So, last week, Chris Roberts said his farewells as Dear Leader. I’m told he was still in his office at Woolwich Town Hall as the minutes ticked down until the end of his reign at 7pm last Wednesday. And as the effective editor of the council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, he got to pen his own farewell.
In case you were wondering, “leave this world a little better than you found it” is a quotation from Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement.
More telling, though, from a politician closely associated with huge building projects, is “make no small plans, for they have no power to stir men’s souls”. That’s attributed to Daniel Burnham, a US architect who worked on some of the world’s earliest skyscrapers, including New York City’s Flatiron Building. Something to remember when Berkeley Homes’ huge towers start to loom over Woolwich in the next few years.
Possibly more telling than that, though, is a revealing comment he made at his final full council meeting in March, which you can listen to below. He’s heavily tipped to end up in some consultancy or advisory role, so until he re-emerges, let’s leave this as the last word.
He was paying tribute to departing councillors. But it was pretty clear he wasn’t talking about them when he said: “The service of the public is a noble calling, whether you’re doing it as a councillor or as an officer. No-one in a democracy does it for the money. It can be long, it can be tiring, but as we all know, it can be rewarding.
“It can result in people delving into your personal lives, and as we all know it’s full of journalists, bloggers and tweeters who think that your moral compass and motives are as base as theirs sometimes seem to be – and that public works and public good are something to be denigrated by those who seek to pursue them [sic].”
That was then, this is now.
The Dear Leader is no more, so congratulations and welcome to Denise Hyland as the new Greenwich Council leader, as trumpted by – where else? – Greenwich Time.
It’s lucky for Hyland that one of the more controversial projects under her past watch as regeneration cabinet member, the botched refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, is finally nearing completion. Indeed, she’d also been saddled with fronting the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign to build the Silvertown Tunnel and a bridge at Gallions Reach – in spite of opposition from her own party.
The party members’ opposition meant Labour’s position in May’s election was subtly different. “Bridge The Gap is dead,” one Labour source insisted to me during the council election. And, indeed, look at what the Labour manifesto said…
A little bit of wiggle room emerged. And Labour candidates were telling people on the doorstep that things had changed. Here’s Stephen Brain, now Peninsula ward councillor, on 23 April.
But on 24 April, despite what was in the Labour party manifesto, here’s what Denise Hyland was telling Boris Johnson, responding to his London Plan…
Was Denise Hyland just following orders? Here she is from the News Shopper last week:
“I’m saying that we need a package of river crossings, absolutely we do.
I’m not going to get drawn into over whether we’ll accept or refuse a single crossing. I want to work with my colleagues, my Labour colleagues in the majority group and get a consensus after we’ve seen the proposals.”
That sounds like Bridge The Gap is still alive.
“Of course I’m concerned about air quality. I think it’s obviously a very difficult balance. If we actually look at our figures, 85 per cent of people thought we needed additional river crossings. 76 per cent wanting Silvertown, 73 per cent wanting a bridge at Gallions. People seem to think that doing nothing is not an option.”
Let’s not forget that Greenwich Council tried to rig that consultation, of course. Perhaps the new chief whip, one Stephen Brain, needs to get his leader into line…
Generally, the News Shopper interview seemed to promise more of the same than anything new. When asked about opening up the council, she said “I obviously want ward councillors to be frontline councillors, they’re the representatives of the council in the community and they represent their people and its for them to channel people’s voices through to the council” – ie, they should do their job. From this early interview, don’t expect any move away from the current top-down decision-making any time soon.
Then again, her Greenwich Time “interview” talked up the importance of listening to communities – since the Shopper’s piece went up on the website on Friday, shortly before GT goes to press, I can’t help wondering if the piece underwent a hasty rewrite as the introductory paragraph doesn’t match the headline. After all, Hyland is now the effective editor of GT…
It’s early days, and Hyland has to get her feet under the table first. While Roberts’ chief executive, Mary Ney, remains in place, big changes are probably unlikely – although a new cohort of Labour councillors will want to make their presence felt.
But who has her old job of regeneration cabinet member, the most important on the council?
Curiously, the job didn’t go to an big hitter such as Jackie Smith, John Fahy or David Gardner – but to Danny Thorpe, the 30-year-old Shooters Hill councillor best known for spending a year of his first term in office in Australia. When a skint Thorpe had to return to London after six months to attend a council meeting to avoid a by-election being triggered, the council’s Labour group had to pay his air fare.
