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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Goodbye, Woolwich Fire Station. Sorry we didn’t try harder

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Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

Woolwich fire station closed this morning.

There was a small demonstration outside the graceful Victorian building, tucked away in the back streets, which now has prime redevelopment potential. About 20 people, including Greenwich Labour councillors and candidates, plus MPs Nick Raynsford (a former fire services minister) and Clive Efford, gathered outside for its final hour.

Woolwich fire station is the victim of budget cuts, yet there was still money in the GLA kitty for two private security guards, two policemen, a police van to lurk around the corner, another police van and the Greenwich borough commander to keep watch.

“All very peaceful, the local MP’s here,” one copper radioed back to base. This was no raging against the dying of the light. As the wind whipped up, this was a final farewell to London’s second oldest operational fire station, which seems to have been written off as terminal long ago.

Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

When Shooters Hill fire station was closed (by a Labour government) in 1998, residents were assured they’d be safe because Woolwich fire station was still there. Now Woolwich is gone, too, thanks to Boris Johnson.

One of its tenders will move to East Greenwich fire station, but a gap in fire coverage has opened up around Woolwich, a district in the throes of redevelopment. More people will live in Woolwich, but they’ll have to wait longer for a fire engine.

With Woolwich fire station gone, could more have been done? I certainly wish I’d covered the issue more, rather than fearing duplicating what other local media were doing. But where was the community anger? It was an issue which seemed to struggle to get beyond local Labour party stalwarts. Local councillor and cabinet member John Fahy comes out of this with credit, organising a 433-strong petition against it.

Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

But Fahy’s own council barely bothered to take up the cause. It can organise a petition to build a new road to please developers, but it didn’t back a petition to keep a fire station eyed by up developers.

As reported here in November, Greenwich’s only response to the cuts proposal was to fire off a two-page letter from cabinet member Maureen O’Mara, containing glaring errors. Neighbouring Lewisham did some research and sent off a seven-page document, detailing the impact on it and other boroughs, and saw New Cross fire station saved as a result.

Greenwich wouldn’t even put up posters for a formal public meeting about the closure.

LFEPA report

The council belatedly joined a court action to stop the cuts – but it was too late.

John Fahy – recently given a warning by his party over allegedly leaking council leader Chris Roberts’ bullying voicemail to him – was there this morning. So were cabinet colleagues Denise Hyland and Steve Offord and a smattering of other councillors and candidates. No sign, though, of O’Mara, Roberts, or his deputy Peter Brooks – the ones who really could have done something.

But maybe the blame lies with all of us, for not kicking up a bigger stink. Perhaps not enough people even knew the station existed. Or it points to something nobody wants to face up to – how the public are now completely disconnected from local issues. Or maybe nobody really cared enough.

But now Boris Johnson will have leave a little bit of his legacy behind in Woolwich, when the old Woolwich fire station becomes a free school or luxury flats. Sadly, and despite the efforts of Labour activists, I can’t help thinking either result would meet few complaints from Greenwich Council.

Woolwich Fire Station, 9 January 2014

Goodbye, Woolwich fire station. Sorry we didn’t try hard enough.

Written by Darryl

9 January, 2014 at 10:49 am

Woolwich Grand under threat – and Greenwich Theatre too?

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Woolwich Grand Theatre, 24 November 2013

The campaign is on to save the Woolwich Grand Theatre, which faces demolition after being open for less than two years. But it’s not the only arts venue in the area with a shadow on the horizon, with concerns being raised over the long-term future of Greenwich Theatre too.

Woolwich Grand Theatre, 24 November 2013While the news about Woolwich Grand Theatre has come as a shock to many, the site has been earmarked for redevelopment by the council for some time. The freeholder, Thirty Eight Wellington Street Ltd, is in administration.

The original Woolwich Grand Theatre opened in 1900, but later became a cinema before being demolished in 1939. The current building opened in 1955 as the Regal Cinema, later becoming the ABC Woolwich before closing in 1982. It was used on and off as a nightclub until 2008.

Woolwich Grand Theatre founder Adrian Green gained planning permission to use it as an arts venue in 2011, opening the doors at the beginning of 2012.

While the building still requires a lot of work on it (£630,000-worth, according to the developer) the main auditorium has been used for concerts and films, while a smaller space upstairs has been used for plays and other events.

