Category: greenwich council

Battle for Greenwich Time set to cost £120,000, council admits

Greenwich Council is fighting to keep its weekly newspaper

Greenwich Council is fighting to keep its weekly newspaper

Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland has admitted its legal fight to save its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time is set to cost £120,000.

Hyland accused the government of wanting to “censor democracy” by trying to force the closure of GT, one of only two weekly council papers in the country.

The admission came during Wednesday’s council meeting, when new Conservative leader Matt Hartley pressed her on the costs in a written question.

Hyland revealed the council has spent £30,000 on the action so far – including £22,320 on outside legal advice, with total costs expected to reach £120,000.

The answer also indicates that the council, which claims publishing GT weekly saves it money, is planning to claim that a government ban on publishing its own paper would be against its freedom of expression, as enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights.

Greenwich is seeking a judicial review of the decision by former communities secretary Eric Pickles to direct it to close GT, following a new law prohibiting councils from publishing newspapers or magazines more than four times a year.

As well as undercutting ad rates in existing local newspapers, Greenwich Time has been accused of bias and misleading information. The only other council to publish a weekly newspaper, Tower Hamlets, recently saw its elected mayor ejected over charges of corruption.

Hyland told the council chamber: “I’m just amazed, actually, that the Conservative group over there are so against the democracy of Greenwich Time to be untrue, that you will actually support the Department of Communities and Local Government in censoring information going out to residents.

“It is beyond belief, frankly.”

She added that the council would be studying the results of its recent tender for advertising, a possible replacement for GT.

Speaking slowly, she said: “We will make our decisions strategically, and be advised by coun-sel – a QC – and we will take each stage as it comes. We have been assured by our QC that we have a strong case and we expect to win.”

The legal process is set to take some months yet, meaning residents will still get GT for the time being. At the last council meeting in March, Hyland mocked those who signed a petition against the newspaper, accusing them of being Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. “I didn’t know they had so many members,” she said.

Also at Wednesday’s council meeting… a motion protesting about the 53 bus being cut short at Lambeth North turned into a political squabble.

Greenwich Time, 26 May 2015

Greenwich Time talks up the mayor’s party

Hyland also defended the £20,000 private mayor-making event held for new mayor Norman Adams, saying any attempt to open it up to the public would increase costs.

In a written answer to Matt Hartley, she called it “a good opportunity for key players and residents to meet”, adding that “a broad range of partners and community groups and residents from across the spectrum of Greenwich life were represented at the event”.

“I would be happy to explore ways that the event could be opened up but, should we wish to retain the current community involvement, it could further increase costs.”

When asked by fellow Tory Matt Clare if representatives from political parties not represented on the council were invited, she replied: “The Mayor’s inauguration is not a political event. It is a civic reception with an invited audience of guests from across the spectrum of Greenwich life. including: Faith Leaders, businesses, community representatives, Civic Award winners, voluntary groups, Borough tenant
representatives, MPs, stakeholders, representatives of the Armed Forces, all members of the Council as well as a broad range of partners and community groups and residents from across the borough.

“All members of the Council are the elected representatives of local people – the public have made their choice of who they want to represent them.”

Could the London Cycle Hire scheme finally reach the Dome?

Could the London Cycle Hire scheme finally reach the Dome?

Regeneration and transport cabinet member Danny Thorpe said he would welcome an extension of the London Cycle Hire scheme to Greenwich town centre, following Boris Johnson’s backing for the proposal last week.

But told Conservative councillor Matt Clare the council would not pay the £2 million other boroughs – such as Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith & Fulham – have paid to see the bikes, now formally known as Santander Cycles, extended to their areas. When the scheme was first implemented in 2010, boroughs did not have to pay.

Thorpe said it would be “a fantastic opportunity”, adding he had discussed the idea at a scrutiny meeting last year, joking: “I know you call them Santander bikes because they’ve gone red, just like City Hall will next year.”

He added: “We’re open for business, we’re always happy to chat to Andrew Gilligan, the cycling commissioner, but Greenwich will not go above and beyond in terms of paying for what other boroughs have had for free.”

