Could a car-free London start in Charlton?
Did you know yesterday (Tuesday) was World Car Free Day? Bet you didn’t. The idiot over the road whose car alarm has just gone off certainly didn’t. If you live in or near Greenwich, though, you’ll have probably noticed one offshoot from it, Greenwich Car Free Day:
Every year, Greenwich celebrates a Car Free Day, where residents leave their cars at home and enjoy a day of fun activities and entertainment. (more)
Except it doesn’t seem to be happening this year, and what really happened was that cars were simply diverted away from a couple of streets in the centre of SE10 for a few hours on a Sunday. Still, it was a good thing for Greenwich Council to do, and it’s disappointing to see it’s apparently been canned this year – I imagine Run to the Beat (which necessitates another closure) and seemingly endless and unpredictable roadworks have seen to that.
But now the car-free movement has inspired a new group – London Carfree. I went up to Islington last week to hear more. It wants to wants to create London’s first car-free community, partly inspired by a new district of Freiburg, southern Germany, called Vauban.
Cars aren’t actually banned from Vauban, it’s stellplatzfrei – “free from parking spaces”. If you drive, you have to go at walking pace, and you can only stop to pick up or drop off, parking is officially banned. If you do own a car, you’re obliged to use a parking space which costs €17,500 to rent – thought to be the subsidy that car owners get from their use of public roads. Car club vehicles are in plentiful supply, though.
The result, Vauban’s backers say, is a more pleasant place to live, where children can play in the streets and people take up cycling as a means to get around. Other forms of car-free community are possible – some ban cars altogether, others bar through journeys.
There was an interesting discussion afterwards – one gentleman voiced fears about losing the “passive surveillance” supposedly provided by motorists, another asked how people without cars did their weekly shop. You can probably imagine the reponse the second question got.
But how could this work in London? Developers have always wrestled with cars here – from the great motorway schemes of the 1960s (of which the Blackwall Tunnel approach is a result) to the disastrous seperation of cars from people in Thamesmead’s earlier phases. The 1980s pedestrianisation of Woolwich town centre made it a scary place to be at night, more recent developments such as Greenwich Shopping Park just made congestion worse. Other schemes have just paid lip-service to the ideal – the Greenwich Millennium Village is touted as being “low-car”, but why has it got a great big traffic jam through its centre each morning?
Carfree London’s response to that is to develop homes with the huge number of Londoners who do not own a car in mind – at least 1.5 million, and a majority of residents in most inner London boroughs. (At least 40% of Greenwich and Lewisham residents do not own a vehicle.) So where could such a community be? I thought locally – most of the Greenwich Peninsula is pretty much answered for now, as are spots in Woolwich, Lewisham and Deptford, and the Kidbrooke regeneration (which could have been an ideal site) is now under way. And, to be frank, with the contempt London’s politicians have for it, a carfree Thamesmead sounds like a punishment than an opportunity.
Then I realised a solution could be on my doorstep (almost literally), in an area that’s clogged with traffic. Let me introduce you to what’s technically called Land To The Rear Of 40 Victoria Way, otherwise known as “the old Thorn Lighting plant” – which is actually right at the back of the site. It’s a long, long story, and as far as I know it’s not merited any local coverage before.
These days based in Borehamwood and Spennymoor, County Durham, Thorn was (and still is) one of the country’s leading specialist lamp manufacturers, and maintained its London operation at what was the Victoria Trading Estate from 1961, advertising its Atlas and Mazda brands on the side facing the Blackwall Tunnel approach. But the Charlton branch was wound up in the mid-1980s, and the site never found a permanent occupier in the years after – its side entrance on Dupree Road bricked up, the back gates on Fairthorn Road left rusting to this day.
The front of the old trading estate, on Victoria Way, remains in use – it’s currently used by Squirrel Storage, while another occupier, Kerry Logistics, recently moved to Dartford. Some of the land has been used as a car park when Charlton Athletic play at The Valley, 10 minutes’ walk away. The Squirrel site is the last bit of “industry” left on Victoria Way, the lower stretches of which used to be dominated by the Johnson and Phillips/ Delta cable works.
