news, views and issues around Greenwich, Charlton, Blackheath and Woolwich, south-east London – what you won't read in Greenwich Time

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Greenwich Foot Tunnel ‘could be finished by March 2014′

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Greenwich Foot Tunnel, July 2013

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.

I’ve compiled some of the most pertinent points from the evening in this Storify page. For more information about the friends group, visit the FOGWOFT website.

New Year poll: Cyclists and Greenwich & Woolwich foot tunnels

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Greenwich Foot TunnelFor 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…

Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels: Did council lie over works?

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Greenwich Council told a Government agency that the unfinished Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnel works had been completed, a minister has said, even though it now admits the tunnels are in a poor state of repair.

The project, which has been beset by delays, remains unfinished after the contractors were sacked last year, and last month Greenwich Council commissioned an independent investigation into what went wrong.

But local government minister Mark Prisk told Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes that Greenwich Council said the works, which had been funded by an £11.5m grant, had been finished – and any further work would have to come from the council’s own funds.

The cash was awarded by the Department for Communities and Local Government in November 2008. But the project moved to the Homes and Communities Agency, which took charge of monitoring progress on the project.

In a written response to the Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Prisk said: “The borough confirmed that all eligible works funded by the Homes and Communities Agency were completed as per the conditions of contract and that any remaining works would be funded from their own resources.”

However, contractors Dean & Dyball, Hyder Consulting and Swett were sacked in December 2011 following slow progress on the project, with the council issuing a series of misleading and evasive answers about the project until it finally owned up to the problems four weeks ago, and announced plans to take legal action against the firms.

The funding letter, signed by Greenwich’s assistant chief executive John Comber (and obtained by this website under the Freedom of Information Act), outlines the schedule of works.

It’s clear to anyone who uses either tunnel that the works are nowhere near finished – only the lifts and south rotunda in the Greenwich tunnel have been completed, along with the stairwell in the Woolwich tunnel. Greenwich Council refuses to publicly discuss what hasn’t been completed for fear of inflating new tenders to finish the work.

It’s also worth recalling Greenwich cabinet member Denise Hyland’s answer at a council meeting when asked, bluntly, if the Government’s money had run out.

“The budget is considered sufficient to complete the project, subject to the contractual issues being resolved with the contractors involved in the first phase of the works,” she said, despite the fact the council had claimed the works were completed and all the money had been spent.

I’ll leave it down to you to decide whether that, in retrospect, was a misleading answer. Incidentally, Greenwich has still not announced who will lead its investigation into the foot tunnel fiasco, and other big projects.

Whether or not the council misled the HCA – it’s certainly clear the government agency wasn’t taking enough notice of what was happening with its money.

To make matters more complex, the HCA’s functions in London were taken over by the mayor’s office earlier this year, which now means the responsibility for keeping track of the grant falls to a certain Boris Johnson, who has consistently batted away requests that he put pressure on Greenwich to finish the project. City Hall may now have to sit up and take more notice of what’s going on beneath the Thames.

Foot tunnels fiasco on BBC London News

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If you saw BBC London News cover the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels fiasco today, here’s how this site has followed the issue over the past couple of years.

(The story’s also on the BBC News website.)

No new answers on Greenwich & Woolwich foot tunnels (18 October 2012 – now with meeting audio)
Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels: Unanswered questions (15 October 2012)
Foot tunnels fiasco: Greenwich Council launches inquiry (12 October 2012)
‘Contractual issues’ now delaying foot tunnels (27 September 2012)
A strange smell at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel (27 August 2012)
Lifts breaking, lights flickering in ‘revamped’ Greenwich foot tunnel (16 April 2012)
Christmas surprise – inside reopened Woolwich foot tunnel (22 December 2011)
Those ‘hidden structures’ revealed (sort of) (29 November 2011)
The mystery of the ‘hidden structures’ (28 October 2011)
Woolwich Foot Tunnel now closed until 2012 (26 August 2011)
Yet more delays for Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels (8 June 2011)
Foot tunnel closures drag on until June (31 March 2011)
Greenwich Foot Tunnel closed (17 February 2011)
Nick Raynsford on Greenwich Foot Tunnel fiasco (2 February 2011)
Greenwich Foot Tunnel shambles continues (31 December 2010)
Exclusive: Greenwich Foot Tunnel closed 16 times in one month (23 December 2010)
The shambles of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel restoration (24 November 2010)
Woolwich Foot Tunnel closed until March 2011 (4 November 2010)
More woe for Woolwich Foot Tunnel users (19 October 2010)
Trouble on, and under the water at Woolwich (6 June 2010)

… and, of course: Greenwich Council spin chief bags 25% pay rise.

No new answers on Greenwich & Woolwich tunnels

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Leader Chris Roberts declined to answer questions last night as Greenwich Council’s cabinet met to discuss the collapse of the scheme to refurbish Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels.

