Twelve months ago, almost to the minute this post was written and published, I was sat on my front doorstep, with a bottle of beer in my hand, watching looters race their cars up my road.
A year on, I spent my evening watching the Olympics on a big screen on Blackheath with a beer on my hand. Children ran around, a dog barked, everyone was happy.
I suppose I should have watched it in Woolwich for things to have gone full circle, but the heath’s much nearer…
“I passed through Woolwich last night, it was the same as ever” – 8 August 2011
“There’s been a lot of bullshit and rumours tonight…” – 9 August 2011
Woolwich sweeps up, Greenwich locks down – 9 August 2011
“Despite the rumours, Greenwich remained packed with tourists” – greenwich.co.uk, 9 August 2011
“The debris from a night’s thieving was still obvious” – Charlton Champion, 9 August 2011
“They blame the social media, but we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the social media” – 10 August 2011
Government minister sees Woolwich’s clean-up – 11 August 2011
How a lie about a fire fooled the Guardian – 12 August 2011
The Woolwich wall – honk if you love Woolwich – 14 August 2011
The forgotten town starts again – 15 August 2011
Council boycotts Woolwich’s community meeting – 19 August 2011
Riot-hit Woolwich store returns – 19 August 2011
There goes the community: Woolwich wall painted over – 19 August 2011
Council leader: ‘No media circus’ in Woolwich – 22 August 2011
Boris Johnson finally visits Woolwich – 23 August 2011
Woolwich wall ‘like old flowers on lamp posts’ – 23 August 2011
Woolwich wall – now Greenwich Council mounts a cover-up – 30 August 2011
What if you threw a riot and nobody saw? – Snipe, 13 September 2011
Welcome to Woolwich’s new skateboard paradise – 19 October 2011
Woolwich riot: The report Greenwich Council tried to hide – 9 March 2012
Since then, the Great Harry’s reopened and the new Tesco development has started to loom over Woolwich. But have any lessons been learned? Or are we just trying to brush a horrible memory under the carpet? I wonder.
So it seems a good time to share with you a document I had a bit of trouble obtaining – an internal report into how Greenwich Council handled the aftermath of the disturbances.
The report was compiled for the 40 Labour Party councillors – the 11 opposition Conservatives only asked for, and got, a verbal report.
With suspicion over the council’s role in painting over the “Woolwich wall” – the hoardings at the destroyed Great Harry pub – I put in a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the Labour report as soon as I’d got wind that such a document existed.
Greenwich initially turned me down, declaring that an “updated” version of the report would soon be made public. Knowing Greenwich’s reputation for secrecy, and suspecting it was just trying to shoo me away and had no intention of ever publishing this report, I asked the council to review my request. Finally, Greenwich’s head of legal Russell Power agreed I could have a paper copy of the “updated” version of the report.
This was just after Christmas – personal upheavals over the past few weeks mean I’ve been sitting on this for a good few weeks. (Which probably makes me as bad as them.) But to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that report’s actually been made public. You still won’t find this on the council’s website.
There’s no real skeletons or shocks in here, the report confirms that the mysterious Powis Street Estates was in charge of painting over the wall, but surprisingly, Greenwich was aware of its intentions for a week and asked the company to hold off so it could take photographs of the wall. If this information had been shared at the time, perhaps Greenwich Council would not have come in for such heavy criticism.
But again, it’s symptomatic of “Royal” Greenwich’s ineptness at dealing directly with the people who it is supposed to serve. As you’ll see in the report, the council’s priority was in speaking to businesses – dealing with worried residents simply wasn’t on the agenda.
One thing that is worth noting – the report says the council was bidding for money from the London mayor’s Outer London Fund to help Eltham after the riots. But it was the only south London borough not to get a penny out of Boris.
It’s worth taking a look at the report, though. Does it match up with your memories of last August? The claim about the wall being a target for “foul and offensive language” certainly doesn’t accord with what I remember of it. But I’d like to know what you think – and whether you think SE18 is recovering from the riot.
A month today, Woolwich erupted into violence, resulting in destruction which I’ve heard put at £2 million. The following nights saw more unfortunate events in Eltham, as men stood outside pubs to “protect their town” – followed by a racist group swooping into town trying to stir things up.
In the month, neither Greenwich Council and Greenwich borough police have held any public meetings to explain and discuss what had happened; why Woolwich had gone undefended, why Eltham became a honeypot for some very nasty individuals, and what they plan to reassure locals in these two very different places.
