On Sunday, up to 19,000 runners will pound through Greenwich, Blackheath, Charlton and Woolwich on the Run to the Beat half-marathon. The forecast is set for mild weather, and you never know, it may actually be a success. Indeed, you’re probably reading this after the event and will know how it went.
Many of those thousands of runners will be exerting themselves for good causes. This is not a charity event, so others will have paid £55 to prove something to themselves that some of us won’t even manage half of. But unwittingly, those up-to 19,000 customers of Run to the Beat have been caught up in an extraordinary battle between, on one side, Greenwich Council and organisers IMG, and on the other, local residents and councillors in the area affected.
So keen has Greenwich Council been to rubber-stamp the event in the face of continuing objections from locals and councillors – many of whom who represent the Labour Party which supposedly runs the council – that this website understands even senior council officials are unhappy about publicity for the race published in the council’s own newspaper.
It’s worth remembering this row doesn’t happen with the London Marathon, which is twice as big, and causes the same inconvenience. With our streets on show to the world, people swallow a day of hassle out of neighbourhood pride. The same arguments won’t ever apply to a low-profile race which is imposed both on residents, and their elected representatives.
The imposition point is important, because alternative routes have been suggested, and have been ignored. Instead, thousands of local residents are cut off by IMG and Greenwich Council’s insistence on a small circular route, presumably to save IMG money, but which is also unsatisfactory for runners. This year’s diversion via the riverside path at Angerstein Wharf looks set to be particularly grim.
In many ways, the battle over Run to the Beat has become less about people being unable to take a bus to hospital, or even being stopped from crossing over a main road, and more about Greenwich Council’s failures to listen or learn from criticism – something which is finally catching up with both its leadership, and those who have been cowed by it.
Remember the assurances from environment councillor Maureen O’Mara last year? They’re worth repeating again.
“If this race is to return to the borough, it needs to be with residents fully understanding what’s going to happen in their streets, and what’s going to happen with licensing.
“And we need to think – well, what does this bring into the borough? I certainly don’t want go through again, the anguish of the past four weeks. We have to be absolutely clear about why Run To The Beat is here in the first place.
“If residents say they don’t want it, then we’ll have to talk to IMG about that.”
Did they? Did they heck. 853 reader Steve Smythe wrote to Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin about the road closures caused by Run to the Beat – for legally, the council needs to go through the Government for roads which have already been closed for an event in the same year – and was given this reply from civil servant Amanda John, sent to her by Greenwich Council.
However, this website has established that formal residents’ groups – usually spoken to in lieu of a proper consultation – weren’t asked for their views. The Greenwich Society tells me it wasn’t spoken to, nor was the Blackheath Society, and it’s understood the Charlton Society wasn’t consulted either. The Westcombe Society was spoken to because it complained; while the Charlton Central Residents Association spoke to organisers in November 2012, again because it complained.
Only groups who complained, it appears, were consulted, which would explain the appearance of sports groups on the list, since early plans for this year’s events proposed cutting off the football pitches in Charlton’s parks. What’s clear is that even after five years, there’s still been no serious, proactive attempt by either IMG or Greenwich Council to gauge residents’ views on the event.
Did the council lie to the government? Was the council itself fed duff info? I’ve certainly heard accusations that council officers were told to make sure Run To The Beat was licensed, at whatever cost – obviously this can’t be substantiated, but suspicions like this will fester in an atmosphere when residents and elected representatives are ignored.
What’s for sure is that there’s been no great public rethink about what Run To The Beat does for the locality.
While it’s true councillors met organisers in November 2012, a promised follow-up meeting never happened – instead, they were invited to a meeting on Thursday night at short notice. Some councillors, I am told, “have never been so angry”.
Indeed, it’s actually possible that councillors’ treatment has led to them being angrier about the event than their constituents, who at least can choose to stay in bed while the race is on.
But most astonishingly, I understand even Greenwich Council officers are unhappy with the way IMG has promoted the arrangements for the race. Indeed, even the council website acknowledges “some local residents may not yet have received printed leaflets from the organisers”.
Ads have been taken out in its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, but I’m told director of culture, media and sport Katrina Delaney is unhappy with
the lack of information on them, and they way they seem to be about promoting the RTTB brand – they merely refer people to the Run to the Beat website. Why Delaney herself hasn’t been more proactive in distributing information, or ensuring IMG’s ad was correct, heaven alone knows. But since her job is in reputation management, and promoting the “Royal Greenwich” brand, it’s certainly a case of the biter being bit.
And while there is a residents’ helpline – 020 8233 5900 (open 7.30am-2.30pm) – it has only been publicised online. It doesn’t appear on the numerous yellow signs dotted around the area. The event still doesn’t appear on Transport for London’s journey planner (despite a tucked-away website page), so while roads are meant to be reopening earlier, it’s anyone’s guess when bus services will resume.
And all this, for a measly £10,000 to the council, with the promise of double next year.
It may well be that the sustained criticism of this year’s Run To The Beat will lead to a better event. But it shouldn’t be this way. After all, this should be fun, like the London Marathon is. A true Greenwich borough half-marathon would be great. Involve Eltham and other areas that don’t have the brilliant experience of the marathon, and break the circular route which cuts so many off.
Perhaps we should look to the London Marathon Playing Fields in Kidbrooke as an example. Why doesn’t Run To The Beat sponsor a community facility on its route? How about getting it to cough up for the Maryon Wilson Animal Park in Charlton, which is having trouble raising funds? Supporting the community rather than the council would be a way forward for an event with serious PR problems.
But instead, Run To The Beat has become emblematic of just how Greenwich Council under Chris Roberts has become arrogant, overbearing and more interested in big business than its residents. And until things change at the town hall, the race will always be a problem rather than a party.
For details about the Run To The Beat route and maps, click here and scroll down to ‘residents’. A residents’ helpline will be open until 2.30pm on 020 8233 5900, staffed by IMG and a council officer. If you have any issues, let your local councillor know – and it’s also worth copying in Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney on the email (firstname.lastname@example.org).