Southeastern smackdown: Worst of all worlds for SE London commuters

Lewisham station, 2015
Today’s announcement that the government won’t be devolving Southeastern’s metro rail services to Transport for London is the worst of all worlds for south-east London – and threatens to put parts of our local infrastructure under even greater strain.

Despite clear improvements to train services in north London which have already been transferred to mayoral control, transport secretary Chris Grayling has called such a move “deckchair shifting” – while refusing to let go of the Titanic’s wheel.

It’s also a massive blow to mayor Sadiq Khan – we’ve seen under Ken Livingstone, and to a smaller (and more ambiguous) extent under Boris Johnson, that fixing transport is the most visible way a mayor can change London for the better.

The devolution plan – first concocted under Johnson – would have separated Southeastern’s metro services from Kent/Sussex trains, and handed them to TfL to manage. This system – where TfL takes responsibility for fares, services and staffing – has worked wonders on London Overground, where services are up while delays and fare-dodging are down.

Now Khan looks like he’ll be denied this, as Grayling decides the service on the Grove Park to Bromley North shuttle is more appropriate for Westminster to deal with rather than City Hall.

But it also leaves south-east Londoners the most exposed to the ill-effects of Khan’s fare “freeze” – where fares on TfL services are frozen but travelcard, fare caps and National Rail fares will continue to increase.

Because of the actions of Grayling and Khan, south-east Londoners who rely on Southeastern face paying far more for our travel than those use can use the Tube or most services north of the river.

Here are the current fares – you can see where National Rail fares are increasingly out of synch with TfL tickets in the outer zones, despite the far inferior service. The TfL fare scale also applies to many National Rail services in west, north and east London, as part of recent policy decisions or for historic reasons.

Most National Rail fares will be 10p dearer from 2 January – but TfL tickets are frozen.

2016 Oyster/ contactless fare TfL – all National Rail only Using both in Zone 1
Zone 1-2 £2.90/£2.40 £2.70/£2.40 £4.30/£3.70
Zone 1-3 £3.30/£2.80 £3.40/£2.50 £5.00/£4.00
Zone 1-4 £3.90/£2.80 £3.90/£2.80 £5.50/£4.30
Zone 1-5 £4.70/£3.10 £5.00/£3.20 £6.60/£4.70
Zone 1-6 £5.10/£3.10 £6.10/£3.80 £7.70/£5.30
Zone 2-4 £2.40/£1.50 £2.80/£2.20 n/a
Zone 2-6 £3.80/£1.50 £4.10/£2.70 n/a

With Khan pledging to keep TfL fares frozen until 2020, and Tory policy to keep increasing National Rail fares, these disparities will get worse, and start to affect people further into London. Worse still, commuters who use Southeastern and then change to the Tube in Zone 1 will continue to face a profiteering surcharge of up to £1.60 that many rail users in north, west and east London do not face.

Note also that off-peak zone 2-6 TfL fares are held down to £1.50 – the price of a bus fare – to drum up trade during quieter hours. No such good sense on National Rail. So someone travelling from Deptford to Erith gets whacked with a £2.70 fare; Canary Wharf to Upminster is just £1.50.

It’s worth pointing out here that Sadiq Khan refused an offer by TfL to freeze Travelcard prices and fare caps, which would have lessened the blow of continued National Rail fare rises.

This isn’t just about south-east Londoners being financially penalised. This also sets back infrastructure improvements – because TfL knows that central government’s inept management of National Rail services is putting pressure on its own operations.

108 overcrowding

The daily grind to and from North Greenwich (thanks to Ruth Townson for the pictures)

TfL’s business case raised the possibility of improvements such as rebuilding the junction at Lewisham, which would enable more services to run through the station, and building new platforms at Brockley which would take pressure off the Jubilee Line at Canada Water.

These ideas don’t just come out of the goodness of TfL’s own heart. People are already voting with their feet because of the cost and unreliability of National Rail services. The business case highlighted how many passengers would rather take the bus to Brixton for the Tube than use unreliable National Rail services closer to their homes.

Brixton: TfL's customer data means it knows where commuters are coming from

Brixton: TfL’s customer data means it knows where commuters are coming from

We see the same effect locally at North Greenwich, where thousands pile onto buses to avoid using Southeastern, putting massive strain on the local transport network. Part of this is down to the fare structure – travelling from North Greenwich only means a zone 2 travelcard, even if you start your journey by bus in Eltham or Blackheath. But if you miss a Jubilee Line train, there’s usually another one in two minutes. You can’t say that for Southeastern trains.

The punishment fare for changing in Zone 1 is also a factor. The DLR’s Woolwich Arsenal services were overwhelmed within months of their introduction. If you had a job at, say, Angel, why would you pay £5.50 to start your journey on an unreliable Southeastern train if taking the DLR would only set you back £3.90?

So SE London commuters face more years of paying more for less, unless the government can be persuaded to change its mind.

