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”.
If you follow Greenwich Council’s media, you’ll have heard of little else for the past year. If you bin its weekly propaganda rag Greenwich Time and shun its Twitter feed, this weekend could come as a surprise to you. It’s the Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival and it’s actually rather a big deal.
The first many would have known that this was actually something rather big was when parking permits started falling onto doormats last month. “Tow away zone” signs have sprouted up (even though many of the Olympics ones are still in place) and parking restrictions are in place all weekend.
Isn’t this all a bit much? Maybe not. A similar event in Dublin in August 2012 attracted over a million people to the Irish capital. And Falmouth, where this year’s event started (below), has been packed out, by all accounts.
It’s a baffling thing, because nobody was really asked or consulted about the festival. Nobody put “tall ships” in their manifesto for May’s election. After Run to the Beat was finally given the bum’s rush, few would have expected another event to cause such major disruption the following year.
This one could be worth it, though, with plenty happening:
– 50 ships will be berthed at Greenwich, Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich and Canary Wharf between Friday and Monday. The Greenwich Peninsula location is Victoria Deep Water Terminal, which has been decked over and landscaped (above). You’ll be able to climb on board the ships and take a look.
– There’ll be fireworks in Greenwich on Friday and in Woolwich on Saturday.
– A “crew parade” will take place through Greenwich town centre on Saturday afternoon, to congratulate all those who sailed from Falmouth.
– There’ll be “festival villages” at Greenwich and Woolwich over the weekend with shows, music, and other events.
But there’ll be disruption, too:
– Greenwich town centre will be closed to traffic for much of Saturday. Buses will be diverted well away from the area.
– Transport for London is warning of disruption from crowds to rail, Tube and DLR services. Southeastern is promising extra services, though isn’t detailing just what it’s offering.
So how did we get here? It all seems to have started three years ago. Remember the ill-fated Peninsula Festival? That was part of a mini-Dutch invasion for the Olympics that included the similarly-cursed Oranjecamping campsite (above) and Sail Royal Greenwich, a series of hospitality cruises along the Thames, itself based on Sail Amsterdam, which takes place every five years in the Dutch capital.
Only the tall ships actually made it to the end of London 2012. The Peninsula Festival folded after a few days – oddly enough, the Greenwich Peninsula Tall Ships site is adjacent to where Frank Dekker wanted to put his beach – while Oranjecamping moved to Walthamstow. But Sail Royal Greenwich has been based in Greenwich Council’s offices at Mitre Passage, North Greenwich ever since.
By November 2012, Greenwich had decided to bid for a Tall Ships Race, which involved this trip to Latvia, so this weekend’s Tall Ships Festival is an important staging post if it’s to achieve that ambition. Here’s a report prepared for former leader Chris Roberts which outlines the council’s plans, which put the costs at £175,000.
In December 2013, the costs had ballooned to £500,000, plus £2.1 million in pier refurbishments. The council will be hoping to recoup the costs in sponsorship (including from Barratt Homes and Berkeley Homes) and merchandise (including programmes at £5/pop).
Sail Royal Greenwich has a good deal from the council – it’s paying a service charge of £100/month towards each desk, while a games company based in the same office, which is aimed at digital businesses, pays £450/month, according to a Freedom of Information request made last year.
In 2013, the council paid £20,000 towards fireworks for Sail Royal Greenwich at Greenwich and Woolwich, and a further £19,000 for events to mark the ships’ arrival in Woolwich. With the council planning to bid for the 2017 Transatlantic Tall Ships Race, the ships’ll probably be sticking around for a while yet.
So what does the area get out of the tall ships? Well, if there are hundreds of thousands of people over the weekend, then it’ll be a huge boost to tourism – and one that’ll go some way of compensating for cock-ups during the Olympics. The ships and the fireworks promise to be a spectacular sight – there’s no denying any of that.
But what the council gets out of it is more interesting. It’s all about the brand, baby…
The Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival is, frankly, about pushing the “Royal Greenwich” brand. But this is also about how a depressingly secretive council sees itself – referring to itself in the third person as “the Royal Borough” even though the council itself is not royal.
It’s almost as if the council is trying to depoliticise itself, to portray itself as some kind of benevolent landlord/ events manager like the (barely-elected) City of London Corporation, rather than the highly political beast which it actually is.
Sooner or later, Greenwich’s 51 councillors will have to make some very difficult decisions about budget cuts. But while next-door Lewisham is asking residents to weigh up some of the dilemmas themselves, Greenwich residents are told “look at the tall ships!”
Yet with many of the tall ships berthing themselves in SE18, why not apply the high-sailed magic to one of the borough’s more battered brands? The Woolwich Tall Ships Festival, anyone? Falmouth-Woolwich Tall Ships Race?
Tall ships also make fantastic corporate entertainment venues. So the festival also offers some glorious opportunities for jollies, and for councillors and officers to be wooed by property developers and the like – Barratt Homes is a lead sponsor, while Berkeley Homes, Cathedral Group and Knight Dragon have also paid to be associated with the event.