Local politicians have been keen to associate themselves with the theatre – it’s being used a lot for events in the campaign to be the Labour candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich – but Greenwich Council’s backing has only been lukewarm.

In July this year, a report for housing cabinet member Steve Offord showed the Grand Theatre site as having “development potential”.

Greenwich Council Bridge The Gap campaign photo, January 2013This appeared to be bit of a smack in the face for Green. Six months earlier, he’d posed in a hard hat alongside council leader Chris Roberts to promote the council’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel, presumably try to get the council on board with his plans for the theatre.

In terms of planning, the council includes the Woolwich Grand Theatre as part of the Bathway Quarter. This was the old administrative heart of Woolwich, which now lies neglected. It includes the listed Old Town Hall, the former Island Site of Thames Polytechnic/ Greenwich University and the old swimming baths/ student union.

The council’s Woolwich Masterplan states: “This area has a rich character which should be preserved though sensitive residential-led refurbishment with active uses at ground floor to create a distinct urban quarter. This area has the potential to be a high quality, high-specification, loft-style place with bars, galleries and artists’ studios together with other uses such as a jazz club and creative industries such as architects’ studios.”

Woolwich Grand TheatreNow Upminster-based developer Secure Sleep wants to knock the Woolwich Grand down and build flats there instead – with no sign of any arts usage for the site whatsoever. You can see the full planning application on the Greenwich Council website.

Architect Nigel Ostime told The Stage: “The theatre doesn’t appear to be a commercially viable proposition. As such, when you’ve got a big building that has a lot of maintenance needs, it requires money breathed into it to make it work properly. Sadly, there isn’t the money to do that.

“We are proposing to demolish the building to create homes for people. There is a great need for housing in London, and this would help to fill that gap.”

No money around, eh? We’ll come back to that point later. A petition’s been launched to save the Woolwich Grand Theatre – and a decision is expected in February.

The threat to the Woolwich Grand Theatre is imminent and real. But a few miles west, there are more long-term worries about Greenwich Theatre.

Greenwich Theatre

Last week, Greenwich Council’s cabinet agreed plans to create a “performing arts hub” at the council-owned Greenwich Borough Hall on Royal Hill, which is currently home to Greenwich Dance Agency. However, details of the proposal have been kept secret, which the council says is due to their financial implications, while the decision has been rushed through to meet a deadline to apply for Heritage Lottery Fund money.

“As well as providing a significantly improved facility, the proposed investment will reduce maintenance costs overall helping to secure the long-term sustainability of performing arts in the borough,” the cabinet paper says – which would suggest that other venues may be closed.

“At the same time, it has not been possible to bring the proposals to Cabinet before now due to the on-going discussions with the arts organisations who will be affected and therefore it has not been possible on this occasion to provide the 28 days’ notice required for a key decision,” it adds.

Several sources say Greenwich’s long-term strategy is to move Greenwich Theatre into the Borough Hall. I’ve also been told this idea has been deferred until after 2014′s council election after objections from local councillors, although I’ve not been able to confirm this.

Indeed, tampering with Greenwich Theatre could well be electoral suicide in west Greenwich. The area’s already lost one theatre recently, after the owners of the Greenwich Playhouse theatre illegally turned the venue into a hostel, then exploited a planning loophole which left councillors taking the flak when it belatedly came before a committee this summer. (A plan for it to reopen in the Creekside development in Deptford has so far not materialised.) And plans to demolish the Trident Hall, which was also used for plays, and replace it with a hotel have also reappeared recently.

Greenwich Borough HallsBut more importantly, it’s likely that such a plan would be unworkable, considering the Borough Hall is more like a school hall than a theatre. Indeed, it would be much more suitable as a music venue than one for staging plays.

Unlike the Woolwich Grand, the council is directly involved in the fate of Greenwich Theatre. The old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich bought the then-derelict Hippodrome Picture Palace site in 1962, planning to redevelop it.

But a local campaign resulted in its successor, the current council, leasing it to the Greenwich Theatre, which opened after rebuilding works in 1969.

Now the Crooms Hill site is believed to be in need of repairs – hence the proposal to turn the clock back 50 years and sell it, rather than fix it.

