Leafing through the Greenwich Book Festival

The Guardian's Zoe Williams with University of Greenwich senior politics lecturer (and pub quiz king) John McLean

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams with University of Greenwich senior politics lecturer (and pub quiz king) John McLean

It’s easy to overlook the Greenwich Book Festival, which is happening now and across the weekend, because most of the publicity for it seems to have been “wow! here’s a book festival!” rather than “here’s a brilliant thing you can see at the book festival this weekend!” So I just assumed it was a handful of events and was about to let it pass by.

But there’s actually a huge range of events on – I popped by this lunchtime to see Guardian journalist Zoe Williams discuss the themes behind her book Get It Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics – an apt theme after the recent election, and one that reverberates closer to home than you might think.

There’s more on tonight and over the weekend, including a load of kids’ stuff, although if I was free tomorrow night, I’d pop along to see Viv Albertine of The Slits talk about her recent memoir with Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn.

It’s certainly a wise use of £12,000 from Greenwich Council, although it could have helped more by sticking the programme in this week’s vanity rag Greenwich Time rather than giving it just one paragraph – the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner seems to be suffocating its events somewhat. The University of Greenwich has also chipped in, and it’ll hopefully kickstart which should be a regular event – in future years, perhaps we’ll all be wondering why Greenwich never used to have a book festival.

Greenwich Council gives £100,000 to Woolwich Frida Kahlo show

The Four Fridas

An outdoor theatre production celebrating the life of Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo has gained £100,000 in funding from Greenwich Council after backing from council leader Denise Hyland.

The Four Fridas is the headline show for this year’s Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, and will take place at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich from 1-4 July.

Greenwich has already committed £100,000 to GDIF, of which £20,000 was already earmarked for The Four Fridas.

Now the council is paying an extra £80,000 to festival bosses to secure the 45-minute long display of music, dance and flight, with a further £250,000 coming from Arts Council England and £60,000 from other sources.

Audiences will be able to stand and watch the show for free, with seats costing £16.

Kahlo, who died in 1954 aged 47, took up painting after being seriously injured by a trolleybus as a teenager. Her tempestuous personal life was explored in the 2002 film Frida, for which Salma Hayek was nominated for an Oscar.

An animated film will explore Kahlo’s “legacy as a disabled artist”, while the show “will feature a unique and powerful pre-hispanic Mexican cultural tradition by a group of young women from the village of Xochiapulcho in the Sierra Puebla, enacting the flight of the Voladores” – a ceremony that involving participants flying around a pole.

While the show is bound to pull in the crowds, the generous grant is likely to raise eyebrows at a time when the council is continuing to plead financial hardship. Over recent years, funding has been diverted away from smaller arts and cultural projects into larger, big-ticket events under the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner.

Smaller-scale grants have now been made available for community projects, and the council made a minor contribution to the Blackheath fireworks last year for the first time since 2009. But the Plumstead Make Merry festival is still struggling to survive while there remain fears for the future of Charlton’s Maryon Wilson Animal Park, an early victim of council cuts.

In any case, the funding decision continues a pattern of the council suddenly awarding extra funding to GDIF once programmes have been printed and press releases already sent out – the council found £100,000 at short notice in 2011.

“During a time of increasing financial pressures, Royal Greenwich is unique in making a significant investment in arts and culture to stimulate regeneration and access to the arts,” the council report says.

It adds the Four Fridas funding “strengthens Woolwich’s case as London’s newest cultural destination”, citing a decade of regeneration including new transport links, significant investment in residential, leisure and business development and evidence of grass roots arts-led development”.

How much this is actually apparent to the world beyond Woolwich Town Hall is worth questioning, though – an Evening Standard feature on the show describes Woolwich as “a part of London that is in desperate need of improvement”.

Other big arts events getting council funding – “developing awareness of ‘brand Greenwich'” – this summer include Greenwich Dance Festival (May-July £30,200), Greenwich International Book Festival (21-24 May, £12,000), Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival (23-30 May, £17,000), Greenwich Music Festival (June 2015 – March 2016, £25,000), Parksfest (May – July, £26,400) and the one-day Greenwich World Cultural Festival (£20,800).