Journalism in SE London is slowly dying: Why you should support the News Shopper strike

News Shopper reporters on strike

Everybody out: News Shopper NUJ members are on strike for two days

Imagine this: the government has decided to close down a vital public service in SE London, moving its remains to Sutton.

Valued workers will be fired, teams will be split up and told to work from home – depriving them of the opportunity to share ideas about providing a better service. An organisation already distant from the clients it depends on will retreat even further into itself, and its service will lose value by the week, growing more and more irrelevant.

There’d be outrage. Even the Labour party might briefly stir itself into complaining. There’d be a big campaign to save it – and the demand that it should be the well-paid heads at the top rolling, rather than the modestly-compensated toilers at the bottom.

Well, it’s happening. Except it’s not the government doing the closing, it’s this bunch of clowns in the video below. And their target is the News Shopper, whose journalists are on strike today and tomorrow.

This is the senior management team at Gannett, led by chief executive Roy Orbison Gracia Matore, performing a children’s song from a children’s film in a video shown to their staff in the US earlier this year.

Gannett’s a highly-profitable media conglomerate best known for owning USA Today. Its UK subsidiary, Newsquest, owns a string of local and regional titles, including the Brighton Argus and the Glasgow-based Herald.

It also owns the News Shopper and the South London Guardian series, which between them cover most of SE and SW London and the northern parts of Kent and Surrey.

Newsquest made £64 million in profit last year, which clearly isn’t enough – so it’s been decided that the Shopper and South London Guardian should effectively combine – they already share an editor – into one team based at the Guardian’s office in Sutton, with many staff either sacked or told to work from home. The current Shopper HQ in Petts Wood would close.

Petts Wood is distant enough as it is, but that’s always been the Shopper’s weak spot. Launched in Orpington 50 years ago as London’s first free newspaper, it’s always been a slightly eccentric title. A 1976 front page lectured readers on how hard work was vital to secure the nation’s future.

It expanded into Lewisham and Greenwich in 1988, but looked out of place for many years – a suburban news agenda doesn’t quite get the nuances of the city. Hardened readers of this website will remember when it gave a pen as a prize to a homophobic letter writer, and dished out inaccurate reporting of the 2011 riots (the latter a symptom of the cutbacks in the local press).

News Shopper strikers at The Valley

Greg Stubley, a freelancer working at Charlton Athletic, joins Shopper staffer Paul Green (right) at The Valley

But in recent years, it’s sharpened up its act in these parts – thanks in no small part to the work of beat reporter and deputy news editor Mark Chandler. Recent stories include revealing a councillors’ jolly to Spain and tracking the continued downfall of former council leader Chris Roberts’ allies – the Shopper played a big part in bringing Roberts’ bullying to a wider audience.

The website still veers wildly between clickbait and serious issues – and it showed a strange glee when reporting on a man having a crap at a bus stop – but on the whole the printed paper’s led with some strong stories of late. It’s even possible to pick one up these days, as branded dispensers have appeared in some shops.

For a paper that’s produced miles away, it’s doing a decent job on the resources it has. Heaven knows what will happen if more staff are cut and the thing moves to Sutton.

Imagine being a young reporter, stuck on crap money living in a houseshare – probably miles away – trying to work from home, without colleagues to share information and tips with.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have actually got out to report on a story, but you now have to camp out in a library to write it up because you’re miles from home or the office, the deadline’s coming up and the library’s about to close. (Oh, and the story’s about library cuts.)

Or being stuck in Sutton, expected to work on copy about places you know nothing about because you’re expected to now know New Cross as well as New Malden. You’re not going to do your best work, are you?

But still, everything is awesome, isn’t it? If I had a car, I’d drive down to Petts Wood and give the picket line a honk of my horn. Instead, this post will have to do. Good luck to the News Shopper strikers.

mercury_greenwich640

It’s not just the Shopper. Not by a long way. Cuts have been the big story in the local press for years, with reporters stuck in offices rather than getting out and about. By losing a day’s pay to take placards around the Shopper’s enormous editorial area, the paper’s reporters have probably seen more of it than they have done in years.

