That big fire you might have seen this lunchtime (if it wasn’t this one in Erith) was up by the Blackwall Tunnel, at the Studio 338 nightclub. It’s fair to say the place isn’t in a good way.
Developers and those that like to boost them up like to claim the Greenwich Peninsula was always a wasteland, but that’s not true. The wrecked building, once the Mitre pub, is one of the last survivors from the community that existed there before the second Blackwall Tunnel and its approach road were built.
There were terraced houses behind the Mitre until the 1970s – they were demolished after the Blackwall Tunnel approach, which opened in 1969, effectively cut them off from the rest of the area – and a church stood nearby until the 1980s.
Stranded by the A102 and with few neighbours left to disturb, the Mitre became a favourite for club promoters. It’s been through a variety of incarnations in the past 20 years or so – including Dorrington’s, That Club, and more recently Studio 338.
But it remains best known for being one of the birthplaces of the alternative comedy scene – Malcolm Hardee‘s Tunnel Club.
The Tunnel Club opened in 1984, and helped begin the careers of Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves, Jeremy Hardy, Jo Brand and many, many more. It was a notoriously intimidating place to perform. Another local comic, Arthur Smith, described the Tunnel in his memoir.
Phil and I played the opening night at the Tunnel, which, under Malcolm’s influence, became the arena where London’s top hecklers gathered every Sunday to slaughter open spots and established acts alike. Some punters even met up beforehand in a kind of heckling seminar and one night, when I was performing solo, a voice in the dark interrupted me with a Latin phrase that turned out to mean ‘show us your tits.’
The word ‘notorious’ soon attached itself to the Tunnel which is now remembered as Alternative Comedy’s equivalent to the previous generation’s Glasgow Empire – a place for confrontation, raucousness, multiple comedy pile-ups and deaths. It was not uncommon for the acts to be booed off with such efficiency that the whole show was over in twenty minutes, an occasion that was greeted by the regulars as a great success.
Malcolm, instinctively anti-authoritarian from his thick black glasses, down his naked hairy body, to his piss-stained odd socks, liked to encourage the mayhem by the frequent exhibition of his titanic testicles, which he advertised as ‘the second biggest in the country – after Jenny Agutter’s father.’ (Apparently, they had once compared notes). If the mood took him he would urinate over the front row and, such was his charisma, the victims cheered rather than remonstrated.
The Mitre is also remembered in a short film, The Tunnel, released in 2012.
The Tunnel closed in 1988, following an enormous police raid on the Mitre. But some of the Tunnel’s spirit moved down the road to Up The Creek, which Malcolm opened three years later. He died in 2005 after falling into Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, trying to get to his houseboat. The team behind The Tunnel film are now working on a follow-up about Malcolm’s eventful life.
Today’s fire looks like it has brought a final close to the Mitre’s story. The site isn’t immediately suitable for redevelopment – while the gas holder next to it is out of action, the plot behind is earmarked by Transport for London as a construction site if the Silvertown Tunnel gets the go-ahead.
For now, though, 338’s regulars will be sad, some of the neighbours who’d complained about booming early morning beats, less so. But whatever you thought of the place, today’s fire has destroyed one last little bit of anarchic old Greenwich.
Wednesday update: A Studio 338 staff member, named only as Tomas, has died after suffering severe burns in Monday’s fire.
Long-suffering readers will be aware that this website was the first to raise the issue of the diminishing amount of “affordable” and social housing on Greenwich Peninsula, back in April 2013. A year back, Greenwich Council lost a legal battle to keep secret the “viability assessment” council officers used to persuade councillors to increase the proportion of lucrative private housing on the peninsula.
Now Channel 4 News has looked into the issue, with a major investigation that’s taken some months to produce. It’s taken a broader view – revealing that just a quarter of new homes built under Boris Johnson on public land are “affordable”. As well as Knight Dragon’s Greenwich Peninsula, it also features Barratt’s Catford Green development (Catford dog track to the rest of us).
Shane Brownie, who took on Greenwich Council and features in the report, has also written about his experiences.
