As you may have noticed, it was rather hard to get home to south-east London last night.
A fire in signalling equipment at London Bridge saw all trains through the station cancelled at the beginning of the evening rush hour. The delays lasted beyond the rush hour and right to the end of the day.
I came through Charing Cross at 11pm and just managed to get a train back to Charlton which ran via Lewisham. Judging by the announcements telling people to use local buses, it seemed Southeastern had simply given up running a service on the other metro lines.
The disruption spread, and a perfect storm hit North Greenwich station – swamped by people bumped off Southeastern trains on the night of a gig at the O2, plus a Charlton Athletic home match. It’s chaotic enough on a normal night, but last night the police were called and the station was closed for a spell.
Everyone had their own story to tell. While a total wipeout of trains from London Bridge is rare, from 2015 there’ll be severe restrictions on mainline trains stopping at London Bridge as the station’s rebuilt for the Thameslink programme. Will North Greenwich be able to cope with the extra load?
Still, everyone caught in the disruption last night can be comforted by the fact that Greenwich Council, Boris Johnson and the owners of the O2 have the solution to everyone’s transport worries at North Greenwich. Yes, that’s right, they want to build a new road tunnel.
Oh, and don’t forget Boris Johnson’s other solution to our travel woes…
The future of our local transport is clearly in safe hands.
The campaign is on to save the Woolwich Grand Theatre, which faces demolition after being open for less than two years. But it’s not the only arts venue in the area with a shadow on the horizon, with concerns being raised over the long-term future of Greenwich Theatre too.
While the news about Woolwich Grand Theatre has come as a shock to many, the site has been earmarked for redevelopment by the council for some time. The freeholder, Thirty Eight Wellington Street Ltd, is in administration.
The original Woolwich Grand Theatre opened in 1900, but later became a cinema before being demolished in 1939. The current building opened in 1955 as the Regal Cinema, later becoming the ABC Woolwich before closing in 1982. It was used on and off as a nightclub until 2008.
Woolwich Grand Theatre founder Adrian Green gained planning permission to use it as an arts venue in 2011, opening the doors at the beginning of 2012.
While the building still requires a lot of work on it (£630,000-worth, according to the developer) the main auditorium has been used for concerts and films, while a smaller space upstairs has been used for plays and other events.
Local politicians have been keen to associate themselves with the theatre – it’s being used a lot for events in the campaign to be the Labour candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich – but Greenwich Council’s backing has only been lukewarm.
In July this year, a report for housing cabinet member Steve Offord showed the Grand Theatre site as having “development potential”.
This appeared to be bit of a smack in the face for Green. Six months earlier, he’d posed in a hard hat alongside council leader Chris Roberts to promote the council’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel, presumably try to get the council on board with his plans for the theatre.
In terms of planning, the council includes the Woolwich Grand Theatre as part of the Bathway Quarter. This was the old administrative heart of Woolwich, which now lies neglected. It includes the listed Old Town Hall, the former Island Site of Thames Polytechnic/ Greenwich University and the old swimming baths/ student union.
The council’s Woolwich Masterplan states: “This area has a rich character which should be preserved though sensitive residential-led refurbishment with active uses at ground floor to create a distinct urban quarter. This area has the potential to be a high quality, high-specification, loft-style place with bars, galleries and artists’ studios together with other uses such as a jazz club and creative industries such as architects’ studios.”
Now Upminster-based developer Secure Sleep wants to knock the Woolwich Grand down and build flats there instead – with no sign of any arts usage for the site whatsoever. You can see the full planning application on the Greenwich Council website.
Architect Nigel Ostime told The Stage: “The theatre doesn’t appear to be a commercially viable proposition. As such, when you’ve got a big building that has a lot of maintenance needs, it requires money breathed into it to make it work properly. Sadly, there isn’t the money to do that.
“We are proposing to demolish the building to create homes for people. There is a great need for housing in London, and this would help to fill that gap.”
No money around, eh? We’ll come back to that point later. A petition’s been launched to save the Woolwich Grand Theatre – and a decision is expected in February.