In fact, all this is already evident in the pages of Greenwich Time, with two plugs for Morden Wharf developer Cathedral in this week’s council paper – one featuring council leader Denise Hyland larking about with sailing trainees sponsored by developers; another featuring Hyland, Cathedral boss Richard Upton and other trainees who, well, fancy that, are nicknamed the Cathedral Five.
I’ve been told Greenwich Council is terrified the tall ships will be a flop. Judging by the crowds elsewhere, it’ll almost certainly be a big hit. There were even photographers out on Greenwich Peninsula early yesterday evening to watch a trio of ships sail through the Thames Barrier and past the Dome.
It’s going to be an interesting weekend. If you’re well-disposed to the council, there could be plenty to congratulate it on. If you’re not, there’ll be plenty of bones to pick over the following weeks. There are many reasons to celebrate the tall ships’ arrival – but just as many reasons to be sceptical of what’s going on below deck. If you live anywhere near the river, get set to be swept along over the next few days…
Greenwich Council is to trial “shared use” of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, which will mean cyclists being officially allowed to use them at quieter times, it has emerged.
The council’s put in a bid for £100,000 of City Hall money to develop technology to record pedestrian and cyclist movements in the tunnel, to warn cyclists when the narrow passages make it unsafe for riding.
The Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels have been asked to act as partners on the bid, along with Tower Hamlets and Newham councils.
Fogwoft says: “The proposal would allow shared use between pedestrians and cyclists at times when the tunnel is fairly empty. It would require cyclists to walk when necessary. It would allow them to cycle when safe.”
Any proposal to allow cycling in the tunnels will be a hugely contentious issue – while there is a blanket ban on riding bicycles, it is widely flouted, especially in the Greenwich tunnel, which is a major link for cyclists between south-east London and Canary Wharf. Since lift attendants were withdrawn some years ago, there has been little enforcement of the ban.
If Greenwich’s bid to City Hall is unsuccessful, the council says it will fund the scheme itself.
The council says: “The proposal will be to use state of the art technology to trial shared use in the tunnel. It will monitor cycle and pedestrian flows (and cycle speeds) at all times, and use this to regulate the cycling ban; at times of low pedestrian flow, considerate cycle use will be permitted, and conversely during high pedestrian flow periods cyclists will be required to dismount and push through the space. In other words, the permission levels would respond in a timely manner to conditions in the tunnels at all times.
“This will be enforced through clear, digital signage triggered by the flow levels during each period, which will be tracked throughout the tunnel. The visual signage could be backed up by audible messages, and reinforced through additional monitoring via CCTV and other means.
“Technology will also be used to monitor the speed of any person cycling through the tunnel, flashing up clear signage to anyone travelling quicker than a recommended limit (to be defined) in a similar way to speed warning signs used on highways.”
The bid document says a trial would last for 12 months and be “rigorously monitored”.
“In using digital technology to track, monitor and regulate permissions at various times of the day, users will feel that a sensible use of the space is allowed at all times. If successful, the trial has potential to be extended to other similar spaces throughout London,” it adds.
A further £10,000-£25,000 would fund “behavioural change” measures – enforcement, in other words.
It’s believed that a system would be trialled in the quieter Woolwich tunnel before being moved to Greenwich by 2016/17.
Fogwoft has invited users to discuss the issue at its annual general meeting on 2 October. (See more on Fogwoft’s website.) The council will also have to consult the public directly about the scheme, which will involve a change to a by-law.
The announcement comes as the long-delayed refurbishment works on both tunnels enter their final stages, after long delays caused by poor management of the project, both by the council and contractor Hyder Consulting.
While deep cleaning hasn’t taken place, the lifts at Woolwich are now working, though anecdotal evidence suggests the Greenwich lifts are still bedevilled by breakdowns. Indicators have been placed in the Greenwich tunnel to warn of lift problems, although they are difficult to read in sunlight.
In December 2012, a poll on this website showed 51% of voters would back cycling in the tunnel at all times, with just 16% favouring the current ban and 18% backing the kind of compromise Greenwich is going for. This may indicate something about the readership of this website, though.
But with Greenwich Council backing the motor vehicle-only Silvertown Tunnel, and with even more intensive development planned for the Isle of Dogs, the foot tunnel issue shows it’s clear there is still a massive, unmet demand for safe pedestrian and cyclist crossings from south-east to east London.
Monday update: Here’s an interesting project – the echoey sounds of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel captured in Waves of Woolwich.
Long-delayed refurbishment works at Greenwich Foot Tunnel could finally be finished by next March, the inaugural meeting of a pressure group on the issue was told last week.
About 50 people filled the first gathering of the Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, which aims to protect and promote the two cross-river links, both badly hit by a botched revamp managed by Greenwich Council.
At a council meeting in July, Greenwich regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland, who is in charge of the tunnel scheme, announced work on to get the tunnels finished would be brought forward – but there was still no date as to when a report, commissioned last October, into the fiasco would be published.