While the idea appears to have been kicked into the long grass for now, theatre fans in Greenwich should be staying vigilant about the venue’s future. There’s already talk of having Greenwich Theatre declared an asset of community value, which would put a six-month brake on any proposal to sell it. That said, it would need Greenwich Council to agree to ACV status – which would call the council’s bluff somewhat.

But the arts hub proposal reveals there is funding available for arts projects – even during this time of cuts. So with the right management, it’s clear Woolwich Grand Theatre could be saved, if the money can be raised to buy the freehold from a firm in administration, and if Greenwich Council has the political will to give campaigners time by declaring the building an asset of community value.

Furthermore, it’s worth questioning the point in having any arts hub if there’s no arts policy in place. In recent years Greenwich has pulled back from funding venues such as Blackheath Halls and Conservatoire, and has instead put cash into recurring events under the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner. The trouble with this strategy, though, is that it doesn’t leave much of a legacy once the festival’s over.

And rushing through a decision to make an arts hub in west Greenwich doesn’t really make much sense when you’re supposed to be creating a quarter of bars and “jazz clubs” over in Woolwich. Doing it all in secret doesn’t look good either – but then that’s the way Chris Roberts’ increasingly chaotic administration does things.

Perhaps the Woolwich Grand’s woes will provide a chance to step back, rethink, and come up with something clearer. I wouldn’t bank on it, though…

12.10pm update: Coincidentally, Royal Museums Greenwich is opening up a performance space in the Cutty Sark in the new year.

Secret Woolwich: Rushgrove House and Mulgrave Pond

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Mulgrave Pond, 24 November 2012

Unless you live in the two tower blocks overlooking it, it’s unlikely you’ll even be aware of Woolwich’s historic Rushgrove House. And as for the tranquil Mulgrave Pond, most people only ever get a brief glimpse of it from the top of a double decker bus – and even then, you have to know where to look.

But last weekend, the Grade II listed house, tucked away off Artillery Place, was open to the public for an exhibition of work by Royal College of Art students.

Rushgrove House
Rushgrove House

Built in 1816, it was enlarged over the years and bought by the Admiralty to become the home of General Sir Anthony Blaxland Stransham, commandant of the Royal Marine Barracks, which was just around the corner on Frances Street. It was sold by the army in 1986 and was used as a family home until last year.

In the grounds of Rushgrove House is Mulgrave Pond, formed in the early 1750s as a reservoir for the royal dockyard. Later, it was adapted to serve steam engines at the Arsenal, with a pipe laid under Wellington Street. It’s been a popular venue for fishing over the years.

Rushgrove House

On a gloomy Sunday, the creaky old house took on an eerie feel – with the students setting up little hammers to regularly tap on the windows, it must have been spooky after darkness fell.

Rushgrove House

Last month, Greenwich Council gave planning permission for the 10-bedroom house to be divided into two (one five-bedroom home, another four-bedroom home), so this may have been the last chance to see Rushgrove House before work starts. You can see more photos at TOWIWoolwich, while if this kind of history fascinates you, then splash out on the recently-published Survey of London volume on Woolwich- it’s worth every penny.

As of today, the place is back in the care of property guardians until the builders come in. Like Repository Woods over the road, it’s be another bit of Woolwich’s history that’s strictly out of bounds.

In case there isn’t a chance in the near future, you’ll be able to see it in the cinema – the house was used by director Mike Leigh for his as-yet untitled biopic of painter JMW Turner, starring Timothy Spall, due for release next year.

Royal College of Art students will also be taking over another unusual SE London building in a couple of weeks, with Caroline Gardens Chapel in Peckham playing host to them on 12 and 13 December.

Written by Darryl

25 November, 2013 at 7:25 am

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.

Run to the Beat organisers sorry after course cock-up

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Woolwich Barracks photo from Terri Willis

If they’d listened to local people, who’ve consistently said that Run to the Beat’s circular course is a bad idea, then perhaps they wouldn’t be apologising.

But the controversial half-marathon’s organisers have been left red-faced this evening after runners found themselves stuck at bottlenecks on the 13.1-mile route, caused by their insistence on holding running a circular route through Greenwich, Blackheath, Charlton and Woolwich.

Runners used Twitter to complain about a hold-up at Woolwich Barracks, where the course wasn’t wide enough for runners to get through, and also showed them stuck at gates in Greenwich Park.