The loss of the Shopper’s Petts Wood HQ would mean that none of the major news groups would have a presence in south-east London any more. The only weekly newspaper left in the wider area would be the Southwark News, which – guess what? – is independently-owned.

Otherwise, the big news groups have upped sticks and gone – Trinity Mirror moved the Mercury from Deptford to Streatham a decade ago, a decision that current owner Tindle Newspapers has stuck with. Archant moved the Kentish Times from Sidcup to Ilford a few years back.

There are now only three journalists who cover issues in Greenwich borough full-time – none of them cover the patch exclusively anymore. Mark Chandler and Jaimie Micklethwaite juggle Greenwich and Lewisham for the Shopper, while Mandy Little covers Greenwich for the Mercury as well as putting together seven different versions of the paper. (Its sister paper, the South London Press, now just has one staff reporter covering Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth.)

Cuts and clickbait might sum up the Shopper’s difficulties, but the Mercury’s in an even worse state because octogenarian owner Ray Tindle doesn’t believe in the internet. He’s even got a terrible TV ad to extol how great the papers of 1956 were. It pretty much sums up the worldview of a man who set up his newspaper group with his demob money, and hasn’t moved on since.

The Mercury was once the undisputed king of this area’s local papers – a campaigning weekly with reach and clout. It’s where I did my first newspaper work experience in 1991.

But firstly under Trinity Mirror, and latterly under Tindle, it’s shed staff and circulation, and is now locked in a death pact with its one-time rival the South London Press. And because Tindle – a kind of Christina Foyle of the local newspaper industry – doesn’t believe in the internet, it can’t even run a page of kitten photos on its token website to raise any interest.

Two years ago, the journalism trade press lauded Tindle’s decision to split the Greenwich editions of the Mercury and sell them through the news trade. So as well as the (free) Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley Mercury titles, there would now be paid-for 30p editions for Charlton, Blackheath and “Greenwich Town”. The likes of Press Gazette sat on the great man’s knee as he opined on how important paid-for newspapers were.

Straight outta Streatham: The now-defunct Charlton Mercury

Straight outta Streatham: The now-defunct Charlton Mercury

Of course, this was barmy, as Greenwich hasn’t had a paid-for title since the Kentish Independent closed in 1984. Even more barmy was that Tindle was putting no new resources into these titles, so a skeleton staff had to source stories to fill pages in three extra papers, and they’d be padded out with irrelevant coverage of events in Sydenham or Erith, at the far edges of the Mercury’s patch. Nor did he pay for any promotion of these titles.

The other suicidal thing about this strategy is that neighbouring communities in London aren’t discrete – they blend into one another. I don’t often visit my local newsagent in Charlton, but I’m more likely to visit one in Blackheath as I pass it more often. So I’d have to go out of my way to spend 30p on a title for Charlton that perhaps had three dedicated pages of news for my area.

Splitting titles up also means that you have to justify having a Charlton paper by having a Charlton story on its front page. So a major story could happen two miles away in Woolwich, but the Charlton paper would have something inconsequential as its front page splash. That’s madness.

To nobody’s surprise, a couple of months back, the Charlton Mercury closed along with its two paid-for sisters, unnoticed by Tindle’s fans in the trade press. I’d be stunned if more than 100 Charlton Mercurys were sold each week. I’d be surprised if it did even half that sum.

But was Tindle going to concentrate on making the Greenwich Mercury great again? No. Instead, the Mercury was to be sliced up again, without any investment in staff.

Now there are free editions for Greenwich, Lewisham and Bexley boroughs, plus local editions (free this time) for Abbey Wood & Thamesmead, Woolwich, Plumstead and Catford, all coming from the understaffed SLP office in Streatham (which is also putting out a series of local SLPs for areas such as Deptford, Peckham and Brixton, plus Tindle’s new plaything, a series of tatty-looking titles for central and west London, the London Weekly News). The Catford edition is especially puzzling, as most of the news stories (and advertising) are about Greenwich borough.