One thing missing from Channel 4’s investigation is the role of Greenwich Council in this – Labour assembly member Nicky Gavron criticises the actions of the Tory mayor, but isn’t quizzed about why one of her own councils allowed the Peninsula’s developers to railroad it into changing the housing mix there so it could grab £50 million in government grants. But otherwise, it’s a revelatory – and depressing – look at an under-reported aspect of London’s housing crisis.
It’s the fourth year I’ve surveyed cable car usage in a typical October week. In 2012 and 2013 I did it for Snipe, just for this website in 2014, and for Londonist in 2015, where the week was 11-17 October. If you want more, Diamond Geezer has drilled down into the full dataset to see just when you can guarantee a cabin all to yourself. (All this is thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, currently under threat from the Government.)
The easy figure to home in 2012 was the number of people using it to commute, since Boris Johnson had banged on about it being such a vital link. Back then, 16 people tapped in with their Oyster cards more than five times in a week, enabling them to obtain a rebate on their fares. The following year this dropped to four. Last year, there were none at all. And it’s the same this year.
The handful of people who do commute on it use paper multi-trip tickets, which are valid for a year, and are less fiddly to use. About 30 are sold each week, although because the tickets are valid for a year, it’s hard to tell who’s using it to work and who is using it for fun. This year, I’ve seen figures for these paper tickets going back to opening day in June 2012, and sales don’t seem to tally with big events at the O2 or ExCeL, either. That said, a load were sold on 23 December last year, so maybe someone was giving out a load for Christmas presents (and they’ll have to be used up by today).
It does seem rather strange that TfL runs a public transport service that it discourages regular travellers from using its main public transport ticketing system on, but there you go.
Here’s a table of the week’s journeys:
Individual Emirates Air Line journeys, hour by hour, between 11-17 October 2015. Source: TfL.
And here’s a graph:
It’s bad news all round. Usage is pretty much the same as it was last year, the only rises coming from the opening hours being extended to 9pm on weeknights and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
Tourist-friendly tickets were also well down in our sample week. Combined “experience” tickets, which allow admission to the Emirates Aviation Experience at the Greenwich Peninsula terminal, were down from 5,292 sales to 4,099. Sales of tickets allowing travel on the cable car and Thames Clippers river buses were also down, from 539 in 2014 to 291 this year.
|Sun 11th||Mon 12th||Tue 13th||Wed 14th||Thu 15th||Fri 16th||Sat 17th|
Total Emirates Air Line journeys, starting at north and south terminals, 11-17 October 2015. Source: TfL
Here’s how it compares with previous years:
So the cable car opened with a bang on 2012, slumped in 2013, rose slightly on the back of some touristy promotions in 2014, and has been lifted by night flights in 2015. What happens for 2016?
Not a lot, I imagine. We’ll have a new mayor who’ll be less beholden to mayor Johnson’s little projects. But the next mayor’s hands will be tied by the Emirates sponsorship contract signed by TfL in 2012 which, among other things, bans the next mayor from criticising that contract, and mandates a minimum level of service (which is why it opens up at 7am for a handful of punters – albeit a bigger handful than in the very early days.
TfL wanted the cable car because it wanted a river crossing that would bring in an income. Furthermore, it needs that income to pay off the £16m in taxpayers’ money that has gone into building it (plus £8m from the EU and £36m from Emirates). But it’s only made £1m in three years. The last TfL commissioner’s report states that usage will go up as the area around the cable car develops, and the cash will start rolling in.
But will it? At present, most development is going up on the Greenwich Peninsula – if you’ve moved there, would you want to pay a premium fare to go to the Royal Docks? (Would you go to the Royal Docks at all?) On the north side, development is around Canning Town station (notably the hideous London City Island) or at Royal Wharf to the east – too far from the cable car to be convenient.
It’s likely that it won’t be the next mayor’s call what to do with the cable car, but the one after – whoever is in charge in 2022, when the Emirates contract ends. By then, there might be some critical mass on both sides of the Thames, but will a premium-fare link be a help or a hindrance?
Another sponsorship deal could wipe out the loss, then the fares could be cut and it could just become part of the transport network. Or it could just be sold off as a tourist attraction.
That’s all a long way off, though. The more I find out about the cable car, the more questions seem to come up. Whoever wins in May, the Dangleway’s going to be an object of curiosity for some time yet.
