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news, views and issues around Greenwich, Charlton, Blackheath and Woolwich, south-east London – what you won't read in Greenwich Time

Archive for October 2011

Foot tunnels latest: The mystery of the ‘hidden structures’

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Before Greenwich councillors all trooped off to knock back the wine on Wednesday night, the tricky subject of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels came up.

Naturally, it wasn’t an elected politician who brought it up – but Anthony Austin of Greenwich Cyclists. He asked just what the hell is going on with a project that should have been finished this spring, but now looks like it’s running a year behind schedule, with one tunnel liftless and shut at night, and the other completely closed.

“Who at Greenwich Council is managing the refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, and what was the original stated schedule of works and by how much has it been delayed?,” he asked in a written question.

Cabinet member for regeneration, enterprise and skills Denise Hyland responded:

“Firstly, I would like to apologise for the continued inconvenience to the public as a result of the partial closure of the tunnels and the shutdown of the lift service.

“The works to the foot tunnels are being carried out by contractors and consultants, whp also manage the works on a day-to-day basis, engaged by the Director of Regeneration, Enterprise and Skills. The original programme for the works as known at the time for these century-old structures was estimated to be complete in the spring of 2011. Additional works and site complexities will mean the tunnels are unlikely to open fully before early 2012.

“The funding for the project has come from Government and no council funds are involved.”

Mr Austin then asked a follow-up question, the response to which you can hear here…

Listening to that response, I’m not sure if Cllr Hyland is really on top of the situation – it sounds like a painful piece of improvisation. At present, Greenwich Foot Tunnel is open daytimes only, with no lift service, and Woolwich Foot Tunnel is completely closed.

“May I thank Mr Austin for his supplementary… and reassure him that we are doing our absolute level best to bring these tunnels back into full operation, with the Greenwich tunnel early in 2012. This has been a heritage project, bringing the 100-year-old tunnels back into full use, and we have had decisions to make where we have had hidden structures have been uncovered and further work has been necessary.

“Private contractors manage the work on a day-to-day basis… and we have put pressure on our contractors and worked with them in a positive partnership to bring a swift resolution to the tunnel [sic].

“Can I say – absolute apology on behalf of the council to pedestrians and cyclists, because although the tunnels are open [sic], they haven’t had the proper lifts functioning in the way that they should. So, er, y’know, complete apologies for that, and we are working hard for a quick resolution.”

There’s no mention of Woolwich Foot Tunnel at all in that statement, which gives the impression that Cllr Hyland believes it is still open. And what on earth are these “hidden structures”? Shouldn’t one of the only councils in the country to publish its own weekly newspaper be telling us what’s happening?

It’s also interesting to hear the tunnels now described as a “heritage project”. The Woolwich Foot Tunnel celebrates its centenary next year, the Greenwich tunnel opened in 1902. Yet when Transport for London started refurbishing the Blackwall Tunnel, built in 1897, that wasn’t called a “heritage project”. TfL’s work there is running ahead of schedule, while Greenwich’s work is now a year late.

So we’re still no further ahead with understanding just what the hell is going on in those foot tunnels. With the Greenwich tunnel’s stairwells looking largely untouched – and the Woolwich tunnel’s southern portal boarded up and deserted – what are the odds on the project being finished by the Olympics?

Bluecoat pupils ignored as Greenwich councillors rush for wine

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It was the first full meeting of Greenwich Council in three months. Indeed, it was the first meeting of Greenwich Council since riots tore apart Woolwich town centre some two-and-a-half months ago. A quarter of a million people live in this borough – with such a long gap, you’d think there’d be a lot to discuss.

Not in the London Borough of Greenwich, of course. Why bother talking about what’s happening when there’s backs to be slapped and wine to be drunk over the road? Because that is exactly what happened last night – in front of an audience of schoolchildren. There’s your lesson in democracy, kids.

The News Shopper’s Mark Chandler has painted the scene well. Outside the town hall, Blackheath Bluecoat schoolchildren protested against the planned closure of their school, council staff shouted about threatened job cuts, while campaigners for Greenwich Law Centre joined the noise.