Thorpe, who used to work in events management for Hackney Council, will be juggling his cabinet portfolio with teacher training at a primary school in Dartford. You could always try to follow him on Twitter, but his profile’s locked. Mind you, the last time I saw it, it was full of photos of him and singer Beverley Knight.
Hyland and Thorpe are also both on the planning board along with ex-deputy leader Peter Brooks and ex-chief whip Ray Walker – so the old guard are still represented there.
There are other new faces in the new cabinet. Highly-rated newcomer Sizwe James takes business, employment and skills, while fellow new councillor Chris Kirby gets housing. Miranda Williams, in her second term, joins the cabinet as member for cultural and creative industries. Returning councillor David Gardner takes health and adult social care.
Maureen O’Mara stays in the cabinet, taking community wellbeing and public health; while Jackie Smith also stays in the cabinet, but loses her highly-praised role in charge of children’s services to take on community safety and environment. John Fahy now takes on children’s services as well as being deputy leader. The “Greener Greenwich” portfolio (created by Roberts after the Greens broke through as an electoral force in 2006) has been dumped, with Harry Singh talking charge of customer and community services.
Cynics never the changed the world, so this website won’t be writing the new team off just yet. Denise Hyland and her team need to prove they are better than the unravelling shambles that came before them – and they’ll need to pick up some of the pieces, too.
Of course, Greenwich councillors should be held to account for past actions, but those actions may not necessarily be an accurate prediction of the future. It’d be good to see a review of past contracts signed with developers – as Hammersmith & Fulham’s new Labour administration is carrying out after usurping a Tory regime that also looked a bit too close to builders – but frankly that won’t happen.
Those who kept their head down and did as they were told under a bullying, stifling regime need the chance to find their feet and prove to us they can make a difference. The way Greenwich borough is run desperately needs to change – will they be the ones to deliver?
PS. Former Labour councillor Alex Grant has started a blog – and if you’ve made it down this far, his first post will be essential reading. Former Tory councillor Nigel Fletcher has also returned to being a digital scribe, and his account of losing his seat is also well worth reading.
One of the saddest sights on Greenwich’s Thames Path is Enderby House, left vandalised and wrecked, neglected by developers who don’t seem to have a clue what to do with it.
This is the site of the long-delayed cruise liner terminal, although much of the action on the site has been to build homes, presumably as quickly as possibly before the property bubble bursts.
Of course, this is also where the world’s first telegraph cables were made, with work still taking part in a small corner of the site. Without Enderby House, there may well have been no phones, and no internet. It’s a hugely-overlooked piece of local history.
The house has been in a mess for over three years – now a group of locals are taking action. Here’s Alan Burkitt-Gray…
“Just wanted to let you know that a bunch of locals have started to campaign for a strategy to protect and preserve Enderby House, the original offices of the company that created the communications revolution — between 1850 and the 1970s the factory there made most of the world’s undersea telegraph and telephone cables.
“The house is now surrounded by a building site, where Barratt is putting up houses and flats. Alcatel-Lucent, the direct successor to the other Telcon company that’s been there continuously since 1850, has shrunk to a corner of the site, though still does submarine-cable related work.
“There is no clear plan for Enderby House, a listed building, and the future of the cable-loading gear that sits on the riverside is also unclear. For more than a century cable made here in Greenwich was loaded directly onto the cable-laying ships on that jetty.”
The group has a website, www.enderby.org.uk, and want as many people as possible to attend a consultation meeting to be held at the Forum on Trafalgar Road on Wednesday 25 June at 6pm (the developers’ PR people seem to try for the most inconvenient times).
It’s also produced a leaflet explaining more about the history of Enderby House and why it should be preserved and celebrated.
The development containing Woolwich’s giant Tesco store has been nominated for the Carbuncle Cup, architecture’s prize for the UK’s worst new building. The whole block has been developed by Spenhill, a subsidiary of the retail giant.
The store, which opened in November 2012, and its associated Woolwich Central housing development have been shortlisted for the prize by architects’ trade journal Building Design.