The threat to the Woolwich Grand Theatre is imminent and real. But a few miles west, there are more long-term worries about Greenwich Theatre.
Last week, Greenwich Council’s cabinet agreed plans to create a “performing arts hub” at the council-owned Greenwich Borough Hall on Royal Hill, which is currently home to Greenwich Dance Agency. However, details of the proposal have been kept secret, which the council says is due to their financial implications, while the decision has been rushed through to meet a deadline to apply for Heritage Lottery Fund money.
“As well as providing a significantly improved facility, the proposed investment will reduce maintenance costs overall helping to secure the long-term sustainability of performing arts in the borough,” the cabinet paper says – which would suggest that other venues may be closed.
“At the same time, it has not been possible to bring the proposals to Cabinet before now due to the on-going discussions with the arts organisations who will be affected and therefore it has not been possible on this occasion to provide the 28 days’ notice required for a key decision,” it adds.
Several sources say Greenwich’s long-term strategy is to move Greenwich Theatre into the Borough Hall. I’ve also been told this idea has been deferred until after 2014′s council election after objections from local councillors, although I’ve not been able to confirm this.
Indeed, tampering with Greenwich Theatre could well be electoral suicide in west Greenwich. The area’s already lost one theatre recently, after the owners of the Greenwich Playhouse theatre illegally turned the venue into a hostel, then exploited a planning loophole which left councillors taking the flak when it belatedly came before a committee this summer. (A plan for it to reopen in the Creekside development in Deptford has so far not materialised.) And plans to demolish the Trident Hall, which was also used for plays, and replace it with a hotel have also reappeared recently.
But more importantly, it’s likely that such a plan would be unworkable, considering the Borough Hall is more like a school hall than a theatre. Indeed, it would be much more suitable as a music venue than one for staging plays.
Unlike the Woolwich Grand, the council is directly involved in the fate of Greenwich Theatre. The old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich bought the then-derelict Hippodrome Picture Palace site in 1962, planning to redevelop it.
But a local campaign resulted in its successor, the current council, leasing it to the Greenwich Theatre, which opened after rebuilding works in 1969.
Now the Crooms Hill site is believed to be in need of repairs – hence the proposal to turn the clock back 50 years and sell it, rather than fix it.
While the idea appears to have been kicked into the long grass for now, theatre fans in Greenwich should be staying vigilant about the venue’s future. There’s already talk of having Greenwich Theatre declared an asset of community value, which would put a six-month brake on any proposal to sell it. That said, it would need Greenwich Council to agree to ACV status – which would call the council’s bluff somewhat.
But the arts hub proposal reveals there is funding available for arts projects – even during this time of cuts. So with the right management, it’s clear Woolwich Grand Theatre could be saved, if the money can be raised to buy the freehold from a firm in administration, and if Greenwich Council has the political will to give campaigners time by declaring the building an asset of community value.
Furthermore, it’s worth questioning the point in having any arts hub if there’s no arts policy in place. In recent years Greenwich has pulled back from funding venues such as Blackheath Halls and Conservatoire, and has instead put cash into recurring events under the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner. The trouble with this strategy, though, is that it doesn’t leave much of a legacy once the festival’s over.
And rushing through a decision to make an arts hub in west Greenwich doesn’t really make much sense when you’re supposed to be creating a quarter of bars and “jazz clubs” over in Woolwich. Doing it all in secret doesn’t look good either – but then that’s the way Chris Roberts’ increasingly chaotic administration does things.
Perhaps the Woolwich Grand’s woes will provide a chance to step back, rethink, and come up with something clearer. I wouldn’t bank on it, though…
12.10pm update: Coincidentally, Royal Museums Greenwich is opening up a performance space in the Cutty Sark in the new year.
Unless you live in the two tower blocks overlooking it, it’s unlikely you’ll even be aware of Woolwich’s historic Rushgrove House. And as for the tranquil Mulgrave Pond, most people only ever get a brief glimpse of it from the top of a double decker bus – and even then, you have to know where to look.