The cabinet met to agree on a course of legal action to recover funds from the three contractors involved in the £11m project, who were kicked off the job in December last year.

Conservative leader Spencer Drury criticised a report into the failure, saying it lacked “clarity about what had and hadn’t been done” in the tunnels since work began early in 2010.

He pointed to the frequent breakdowns of the new lifts at Greenwich, installed at the beginning of this year.

“I got the implication you thought the lifts were furnished, but that’s not the experience of tunnel users,” he said.

However, Cllr Roberts said he would ask officers to write to him with answers, adding he did not want to discuss what would be in a new contract to complete the work.

“We will publish full figures when they’re agreed, but I don’t to big the contract up,” he added.

Chief executive Mary Ney said the identity of who will lead the council’s review of the project should be known by the end of the week.

Under questioning from cabinet member John Fahy, she added the council’s role in the fiasco will be thoroughly examined.

Saturday update: Apologies for the lateness of this, but here a recording of the discussion, chaired by Chris Roberts, featuring assistant chief executive John Comber, Conservative leader Spencer Drury, chief executive Mary Ney, and cabinet member John Fahy.

Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels: Unanswered questions

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It’s Greenwich Foot Tunnel that gets all the attention, but if you want a graphic example of the chaos that’s surrounded Greenwich Council’s handling of the foot tunnels fiasco, now to be the subject of an independent inquiry, you need to head to Woolwich. For months after the tunnel was reopened, it still bore a sign claiming it was closed. It’s finally been replaced, with the quality of information that you’d expect of an authority with a generously-funded communications department.

See, the government’s beastly cutbacks meant the felt tip ran out before they could colour in the arrow properly.

But there are several questions left unanswered by the unusually damning report into the botched refurbishment programme. I’ve a few, have you got any more?

Why didn’t council officers undertake “intensive scrutiny” of the project fron the start? After all, the report makes clear this was a “uniquely complex and specialist project”, yet “intense scrutiny” only took place 17 months into the scheme, when it was clear things were going wrong. Why was this?

Has the £11 million from the government run out? The funding came from a government programme. Last month, the cabinet member in charge, Denise Hyland, was asked in a council meeting if the money had run out. Her answer was that the budget was “considered sufficient to complete the project, subject to the contractual issues being resolved with the contractors involved in the first phase of the works” – the first, tiny hint of a problem. Yet this didn’t answer the question – has the money run out?

Did cabinet member Denise Hyland knowingly mislead the public? On 26 October 2011, Denise Hyland blamed the delays on “hidden structures” in an answer to the co-ordinator of Greenwich Cyclists. We now know this answer was nonsense. This was at least a month after council officers started “much more intense scrutiny” of the project. As someone that’s a full-time cabinet member with a big portfolio (“regeneration, enterprise and skills”) she must have known what was going on. If not, why not?

Will heads roll as a consequence of this inquiry? Again, as the politician in charge, and the one that should be giving direction to council staff, what exactly was Denise Hyland’s role? After all, big projects in other parts of the council (such as schools) have gone smoothly, once work has begun. Her lead council officer, John Comber, who earns £155,000 per year, also surely has questions to answer.

Will we ever get to see the results of this inquiry? Will the report be published? The two foot tunnels are important crossings used by hundreds of thousands of people from across London and far beyond. Will Greenwich Council try to cover up the findings?

The issues surrounding the foot tunnels fiasco go to the heart of the way the council is run. This isn’t a party political issue – the opposition Conservatives have also failed to ask questions in council meetings about this. (Away from the council benches, local Lib Dems* and Greens have also failed to apply pressure.) The failure of the foot tunnels project should shame every Greenwich councillor. But what are they going to do to put things right?

(* I should acknowledge that Lib Dem assembly member Caroline Pidgeon has pursued the issue from City Hall.)

Foot tunnels fiasco: Greenwich Council launches inquiry

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Greenwich Council is to launch an independent inquiry after the collapse of a £11m project to refurbish the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, it has been revealed.

Both tunnels have been left uncompleted and in a poor condition following the failure of the scheme, which began in April 2010.

Now Greenwich Council is taking legal action against three contractors, after it was forced to step in and run the scheme itself.

It is also commissioning an independent inquiry into the way it handles major projects, a report to be presented to the council’s cabinet on Tuesday says. (see the report here)

The report says the two tunnels provide “an unacceptable and deteriorating environment for users”.

Both tunnels should have been refurbished, with new lifts, lighting and security measures, by April 2011.

However, the project ran late and over-budget. Two and a half years after it started, both tunnels are in a poor condition, with no lift at the Woolwich tunnel – which appears closed to passers-by – and unreliable new lifts in its Greenwich counterpart.

The report reveals contractors Dean & Dyball Civil Engineering, Hyder Consulting and Sweett were sacked on December 2011, three months after council officers began “intense scrutiny” of their performance.