The delays meant many runners were either delayed, missing out on their target times, or were sent on a short cut, leaving them fearing their times were invalid.

Organisers have apologised, promising “a detailed review”.

One runner, Gavin, described his experience on his blog:

At mile 4, however, the part of the route which goes in and out of the Woolwich Barracks there was a bottleneck of about 10 minutes. This is because unlike previous years when you had the runners all running through the courtyard, you decided to have 20,000 runners run in AND OUT of a gate which was no bigger than 8 foot wide.

Mile 4 for me, and for many is ‘The Wall’, the part of run where you are struggling, but you power through. So having to stop immediately and stand still for 10 minutes often causes cramps. It can be avoided by continuing to move, however there was very limited space due to the sheer volume of runners. Many people climbed over the barriers and ran down the road, I refrained from doing this for fear of missing a ‘chip timer’ mat, which I figured would be in the courtyard. It wasn’t. By the time I got back to the gate to exit the courtyard, the marshals had in fact stopped runners entering and sending them straight down the road. At this point, the 2h30m marker was well in front of me.

Other complaints included the runners being given coconut water instead of sports drinks – the race was sponsored by a brand of coconut water – while there were grumbles about the last mile being uphill through Greenwich Park, particularly unhelpful for participants in wheelchairs (“It was so steep that their front wheels kept popping up,” one observer said).

As for locals, one Greenwich Millennium Village resident complained to this blog about organisers setting up portable buildings outside her home at 4.45am, while Peninsula ward councillor Mary Mills said the number of complaints she’d received was up this year. “I’ve had more complaints this year, and nastier ones,” she tweeted.

On the plus side, roads did seem to reopen earlier than planned, although it took a while for bus services to return to their normal routes.

A little sample of tweets:

The route was confirmed at fairly short notice this year, after an earlier version saw it cut off Sunday footballers in Charlton’s parks. But despite assurances from Greenwich Council cabinet member Maureen O’Mara, and claims made by the council to the Department of Transport, there has been no meaningful consultation with local residents.

Despite objections, organiser IMG still plans to return next year, doubling its contribution to Greenwich Council from £10,000 this year to £20,000.

I also understand Greenwich Council gets some more money out of the race thanks to an agreement to advertise race arrangements in its weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time – denying other newspapers revenue from those ads.

While many residents have lost patience with Run to the Beat years ago and would rather it went away, others do enjoy it – and it enjoyed ideal weather this morning. Perhaps now organisers and Greenwich Council will start to listen. IMG needs to make a meaningful donation to the community – perhaps by sponsoring a facility such as Maryon Wilson animal park – instead of the cash disappearing into the council’s coffers.

And it needs to create a route that’d be a proper Greenwich borough half-marathon – perhaps from Eltham to Greenwich – ending the charade of the circular route which causes grief to runners and locals alike.

Will any of this happen? I wouldn’t hold your breath…

If you’re a local with issues surrounding today’s race, let your local councillor know – and it’s also worth copying in Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney on the email (firstname.surname@royalgreenwich.gov.uk).

Written by Darryl

8 September, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Run to the Beat 2013: The public consultation which wasn’t

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Run to the Beat final route, July 2013

On Sunday, up to 19,000 runners will pound through Greenwich, Blackheath, Charlton and Woolwich on the Run to the Beat half-marathon. The forecast is set for mild weather, and you never know, it may actually be a success. Indeed, you’re probably reading this after the event and will know how it went.

Many of those thousands of runners will be exerting themselves for good causes. This is not a charity event, so others will have paid £55 to prove something to themselves that some of us won’t even manage half of. But unwittingly, those up-to 19,000 customers of Run to the Beat have been caught up in an extraordinary battle between, on one side, Greenwich Council and organisers IMG, and on the other, local residents and councillors in the area affected.

So keen has Greenwich Council been to rubber-stamp the event in the face of continuing objections from locals and councillors – many of whom who represent the Labour Party which supposedly runs the council – that this website understands even senior council officials are unhappy about publicity for the race published in the council’s own newspaper.

East Greenwich Library bus stopIt’s worth remembering this row doesn’t happen with the London Marathon, which is twice as big, and causes the same inconvenience. With our streets on show to the world, people swallow a day of hassle out of neighbourhood pride. The same arguments won’t ever apply to a low-profile race which is imposed both on residents, and their elected representatives.