Second Floor Arts, 17 May 2015

Update, 7.50pm: After writing this, I took a trip down to the open studios at Woolwich’s amazing Second Floor Studios & Arts, a community of 400 artists tucked away by the river (next door to where Ed Miliband’s notorious pledge stone is being stored).. Having a wander around, I couldn’t help wonder why Greenwich Council doesn’t take advantage of this if it wants to turn Woolwich into a creative hub.

Instead of blowing £100,000 on marching people up to the barracks for a show that will be gone in four days, why not use that money to help artists actually set up shop in Woolwich town centre? Greenwich town centre isn’t a year-round cultural hub despite having had GDIF events for years – so why would Woolwich be any different? Amazing as The Four Fridas may be, will it really have any lasting effect once the last visitor has walked back down Grand Depot Road? Or is this just one big, ever so alluring, ego trip?

Meantime downed in one – Greenwich’s brewery is sold

A lovely pint of Meantime wheat beer
You’ll have no doubt seen the news already – Greenwich’s Meantime Brewing has been sold to drinks giant SABMiller, home to Foster’s, Grolsch and Peroni.

Funnily enough, I was in Meantime‘s first pub, the Greenwich Union, for the first time in ages yesterday. Meantime’s high prices have increasingly put me off – over a fiver for something brewed down the road? – but I did conclude that if I was going to have a cheeky beer in Greenwich, I might as well make sure the profit stays local. Sadly, that won’t be the case any more.

Over the years, it’s interesting how animated people in this area get when they talk about Meantime – a kind of pride mixed with puzzlement. After all, it was the first of London’s craft breweries – remember when it was just Meantime and Zero Degrees, with both selling their beer remarkably cheaply? I may mist over shortly at golden summers spent drinking wheat beer and raspberry beer in the back garden of the Greenwich Union.

Prices have rocketed since but service – particularly in the otherwise glorious Old Brewery – has been patchy. One thing that struck me about the Greenwich Union yesterday is that they wouldn’t take payment for a round of drinks at the bar – which struck me as a ridiculously fiddly way of doing it.

Still, good luck to the Meantime team. I hope the firm – which now has a fourth outlet, The Tasting Rooms, at its brewery on Blackwall Lane, adding to the Beer Box, which opened last summer – keeps its local roots.

And cherish the local and London breweries that have followed in Meantime’s footsteps: Hop Stuff in Woolwich, Brockley Brewery, Brick in Peckham, Bexley Brewery in Erith, a whole load in Bermondsey, and many more besides. Anyone else now inspired to take up brewing?

Greenwich Council plans to reveal ‘affordable’ housing assessments

Quintain plans for Peninsula Quays site

This has been covered elsewhere but it’s worth noting a welcome change of heart from Greenwich Council – it wants to force developers to reveal why they can’t provide set amounts of ‘affordable’ housing in the borough.

The council’s consulting on new rules on the information firms must provide when they apply for planning permission. If big developments have less than 35% “affordable” housing, then homebuilders must submit a viability assessment that outlines why they can’t afford to do it. Greenwich’s plan would see this assessment made public, along with other documents.

It’s a striking U-turn from the council’s attitude over the Peninsula Quays development (pictured above). Greenwich fought all the way to a tribunal to stop having to reveal Knight Dragon’s reasons why it slashed “affordable” housing to 0% in a development including a private school, “high-end private residential” units and a four/five star hotel.

The documents have been released and are currently being studied – and it’s worth noting that Knight Dragon, which recently pushed its Peninsula plans with an “urban village fete“, hasn’t included any “affordable” housing details in its latest masterplan for the area.

Viability assessments and the Peninsula Quays case featured on the BBC’s Sunday Politics London a few weeks back – thanks to Alex Ingram for the recording.

Anything to open up the planning process has to be applauded, and while it’s a shame it took a court case to get here, it may be that Greenwich are actually pioneers here.

Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe said: “This is about transparency for local people. At the moment our hands are tied on affordable housing levels if the viability study shows a development won’t work financially with the levels of affordable housing we want.

“This will now allow the whole process to be far more transparent – making the viability studies publicly available as part of the planning documents means the royal borough and residents alike can see precisely why a developer might claim they cannot meet our affordable housing targets.

“We believe we’re the first local authority in the country to be doing this – looking at policy which insists on these studies being in the public domain. We now want to hear what people think about this policy so please do give us your views.”

Former Conservative leader Spencer Drury has cast doubt on whether the transparency will make any difference, tweeting that “council attitude is key”.

Indeed, despite a snippy response from Thorpe, one argument put forward by the council when it was fighting the release of the Peninsula Quays documents is that few people would understand them.

But with residents’ groups growing over recent years and working together on scrutinising these issues – at least in Greenwich and Charlton – they may have an increased capacity to hold developers, planners and councillors to account. (The big omission is Woolwich, where despite much social media chatter, there is no formal residents’ group to take on these kinds of issues.)

To find out more on the consultation, visit the www.royalgreenwich.gov.uk/haveyoursay and send a response by 22 June.

Fix the 53: Petition demands bus runs to Whitehall once again

A 53 to Lambeth North
Back in January, this website noted the sudden cut to bus route 53 caused by roadworks by Westminster Bridge. The service stopped running the full length of its route to Whitehall, depriving many local workers, from cleaners to civil servants, of their usual route to central London.

The diggers have moved away from Bridge Street, but initial dates for the restoration of service in March and then April have been missed. Transport for London blames new works at the Elephant & Castle for continuing to stop the service at Lambeth North. However, no other bus through the Elephant is suffering such a severe cut in service.

Local politicians have been strangely silent on the matter – at least in public – although I do know Woolwich Common’s Labour councillor David Gardner has raised the issue with Transport for London, citing the number of low-paid workers who use the bus.

Now the Charlton Society (declaration of interest: I’m on its committee) has launched a petition to get the route back to is full strength once again. To sign it, visit Change.org.

Air pollution threat from new Greenwich cruise liner terminal

The new proposals for a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf

The new proposals for a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf

It’s been four years since Greenwich Council approved plans for a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf in east Greenwich – it got the green light at the same planning meeting as the cable car. In fact, it was given unanimous approval.

Planning documents said: “It is the applicant’s intention to deliver the cruise liner terminal and pier in time for 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games bringing a major piece of new infrastructure to London,” adding that an independent study had found this was “realistic and achievable”. This was loyally written up in council weekly Greenwich Time – it was “anticipated” it’d be open by the Olympics.

By April 2011, nothing had happened on site apart from the vandalism of historic Enderby House. In June 2011, Greenwich Time declared the terminal would be open “in 2012″, and mega-liner The World would be docking there in 2013.

It never happened. Last year, Barratt Homes moved in on part of the site and hid Enderby House away.

Now the cruise liner terminal is back – hey, maybe in time to watch the 2020 Olympics on television. And surprise, surprise, the plans have grown.

Here’s the East Greenwich Residents Association:

The developers propose building two towers near the riverside, Blocks Y and Z. Block Y will be 23 storeys high and will have 113 flats. Block Z will be 31 storeys high and will be home to 150 dwellings.

These two blocks will have no affordable housing in them – the idea is that they will generate the income required for the new terminal.

There is a further block planned for the rear of the site, Block A. It’s proposed this will have 9 storeys at one end and 26 at the other, this is where the affordable housing will be.

The developers already had planning permission to build 93 apartments here. Now they are proposing to build a further 121 in this block.

The three blocks combined represent an increase of 384 apartments from the original plans.

Under this proposal the overall affordable housing provision for the site drops to 16% from the 20% promised by Barratt London when it unveiled its plans back in July 2013.

More homes, but a smaller proportion of “affordable” ones – a depressingly familiar story. Plans for a hotel have now gone.

