Update, Friday 17 April: The consultation period has now been extended to Tuesday 28 April.
The general election’s well under way. But an arguably bigger decision for this part of south east London is also open for your thoughts – although you’ve only got until Friday to make your views known.
Last month, Greenwich Council quietly started consulting on changes to the 11-year-old Greenwich Peninsula masterplan. Considering the size and location of the site, this is one of the most important pieces of planning in the 50-year history of the borough (with only Thamesmead and the Royal Arsenal as competition).
Yet, as ever, engagement with the public seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. You know how the council claimed Greenwich Time was essential for engaging with local people? Well, not a word of editorial copy has appeared in its weekly paper about this in the three weeks the consultation has been open.
By contrast, the issue has been covered in both the News Shopper and the Mercury.
If there’s a development that demands proper discussion and debate – especially at general election time – it’s this one. It touches on the two most vital issues addressing our capital city – housing and infrastructure. Yet there simply isn’t one – it’s being swept under the carpet.
To his credit, Labour candidate Matt Pennycook mused on the issues after a consultation event in January (followed up by the Guardian’s Dave Hill), but that’s been about it. The local Peninsula ward councillors aren’t even mentioning it on their new blog.
If you want to find out more, head to Greenwich Council’s planning search and look for application 15/0716/O.
There are 191 documents to read. One person is not realistically going to manage to take on board this information all alone – even in the summary planning statement – so if you read the documents and something strikes you that’s not mentioned here, please feel free to stick it in the comments.
The plans include 12,678 homes (up from 10,100 in 2004); towers of up to 40 storeys high; 220 serviced apartments; a 500-room hotel; education and healthcare facilities; a film studio and visitor attraction; a new bus station/ transport hub; and a 5k running track around the peninsula.
Like I said, there’s a lot to take in. But here’s two very broad themes that I reckon should be addressed. You may have different views.
Housing – who’s going to live there?
One vital question is unanswered – how many of these homes will people be able to afford to live in? No figures are given for social or “affordable” housing.
We already know that neither you nor I will be able to afford to live in part of the Peninsula, as Greenwich Council allowed the pre-emptive social cleansing of Peninsula Quays back in 2013, reducing the amount of social/affordable housing to 0%.
This decision was based on a viability assessment – can the developer afford to build social housing? – which was kept secret by Greenwich Council. Earlier this year, local resident Shane Brownie won a Freedom of Information battle to get this information out there.
It’s a complex issue that affects other areas of London and elsewhere – the most notorious case affects Southwark Council and the Heygate estate – and one that’s barely being heard in the election campaign. The BBC’s Sunday Politics London spoke to Shane when it dealt with the issue a few weeks back. (Thanks to Alex Ingram for the recording.)
It’s entirely possible Knight Dragon has been spooked by Greenwich being forced to disclose this document, and is playing its cards even closer to its chest.
Indeed, this planning application going out to formal consultation during an election may even stifle debate – although the decision to run it now would have been the council’s call, rather than Knight Dragon’s.
But where else in London would a development of 12,000 new homes emerge without any discussion about who they are for?
The transport infrastructure – can North Greenwich cope?
The plans also include rebuilding and moving North Greenwich bus station. It’s approaching capacity and struggles to cope with demand as it is. But the increase is small – space for 17 bus stands rather than 15, and 11 bus stops rather than seven.
There’s pressure for North Greenwich to handle even more buses. Very few other tube stations in London are expected to handle demand from such an absurdly large area (Finsbury Park – which has to serve areas such as Crouch End and Muswell Hill – is probably the nearest equivalent).
Politicians keep demanding extra services from Kidbrooke and Eltham (as opposed to demanding improvements to rail services there), while existing routes from areas much closer to North Greenwich still struggle to cope. Route 108, in particular, is still overwhelmed each morning despite demands for a boost to services, which were met with the miserly addition of a single extra bus.
And this is before the next phase of homes open on the peninsula – adding more “one-stop” passengers on the buses and more demand for the tube station itself.
Yet TfL’s only significant transport boost in the area has ben to create a cable car which is aimed at tourists and charges premium fares. If it was a bus route, it’d be London’s 407th busiest.
It’s a crude measure – especially as these figures cover all passengers, not just ones heading to North Greenwich – but a cursory glance at passenger numbers on the eight services would suggest they’ve pretty much hit their rush-hour capacity.
Add to this the continuing huge developments planned for Canary Wharf and the Royal Docks, together with predictions that Crossrail will hit capacity within months of opening, and you’ve got a big problem in depending so heavily on the Jubilee Line. The queues for Stratford-bound trains at Canary Wharf show just how big demand is here.
Move the peninsula closer to Canary Wharf
One answer would be to give Canary Wharf workers an alternative to the Jubilee Line. At this point, up will pop Transport for London, claiming the Silvertown Tunnel would provide that for buses.
But it’s very likely that before long, any buses routed this way would get stuck in the same snarl-ups as the 108 through Blackwall, or new ones north of the Thames.
Building new roads won’t bring the high-density regeneration Greenwich Peninsula needs – this isn’t a suburban business park or a collection of warehouses. You get better results when you build workplaces within walking distance of shops, restaurants, other workplaces and railway stations.
The mostly-empty office block at 6 Mitre Passage, whose lights have stayed dim on winter evenings, shows how the Greenwich Peninsula has failed to attract businesses – one stop from Canary Wharf might as well be the other side of London.
So why not a pedestrian and cycle link to Canary Wharf? Proposals for a bridge from Rotherhithe to the Wharf have recently been dusted off – but one to the east would bring the Greenwich Peninsula within walking distance of shops, offices and the new Crossrail station.
It’d transform the area, tying it into Canary Wharf and freeing up space on both Tube and buses, and making it more attractive for businesses to set up shop.
In 2009, the cost of a bridge was put at £90m, not including maintenance and operating costs, and a TfL assessment as part of the cable car business case said it would be an “iconic” scheme, “likely to attract investment” in the area.
It added that “the walking routes on both sides of the Thames would need substantial improvement associated with developments for the environment to be of a high quality”. Well, those improvements are coming now. And without a fixed connection to Canary Wharf, those improvements on the Greenwich Peninsula may never fully reach their potential.
It’s election time – why isn’t this an issue?
London is growing at a bewildering rate. Property developers are ruling over local people like feudal landlords, while local councils are treated like mug punters who fall for three card tricks.
Yet this simply isn’t an issue in a general election where it’s become fashionable to bash London. Planning desperately needs reform to give councils more clout – but this isn’t being addressed in manifestos.
The lack of serious discussion about how to manage London’s growth reflects poorly on our city’s politicians and media. And we’ve one of the worst examples of it here in Greenwich, a borough run by councillors that have too often lacked curiosity in what’s presented to them.
In the same way that Greenwich councillors fell for poor road-building schemes because the area lacks river crossings, they may well fall for an unsustainable plan for the peninsula simply because they’re desperate to see all that brownfield land built on with the first thing that comes along.
That said, the recent ousting of Chris Roberts acolyte Ray Walker from his role as planning board chair can give us hope – his replacement, Mark James, has a background in transport, so actually has an understanding of the issues at stake. With Matt Pennycook taking a more sceptical view of big developments than his predecessor, some of the mood music around Greenwich and regeneration could be about to see a welcome change.
If you’ve a couple of hours free this week, give the plans a read and send your views (try the planning statement and design and access statements for summaries) to the council. At least then, they can’t say they weren’t warned.