But last weekend, the Grade II listed house, tucked away off Artillery Place, was open to the public for an exhibition of work by Royal College of Art students.
Built in 1816, it was enlarged over the years and bought by the Admiralty to become the home of General Sir Anthony Blaxland Stransham, commandant of the Royal Marine Barracks, which was just around the corner on Frances Street. It was sold by the army in 1986 and was used as a family home until last year.
In the grounds of Rushgrove House is Mulgrave Pond, formed in the early 1750s as a reservoir for the royal dockyard. Later, it was adapted to serve steam engines at the Arsenal, with a pipe laid under Wellington Street. It’s been a popular venue for fishing over the years.
On a gloomy Sunday, the creaky old house took on an eerie feel – with the students setting up little hammers to regularly tap on the windows, it must have been spooky after darkness fell.
Last month, Greenwich Council gave planning permission for the 10-bedroom house to be divided into two (one five-bedroom home, another four-bedroom home), so this may have been the last chance to see Rushgrove House before work starts. You can see more photos at TOWIWoolwich, while if this kind of history fascinates you, then splash out on the recently-published Survey of London volume on Woolwich- it’s worth every penny.
As of today, the place is back in the care of property guardians until the builders come in. Like Repository Woods over the road, it’s be another bit of Woolwich’s history that’s strictly out of bounds.
In case there isn’t a chance in the near future, you’ll be able to see it in the cinema – the house was used by director Mike Leigh for his as-yet untitled biopic of painter JMW Turner, starring Timothy Spall, due for release next year.
Just four regular commuters are now using the Emirates Air Line cable car between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, down from 16 last autumn. Hop over to The Scoop to find out more.
TfL is still claiming the cable car “continues to play a key role in attracting investment to this strategically important part of the capital”. Yet the only growth industry around North Greenwich that hasn’t been planned for years seems to be in takeaway outlets at the tube station. Is there any sign of a cable car-related boom on the peninsula?
Greenwich Council has finally come clean and admitted its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, is signed off by leader Chris Roberts… “to ensure political neutrality and to protect the borough’s reputation”.
Last week, this website revealed how the council’s press office intervened to change the tone of a promotion for the council’s employment agency, despite Roberts denying that any council staff conducted editorial work on the newspaper.
Now council chief executive Mary Ney has admitted she and Roberts scrutinise each edition before it goes to press. The weekly is regularly criticised for its promotion of the council leadership, as well as muscling out commercial competitors.
Following Friday’s story, the council’s opposition leader Spencer Drury emailed Ney asking for clarification of whether council staff did actually conduct editorial work on the paper.
She replied: “It is inconceivable that the council would not sign off each edition of a council publication. This is done by officers including myself and Legal officers as needed, as well as by the Leader. This is to ensure compliance with the code of publicity, to ensure political neutrality and to protect the borough’s reputation.”
Ney also describes the council’s head of media, Stuart Godfrey, as “a client side manager” for GT. The paper is nominally staffed by freelances, although is Greenwich is facing an employment tribunal following the dismissal of chief reporter Peter Cordwell earlier this year.
While it’s been well known within the council for years that Roberts has the final say over Greenwich Time, this is the first time it’s been admitted.
Two months ago, ex-GT designer Graham Tuckwell told the News Shopper that Roberts would not allow stories in the paper “without his absolute say so”.
“Peter [Cordwell] and his team found it increasingly impossible to run any stories without the vetting of the communications team with orders from Roberts,” Tuckwell told the paper.
“Our job now was to deliver the council’s key messages and nothing else.
“Comments from ordinary councillors who were doing great work in their own wards were non-existent and of course there was never a word allowed from the opposition.”
Of course, it goes without saying that the bullying accusations against Chris Roberts, who has referred himself to the council’s standards committee over the notorious “get it through your fucking thick skull” voicemail, have not been mentioned in Greenwich Time.