No such qualms in Lewisham, though – so on Monday night, the Lewisham Central ward assembly discussed the damage in its neighbourhood and how the police dealt with it. I was actually out in Lewisham on the second night after the riots, when rumours flew of a confrontation being planned there, watching police march a big group up and down Lewisham High Street. Ultimately, little happened, but it was worrying enough.
We’re not allowed these events in Greenwich, but if I’d known our borough was being discussed, I’d have wandered along. For one attendee reported…
But what does this mean? Does this mean that groups of nasties were being contained within individual boroughs? (“They shall not pass the Old Tigers Head…”) Or does this mean that Greenwich borough – and let’s be frank here, this is very much an Eltham issue – has a problem with attracting groups of racists who want to stir things up? If the latter is true, then that’s too close for comfort and I want to know what the council and police are doing about it.
Of course, it’d be good if Greenwich Council and Greenwich borough police were as open and accessible to the public as their counterparts in Lewisham – then we might get some answers. But until then, the best we’ll get is overheard snippets like that, worrying comments from outside – and a sense that nobody’s actually in charge of making sure the events of a month ago don’t happen again.
Yes, some uncomfortable truths will need to be confronted – but myths can also be challenged too. But with the council and police still not talking to the people who pay for them, more dangerous rumours and assumptions can only develop. Is anyone going to take a lead instead of running away?
Update, 10:35pm: The Guardian’s website features a piece from a Goldsmiths academic who’s been studying the riots in Lewisham and talking to those involved.
There’s a telling line there…
Over a couple of nights the young people had control of the streets. They talked about deploying their numbers tactically – “Lewisham was a distraction, Catford and Woolwich, that’s where the real action was.”
…which makes it all the more concerning that Greenwich Council, and Greenwich borough police, aren’t talking about what happened in Woolwich that night.
Good news after last night’s confusion. Just eleven days after its entrance was attacked during the Woolwich riot, Greenwich mayor Jim Gillman reopened the Wilkinsons store this morning. If you’ve a sweet tooth, hurry down because they’re giving out free sweets and £1 gift cards. I spent mine on a dustpan and brush, which you’ll be pleased to hear if you’ve ever visited my house. Unfortunately, I missed the moment the doors were opened, since I relied on Southeastern to get me there for 9am…
Despite the damage at the front, the rest of the building is sound and a crew has now got to work on chucking out the charred fittings from the rest of the parade. Entrance to Wilkinsons, which only opened two months ago, is via the car park for the time being.
On the way to Wilkinsons, there’s proof of the despair Woolwich has found itself in – and how the place desperately needs help, in so many ways…
Update 12:40pm: The Guardian’s Dave Hill asks an important question about Woolwich, and wonders what effect the regeneration efforts are having in the town: “Why did the place explode with such frightening force?” Essential reading.
A community meeting held to discuss the impact of last week’s Woolwich riot went ahead on a street corner after Greenwich Council boycotted it because of an organiser’s past involvement in the far-right English Defence League.
The council announced it would not be supporting the event in an e-mail and flyers distributed on Thursday afternoon – but did not tell those who had organised or promoted the event.
Instead, the authority organised a private meeting at the same time for Woolwich business owners, held at the council’s new civic centre.
While the man concerned, one of the instigators of the “Woolwich wall” on the burnt-out Great Harry pub, freely admits to past involvement in the group, he insists he is no longer involved in the organisation, and had asked its members to stay away from the gathering.
The council statement said it was “concerned some people and organisations are using the events of last week to further their own causes”.
“One of the main organisers of tonight’s meeting has admitted to involvement with the English Defence League and has made what the council considers to be ‘provocative’ comments,” it continued.
“We simply cannot offer any support to a gathering linked with an individual who has also stated he still publicly supports the actions of the EDL and has used language which the vast majority of residents would find utterly offensive.”
This website has seen a Twitter account of his, last updated in March, where he promotes the organisation and its views.
But speaking before the meeting, the individual denied he still supports the organisation. “It’s completely false,” he told this website.
He did, however, admit to stewarding on “a couple” of EDL events.
“When I joned it was purely patriotism, not about racism. I left when I saw all the drinking and drug taking that went on,” he said.
Asked if he shared the group’s anti-Muslim stance, he said: “I don’t have a problem with Muslim people. I don’t like certain moral values, but I don’t like singling people out.”
He is one of a number of people behind the wall and Thursday night’s meeting, which he went on to play little part in. He also helped bring media organisations to the area after a week of little coverage.
But following the council boycott, attempts to find a venue fell through, and an 25-strong impromptu meeting, led by other organisers, took place on the street outside the damaged Great Harry.