Hyland, who is in charge of the tunnels, did not attend the packed meeting at the 10 Centre last Thursday. But Tower Hamlets councillor Gloria Thienel was there, and the Conservative representative for Blackwall & Cubitt Town said her own council’s officers understood that Greenwich planned to have the work done by March.
But she did add: “We’ve been told this before.”
If true, this would mean the work at Greenwich would be finished in time for May’s council elections. There was no news as to when work at Woolwich would be finished – indeed, users of that crossing were thin on the ground.
Much of the meeting, chaired by outgoing Peninsula councillor Mary Mills, was concerned with filling positions on its committee. Indeed, But a wide range of issues were raised, with the issue of cycling in the tunnels causing almost as much concern as their poor state of repair.
The other big issue was the lack of lift staff – made redundant by Greenwich Council, with passengers able to operate the lifts themselves. Dubbed the “guardians of the tunnels” by one speaker, their ability to control cycling in the tunnels merely by denying errant cyclists entry to a lift was much missed.
Crime and anti-social behaviour were brought up – with suggestions for closer working between Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Newham councils and borough police forces. Others also feared the Greenwich tunnel was nearing capacity – and it was time to start looking at alternative pedestrian and cyclist links.
While no Greenwich cabinet members turned up, backbench councillors Alex Grant and Matt Pennycook were there for part of the meeting, along with parliamentary hopeful David Prescott. Shortly after the two councillors went, with perfect timing, London cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan popped in for the end.
There were also representatives from the new Friends of Island Gardens group, formed to protect the park which faces Greenwich from across the Thames.
For the end of 2012, we were promised shiny and revamped foot tunnels at Greenwich and Woolwich – but they never happened. The Woolwich tunnel’s been left to rot, the Greenwich tunnel has gained new lifts which still aren’t working properly. It still looks a mess as well.
Funnily enough, the foot tunnel fiasco doesn’t make it into Greenwich Council’s back-slapping review of the year, available for a fiver – sick bags not included.
One thing that struck me before Christmas was the heated debate about cyclists in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, after this website revealed nobody had been prosecuted for cycling in there for three years. Ticketing errant cyclists would raise more than a Dear Leader’s Greatest Hits DVD ever would – but should, as some commenters suggested, the council officially adopt a more tolerant attitude to those who want to nip through on two wheels, rather than just unofficially doing so?
So, in place of any leadership from the council, let’s have a poll and see what you really think. I’ve taken some of the suggestions and tried to combine them into a series of options that’d work for both Greenwich and Woolwich tunnels. Maybe by this time next year, we could have a radical new policy that both cyclists and walkers could agree with.
Or maybe we could just have working lifts, and fixed-up tunnels instead…
There are two things that annoy people about the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Firstly, it’s a mess. But secondly, it’s people riding bikes through it.
Just like bad driving annoys drivers, bad cycling winds cyclists up, too. Sometimes, bad road design might force someone on a bike to nip across a pavement rather than compete with juggernauts – I have to do it most mornings for about 10 seconds to lessen my risk of being squashed under a lorry.
But there really isn’t the excuse in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. The morning I spent with BBC London down there was enlivened by watching one cyclist bawl out another for riding in the tunnel’s shadows. The miscreant shrugged it off, and muttered under his breath as he took his bike into the lift.
But will the law ever catch up with him? Clearly not, as a Freedom of Information Act request reveals that in the past three years, Greenwich Council has prosecuted nobody for cycling in the tunnel.
This comes despite the fact that earlier this year, the council’s mysterious yellow-clad wardens were out “mob-handed” trying to stop cyclists cycling through Cutty Sark Gardens, suddenly rediscovering long-disused bye-laws which prohibited… cycling on a national cycle route. Pressure from Greenwich Cyclists forced the council to stop its clueless caper, and there’s been some slow progress towards a resolution.
But even though the council would be on much firmer ground, would be lauded to the skies by many, and could possibly generate a small windfall in fixed penalty notices, it’s not bothered to do the same inside the tunnel. Instead, it has installed barriers, which just annoy everyone.
While the council has made a mess of the £11.5m refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich tunnels, it’s staff cutbacks that have led us to this situation. The former lift attendants have been given the boot, and replaced by passenger-operated lifts. In the past, attendants would merely refuse to let people who’d been riding bikes use the lift. That sanction’s not available now, despite the council’s claim that it’s using CCTV and PA announcements to police the tunnel.
We’re waiting for a report into the tunnels fiasco (a preliminary one, about big council projects in general, was presented last week), but while it’s clear that Greenwich Council screwed up on the nuts and bolts of the scheme, it also seems to have no idea of the kind of environment it wants to create in there.
With work still at a standstill at Greenwich Foot Tunnel, Greenwich Cyclists has set up a Facebook page to collect people’s experience of the stricken Thames crossing, laid low by a botched refurbishment scheme. Whether you’re on bike or on foot, I’m sure they’d be grateful to hear of your experiences. Expect to see it full of gripes about berks riding bikes through the tunnel in three, two, one…
There’s still no news from the council on who is leading its inquiry into the screwed-up revamp, which has burned its way through an £11.5m government grant, with council tax-payers footing the bill for the rest.