Inside, Bluecoat pupils, staff and parents packed the gallery, along with other campaigners. The photo above, taken before the meeting started, shows the scene. It was a tight squeeze to get in. Usually there’s only a handful of people there, but the big gap in meetings had allowed issues to fester and campaigns to build up.

So, was there fierce debate among the councillors about the big issues? The riot which had caused millions of pounds of damage? The proposal to shut down one of the borough’s best-known schools? The continuing effects of savage cuts on local government budgets?

In the lit-up gallery above, Greenwich councillors are drinking wine and celebrating an old colleague. Down below, Blackheath Bluecoat pupils are protesting against plans to close their school

There was none.

Instead, the meeting was cut short so that the former Conservative opposition leader, Peter King, could be awarded the freedom of the borough at a ceremony at the glitzy new Woolwich Centre over the road.

Wine and sausage rolls were evidently more important than children’s futures here, from the number of times Labour mayor Jim Gillman asked questioners to “be brief” as he aimed to get the meeting done and dusted in under an hour.

Usually at council meetings you get petitions (including the Maryon Wilson Park one and one from 1,400 people objecting to car parking charges on Old Dover Road, Blackheath), public deputations (statements on behalf of campaigns), public questions (submitted in advance, you can then ask a follow-up), then two sets of questions from councillors – one set submitted in advance and replied to in writing, the other asked on the night. But last night a procedural motion was invoked meaning there were no questions from councillors at all, other than those replied to in writing.

So the first time Conservative leader Spencer Drury spoke up, it was to query a motion about moving polling stations. Nothing about closing a school, the riots, or even the parking on Old Dover Road.

Instead, it was down to the public to ask the questions. They did the job well – on the missing report into the Eltham DLR extension that should have been published last year (it’s very complicated, apparently, but it is coming); on the future of Maryon Wilson Park animal centre (likely to become a trust, no word on money); job cuts at the council’s arms-length service contractor GS Plus (ask them, not us); plans for libraries to be run by a trust (under consideration); Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels (early 2012 reopening for Greenwich); the future of secondary schools (the council still wants to build one on Greenwich Peninsula after closing Blackheath Bluecoat), and various issues regarding the Ferrier Estate (where seven people have been taken to court to get them out for redevelopment).

From councillors? Nothing. Apart from some quibbles over finances. And polling stations.

A representative of the Blackheath Bluecoat campaign stood up to give a speech. It was one of the most sensible things heard in that chamber in years. She pointing out that the school had been given three years to improve, but was being shut after two years of improvement, adding that it seemed the council was “sabotaging” the following year’s intake – and the school’s chances of survival – by suddenly announcing closure plans.

“Every pupil who transfers from Blackheath Bluecoat is likely to struggle to integrate,” she continued. “Some have come to Blackheath Bluecoat because they were bullied elsewhere” – and face being sent back to where they’d been bullied. The council should work with the school to help it continue to improve, she said, although the frustration showed: “All Greenwich schools have got a bad name – I don’t know why you’re picking on us.”

“They all have names, personalities, and plans for the future,” she said of the pupils, who sat quietly in the chamber and watched. From outside, the chant of “save our school!” got louder. The gallery applauded her speech when she sat down. But it was all to no avail, as no councillor raised the issue themselves. The young people sat in that chamber wanted someone to represent them last night – they had nobody, with the councillors seemingly inhabiting a different world.

The mayor succeeded in getting the meeting down to an hour. Then the councillors were asked to reconvene in the Greenwich Gallery, the lit-up upstairs floor of the Woolwich Centre, for a special meeting to award the freedom of the borough.

And off the councillors went, Labour and Conservative alike, past the protesting schoolchildren, to drink their wine and eat their sausage rolls, and share witty speeches about that time in the council chamber in 1985. Can you spot yours here?

You might have little sympathy with the Blackheath Bluecoat schoolchildren.