One man with an EDL badge was seen lurking around the meeting, but was not made welcome by organisers, and graffiti supporting the organisation was scribbled off the wall to applause.
Speakers criticised Greenwich Council for not hosting a public meeting of its own, in contrast to other authorities such as Lewisham and Ealing.
The deputy leader of Greenwich’s Conservative group, Nigel Fletcher, said he had to pull out of attending the meeting following the council’s statement.
But he added: “If Greenwich Council have concerns about tonight’s Woolwich meeting, and are boycotting it, they really should organise an official one.”
However, Woolwich Riverside’s Labour councillor – and cabinet member – John Fahy did attend the early stages of the gathering to observe what was happening.
Leaflets were also handed out advertising a peace rally by the Greenwich Multi-Faith Forum, to be held at the same spot at 3pm on Sunday.
Listen to part of the meeting:
Listen to Woolwich Grand Theatre founder Adrian Green address the gathering:
An explanation and a point of view: An earlier version of this story named the individual concerned. However, on reflection, I’ve decided to delete his name from the story.
His name’s no secret, the original story was widely seen, and I’m sure it’ll appear again elsewhere. But if he is sincere about repudiating his past, though, he deserves a chance to prove himself, and it’s best not to add to publicity that could damage his reputation and that of his family in years to come. Was he stupid to join the English Defence League? Of course.
But in bringing the media to Woolwich, he’s allowed all sections of the community to feel their anger and distress has finally been recognised by an outside world that had ignored them – something no elected politician in this area has managed. Indeed, when communities feel ignored, they are often driven into extremism. This can’t be allowed to happen in Woolwich.
If the council doesn’t like the background of one of the people behind last night’s meeting – why isn’t it organising its own? Who’s providing leadership in a still-bewildered district? If leaders hide behind private meetings, they can’t claim horror when people they don’t approve of speak to the public in their place.
In any case, the community campaign in Woolwich – which involves a number of other people without dubious pasts – plans to continue. It’d be unfair to allow a row over one individual to overshadow their achievements. I hope to continue to follow events in the weeks and months to come.
The people behind the Woolwich wall have organised a community meeting on Thursday to discuss the aftermath of last Monday’s riot, and are hoping to get spokespeople from the police and Greenwich Council to come along and talk about what happened and what happens next. There’s a Facebook page here, but if you can’t see that, then the plan is to meet at the wall from 7pm and then onto a nearby venue from 7.30pm.
One other spin-off from last week’s events – the We Love Woolwich site has sparked back into life again…
The most telling thing about the past week was watching people when they first clapped eyes on the burnt-out wreck of The Great Harry. Some stood and stared. Others shook their head. A few looked ready to shed a tear. If seeing the wrecked pub wasn’t moving enough, observing people’s reactions certainly was.
It was mostly older people, who weren’t expecting it. They never saw Woolwich on the news, because it wasn’t on the news. Younger people saw the Wetherspoons pub on the internet as it burned last Monday night, and the charred wreck on Tuesday as photos and stories flew around the social networks.
Now the old pub’s boarded up, and it’s the centre of attention at the location for the Woolwich wall. No, it didn’t get the coverage of the Peckham post-it notes, nor the brooms of Battersea, until one of its instigators badgered Sky News into coming down on Sunday night.
But then that shouldn’t have been a surprise, because as is well-known by now, Woolwich was virtually ignored by most of the London media, never mind the national media. Infamously, an Evening Standard map of flashpoints went no further east than Deptford.
While other places’ troubles were glossed over – Catford barely got a mention, neither did Bromley or Walworth, the sheer scale of the disruption and destruction in Woolwich should have been a focus of at least some of the coverage.
The disparity struck me on Wednesday evening. I walked through Lewisham expecting to find similar scenes of devastation after aerial shots of trouble last Monday. But nobody had burned down a pub, and all its shops were still standing. The same can’t be said for Woolwich. It hit again on Friday, when I flicked to the BBC News channel to find two young people hauled into TV Centre in Shepherds Bush talk about the rebuilding process in Ealing. No disrespect to our west London neighbours, who have also suffered badly and saw a man lose his life, but my only thought was “not bloody Ealing again”.
Why was Woolwich ignored? By any means, this should be a compelling story. A host district for the Olympic Games finally starting to see some fruits of regeneration, only for them to be stamped on by looters and arsonists. Some smell an Olympics-related conspiracy – parts of Canning Town and East Ham were also hit – but there’s enough journalists looking for a London 2012 bad news story to have covered it if they wanted to.