Hyder already has a sorry record in Greenwich town centre, having been behind botched proposals to pedestrianise it in time for the Olympics which were shelved in 2011.

Council contractor Lakehouse was drafted in to get the tunnels into a usable condition in time for the royal re-opening of the Cutty Sark, but no work has been carried out since then.

The council is to take legal action against the three sacked firms to recover its costs in clearing up the mess – but just how much these costs are is being kept secret.

While the report says the council has “a good track record in managing large scale projects”, an “independent person” is to review the council’s management of such schemes, reporting to chief executive Mary Ney.

It adds that any further work should take just four months to complete.

The report is the latest twist in a saga, but is also Greenwich Council’s most open admission to date of failures in the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels project.

Already, a damage-limitation exercise has begun, with the extremely rare step of the council issuing a press statement drawing attention to the report – albeit on a Friday night, after the deadlines of the local newspapers, but in time for its own propaganda weekly Greenwich Time.

Even before the refurbishment started, rumours spread in 2009 of lengthy closures. When she tried to investigate, council leader Chris Roberts told London Assembly transport chair Caroline Pidgeon she should ask a Labour member of the assembly instead. The council later “lost” further correspondence from her on the topic.

During 2010 and early 2011 the Greenwich tunnel was plagued by sudden closures as the old lifts broke, while the Woolwich tunnel was closed altogether due to problems with the stairs. Its reopening in December 2011 demonstrated the difficulty the project was in, but there was no word from Greenwich Council explaining what was going on.

Indeed, a hint at the chaos came last year when Denise Hyland, the cabinet member in charge of the project, blamed the delays on “hidden structures“. This comment was later revealed to be nonsense after a Freedom of Information request put in by this site.

New lifts appeared in Greenwich in 2012, but remain plagued by breakdowns. In August, seven people were treated by medics after an “unusual smell” at the tunnel – but the council dismissed it as “a false alarm”.

Finally, last month Denise Hyland referred only to “contractual issues”, but added there was still government funding available to complete the project.

‘Contractual issues’ now delaying Greenwich foot tunnels

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Problems with contractors are the latest delay holding up refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, it was revealed at a council meeting earlier this week.

An £11.5m programme to revamp the two tunnels, which began in April 2010, was supposed to be finished well before this summer’s Olympic Games, but visitors instead found the two tunnels filthy, covered in hoardings, and with an unreliable lift service (with none at all at Woolwich).

Asked at Tuesday’s meeting whether the money had run out, cabinet member Denise Hyland said the budget was “considered sufficient to complete the project, subject to the contractual issues being resolved with the contractors involved in the first phase of the works”.

However, her written answer did not elaborate on the contractual issues involved.

Original contractors Dean & Dyball, part of Balfour Beatty, were replaced late last year with Lakehouse, the council’s regular contractor for construction works.

Currently the Greenwich Foot Tunnel is open with lifts – which regularly break – and the Woolwich tunnel is open without lifts, although access to it is very hard to find.

Click here for Denise Hyland’s full answer and the written public questions and answers from Tuesday’s meeting, which I couldn’t make. Neither of the borough’s newspapers bothered to attend either, but a full report should appear on greenwich.co.uk soon.

Christmas surprise – inside the reopened Woolwich Foot Tunnel

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A Christmas present from Greenwich Council – and no, not the three copies of Greenwich Time that appeared on my doormat on Wednesday. Woolwich Foot Tunnel reopened at 6am yesterday after being completely closed for at least 15 months. The news came out of nowhere – particularly as Greenwich had claimed the tunnel wouldn’t be open until spring 2012, and that its cabinet member in charge of the project didn’t appear to have a clue what was going on.

In fact, the sign on the Woolwich entrance still says the tunnel is closed until spring 2012.

As with Greenwich, there’s still no lifts in place, but serious problems with the stairs forced Woolwich’s complete closure in the autumn of 2011. Finally, they’ve been fixed.

If you’d missed the cut-and-pasted press-releases churned up by news websites yesterday, you’d have no clue it was back in business. It’s still covered in scaffolding, while he south entrance is tucked away next to the back door of the Waterfront Leisure Centre. The north entrance leads straight out onto the North Circular Road instead of to the adjacent bus stop. When I went to have a look, it was eerily deserted. (Although at least one other walker went down there yesterday…)

But what improvements would I find within? Would it be sparkling clean, with a new lighting scheme? Would I, as press reports indicated, I find shiny new stairs? I thought back to when Tube stations had been revamped, and stepped downstairs…

It’s pretty much the same as it was when it closed in September 2010. Maybe filthier. The treads on the stairs are the same – and broken in parts – and the tiles are as dirty as they always were. At the foot of the stairs, you’ll find the same obsolete signage that’s been there for years, and it feels a bit like you’re walking through – well, a tunnel that’s been closed for 15 months.