A pile of Mercurys abandoned in Sainsbury's Local, Charlton Church Lane

A pile of Mercurys abandoned in Sainsbury’s Local, Charlton Church Lane

As for Charlton, Blackheath and “Greenwich Town”, we’ve got a generic Mercury back again, barely delivered through any doors and occasionally found abandoned in piles in supermarkets. I recently tried to buy one in a newsagent only to find there was no cover price or bar code. Me and the newsagent settled on 30p. With miserly promotion like this, the Mercury’s future has to be looking bleak.

It’s not just greedy, stupid newspaper owners killing the local press – in Greenwich, the council is contributing by placing Greenwich Time up against them, undercutting the Mercury and Shopper’s ad rates.

Of course, Newsquest’s cuts make it easier for Greenwich to justify carrying on with its vanity weekly – the government’s legal action against the council on this is set to drag on for some months yet. And sadly for the Shopper strikers, their own union has undermined them by backing council Pravdas. Greenwich Time is an anomaly that affects just a sixth of the News Shopper’s distribution area, but it’s certainly not helping matters.

I don’t know what the solution is – heck, I can’t even get a decent job in the industry myself at the moment – other than to keep buying Euromillions tickets so I can buy the Mercury off Tindle, move it back to SE London and save the bloody thing from its slow death.

But news is important. Here’s the founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, on why it matters to his business.

Having a great news organization has a positive effect on BuzzFeed’s entire culture and makes the whole organization better. Even our team members who work on entertainment content or on the business side are proud to work at a company that is breaking big, important stories. It is inspiring to be part of an organization with reporters doing work that helps shut down ISIS oil smuggling across the Turkish border, exposes sex abuse at an elite private high school, or shines a light on battered women who are wrongly imprisoned. That kind of work pushes all of us to do our very best work and aim high, and we plan to keep pushing.

Or, to put it more parochially, the News Shopper can do all the “you’ll be amazed by these 21 arse-cracks we found in the Wetherspoon in Petts Wood” clickbait pieces it likes – but unless you’re balancing it out with the kind of serious reporting that takes time, effort and risk (exposing wrongdoing, not drunks having a dump at a bus stop), you’ll just end up with a hollow product.

Sadly, Newsquest doesn’t seem to be seeing it this way. Maybe – like some commercially-run hyperlocal websites that concentrate on lifestyle above news – it just thinks someone else will do it. But who?

It’s worth noting that the papers that are doing well are independents such as the Southwark News. The Camden New Journal even put out a special issue the day after the general election. And even our own Greenwich Visitor punches well above its weight for a monthly produced by a tiny team.

Perhaps local communities should be empowered to be able to buy local newspapers (like they can bid to buy threatened pubs and other local assets). Perhaps then community-run papers should be able to get charity status. Would this work here in south-east London? I don’t know. But even asking these questions is a start.

The next time something in your community is threatened, you’ll want some support and publicity. And local papers still carry clout. So give the News Shopper strikers your support. Complain to Newsquest. Tell your MP to do the same. Ask your local Labour councillor if they’ll support union members.

The News Shopper may not be the perfect paper we all want to see. But it – and the Mercury – are the best we’ve got. And we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Are Boris bikes finally coming to Greenwich? The mayor backs it…

London's new hire bikes feature the Dome - even though there are no terminals near North Greenwich

The Dome features on the new London Cycle Hire branding – but you can’t pick up a bike there


The prospect of London’s cycle hire scheme coming to Greenwich came a step closer this morning after mayor Boris Johnson backed a proposal to bring the scheme to the area.

While the ‘Boris bikes’ – formally Santander Cycles after a recent change in sponsor – are a regular sight in Greenwich, it is impossible to hire or dock a bike in the area.

Instead, visitors take bikes from stations close to Island Gardens and take the bikes through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, or they cycle from docking stations closer to Tower Bridge.

