I’ll make developers pay more, new Greenwich Council leader pledges

Anthony Okereke with fellow councillor Clare Burke-McDonald, right, meeting a supporter on Woolwich Common Estate

Greenwich Council’s incoming leader has promised to make developers pay more into council coffers and to ensure they do not sit on land they have permission to build on.

Anthony Okereke, who won an internal vote of Labour councillors on Wednesday night, is also promising a new strategy for the borough’s public realm and transport and to crack down on the growing numbers of bedsits in parts of the area.

The Woolwich Common councillor, who beat the outgoing leader Danny Thorpe by a single vote, said yesterday that dealing with the cost-of-living crisis, the climate emergency and health inequalities would be his priorities.

“I am honoured to be given the opportunity to lead Greenwich as its first black leader. It will be a privilege to serve residents in the borough I grew up in,” he tweeted yesterday.

He also paid tribute to the councillors who elected him, saying: “Every time I look at this group photo, I am filled with joy and hope. This is the most diverse intake of councillors ever. We now better represent the community we serve and I am hopeful for what we can achieve for our residents.”

While many of Okereke’s promises related to how the 52-strong Labour group of councillors is organised and campaigns, others were aimed directly at how the council deals with residents.

He told councillors in his campaign document – Greenwich 2030 – Making Change Happen, Together – that the borough needed “a clear political vision” and to “put residents at the heart of everything we do”.

“Greenwich is a wonderful place, and we should be proud of that. But it is our responsibility to make it even better,” he wrote. “If you elect me as Leader, I will work tirelessly to improve the quality of life of all our residents, and ensure every Labour councillor has a say in how we do that.”

“The council must ensure local people can benefit from economic activity in the borough,” Okereke said, pledging to increase the level of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) that Greenwich charges developers to build in the borough.

Woolwich Crossrail station entrance
Low CIL collections have led to a shortfall in the council’s contribution to the Woolwich Crossrail station

While most boroughs charge CIL, Greenwich charges lower than comparable boroughs such as Brent – a situation which has led to it missing out on windfalls from developers and not collecting enough to pay for the fit-out of Woolwich Crossrail station, a shortfall which will have to be made up from money which should have been allocated to other projects.

Okereke – who currently works for a company which lobbies for developers – said he would “prioritise CIL collection and increase the level of development charges”. The council has already committed itself to reviewing the rates it charges.

He also pledged to make developers “more accountable to residents” by setting out a charter for their public consultations, and to “explore ways to deliver more housing”. The council is already planning to build 1,000 new homes by 2029, but Greenwich also has a stiff target from City Hall of building 2,800 homes – of all kinds, per year – effectively demanding it builds a community the size of Charlton every three years.

The leader-elect said that he would work with the cabinet member for regeneration and planning to “work with the cabinet member responsible for regeneration and planning to ensure that developers build out planning permissions”.

Promised schemes that have not materialised include the redevelopment of the Island Site in the centre of Woolwich, which has twice been approved by a planning committee yet appears to have stalled.

Thames Polytechnic site in Woolwich
Plans to redevelop the Island Site in Woolwich have long been stalled

The incoming leader also said he would “introduce planning policies to tackle the over-concentration of HMOs and loss of family homes in an area”.

Okereke also pledged to “reinvigorate” Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB), the council’s much-criticised jobs brokerage, which is funded by cash from developers. He said he would “create a dedicated website to make residents aware of our services and ensure we reach residents who need employment support”.

He also pledged to develop a public realm and transport strategy – a transport strategy was already under way before the election – and to review the council’s parking strategy.

Okereke also said he would introduce a “polluter pays” system for parking permits, which would be banded according to carbon dioxide emissions, as already happens in Lewisham.

Repairs on housing estates would become a “political priority”, he added, while there would be a review of estate maintenance.

Okereke also plans a “cost-of-living and post-Covid recovery fund”, promising he would ensure “that public health is at the core of all council initiatives”.

Silvertown Tunnel building site
Work on the Silvertown Tunnel is well under way

As reported yesterday, he also plans to meet his Newham counterparty, Rohksana Fiaz, to establish a “joint stop, pause and review strategy” for the Silvertown Tunnel. With work unlikely to stop on the tunnel – the two boroughs’ last strategy, a decade ago, was to support the scheme – he may come under pressure to establish some alternative use for either the new tunnel or one of the two Blackwall Tunnel bores.

Okereke also plans to set up a “consultation and communications unit” to beef up the way the council talks to and consults its residents.

More controversially – by Greenwich standards – he also plans to recruit a political assistant, a common post in other London boroughs but one resisted at Woolwich Town Hall for fear it would be seen as “spending money on politics”. Okereke says an assistant would “help with policy and political messaging”.

Outside the council, Okereke also intends to develop a “Labour in Greenwich” brand for the group – unlike other boroughs, Greenwich’s Labour councillors tend to be more associated with their parliamentary constituency than their council.

Okereke and his deputy, Thamesmead Moorings councillor Averil Lekau, will take office on May 25, after the council’s annual general meeting.

Outgoing leader Danny Thorpe tweeted yesterday: “Whilst last night’s result at our AGM wasn’t the one I’d hoped for, I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved as the leader – feeding hungry kids, new community facilities, investing in our parks and tackling inequalities has been the journey of a lifetime.”

Congratulating Okereke and Lekau, he said: “Leadership is never easy and I wish them both the very best.”

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