The imposition point is important, because alternative routes have been suggested, and have been ignored. Instead, thousands of local residents are cut off by IMG and Greenwich Council’s insistence on a small circular route, presumably to save IMG money, but which is also unsatisfactory for runners. This year’s diversion via the riverside path at Angerstein Wharf looks set to be particularly grim.

In many ways, the battle over Run to the Beat has become less about people being unable to take a bus to hospital, or even being stopped from crossing over a main road, and more about Greenwich Council’s failures to listen or learn from criticism – something which is finally catching up with both its leadership, and those who have been cowed by it.

Remember the assurances from environment councillor Maureen O’Mara last year? They’re worth repeating again.

“If this race is to return to the borough, it needs to be with residents fully understanding what’s going to happen in their streets, and what’s going to happen with licensing.

“And we need to think – well, what does this bring into the borough? I certainly don’t want go through again, the anguish of the past four weeks. We have to be absolutely clear about why Run To The Beat is here in the first place.

“If residents say they don’t want it, then we’ll have to talk to IMG about that.”

Did they? Did they heck. 853 reader Steve Smythe wrote to Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin about the road closures caused by Run to the Beat – for legally, the council needs to go through the Government for roads which have already been closed for an event in the same year – and was given this reply from civil servant Amanda John, sent to her by Greenwich Council.

DfT letter

However, this website has established that formal residents’ groups – usually spoken to in lieu of a proper consultation – weren’t asked for their views. The Greenwich Society tells me it wasn’t spoken to, nor was the Blackheath Society, and it’s understood the Charlton Society wasn’t consulted either. The Westcombe Society was spoken to because it complained; while the Charlton Central Residents Association spoke to organisers in November 2012, again because it complained.

Only groups who complained, it appears, were consulted, which would explain the appearance of sports groups on the list, since early plans for this year’s events proposed cutting off the football pitches in Charlton’s parks. What’s clear is that even after five years, there’s still been no serious, proactive attempt by either IMG or Greenwich Council to gauge residents’ views on the event.

Did the council lie to the government? Was the council itself fed duff info? I’ve certainly heard accusations that council officers were told to make sure Run To The Beat was licensed, at whatever cost – obviously this can’t be substantiated, but suspicions like this will fester in an atmosphere when residents and elected representatives are ignored.

Run to the Beat ad, Greenwich TimeWhat’s for sure is that there’s been no great public rethink about what Run To The Beat does for the locality.

While it’s true councillors met organisers in November 2012, a promised follow-up meeting never happened – instead, they were invited to a meeting on Thursday night at short notice. Some councillors, I am told, “have never been so angry”.

Indeed, it’s actually possible that councillors’ treatment has led to them being angrier about the event than their constituents, who at least can choose to stay in bed while the race is on.

But most astonishingly, I understand even Greenwich Council officers are unhappy with the way IMG has promoted the arrangements for the race. Indeed, even the council website acknowledges “some local residents may not yet have received printed leaflets from the organisers”.

Ads have been taken out in its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, but I’m told director of culture, media and sport Katrina Delaney is unhappy with
the lack of information on them, and they way they seem to be about promoting the RTTB brand – they merely refer people to the Run to the Beat website. Why Delaney herself hasn’t been more proactive in distributing information, or ensuring IMG’s ad was correct, heaven alone knows. But since her job is in reputation management, and promoting the “Royal Greenwich” brand, it’s certainly a case of the biter being bit.

And while there is a residents’ helpline – 020 8233 5900 (open 7.30am-2.30pm) – it has only been publicised online. It doesn’t appear on the numerous yellow signs dotted around the area. The event still doesn’t appear on Transport for London’s journey planner (despite a tucked-away website page), so while roads are meant to be reopening earlier, it’s anyone’s guess when bus services will resume.

And all this, for a measly £10,000 to the council, with the promise of double next year.

It may well be that the sustained criticism of this year’s Run To The Beat will lead to a better event. But it shouldn’t be this way. After all, this should be fun, like the London Marathon is. A true Greenwich borough half-marathon would be great. Involve Eltham and other areas that don’t have the brilliant experience of the marathon, and break the circular route which cuts so many off.