Less than a quarter of homes on the new phase of Greenwich Peninsula development will be “affordable”, according to planning documents released by Greenwich Council last night.
Greenwich planners are recommending councillors approve the scheme at a meeting on Tuesday 8 September. Just 22.7% of homes of the 12,678 won’t be sold at full rate, the 320-page planning report reveals.
The original masterplan for the peninsula, agreed in 2004, envisaged 40% of homes being “affordable”.
But that stalled, and Hong Kong-based developer Knight Dragon – controlled by billionaire Dr Henry Cheng – which is now in charge of the scheme, has taken a much more aggressive approach to developing the huge site.
It controversially persuaded councillors to allow it no “affordable” properties at all on the plots nearest Canary Wharf, Peninsula Quays, leading to a legal row which resulted in Greenwich being forced to reveal the viability assessments it used to make the decision.
Greenwich has published the viability assessment for the new scheme, where consultants Christopher Marsh and Company pinpoint withdrawals of grants by the last government as a factor in the low figure.
“Some agency, or several, will receive significant sums via the original land agreement, and currently, none, it would appear, are prepared to re-cycle any share of those receipts back into affordable housing in Greenwich. That is a key driver in this case. Before February 2014, when Government largely abandoned grant aid to affordable housing, we would have expected most schemes to have exceeded 30% affordable housing. Without grant, that expectation has now been reduced by about one third.”
A further document from BNP Paribas compares the Peninsula scheme with property values at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich – an improvement on the Peninsula Quays scheme where values across the whole borough were used, despite the unique nature of the site.
The document indicates that the headline figure for new homes remains 12,678, with towers of up to 40 storeys.
A quick skim through the papers would appear to indicate Greenwich planners have largely accepted Knight Dragon’s transport proposals, despite fears from a raft of local groups and even Transport for London that they will pile additional pressure onto North Greenwich station. An early reference to the “Silvertown Tunnel Rail Link” suggests that planners may not totally be on the ball here.
TfL says: “Jubilee Line crowding is already an issue and is forecast to continue in 2031. The additional crowding on Jubilee Line services is considered an issue. TfL cannot agree that the London Underground (LU) and National Rail networks would be largely unaffected by the proposed development.”
Indeed, council planners shrugged off calls for a pedestrian and cycle connection to Canary Wharf to relieve the Jubilee Line in just a sentence – “the feasibility of a pedestrian link between the Peninsula and Canary Wharf has been investigated previously but it is not considered feasible” – presumably a reference to an 2010 assessment by TfL produced to justify the construction of the Thames Cable Car, which said a bridge would not bring in any income.
The only explicit mass public transport improvement appears to be funding for a bus from Kidbrooke Village to North Greenwich – which is likely to pile even more pressure on the Jubilee Line.
There’s a lot to wade through, but it’s hard to see quite where Greenwich has tried to strike any worthwhile bargain with Knight Dragon. The big question remains – will the council’s planning board swallow Dr Cheng’s prescription?
This website was the first media outlet to highlight how Greenwich councillors allowed developers to reduce the amount of “affordable” housing in part of the Greenwich Peninsula to zero.
Councillors made the decision about Peninsula Quays on the basis of a “viability assessment” which had been kept from them – they had to trust Greenwich’s planning officers on what was effectively pre-emptive social cleansing.
Two years on and one court case later, it’s likely the issue may lead to changes in planning procedures across London. Shane Brownie, the residents’ rep who alerted me to the story, battled to force a reluctant Greenwich Council to release the document – a fight he finally won in February.
Now Greenwich has performed a startling about-turn on the issue, planning to make public the assessments that it wouldn’t even show its councillors.
Last week, the issue formed part of a documentary for Radio 4, The Affordable Housing Crisis, which you can still hear on the BBC’s website. Nick Mathiason and Christian Eriksson of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism have also looked at the issue, with their own investigation.
One aspect that shows just how much of a crock the assessment was, and how Greenwich planners failed local people, is in how the viability assessment was based on house prices across Greenwich borough rather than on the peninsula alone – even though demand for a flat on the river close to a Tube station in Zone 2 is not comparable with, say, a semi in New Eltham.
