20 months after Marks and Spencer revealed it was closing its Woolwich store, it was revealed last week that it’s returning. But not to the traditional town centre.
It’ll be opening a food store by the new Crossrail station – good news for Royal Arsenal developer Berkeley Homes, but not so good for beleagured Powis Street, where a pound store now occupies the store giant’s old site.
Karl Whiteman, Divisional Managing Director at Berkeley Homes, said: “We are delighted to announce that Marks & Spencer will be joining our development in Woolwich, adding to the growing commercial and cultural offer in the area. Royal Arsenal Riverside is becoming a first rate destination for people to live as well as a place where visitors can shop, eat and relax, surrounded by historic buildings and the River Thames.”
Nothing, of course, about the rest of Woolwich. M&S’s arrival entrenches the growing division of Woolwich into two towns – the struggling one south of the A206, with the rich new one rising north of the dual carriageway.
The job of being Greenwich Council leader demands complete loyalty to Berkeley Homes, and Denise Hyland obliges in its press release announcing the move.
Cllr Denise Hyland, Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, said: “We shared the disappointment of local residents when Marks & Spencer departed Woolwich town centre 18 months ago, and have kept in close contact with the company since then. News that they are to return so soon is a clear sign that they recognise that Woolwich is growing and developing – with the Crossrail link acting as a key driving force in that growth.”
It’s nothing of the sort. If anything, it shows that Woolwich is moving – not east towards Tesco as first envisaged, but north, across the Plumstead Road, leaving everyone else behind. Each evening, commuters scurry out of the DLR through deserted Beresford Market and across the road, without much of a reason to look up and notice the battered old town around them.
Absurd divisions between newcomers and established locals aren’t uncommon in London – try visiting Brixton or Peckham. But the Woolwich of 2016 is even more unsettling because the newer arrivals are tucked behind a big brick wall. Once Crossrail opens, how many will be crossing the A206 at all?
How to fix it? Hyland herself floated a dramatic solution at a public Q&A held before Christmas – burying the A206 into a tunnel at Beresford Street.
But there appear to be simpler solutions – the rotting covered market could become home to a Lewisham Model Market-style venture (gentrification fears notwithstanding), new traders could be encouraged to diversify the traditional Beresford Square market.
Instead, though, the council seems to be reinforcing the divide, with propaganda weekly Greenwich Time regularly droning on about the “creative quarter” it is trying to create inside the Arsenal, filling the hole left by the failed Firepower museum. (This council press release talks about putting the area “on the map”, but doesn’t name Woolwich until the seventh paragraph.) With old buildings lying empty around Woolwich town centre – and the Woolwich Grand Theatre now rubble – opportunities to bring creative businesses to the area already exist. But they’ve just been ignored.
There’s no help from City Hall, either – there’s no interest from TfL in rezoning Woolwich Arsenal to zones 3/4, despite successful lobbying from Newham to get Stratford and nearby stations shifted to zones 2/3. If an incoming mayor freezes fares, it’ll reduce the scope for a similar move to be done to benefit Woolwich.
There’s also now an opportunity for new thinking on Powis Street itself. Around the time M&S pulled out of Woolwich, most of the freeholds around the town centre were sold by the secretive Powis Street Estates. They are now owned by investment firm Mansford, which promises “refurbishment” and “residential development”. What Mansford does with its estate will be worth watching – and will show if the decline is terminal, or if there’s life in old Woolwich yet.
Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal development is set to get 21-storey tower blocks after Greenwich Council’s planning board backed an application from Berkeley Homes tonight. (Thanks to Eltham North councillor Nigel Fletcher for the tweet from the town hall.)
The board voted 3-2 for the plans, which will dramatically change the shape of Woolwich, and the riverside, introducing a series of tower blocks between 14 and 21 stories high, blocking Woolwich town centre off from the river.
The existing Royal Arsenal Gardens park will be to a narrow strip between the towers.
Berkeley’s proposals have been heavily criticised by Arsenal residents and one of the three local councillors, John Fahy, who branded it “wholly inappropriate”.
He added in a video posted to his blog earlier this week: “The whole of Woolwich, and the whole of Greenwich, see the river as important to them. It shouldn’t be overshadowed by high residential blocks that will be there not necessarily for local residents, but those who want to invest from other parts of the world.”
Planning chair Ray Walker (Labour, Eltham West), vice-chair Steve Offord (Labour, Abbey Wood) and cabinet member Sajid Jawaid (Labour, Plumstead) voted for the proposal. Voting against were Hayley Fletcher (Labour, Kidbrooke with Hornfair) and Geoff Brighty (Conservative, Blackheath Westcombe), while Clive Mardner (Labour, Abbey Wood) abstained.
Now Berkeley Homes – the council’s development partner at the former Ferrier Estate, now Kidbrooke Village – have had their way, it will be interesting to see whether the company which is set to gain a handsome profit from tonight’s decision finally comes up with the cash to fit out the Crossrail station at Woolwich, an issue featured here last month.
After paying £25m for the station site to be excavated, so far Berkeley has refused to come up with the £100m for the rest of the station – expecting Transport for London, the Government and Greenwich Council to cough up.
Interestingly, Berkeley chairman Tony Pidgeley joined London mayor (and TfL chair) Boris Johnson on a trip to the Middle East earlier this month, while last month, regeneration councillor Denise Hyland said she was “chipper” about the prospects of the council not having to fund the station.
Intriguingly, an image of the proposed station appeared in the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time in February, bearing the name “ROYAL ARSENAL WOOLWICH” – the name of Berkeley’s development. Previous images have seen the legend “WOOLWICH STATION” above the entrance.