The government has little interest in the views of voters in Greenwich or Lewisham, as Tory election wins are thin on the ground here. But will voters in true-blue Bexley and Bromley punish their Tory MPs and councils over this? And will Khan have to modify his fare “freeze” so south Londoners lose out less? We’ll have to wait and see.

Easter rail cuts to hit Greenwich and Woolwich’s Transatlantic Tall Ships Regatta

Greenwich Council says 2014's Tall Ships festival brought 1.1 million people to Greenwich and Woolwich

Next year’s Transatlantic Tall Ships Regatta in Greenwich and Woolwich has been hit by news that major engineering works will cancel most National Rail trains in the area that weekend, making it harder for visitors to attend the spectacle.

The event, which is costing Greenwich Council £2 million, will take place over Easter, from 13 to 16 April. It follows 2014’s Tall Ships Festival, which the council says brought 1.1 million visitors to the area, generating a claimed “£17 million of economic activity”.

Between 35 and 40 ships are due to be moored at two sites, in Greenwich and Woolwich, across the weekend. The ships will then sail across the Atlantic and back, with stops in Simes, Portugal; Bermuda; Boston; a to-be-confirmed Canadian port; Quebec; and Le Havre, France.

But visitors will find it much harder to reach the event as the National Rail line through Greenwich will be closed all weekend to accommodate Thameslink Programme rebuilding works at London Bridge station. There will be no service at Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Westcombe Park stations all weekend, with Charing Cross and Waterloo East closed on Good Friday and Easter Saturday.

Lewisham station, 2015

Lewisham station has suffered from overcrowding due to Thameslink works

According to a report to be presented to Greenwich Council’s overview and scrutiny committee next week, Southeastern is planning to run a miserly two direct trains per hour between Victoria or Charing Cross and Woolwich Arsenal, with an additional service running to and from New Cross, with passengers expected to change for central London trains at Lewisham.

One solution to provide an additional service to central London, which would avoid possible overcrowding at Lewisham station, could be to swap rail services around so the New Cross trains run in and out of Blackfriars instead. This happened during the early stages of the Thameslink Programme closures, but there is no sign that this is being considered.

Buses could also be hit if there is a need for road closures in Greenwich town centre to accommodate expected crowds – but a whole closure of the town centre, which happened in 2014, is being ruled out because of the effects of the cut in rail services.

The report says: “In order to accommodate the crowds expected at the event in Greenwich Town Centre, some temporary road closures may be required.

“Road closures will improve the festival ambience, encourage visitors to use the shops in the town centre, and improve pedestrian safety. The newly available space can be animated with performers and temporary stalls. The proposed closure… is still to be agreed internally and with TfL and other stakeholders.

“Subject to internal and external agreement, the likely road closure will resemble the arrangements made for the successful Greenwich Car Free Day with the addition of Welland Street closed to traffic to accommodate a queuing system for the Cutty Sark DLR station.”

Travellers are to be advised to use Docklands Light Railway services – which will run every five minutes to Greenwich and Woolwich Arsenal across the weekend – and Thames Clippers boats.

Woolwich Royal Arsenal, 2014

Businesses in he Royal Arsenal development benefitted from the Tall Ships event in 2014

Conservative councillors tried to cancel the Tall Ships Regatta last year, saying the money should be used to help vulnerable residents and improve local engagement. Their budget amendment was thrown out after the council’s Labour leadership said the event would help boost businesses in the area.

But this month’s report reveals scepticism from Woolwich businesses that 2014’s Tall Ships festival benefitted the town.

While most said the event benefitted “Royal Greenwich” (it is not made clear whether this means Greenwich borough or Greenwich itself), 65% of businesses strongly disagreed that the Tall Ships Regatta was a good thing for Woolwich or Woolwich residents, adding that most of the benefits were felt within Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development rather than the town centre.

The report points out that Woolwich has fewer hospitality businesses than Greenwich, and outlines plans to better link the town centre with the Arsenal complex.

It adds 84% of businesses did not take on extra staff for the 2014 event.

Next year’s festival has also been sluggish at attracting tall ships trainees, who will sail with a ship on the first leg to Portugal. The council originally hoped to attract 179, but estimates have been scaled back after just 39 signed up. Greenwich taxpayers are due to pay for 30 trainees, at a total cost of £27,000, although 31 are paying their own costs.

The report also reveals £20,000 in sponsorship from the controversial London City Cruise Port at Enderby Wharf (whose impact on the environment is discussed in this Radio 4 documentary) and £12,500 from developer U+I, which last week announced major plans to develop part of the Woolwich/Charlton riverside. Intercontinental Hotels is donating a venue (costed at £30,000) for the Captain’s Party, while Charlton Athletic Football Club – currently in turmoil with its own supporters – is also offering The Valley (£1,500) for a crew party.

It also admits some staff working on the event may not get London Living Wage. “All contractors will be encouraged to pay staff working on the event London Living Wage or higher, although the nature of some business sectors, where staff may be sub-contracted, makes enforcing the payment of London Living Wage difficult or impossible,” it says.