But collectively, the councillors of Greenwich trouser over half a million pounds in allowances to listen to, and represent the people of the borough – and that includes the Bluecoats pupils, staff and parents. Instead, though, under the gaze of schoolchildren, they seemed more concerned with getting things over and done with so they could head over the road and talk about themselves, away from the public gaze.

If the council wants to honour one of its own – fine. But should it be eating into time when they should be debating issues that affect all our lives?

Those kids learned a harsh lesson about democracy in Greenwich tonight – their views, and their futures, took second place to a night on the wine. If Bluecoats was in Brixton, Harlesden, or Tottenham, I suspect it’d be getting a bit more publicity than it is at the moment. Maybe that time will come, as I’d expect a lot more noise from the Bluecoats kids as the weeks pass – but whether any Greenwich councillor will stand up for them, on tonight’s performance, is looking doubtful.

The next council meeting? Only another seven weeks to go. Chin chin!

(Want to find out how much the wine and sausage rolls cost? Read on…)

Written by Darryl

27 October, 2011 at 12:23 pm

What happened to Coomes the bookmakers?

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You know when you go away for a week or two, and upon your return something about your neighbourhood has changed? When I returned from my travels three weeks ago, the change was right in front of me as I struggled out of Charlton station with my bags.

Coomes the bookmakers had gone, replaced with a shiny new Jennings betting shop. It wasn’t just the Charlton Church Lane branch – the Blackheath Standard one had undergone the same transformation, and so has the one at Brockley Cross. Out are the little blue pens and the distant whiff of fags, in come smart staff suits and varnished wood floors. Same old punters, mind.

The slick, shiny new bookies are a culture shock to anyone who ever set foot in a Coomes, a fixture of south-east London’s shopping parades for decades. Not so long ago, if you put a bet on at The Valley, it was a Coomes bet.

Despite the liberalisation of the betting industry some years back, Charlton-based E Coomes Ltd (or E Coomes (South London) Ltd or whichever variant was on the front of your shop) was a defiantly old-school chain. The gambling inside was still obscured by navy blue sketches of jumping horses, racing greyhounds, and soccer action.

No Ray Winstone shouting about in-play betting from home from this firm – it never even had a website. Just shops, staff, and little blue pens. One day, we’ll tell our children we physically had to leave the pub during World Cup football matches to place lose a fiver on England winning 2-0. They’ll never believe us.

Over the years, Coomes’ star faded. While bigger chains moved aggressively into places like Deptford, the little blue shops started to close their doors for the last time. But now the name seems to be vanishing entirely. A little bit of south-east London will soon be history.

After literally minutes of journalistic investigation (a quid on tonight’s Wycombe v Charlton match*), it appears Jennings – which also trades as Joe Jennings and Betterbet – has bought 17 of Coomes’ best-performing shops. What about the others? “They’ll have gone by next year,” said my man with the odds. “Some of the smaller chains will pick those up.” If you know more, or different, please share it below.

There’s genuine and real worries about the unchecked spread of bookmakers at the moment, with brash chains descending on certain areas to fight it out in places where there really isn’t the cash to sustain them.

But it’s a shame to see a neighbourhood bookmaker like Coomes, where the punters never really changed, fade away. While I’m sure those shops witnessed some unhappy scenes over the years, at least your losses were funding a local business, and they wasn’t harassing you to lose even more on poker or some other game. If you want to see how our uncertain society’s changing – pop in at your local bookie.

(*Post-match update: Right score, wrong first goalscorer. Can’t complain, mind. I’ve added a photo of the old Coomes clock which remains at the Blackheath Standard shop – it was a clock, wasn’t it?)

Written by Darryl

25 October, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Up, up and away in Hither Green

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What do you get for the person in your life who has everything? A big replica of a plane, perhaps? This is up for sale in a front garden in Manor Lane, near Hither Green station. It’s yours for just £250. Happy flying.

