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.

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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.

Roll up, roll up – invest in Greenwich’s crappiest hotel site

The site of the Ibis Styles, Tunnel Avenue, with Blackwall Tunnel traffic jam behind

The site of the Ibis Styles, Tunnel Avenue, with Blackwall Tunnel traffic jam behind

Investors are being sought to put cash into a hotel next to one of London’s most notorious air pollution hotspots – the approach to the Blackwall Tunnel.

The Ibis Styles Greenwich North is currently being built on a small triangle of land between Tunnel Avenue and the A102, a few hundred yards from the tunnel entrance.

The three-star hotel will see guests sleep just metres from the frequent queues of traffic waiting to enter the congested tunnel – with further traffic expected if the additional Silvertown Tunnel is ever built.

Now investors are being asked to put sums from £150,000 into rooms at the hotel, with developers promising income from the guests staying there.

One investment site claims the site, formerly a car wash, is “located at the heart of the Greenwich Peninsula”, adding it is ” less than a 10 minute walk or 1 stop on the bus to the O2 Arena Entertainment District, Ravensbourne University College, North Greenwich underground station and the iconic Emirates Airlift [sic]”.

Drawings of the finished building show the hotel surrounded by near-empty roads.

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Planning permission was refused by Greenwich Council in March 2010, with the council calling it “an overdevelopment of the site that would be out of keeping with the scale, character and appearance of the immediate surrounding area”. But an appeal was allowed seven months later, with planning inspector Leslie Coop saying it “would improve the existing street scene and the character of the area”.

It is this development that is going ahead after a later application to build student flats on the site was refused in 2012 on air quality grounds. “In this location nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations are likely to exceed the national air quality objective. The proposals to mitigate the poor quality air are not considered to be sustainable or appropriate in the full time residential context envisaged by the proposal,” it said.

Leafing through the Greenwich Book Festival

The Guardian's Zoe Williams with University of Greenwich senior politics lecturer (and pub quiz king) John McLean

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams with University of Greenwich senior politics lecturer (and pub quiz king) John McLean

It’s easy to overlook the Greenwich Book Festival, which is happening now and across the weekend, because most of the publicity for it seems to have been “wow! here’s a book festival!” rather than “here’s a brilliant thing you can see at the book festival this weekend!” So I just assumed it was a handful of events and was about to let it pass by.

But there’s actually a huge range of events on – I popped by this lunchtime to see Guardian journalist Zoe Williams discuss the themes behind her book Get It Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics – an apt theme after the recent election, and one that reverberates closer to home than you might think.

There’s more on tonight and over the weekend, including a load of kids’ stuff, although if I was free tomorrow night, I’d pop along to see Viv Albertine of The Slits talk about her recent memoir with Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn.

It’s certainly a wise use of £12,000 from Greenwich Council, although it could have helped more by sticking the programme in this week’s vanity rag Greenwich Time rather than giving it just one paragraph – the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner seems to be suffocating its events somewhat. The University of Greenwich has also chipped in, and it’ll hopefully kickstart which should be a regular event – in future years, perhaps we’ll all be wondering why Greenwich never used to have a book festival.

Greenwich Council gives £100,000 to Woolwich Frida Kahlo show

The Four Fridas

An outdoor theatre production celebrating the life of Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo has gained £100,000 in funding from Greenwich Council after backing from council leader Denise Hyland.

The Four Fridas is the headline show for this year’s Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, and will take place at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich from 1-4 July.

Greenwich has already committed £100,000 to GDIF, of which £20,000 was already earmarked for The Four Fridas.

Now the council is paying an extra £80,000 to festival bosses to secure the 45-minute long display of music, dance and flight, with a further £250,000 coming from Arts Council England and £60,000 from other sources.

Audiences will be able to stand and watch the show for free, with seats costing £16.

Kahlo, who died in 1954 aged 47, took up painting after being seriously injured by a trolleybus as a teenager. Her tempestuous personal life was explored in the 2002 film Frida, for which Salma Hayek was nominated for an Oscar.

An animated film will explore Kahlo’s “legacy as a disabled artist”, while the show “will feature a unique and powerful pre-hispanic Mexican cultural tradition by a group of young women from the village of Xochiapulcho in the Sierra Puebla, enacting the flight of the Voladores” – a ceremony that involving participants flying around a pole.

While the show is bound to pull in the crowds, the generous grant is likely to raise eyebrows at a time when the council is continuing to plead financial hardship. Over recent years, funding has been diverted away from smaller arts and cultural projects into larger, big-ticket events under the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner.

Smaller-scale grants have now been made available for community projects, and the council made a minor contribution to the Blackheath fireworks last year for the first time since 2009. But the Plumstead Make Merry festival is still struggling to survive while there remain fears for the future of Charlton’s Maryon Wilson Animal Park, an early victim of council cuts.

In any case, the funding decision continues a pattern of the council suddenly awarding extra funding to GDIF once programmes have been printed and press releases already sent out – the council found £100,000 at short notice in 2011.

“During a time of increasing financial pressures, Royal Greenwich is unique in making a significant investment in arts and culture to stimulate regeneration and access to the arts,” the council report says.

It adds the Four Fridas funding “strengthens Woolwich’s case as London’s newest cultural destination”, citing a decade of regeneration including new transport links, significant investment in residential, leisure and business development and evidence of grass roots arts-led development”.

How much this is actually apparent to the world beyond Woolwich Town Hall is worth questioning, though – an Evening Standard feature on the show describes Woolwich as “a part of London that is in desperate need of improvement”.