Perhaps we should look to the London Marathon Playing Fields in Kidbrooke as an example. Why doesn’t Run To The Beat sponsor a community facility on its route? How about getting it to cough up for the Maryon Wilson Animal Park in Charlton, which is having trouble raising funds? Supporting the community rather than the council would be a way forward for an event with serious PR problems.

But instead, Run To The Beat has become emblematic of just how Greenwich Council under Chris Roberts has become arrogant, overbearing and more interested in big business than its residents. And until things change at the town hall, the race will always be a problem rather than a party.

For details about the Run To The Beat route and maps, click here and scroll down to ‘residents’. A residents’ helpline will be open until 2.30pm on 020 8233 5900, staffed by IMG and a council officer. If you have any issues, let your local councillor know – and it’s also worth copying in Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney on the email (firstname.surname@royalgreenwich.gov.uk).

Written by Darryl

7 September, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Thought Greenwich Council was too skint for fireworks?

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Three years ago, Greenwich Council decided to pull out of funding the annual fireworks display on Blackheath, pleading poverty. The £37,000 cost was, according to deputy leader Peter Brooks, equivalent to one mayoral piss-up at the Naval College full-time job.

“I could give 65 million reasons why we didn’t pay,” Brooks told a council meeting in October 2010, referring to government cuts in the council’s budget. “£37,000 is equivalent to a job and a bit.”

So Lewisham Council was left in the lurch – but has continued to shoulder the entire cost of funding the phenomenally-popular event.

Fast forward to 2013, and Greenwich Council can suddenly afford not just one set of fireworks, but five…

(Video from Greenwich.co.uk)

Pyrotechnics lit up the skies over Greenwich last night and Wednesday night, and will again tonight (at 9.15pm); and there’s be more fireworks over Woolwich tomorrow and Sunday nights (both 9.45pm).

All very nice (and very loud), although I’ve not heard of huge crowds surging to Greenwich to see them, despite council tweets suggesting people “arrive early”.

Heaven knows how many jobs those whizz-bangs were worth. But why? Well, it’s all part of Greenwich Council’s bid to host the 2016 Tall Ships Race, which involved a nice trip to Latvia for the Dear Leader and chums last year, roughly at the same time neighbouring Lewisham was concentrating on the threat to the local NHS.

But the fireworks also represent a substantial piece of tax-funded help for a private company, Sail Royal Greenwich, which is based in the council’s supposed “digital hub” at Mitre Passage, by the Dome. Not only is it getting accommodation from the council, but it’s also getting pyrotechnics funded to help its commercial offer – of trips up and down the Thames in tall ships – look that bit better.

Nice work if you can get it, and all that. All this generosity is aimed at securing the tall ships for 2016, and a hoped-for boost in tourism during that year. And a no-doubt impressive-looking set of photos for Greenwich Time, if they actually manage to get next week’s issue out.

Is this a wise idea or not? Only the borough’s taxpayers can decide. But the moral of Greenwich Council’s new-found love for fireworks seems to be: whenever a Greenwich councillor says there’s no money left for something, take it with a very big pinch of salt.

To donate to 2013′s Blackheath fireworks, due to take place on Saturday 2 November, visit www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.

9.45am update: See also The Greenwich Phantom: “I only hope the kickbacks are worth it.” Ouch.

Double your money: Run To The Beat’s £20,000 council sweetener

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Run to the Beat sign in Wyndcliff Road, Charlton, 26 August 2013

Organisers of the controversial Run To The Beat race are already planning to give Greenwich Council £20,000 to host next year’s event – even though this year’s half-marathon still hasn’t been given licences by the authority.

Objections from residents, who face being shut in by the race’s circular route via Greenwich, Blackheath, Charlton and Woolwich on 8 September, mean that this year’s race has to face a licensing hearing for its sound stages this Wednesday at Woolwich Town Hall.

Those objections have meant that what Greenwich Council actually gets out of holding the half-marathon has been revealed – but those expecting a huge sum of money will be disappointed. In fact, local people get very little out of the event, which is run for profit by events conglomerate IMG.

In an email exchange between Charlton resident Anne Waite, objecting to the race, and IMG’s Clayton Payne, it emerges that the firm only gives the council £10,000 for holding the event – but is planning to double it from 2014, even though there’s been no public agreement for the event to continue beyond this year.