Instead, my own suspicion is that it’s a symptom of the same old malaise – the media simply isn’t interested in this part of south-east London. It knows nothing about it, for it lies off the Tube and we all know there be dragons when you step off the Tube map. London’s own media is particularly weak. Its radio stations are led by phone-ins rather than news. London’s TV stations have to work around national colleagues in a comfort zone covering the capital as opposed to the rest of the country, and the parts of the capital they know best as opposed to the rest of the city.
Ealing’s packed full of BBC staff, hence the coverage that area got. The Clapham Junction trouble was close enough to Nappy Valley to ensure that got covered. But poor old Woolwich? No chance. Radio 5 Live producer Richard Fenton-Smith did cover incidents in the area live last Monday night – but wasn’t able to influence the coverage afterwards. As someone that worked at the BBC for 10 years myself, his words struck a chord:
When I tell people I live in Woolwich, I’m often met with a mockney snigger of “Saaarf-eaast Landahn”. Unlike Hackney, Ealing, Clapham, Camberwell and Camden, it’s not very ‘media luvvy’. So come Tuesday morning, newsrooms would have been buzzing with what happened in these more fashionable neighbourhoods. Perhaps Woolwich just wasn’t cool enough to count.
After a couple of people suggested I give it a go, I pitched a piece about Woolwich to a newspaper’s website. I didn’t even get a response. I started to understand where the conspiracy theorists got it from.
So, just like citizens of distant Middle East cities reporters can’t get to, locals took to the web. Danny Mercer had the phone slammed down on him by the Daily Telegraph. Instead, he penned his own account of The Forgotten Corner of London and Chris Suffield shared his eyewitness view of the riots.
Credit also to Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher, who pressed media organisations to cover Woolwich and wrote about his experiences for the influential ConservativeHome website – contrasting the lack of attention Woolwich had with the sudden helicopter-led excitement when the likes of Sky News thought there would be a riot in Eltham.
Maybe that was Woolwich’s biggest problem. The skirmishes in Lewisham took place in daylight, where they could be seen by TV helicopters. Come nightfall, the choppers were grounded – meaning the full-blown riot in Woolwich wasn’t seen by them, and remained out of sight to editors. A lack of high-profile visitors also didn’t help – communities minister Bob Neill’s visit wasn’t revealed to journalists, and there’s been no sign of Boris Johnson, David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Not even a cheeky campaign visit from Ken Livingstone. And when local MP Nick Raynsford stood up in the Commons, he didn’t even give the place a mention.
Thankfully, the Woolwich wall finally gave the place some attention on Sky News this morning.
But what now? Greenwich Council’s immediate response worried me. Swaggering around demanding the eviction of any council tenants caught looting got a nice easy headline and brought BBC London News to the area, but did nothing to address the long-term future of Woolwich. Indeed, one locally-based Labour blogger was “ashamed” of the council’s stance. (See also Labour-run Camden’s condemnation of “jackboot” evictions.)
Down the road in Lewisham, councillors urged locals to come to the market on Saturday and support local traders. Beyond leader Chris Roberts and cabinet members, most Greenwich councillors kept their usual low profiles, however.
That’s not to say good things weren’t done. Greenwich Council staff directed this clean-up squad to the jewellers on Hare Street. A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes. But I still can’t help feeling the initial response focused too much on the criminals, because trade and business is what Woolwich needs most right now, and people need to be lured back into the town centre.
Thankfully, though, this message has begun to change – this week’s Greenwich Time says Woolwich is “back in business”, which is what people need to know. Yes, there’s a new square coming, the Olympics, and a Tesco and more to come… but none of these will be any good if small businesses in Woolwich go under in the meantime. Support from local people is going to be at least as important as support from the council and the government in that, and councillors – all of them, not just the leader – are in a position to build that up.
Back at the Woolwich wall, a few have scrawled “RIP Woolwich” and “RIP SE18” there, demonstrating the fears for the future. It’s time to get out and tell people the old girl’s still alive and kicking. And that’s a job not just for the council, but for you and me too. Even those of us who’ve taken the mickey out of our battered neighbour in the past. (Come on, we’ve all done it.)
Let’s celebrate Woolwich’s history and its people. When hoardings go up around the damaged buildings, let’s cover them in stories of the past, and pictures of the residents who come from all over the globe. And when it’s time to take the Woolwich wall down, preserve it somewhere, so this turning point in its history can be marked.
Think of 50 weeks time, when there’ll be a big bang of new openings in Woolwich coinciding with the start of the Olympics. We’ll look back at this time and think how quickly Woolwich has recovered from its biggest disaster since the war. It can happen – and with all of us helping, it will happen.