Written by Darryl

25 October, 2011 at 11:51 am

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Text Fireworks to 70007 to help Blackheath’s big night

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As we all know, Greenwich Council stopped paying its share of the bill for Blackheath fireworks last year, so it could spend the money on a behind closed doors booze-up for the mayor instead.

But Lewisham is carrying on with the fireworks display this year, despite the financial hit, after finding local businesses to sponsor it. It’s also now unveiled a simple way for firework fans on both sides of the boundary, and beyond, to show their support for less than the price of a pint.

If you’re planning to visit Blackheath Fireworks this year, remember the event is still free to attend. However, we’d love it if you could show your support for this hugely popular event by making an online donation (of any amount) to help us continue to make the skies sparkle over Blackheath in future years.

Text: text Fireworks to 70007 – texts will be charged at £3 plus one standard text. Breast Cancer Care will receive 70p for each text sent.

Telephone: call 020 8314 3007 Monday to Thursday 9am-5pm; Friday 10am-5pm.

When Greenwich unveils a number where you can donate to the mayor’s private piss-up, we’ll let you know.

Written by Darryl

25 October, 2011 at 11:29 am

Greenwich’s one-way system grows for Olympic Games

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Greenwich’s one-way system will be expanded next summer to allow thousands of spectators to reach equestrian events during this summer’s Olympics, organisers have revealed.

Cars, lorries, buses and cyclists will have to travel clockwise around Norman Road, Creek Road, College Approach, King William Walk, Nelson Road and Greenwich High Road to get around the town centre during the event, with most of Greenwich Church Street closed to all traffic.

This is the area in which you may need a permit to park during the Olympics and Paralympics - specific details will vary.

Olympic organisers LOCOG say the restriction has to go in place because Greenwich High Road is too narrow to allow traffic and a vastly increased number of pedestrians to flow freely.

But the restriction comes just months after Transport for London objected to a similar system being installed permanently in the town centre, as part of a scheme to pedestrianise Nelson Road and Greenwich Church Street.

“The junction from Greenwich Church Street into Greenwich High Road is only one lane, and we have to get people from the station to the venue, so there is a need to make that closure,” LOCOG’s Jennifer Impett said.

LOCOG insisted that the proposed route, which affects one of the area’s busiest cycling routes, will be safe for those on two wheels. Venue director Jeremy Edwards added: “I’m a cyclist, so we’ll make sure we’ll get it right.”

Visitors to Greenwich Park from the north will be encouraged to use Greenwich station, and walk to Creek Road via Straightsmouth, from where they will walk to the Old Royal Naval College before crossing Romney Road using two footbridges to access Greenwich Park. Maze Hill station will be the access point for people coming from Kent.

Spectators coming from the south will be asked to use Blackheath station, and will be guided via Southvale Road to Tranquil Vale, and across the heath, using a footbridge over the A2. Lewisham Council is planning to put in a “live site” with a big screen next to All Saints Church, while Greenwich Council is looking for a new site for the donkey rides on the heath, as that area will be a main access point to the park.

Other plans include:

  • Bus diversions, although these will not be confirmed until next year.
  • Cutty Sark DLR station will be closed during peak periods, while there will be no access to Greenwich DLR station‘s southbound platform during the morning rush hour. Passengers heading to Lewisham are asked to use Deptford Bridge instead. There will be a 32% increase in the service.
  • 150 marshals will be guiding visitors to Greenwich Park.
  • There will be changes to controlled parking zones in both Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs during both Olympics and Paralympics to stop spectators leaving their cars in local streets, with most running from 0830-1900 every day, even in areas such as Deptford Green which only currently have token restrictions of a couple of hours each day. (In Charlton, the CPZ will run from 0830-2100 to discourage traffic from the North Greenwich Arena.)
  • Some areas which do not currently have parking permits in operation will have a free permit scheme in place for the Olympics – an area from Deptford Church Street to Plumstead Common, and south to Lee High Road is included in a larger London-wide scheme of parking measures.
  • Cuts to Southeastern train services at stations such as Deptford and Westcombe Park have not yet been confirmed, although restrictions will still be in place at Maze Hill.
  • Measures for the North Greenwich Arena (Dome/O2) and Royal Artillery Barracks will be announced at a later date.