Mr Payne writes:

“It is our utmost wish that the local community engages in the event and it serves to support the local community… We are aware that at times the event poses disruption to the local area and to that effect we have doubled our resident and business communications for 2013.

“As a boost to the successful partnership between Greenwich Council and IMG (Organisers), IMG will give £10,000 to the Greenwich Council Sports legacy [sic] this year, and £20,000 from next year.”

Clayton Payne’s statement appears to contradict claims made by Greenwich Council’s environment cabinet member Maureen O’Mara last year, which indicated that the council didn’t have a long-term relationship with the organisers.

Greenwich West councillor O’Mara told a council meeting in October 2012:

“If this race is to return to the borough, it needs to be with residents fully understanding what’s going to happen in their streets, and what’s going to happen with licensing.

“And we need to think – well, what does this bring into the borough? I certainly don’t want go through again, the anguish of the past four weeks. We have to be absolutely clear about why Run To The Beat is here in the first place.

“If residents say they don’t want it, then we’ll have to talk to IMG about that.”

Yet no such consultation has taken place, despite O’Mara conceding that Run To The Beat “seems to create more trouble than the [London] Marathon” – possibly because the marathon causes inconvenience, it’s a not-for-profit event that’s known around the world and which draws huge crowds to pubs, restaurants and local shops. The same can’t be said for RTTB.

So how has Greenwich Council entered into what appears to be a long-term relationship with Run To The Beat’s organisers? This is a particularly baffling question as members of the local Labour Party, which is supposed to control the council, demanded a full consultation should take place before the race was repeated.

Will Maureen O’Mara, often spirited in council meetings, have the bottle to face those local party members to explain why their views don’t matter?

All this said, there has been an improvement in communications from RTTB, with reports of two information leaflets about the race (853 Towers, in the cut-off zone, has had one leaflet, copies of which can be downloaded from here), and there is a promise that roads will be re-opened earlier, largely down to a few local councillors defying O’Mara and kicking off about the issue. One leaflet even, for the first time, featured a map of local bus services, which will still be hugely disrupted.

Mind you, in his letter to runners, RTTB managing director James Robinson’s London geography suggests he may not even be aware what side of the Thames his race is on…

Run To The Beat competitors' leaflet

The Run To The Beat licence hearing is at 5.30pm on Wednesday at Woolwich Town Hall, and is open to the public. If you can’t make it, you can ask your local councillor to speak for you (I understand in Peninsula ward, Mary Mills is happy to speak for residents, and in Charlton, Gary Parker will do the same) – just get in touch with your councillor via the council website and see what they plan to do.

Written by Darryl

26 August, 2013 at 7:30 am

Woolwich Crossrail – good news, but questions remain

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Woolwich Crossrail station

It’s long overdue, but definitive news that Woolwich’s Crossrail station will get built after all is worth celebrating. But neither the Government/TfL announcement, nor Greenwich Council’s news release, carry much detail on just how much this will cost.

The good news is that there shouldn’t be any direct cost to council tax payers. It’s also good to hear that one funding idea that I’d heard about – allocating all the grants TfL gives out for local improvements to Woolwich Crossrail for a number of years – is also not happening. But there’s still a few details which it would be good to get cleared up.

Here’s what we know, and what we don’t know, and some thoughts suggested to me by someone who knows their way around council finances:

a) The cost of fitting out the station has reduced from £100m to £54m. What happened to the other £46m? Does this mean ideas such as building a pedestrian tunnel to Woolwich Arsenal station have been junked?

b) Of this £54m, £5m is coming from the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund.

c) So how much of the remaining £49m is coming from Berkeley Homes? The council’s press release appears to hint that they aren’t paying much – and there’s been no statement from Berkeley to the stock exchange.

d) Greenwich Council’s contribution – and we don’t know how much this is, either – will come from developers, via a community infrastructure levy. Will Berkeley be paying this levy?

e) Community infrastructure levies have to be paid for when developments begin. Is this why so many projects have got under way in the past few months, to escape the levy?

f) Which new developments are going to start between the implementation of the levy and the end of next year? And which developments will have to pay it? Unless there’s a massive levy on a selected few developments, there’s a risk that Greenwich Council will be collecting this money for decades to come – which could lead to a future cash flow problem.

