Archive for May 2010
On the day when the new chancellor stood up in front of the press in Whitehall and warned us all we’re going to have to tighten our belts, the man who wants to be his boss stood up in front of some other press at a bus garage and showed off what he’s spending great wads of Londoners’ money on.
So, probably not coming to a south-east London street near you, it’s….
What do you reckon? It’s a little… odd. It’s a little bit difficult to picture on the street, but I could grow to like it. Boris Johnson’s desire to recreate the Routemaster has been one of the most controversial acts of his mayoralty. I’m not as down on it as others are, but let’s be clear about this – it’s a vanity project. Ken Livingstone’s most enduring legacy may be the skyscrapers starting to pierce the views in unusual parts of London, Boris’s may be a bus. (It’d better not be that ugly heap of crap he wants to build at the Olympic Stadium, which is now quite nicely viewable from my street.) But it’s the whys and wherefores that mark this project out as just a little odd.
Let’s get one thing out of the way – this isn’t a bendy bus versus Routemaster issue. London was doing quite nicely with both. I reckon bendies would have been more popular if they had conductors. Boris’s desire to free the twisty streets of Stoke Newington from 73s snaking around tight corners isn’t unreasonable, but claiming they are more dangerous than other buses is; and his bendy-phobia means other services where bendies would really work well (the 472 from North Greenwich to Thamesmead, for example) are now denied the chance of real improvement.
For a start – it’s a bit unusual for a Conservative mayor to be commissioning his own buses, isn’t it? Isn’t that the kind of thing that’s best left to the free market? Of course, London Transport used to commission its own buses all the time, the Routemaster being among the last to be made specially for the capital. Indeed, it was the Conservatives who broke up and sold LT’s bus division in the 90s, making it harder to commission these things centrally anyway (although TfL does specify which bus is used on which route). Does London even need its own buses? And is there a chance of the taxpayer even making a bit of money back on this flutter on designing a bus? If Ken Livingstone had come up with this idea, he’d have been pasted for it. But because it’s Boris, he’s getting away with it.
Secondly – that design. This ain’t no Routemaster – it’s a bus with three doors. It has more in common with a bendy bus than its illustrious predecessor. For me, the Routemaster had two unique features – the open platform at the back, and the upstairs back seat from where you had the best view from the top deck. This bus has neither – the door at the back is going to be left closed at night, and there’s no windows upstairs at the rear. That spot on the Borismaster could get very unpleasant, very quickly. One of the design conceits is having windows next to the stairs, which isn’t going to be appreciated by vertigo sufferers. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s hard to see why Boris is determined to throw cash at it instead of holding bus fares down and improving services.
Who’ll get to use it? Only a handful are likely to be in use by 2012, and yet London’s busiest routes need 50 or more buses on the road at any one time. The suburban voters who backed Boris for not being a “zone 1 mayor” are likely to only ever see this bus on TV – Routemasters were withdrawn from most London routes during the 1980s, and it’s hard to see this suddenly appearing on the streets of Bexleyheath. If a new mayor is elected in 2012, what happens to the scheme then? The increased cost of staffing this bus means it’s likely only to appear on central London services only.
Maybe that’s the point of it – less about something that’s practical and useful for Londoners, more about something to sell the city – and its mayor – around the world. Nothing wrong with that, but now we’re all being lectured on the need to save money, now seems like an odd time to throw money at designing buses when the network still needs improvement and fares are going up.
(More: Boris Watch, Tory Troll, Ross Lydall, Dave Hill.)
This one’s a bit close to home – Hardys Free House on Trafalgar Road has been my regular drinking den for eight or nine years now. Until fairly recently, it was where you’d go to find me if you wanted to see me, and you’d have a pretty good chance of catching me in there. Despite its slightly forbidding exterior, it was quite simply one of the best pubs in London, serving up fantastic Guinness and good company.
Couples met there and friendships were formed behind those stained glass windows. It was run by the same couple for nearly a quarter of a century, and when I went to Ireland earlier this year, I made a special trip west to Sligo to catch up with their old bar manager, who also had a share in the pub.
But Hardys changed hands a few years ago and some of its sheen has gone as it’s been passed from manager to manager – that loss of continuity has taken its toll on the place, and the Guinness. For live music the Pelton Arms has become a better bet. But you’ll find me in Hardys at least once each week, since it’s where a great big bunch of my mates drink, and the chance of Thursday quiz night glory is often too great to pass up.
