Archive for November 2012
Odd goings-on at a meeting of Greenwich Council last night. It should have been an important night if you live in the riverside part of Charlton, as a long-standing application to build a new Sainsbury’s store on Woolwich Road, on the site of the old Wickes branch, was to have been have been approved or rejected.
In short, Sainsbury’s has run out of space in its Greenwich store, and would like to open a new store half a mile down the road, to the same environmental principles as its 13-year-old current branch.
Marks & Spencer would take up space in the building too, and developer LXB – which has bought up much of the Charlton retail space – has spent a lot of time wooing local residents’ groups and pledging that it’ll bring a bit of life back to the Woolwich Road.
The planning application was submitted in May, and these things are meant to take 13 weeks to come to a decision. In “Royal” Greenwich, this actually took until the penultimate day of November to be scheduled for a decision.
But that wasn’t enough. Four days after Woolwich’s new mega-Tesco opened, on the night of the meeting, Greenwich Council’s planning board decided to delay the Sainsbury’s application even further. But why?
Apparently, a site visit was needed. Even though this is a prominent site, sat between two A-roads, and a visit could have been arranged at any time within the past five months. Also, a “retail impact assessment” was required – but why couldn’t have been done in the five months it took this application to come before the planning board? After all, it’s 13 months since a councillor voiced reservations on he effect this would have on Woolwich.
All of this came as a surprise to the council’s planning officers, but it was to no avail – Sainsbury’s application, submitted in May, was booted well into the long grass.
How did this happen? Well, there was an exchange of scribbled notes, which started with regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland (of foot tunnels fame), and involved council leader Chris Roberts, planning director Steve Pallett and planning chair Ray Walker. And then, mysteriously, the item was struck off the agenda.
Incidentally, across the road from Woolwich Town Hall, and a couple of miles from the Sainsbury’s site, a new mega-Tesco has just opened. Tesco built the council’s new HQ as part of the deal, and council leader Chris Roberts has spoken warmly about the job opportunities the new store has brought.
Wisely, though, as a member of the planning board, Chris Roberts didn’t appear in the photos marking the store’s opening on Monday – leaving that to mayor David Grant, MP Nick Raynsford and Abbey Wood-based Olympian Zoe Smith, with a cheque from Tesco to the council’s charity.
But despite his endorsements of Tesco in Woolwich, he was still able to take part in an exchange of notes which resulted in a planning decision about a rival’s store being deferred for a “retail impact assessment”. (Even though one had already been done – see below.)
So, what on earth is going on? Local campaigners in Charlton want to use the Sainsbury’s scheme (and the long-delayed Travelodge, also backed by LXB) as leverage to make the Woolwich Road less of a filthy rat-run and more of a pleasant place to live.
Yet despite months of prevarication, Greenwich Council has kicked it into the long grass, just as a rival’s store opens. What is going on in a council run by a party which, on a national level, brands Tesco “an almighty conglomerate”?
11.45am update: It’s been pointed out to me that a retail impact assessment had already been done – it’s two documents in this enormous bundle here. Council officers, meanwhile, had been working under the belief that the issue would be discussed last night. What is going on?
It’s a bit lonely up there in the mornings. More over at Snipe.
You might have seen by now how Greenwich Council is bidding to bring the Tall Ships Race to the borough in 2016 – and how leader Chris Roberts led a five-strong council team to Riga, Latvia a couple of weeks back to meet and greet the great and the good of the tall ships world, with council taxpayers picking up the £5,500 bill for their trip to the Tall Ships Conference.
While the trip’s already sprouted one success – the borough’s been asked to host a regatta in 2014 – it’s raised eyebrows among councillors; most didn’t know about the bid until Roberts returned from Riga. And why did it take five people – including chief executive Mary Ney, Roberts’ spin chief Katrina Delaney and cabinet member Peter Kotz – to make the journey, at a cool £1,140 each?
And as the Tall Ships Race would start from Woolwich rather than Greenwich, couldn’t the council’s buddies at Berkeley Homes, which is developing the Royal Arsenal site and would benefit from the attention, have coughed up the costs? Or the backers of Sail Royal Greenwich, pictured above at its launch last year, which started this enthusiasm for hoisting masts on the Thames?
As their neighbours in Lewisham display unity over the threat to Lewisham Hospital, Greenwich’s Labour councillors have been left wondering quite what their leader is up to once again.
Still, that might not be the worst of it. You can watch the video of the Riga conference here…
Skip forward, beyond the bit about the bar running out of booze, to 17min 20secs in, where a Dutchman introduces how he works with young people… by dancing to Rednex’s novelty 1994 hit Cotton-Eye Joe. And then at 19 mins 20 secs in, where he gets all the delegates to join in.
Did the Dear Leader and his jolly crew shake their funky stuff? Time to keep a close eye out for photos…
Life in Woolwich won’t be the same again. The new Tesco on Woolwich New Road has just opened its doors for the first time. The motto “Every little helps” now looms over General Gordon Square – but will the rest of the struggling town centre be able to live with its giant new neighbour?
