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

Archive for March 2012

Sing-a-long-a-Peninsula Festival

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“If you need a break and you want to escape from your loneliness…”

Less than four months to go to the Olympics, and there’s not much sign on the ground of much happening with the Peninsula Festival – the beach, campsite and concert area that’s due to take over undeveloped bits of land there this summer. Although the menus are taking shape for its sister event, Sail Royal Greenwich.

But there is a website, and there’s a song. Enjoy.

Written by Darryl

30 March, 2012 at 7:30 am

Has Boris sounded the Woolwich Ferry’s death knell?

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Boris Johnson launched his transport manifesto on Monday, and there’s a line in it which went largely unnoticed which could have profound effects in Woolwich.

“I will launch a new car ferry service from Thamesmead to Gallions Reach, to replace the ageing Woolwich ferry.”

That’s the first confirmation that the mayor’s planned ferry – overshadowed by the Silvertown tunnel keffufle – would replace the Woolwich Ferry, whose three vessels were launched nearly 50 years ago. I’ve gone on about the joys of the ferry before, but it’s very hard to imagine Woolwich without a crossing which has existed in various forms for hundreds of years.

I’m also not sure how motorists – particularly the lorry drivers which mainly use the ferry – will take to seeing the link between the North Circular and South Circular broken.

The ferry will be at the site of the scrapped Thames Gateway Bridge, which begs the question – why not just build the bridge?

Boris’s manifesto shows where he’s angling for votes:

“I killed off my predecessor’s proposal for a Thames Gateway Bridge because of the damaging impact it would have had on Bexley, and I will not resuscitate it. Instead, I will continue to call on the Government for residents within Greater London who live close to the Dartford Crossing – notably those living in Bexley and Havering – to be given the same discount on the Dartford toll as residents of Dartford and Thurrock.”

The obvious bribe to zone 6 motorists aside, why would a ferry not have the damaging impact on Bexley borough that a bridge would?

As for the Silvertown crossing:

“I will also seek powers to construct a new Blackwall relief crossing, a road tunnel that will cross from Greenwich Peninsula to Silvertown, near the Royal Docks, and which will be completed within ten years. The government has committed to explore the case for using the Planning Act to streamline planning for proposed additional river crossings in East London.”

In other words, no more pesky inquiries like the one that killed off the Thames Gateway Bridge.

There’s more, including a very vague plan to extend the Docklands Light Railway to Bromley, in the full manifesto.

Speaking of mayoral matters, the Guardian’s Manifesto for a Model Mayor is well worth a read, and features a couple of contributions from me – see if you can spot them.

What’s happening at Greenwich’s Thames Path?

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Now spring has arrived, you might be fancying a stroll along the Thames Path. But, yes, great chunks of it around the Greenwich Peninsula are still closed. So here’s a very useful Greenwich Council map which details what’s closed and when it’s reopening (1MB PDF).

Of course, useful info like this isn’t on the council’s website, so instead I’m happy to bring you news the section by the cable car works should be open again next month, and almost all of the walkway will be back in use by July – just in time for the Olympics. It’s all on the map. Fingers crossed this comes to pass.

But there could be more disruption to come – major plans to build student accommodation and shops to the south-west of the Dome include “changes to the adopted alignment of the Thames Footpath”. Unfortunately, there’s no further details on the council’s planning website, but it sounds ominous.

Written by Darryl

28 March, 2012 at 7:29 am

Greenwich Park: Police recommend raising speed limits

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One of the best things about Greenwich Park in recent years is how it’s largely stopped being a through route for cars. On Sundays, crowds can meander up the hill safe in the knowledge they won’t get squashed by some berk speeding down in four wheels. The closure of the park at the top of The Avenue (the hill) as a through route during weekday daytimes and at weekends has played a big part in this; so has the park’s 20mph speed limit. Indeed, I know one cyclist who was stopped by police for doing 30mph down the hill one morning.

So it’s baffling to hear that the park police have been considering raising the limit back up to 30mph. A report from a meeting posted to the Greenwich Cyclists e-mail list says an outside police traffic unit recommended raising the limit “to improve safety”. Quite how allowing cars to drive faster in an area used by thousands of pedestrians, many of them small children, was not recorded. Happily, it was decided this would not be carried out “for the time being”.

But when councils up and down the land are implementing 20mph schemes on their side roads, it seems bizarre that anyone would even consider this. Many of east Greenwich’s back streets are already 20mph zones, and Greenwich Council is thinking about implementing it borough-wide (surely it should just get on with it rather than fart about with a “best value review”, but never mind). So Greenwich Park could end up being the fastest route down the hill for some miles around. Hopefully this idea won’t just sit on the back-burner, but fall off and quietly disappear.