BD’s Ike Ijeh writes:
Woolwich might have thought that its days as a military outpost were over. Wrong. Somehow what looks like the world’s largest shooting range gained planning permission right in the middle of the town centre, presumably after masquerading as housing above a Tesco supermarket.
Camouflage comes in the way of some truly diabolical cladding and a massing strategy that seems to have been directly inspired by the 1948 Berlin Blockade; we can only hope that residential leases come with free airlift. Tesco may be the world’s third largest retailer but clearly when it comes to this untactical offensive, every little hurts.
“If you approach it from Angelsea Road, it towers above the pub and small shops on Woolwich New Road – this isn’t a development that’s going to be held in much affection outside the town hall and Tesco HQ. Look out for it in next year’s Carbuncle Cup,” I wrote when the store opened 19 months ago.
Greenwich Council were enthusiastic backers of the store when it opened – the authority gained a new civic HQ and library out of the move – yet it’s unclear whether the store has been the shot in the arm that Woolwich town centre needed. Many of the other retail units in the development remain unlet.
Earlier this month, Marks & Spencer announced plans to close its store there.
It’s not the first time the award’s judges have condemned a Greenwich borough development – 2012’s award went to the “disastrously conceived restoration” of the Cutty Sark.
Last year’s prize went to a student block on Caledonian Road, Islington, which features windows facing onto a brick wall. 2010’s award went to the Strata tower at Elephant and Castle, blasted for its “Philishave stylings”.
Proof that not everything’s a done deal – and if you speak up, you can change things. Back in March, this website featured plans by the Port of London Authority to rename Bugsby’s Reach, the stretch of the Thames that passes Greenwich and Charlton, as Watermen’s Reach.
Well, thanks to people getting off their backsides and opposing it, the plan’s been scrapped. Bugsby’s Reach will stay Bugsby’s Reach.
There were a total of 47 responses to the consultation, breaking down as follows:
- 10 in favour
– 34 against
– 3 neutral
Those for the change cited the proposal as: ‘fitting commemoration of the river’s past, present and future working life.’
Those against the proposal felt that: ‘historic names should be left alone’; ‘Bugsby’s Reach is a local name reflected landward in Bugsby’s Way’; and ‘The lack of information about Bugsby’s background should not be a reason to remove his name.’
Having considered the balance and nature of consultation responses, we have decided not to proceed with the proposal to rename Bugsby’s Reach.
So it is worth responding to these things. And the PLA’s U-turn means the grisly history of Bugsby’s Hole will continue to be commenmorated, the debate over who Bugsby actually was can go on for many years to come.
A year ago, I wrote how Peninsula Square, the open space between North Greenwich station and the Dome, planned as “a buzzing, exciting place to visit”, had become a sorely disappointing spot – simply nothing more than a glorified holding pen for O2 Arena customers.
Twelve months on, and here was the scene as the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup got under way in Brazil. Directly below, people were passing through North Greenwich to watch the opening ceremony and the first match on screens large and small. But on a balmy June evening, all the big screen in Peninsula Square could muster were the same old crappy promos for the O2 Arena. What a waste.
Even the unfortunate Frank Dekker (remember him?) managed better on Olympics opening night with his ill-fated Peninsula Festival big screen. Oh well. In the meantime, Woolwich’s big screen might just be the place to head to (particularly for Iran v Nigeria on Monday and Ghana v Germany on Saturday 21st.)
PS. There won’t be any football there, but one open space in Greenwich is open for the community this weekend – the riverside garden at Ballast Quay, by the Cutty Sark pub.
The other week I found myself in Woolwich’s Marks & Spencer. An underpant crisis does that to a gentleman, you see. I stood for a minute, and looked around me. The shelves looked tatty. Wires hung down from the wall. The decor had barely changed since I was a kid, making 2014 fashion displays look like something out of 1974.
There couldn’t be many stores left with that proud, golden “MARKS & SPENCER” lettering on the front, I mused. Yet the main entrances had been locked up for years, presumably a last-ditch move against shoplifters. While down the road, Woolwich was shiny and new, here was the Woolwich that was still in decline. I must write about this some day, I thought, before remembering I had undercrackers to purchase. That’s the good thing about an M&S outlet shop – cheap pants.
But I’m going to have to go somewhere else for my discount drawers now, because Woolwich’s century-old M&S is for the chop. And it’s the first big headache for Greenwich Council’s leader-elect Denise Hyland, deputy-elect John Fahy, and regeneration cabinet member-elect Danny Thorpe.