The supermarket is just one part of the huge Woolwich Central development – Greenwich Council’s new Woolwich Centre HQ was the first to open, and flats are being built above Tesco. If you approach it from Angelsea Road, it towers above the pub and small shops on Woolwich New Road – this isn’t a development that’s going to be held in much affection outside the town hall and Tesco HQ. Look out for it in next year’s Carbuncle Cup.
Clearly, though, the new store has created hundreds of new jobs – one reason why the council has cosied up to Tesco, despite criticism of the chain from, um, the Labour Party. It’s been the way Greenwich under leader Chris Roberts has done regeneration, by building up close alliances with selected large companies, and relentlessly promoting their work.
But if Tesco’s arrival at one end of Woolwich town centre kills off competition at the other end, will this backfire? Tesco hasn’t had a full-size supermarket in the borough since the early 1980s, when it pulled out of its dowdy old Eltham store. Since then, it’s transformed itself into the country’s biggest retailer by competing aggressively with all-comers. The new store features an optician, ethnic foods and a health and beauty department – it won’t just be Sainsbury’s in the firing line, and the effects may well be felt far beyond Woolwich.
Some of the volunteers who gave out council newspapers during the Olympics will be brought back to encourage shoppers to venture down Powis Street. You’ll have to be at least 35 to remember Woolwich as a thriving town centre, hammer blows over the decades include the 1980s loss of Cuffs department store, the closure of the Co-Op in the 1990s, the closure of the Arsenal and the relocation of Greenwich University and Morgan Grampian publishing. Exiled to zone 4 in public transport, it’s a tough sell to tempt businesses to replace what’s been lost, and there’s been a lack of innovative thinking in trying to fill these empty buildings. (Why not offer them at low rents to creative industries, which worked in Deptford and is working at Second Floor Arts by the river?)
The extension of the Docklands Light Railway and the revamp of General Gordon Square have been bright spots, and it’s true that Tesco might will encourage people to rediscover a town centre they abandoned years ago. But all this is far from certain – what we do know for sure, though, is that the next year is going to be a crucial one for the future of Woolwich.
It was no day for a demo. But they came from across south-east London. These placards greeted me when I jumped on a bus in Charlton.
When I arrived, twenty minutes before the march started, there were three or four hundred there.
When I left, twenty minutes after the march started, there were three or four thousand setting off down Lewisham High Street.
Thousands of marchers – hundreds of stories.
Organisers say 15,000 had joined the march by the time it reached Ladywell Fields.
I’m told Labour Party members were abused on the march – I got grief from a man for even talking to someone holding Greenwich Labour Party’s banner. It’s possibly a little unfair on the Lewisham councillors, mayor Steve Bullock and MP Heidi Alexander who have all endorsed this march. But memories of the Labour government’s PFI which created Queen Elizabeth Hospital, starting the process which led to this mess, linger long in this, a part of London which has little time for those who try it on.
The numbers on the march are as much a warning to the Labour party as much as the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Are any of them listening?
With work still at a standstill at Greenwich Foot Tunnel, Greenwich Cyclists has set up a Facebook page to collect people’s experience of the stricken Thames crossing, laid low by a botched refurbishment scheme. Whether you’re on bike or on foot, I’m sure they’d be grateful to hear of your experiences. Expect to see it full of gripes about berks riding bikes through the tunnel in three, two, one…
There’s still no news from the council on who is leading its inquiry into the screwed-up revamp, which has burned its way through an £11.5m government grant, with council tax-payers footing the bill for the rest.
It was a night when the questions were better than the answers. About 30 demonstrators gathered to greet NHS administrator Matthew Kershaw when he arrived at Woolwich Town Hall on Thursday to take questions from a group of Greenwich councillors about his plans to revamp south-east London’s NHS, including the downgrading of Lewisham Hospital’s A&E to an “urgent care centre”. He turned up late – stuck in traffic crossing Blackheath – and may have missed them.
I had hoped to be able to give you audio from the meeting, but unfortunately, the notorious acoustics in committee room 4/5 has defeated me – people rarely speak into microphone properly and the speakers in the public area are set at a whisper level. (Update: There is now audio, see the foot of this post.) But I can show you the video shown to the healthcare scrutiny panel before the meeting. Get ready to tick off the cliches.
There was half an hour given over to public questions – some were pertinent, some were time-wasting, like the woman from an organisation called Greenwich Link who rambled on about bringing back women-only hospitals. Well, thanks for that. Others voiced dissatisfaction with publicity and the consultation process – it appears the TSA website has had 12,500 unique visitors since it launched last month, which Kershaw’s team seemed pleased with, yet seems rather low to me (it’s probably about as much as this site gets).
Chair Janet Gillman, who happens to be one of my local councillors, asked if there was any chance the consultation would be extended – a call echoed by Bromley Council – but Kershaw indicated there wasn’t.