I found out about the owners’ plans to build a hotel on it about two years ago. Not by talking to the owners, but by noticing a drawing outside an architects’ practice in Greenwich Market. “What the…?” A fairly modest proposal was thrown out by Greenwich Council, and I assumed the plans had died. Relations between Hardys and its neighbours are strained – the next door block of flats had a slightly convoluted birth (they sit on the site of a long-closed cinema which became a frozen food store, which duly collapsed during redevelopment). The neighbours object to the pub noise; the pub objects to the neighbours’ windows, contending that they shouldn’t be overlooking its tiny beer garden in the first place.
But the hotel plans are back – if you’re lucky enough to get a copy of the Mercury delivered to you, you’ll have read about the plans for to plonk eight storeys of hotel on top of the two-storey pub. According to the planning application, Greenwich Council actually encouraged them to come up with this lump.
Owners London Taverns Ltd claim they were advised of an “urgent need for [a] high quality hotel… high ‘iconic’ landmark building encouraged, no need to keep to scale of surrounding buildings”. Which I imagine will come as a shock to most locals – in all the conversations I’ve had in Hardys, nobody’s ever said that Trafalgar Road needs a 10-storey high lump which looks vaguely like a Nintendo Wii. Once again, it’s an example of the council seemingly operating in a different universe to most other people.
Increased beer taxes and the smoking ban mean pubs have to work harder to get a crowd in now – I don’t think I’m going to be barred for saying that Hardys’ attempts at broadening its base of punters have stuttered a bit. But I fear for the future of the pub if this is what’s up their sleeve. One tale I’ve heard is that Sunderland and Republic of Ireland midfielder Andy Reid wanted to buy the pub after adopting it as his local when he played for Charlton Athletic – at the time, he was involved in a music bar in Nottingham. I can’t help wishing he’d offered just that little bit more money now…
So far 17 people have objected to the planning application, and Peninsula councillor Mary Mills wants to know what people think of the scheme.
Something this blog missed out on while I was away was the furore over the closure of the Thames Path in Greenwich between Ballast Quay and the Millennium Dome. As the hoardings came down on the first stage of the Lovell’s Wharf development, many were horrified to find the old riverside walk had been bricked off and destroyed, with a new path routed into the sales office for the Lovells Wharf development. There were no signs to help walkers find their way around, although these have since been installed.
The row even became a bit of an election issue, with a wannabe councillor making some hay with it (and blogging about it here) and a current councillor having to scurry around to find out what the blazes was going on. Somehow, to me it summed up everything that’d gone wrong with Greenwich Council; its reluctance to engage properly with local people, the perception that it was on the side of developers rather than residents, and plain old-fashioned incompetence – even some temporary signs would have been better than leaving walkers and tourists lost.
The farrago brought some sharp exchanges at a hustings I took part in, and it certainly looked as if Greenwich Council had been found guilty of taking one of Greenwich’s most precious rescources for granted. I’m sure the council must be aware of the strength of feeling over the path, so how is it seeking to make amends in the first issue of propaganda rag Greenwich Time since the election? With little time to wheel a freshly-re-elected councillor upto the riverside, how about a story on how the council is committed to restoring the path as soon as possible? Perhaps something on the plans for the riverside? Perhaps some useful information for residents about what’s going on?
Just a puff piece for the development, informing us that “occupants will have easy access to Greenwich town centre, Canary Wharf and the City” – er, just like everywhere else in SE10, then. It’s the sort of nonsense you’d expect in one of those glossy lifestyle-porn monthlies that pop through selected doors in the area, not from a publication funded out of our taxes.
The other thing is a bit odd – it claims the development “opens up access to a section of the Thames pathway which has been closed to the public for years”. It doesn’t – the old path has bricked off and planted over, and a new path runs straight into the developers’ sales office. Charming.
Watching people walk up the stump of the old path, only to gaze mournfully about what’s been denied to them, is a new pastime. That section of the Thames pathway will be closed until 2012, so what I imagine Greenwich Time perhaps was trying to say is “when the development eventually fully opens, it will restore a section of the Thames pathway which will by then have been closed for five years so the development could be built”. Not quite so impressive. The image shown is a computer-generated one, so the piece has been written without even bothering to visit the site, where the first homes are nearly ready for occupation.