Labour Party gets ‘flytipping’ warning after Greenwich councillor’s documents found in Eltham street

Eltham Labour offices, 3 November 2016

Eltham Labour Party has been given a warning over flytipping after a councillor’s personal documents were found dumped by the side of its offices on Westmount Road.

Election posters and personal documents in the name of Peninsula ward councillor Chris Lloyd were found dumped on Greenvale Road, Eltham, by the side gate of the party’s constituency HQ.

Lloyd vehemently denies any involvement in the incident, and says he believes a “good Samaritan” left the items outside the party office after finding them in a previous home of his.

This website has seen correspondence which confirms Greenwich Council has written to the Eltham Labour Party to remind it of its responsibilities when dealing with rubbish after repeated complaints over items being left outside the office.

Eltham North, the council ward where the incident took place, faces a council by-election this Thursday, with the Conservatives aiming to regain a seat they lost to Labour in 2014.

Dumped rubbish in Eltham, August 2016

The incident happened in August, when local resident Nick Craddy – who acts as an “environment champion” for the area – discovered piles of items left on Greenvale Road.

They included a bilingual election poster for Lloyd’s attempt to become the MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, mid-Wales, in the 2010 general election.

Lloyd, who is originally from Knighton, a town in the constituency, came third in the election; a result he repeated in the Welsh Assembly election the following year, where he failed to unseat then-Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams. The former Greenwich University student was elected Peninsula councillor in 2014.

The items also included correspondence about a TV licence in Lloyd’s name, addressed to him at a student halls of residence in Deptford, as well as an induction pack for those halls.

Dumped rubbish in Eltham

Craddy told 853 he had spotted rubbish dumped on Greenvale Road “for quite a long time” after a tenant had moved into the flat above the Labour office.

But after Craddy arranged for the tenant to be supplied with recycling bins, the problem continued. He said he had spoken to people in the office, who “got sniffy” when he suggested they clean the rubbish up.

“One day, I walked down there, and lo and behold, there was a wodge of Welsh Labour posters out there,” he said.

‘I phoned [local Conservative councillor] Spencer Drury up, he came down with his camera, and we thought ‘gotcha’.

“Someone in the Labour office must have spotted us, because when I walked back from the shop after, there was a man taking it inside.

“The rubbish must have been there for 24, if not 48 hours.”

‘I’m not in the habit of leaving TV licences in the street’

Lloyd, who lives in Thamesmead, vehemently denies any involvement in how the items made their way to Eltham.

He told this website he believed someone who moved into an old address of his left the box there in an attempt to get his belongings back to him: “I used to live in a place in west Greenwich – I haven’t lived there for six years – and must have left a box of stuff in the attic.

“This person has tried to get it back to me, and it’s found its way to the Eltham Labour office. The day it was put out there, it was taken inside. But not before Cllr Drury walked by and got a picture.

“I had a call from someone in the Eltham office, telling me they came into work and found a box of my stuff. It was taken to the Greenwich office and it’s now in the boot of my car.”

Asked how the items were taken to Eltham when he lives in and represents a ward in the Greenwich & Woolwich constituency, he said: “Why it ended up in Eltham, I have no idea. I’m not in the habit of leaving old TV licences and bank statements in the street.”

Fly-tipping crackdown

The incident came as Greenwich Council launched a crackdown on flytipping in the borough. The council can now fine offenders £400 – a power first used in September on a trader based on Plumstead Road. Two more fines have been issued since, also in the Plumstead area.

More resources have also been put into street-cleaning services in Plumstead, Charlton and Abbey Wood.

Correspondence seen by this website states that a senior Greenwich Labour councillor gave council officers the name of an individual who it was believed had left the items at the side of the office.

But the individual concerned denied all knowledge of the incident, leaving council officers to conclude they had no evidence on which to take any further action beyond sending a letter to the Labour office and residents in the accommodation above “reminding them of their responsibilities in relation to managing their waste”.

Spencer Drury, who has been pursuing the incident since it took place, said the way it was handled cast doubt on the council’s ability to deal with those who dump rubbish.

He told 853: “The warning is fine if you’re consistent. But if every single person says ‘it wasn’t me, it was someone down the road’ – how will they fine anyone? If we all use that as an excuse, presumably you can’t fine anyone.”

What does Greenwich Council say?

A spokesperson for Greenwich Council said: “Back in the summer there were some incidences of flytipping and discarded waste around the Greenvale Road area of Eltham.

“At the time the Council wrote to local businesses and residents in the immediate area reminding them of how to dispose of waste correctly.

“We continue to regularly inspect the area and are pleased to report that there have been no further incidences of discarded waste that have come to our attention.

“No one local business/proprietor was singled out when the group of locals were written to at the time.”

Eltham Labour did not respond to a request for comment.

By-election spice

The row adds spice to a rare thing in Greenwich borough politics – a genuinely close by-election in Eltham North. While Labour seized two out of three seats in 2014 – their first ever success in the area –  Eltham North voters backed Zac Goldsmith in May’s mayoral poll, and sided with leaving the European Union in June’s referendum.