While Greenwich’s plan to publish viability assessments is welcome, it should not obscure the fact that the council’s planners failed on this high-profile scheme, trashing the principles of mixed development that local politicians espouse but often fail to actually achieve.
I’m a week late with this because I’ve been in Barcelona, a city whose residents are taking a harder line on housing. Wandering around in my first day, a scrum of media outside the city hall indicated the arrival of Ada Colau, Barcelona’s new mayor-elect.
She’s an activist who has led protests and occupations over the city’s housing crisis, and plans to radically increase the supply of social housing in the Catalan capital.
As I watched her field questions from the press – and the enthusiasm shown by passers-by – I couldn’t help thinking that her approach is desperately needed in London. Watching some of the discussion over our own mayoral election, though, I’m not convinced many of the possible candidates get it.
But perhaps there is some incremental change here in Greenwich. Last night, the council’s planning board deferred a decision on whether or not to allow a nine-storey block of flats on Woolwich Road in Charlton.
Local amenity groups had opposed the Valley House scheme on the basis of height – but what persuaded councillors to throw the scheme back at the developer was its inclusion of “poor doors”. Just 18.4% of the flats there were due to be “affordable” – another secret viability assessment – with these residents given a separate set of doors to access those homes.
This is the kind of development that would have sailed through under former leader Chris Roberts and his henchman Ray Walker, former planning board chair. Now under new chair Mark James, the developers have effectively been told to go away and bin the poor doors.
Like many issues in Greenwich, there’s a total lack of political leadership over housing – the council leads the local Labour party rather than the other way around. A wraparound ad for Berkeley Homes in this week’s propaganda rag Greenwich Time doesn’t inspire any confidence that its relationship with property developers is any healthier under Denise Hyland than it was under Roberts.
Contrast this with Lewisham, where the local party trumpets new council housing. In Greenwich, this kind of promotion is left to the council itself (via Greenwich Time), leaving an unhealthy political vacuum.
Decisions like last night’s indicate things are starting to change. However, it’s worth remembering that council officers – the same ones that kept Greenwich Peninsula’s viability assessment from councillors – recommended approval, poor doors and all. In Greenwich’s command-and-control political culture, criticising council officers is a crime comparable with robbing grandmothers – they’ve traditionally been used as cover for the council leadership’s cowardice.
But last night’s Valley House decision shows some Greenwich councillors are now starting to take some responsibility for their council’s actions instead of just taking the path of least resistance. Hopefully there will also be pressure to reveal the viability assessment for Valley House too. If the events of the last few months are to really mean anything in Greenwich, though, councillors are going to have to start asking some very awkward questions of their planning staff.
4.30pm update: Former councillor Alex Grant has also written about the issue.
Update, Friday 17 April: The consultation period has now been extended to Tuesday 28 April.
The general election’s well under way. But an arguably bigger decision for this part of south east London is also open for your thoughts – although you’ve only got until Friday to make your views known.
Last month, Greenwich Council quietly started consulting on changes to the 11-year-old Greenwich Peninsula masterplan. Considering the size and location of the site, this is one of the most important pieces of planning in the 50-year history of the borough (with only Thamesmead and the Royal Arsenal as competition).
Yet, as ever, engagement with the public seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. You know how the council claimed Greenwich Time was essential for engaging with local people? Well, not a word of editorial copy has appeared in its weekly paper about this in the three weeks the consultation has been open.
By contrast, the issue has been covered in both the News Shopper and the Mercury.
If there’s a development that demands proper discussion and debate – especially at general election time – it’s this one. It touches on the two most vital issues addressing our capital city – housing and infrastructure. Yet there simply isn’t one – it’s being swept under the carpet.
To his credit, Labour candidate Matt Pennycook mused on the issues after a consultation event in January (followed up by the Guardian’s Dave Hill), but that’s been about it. The local Peninsula ward councillors aren’t even mentioning it on their new blog.
If you want to find out more, head to Greenwich Council’s planning search and look for application 15/0716/O.
There are 191 documents to read. One person is not realistically going to manage to take on board this information all alone – even in the summary planning statement – so if you read the documents and something strikes you that’s not mentioned here, please feel free to stick it in the comments.
