Anthony Okereke will be the new leader of Greenwich Council after beating current boss Danny Thorpe in a vote of the borough’s Labour councillors tonight.
One of the new leader’s first pledges will be to set up a meeting with his counterpart in Newham to formulate a strategy to “stop, pause and review” the Silvertown Tunnel, which is under construction in both boroughs.
The Thamesmead Moorings councillor Averil Lekau won the vote to be deputy leader. The two councillors will take up their positions after the council’s annual general meeting on May 25.
Okereke’s challenge for the leadership was buoyed by the large number of new councillors elected last week – 25 of the 52 Labour representatives are newcomers, bringing a younger and more diverse look to the group. One of the newcomers, Abbey Wood’s Peter Baker, will take the key role of chief whip.
Tonight’s leadership vote ends a dramatic four years in charge for Thorpe, which had been dominated by the pandemic. He threw himself into volunteering roles alongside leading the council’s response.
Okereke, who is in his early 30s and only became a councillor four years ago, was raised on the Woolwich Common Estate. He had been serving as cabinet member for housing under Thorpe, overseeing the Greenwich Builds programme to construct 750 new council homes – the biggest project since the building of his home estate. Thorpe’s manifesto going into the election pledged to build 1,000 more.
While Thorpe, 40, oversaw the biggest Labour victory since the borough was formed in 1964, councillors in the north of the borough were angered by what they saw as his lack of leadership on the Silvertown Tunnel. The borough had originally supported the scheme under his predecessors, but successive intakes of new councillors have been more hostile to the project.
Thorpe had failed to offer a personal opinion on the scheme, even when the council passed a motion calling for the £2 billion project to be halted. Labour councillors in the affected areas were spooked by how close the Greens came to victory in East Greenwich last week, when their candidate Stacy Smith came just 68 votes behind Majid Rahman, who scraped home for Labour.
Rows over the fate of the historic Borough Halls in west Greenwich – now up for sale after a deal to lease it to a theatre company went through – also caused problems. A growing north-south split among councillors fuelled distrust of Thorpe, who shared a similar power base to the Eltham MP Clive Efford in the more suburban south of the borough.
Okereke has now pledged to set up a meeting with Rokhsana Fiaz, Newham’s elected mayor, “in my first ten days” to establish a strategy which will focus on the public health impacts of the tunnel.
The new leader’s current employment has raised worries with some in the party. Okereke currently works for Planning Potential, a consultancy which helps developers gain planning permission for their schemes. His profile on the company’s website says that he gives “strategic advice on high-profile development schemes and [supports] clients to navigate complex planning environments”.
Before that, he worked for Curtin & Co – now known as Chess Engage – which has handled consultation for developers including Meyer Homes, which is behind plans for a 15-storey block outside Woolwich Tesco.
One party figure said they were uncomfortable with Okereke’s background in working for property lobbyists and called him “easily more right-wing than Thorpe”.
But, speaking before tonight’s meeting, one supporter pointed at the result in East Greenwich and the large number of new councillors. “There’s a big desire for change,” they said of Okereke, who has a master’s degree in urban planning and is a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.
Okereke has also told supporters that he will learn from other boroughs to try to end Greenwich’s notorious culture of insularity.
While Okereke wooed councillors with a six-page colour brochure, with photos showing new councillors celebrating their election win last week, Thorpe gave them a seven-page, two-colour run-down of his promises, referring back to the manifesto on which Labour secured its victory.
Thorpe’s document was called “People and Services First”, recalling the council’s slogan from the 1980s.
It emphasised his achievements in leading the borough through the “biggest challenge since the Second World War”, and pledged to lead a task force to lower Greenwich’s rates of child obesity – the highest in London – which he called “a public health emergency”.
He also promised a race equality strategy and a continuation of work to support families on low incomes.
With such a close vote, Thorpe could well return to serve under Okereke on the council’s cabinet. Labour councillors will vote on who they think should be in the new leader’s top team next week.
Help 853 continue reporting on public interest issues in Greenwich and southeast London – we are the only outlet regularly producing original journalism in the borough, and we can only do it with your funding.
Please join over 100 donors who use Steady, PressPatron or Patreon to give a little towards our costs every month. The money pays the bills, a wage for the editor and pays others to write for the site.
You can also buy the editor a coffee at ko-fi.com. Thank you.