The poll was called after Labour’s Wynn Davies – one of the few on the council to openly support Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election bid this summer, and by all accounts a hard-working councillor – moved out of the area due to a change in personal circumstances. This website understands he resisted pressure to stay in the seat and represent voters from his new home in Shropshire, avoiding the awkward poll.

Labour is standing popular local party stalwart Simon Peirce, who came fifth in 2014’s poll. The Tories have gone for youth in the shape of 22-year-old activist Charlie Davis. Ukip, who split the vote in 2014,  have picked Lee-based Barbara Ray. The Liberal Democrats will be testing their hopes of a revival by fielding Sam Macaulay, who only joined the party in July.

But it’s the Greens who have raised eyebrows by fielding someone who stood as a Conservative candidate in the Glyndon by-election in May.

Matt Browne, who used to be involved with Tory thinktank Bright Blue, says he decided to jump ship after the EU referendum. “Over six years, as a very, very small cog in the Conservative machine, I saw that warm words weren’t enough,” he said. “On the grim morning of June 24th, I had definitive proof.”

Do a few dumped election posters matter?

Nick Craddy

While few will make as huge a political leap as Matt Browne, the ongoing consequences of the EU referendum will probably have a bigger impact on those who turn up to vote in Eltham North on Thursday than a row about some stuff dumped outside the Labour Party offices.

But you would expect the borough’s governing party to be a little bit more careful with its rubbish.

Thankfully for the residents of Greenvale Road, Nick Craddy (pictured above) remains an environment champion. The voluntary role sees him help pick up rubbish, liaise with the council and talk to neighbours about litter problems.

“I enjoy it – I’ve lived in this street for 30 years and I’ve spoken to neighbours I’ve never spoken to before. And once the street’s clean – it stays clean.”

And despite the embarrassment for Labour politicians, there has been a good result from all this – Craddy says the flytipping has stopped in Greenvale Road. “You could eat your dinner off the pavement now.”

To report flytipping in Greenwich (or anywhere else), visit fixmystreet.com or download its smartphone app. For more about becoming an environment champion, visit the Greenwich Council website.

Lewisham’s Ravensbourne Arms is closing – but why did nobody spot the warning signs?

Ravensbourne Arms

Going, going gone: The Ravensbourne Arms closes the day before Hallowe’en

Frustrated of Charlton writes… The annoying thing about writing a website like this isn’t the stories you can unearth, it’s the stories you don’t have time to unearth. With south-east London’s local press being asset-stripped, there are loads of local stories that simply aren’t seeing the light of day. I could happily spend all day doing this stuff, but nobody’s willing to pay for this kind of stuff any more.

You could see this on Wednesday night if you nipped into Greenwich Council’s regular full meeting, or if you watch it online. As ever, it was a festival of defensiveness. Angry residents raised the privatisation of musculoskeletal services at Greenwich GP surgeries (and got qualified support from councillors); a fishy-looking deal to lease the Hervey Road playing field in Kidbrooke to Blackheath rugby club (and were ignored); and Greenwich using Savills estate agents to assess 20% of its housing stock (it insists council housing isn’t under threat).

These are stories not being covered elsewhere. People have kindly been in contact with me about all these things – but operating on my own, I simply don’t have the resources to follow them up.

Thankfully, the Mercury’s sole reporter/news editor Mandy Little was in the gallery too, so hopefully some of these will get an airing. But she can’t always get down there, and there are just too many stories for one person to cover.

Over at the News Shopper, they’re moving to a system where one person effectively produces the whole paper – lovely if you want a press release to go into the paper without touching the sides, bad for actual journalism. No wonder why the journalists have been on strike again.

This means one of the checks and balances of civic society has effectively disappeared. And when they’re all caught napping, you can get a horrible surprise. So it was this week, with bad news across the borough boundary.

Last orders at the Ravensbourne

A quiet Friday afternoon in the Ravensbourne Arms

A quiet Friday afternoon in the Ravensbourne Arms

It’s emerged via social media that Lewisham’s Ravensbourne Arms pub is closing on Sunday.

It’s only been open five years, having been transformed from the grim Coach and Horses by pub outfit Antic. It’s a terrific boozer and a favourite of mine. So please indulge me here.

It also hosted the first meeting of the short-lived Lewisham branch of the National Union of Journalists, where I gave a talk about this website and the dire state of local journalism in SE London. Sadly, what remains of local journalism missed the warning signs about the Ravensbourne. They weren’t the only ones.

Antic isn’t commenting on the closure beyond a short statement thanking customers and confirming a move to new premises in the old Market Tavern/Quaggy Duck site further up Lewisham High Street.

But it’s widely believed the pub has been sold. The freeholder of the pub is, according to the Land Registry, Tavernius Limited, which is one of a network of companies with connections to other firms named after pubs trading under the Antic London brand, such as Westow House at Crystal Palace and the East Dulwich Tavern.

Companies House records for Tavernius indicate a mortgage on the Ravensbourne Arms was paid off on Wednesday, meaning a sale may have take place that hasn’t made it to the Land Registry yet. The Land Registry data also shows some property transfers around the site too.