Meanwhile, it’s all change at the top of the park as the new Blackheath Gate (English to NOGOE translation: “Olympic vandalism”) takes shape. Unfortunately, this has meant the park’s become a through route again, hosting one way traffic from Blackheath down to Greenwich. At the top of the park, nobody’s quite worked out what cyclists are meant to do to exit. Squeeze out with the pedestrians, or take your chances going against the flow of cars. Ah, sod it, take a chance with the cars…

The arrival of spring also means the start of the hard work in transforming the park into an Olympic venue. The Circus Field on Blackheath has already been taken over by LOCOG (the circus itself will be across the other side of Shooters Hill Road as usual this Easter), but the real work begins on Monday when the Queen’s Field – the land in front of the Queen’s House – is taken over for construction work on the equestrian stadium. If you want to enjoy the classic view from the Wolfe statue without a stadium or building works being there – you’ve six days left.

But will there be any NOGOE activists chaining themselves to construction vehicles next week? Not so, for it appears the anti-equestrian lobby has finally raised the white flag. An email sent out to media contacts yesterday says the group “is evolving into a monitoring group to hold the Olympic organisers, LOCOG, to their promises to reinstate Greenwich Park after the damage they cause, and to provide a record and running commentary of the activity and disruption that will interest the media, conservation groups, Park users and local residents”.

More tellingly, remembering the fiasco of the anti-Irish Twitter messages posted by its unofficial spokesperson Rachel “Indigo” Mawhood, is this line: “Also please note that Rachel Mawhood has parted company with NOGOE.” First broken here last month, the story eventually made it into the Mail on Sunday.

Considering the pitiful turnout for their July demonstration against the test events, and the damage done to their Olympics cause by their unofficial spokesperson, perhaps if the NOGOE-rs care about the park so much, they could turn their energies to ensuring it doesn’t become Greenwich’s fastest rat run in future.

Update 9.20am Tuesday: Thanks to Duncan Borrowman for reminding me of one sad reason why the speed limit should not be increased.

Written by Darryl

27 March, 2012 at 7:30 am

Delays hit Boris’s Greenwich cable car

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Cable car site, 22 March 2012
Of course, it was never going to be open for the Olympics, but nudge, wink, if it gets done in time….

Well, those hopes are dampened after work on erecting the cable for the Emirates Air-Line was postponed for the third weekend in a row. When it happens, it’ll be a dramatic sight, with a helicopter due to string the cable across the Thames*.

Thanks to regular 853 commenter Otter for keeping me updated with events. You can follow them too, by studying the Port of London Authority’s Notices to Mariners.

The work was originally due for 10/11 March, even though there was no south-side tower to string a cable to (the two north-side towers have been up for a few weeks). Then a second notice was issued for 16/17 March – but at the time the notice went out, the south-side tower was still a stump in the ground.

Sadly for Boris Johnson, that weekend’s cancellation pushed the work into the election campaign, which officially kicked off last Tuesday. So he now can’t use City Hall resources to, say, please TV cameras by riding in the chopper doing the work.

Things were looking more hopeful last week, as the tower raced up. The cable apparatus was installed on Thursday, and the picture above shows the scene that evening.

But a notice for 24/25 March was cancelled. The PLA’s explanation reads:

We apologise on the contractors behalf for yet further delay to this activity.

No further Notices to Mariners will now be issued on the intention to rig cables at the cable car location in Bugsbys Reach until the building of the South Tower has been completed.

A minimum of 5 days notice will then be given by Notices to Mariners to advise the weekend on which the cables will be rigged. We regret and also apologise for any inconvenience caused by these continued delays which are out with our control and the plethora of Notices in this respect, advising of works which fail to materialise.

Ouch. So, if the work’s to be done this weekend (31 March/ 1 April), a notice to mariners will have to appear today. Otherwise, we’re looking at Easter. But we’re now looking at the project being at least three weeks behind schedule, presumably almost certain to miss a three-week long Olympics when a link between the Dome and ExCeL would be useful.

That said, the gondalas were in place at “Emirates Greenwich Peninsula” on Friday night, still in their protective wrappings, and an ad for staff appeared in last week’s edition of Greenwich Council propaganda weekly Royal Greenwich Time (so much for criticising “Pyongyang-style freesheets“, eh?). The lighter evenings will also aid a project which has demanded work at weekends and late at night.

But these delays can’t be a good sign. If a notice to mariners doesn’t appear today, expect trouble.

Monday 12.40pm update: A new notice has been published – it’s on for this weekend. Thanks to @greenwichslope on Twitter for the info.