Finally, a patsy quote from a “local planning watchdog” that I don’t think I’ve ever heard of, reassuring us that it’ll be alright in the end. Because Greenwich Time said so, eh?
So, the message from the council on the Thames Path closure? Tough. Take a look at these lovely flats instead, wouldn’t you like to buy one? Paying for a council to promote itself is one thing, paying for a council to brown-nose and promote private developments is another thing entirely, and it certainly has nothing to do with “campaigning for an even greater Greenwich”.
The prospect of four more years of Greenwich Time is a depressing one – another story featured in this week’s soaraway issue is that the council’s street sweeping services are performing better than ever, which any walk around Charlton will confirm is complete cobblers. Of course, the power now lies with the newly-(re-)elected Labour councillors whose reputations are being dragged down by this patronising nonsense. Will they have the guts to change things? We’ll just have to wait and see.
I grumbled earlier about dodgy graphs used by Greenwich Labour in their local election campaign – massively downplaying the Liberal Democrat and Green votes to whip up the anti-Conservative vote. When I fumed about this, a Labour figure whispered in my ear: “Have you seen the Blackheath Westcombe Liberal Democrat leaflet?” I hadn’t, I said, and anyway, it wouldn’t suddenly make the crap Labour had put out right.
I’ve just come across the Liberal Democrat leaflet, put out on behalf of Blackheath Westcombe candidates Alexa Hills, Michael Smart and Chris Smith. And actually, it really does beggar belief:
That graph actually bears no relation to any kind of election result in Blackheath Westcombe ward. Instead, it tots up the figures for Blackheath Westcombe (Greenwich borough – 2 Tory and 1 Labour councillor), Blackheath (Lewisham borough – 3 Lib Dems, also includes parts of SE10 and SE13) and Middle Park & Sutcliffe (Greenwich borough, 2 Lib Dems and 1 Labour, only covers a small part of SE3) to come up with a figure which makes the Liberal Democrats look strong in an area where they are actually very weak. To be fair, the leaflet does contain some small print to explain this (more than Labour did with their made-up graphs) but this is just rubbish – three wards, two boroughs, and some very different issues across the area.
In the end, though, the great London-wide surge to Labour saw the two Lib Dems knocked out in Greenwich’s Middle Park & Sutcliffe ward, and one of the Lib Dems losing in Lewisham’s Blackheath ward. The leaflet didn’t seem to work well in Blackheath Westcombe either, which remains split between Labour and Conservative. It might have been easier if they told the truth after all.
These leaflets are quite common from the Lib Dems, although the party’s weakness in this borough means they’re rarely seen in Greenwich. Those who are hoping the Lib Dems’ new-found influence on whatever government we’ll end up with will lead us into an era of squeaky-clean politics may just be disappointed.
As it turned out, my political pipedream was extinguished like the first canary down a particularly noxious mine. With it becoming clear at 8am that the Labour Party had tightened its hold on Greenwich, as the day and the following evening wore on, it emerged that Labour had also secured majorities on Lewisham and Southwark councils, and retained control in Lambeth. The great south London quartet, reunited under Labour once again.
All of this, of course, in sharp contrast to the national picture, with Gordon Brown delaying putting that call to the removal men as long as he possibly can. Well, actually, not that sharp a contrast – the clue came a few hundreds yard up the road from here, where Eltham constituency starts (how the hell did parts of Charlton become “Eltham”?). Labour’s Clive Efford fought off the challenge from David Gold, a Tory A-lister who looked like he’d just walked in off the telly, thanks to his reputation as a committed local MP, and a determined fight from local Labour activists which also saw the party take all three council seats in Kidbrooke with Hornfair. It was seats like Eltham which David Cameron needed to win to secure an outright majority, and it was seats like Eltham which mean he’s now having to do deals with the Liberal Democrats.