There were also concerns that the administrator hadn’t taken into account the rise in population in Greenwich borough, which weren’t fully allayed, while Kershaw claimed that local council leaders “fully understood the aspirations” of his report, which may be news to Lewisham mayor Sir Steve Bullock.
When it was the councillors’ turn to ask questions, plenty did themselves proud. That said, Conservative Mandy Brinkhurst earned her additional cash for sitting on a scrutiny panel by asking no questions at all.
By contrast, Labour’s Danny Thorpe, Barbara Barwick and Clare Morris all expressed concern about the effects of the downgrading of Lewisham A&E on the already-overstretched Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Barbara Barwick was to the point, but Danny Thorpe put it best: “I’m amazed nobody’s mentioned transport – it’s appropriate you were late,” he told Kershaw. “It’s very difficult to believe your distance figures are true.”
But whatever the truth of the figures, Kershaw said everybody within south-east London would be within 30 minutes by blue-light of an accident and emergency department – which, apparently, is the London standard. “Care starts the minute an ambulance driver arrives,” he said, noting the improvements in the care paramedics can offer.
Thorpe also brought up the appointment of Lewisham Healthcare’s chief executive to work on a merger with QEH – before the consultation has even finished. Kershaw denied it was a “pre-emptive decision”. “We need to do planning now on the work done so far, and Tim Higginson has been asked to provide a work plan for the future.”
It was Barbara Barwick that started to really home in on the point. If someone turned up at Lewisham after suffering a heart attack, she said, what would happen to them?
Already, Kershaw said, people with heart attacks would be taken to King’s College Hospital in Camberwell or Princess Royal Hospital in Farnborough – Lewisham had stopped specialising in heart attacks and strokes some time ago.
“The way emergency care is delivered in London now,” he continued, “people aren’t taken to the nearest hospital to get the best services.” He cited the case of Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton footballer who collapsed at Tottenham earlier this year but was taken to the London Chest Hospital at Bethnal Green, bypassing two closer hospitals (although I always thought that was at the behest of the doctor who happened to be watching the match and dashed onto the pitch at White Hart Lane.)
“It does mean some people will be carried further, but on balance we think that’s the right thing to do.”
Charlton councillor Allan MacCarthy reminded Kershaw of how slow the bus network is in south London. “I had a constituent who took a bus to an appointment at Lewisham Hospital, but never made it because the bus was stuck in traffic.” Kershaw waffled his way through a response.
It’s clear he has a job to do, within limited, politically-defined boundaries – one questioner asked why south-east London was suffering when the NHS in London as a whole enjoys a £250 million surplus.
But the reality of life as we know it in south-east London, with clogged up streets and slow journey times; together with how many people find Queen Elizabeth Hospital; overcrowded, understaffed, and in a mess, does not tally with the shiny promises in his report. There were pledges to reorganise the way QEH’s A&E is run, but they were short on detail.
It was suggested that when the A&E at Guy’s Hospital in Southwark closed in 1999, it only took a couple of months for people to adjust to using St Thomas’s in Lambeth. Yet the two hospitals are barely a couple of miles apart – nothing like the lengthy, bus-changing terrain that separates Lewisham and QEH (or King’s).
Indeed, even those who seem to be agreeing with the general thrust of his comments think that Kershaw isn’t arguing his case properly. Greenwich’s cabinet member for health, John Fahy, observed that few people seemed to know the difference between an “urgent care centre” and accident and emergency; indeed, it’s possible to argue that things won’t change a great deal for users of Lewisham Hospital.
But the focus on finance (which is what Kershaw is paid to do), together with the rushed consultation, means that the real experience of hospital users is neglected – and sparks suspicions about there being a more sinister endgame for users of Lewisham Hospital.
Backbench Labour councillors in Greenwich may be be sceptical about the plans, but regular readers of this site will know that nobody even breaks wind in the “royal” borough without the say-so of leader Chris Roberts. And it turns out we’ve been here before.
Roberts ally Mick Hayes referred to Greenwich’s support for the little-publicised A Picture of Health review from 2009, which was never fully implemented, but led to the closure of A&E at Queen Mary’s in Sidcup – leaving Bexley borough residents to have to go to QEH or distant Darenth Valley Hospital in Kent. Will Greenwich’s Labour leadership listen to its backbenchers’ concerns this time, or will it back the downgrading of a second neighbouring borough’s hospital? We’ll have to wait and see.
There’s a different viewpoint from the meeting at Clare’s diary, and different sides to the argument at the TSA website and Save Lewisham Hospital. There are also public meetings, including tonight (organised by Greenwich Council) at Woolwich Town Hall.
(Tuesday 1am update: Brockley councillor Vicky Foxcroft reports the Labour group on Lewisham Council has donated £500 to the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign. Will there be an equivalent donation from their comrades in Greenwich?)
Friday, 10pm update: Thanks to Clare, here’s the (very quiet) audio from last Thursday’s meeting.