A Conversation with Councillor Gray

4 Jan

In a comment on John Gray’s Labour Blog (which is actually it’s title, not a description I’ve given it) I asked, in relation to what I perceive to be a lack of transparency in the way Newham council conducts its business:

Why is vital business always conducted behind closed doors at Labour Group meetings rather than in public council meetings?

Why were the public and the press excluded from the [council’s] discussion about the new £40 million offer to the OPLC?

Councillor Gray replied:

I am amazed that there is anyone who can question the huge overall benefit from the Olympics and that any council (especially a Labour Council) would not want to have a direct public ownership stake in the stadium.

I was a Council officer (in a different council) for over 15 years and political groups have always debated and voted on policies in private.

Unsatisfied by this response, I pressed the matter further:

You say “I am amazed that there is anyone who can question the huge overall benefit from the Olympics and that any council (especially a Labour Council) would not want to have a direct public ownership stake in the stadium.”

Apologies if I’m being a bit thick, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to enlighten me. Whilst I agree that there will be overall benefits to London and the UK from hosting the Olympics (even at the vastly expanded cost of £9 billion) and I am personally looking forward to attending a number of events in the summer, I cannot see why Newham council would want to have a direct stake in the future ownership of the main stadium once the Games are over. If the benefits are so obvious, why aren’t Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest and Redbridge taking a similar stake? Why isn’t the Greater London Authority?

Of course the Olympic stadium should remain in public ownership, but the OPLC is a public body, so Newham’s investment won’t make the ownership any more public than it already is.

The question therefore remains, what additional benefits will Newham people derive from the proposed £40 million investment that they will not get if the stadium legacy is wholly funded by OPLC?

The answers to that may lie in the report that you and your colleagues considered back in December when you approved the £40 million investment offer, but that document has not been published and your meeting was held behind closed doors. Quite why an arrangement between two public entities should be regarded as ‘commercially sensitive’ is beyond me.

Councillor Gray again responded:

Again, purely in my personal opinion, I don’t know why (and maybe they are putting in a bid for all I know) but suspect that the simple answer is that the stadium is in Newham. I also think that the GLA have no legal ability to do what you suggest. Nor at this time the political inclination.

The OPLC is a “public body” at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that it will be always.

Look, I believe in public ownership, I am a believer in “Municipalism” and that the role of a Council is not just to be an “enabler” of services. ??????The potential of the Stadium is enormous and IMO (sorry BBM) it is quite right and proper that the Council wants to play a prudent role in its future.

Whether you think it is a good thing or not all, public entities have a duty to negotiate to get the best commercial arrangement possible, whether it is a with a private or public body – so of course, you cannot make your negotiation position public.

Feeling that my basic question had gone unanswered, I tried again

You talk about potential and municipalism, but make no mention of concrete benefits to Newham people resulting from the £40 million we are putting in.

The business case for the investment that the council approved would have included some kind of benefits analysis as part of the return on investment calculation, so there must be a list of them written down somewhere. Why not just share that?

If this investment is such a great deal for the people of Newham, why aren’t the mayor and the council trumpeting it from the rooftops?

This prompted the following, frankly unenlightening reply

I honestly think that I have as much as is possible at this moment.

The key thing to remember at this time is that there is no “deal” to actually talk about. There is a proposal which is being negotiated. The proposal (as in any other negotiation) could be turned down, amended or withdrawn. In the midst of negotiations you just don’t generally trumpet things from the rooftops

And there I think we must leave it.

The post to which the comments were attached has sunk down below the first page of Councillor Gray’s blog and I sense that we’re really only talking to each other. To his credit John Gray has remained entirely polite in his replies to me, which is not a courtesy he always extends to commentors on his blog or others he perceives as political opponents. And at least he has a blog, which is more than can be said for the mayor or any of his other colleagues (as far as I am aware). 

Maybe at some point we’ll find out what we’ll be getting for our money, but I’m not holding my breath. Sir Robin is hell bent on taking some kind of control of the Olympic stadium, and spending a big chunk of our cash to do it. The idea that he might explain himself to the people who will actually paying for it is not one that will detain him, even for a nanosecond.

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