Antic applied for flats – and got them

Ravensbourne Arms planning notice

Lewisham Council granted planning permission for flats above the Ravensbourne Arms as well as development of surrounding land twice, in 2014 and August 2015. The 2014 application saw two homes built behind the pub last year. (Unfortunately, Lewisham’s planning search function is down at the time of writing, so I can’t double-check what was in the 2014 application.)

The applications don’t mention the pub itself, but this should have rung alarm bells. Housing above pubs can be a way of securing the future of a venue (the new Catford Bridge Tavern will have flats above it). But such developments are also a very good way for developers to shut down the pub itself – these are cases that demand vigilance.

The applicant was given as “Antic London”. There is no company of this name registered at Companies House in the UK, nor in Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man. (An earlier company, Antic Limited, went into administration in 2013, with its operations being taken over by a new company called Gregarious Limited, which is linked to the group of firms mentioned earlier.)

But Antic has always been as much about property as (some very good) pubs – and this was a process that the public were alerted to.

To find planning applications, you have to search through the weekly lists. (This is something From The Murky Depths excels at for big developments.) It’s not actually that big a deal, but you do need to track down the lists. You’ll usually find them on a council website or in a local paper (in Lewisham, I think it’s the South London Press; in Greenwich, it’s currently the Mercury following Greenwich Time’s demise).

There was also a notice tucked away in the Ravensbourne window early in 2015. I actually saw it, took a picture, and made a note to myself to investigate – something I’m kicking myself hard for not doing.

So this process seems to have sailed through without local press – which used to check this stuff as a matter of course – local bloggers, local societies or the likes of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) noticing. But one other check seems to have failed.

Why was it decided behind closed doors?

Opening time: The Ravensbourne Arms when it started trading in May 2011

Opening time: The Ravensbourne Arms when it started trading in May 2011

Most planning applications are determined by officers. Local councillors don’t always need to sit around deciding whether you can have a kitchen extension. But if a certain number of your neighbours object, or if a local councillor thinks it should go before committee, then it will do just that.

Both 2014 and 2015 applications – despite them relating to a prominent local business – were not. They were decided by officers behind closed doors.

I’m not as familiar with Lewisham planning processes as Greenwich, but at first sight, it seems that the three councillors that represent Lewisham Central ward missed a trick here, as putting the applications before a committee would have enabled more alarm bells to ring.

This is a shame, because Lewisham has actually done some great work in putting protection of pubs into its planning framework (Greenwich’s Core Strategy also mentions the importance of pubs, although the protections aren’t as strong.)

What happens next?

Market Tavern, Lewisham

The Market Tavern pictured in February 2015: Antic are planning to reopen this site as E&H Handley

I don’t know. We do know that Antic is redeveloping the long-shut Market Tavern further up Lewisham High Street (under the name “E&H Hadley”), so that may be the company’s long-term priority. I understand that it’s hoped the staff will move up the high street to the new pub when it opens next year. It may well be that the sale of one outlet is funding the other.

But the new venue will be further away from the Hither Green and Ladywell areas, as well as the Lewisham Hospital staff that have come to treat the Ravensbourne as their local.

I’d hope that people rally to save the Ravensbourne Arms, although this could be a long, drawn-out battle – among Lewisham’s trump cards is a local planning rule stating that a pub must be proved to be unviable by having been on the market for at least three years with no takers. (Thanks to Rushey Green councillor James-J Walsh for tweeting this.)

This will be an interesting test for Lewisham’s pub protection policies, and I’m sure events will now be watched closely.

An Antic statement says: “It is with sadness that we announce our leaving the Ravensbourne Arms this Sunday in advance of opening at our new home, EH Hadley, in central Lewisham in 2017.

“We thank all of our customers for their support and very much look forward to being of service again soon.”

Down the road in Catford, Antic has secured a lease extension (from Lewisham Council) on another successful pub, the Catford Constitutional Club, and is holding a party on the 12th. News that it is closing the Ravensbourne may just dampen the celebrations for many locals.

There’s a moral to this story – if you see a planning notice on the front of your local pub, for heaven’s sake, read it and look it up. You might just be the one that helps keep it open.

Blackheath fireworks: Lewisham turns to Uber after Greenwich Council blows £17,000 on Mickey Mouse stunt

Eltham cinema launch

Eltham MP Clive Efford, Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland, “Daniel Craig”, ceremonial mayor Olu Babatola, deputy leader Danny Thorpe and friends. Photo: Eltham Labour Party

Greenwich Council refused a request to increase its funding for Blackheath fireworks after spending £17,000 on a Mickey Mouse stunt to promote a new cinema in Eltham, it has emerged.

Lewisham Council is now turning to controversial minicab service Uber to help fund the £87,000 display after Greenwich rebuffed a plea to up its funding from just £10,000.

The event, which regularly attracts 100,000 spectators, used to be jointly funded between the two boroughs, who share responsibility for the heath.

Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of the funding in 2010, claiming it could not afford to pay for the display because of government cuts. This left Lewisham to shoulder the costs alone, appealing for sponsorship and public donations while trimming the length of the display.

