By Calum Fraser
Rebel labour politicians have been warned not to oppose controversial housing developments in public by town hall chiefs.
The ruling group in Greenwich was criticised by councillors and residents after they approved plans to sell council land to developers Pocket Living – without ensuring that social housing would be built.
A Labour Group “briefing document” on the scheme has now ordered councillors not to “issue publications – on paper or on social media; maintain web sites; or speak to the press in a way which opposes Party policy” during the consultation period.
Residents have expressed fear that this may taint the democratic process, restricting “councillors’ ability to genuinely participate in any meaningful discussion.”
The document said: “There is a public meeting planned on September 3 and leaflets are promoting this event that state ‘Hear from Labour Councillors who are against these plans’.
“Any group member attending a public meeting and speaking against plans that have been agreed at Group would therefore be in breach of the Group rules.”
Pocket Living’s proposals would create 150 one-bedroom homes that are aimed at first time buyers.
There could be 60 units at the Orchard Estate in Quince Road, 45 in the Heights in Charlton and 46 in Kidbrooke Park Estate.
Properties in the scheme would be sold at 20 per cent less than market rates. This means they are intermediate housing, according to the GLA’s definition of affordable housing.
But, none of the units are earmarked to be affordable at social rent levels.
The cabinet decision was then “called in” to be scrutinised by a select committee. At the meeting, dozens of residents from the sites voiced their opposition, as did several labour councillors.
Greenwich resident Izzet Hickmet, who is co-organising the Greenwich Housing Forum meeting on September 3 to discuss the Pocket Living scheme, said: “Councillors should be allowed to freely voice their opinion on an issue during consultation.
“However, as the process is occurring after a collective decision was taken, protocol and pressure from the whip’s office has seriously restricted our councillors’ ability to genuinely participate in any meaningful discussion.
“The feeling amongst residents is that the consultation will not result in any significant change in the council’s position.”
The call-in scrutiny committee voted to send the decision back to cabinet.
West Greenwich resident John Palmer, who has been a member of the Labour party for decades, said: “I think it is quite ridiculous. I have been a Labour Party member for long time. I have often heard councillors at meetings, who do not always support the party line on issues that affect the community.
“Whether the councillors do feel gagged is a matter for them. I know that there are quite a few members of the Greenwich Labour Group who vehemently oppose these developments. They may feel that they have no alternative but to be silent.”
Shooters Hill ward councillor Chris Kirby, cabinet member for housing, said: “The Labour Group took a policy decision to consult with residents on proposals to sell three small plots of land to Pocket Living, which would provide opportunity for young people in the Borough to buy a starter home at reduced cost and give the added benefit of profits from the land sale to be used to build much needed council housing. All but four members of the Group voted in support of this.
“A campaign has grown up to oppose the proposal which is running a public meeting next week. We have advised councillors that if they wish to attend the meeting and speak, they should speak in support of the agreed policy.
“This is standard Labour Party procedure, and in keeping with those of most collective organisations.”