The scheme has largely avoided south-east London – despite poor transport connections, particularly around Walworth, Camberwell and Bermondsey – pushing out instead to east London and more affluent parts of west and south-west London. But Greenwich’s status as a tourist destination could now help bring the scheme to the area.

Asked by Conservative Assembly member (and Tory mayoral hopeful) Andrew Boff if TfL would consider three to five stations in Greenwich, Johnson said he would back an expansion to Greenwich – with a larger number of terminals.

Presumably 45 terminals would be enough to fill the gap between Tower Bridge and Greenwich. The answer’s a surprise as TfL has appeared to have been prioritising filling in gaps in the existing area rather than expanding the service further.

Later, Boff gave credit to Greenwich Tory councillor Matt Clare – probably Woolwich Town Hall’s keenest cyclist – for coming up with the suggestion.

Boff also asked about a wider expansion towards New Cross and Lewisham, and suggested asking Network Rail for money as such a scheme would help mitigate the effect of the Thameslink works at London Bridge. We’ll find out a fuller answer to that in the coming weeks.

Could this actually happen, though? It’s likely to end up in the next mayor’s in-tray, and it’s worth noting that past expansions of the cycle hire scheme have required local boroughs to contribute £2 million each – are Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark up for that? The bikes are largely used by tourists and more affluent commuters – but that hasn’t stopped Greenwich, which has stepped up its cycling efforts in the past year, giving funding to Thames Clippers. Other boroughs may take different views.

The level of expansion is also worth considering. The hill separating Greenwich from Blackheath could be a natural barrier (although being hilly hasn’t stopped an identical bike hire scheme taking off in Montreal), but the mayor’s involvement in redevelopment schemes in Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal could see even further expansion.

Santander’s new branding includes the Millennium Dome, even though it’s impossible to hire or dock a bike there. Incidentally, Green Assembly member Darren Johnson has asked TfL to investigate a walking and cycling connection from the peninsula to Canary Wharf – a connection that would make the extension of the hire scheme to the peninsula a no-brainer.

If the hire scheme is extended, private hire operators could lose out for the visitor market – tourists can hire less cumbersome bikes from Greenwich’s Flightcentre for £4/hr, but recent changes to the hire scheme now mean Boris bikes match that price.

An expansion to Greenwich is by no means a certainty, but it’ll be interesting to watch how this plays out in the weeks and months ahead.

Farewell East Greenwich Library, hello Greenwich Centre

East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015

A little bit of Greenwich history came to an end today, quietly swept under the carpet after decades of neglect.

East Greenwich Library, which first opened 110 years ago, shut its doors on Friday evening, ahead of its shiny new replacement at the Greenwich Centre opening today.

Without this place, I’m not sure I’d have developed a keenness for digging out facts and a general curiosity about the world around me. I was brought up just around the corner – never mind Wikipedia, I could have a pop at finding out stuff in the library. And I’d usually end up finding out a lot me.

Later on, I used to read its copies of Time Out. I’ve got its London news coverage and Jon Ronson columns to thank/blame for my decision to go into journalism.

East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015

This handsome building – donated to the community by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – was the old central library of the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. Some of its old books are used as props in rooms at Charlton House, with century-old labels in and warnings that the library must be told if your home housed people with infectious diseases.

In the 1980s, what was then called Greenwich Library still carried the pomp of its heyday – a proper reference library at the side, a large children’s library at the back, and rows and rows of big, wide shelves. A particular mystery for me were the stairs at the centre of the library – where did they lead to?

Of course, this heyday wasn’t to last. The rot – quite literally – started to set in at the end of the 1980s.

Greenwich Council stopped maintaining the building properly, and shortly after a new library opened a mile up the hill in Blackheath, closure was proposed. A local campaign saw it off, but the library only survived in an emasculated state, with opening hours slashed, part of it walled off and effectively left to crumble.

East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015
East Greenwich Library, 12 June 2015

Five years ago – during my run as a Green Party council candidate – I was shown around the basement, which at the time was being used by Greenwich Community College’s music classes. It was prone to flooding and in a bad way.