History lesson over. In 2005, Galliard Homes applied to build homes and offices on the Thorn site, outraging neighbours in Dupree Road, Gurdon Road and Fairthorn Road, who understandably didn’t want a huge development looming over their neat terraces. Another bone of contention was Galliard’s plan to use tiny Fairthorn Road as an access point for the development – not the brightest of ideas when the road’s been a sleepy backwater since the day it was built (traffic used to enter Thorn via Victoria Way). Greenwich Council refused planning permission, after advice from then-mayor Ken Livingstone, and finally, so did the government (291KB PDF) after a planning inspector was brought in on appeal.
In 2007, Galliard came back with a modified scheme. They’ve already pre-sold properties under the name “The Constellation”, without actually obtaining permission to do anything – apparently early publicity for the proposal didn’t actually mention the word “Charlton”, with its website currently implying the site is on the Greenwich Peninsula. And that’s where the trail goes cold. Two years on, the application has not been progressed any further.
A whole swathe of local addresses, in Blackheath, Charlton and Greenwich, are listed as being involved in a consultation in October 2008. My address is on there, and I hadn’t heard anything, although Greenwich Council’s planning department says I should have done. I certainly hadn’t seen any notices on lamp posts, the usual sign something’s happening. It’s not the first time I’ve not heard anything about a big planning application on my doorstep, and I don’t think it’ll be the last. (While this is probably a Royal Mail issue, it does highlight once again how poor communication is between the council and the people who pay for it.)
Anyhow, here’s what’s proposed, according to Greenwich planning:
Demolition of existing warehouse building (9,625 sq.m.) and the erection of a part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6 storey building comprising 209 flats (99 x 1-beds; 63 x 2-beds; 44 x 3-beds and 3 x 4-beds), three live/work units (299.3 sq.m.) together with offices (469.1 sq.m.) and associated basement car-parking for 169 vehicles and the provision of external landscaping.
That’s parking for 169 vehicles, all meant to use Fairthorn Road. Which, I repeat, is tiny. Because the Thorn site will be separated from the Victoria Way side of the old trading estate, there’ll be no access there. A ramp would be built to link Fairthorn Road with the new development, risking the character of this quiet corner of Charlton. All in all it’s a very closed-off corner of the world, surrounded by an industrial estate, two railway lines, the Blackwall Tunnel approach and the backs of houses, with only one way in or out. On its own, it’s hard to see the Thorn site looking like a desirable place to live.
The present economic climate means it may be a while before we see movement on this land. It’s likely, however, that sooner or later, this old industrial land will fall to redevelopment. So perhaps we should be a little more proactive with this? Can’t this site become London’s first car-free community? If the whole Victoria Trading Estate becomes available – and that would involve moving Squirrel Storage to somewhere suitable – this could become a serious option.
The full site is fantastically located for public transport – midway between Charlton and Westcombe Park rail stations and with a whole heap of bus services nearby. Opening up the whole site for redevelopment also means Victoria Way can also be used for access, taking pressure off Fairthorn Road. It’d double the number of homes that could be built – but would also mean the site would be big enough for a proper community where people took precedence over cars, giving them – and their neighbours – a more peaceful lifestyle.
What do you think? Clearly it’s only an initial thought, and one that’s partly borne out of bafflement with what’s going on at the old Thorn site. If you know any more about the comings and goings there, I’d be grateful to hear it. One day, though, that land is likely to see homes built on it – and it’s time we seriously thought about the kind of thing we want to see there, and how we’re going to achieve it, instead of leaving it to developers with their eyes on making a quick killing.
If you want further details of Galliard Homes’ proposals for the Thorn site in Charlton, use use the Greenwich planning department’s search page and look for reference 07/1725/F.