The plans include 12,678 homes (up from 10,100 in 2004); towers of up to 40 storeys high; 220 serviced apartments; a 500-room hotel; education and healthcare facilities; a film studio and visitor attraction; a new bus station/ transport hub; and a 5k running track around the peninsula.
Update, 21 April. Philip Binns has emailed to say the planning statement points out “up to 15,700 units could be delivered in total on the Peninsula as a whole”, explaining that this is made up of the 12,678 units referred to in the application notice plus a further 200 serviced apartments and 2,822 units which are currently being constructed or are to be implemented (approvals already having been granted). This would represent a 57% increase on what was permitted in 2004.
Like I said, there’s a lot to take in. But here’s two very broad themes that I reckon should be addressed. You may have different views.
Housing – who’s going to live there?
One vital question is unanswered – how many of these homes will people be able to afford to live in? No figures are given for social or “affordable” housing.
We already know that neither you nor I will be able to afford to live in part of the Peninsula, as Greenwich Council allowed the pre-emptive social cleansing of Peninsula Quays back in 2013, reducing the amount of social/affordable housing to 0%.
This decision was based on a viability assessment – can the developer afford to build social housing? – which was kept secret by Greenwich Council. Earlier this year, local resident Shane Brownie won a Freedom of Information battle to get this information out there.
It’s a complex issue that affects other areas of London and elsewhere – the most notorious case affects Southwark Council and the Heygate estate – and one that’s barely being heard in the election campaign. The BBC’s Sunday Politics London spoke to Shane when it dealt with the issue a few weeks back. (Thanks to Alex Ingram for the recording.)
It’s entirely possible Knight Dragon has been spooked by Greenwich being forced to disclose this document, and is playing its cards even closer to its chest.
Indeed, this planning application going out to formal consultation during an election may even stifle debate – although the decision to run it now would have been the council’s call, rather than Knight Dragon’s.
But where else in London would a development of 12,000 new homes emerge without any discussion about who they are for?
The transport infrastructure – can North Greenwich cope?
The plans also include rebuilding and moving North Greenwich bus station. It’s approaching capacity and struggles to cope with demand as it is. But the increase is small – space for 17 bus stands rather than 15, and 11 bus stops rather than seven.
There’s pressure for North Greenwich to handle even more buses. Very few other tube stations in London are expected to handle demand from such an absurdly large area (Finsbury Park – which has to serve areas such as Crouch End and Muswell Hill – is probably the nearest equivalent).
Politicians keep demanding extra services from Kidbrooke and Eltham (as opposed to demanding improvements to rail services there), while existing routes from areas much closer to North Greenwich still struggle to cope. Route 108, in particular, is still overwhelmed each morning despite demands for a boost to services, which were met with the miserly addition of a single extra bus.
And this is before the next phase of homes open on the peninsula – adding more “one-stop” passengers on the buses and more demand for the tube station itself.
Yet TfL’s only significant transport boost in the area has ben to create a cable car which is aimed at tourists and charges premium fares. If it was a bus route, it’d be London’s 407th busiest.
It’s a crude measure – especially as these figures cover all passengers, not just ones heading to North Greenwich – but a cursory glance at passenger numbers on the eight services would suggest they’ve pretty much hit their rush-hour capacity.
Add to this the continuing huge developments planned for Canary Wharf and the Royal Docks, together with predictions that Crossrail will hit capacity within months of opening, and you’ve got a big problem in depending so heavily on the Jubilee Line. The queues for Stratford-bound trains at Canary Wharf show just how big demand is here.
Move the peninsula closer to Canary Wharf
One answer would be to give Canary Wharf workers an alternative to the Jubilee Line. At this point, up will pop Transport for London, claiming the Silvertown Tunnel would provide that for buses.
But it’s very likely that before long, any buses routed this way would get stuck in the same snarl-ups as the 108 through Blackwall, or new ones north of the Thames.
Building new roads won’t bring the high-density regeneration Greenwich Peninsula needs – this isn’t a suburban business park or a collection of warehouses. You get better results when you build workplaces within walking distance of shops, restaurants, other workplaces and railway stations.