Now, with the move down the road, the council can finally get the library off is books – something it’s wanted to do for at least a quarter of a century. Sorting out all the structural problems will be somebody else’s responsibility. It’s going to look ugly for a while, with shutters put up to stop squatters.

The building’s now going to be up for sale. but, I’m told, with a covenant that keeps it in community use. I’m pleased about this, as that was something we campaigned on five years ago. We’ll just have to watch to make sure Greenwich Council are as good as their word. (Update 29 June: There is no covenant on the building.)

Greenwich Centre, 12 June 2015
Greenwich Centre, 12 June 2015

The new library opens on Saturday in the Greenwich Centre, along with a new leisure centre – replacing the Arches, which also closes today – and a new council service centre.

There’s a very strange bit of public art outside, though. Forget the proud industrial history of east Greenwich, and never mind the health services which occupied this site for more than a century – there’s an artwork based on Nelson and Darwin.

Nelson’s links are with the posher end of Greenwich, and as for Darwin – that’s Woolwich, where his HMS Beagle was launched from. It’s all a bit Royal Borough™ Theme Park.

A spacious, open library gives east Greenwich a facility of the standard I enjoyed when I was young, and it’s good to see the old hospital site back in public use after 14 years. Hopefully, the old library’s contribution to the community won’t be airbrushed out of history. One to watch.

Greenwich councillors spent £20,000 on toasting new mayor

Mick Hayes and Norman Adams, a councillor since 1978

Party guys: Outgoing mayor Mick Hayes and incumbent Norman Adams, a councillor since 1978

Greenwich Council spent nearly £20,000 on an invite-only function celebrating the inauguration of its new mayor at the Old Royal Naval College last month.

The event came less than three weeks before Labour councillors met to discuss the prospect of future government budget squeezes, which are likely to see services cut further over the next five years.

Councillors and guests attended the event, on 19 May, which marked long-serving councillor Norman Adams replacing Mick Hayes as the borough’s first citizen. Representatives from Berkeley Homes and Ikea were also invited, according to details released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The cost of the event, which came to £19,300, excluding VAT, has shot up following the decision of the Greenwich Foundation, which runs the old naval college, to charge the council for the first time in some years. Last year’s event cost £13,385.

Greenwich negotiated free venue hire with the foundation, as well as began using cheaper PA systems, after this website revealed that 2010’s ceremony had cost nearly £30,000.

Last month’s ceremony was the 10th the council has held at the Old Royal Naval College, bringing the total bill over the years for council taxpayers to £220,000, according to responses to various Freedom of Information Act requests.

Most boroughs do not hold these lavish bashes. The same night Greenwich councillors and their guests were living it up at in the Painted Hall, Camden inaugurated its new mayor at a simple event at its town hall.

Indeed, Adams formally became mayor at the council’s annual general meeting the previous week – with a ceremony similar to this one at Waltham Forest – meaning there was no need for the Naval College event at all.

Southwark uses Southwark Cathedral for its mayor-making, but declares it an official council meeting, meaning the public can come and watch. It also combines the inauguration with a civic awards ceremony.

In Greenwich, the public are shut out, despite paying a £9,000 bill for food and drink (red wine was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Moncaro 2012; white wine was Galassia Garganega/Pinot Grigio 2013).

Greenwich Time, 26 May 2015

This year’s event got front-page billing in Greenwich Time, without mention of the cost

Instead, while community representatives are invited, the event has traditionally been used for networking.

The invite list includes representatives from Ikea – whose plans for a store in east Greenwich have caused uproar – and property developers Berkeley Homes and Durkan. It is not known which of the 350 invitees actually attended.

Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon was also invited, as was the firm behind the Greenwich cruise liner terminal – two major planning schemes which have also angered local people. Indeed, just a few hundred yards from the ceremony, the East Greenwich Residents Association was discussing the effects of these schemes at its regular public meeting – without their Peninsula ward councillors present.