Now the hard work gets under way on commissioning and building the station – but also on making sure public transport links into and out of Woolwich are worth it. In some ways, North Greenwich, served by slow services taking indirect routes, is a template to avoid, despite being overwhelmingly successful. There’s no point crowing that “the whole borough” will benefit if you can’t even get a bus that runs from Eltham to Woolwich via the most direct route. Still, there’s five years to get it right…

2.55pm update: London Reconnections analyses the Woolwich deal.

Written by Darryl

26 July, 2013 at 7:31 am

New Cross and Woolwich fire stations: A tale of two councils

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Woolwich Fire Station, 10 July 2013Sighs of relief in New Cross today, as its fire station has escaped closure under revised plans to make £29m of cuts to the London Fire Brigade.

But the news isn’t so good for Woolwich fire station, tucked away in the back streets – one of 10 stations still due to shut by October, although fire chiefs now plan to give East Greenwich a second engine to partly compensate for the loss.

The Fire Brigades Union says the campaign against the remaining closures, which also include Downham fire station, will go on; while the political fall-out is bound to continue.

But it’s worth comparing and contrasting the approaches taken by both Lewisham and Greenwich councils with emergency services under threat in their patches. They differ somewhat – and, as we can see, ended up with differing results, too.

Lewisham fired off a seven-page response to the proposals from a senior council officer, after inviting its borough commander to two council meetings. Lewisham had two stations under threat on its patch – New Cross and Downham. Its response takes each point in turn, and contains a wealth of statistics and real examples of how the borough and its neighbours would be affected by the proposed closures (51% of New Cross call-outs are in Southwark, with a small handful in Greenwich).

That latter point’s an important one – borough boundaries are irrelevant in the fire cuts debate, as many stations predate even the old metropolitan boroughs, never mind the current ones; indeed, east London tenders are sometimes called to fires on this side of the Thames, and vice versa.

So we learn from Lewisham’s document that one in 20 of Downham’s stations call-outs go into Greenwich borough – presumably towards Eltham and Mottingham.

Greenwich sent a two-page letter from cabinet member Maureen O’Mara. It focuses solely on Woolwich and contains two glaring errors.

The first is in a strange example given to demonstrate traffic congestion…

Woolwich often experiences serious traffic congestion particularly when the Woolwich Ferry is busy with large lorries queuing to cross the river or when only one ferry is in operation. For example, the mean weekday run time on bus route 472 (which runs on the Woolwich side of the ferry), over a six month period (January to June 2012) is 1.1 minutes. However the maximum run time (during congested periods) is 42.6 minutes.

And the other seems to get Plumstead and Greenwich fire stations mixed up…

There is a major chemical factory in the Plumstead area which the Fire Brigade has committed to attend within six minutes in the event of a fire. If appliances based at Greenwich had already been called out to a fire elsewhere, the next closest ones would be in East Greenwich and would not be able to arrive within the agreed time frame.

Hopefully a corrected version was sent. There’s no mention of Downham, even though it serves Greenwich borough residents. It also misses the fact that Woolwich fire station serves a small part of London City Airport’s crash zone – a big argument on its favour.

The response largely falls back on the same old stuff about population growth, but there’s no research into how the fire brigade serves Greenwich borough. Compared with Lewisham, it’s a very limp response indeed.

The question’s got to be asked – how serious was Greenwich Council about saving Woolwich fire station?

LFEPA report

The London Fire Brigade report into the consultation says the council refused to put up posters publicising a consultation meeting held in Greenwich on 28 May – forcing it to rely on editorial in the council’s weekly Greenwich Time instead. Why on earth would any council decline to put up posters for a public meeting about something which could have such grave consequences for its residents?

It’s worth pointing out that local Labour party members – including local councillor and cabinet member John Fahy – actively campaigned to retain the fire station. But why didn’t the council that their party supposedly runs back them with something meaningful, rather than a token letter?

Still, if Greenwich Time is stil limping on in a year’s time, there might be a nice little puff piece for some luxury flats in an old fire station in Woolwich, with some quote about how it’s a pleasing sign of the area’s regeneration. We’ll just have to hope a fire doesn’t break out…

Written by Darryl

11 July, 2013 at 7:30 am


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