Tuesday 12.40am update: This was the original plan as far as I know, but this now may be a chopper-free zone. Wait and see…

Written by Darryl

26 March, 2012 at 7:30 am

At the Guardian: Boris, Ken, and a wasteland in Charlton

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Over on guardian.co.uk, you can find me and other London scribes discussing the effects Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone have had on their areas.

My bit is illustrated by a picture of Charlton’s glitzy Victoria Way, but really it’s on about the scene if you walk down to the bottom of the road. The land in the picture above was originally earmarked for the Ken-era Greenwich Waterfront Transit scheme, canned by Boris a few years back. The GWT had been watered down from a tram to a bus by the time it was scrapped (and, indeed, would have run via Bugsbys Way instead of the planned dedicated road through the retail parks). But it was still a commitment to improving transport in the area, and it’s something that should have been up and running by now.

Instead, we got the cable car, which is very nice, but largely useless as a form of public transport. From the hill on Victoria Way, you get a lovely view of both the GWT wasteland (now due to be turned into a Travelodge) and the cable car – a quick summary of the past decade of London transport politics all in one glance.

With the campaign in full flow, you probably won’t find much mayoral stuff here unless it directly relates to south-east London, but I’ll be contributing to Snipe’s The Scoop.

Oh, and that bent-up “Woolwich Road SE7″ street sign in the photo? It’s been left like that by Greenwich Council – sorry, Royal Greenwich – for 10 years after a car smashed into it, despite complaints from local residents who want to see it removed or replaced. Despite the splashing out on new signs in more high-profile areas, it shows just how Greenwich is happy to leave much of its patch looking anything but regal.

Greenwich’s Labour councillors back Roberts once again

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Greenwich Council’s Labour leader Chris Roberts has fought off a challenge from cabinet member John Fahy at a meeting of the party’s councillors at Woolwich Town Hall.

The culture and Olympics spokesman had sought to usurp the long-serving leader, complaining that the council had become too secretive and needed to involve ordinary residents in decision-making.

But he lost a vote at the Labour group meeting tonight, meaning Roberts, who has run the council since 2000, will continue as leader.

This website understands Roberts won by 24 votes to 15. Peninsula ward councillor Dick Quibell also lost his bid for the deputy leadership of the Labour group, held by Peter Brooks.

There are 40 Labour councillors, with 27 posts attracting “special responsibility” allowances – three of which would be earned by Roberts, Brooks and Fahy.

It is believed there was particular anger among councillors that news of the vote had been leaked to a local newspaper, although it is not known whether supporters of Roberts or Fahy disclosed the information to the News Shopper.

While the challenge had long been expected in party circules, councillors are bound by a code of secrecy around their internal party meetings, and can be disciplined for discussing events at Labour group meetings.

Cabinet positions are also being discussed at Monday’s meetings, although these will not be confirmed immediately. It is not clear whether or not Fahy will retain his cabinet position after challenging the leader.

Roberts’ 12 years in charge of Greenwich has seen the council embark on ambitious schemes such as the Ferrier Estate redevelopment in Kidbrooke and bringing Crossrail to Woolwich. Before he was leader, he was in charge of planning and regeneration when Greenwich was selected to be the home of the Millennium Dome.

Last month, he said Greenwich’s recent designation as a royal borough was “the proudest moment” of his career.

But he has faced bitter criticism, not least from within his own party, for his style of leadership which has seen him impose tight discipline on his party’s councillors, while others complain the council has become remote from the people it is elected to serve.

His re-election as leader ensures he will be in charge of the council for the London Olympics, overseeing events in Greenwich Park, the Dome and the Royal Artillery Barracks.

Written by Darryl

19 March, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Revealed: Greenwich Council’s Eltham ‘DLR on stilts’ report

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As Greenwich’s Labour councillors get ready to vote tonight on whether or not they’ll give long-serving leader Chris Roberts the heave-ho, here’s an example of the secretive culture that challenger John Fahy wants to overturn.

Last December, the council agreed to spend £45,000 on further studies into a possible DLR extension to Eltham, which would utilise the tunnel Boris Johnson wants to build on the Greenwich Peninsula (Labour’s Ken Livingstone is opposed to the tunnel) before running above the A102 and A2 to Falconwood.

It’d already spent £25,000 on commissioning a preliminary study – but can Greenwich council taxpayers study the report on its website? Nope.

Indeed, if you ask the council for the report, it’ll only send a hard copy to you. So I’ve scanned it in anyway – so, for the first time in public, here’s the Eltham ‘DLR on stilts’ report (PDF, 18.3MB) produced for Greenwich Council by Hyder Consulting. Apologies for the occasional wonky page.