The maps also reveal one non-transport development, with LOCOG planning to build a cable across the Thames from Millwall Park on the Isle of Dogs to the General Wolfe statue to allow for TV cameras to film shots swooping across the park. Another cable camera will run west-east from the tennis courts to John Roan School on Maze Hill.

Further details – including more about how the Olympic Route Network (see above for a portion of it on Shooters Hill Road) will work – is available at the Devonport House Hotel in King William Walk today until 7pm, Friday from 9am-6pm and on Saturday from 9am-5pm.

Written by Darryl

20 October, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Public inquiry demanded into Shooters Hill horse centre

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Campaigners want a public inquiry into plans to build an equestrian centre on land at Shooters Hill, after Greenwich Council’s planning board backed the Olympics-linked scheme last week.

Woodlands Farm Trust chair Barry Gray says the scheme will be “a significant overdevelopment of metropolitan open land“, and that the board’s decision was “ill informed, irrational,” and influenced by a report from council officers that contained “a significant number of inaccuracies”.

The council’s planning board split on party lines for the issue, with the five Labour councillors – including leader Chris Roberts – backing the scheme and the two Tories opposing it.

Dr Gray has written to the Department of Communities and Local Government and London mayor Boris Johnson to outline his worries. In it, he says…

“I believe that the decision reached by the Planning Board of the London Borough of Greenwich was ill informed, irrational, and partly based on a report from officers that contained a substantial number of inaccuracies that affected the final decision.

“This has led to the granting of planning permission to an inappropriate development on MOL which has commercial components and is entirely inappropriate. Aspects of the so called ‘evidence’ within the officers report were mere assertions with no base of evidence.

He continues:

“There are serious material inaccuracies within the report relating the very special circumstances, for instance, it is stated that there are no riding facilities within the Borough, but there are riding facilities, and this was brought to members of the planning board attention at the meeting.

“There are riding facilities at New Lodge Riding School in Mottingham and also in Mottingham Farm Riding School. These riding facilities are signposted on Greenwich Council’s own website, and in the case of New Lodge riding school was recently the subject of an extensive article in Greenwich Council’s own publication, Greenwich Time.

“How council officers could have made such a serious mistake in reporting to the Planning Board is beyond comprehension. Therefore a key element put forward by officers as a very special consideration for inappropriate development does not exist.”

He adds that there is also no evidence that the centre is essential for the smooth running of the Olympic Games, and “there is no guarantee that there will be any sporting advantage or cultural advantage to the local population”.

“No evidence on pricing, funding or the degree of community benefit, (if any), is provided,” he says, commenting that a proposed equine therapy centre shows there would be a commercial benefit from the development which would be above any community benefit for building on the site.

Dr Gray, who led the 1990s campaign to stop a motorway running through Oxleas Woods, also criticises the “peculiar aspect” of Greenwich Council effectively applying to itself for the development.

“The permission was determined in favour of development by members of the planning committee who have clearly spoken out in favour of the Olympics, the Equestrian Skills Centre and the so called legacy value of this centre in the past,” he says.

“It is therefore essential, in order to establish public confidence in the process, that a public enquiry be called so that the decision can be tested by examination of the evidence and cross examination.”

My own observations on the issue, for what it’s worth, can be read here.

3:50pm update: LOCOG confirmed this afternoon that it is not planning to use the Shooters Hill equestrian centre as a staging point for next summer’s Olympics – despite having used the site during the test events – and is looking for an alternative site in Greenwich borough.

Written by Darryl

20 October, 2011 at 11:38 am

Second time lucky for Oranjecamping in Greenwich?

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Their last application was comprehensively thrown out by Greenwich Council’s licensing board, but the plan for a big Dutch campsite right next to the Greenwich Millennium Village during the Olympics was launched anyway a couple of days later. Spot the senior Greenwich councillor in the video above, and try to name the local bigmouth whose laugh you can hear at the end.

