Greenwich councillors experiment with gay surgeries

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A trio of Tory councillors are trying to reach out to people in their Greenwich borough by offering a surgery: “that specifically works for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”

The councillors are holding monthly meetings at local LGBT bar The Woolwich Infant to help “younger people who, politically, are not so switched on, and don’t know who to get in contact with us,” according to one of three Greenwich Conservative councillor who devised the surgeries.

Chris Taylor, Andy Jennings and Nigel Fletcher are Tory representatives on Labour-run Greenwich council.

Their surgery has caused quite a stir in the Conservative Party, and not just because of the choice of venue.

Party activists on Tory blog sites feel that the move panders to the LGBT community unfairly and have questioned the validity of offering out-of-office services.

“People who have been complaining about the service predominantly tend to be people who are already turned on,” Cllr Chris Taylor told, “in an ideal world you wouldn’t need this.”

He claims that the move: “shows us as being more accessible. People have problems and the council needs to reach and help them.”

The real issue is more than just reaching out to people as councillors, he feels.

“I think it is sad that there is an image of the the Tory party that isn’t reflective of Tory party members,” he said.

“As a gay man I wouldn’t be in a party that isn’t accepting of my values.

“Labour take the gay vote for granted, but when (LGBT) people go to vote they have the same issues as everyone else.”

Fellow councillor Nigel Fletcher agrees, “I helped work on the Conservative Civil Partnership response, and we were able to get a lot of support.

“Historically if you had removed gay people from the scene the party wouldn’t have had much staff,” he jokes.

“The problem though is not removing discrimination from law, which is quite easy, but removing discrimination from society which is much more difficult.

“We, as a party, should encourage stable relationships.”

Cllr Flether is hopeful about the future: “In ten years time there may be no need for this initiative, but for the moment we are reaching out to where people feel comfortable.”

Although it certainly helps the Greenwich Tories change the image of the party, both councillors consider the service that they offer as entirely a-political, and speaking to some of those who have benefited from their expertise it is obvious that their party allegiance makes no different to locals.

The idea for a surgery was born from Cllr Taylor’s regular visits to The Woolwich Infant.

“People get to know you’re a councillor,” he told, “and people talk to you about whatever it is.”

It is by approaching people on their own ground that Cllr Taylor has helped more than a dozen people who have been desperate for some form of assistance. Some who just needed a point in the right direction while others who needed a lot of help sorting out their problems. spoke to two people whom Cllr Taylor has helped in the past through meeting them at The Woolwich Infant.

Andy, 23, lives locally and suffered from debt problems with credit card companies, and faced the possibility of having to move back home with his parents.

He got himself out of trouble by chance: “Just by chatting to mates I heard of Chris (Taylor) holding meetings down here. I figured some thing’s better than nothing.

“Hearing that he came down here made it easier for me to contact him,” Andy continues, “it was something I had never heard of down here.”

Cllr Taylor put Andy in contact with the Citizens Advice Bureau who were able to help him sort out his rising debt problems.

“I have just about sorted myself out,” Andy says a year on, “back to a nice lifestyle without credit cards.”

Another, more complicated case, is that of Tracey, 29, who three months ago faced being evicted from her flat. Her rent arrears that had built up to nearly £1500 and she was being threatened with a court summons.

Having difficulty finding and holding on to work in the area exacerbated her problems.

“Chris (Taylor) gave me the low down on what would happen and helped me fill out all the forms.”

She is now still looking for work, whilst trying to pay off the arrears and court fees from her benefits at just £6 a week.

“Its good to have some one who knows the system,” she tells me in reference to her trouble getting hold of housing benefits.

Cllr Taylor agrees: “Its complicated enough for me to get anywhere, let alone for someone without experience in how the system works.”

Whilst there have been those that have questioned the choice of a LGBT bar as a venue, councillors Taylor and Fletcher disagree: “Its a very busy bar at night and on weekends, but its a safe bar and a community bar.

“I wouldn’t do this in some pubs,” Cllr Taylor says, “as a councillor I have to know its an atmosphere I can work in.”

“People want to feel politics is interested in them,” he says, “sadly we have to do it this way as people don’t know how to come to us. This will make sure get the LGBT community on our side.”