There is no initial sign of the “substantial refurbishment” promised when the council first talked about the works here and at Greenwich in 2009. There’s still those always-slightly unsettling patches where water has got in. It feels a little like being locked in a disused Tube station – rather than an underground tunnel that’s had half of £11.5m spent on it.

So where has the money gone?

Well, you can see where new cabling’s in for lighting, as well as a CCTV system, speakers and help points – although the latter haven’t yet been commissioned. No sign of the new lifts as yet, though.

Granted, the shabbiness, along with its amazing acoustics, is part of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel’s charm (although I don’t remember it actually being that dirty) along with that of its Greenwich neighbour.

But when the new, passenger-operated, lifts come in, the tunnel isn’t going to feel particularly welcoming without staff in there if it’s still as grimy as it is at the moment. The lack of obvious signs to improve the ambience of the tunnel only raises more questions about what’s been a farcical refurbishment operation.

If Greenwich had been more open about the issues facing the tunnels from the start – hey, how about some before/after pictures of these broken stairs? – perhaps people wouldn’t be annoyed about this long, drawn-out process that should have been finished nine months ago.

It’s good to have the Woolwich tunnel back, though, and at least this saga has taken a happy turn. Despite the lack of lifts, it’s now open 24-hours a day, including throughout Christmas.

There’s some more happy news on the tunnel front, with the Greenwich Foot Tunnel – usually closed weekday evenings – open from now right through to January 3. (Thanks to Greenwich’s communications team for confirming that.) So unlike last year, both tunnels will be open on Christmas Day, when no other transport runs.

Now, will both tunnels both be fully up and running by the Olympics? We have seven months to find out…

Foot tunnels latest: The mystery of the ‘hidden structures’

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Before Greenwich councillors all trooped off to knock back the wine on Wednesday night, the tricky subject of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels came up.

Naturally, it wasn’t an elected politician who brought it up – but Anthony Austin of Greenwich Cyclists. He asked just what the hell is going on with a project that should have been finished this spring, but now looks like it’s running a year behind schedule, with one tunnel liftless and shut at night, and the other completely closed.

“Who at Greenwich Council is managing the refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, and what was the original stated schedule of works and by how much has it been delayed?,” he asked in a written question.

Cabinet member for regeneration, enterprise and skills Denise Hyland responded:

“Firstly, I would like to apologise for the continued inconvenience to the public as a result of the partial closure of the tunnels and the shutdown of the lift service.

“The works to the foot tunnels are being carried out by contractors and consultants, whp also manage the works on a day-to-day basis, engaged by the Director of Regeneration, Enterprise and Skills. The original programme for the works as known at the time for these century-old structures was estimated to be complete in the spring of 2011. Additional works and site complexities will mean the tunnels are unlikely to open fully before early 2012.

“The funding for the project has come from Government and no council funds are involved.”

Mr Austin then asked a follow-up question, the response to which you can hear here…

Listening to that response, I’m not sure if Cllr Hyland is really on top of the situation – it sounds like a painful piece of improvisation. At present, Greenwich Foot Tunnel is open daytimes only, with no lift service, and Woolwich Foot Tunnel is completely closed.

“May I thank Mr Austin for his supplementary… and reassure him that we are doing our absolute level best to bring these tunnels back into full operation, with the Greenwich tunnel early in 2012. This has been a heritage project, bringing the 100-year-old tunnels back into full use, and we have had decisions to make where we have had hidden structures have been uncovered and further work has been necessary.

“Private contractors manage the work on a day-to-day basis… and we have put pressure on our contractors and worked with them in a positive partnership to bring a swift resolution to the tunnel [sic].

“Can I say – absolute apology on behalf of the council to pedestrians and cyclists, because although the tunnels are open [sic], they haven’t had the proper lifts functioning in the way that they should. So, er, y’know, complete apologies for that, and we are working hard for a quick resolution.”

There’s no mention of Woolwich Foot Tunnel at all in that statement, which gives the impression that Cllr Hyland believes it is still open. And what on earth are these “hidden structures”? Shouldn’t one of the only councils in the country to publish its own weekly newspaper be telling us what’s happening?

It’s also interesting to hear the tunnels now described as a “heritage project”. The Woolwich Foot Tunnel celebrates its centenary next year, the Greenwich tunnel opened in 1902. Yet when Transport for London started refurbishing the Blackwall Tunnel, built in 1897, that wasn’t called a “heritage project”. TfL’s work there is running ahead of schedule, while Greenwich’s work is now a year late.

So we’re still no further ahead with understanding just what the hell is going on in those foot tunnels. With the Greenwich tunnel’s stairwells looking largely untouched – and the Woolwich tunnel’s southern portal boarded up and deserted – what are the odds on the project being finished by the Olympics?


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