Despite blowing large sums of money on celebrating themselves at a time of cutbacks, Greenwich councillors have been largely oblivious to criticism of the Naval College bash, although some do deliberately stay away.

Indeed, in 2013, the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time lied about its location, claiming for two successive weeks that it was held at Woolwich Town Hall.

The borough’s Tories have generally gone along with the ceremony, while occasionally pushing for it to be made more open to the public.

Labour councillors met at this weekend to discuss the effects of another five years of cuts under the new government. Can they really justify blowing another £20,000 on a private party?

The answer will lie with this year’s deputy mayor Olu Babatola, who will take the main job next year. Already a mould-breaker as the borough’s first African mayor, he could set an equally-welcome precedent by scrapping next year’s ceremony. Will he do it? It’s over to you, Olu.

6.35pm update: Invite lists from this and past years: 2015, 2014, 2013 , 2012 , 2011.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel: Fiddling while the lifts are stuck?

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, Sunday 7 June 2015
In an easier world, the fire brigade being called to a stuck lift in Greenwich Foot Tunnel would have been Proper News. I would have asked the fireman if anyone was stuck in there. I might have waited around for a bit to see if anything happened.

But it happens too often, regular users tell me. So I wheezed my bike up the south stairs last night, gazed out at the flashing blue lights of the fire engine (presumably parked well away so nobody thought the Cutty Sark was on fire again), and went off on my merry way.

Last week, Greenwich Council announced it’d been given £200,000 by TfL to trial a safe cycling scheme in the tunnel, along with its quieter sister crossing at Woolwich. Currently, there is a blanket ban on cycling that is widely flouted and little-enforced.

When there are too many pedestrians in the tunnels, cyclists will be told to get off and walk. While there is money for enforcement measures, it remains to be seen quite how it’ll work.

While new investment in cycling is to be welcomed, is this really the right solution? The over-engineered lifts still aren’t working properly (particularly at Greenwich – vandalism is more of an issue at Woolwich) – the product of a botched £11.5m refurbishment scheme – so perhaps fixing those should be more of a priority.

But perhaps the council is resigned to their unreliability – it’s working on a smartphone app which will send alerts to warn people that the lifts are stuck.

Demand for cycling routes to Canary Wharf is increasing, so a hundred grand on turning the Greenwich tunnel into what may effectively become a cycle tunnel is clearly a magnitude cheaper than creating the sorely-needed new cycling/walking routes across the Thames.

It’ll take a lot of work to ensure the small tunnel doesn’t become an effective no-go zone for people on two feet – is any piece of technology up to making sure pedestrians are safe? Perhaps that breed of aggressive, anti-social cyclist that charges through the tunnel – the ones many cyclists hate, too – has won this battle down to sheer strength. Or because nobody really wanted to take the pedestrians’ side.

Whatever happens, FOGWOFT, the Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, will be watching the scheme – and if you’re a regular user, on foot or on two wheels, it may need your help in doing just that.

Gazing out at that fire engine last night, though, I couldn’t help comparing the situation with that of the Charlton skate park row, where Berkeley Homes has effectively given Greenwich Council £360,000 to move the Royal Arsenal Gardens skate park to Charlton Park, well away from the plush investment opportunities it plans to build there.

Part of the plan is to pass a bylaw banning skateboarders from Woolwich’s General Gordon Square, who do little harm and bring life what can be a bleak space on quiet nights. Rather unrealistically, the council hopes they’ll take their boards and get on a 53 bus to be banished two miles up the hill, well away from Berkeley’s buyers.

It’s very telling that Greenwich Council wishes to criminalise these young people for these minor misdemeanours in Woolwich, while backing down on similar infractions in Greenwich Foot Tunnel. But the kids in Woolwich have no clout, while the foot tunnel cyclists are often heading to well-paid jobs in Canary Wharf. One rule for one group, another for the rest – such is life in a “royal borough”.