Ney’s admission now throws a fresh light on the finances of Greenwich Time, because Greenwich has never before owned up to the role of council staff in producing the paper.
So let’s have a proper go at nailing these figures…
According to an answer given at a council meeting in July, Greenwich Time took £403,938 in ad revenue from inside the council, and £254,272 from external advertisers in 2012/13.
In a written response, Chris Roberts claimed: “In 2012/13 had the adverts been placed externally and on the basis of normal page rates, it would have cost an estimated £2.7m. Therefore, in 2012/13, the Council saved over £2.3m in advertising costs as a result of placing adverts in Greenwich Time (GT) compared to the costs it would have incurred by advertising in the two other local newspapers.”
Really? Roberts’ figures look like fantasy, to say the least. Would Greenwich really be placing that many ads in the Mercury or the News Shopper? Particularly as this website understands each council department has to place a certain amount of advertising in GT, presumably to keep the paper’s finances looking decent.
Last week’s GT contained 4 council ads, 3 job ads and various public notices. The public notices have to be advertised somewhere, but if GT didn’t exist, would the job ads have been placed in any other paper? And what about the other council ads?
Would the council really place an ad for its own website in the Mercury or News Shopper? Of course not. But it does in GT to keep the books looking good.
Furthermore, some “external” advertisers are council partners. The only place you’d find ads for the Run to the Beat race, for example, was in Greenwich Time – it was policy not to advertise anywhere else. These ads would, presumably, go elsewhere if GT didn’t exist.
As for the outgoings, a scour through the council’s books shows Greenwich is currently paying Trinity Mirror roughly £4,000 to print each issue, and Greatbach Ltd (Letterbox Distribution) £7,633 for delivery – at 51 issues per year, that’s £593,283 per year.
As for editorial staff? Those editorial and sales freelances cost £206,880.90 last financial year, according to the same written answer from July.
|Income from internal ads||+£403,938|
|Income from external ads||+£254,272|
|Costs of printing||-£204,000|
|2012/13 cost of distribution||-£371,928|
|Freelance editorial and sales staff costs||-£206,881|
|COST OF GREENWICH TIME||- £124,799|
These figures don’t include the time Greenwich Council staff spend on the paper. So let’s have some educated guesses, shall we?
Let’s assume the council pays its head of media £60,000 in total, and he spends a third of his time dealing with Greenwich Time. That’s another £20,000. Five staff work underneath him – let’s say they’re on £40k each in total, and they deal with Greenwich Time for 10% of their time at a conservative estimate. That’s another £20,000.
Now let’s do it with Chris Roberts and the senior officers who will also have input into Greenwich Time. Unlike the guesses above, we have the real figures – Chris Roberts (£62,668), Mary Ney (£190,000), head of legal Russell Power (£116,000) and director of culture, media and sport Katrina Delaney (£125,000). These sums won’t include employers’ national insurance or pension payments. If they spend 5% of their working time dealing with Greenwich Time, that works out at roughly £25,000.
So, if we assume an extra £65,000-worth of time from the council payroll is going into GT, that pushes the loss to nearly £190,000. And if you consider how much the paper is propped up by payments for in-house ads which wouldn’t exist if GT didn’t exist – and what we don’t know is exactly what is charged to each department – then that sum leaps.
Of course, what’s not taken into account is the cost of publishing public notices elsewhere. Yet it surely wouldn’t be beyond the council to come to a deal where a publisher accepts a lower rate on public notices in exchange for the council’s Letterbox distribution deal, which sees GT go through doors the Mercury and the News Shopper gave up on long ago.
All councils need to be able to tell people about services. But we now know we’re paying at least £200,000 each year so Roberts and his allies can promote themselves in Greenwich Time, to the exclusion of all other voices (including his own Labour backbenchers, never mind the opposition Tories). And none of this takes into account whether people even read or take notice of Greenwich Time any more – or whether it’s become a weekly reminder of a council that’s badly lost touch with the people it’s meant to serve.