They aren’t alone. Down in Gravesend, the council’s furious at the loss of their M&S. Up, way up in Redcar, the council’s planning talks – as is Greenwich. And with good reason. In South Shields, they say even charity shops are being hit by the loss of their store.
“[They] clearly have a lack of commercial judgement,” fumed John Fahy. But let’s be honest here – that M&S has looked doomed since the day it became an outlet store over a decade ago, when the main doors were bolted shut and the wires started hanging down from the ceiling. And the steel frame of the new Charlton M&S has started to emerge in recent weeks, ahead of its opening late next year. Did the arrival of Tesco bang the final nail in the coffin of M&S Woolwich? It’s a moot point after decades of decline.
But just as the national economic recovery is only being felt in a few places, Woolwich’s own re-emergence isn’t all that clear to all either.
Yup, shiny new-ish Tesco (tick), some coffee bars (tick), nice square that everyone likes (tick), but then the rest of it’s all behind the brick walls of the Arsenal. While Wellington Street, between the town hall and the council HQ, is immaculate and bedecked in “ROYAL GREENWICH” propaganda banners; Powis Street and Hare Street look as miserable as ever. If you had a choice, why would you do your shopping there?
And frankly, who’s left to do their shopping there? Big employers have moved out of Woolwich in recent decades and haven’t been replaced. Right opposite M&S on Thomas Street is the Island Site, once home to Thames Polytechnic/Greenwich University, now let out to small colleges. Over the road was Morgan-Grampian Publishing, whose offices are now flats. In the 1960s, according to the Survey of London, Woolwich’s M&S carried lines you’d usually only find in the West End. Today, there aren’t enough people around during the day to even buy heavily-discounted pants.
What to do? A council can’t work miracles, and you can’t force a business to stay, particularly one with shareholders to please. But it’s clear M&S hasn’t got much confidence in a real upturn in Woolwich’s fortunes, and judging by the state of the store, it probably hasn’t done for years. There are no easy answers, but one sign of what’s going wrong in Woolwich was in Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper last week…
The outgoing Dear Leader’s still in charge until Wednesday, so here’s Chris Roberts bigging up a plan for a “cultural quarter” behind the Royal Arsenal brick wall, without mentioning it’s an attempt to replace the ailing Firepower military museum.
Yet who’ll really benefit from this scheme? Roberts’ mates at Berkeley Homes, of course, who own the residential land surrounding the Firepower site. While Powis Street and Hare Street continue to decay, the council is still at Berkeley’s service.
Even more bafflingly, the “cultural quarter” plans seem at odds with the council’s own Woolwich masterplan, which envisage another cultural quarter, this time opposite the current M&S store.
Stroll along Polytechnic Street and you’ll find the neglected and empty-looking original Woolwich Polytechnic building, with intricate decorations around the windows; a mysterious “town hall annexe” which has seen better days, the original Woolwich swimming baths, and the crumbling first town hall from 1842. It’s a ghost street right in the heart of Woolwich.
Yet nothing’s happening to bring this back to life – indeed, the Woolwich Grand Theatre looks set to be replaced by flats. Fill this block with creative businesses, as promised in the masterplan, and you’d at least generate some daytime trade in Woolwich that had some money to spend.
But instead, Greenwich Council remains focused on pleasing Berkeley Homes above any other business, and while that continues, it’s hard to see the rest of Woolwich really getting much of a look-in.
Once Chris Roberts leaves on Wednesday, maybe the new leadership might change tack and look at ways to make sure the effects of Woolwich’s revamp are felt more evenly. At a hustings event for Woolwich Riverside ward, Labour’s Jackie Smith even suggested the wall surrounding the Arsenal come down – “if it happened in Berlin, it can happen in Woolwich”. It’s time to talk and find new ideas for Woolwich, instead of the old approach of painting over locals’ views.
And maybe for that Arsenal “cultural quarter”… what about a nice new M&S outlet store? Otherwise, I’m going to have to start stocking up on cut-price undercrackers very soon…
8.05am update: John Fahy has written to M&S: “The alternative to this proposal should be to dispense with the Outlet brand,restore the M&S brand and extend the Simply Food floor space.”