Greenwich Peninsula social cleansing: The radio documentary

Quintain plan for Greenwich Peninsula
This website was the first media outlet to highlight how Greenwich councillors allowed developers to reduce the amount of “affordable” housing in part of the Greenwich Peninsula to zero.

Councillors made the decision about Peninsula Quays on the basis of a “viability assessment” which had been kept from them – they had to trust Greenwich’s planning officers on what was effectively pre-emptive social cleansing.

Two years on and one court case later, it’s likely the issue may lead to changes in planning procedures across London. Shane Brownie, the residents’ rep who alerted me to the story, battled to force a reluctant Greenwich Council to release the document – a fight he finally won in February.

Now Greenwich has performed a startling about-turn on the issue, planning to make public the assessments that it wouldn’t even show its councillors.

Last week, the issue formed part of a documentary for Radio 4, The Affordable Housing Crisis, which you can still hear on the BBC’s website. Nick Mathiason and Christian Eriksson of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism have also looked at the issue, with their own investigation.

One aspect that shows just how much of a crock the assessment was, and how Greenwich planners failed local people, is in how the viability assessment was based on house prices across Greenwich borough rather than on the peninsula alone – even though demand for a flat on the river close to a Tube station in Zone 2 is not comparable with, say, a semi in New Eltham.

While Greenwich’s plan to publish viability assessments is welcome, it should not obscure the fact that the council’s planners failed on this high-profile scheme, trashing the principles of mixed development that local politicians espouse but often fail to actually achieve.

ada_colau640

I’m a week late with this because I’ve been in Barcelona, a city whose residents are taking a harder line on housing. Wandering around in my first day, a scrum of media outside the city hall indicated the arrival of Ada Colau, Barcelona’s new mayor-elect.

She’s an activist who has led protests and occupations over the city’s housing crisis, and plans to radically increase the supply of social housing in the Catalan capital.

As I watched her field questions from the press – and the enthusiasm shown by passers-by – I couldn’t help thinking that her approach is desperately needed in London. Watching some of the discussion over our own mayoral election, though, I’m not convinced many of the possible candidates get it.

A CGI from architects Chassay & Last.

But perhaps there is some incremental change here in Greenwich. Last night, the council’s planning board deferred a decision on whether or not to allow a nine-storey block of flats on Woolwich Road in Charlton.

Local amenity groups had opposed the Valley House scheme on the basis of height – but what persuaded councillors to throw the scheme back at the developer was its inclusion of “poor doors”. Just 18.4% of the flats there were due to be “affordable” – another secret viability assessment – with these residents given a separate set of doors to access those homes.

This is the kind of development that would have sailed through under former leader Chris Roberts and his henchman Ray Walker, former planning board chair. Now under new chair Mark James, the developers have effectively been told to go away and bin the poor doors.

Greenwich Time, 2 June 2015

Like many issues in Greenwich, there’s a total lack of political leadership over housing – the council leads the local Labour party rather than the other way around. A wraparound ad for Berkeley Homes in this week’s propaganda rag Greenwich Time doesn’t inspire any confidence that its relationship with property developers is any healthier under Denise Hyland than it was under Roberts.

Contrast this with Lewisham, where the local party trumpets new council housing. In Greenwich, this kind of promotion is left to the council itself (via Greenwich Time), leaving an unhealthy political vacuum.

Decisions like last night’s indicate things are starting to change. However, it’s worth remembering that council officers – the same ones that kept Greenwich Peninsula’s viability assessment from councillors – recommended approval, poor doors and all. In Greenwich’s command-and-control political culture, criticising council officers is a crime comparable with robbing grandmothers – they’ve traditionally been used as cover for the council leadership’s cowardice.

But last night’s Valley House decision shows some Greenwich councillors are now starting to take some responsibility for their council’s actions instead of just taking the path of least resistance. Hopefully there will also be pressure to reveal the viability assessment for Valley House too. If the events of the last few months are to really mean anything in Greenwich, though, councillors are going to have to start asking some very awkward questions of their planning staff.

4.30pm update: Former councillor Alex Grant has also written about the issue.