A few things are striking about the report, notably the warnings about how difficult construction would be; one proposal would involve demolition around the Woolwich Road roundabout in east Greenwich, while the vexed question of just how the line would negotiate the area around Eltham station, where the A2 runs in a tunnel, is deemed too tricky to answer. The line would also have to be 12-15 metres above the A102 through Charlton and Blackheath.

Routes suggested include a line through the Millennium Retail Park in east Greenwich, but a proposal for a single-track terminus at Falconwood would surely limit its capacity. But there’s no thought here to just where DLR trains would go to once they depart North Greenwich – with Bank and Tower Gateway surely at capacity, they would presumably have to squeeze up to Stratford International.

Anyhow, take a read and decide for yourself. You might also like to compare it with Lewisham Council’s report into Bakerloo Line extensions, which also deals with areas in Greenwich borough. And hopefully, after tonight, we’ll get a council that publishes this stuff as a matter of course. Fingers crossed.

Written by Darryl

19 March, 2012 at 7:30 am

Royal borough regicide: Will Greenwich dump its Dear Leader?

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There have been murmurings of a high-profile challenge to Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts for a few months now. These things are always hard to report, though, because local Labour parties are, essentially, secret societies. Any talking out of school risks ruthless punishment. They don’t like their dirty washing being done in public, and prefer to keep the bloodshed behind closed doors.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see the News Shopper’s Mark Chandler trumpet the story of John Fahy’s attempt to topple the Dear Leader earlier this week – because the loyalty-above-all else code of local Labour groups means these things are very hard to stand up. There’s certainly no suggestion that the story came from Fahy (it’s just as likely to have come from the Roberts camp, or from elsewhere) but to have got the challenger to admit in public he was standing was an achievement.

What’s more, it’s better the story emerged via a traditional outlet rather than on some upstart blog, because it’s a reminder that Greenwich Council’s obsessive secrecy and control-freak tendencies aren’t just niche concerns. The way this borough is run should concern us all.

Naturally, of course, there’s fury within Greenwich Council’s Labour group that the story’s leaked out at all. Hey, who runs the council is their business, not ours, after all. We’re only the voters who pay their wages.

But Fahy’s candidness with the News Shopper is an element of a central plank of his pitch to Labour councillors – that the council needs to up its game in communicating with people, and that it needs a new and more open form of leadership.

To most people in Greenwich borough – and even outside – there is little to disagree with there. Even within the Greenwich and Eltham Labour parties, there is a sense that things have gone badly wrong. Particularly within the Greenwich party, Roberts is pretty much loathed. This “Dear Leader” stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere, you know. The next time someone approaches you with a red rosette on, and there might be a few of them over the next few weeks, ask them what they think of him, and see how they try to change the subject.

Rank-and-file members yearn for senior figures such as Nick Raynsford or London Assembly member Len Duvall (Roberts’ much-respected predecessor as leader) to intervene, and are frustrated that little has happened.

But inside the bubble that is Greenwich Council’s Labour group, things are different. Why is this?

For a start, you have to look a the man himself. Chris Roberts is a terrific politician. An enigmatic figure, he pretty much lives and breathes his job as council leader. In many ways, he’s much like Gordon Brown – politically, he’s deeply ambitious and has an emotional connection to his cause. But he’s also notorious for a ferocious temper and few know him on a one-to-one level. Indeed, the council chamber contains a few one-time allies he’s fallen out with.

He’s capable of some barnstorming speeches. You’d vote for him if you heard him speak. And let’s be clear – Greenwich borough is a better place for having had him as its leader. He has helped push forward big-ticket regeneration and transport projects, and helped secure a starring role for the borough in the Olympics. A lot of this work started under Len Duvall, but much of the borough has changed dramatically over the 12 years Roberts has been in charge. The greatest prize, the transformation of Woolwich, is yet to come – if it can be pulled off. That’s still a big “if”, though.

Unlike neighbouring big beast Sir Steve Bullock in Lewisham, he’s managed to negotiate the minefield of council cutbacks without too much of an outcry. This is partly down to the lack of meaningful opposition in the borough, but so far Greenwich has been spared many of the more obvious cuts others are facing. Indeed, a council once notorious for high council tax is now one of London’s lowest chargers.

But look beneath the big picture, and the council has struggled with basic services – possibly a result of keeping the council tax so low. The streets are dirty and look battered with cheap, ugly street furniture. Its services are generally mediocre and its culture is inward-looking. Its communications are more about managing reputation than passing on useful information. Worse still, the council has gained a reputation for simply not listening to people. This year’s “consultation” event, the Great Get Together, has been cancelled to pay for last month’s royal borough events.

