Last month, Newham Council decided to freeze council tax for the fourth year in a row. This came as no surprise as most London councils are doing similar due to central government grants. This means that properties in tax band D will continue to pay £945.63 as they have done since 2008/9.
What was different for me was how they did it.
Living across the river in Charlton I often attend Greenwich Council meetings. Fifty-two councillors in the large council chamber at Woolwich Town Hall. Eleven opposition members ensure debate is apparent if not particularly constructive.
When Greenwich Council set their council tax freeze the meeting lasted two hours. Newham’s lasted fifteen minutes.
I arrived at the town hall with five minutes to spare. I walked into the reception area and waited with about fifteen members of the public. It reached 8 o’clock and large man with a torch welcomed us. He was dressed from head to toe in navy blue and resembled a night watchman.
He proceeded to lead the fifteen of us outside the main doors and down a long dark path. We walked into the heart of the town hall past the rubbish bins and reached some steps. I felt like I was being transported back to the 1950’s as we climbed the four flights to the top.
Waiting for me was the council chamber, half the size of Woolwich Town Hall’s. It seemed in serious need of a lick of paint.
There were twenty chairs in the public gallery. I shuffled along and found a seat which seemed to be covered in a fine layer of dust.
As soon as the meeting started it had finished. Newham has sixty Labour councillors and no opposition. Sir Robin Wales naturally did most of the talking. Declaring at one stage that he was “proud of how Newham has created in its own Olympic legacy with little help from the government”. No members asked any questions but we had a good bit of back-slapping as Councillor Gavin Pearson stood up to tell everyone how well the council had performed in the face of central government cuts.
No local journalists were present, despite the importance of the meeting, although this freedom of information request might explain more.
After the meeting was over there was confusion in the public gallery. I turned to my left and realised that my fellow onlookers were trying to get the attention of councillors.
After further investigation, I found out they were all teachers from nearby Langdon School. They told me that new parking charges would mean they would have to pay an extra £300 a year. They had come on mass to the town hall and had formally submitted a question to ask the council. Due to what seemed like an administration error this question had been left off the agenda.
This short meeting didn’t strike me as being a perfect example of democracy. Having said that, these councillors are obviously democratically elected. I just wonder if the good people of Newham realise how little debate actually goes on within the walls of the town hall.