By admitting Chris Roberts has the final say-so over Greenwich Time, the council’s chief executive has inadvertently done what too many of Roberts’ colleagues are scared of doing – she’s blown the whistle.
Legislation going through Parliament now is likely to see Greenwich Time outlawed in the future. Now the game’s up, will anyone put Greenwich Time out of its misery before it causes the council – and, potentially, the wider Labour Party – any more embarrassment?
An ad for street wardens in Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper removed references to shoplifting and rough sleeping in Woolwich for fear they would prove embarrassing, it has emerged.
The promotion for the council’s in-house recruitment agency also cut a reference to a recruit’s six children because the council’s chief executive was apparently “nervous” about mentioning large families, according to an email seen by this website.
The email, sent by a member of the council’s full-time staff, also disproves a claim by council leader Chris Roberts that no Greenwich employees “undertake editorial work” on Greenwich Time.
It was sent on 31 May by council head of press Stuart Godfrey to a manager at Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB), the council’s employment operation, copying in a Greenwich Time writer, a GT ad sales executive and another member of the council’s press team.
Titled “Are you trying to get me laid off”, Godfrey writes “we’ll need to redact the content or you and I will both be handed our P45s”.
The advertorial, which was due to run in the 4 June edition, featured short interviews with a woman and a man who had gained jobs as street wardens via GLLaB. The email outlines two issues with the copy which he says would cause problems.
Godfrey says that in the woman’s story, “it says she deals with rough sleepers, street drinkers and shop lifters. All positive messages about our area which will cause us problems at sign off I’m sure”.
The “sign off” process, this website has been told, is conducted by Roberts and chief executive Mary Ney.
He then rewrites the copy to remove these references.
So I’m suggesting that we redact the following paras from:
“Out on patrol, I speak to rough sleepers about their welfare and advise street drinkers on their conduct in a public place. I monitor Woolwich town centre and issue fines to anyone I see dropping litter. I also speak to traders about how they dispose of their rubbish. It is my job to keep an eye out for any anti-social behaviour.
“Today I liaised with the Police and CCTV team about the identification of shoplifters. After lunch, I helped a member of the public with directions and spoke to a group of young people about what is being shown on the Big Screen in General Gordon Square. I also advise them about a youth centre service available to them.”
“Out on patrol I monitor Woolwich town centre and issue fines to anyone I see dropping litter. I also speak to traders about how they dispose of their rubbish. It is my job to keep an eye out for any anti-social behaviour. I help members of the public with directions and inform them about events and entertainment taking place in the town centre. I also advise young people about youth centre service available to them.”
He also says: “The ad mentions that [name deleted] is a father of six – and as we know Mary is nervous about promoting the number of children each of the recruits has so we’ll need to cut the number of kids he has.”
In the end, the advertisement did not appear, although a page plan was produced featuring the original version.
Evidence of how the council’s head of press gets involved in Greenwich Time’s content comes despite Chris Roberts claiming all editorial work is done by freelancers.
Asked at a council meeting in July “how many council staff have working on Greenwich Time, either in editorial or sales, as part of their duties,” Roberts replied in a written answer: “There are no council staff who undertake either editorial or sales work on Greenwich Time.”
The question of Greenwich Time’s staffing has come under the spotlight recently, after chief reporter Peter Cordwell was sacked for writing a letter to local newspapers about the Lewisham Hospital campaign and zero hours contracts, both sensitive subjects at Woolwich Town Hall. He is now taking the issue to an industrial tribunal.
Later, editor Hilary Bryan and assistant editor Rod Kitson were thrown out of the council’s headquarters after refusing to attend a meeting with Godfrey and council director of culture, media and sport Katrina Delaney. Bryan is back working at GT, while Kitson is no longer there.
The weekly has limped on since that debacle, last week featuring a front cover claiming “council listens to traders” over its decision to order a review of the controversial “pavement tax” on retailers’ displays. A stilted write-up inside the paper merely referred to “concerns raised by businesses” and does not refer to a petition they got up, nor did it refer to their demonstration outside last month’s council meeting.
