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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?