Since then, Greenwich has partly relented, offering £10,000 towards the cost of last year’s £96,000 display. Lewisham managed to raise £48,000 in sponsorship and public donations, but was still saddled with a £38,000 shortfall.

Greenwich is paying the same for this year’s display, but after spending £17,000 on a press launch for a new cinema in Eltham featuring Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear characters. In May, it also blew £20,000 on an invite-only event to celebrate the borough’s new ceremonial mayor.

With public displays acknowledged as a key tool in keeping fireworks injuries down, Lewisham has been determined to keep the display going. This is despite the council coming under severe pressure from central government cuts and other changes to local authority funding.

The display also funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas within walking distance such as Lee Green, Deptford and Charlton – districts which straddle both boroughs.

Seven weeks to confirm funding

Blackheath fireworks attracts 100,000 people each year, boosting businesses across a wide area

Blackheath fireworks attracts 100,000 people each year, boosting businesses across a wide area

Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act and passed to this website reveal that Lewisham unsuccessfully asked Greenwich to increase its share of the funding.

On 5 August, Lewisham head of culture and community development Liz Dart wrote to Greenwich assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney, pointing out: “We are under pressure to try and bring our subsidy down so if there was any way you could consider an increase to the £10,000 that would be greatly appreciated.”

Some of the correspondence has been redacted, so it is unclear whether Delaney addressed the request directly.

But it took over seven weeks and a follow-up email from Kellie Blake, Lewisham’s community engagement manager, for Delaney to confirm on 26 September that Greenwich would repeat its £10,000 donation.

So despite the event taking place on an open space shared between the two boroughs – and the possibility that the fireworks may actually be launched from within Greenwich, as has happened in the past – Greenwich is just classed as a sponsor of the event.

To help make ends meet this year, Lewisham has accepted backing from Uber, which is offering £5 for every free ride taken by new customers who sign up with a code.

Uber has been criticised for paying just £22,000 in UK corporation tax, while the GMB union has taken it to court claiming it treats drivers unlawfully. The firm is also the subject of frequent protests from traditional black taxi drivers. Only today, concerns about Uber have been linked to an inquiry by MPs into the “gig economy”.

This year’s display is expected to cost £87,700. Other sources of funding include housing association L&Q (£7,000), parks management company Glendale (£5,000), with a further £3,000 hoped to come from other donors such as Uber and estate agency Hamptons.

Lewisham is hoping to raise £11,000 in public donations and make £15,700 in sales at bars and food stands, leaving it with a £36,000 subsidy.

A Mickey Mouse affair in Eltham

The Eltham cinema stunt was little-covered, but appears in Labour Party publicity in the constituency

The Eltham cinema stunt was little-covered, but appears in Labour Party publicity in the constituency

Earlier this month, Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland claimed finances were “down the bone”. But on 3 August, it found £17,000 for a stunt which featured Hollywood star lookalikes parading up and down Eltham High Street to promote its scheme to build a new cinema there.

The event on 3 August, which featured on little-watched local TV channel London Live, also appears in Eltham Labour publicity promoting MP Clive Efford.

Costs included £2,400 on 10 Disney and Marvel characters such as Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man, and £6,580 on 14 lookalikes, which included likenesses of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Will Smith and Daniel Craig.

The figures were obtained by Conservative councillor Spencer Drury, who wrote about them in a letter to the Mercury newspaper, asking why cinema operator Vue could not have funded the stunt, or the event could not have been held when the venue opens in autumn 2018.

Spencer Drury's letter (Greenwich & Lewisham Mercury, 12 September 2016)

The Mercury – which now carries Greenwich Council’s public notices following Greenwich Time’s closure – chose not to run Drury’s revelation as a story. Instead, it was buried on the letters page with a reply from council leader Denise Hyland.

Denise Hyland's response (Greenwich & Lewisham Mercury, 12 September 2016)

She said: “Sometimes, even in times of austerity, it is important to design events for the community that bring people together to have fun and celebrate their local area with friends and neighbours.”

Like a fireworks display, perhaps.

Residents were invited to post selfies from the event on social media to win prizes. Only five people appear to have taken part on Twitter, with the same number appearing to participate on Instagram.

£20,000 on mayor’s party

Ermine over fireworks: This private event - lauded in now-shut council weekly Greenwich Time - cost taxpayers £20,000

Ermine over fireworks: This private event – lauded in now-shut council weekly Greenwich Time – cost taxpayers £20,000

Despite claiming to be too poor to fund Blackheath fireworks, Greenwich has also continued to spend £20,000 each year on a private event at the Royal Naval College to celebrate the inauguration of the borough’s ceremonial mayor.

This year’s invitees included Berkeley Homes chief John Anderson and Neil Smith, head of planning at Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon, according to documents released to this website under the Freedom of Information Act.

There had been some rumours that this year’s mayor, Olu Babatola, would ditch the event. But instead 400 guests saw a 40-strong choir perform while enjoying 90 bottles of wine as well as a menu including salmon goujons, tomato & goat’s cheese tart and crumbled spicy hake.