None of this is to mock the work of Stuart Godfrey or his colleagues in the council communications department, who are professionals doing the work they are directed to do – which, despite Chris Roberts’ denials, includes working on Greenwich Time, designed to manage the reputation of the council rather than inform residents.
Greenwich Time is just one of two weekly council papers in the country, but its days are likely to be numbered. A bill which would ban the likes of GT is currently going through the committee stage of the House of Commons, and could become law next year.
Greenwich Council was asked for a comment on this story, but has not responded.
PS. This week’s edition, incidentally, shows the fear of mentioning large families may have faded somewhat – a front page story featuring someone else with a job through GLLaB proudly boasts that he’s a dad-of-five.
So, if you saw the ad in Greenwich Council’s propaganda weekly announcing Ikea’s plans to build a new superstore, or if you got a letter through your door, you’d have expected to have learned something new from Saturday’s exhibition at Greenwich’s Forum.
But Ikea was remarkably short of detail on its plan to build a new store on the soon-to-be vacated Sainsbury’s site off Peartree Way. When Sainsbury’s mounted a similar exhibition two years ago to announce its intentions to move to Charlton, a lot more questions had been answered.
Instead, all we got was….
…a map which merely confirms that Ikea wants to knock down Sainsbury’s and Comet and plonk a new store on the same space.
…give us our store or these people in a stock photo won’t have jobs!
And that was about it. One thing which struck me was how confident Ikea’s reps were – “well, it’s either us or another store,” one told me, while I overheard one man in a yellow shirt explain to a colleague he’d be in charge of the project “once we get planning permission”. Indeed, since these displays will be on show in East Greenwich Library for the next fortnight, it’s effectively a free ad from Greenwich Council.
So, what was said about the elephant in the room, traffic? Not a lot. When asked, Ikea’s reps conceded there’d be an increase to traffic, and acknowledged the current access from the Woolwich Road flyover was a problem. But their only idea to fix things was merely to encourage car drivers to use the A102 exit at Blackwall Lane instead.
Much was made of the proposed store sitting on six bus routes and being a short walk from others (Ikea seems to have included night bus N1 in its figures), but a Billy bookcase doesn’t go well on a bus.
When I explained to an Ikea rep that I was a non-driver, he seemed somewhat surprised I hadn’t taken advantage of its costly delivery service. Like every other non-driver I know, the last time I used Ikea to buy something bulky, I sponged a lift to Croydon.
And as for “several off-street cycle routes serving the site” – really?! Where? – it’s worth pointing out that the Neasden Ikea has a whole three cycle racks. (Thanks to tweeter @Helzbels for the shot.)
Ikea’s confidence that many people will use public transport seems somewhat misplaced. In fact, one of its displays betrayed that.
“At present, people living and working in the Royal Borough of Greenwich… travel to our stores in Croydon, Lakeside or Tottenham.” The latter store is actually practically impossible to get to by public transport from this part of London. In fact, Ikea’s Neasden store is only 40 minutes up the Jubilee Line from North Greenwich, but public transport doesn’t seem to be Ikea’s strength.
Back in 2004, Ikea put in a planning application to Bromley Council for a store at the old Klinger factory site in Sidcup, together with a separate application to Bexley Council for an approach road. It was later withdrawn.
While the Sidcup site had much poorer public transport access, many of the observations from this Greater London Authority planning report from 2004 ring true of Ikea’s Greenwich plans – especially this one:
“It is not within or near a town centre and is an out of centre location chosen specifically for its proximity to the A20 with its ease of access by private motor vehicle from south east London and Kent. Indeed, the Medway towns of Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham, and Gravesend are all large conurbations within 30 minutes drive from this store along a motorway.”
Switch dual carriageways and add another 15 minutes, and you’ve got Ikea’s Greenwich plan – a magnet for Kent car drivers, and a pain for everyone in Greenwich itself. If it’s serious about winning over residents, Ikea needs to actually start thinking about its plans, rather than assuming people will be wowed by talk of solar panels and bus routes.