The cracks are starting to show, and the goodwill from Roberts’ undoubted successes is starting to run out. With a less benign national political picture, has he run out of tricks?

I went to an unofficial meeting last week about the Charlton riverside masterplan. It was a prime example of what’s wrong with the council – a big and far-reaching plan being bludgeoned through with little consultation and hardly any involvement from real people. The mood was sceptical at best, hostile at worst. The most baffled looks were on the faces of senior figures in the local Labour party, ward chairs who devote their spare time to lubricating the progress of the likes of Chris Roberts – but suddenly facing the consequences of the style of leadership they’d helped to create.

So, if the local Labour party dislikes Chris Roberts, why do the councillors they select stick with him? Well, you have to look at the councillors.

Most Greenwich councillors have been there for a good few years now. They’re not exactly a fizzing hotbed of talent and new ideas. Unlike, say, Lambeth, there’s very few young faces in the Labour group – only four out of 40 are under 30 years old, and not that many in their 30s either.

Of the remainder, these are often people who socialise in the same circles, and are content to keep things going as they are because they hear very little criticism of what the council is doing. In any case, criticism is discouraged – even raising legitimate questions about council practices can lead to disciplinary action. Keep your head down, keep quiet, keep calm and carry on.

But even Greenwich Labour councillors are starting to notice that not all is right. Younger councillors are frustrated at the lack of debate, with even the most outwardly loyal unhappy at having to swallow their principles to do the leader’s bidding. Meanwhile, there’s been the genuinely uncomfortable sight of veteran councillor Jim Gillman, a community figurehead for many years, spending his time as mayor doing little more than acting as the leader’s stooge.

So there is a clamour for change. But what would John Fahy offer? Well, he’s a real old bruiser of a politician, experienced and respected. He’s certainly guilty of the same complacency as Chris Roberts – witness the cock-up of hiving off the libraries – but at least comes onto sites like this to explain himself and relishes a good old fight. In a borough where there’s very little debate about anything, that’s like water in the desert.

Ironically, a vote for the older man is likely to see younger talent pushed through – with many of the council’s old guard owing their careers to Roberts, it’s likely a change of leader will also see a change of faces at the top of the council, and a wholesale change for the next election. Greenwich may be one of London’s safer Labour councils, but it lacks a sense of direction – or at least one that’s obvious in public.

Ambitious councillors might be tempted by an offer of a job chairing some review committee or other – but in the long term, if Roberts wins Monday’s vote among Labour councillors, the council will just continue to stagnate under an even more poisonous atmosphere.

What would be Chris Roberts’ next move? He could walk into a job at a regeneration agency tomorrow. Berkeley Homes would probably snap him up tomorrow. Whatever happens on Monday, he’ll be alright.

One Greenwich councillor once said to me that whatever the council did, I’d criticise it. This is cobblers – much of the coverage here is borne out of frustration at just how little the council’s current leadership is just interested in dealing with local people honestly and fairly.

On Monday, that councillor, and his colleagues, can take one giant step towards mending those bridges. Will they be brave enough to do it?

Written by Darryl

16 March, 2012 at 8:35 am

Mayor Boris’s legacy starts to loom over Greenwich

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You could see it over Greenwich on Thursday morning – above the buildings, a feature in the sky that wasn’t there on Wednesday morning.

The cable car tower? No, the band of smog that produced London’s worst pollution for four years. Boris Johnson is keen to leave his mark on London – well, it looks like we’ve got it from a mayor that’s eroded the congestion charge, planning to build more roads (including one on our doorstep) and failed to take action against gas-guzzlers. Nice one, Boris.

That’ll make the views from the cable car all the more bracing, won’t it? Despite the grotty weather predicted for Saturday, a helicopter’s due to string the cable itself across the Thames this weekend, a week later than planned. If you look closely at the south side station, a gondola is already in place.

Across town, work is starting on Crossrail. There’s some great graphics on the BBC’s story about this, including a telling map which show just how close the Greenwich peninsula got to having a second proper transport link to add to the already-rammed Jubilee Line.

To be fair, about 10 years ago Greenwich Council did press unsuccessfully for Crossrail to be routed via Charlton instead of the Royal Docks. It would have been a cheaper option, and if it’d got its way, this area would have been transformed within this decade.

But even then, if Crossrail looped a little bit further south, instead of looping a little bit further north, North Greenwich could have had an amazing transport interchange that’d have removed any possible need for a gimmicky cable car to somewhere few people aim for to be dressed up as a transport improvement.

So near, yet so far…

Written by Darryl

15 March, 2012 at 11:02 pm


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