Something strange happened in Woolwich during the Olympics and Paralympics. The town centre – well, General Gordon Square – became a nice place to be in, far removed from the days when council staff used to have to fish turds out of the fountain each morning.
Much of the credit has to come down to Greenwich Council’s remodelling of the square. Now it’s no longer an underwhelming traffic island, it’s becoming a genuine focal point. One night during the Paralympics, I came home via Woolwich on a balmy night to find the atmosphere almost Mediterranean – it was long past 11pm, but with people out in the square, and the fantastic artworks that have appeared on shop shutters – I felt a hint of Barcelona about it. Or maybe it was the skateboarders that reminded me of Plaça de Catalunya…
All it needs, though, is something worthwhile to pop up in the old Woolwich Equitable headquarters. Largely abandoned since the now-defunct building society shipped out to Bexleyheath in the 1990s (to an HQ closed when it was bought by Barclays in 2000, although now to become the new civic centre for Bexley Council), it’s been refurbished and is being slowly let out to new businesses. A small health centre aside, though, what’s turned up hasn’t been impressive – two bookies and a convenience store, with the corner site facing Greens End remaining empty.
Enter a firm called Antic, which runs a shedload of London pubs, and has specialised in turning around troubled sites. Its best known venue is the
Dogstar in Brixton, but it also revamped the old Paradise Bar in New Cross into the fine Royal Albert pub.
Most recently, it’s transformed Catford’s miserable Copperfield into the Catford Bridge Tavern, while Lewisham’s crappy old Coach and Horses has been reinvented into the Ravensbourne Arms, arguably one of the best pubs in south-east London. Antic’s recipe is simple – get some decent beers in, serve some good food, and put on a few events every now and then. I’d love for Antic to open a pub in Greenwich, but instead it went for somewhere a bit tougher…
Antic had its eye on the old Woolwich Equitable site – and put a licensing application in to turn part of it into a new pub, The Woolwich. The full details are available here. Woolwich isn’t exactly awash with quality pubs, and lost one of the few decent ones in the town centre when the Director General closed to make way for the council’s new HQ. In addition, another pub facing General Gordon Square, The Pullman, went a few years back so the Docklands Light Railway could be built.
What did Antic want to offer?
“Good quality pub and restaurant located on the main square in Woolwich. The pub will have a premium offer with a high quality British menu served throughout but with a restaurant area on the mezzanine level. The pub will have extended hours in common with the other pubs within Antic, allowing it to be fully utilised as an asset to the local area.”
Those late hours were to 2am at weekends, by the way – which compares with the 3am and 4am licences dished out by the council elsewhere in Woolwich.
So, a new firm to the area, with a good track record of turning round dodgy boozers into prime public houses – surely this would be right up the council’s street?
Nope – they turned it down.
“The Sub-Committee agreed that while the applicant had good intentions there would be a negative cumulative impact on the Woolwich Town Centre Saturation Zone which the applicant had neither addressed or put forward representations to show how there would be no impact. The Sub-Committee found that the prevention of crime and disorder licensing objective could not be met and was likely to increase instances of crime and anti-social behaviour in the Town Centre, and in particular in General Gordon Square. The Sub-Committee therefore refused the application.”
In short, both the council and the police think there are too many licensed premises in Woolwich, even though there are two fewer than there were a decade ago. Here’s the police’s objection, delivered in Comic Sans:
What I don’t understand is – how on earth does Greenwich Council, or the police, expect to attract people into Woolwich in the evening if it doesn’t have anywhere decent to go? Antic’s pubs succeed in pulling in visitors from well beyond their neighbourhoods; options for a decent night in Woolwich are pitiful to say the least. It should have been clear that this place wouldn’t be competing with the likes of the The Great Harry or the Earl of Chatham (and its mystifying 4am licence), yet somehow both police and council seem to see all pubs as potential dens of evil, instead of as community hubs.
Towns aren’t regenerated by expecting people to be in bed by midnight, yet the refusal of the licence for The Woolwich coincided with signs being slapped everywhere for a “dispersal zone” targeting groups of youths.
If a more diverse range of people were attracted into Woolwich for a more diverse set of nights out, perhaps those groups wouldn’t gather in the first place – more eyes on the street will keep the streets safer than any authoritarian threat from police.
Hopefully Antic will be back with another application, because Woolwich needs somewhere like this badly. The Dial Arch, behind the walls of the Arsenal, showed that if you open a decent-ish pub, you can pull a crowd in. A good pub at the Equitable House site would really transform Woolwich. Instead, though, I fear a small-minded council has blown it once again.