Other big arts events getting council funding – “developing awareness of ‘brand Greenwich'” – this summer include Greenwich Dance Festival (May-July £30,200), Greenwich International Book Festival (21-24 May, £12,000), Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival (23-30 May, £17,000), Greenwich Music Festival (June 2015 – March 2016, £25,000), Parksfest (May – July, £26,400) and the one-day Greenwich World Cultural Festival (£20,800).

Second Floor Arts, 17 May 2015

Update, 7.50pm: After writing this, I took a trip down to the open studios at Woolwich’s amazing Second Floor Studios & Arts, a community of 400 artists tucked away by the river (next door to where Ed Miliband’s notorious pledge stone is being stored).. Having a wander around, I couldn’t help wonder why Greenwich Council doesn’t take advantage of this if it wants to turn Woolwich into a creative hub.

Instead of blowing £100,000 on marching people up to the barracks for a show that will be gone in four days, why not use that money to help artists actually set up shop in Woolwich town centre? Greenwich town centre isn’t a year-round cultural hub despite having had GDIF events for years – so why would Woolwich be any different? Amazing as The Four Fridas may be, will it really have any lasting effect once the last visitor has walked back down Grand Depot Road? Or is this just one big, ever so alluring, ego trip?

Meantime downed in one – Greenwich’s brewery is sold

A lovely pint of Meantime wheat beer
You’ll have no doubt seen the news already – Greenwich’s Meantime Brewing has been sold to drinks giant SABMiller, home to Foster’s, Grolsch and Peroni.

Funnily enough, I was in Meantime‘s first pub, the Greenwich Union, for the first time in ages yesterday. Meantime’s high prices have increasingly put me off – over a fiver for something brewed down the road? – but I did conclude that if I was going to have a cheeky beer in Greenwich, I might as well make sure the profit stays local. Sadly, that won’t be the case any more.

Over the years, it’s interesting how animated people in this area get when they talk about Meantime – a kind of pride mixed with puzzlement. After all, it was the first of London’s craft breweries – remember when it was just Meantime and Zero Degrees, with both selling their beer remarkably cheaply? I may mist over shortly at golden summers spent drinking wheat beer and raspberry beer in the back garden of the Greenwich Union.

Prices have rocketed since but service – particularly in the otherwise glorious Old Brewery – has been patchy. One thing that struck me about the Greenwich Union yesterday is that they wouldn’t take payment for a round of drinks at the bar – which struck me as a ridiculously fiddly way of doing it.

Still, good luck to the Meantime team. I hope the firm – which now has a fourth outlet, The Tasting Rooms, at its brewery on Blackwall Lane, adding to the Beer Box, which opened last summer – keeps its local roots.

And cherish the local and London breweries that have followed in Meantime’s footsteps: Hop Stuff in Woolwich, Brockley Brewery, Brick in Peckham, Bexley Brewery in Erith, a whole load in Bermondsey, and many more besides. Anyone else now inspired to take up brewing?

Greenwich Council plans to reveal ‘affordable’ housing assessments

Quintain plans for Peninsula Quays site

This has been covered elsewhere but it’s worth noting a welcome change of heart from Greenwich Council – it wants to force developers to reveal why they can’t provide set amounts of ‘affordable’ housing in the borough.

The council’s consulting on new rules on the information firms must provide when they apply for planning permission. If big developments have less than 35% “affordable” housing, then homebuilders must submit a viability assessment that outlines why they can’t afford to do it. Greenwich’s plan would see this assessment made public, along with other documents.

It’s a striking U-turn from the council’s attitude over the Peninsula Quays development (pictured above). Greenwich fought all the way to a tribunal to stop having to reveal Knight Dragon’s reasons why it slashed “affordable” housing to 0% in a development including a private school, “high-end private residential” units and a four/five star hotel.

The documents have been released and are currently being studied – and it’s worth noting that Knight Dragon, which recently pushed its Peninsula plans with an “urban village fete“, hasn’t included any “affordable” housing details in its latest masterplan for the area.

Viability assessments and the Peninsula Quays case featured on the BBC’s Sunday Politics London a few weeks back – thanks to Alex Ingram for the recording.

Anything to open up the planning process has to be applauded, and while it’s a shame it took a court case to get here, it may be that Greenwich are actually pioneers here.

Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe said: “This is about transparency for local people. At the moment our hands are tied on affordable housing levels if the viability study shows a development won’t work financially with the levels of affordable housing we want.

“This will now allow the whole process to be far more transparent – making the viability studies publicly available as part of the planning documents means the royal borough and residents alike can see precisely why a developer might claim they cannot meet our affordable housing targets.

“We believe we’re the first local authority in the country to be doing this – looking at policy which insists on these studies being in the public domain. We now want to hear what people think about this policy so please do give us your views.”

Former Conservative leader Spencer Drury has cast doubt on whether the transparency will make any difference, tweeting that “council attitude is key”.

Indeed, despite a snippy response from Thorpe, one argument put forward by the council when it was fighting the release of the Peninsula Quays documents is that few people would understand them.

But with residents’ groups growing over recent years and working together on scrutinising these issues – at least in Greenwich and Charlton – they may have an increased capacity to hold developers, planners and councillors to account. (The big omission is Woolwich, where despite much social media chatter, there is no formal residents’ group to take on these kinds of issues.)

To find out more on the consultation, visit the www.royalgreenwich.gov.uk/haveyoursay and send a response by 22 June.