Now a new licensing application has gone in from Oranjecamping for a site called “Phases 3, 4 & 5, Peartree Way, Greenwich Peninsula,” with the council taking representations until 9 November. This appears to be mostly separate from the rejected licence which involved Greenwich Yacht Club, as well as the other rejected ones for the beach at Delta Wharf and the concert site off John Harrison Way.

This is for land either side of West Parkside, adjacent to the Millennium Village and ecology park, and a slither of land between Peartree Way and Horn Link Way. Here’s a map from the last licence hearing:

It’s worth noting that last patch of land is right next to the enormous aggregates site at Angerstein Wharf, which actually comes alive at night – pass at midnight and you’ll find its floodlights are on, PA system going and ships unloading. It’s also right next to a regular spot for travellers’ caravans – highlighted by local councillor Dick Quibell in the last licensing meeting, who joked that if Greenwich Council hadn’t been able to move them on for 30 years, it was unlikely anyone else could.

The plans are for films from 0800-2300, live music and dance from 1400-2300, alcohol from 1000-0130 with “late night refreshment” to 0200, and recorded music from 0800-0145. All this would take part between 25 July and 13 August only. More details from Greenwich Council’s licensing team.

Separately, a planning application went in last month for the planned beach at Delta Wharf, with a decision expected in December. If that’s granted, it’ll still need music and alcohol licences – the same ones refused last month.

Written by Darryl

20 October, 2011 at 7:00 am

Welcome to Woolwich’s new skateboard paradise

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Woolwich, on a crisp autumnal evening. There’s life in the town square…

…but not the kind of life the council wants. Greenwich has responded to problems apparently caused by skateboarders in the recently-revamped General Gordon Square with that most terrifying of sanctions, a letter to the News Shopper, in which regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland calls it “an inappropriate and unacceptable activity for such a busy place”.

It’s taken over a year for the council – and contractor Volker Highways – to finish doing up General Gordon Square. Builders remain on site, despite a “spring 2011″ finish being promised. But gone are the cat-sized rodents which used to prowl the square, and a fountain much beloved by dossers, as the council staff who used to clear it of their turds each morning will tell you. If skateboarding is “inappropriate and unacceptable”, heaven knows what Denise Hyland thinks of what used to go on.

With all the lighting, the new square looks pretty smart. Chalk this one up as a victory for the council. But there lies the problem. It does look like a bloody good skate park. Woolwich actually does have a “proper” skate park – and here it is, at 8.15pm last night.

“There remain alternative venues in the borough for skateboarders to have fun – and the message is that the square is definitely not suitable.”

Here’s where skateboarders are expected to have fun in Woolwich. Dark, deserted, and with a chilly wind blowing in off the Thames, the Royal Arsenal Gardens skate park was only fit for retiring to with a bottle of White Lightning, matches, and some old copies of Greenwich Time.

Back to the square, then, if you’ve a skateboard and any sense. The main problem with the skateboarders, as far as I can tell, is the damage they’re causing to the surface of the square, which you can see below in a photo taken by day just before the square’s official launch.

The open design of the square, with slopes and steps, makes its adoption by skateboarders and other wheeled warriors inevitable. After dark, they’ve nowhere else to go. Could a more hard-wearing surface have been chosen? I don’t know, but the scratches and scrapes on the square feel more like a self-inflicted wound than criminal damage by the skateboarders. How do you stop them? You can’t, unless you stick a police van there every night for a fortnight, or build a fence around the square.

To be fair, they do bring a bit of life to the square. After all, no police or wardens are keeping an eye on the square, so the skateboarders seem to be the ones looking after it, and the rest of us. At least they’re not out thieving, and their presence may well have prevented wrong-doers from entering the square. It’s practically floodlit, so feels safer than just about anywhere else around it. I cycled down into Beresford Square shortly after taking the photo above, and it struck me how dark and gloomy it was.