Then there’s the threat of pollution – not just from the traffic accessing the development, but from the ships themselves.

While emissions from motor vehicles are coming under ever-tighter legal restrictions, this isn’t the case with ships. When a ship is docked, it needs power – and there are no plans to supply this from generators on the shore, as used by similar terminals in New York City and Amsterdam.

I don’t recall this being an issue in 2011 – but it’s been forced up the agenda by a determined resident of the Isle of Dogs, who’ll also be affected by the terminal.

European Union directive 2012/33/EU says:

Air pollution caused by ships at berth is a major concern for many harbour cities when it comes to their efforts to meet the Union’s air quality limit values.

Member States should encourage the use of shore-side electricity, as the electricity for present-day ships is usually provided by auxiliary engines.

But instead, the Enderby Wharf plans see the ships’ diesel engines burning day and night, spewing out emissions that will affect residents on both sides of the Thames. The impact of this is barely acknowledged in a health assessment belatedly submitted by the developer last week.

The East Greenwich Residents’ Association is demanding an environmental assessment. It says:

“A ship like The World may burn up to 2 tonnes of fuel an hour. This is the equivalent of 1200 HGVs with their engines idling. A ship will burn this 24 hours a day.

Cruise vessels do not need to comply with strict emission treatment controls as do trucks, and they may well use dirtier fuel. Given that the proposed terminal will operate in the summer months, when pollution is worst, and that it lies at the heart of a dense residential area dramatically raises concerns.

East Greenwich already suffers from high, often illegal, air pollution levels. Yet another huge source of deadly pollution is not what anyone wants on their doorstep.”

EGRA says permission should not be given until the UK government responds submits its plans for complying with EU air pollution laws by the end of the year – or until the developer comes up with an acceptable plan to generate its electricity on shore.

There’s only one day left to comment on the plan yourself – yes, residents have had only three weeks to go through 130+ documents and come up with a response. Visit Greenwich Council’s planning database and enter 15/0973/F for more.

PS. If you’re still in the mood for responding to planning applications that close tomorrow, 15/0457/F is a plan to build housing on the beer garden at the Vanburgh pub in east Greenwich – something that’s definitely worth objecting to.

Election aftermath: What next for politics in Greenwich?

A selection of the leaflets to drop through the door at 853 Towers during the campaign.

A selection of the leaflets to drop through the door at 853 Towers during the campaign.

As the dust settles after the general election, Matt Hartley has landed his prize for boosting the Tory vote in Greenwich & Woolwich – he’s been named the new Conservative leader on Greenwich Council.

The 29-year-old succeeds Spencer Drury, whose dry barbs at the council’s Labour leadership have become a feature of life at Woolwich Town Hall. Drury remains a councillor and will no doubt be looking to shore up the Tories’ position in his home ward of Eltham North, where the party’s vote was shredded by a Ukip surge last year, handing two seats to Labour.

Being Tory leader in a London Labour borough when Iain Duncan Smith has just been reappointed social security secretary isn’t the easiest of jobs, but it’s a fair old progression from just missing out in a council election in Warwick in 2007.

Hartley’s comments suggest he’ll continue with Drury’s task of holding the council to account rather than simply making party political jabs.

“With the threat of a Lewisham-style one party state always hanging over us, being Leader of the Opposition in Greenwich means more than leading the Conservative council group – but rather giving all residents with a differing view the voice and the say that they are so often denied by this Labour council. That’s exactly what I plan to do.”

It’s worth noting one skill that Hartley can use to help the Tories punch above their weight – his day job is in communications for a personal finance charity, giving him an ability to spot stories that perhaps the local party has missed in the past.

Expect more campaigns along the lines of Sort It, Southeastern – I wonder if he’ll risk looking a big meanie and start a public drive against the costly tall ships festival?