Most boroughs – including Lewisham – make do with much smaller events at their own town halls, with the public able to watch.

Written answer from Greenwich full council meeting, 27 October

If Babatola did not cancel the event, then it’s unlikely his successor will – next year’s mayor is Peter Brooks, Chris Roberts’ former deputy, who cancelled the fireworks funding in 2010, claiming it would save “a job and a bit”.

Getting a fireworks display on the cheap

Lewisham's Labour group has made saving Blackheath fireworks a priority, unlike their Greenwich colleagues

Greenwich’s parsimonious attitude to Blackheath fireworks has been a long-running embarrassment for many of the borough’s residents, who can see with their own eyes the benefits it brings to local businesses in both boroughs.

It remains one of the few remaining free displays in London, and funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas within walking distance such as Lee, Deptford and Charlton.

It’s not even as if Greenwich needs to increase its own funding directly – the council is proud of its close links with developers, and could surely tap up the likes of Berkeley Homes or Knight Dragon for a donation or sponsorship to help ease Lewisham’s burden.

But Greenwich’s lack of interest shows us the council leadership is still more concerned with promoting itself through stunts like the Eltham lookalike parade, or retreating into a world of self-congratulation in the Old Royal Naval College.

Unlike their colleagues across the border, Lewisham Labour has made protecting the display a key policy, and both councillors and staff there go to great efforts to keep it going.

But with elected mayor Sir Steve Bullock stepping down at the 2018 election, his successor – who will take charge of an increasingly cash-strapped council – may take a different view.

If Greenwich councillors – and the Labour members who pick them – want to see the Blackheath fireworks continue, they may need to change their attitude – and fast.

To donate to Blackheath fireworks, visit http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.

Bye bye busway: Dual carriageway for Greenwich Millennium Village

GMV bus way

This would become a dual carriage way under TfL and Greenwich Council’s scheme

The busway that links Greenwich Millennium Village and North Greenwich station is set to be ripped out and replaced with a dual carriageway, under plans unveiled by Transport for London and Greenwich Council today.

A consultation has been launched into the scheme, which will also see new bus stops installed by the Pilot pub.

It follows a number of collisions in the area, with drivers and pedestrians confused by the unconventional layout, which has two single-carriageway roads placed next to each other; one for buses and one for general traffic.

GMV busway

Looking towards the Dome from the top of a bus – the busway is on the right

A woman died in January after being hit by a bus in the Millennium Village during a morning rush hour.

The layout is a legacy of a failed plan to have the Millennium Dome served by guided buses. The buses kept crashing while on test, so the busway was covered in tarmac and handed over for normal bus use in June 2001.

Its proposed replacement would provides one lane for buses and one lane for general traffic in each direction. Despite Transport for London recently installing a “cycle hub” (in reality, a couple of double-deck cycle racks) at North Greenwich station, there is no dedicated space for cyclists. It also appears to improve the access route into North Greenwich station, and removes the traffic lights that hold up buses outside the Pilot, replacing them with a pelican crossing.

But while the new arrangement will be less confusing, it does allow rat-running through the Millennium Village to the car parks for the O2 and at North Greenwich station, with the route through GMV bring a popular cut-through in the mornings. The construction of a dual carriageway through this area may mean one problem has been swapped for another. It seems an opportunity has been missed to keep traffic that shouldn’t be in GMV out of it.

If the Silvertown Tunnel is built, the dual carriageway past the Pilot would also be the main access route to the O2 and surrounding amenities during the construction period.

It also means the under-construction St Mary Magdalene school would be surrounded by dual carriageways on both sides.

Local councillors are pleased with what’s planned…

…but to have your say, visit Transport for London’s consultation site.

How former Greenwich Council leader represented borough in Berlin – with taxpayers paying his hotel bill

Chris Roberts in Berlin

Roberts joins Denise Hyland and other councillors in Berlin. From left to right: Norman Adams, Chris Roberts, Reinickendorf district mayor Frank Balzer, deputy council chairman Henry Mazatis, Denise Hyland, former Reinickendorf council director Frank Zemke, Reinickendorf mayor Katrin Schultze-Berndt (CDU), Chris Lloyd, Peter Brooks, Denise Scott-McDonald, Steve Offord. Photo from Reinickendorf council.

Former Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts, who left the council after accusations of bullying were made against him, represented the borough on a trip to Berlin this summer, with accommodation paid for as part of a taxpayer-funded town twinning scheme.

Roberts, who is now deputy chairman of a company which lobbies for property developers, joined current council leader Denise Hyland and five other councillors on the beano to Reinickendorf, west Berlin, in July.

Berlin taxpayers stumped up the £1,585 accommodation costs for the group’s three-day trip, which marked the 50th anniversary of the two boroughs being twinned. Greenwich taxpayers had paid for a German delegation to visit south-east London earlier in the year.

While Roberts stepped down from the council’s top job two years ago, he retains a close relationship with the current council leadership – despite his new role at Cratus Communications, a company which specialises in lobbying local authorities.