So how does the council go about solving its problem? I suspect it’ll involve working with the skateboarders instead of writing letters to newspapers condemning their actions as “inappropriate and unacceptable”. Because if the council doesn’t give them somewhere decent to go – and the Royal Arsenal skate park certainly isn’t that – they, and the people of Woolwich may just have to learn to love the skateboarders.

Written by Darryl

19 October, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Final judgement on Greenwich’s law centre

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It won’t come as a surprise, but Greenwich Council’s cabinet voted tonight to uphold its decision to withdraw funding from Greenwich Community Law Centre on Trafalgar Road.

The decision was “called in” for review by Conservative opposition leader Spencer Drury, who voiced fears that the loss of the centre would leave the west of the borough with “little or no cover” for legal help, and that proposals for replacement services were short on detail.

Greenwich has decided to change the way it funds legal advice services, dividing up each area of welfare law into separate contracts that agencies can bid for. In the past, agencies had effectively acted as a consortium, which the council says costs too much money. GCLC won none of the contracts, and will lose its funding from November.

Barry Mills, who has worked at the centre for 21 years, told the cabinet that the centre is the only agency in the borough which provides free advice for all areas of welfare law, and is still getting referrals from the organisations that are supposed to be replacing it.

The centre’s work is complex, and so are the arguments surrounding this issue. But one particular aspect – immigration law – stood out. GCLC is the only agency in the borough with staff qualified to offer advice on immigration – it’s illegal to do so otherwise. But, despite having four staff who have passed the tests, it still lost out to Plumstead Community Law Centre, which currently has no such staff.

“No reasoning has been provided for this, nor explanation, and it is extremely surprising as the centre is the only provider of free immigration advice in the whole borough, and we have 137 open cases,” he said.

“We have been running the entire workload of immigration advice in this borough for at least a year now as the previous Plumstead worker was no accredited and did very basic advice only.

“Given the council’s commitment and agenda around equality and diversity, we believe it should be reconsidered in any event as it is woefully inadequate given that immigration clients are among the most vulnerable in the community, and in our experience often exploited by unscrupulous private practioners.”

He also added that losing the centre’s base on Trafalgar Road would leave clients without a familiar place to go – weekly “outreach” work was “rarely successful” while some clients were “not mobile, with some fearful of using public transport”.

Local mental health experts are among those who have spoken up for the centre.

“We are rooted in the local community and cannot be replaced by outreach and e-mails,” he said.

GCLC won more money in tribunal awards, welfare benefits in compensation than the grant allocated to it by the council, Mr Mills explained – raising at least £345,000 last year.

“Many successes are unquantifiable,” he continued. “Stopping deportations, getting repairs done, keeping families together, stopping deportations.

“All of these things result in harmonious living and assist in social cohesion.”

But Greenwich Council’s project director Mark Baigent – in evidence barely audible thanks to the council’s shonky sound system – insisted that a “consortium approach” to providing legal help had not worked, and it had been decided to provide a “centre of excellence in each field”.

Deputy council leader Peter Brooks said the decision was “an officer’s recommendation which we thought was the right decision to make”.

“We have to make a decision, times are hard,” he added.

Council leader Chris Roberts said legal services had acted as a “cartel” before, artificially inflating costs.

“In this current climate, moving to one provider in each [legal] area is more cost effective. The council has been doing it this way, and we expect it of the voluntary sector too. It was inevitable that somebody would not succeed.”

Centre management will meet on Friday to decide their next steps – if there are any next steps to take. But their supporters are furious, and cite what they say are numerous contradictions in the council’s arguments.

Indeed, the centre and the council – which has long wanted to centralise advice services – seem so far apart, it’s hard to imagine them ever being reconciled.

Conspiracy theorists might like to look at the centre’s offices themselves – a tidy corner shop on Trafalgar Road, which looks from the outside to be in good nick… and owned by Greenwich Council. The loss to people in the Greenwich area looks very much like a potential council accountant’s gain.

Written by Darryl

18 October, 2011 at 11:30 pm

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