Fair and balanced: Greenwich Time celebrates Labour's success

Fair and balanced: Greenwich Time celebrates Labour’s success

Labour’s big Ukip question

Labour’s satisfaction at seeing Matt Pennycook elected alongside Clive Efford and Teresa Pearce will have been tempered by the party’s failures nationally. It’ll be interesting to see where the battle over Greenwich Time goes now Greg Clark has replaced Eric Pickles as communities secretary. This week’s Greenwich Time might as well carry the headline “Up yours, Pickles”.

Humility in victory has never been the local party’s strong point – Clive Efford’s response to success was to criticise Conservative Spencer Drury for campaigning on the state of the borough’s war memorials. But there’s pause for thought if you look into the polling figures.

The strong votes for Ukip (8% in Greenwich & Woolwich, 15% in Eltham) should ring alarm bells – with the Tory votes up in both seats, it looks as if the hard right party has started to eat into the potential Labour vote.

Just as in the rest of England, how Labour communicates with white voters who feel left behind will be a question that needs addressing sooner rather than later. Engaging with campaigns such as the one for a memorial to Lee Rigby rather than simply ignoring them is key, I suspect.

(A few miles down the A2, it’s startling to discover from Alex Grant that Dartford, which tends to swing with the incoming government, was abandoned by the national party, which threw resources at ousting Lib Dems – potential coalition partners – instead. Madness.)

The Greenwich West ward by-election provides the strongest indication to the local party’s future – former Kirklees council leader Mehboob Khan topped the poll, and is strongly tipped as a future leader in Greenwich, too. Smart enough to steal the Greens’ clothes on the Divest Greenwich campaign, he was also generous enough to publicly commiserate with losing candidates – like I said, humilty’s rare in these parts. One to watch.

Abbey Akinoshun's deleted tweet and James Parker's election doubts

Abbey Akinoshun’s deleted tweet and James Parker’s election doubts

Green gaffes, but did anyone notice?

The Greens can feel pleased with themselves after getting well over double their 2010 vote in Greenwich & Woolwich. Could their candidates have done better? It’s hard to say, but they certainly were weak links in a strong local party operation. I dealt with Greenwich & Woolwich’s Abbey Akinoshun’s no-shows at hustings, but his worst moment was tweeting a photo of himself carrying a “vote Green” slogan next to an appeal for the victims of the Nepal earthquake. It was quickly deleted. While some Labour councillors’ messages about Nepal certainly had the whiff of opportunism, this was just crassly stupid.

Worse was to come on polling day itself, when Eltham candidate James Parker, a magician from Folkestone, told the Guardian voters should pick Labour instead – a warning sign that perhaps could have been picked up after a tweet a couple of days beforehand saying he was suffering from a “crisis of conscience”. (The party says he was misquoted.)

Warning bells rang for others much earlier – I met Parker in the bar of Mycenae House, Blackheath after he was selected in January – the No to Silvertown Tunnel AGM coincided with a Green meeting upstairs.

I mentioned how pleased we were at our turnout, but he became very dismissive and suggested we should be addressing a meeting of thousands and the campaign should be linked to corporate greed, etc, etc. He later seemed to understand, but things got more awkward later when he was involved in an angry confrontation with former Green party member Trevor Allman.

But these incidents were only seen by a handful of obsessives who know the party too well, like me. Most people would have entered the polling booth blissfully unaware. Hopefully the recent surge in local Green membership will mean the Greenwich party will be able to grow and nurture its own candidates for future polls. Getting more actively involved in local grassroots campaigns will serve the party well as it looks to next year’s mayoral poll and beyond.

Is the worst over for the Lib Dems?

As for the Lib Dems, the national party didn’t even bother supplying the Greenwich & Woolwich candidate with a freepost leaflet to send out. That said, though, if you compare their result in the constituency (5.6%) with last year’s average council election score (6%), it’s arguable that they’ve bottomed out already, although whether they’ve the capability, capacity or desire to bounce back is another question. A period of national soul-searching will surely come first.

So, that’s the 2015 election done with. We’re next at the polls on 5 May 2016 to decide on Boris Johnson’s successor as mayor and London’s assembly members. I suspect it’ll be a tough year ahead…