His final year in charge saw allegations that he threw a set of keys at a council cleaner, while a leaked voicemail revealed him threatening former deputy leader John Fahy with the loss of his cabinet position in a row over a half-marathon that benefited a charity Roberts had set up.

In addition two councillors stepped down from their jobs complaining of a “culture of bullying” in his Labour group. One of them, former planning chair Alex Grant, later went public with claims that councillors were threatened and intimidated over planning matters.

Despite all this, both Labour and Tory councillors united to award Roberts the freedom of the borough earlier this year.

Fireworks and a VIP dinner

The trip, which took place between 14-17 July, saw Roberts, Hyland, Roberts’ former deputy Peter Brooks (Glyndon ward), Norman Adams (Kidbrooke with Hornfair), Steve Offord (Abbey Wood), Chris Lloyd (Peninsula) and cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald (Peninsula) treated to rooms at the four-star Hotel am Borgisturm in Tegel.

They were treated to a fireworks display on a lake to mark the relationship between the two councils, as well as a Saturday night stage show at the Friedrichstadtpalast theatre, in the centre of the German capital.

Roberts and the party also enjoyed a VIP dinner at the Tegel Harbour Festival, while they also attended a reception at Reinickendorf’s town hall.

One councillor, Chris Lloyd, tweeted about being presented with a medal.

Despite this clearly being a big deal in Reinickendorf, Greenwich did not announce the councillors’ trip to the media. Asked under England’s Freedom of Information Act about the councillors’ trip, Greenwich Council did not disclose Roberts’ attendance or the cost of the trip, although it did confirm the itinerary and pointed out each member of the party paid their own travel costs.

None of the councillors has disclosed the trip with Roberts on their register of interests, despite it being worth more than £100 each.

However, the trip was reported locally and officials in Reinickendorf released a photo showing Roberts with the party. They later confirmed the costs after a request made under Berlin’s state freedom of information laws.

Conflict of interests

Chris Roberts’ new employment as a lobbyist for developers opens up a possible conflict of interests, as Denise Hyland, Peter Brooks, Norman Adams and Steve Offord sit on the borough’s main planning committee, the grandly-titled Planning Board.

Hyland has been criticised for being the only council leader in London to be on such a committee, and earlier this month withdrew from a decision on a skate park in Charlton Park after objectors pointed out she had spoken in support of the scheme last year.

Roberts – who this website understands is still in regular contact with the council leadership – has recently been joined at Cratus Communications by Michael Stanworth, a former Labour Party organiser in Greenwich borough during his time in office.

The Cratus website recently published an article praising the views of another Roberts chum, Tony Pidgeley, the chairman of Berkeley Homes, which is behind the Royal Arsenal and Kidbrooke Village developments. Pidgeley was thanked in Roberts’ acceptance speech when he was given the freedom of the borough.

Reinickendorf town hall

Greenwich memorabilia in Reinickendorf’s town hall

Greenwich taxpayers pay for return trips

While Greenwich taxpayers did not contribute directly to Roberts’ trip, they do fund accommodation costs when Reinickendorf councillors come to stay. In May, the council paid £4,140 for a Reinickendorf party to stay at the Hotel Ibis in Greenwich.

The delegation, which included Reinickendorf leader Hinrich Luehmann and its former chief executive Frank Zemke, were shown around the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich and attended the private Old Royal Naval College inauguration of mayor Olu Babatola, a bash that cost council taxpayers £20,000.

A month later, Zemke was given the freedom of Greenwich borough – the council’s highest honour – for “pioneering the exchange of officials and trainees, as well as other institutions from the two boroughs”.

The borough of Reinickendorf, named after a leafy suburb of Berlin, is clearly proud of its links with Greenwich. A Greenwich Promenade runs alongside Lake Tegel, while memorabilia from Greenwich is proudly displayed in its town hall. A Greenwich borough crest is also on display at the local rail station. Coincidentally, Reinickendorf’s next-door borough, Charlottenberg, has a similar arrangement with Lewisham.

Woolwich's Buddy Bear

But evidence of Greenwich’s pride is less easy to come by. Until recently, the only public commemoration was a small and poorly-maintained road in Eltham’s Avery Hill Park, Reinickendorf Avenue. But earlier this year, a “buddy bear” was presented to Greenwich by Reinickendorf. It now sits, looking slightly marooned, in General Gordon Square, Woolwich.

Town twinning started in Europe after the second world war, and was aimed at repairing damaged relationships between nations. With two of Greenwich’s twin towns – the other is Maribor, Slovenia – in European Union states, it’s possible that these agreements may grow in importance if Britain goes through with the vote to leave the EU. A third town, Tema in Ghana, has received assistance and recycled council equipment.

But trips like this one to Reinickendorf make the whole arrangement look like a private jolly. Furthermore, inviting a property developer’s lobbyist along for a subsidised break raises questions about the whole arrangement, and bigger questions about just how the council’s main planning committee works. But will anyone on the council be brave enough to ask them?