Gold blamed scaremongering from Labour, but he wasn’t above peddling his own kind of filth. If David Gold thinks this kind of crap is worthy of an election campaign in an area notorious for racial tension, then I hope he won’t ever be seen in Eltham again:
Across London, the fear of a blue planet was evident. I was sorry to see the five out of six Greens ousted in Lewisham – particularly Sue Luxton and Ute Michel in Ladywell, whose blog and work there inspired me to go on my own little journey to see if I could serve my own neighbours. Their Labour successors have a lot to live up to. It was an awful night for local Lib Dems too, who were wiped out in Greenwich and saw their dreams of taking over Lewisham council shattered. Last Monday, Nick Clegg addressed a healthy crowd on Blackheath and local Liberal Democrats were buzzing with excitement. That must feel like seven years ago now, never mind seven days ago, and I’m sorry for Max Calo, who I chatted with on the heath last week and I’m sure would have been an excellent councillor for Lewisham Central.
In all, Labour now controls 17 London boroughs – up from eight after 2006′s elections. The most brutal power surge was in Newham, where Labour won all 60 seats on the council. Bet their meetings must be lively. How much was down to the less-successful than anticipated Cameron campaign, how much was down to two years of a shambolic mayoral administration, and how much was down to Labour campaigning is something many will be chewing over.
The blue menace was used against our Green campaign in Peninsula ward, Labour knocked up some made-up graph which implied that a vote for any other party would let the Tories in. This was, let’s be honest here, a load of crap – the last Tory councillors in the east Greenwich/Charlton area were elected in 1968; the last Tory MP for Greenwich was returned to office in 1935.
Actually, Labour’s publicity in the council election was pretty shameless in its cynicism. The north end of Victoria Way, in Peninsula ward, was treated to this endorsement of the current council from a resident of a street in Charlton:
Indeed, Andrew Blundy knows a lot about Greenwich Labour’s achievements – he’s a senior figure in the party.
The southern end of Victoria Way, in Charlton ward, was lucky enough to get this view on Labour’s achievements in SE7:
A strange sense of deja vu here, don’t you think? Longstanding residents may even find Mr Marsh’s name rings a bell too – a Quentin Marsh was leader of Greenwich Council in 1990. How many people called Quentin Marsh can there be in one borough, eh? Serving councillors posed as “residents” in cheesy photos elsewhere. I understand some Greenwich Labour figures were upset when Adam Bienkov took them to task for their dodgy literature last year – not upset enough, however, to stop doing it.
One thing I did notice was that both Peninsula and Blackheath Westcombe wards received Labour literature with both dodgy graphs and maps detailing Labour “achievements” in the area. Charlton ward voters had neither a graph, nor a map of any achievements – because the party has achieved nothing there.
None of which, of course, changes the fact that Labour now has a tighter grip on Greenwich borough thanks to their general election windfall. But it illustrates the cynicism with which it treats the people it claims to serve, and the sense of entitlement which permeates the party. Being jeered by the council leader on Friday morning wasn’t exactly proof of a Labour group which is comfortable with the idea of being challenged. This doesn’t apply to them all, of course – standing against the hard-working and genuinely popular Mary Mills was an education for me, and made me feel a little like Mr Mean. But seeing the cynicism with which it approached the campaign, and hearing later of some of the worries the party had, made me realise it was worth the effort. I know there are people in Greenwich Labour who are uncomfortable with the approach it takes. Labour’s increased majority on the council now gives these decent people a bigger responsibility to speak up, and make their party act in a less oafish fashion.
There’s lots of people in Greenwich – and Lewisham, too – who will be completely baffled by the election result. On first sight, Greenwich council is denied new ideas and different thinking – the loss of Liberal Democrat councillors will be a blow – and looks set to continue in its directionless “shut up and be grateful” manner. But the election gives us a chance to scrutinise our elected representatives afresh. There’s a whole four years now for us to test their efforts in looking after our neighbourhoods, and to try to ensure they’re open about what they’re doing. And hopefully, contribute something to our local areas.
So, how about dropping your new councillors a line? Congratulate them on getting in, and ask them just what they’re going to do to improve your area. Once the dust has settled, I’m going to drop my Labour trio a line and ask what their plans are for the next year or so to make sure my neighbourhood is kept clean and safe. Because it’s anything but that at the moment. If we all do the same, perhaps some attention might be forced away from grand projects and onto the smaller things that Greenwich Council neglects.
After all, we’re all meant to be on the same side in wanting the best for our area, aren’t we?
After studying the protocols laid down in 1974, I can confirm that the answers to your questions are a) the Queen and b) Jammie Dodgers. However, further talks on b) may be required, because they are no longer on sale at 2 for 11p at Fine Fare. More as it happens.