was taken as the council has a duty to ensure it doesn’t provide a platform to candidates representing any party during an election campaign.

“By way of an alternative he was, however, informed that he could submit written questions to the panel, or nominate a substitute to attend the meeting in order to ensure he got answers to the questions he wanted to raise.

“We very much look forward to receiving his input and thank him for his understanding on this matter.”

There are an estimated 5,000 HMOs in Greenwich borough – a figure revised down from 7,000 last year following a change in government modelling.

The largest HMOs – occupied by five or more people sharing bathrooms or kitchens – have to be licensed wherever they are in the country, and an estimated 77.5 per cent of these properties are licensed in Greenwich borough. However, Greenwich also operates an “additional licensing” scheme, encompassing all HMOs. Just 16 per cent are thought to be licensed, three and a half years after the scheme was brought in, a report to councillors says.

The additional licensing scheme was brought in to address problems with poor housing conditions as well as fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour near HMO hotspots. Earlier this year 853 reported on Gurkha veterans living in Plumstead who are thrown out by their HMO landlords during the day – a topic not raised by the councillors on the committee.

Christie said: “After much fanfare when it was announced in 2017, the additional licensing scheme has only licensed 16 per cent of affected properties across the Borough, even with council estimates of affected properties themselves being significantly revised downwards. This must be a significant loss of revenue to the council – not only in fees, but also council tax.

“In our experience, council departments are not working together as they should to enforce their own policies.

“We would welcome a meeting with the scrutiny committee at the earliest possible, opportunity to discuss this matter further. In the meantime, we have our own ideas about how to identify these properties and will be announcing our own community-led project in the coming weeks. With a lack of suitable family-sized homes in the norough, and most new-builds being one or two-bed flats, houses with outdoor space are a precious resource that we are losing rapidly and proper action must be taken, quickly.”

Councillors heard during the meeting that the pandemic had affected enforcement of HMO licensing, while officers said it was hard to judge the performance of Greenwich’s scheme against other boroughs because it was still relatively new.

Residents who think an unlicensed HMO is operating in their road can check the council’s register and get in touch with the town hall to voice their concerns. The meeting can be watched on the video above, with the HMO item starting at 1 hour and 39 minutes.

Five candidates are standing in Glyndon ward on Thursday to replace Ashikodi, who was given a suspended sentence at Inner London Crown Court last March for owning three properties in the borough while applying for and accepting a council home. 853 revealed the existence of Ashikodi’s fraud in June 2018, when it was discovered that she owned a property in Thamesmead.

Christie was the highest-placed non-Labour candidate in 2018 when he stood for the now-deregistered Plumstead Party – he has now returned to the Liberal Democrats, for whom he stood in a 2016 by-election, to contest the seat again. Former Bexley councillor Sandra Bauer is hoping to retain the seat for Labour; accountant Naveed Mughal is the Tories’ hopeful while Leonie Barron returns for the Greens. Lizzy Hedderly runs for the left-wing Trade Union and Socialist Alliance.

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