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.

Labour backing for Silvertown Tunnel could cost party City Hall

Southbound traffic on the A102 - high pollution levels were recorded at this subway last year

Southbound traffic on the A102 – high pollution levels were recorded at this subway last year

If Labour’s candidate for London mayor backs building the Silvertown Tunnel, he or she could lose nearly half of their vital second-preference votes if the Green Party carries out a threat to withdraw support over the issue.

The damage could be even worse if the Liberal Democrats follow suit and also call for a boycott over building new roads across the River Thames – potentially scuppering Labour’s bid to win City Hall for only the second time in 16 years.

Until now, most Labour mayoral candidates have been treating the Silvertown Tunnel as merely a local issue.

But the possibility of losing to environmentally-minded Tory Zac Goldsmith may start to concentrate their minds on the £1bn scheme to build a new road tunnel from the Royal Docks to Greenwich Peninsula, feeding into the crowded A102, piling extra HGVs and other traffic onto local roads on both sides of the Thames.

In the two most recent elections, the Greens asked their supporters to give Labour’s Ken Livingstone their second preference votes.

But 2012’s mayoral candidate Jenny Jones has long warned Labour it won’t get the same co-operation if it continues with Boris Johnson’s plans to build the Silvertown Tunnel and two other crossings at Thamesmead and Belvedere. Tom Chance, the party’s housing spokesperson who is hoping for the Green nomination this time around, has repeated the threat.

Now Zac Goldsmith – Richmond Park MP and former owner and editor of The Ecologistis planning to stand, there will be increasing pressure on Labour candidates to put environmental considerations at the heart of their manifestos.

Jones has already said many Green supporters will be tempted to back Goldsmith, who yesterday told a parliamentary debate on London air pollution that “we cannot invent new roads”.

So far, only Christian Wolmar – a transport journalist who was the first to declare for the Labour candidacy – has called for the Silvertown Tunnel to be cancelled. He spoke at a No to Silvertown Tunnel meeting earlier this year.

Front-runner Tessa Jowell has avoided the topic when asked in her Twitter “Ask Tessa” sessions. She’s being advised by Labour peer Lord Adonis, a strong backer of the Silvertown Tunnel.

Other candidates set to go on the ballot paper include party leadership favourite Sadiq Khan, Hackney North MP Diane Abbott, Tottenham MP David Lammy and Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas. Londoners who sign up as Labour supporters and pay £3 can have a vote in the process.

A102

Voters choose London mayors by picking a first and second preference, a system designed to give outsider candidates some influence in the race.

If a candidate does not win more than 50% of first preference votes, then second preferences are used to decide a winner – which has happened in all four elections since the post was created in 2000.

In 2012, Ken Livingstone got 889,918 first preference votes against Boris Johnson’s 971,931.

He then had 102,355 second-choice votes from voters who backed the other five candidates. While this was not enough to topple Johnson, who got 82,880 second-preferences, it brought the Labour veteran just over 60,000 votes from victory.

Livingstone had 46,241 second-choice votes from Green backers – votes which now could be denied to a future Labour candidate if she or he goes ahead with the road schemes.

He also picked up 24,465 second-preference votes from supporters of Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick. Caroline Pidgeon, the London Assembly member most often linked with a Liberal Democrat run for the mayoralty, is also an opponent of new road crossings.

If 2016’s poll is as close as 2012’s, these votes could be enough to decide who wins the mayoralty.

Sian Berry is the most well-known contender to be the Greens’ candidate in 2016. A Camden councillor and transport campaigner, she was the party’s candidate in 2008.

Islington councillor Caroline Russell – a campaigner for Living Streets – is also running for the role, with Green Party members choosing this summer.

The Silvertown Tunnel will add to A2 traffic heading south through Eltham

The Silvertown Tunnel will add to A2 traffic heading south through Eltham

London politicians’ reluctance to recognise road-building adversely effects air quality – as demonstrated by this paper on the widening of the A206 in Crayford – was highlighted in yesterday’s parliamentary debate, led by Diane Abbott.

It also showed the lack of understanding that many politicians have of the river crossings issue – which risks the Silvertown Tunnel slipping into being, hidden by the controversies over other crossings.

New Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matthew Pennycook was the only member to bring up the topic of “strategic river crossings”, when intervening in a summing-up by Tory minister Rory Stewart.

But Stewart replied by referring to “the construction of a new bridge” – when the only “strategic” crossing currently being planned is the tunnel at Silvertown, which TfL plans to run a “final” consultation on this autumn. (Gallions and Belvedere have been called “local bridges for local people” by Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland.)

If campaigners and politicians want to address the crossings issue, they will need to think about dealing with each one individually rather than treating them as a group.

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.

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.

ibis_styles_greenwich640

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.