The mostly-empty office block at 6 Mitre Passage, whose lights have stayed dim on winter evenings, shows how the Greenwich Peninsula has failed to attract businesses – one stop from Canary Wharf might as well be the other side of London.
So why not a pedestrian and cycle link to Canary Wharf? Proposals for a bridge from Rotherhithe to the Wharf have recently been dusted off – but one to the east would bring the Greenwich Peninsula within walking distance of shops, offices and the new Crossrail station.
It’d transform the area, tying it into Canary Wharf and freeing up space on both Tube and buses, and making it more attractive for businesses to set up shop.
In 2009, the cost of a bridge was put at £90m, not including maintenance and operating costs, and a TfL assessment as part of the cable car business case said it would be an “iconic” scheme, “likely to attract investment” in the area.
It added that “the walking routes on both sides of the Thames would need substantial improvement associated with developments for the environment to be of a high quality”. Well, those improvements are coming now. And without a fixed connection to Canary Wharf, those improvements on the Greenwich Peninsula may never fully reach their potential.
It’s election time – why isn’t this an issue?
London is growing at a bewildering rate. Property developers are ruling over local people like feudal landlords, while local councils are treated like mug punters who fall for three card tricks.
Yet this simply isn’t an issue in a general election where it’s become fashionable to bash London. Planning desperately needs reform to give councils more clout – but this isn’t being addressed in manifestos.
The lack of serious discussion about how to manage London’s growth reflects poorly on our city’s politicians and media. And we’ve one of the worst examples of it here in Greenwich, a borough run by councillors that have too often lacked curiosity in what’s presented to them.
In the same way that Greenwich councillors fell for poor road-building schemes because the area lacks river crossings, they may well fall for an unsustainable plan for the peninsula simply because they’re desperate to see all that brownfield land built on with the first thing that comes along.
That said, the recent ousting of Chris Roberts acolyte Ray Walker from his role as planning board chair can give us hope – his replacement, Mark James, has a background in transport, so actually has an understanding of the issues at stake. With Matt Pennycook taking a more sceptical view of big developments than his predecessor, some of the mood music around Greenwich and regeneration could be about to see a welcome change.
If you’ve a couple of hours free this week, give the plans a read and send your views (try the planning statement and design and access statements for summaries) to the council. At least then, they can’t say they weren’t warned.
Greenwich Council is quietly doing some very good things on cycling – like boosting cycle lanes, and experimenting with new on-street parking facilities.
But it’s still capable of doing some very dumb things – such as closing a cycle lane on the Greenwich Peninsula so it can be used for trials of driverless cars.
The council won a bid last year to test out the technology, getting an £8 million grant to carry out the tests.
In December, the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time claimed the trials would not take place on public roads.
But a stretch of dedicated cycle path next to the Thames Cable Car has been commandeered for the tests, with riders told to share an adjacent footpath with pedestrians.
There was no consultation about the decision, instead there’s just a tiny notice on a lamp post and cycle markings scrubbed out and replaced with the word “SHUTTLE”.
The notice cites “danger to the public” for the decision. But if the trial’s organisers think they can avoid danger by closing off a length of cycle path, they’ve chosen the wrong place.
I cycle along this stretch regularly, and most days there are pedestrians wandering into the cycle track – often glued to tablets with headphones plugged in.
In fact, when I first saw the closure yesterday, there was a small child crawling over the “SHUTTLE” marking. Returning home in the evening rush hour, there were plenty of people wandering down the cycle path.
Nobody walking in the path this time, but sooner or later somebody’s going to get a shock when they look up from their phone. As driverless technology evolves, it’s going to have the potential to clash with other road users – four-wheeled, two-wheeled, or two-footed.
Greenwich’s decision to prioritise driverless cars over cyclists and pedestrians without consultation, while on a parochial level is pretty much typical of the way it does things, isn’t a good omen for the future.
In the meantime, if you’re walking along the Thames Path any time soon, keep an eye – and ear – out for a little driverless car…
Update, 17 February: The path has now reopened. So what was all that about, and was it really worth burning off road markings, putting on new ones, burning them off again and reinstating old markings? A weird episode.