Footnote: If Woolwich finally does get a Crossrail station, it’ll have done better out of Berkeley Homes for transport than Kidbrooke. Greenwich Council has handed over control of the roads through the old Ferrier Estate to Berkeley, which is duly planning, with council approval, to close the roads, forcing the 178 and B16 buses away from the new Kidbrooke Village development.
Residents in the adjoining Brooklands Park estate have been left high and dry by this – but Berkeley Homes is refusing to reverse its decision, instead pressing Transport for London – with Greenwich Council backing – to pay for a turning circle so buses can run up to Brooklands Park and back. (See the second petition document here, and the TfL consultation for more.) So far, though, TfL appears to be trying to call Berkeley’s bluff, and says it is happy to reroute the B16 service “if a suitable turning circle can be provided”.
You might not know it, but the park above’s days are numbered. Opened in 2000, Royal Arsenal Gardens in Woolwich, which sits on the site of the old power station, has always been a temporary park, but since 2008 Berkeley Homes, which is developing the old Royal Arsenal site, has planned to build tower blocks on the site.
It’s currently applying for planning permission for the latest alteration to its plans – which will, if approved, dramatically change the shape of Woolwich, and the riverside. It wants to build a series of tower blocks between 14 and 21 stories high, blocking Woolwich town centre off from the river, and reducing Royal Arsenal Gardens to a narrow strip between the towers.
Berkeley is holding an exhibition of its plans today from 3pm-8pm at Royal Carriage Mews, on Duke of Wellington Avenue in the Arsenal site. You can also view the plans online. It really only seems aimed at current Arsenal residents, though, despite the huge consequences of this scheme. I went along on Saturday and was taken by how confident the Berkeley reps were.
As is the way in the borough of Greenwich, this is hardly brand new news, but few people are really aware of the ramifications of all this – the debate seems to have taken place behind the walls of the Arsenal, and not in the open. Only here could a debate about a scheme to add 10,000 new residents go completely unnoticed in the wider community.
Of course, this all suits developers like Berkeley, largely operating outside public scrutiny. At the exhibition, a flyer was pressed into my hand with details of “how to support the scheme”. Support? Huge tower blocks replacing a park and looming over Woolwich? It’s made my mind up to oppose it. There’s a campaign against it from Royal Arsenal residents – and if you want to join them, your objection needs to be with the council by tomorrow (Tuesday).
Of course, the real interest will be in seeing whether the Labour councillors who make up a majority of the planning board will vote against a scheme from the council’s closest redevelopment partner – Berkeley is also redeveloping the Ferrier Estate as Kidbrooke Village, of course, and joined the council in its Bridge The Gap campaign to build a third Blackwall Tunnel. Council leader Chris Roberts, who sits on the board, bought a home in the Arsenal from Berkeley in 2009. Will he sit this one out?
To further highlight the close links between the council and the scheme, architects Allies and Morrison put together the wider masterplan for Woolwich town centre – which envisages demolishing the Waterfront leisure centre (and opening a new one further into Woolwich) and extending Hare Street to the river – as well as one for the Charlton riverside.
There’s one big elephant in the room, though, which could scupper all of this – Crossrail. The “box” which will contain the station, which Berkeley has paid for, has been finished, and the developer’s rightly making a big song and dance about it, holding an open day and fun run inside the box next Wednesday. It’ll make the money back by building homes on top of the station.
But at present, Berkeley’s not paying for the £100m station to be fitted out – meaning that it could just stand empty when Crossrail opens in 2018.
Without that Crossrail station, the viability of the whole Royal Arsenal project would be put into doubt – so you have to detect a certain amount of bluffing from the developer. Negotiations are ongoing between the government, Greenwich Council, Berkeley and Transport for London on finding the cash.
Ideas have included a levy on local businesses or Greenwich Council, which has well over £100m in cash reserves, borrowing the money on the markets and then taking a proportion of the fares at the new station. So far, though, there has been no joy – and if the station is to open when Crossrail does, work will have to start soon.
A similar situation occurred with the extension of the East London Line to Clapham Junction, when Lewisham Council wanted to see a station at Surrey Canal Road, close to Millwall’s ground, to help kickstart redevelopment there. Despite backing from the mayor, the government refused to cough up and there’s a space where a station should be. The stakes are higher in Woolwich, and nobody wants to see the same situation repeated.
Does the Crossrail conundrum put Berkeley Homes in a prime position to get its tower blocks approved? Would these too tall, too dense blocks end up being the price to pay for securing Woolwich’s stop on the line? A refusal isn’t going to help the case for Berkeley to cough up for Crossrail, after all.
All this is conjecture, of course. Such thoughts are not meant to enter councillors’ minds – but the Olympics proved deadlines can put shotguns to their heads, and the very real consequences of failing to get the station built are inescapable. Unless a rabbit is pulled out of the hat very quickly, you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when the matter comes up in a month or two.
The final day of the Games, and Greenwich Council made its own grab for glory by unveiling a statue of Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory, in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal. Not a giant swoosh from the sportswear giant, but a gift from the city of Olympia, where the ancient Games began, to the people of London in recognition of our successful hosting of the modern Games.
It’s a strange choice of location – overlooking Dial Square, birthplace of Arsenal FC, but nowhere near any Olympic and Paralympic venues. As the crow flies, it’s midway between ExCeL and the Royal Artillery Barracks, about a mile and a bit away from each one.
It’s an odd choice to tuck the statue away on the Royal Arsenal site – a favour for the council’s friends at Berkeley Homes, perhaps?
In fact, the statue’s not even meant to be there in the first place. It was designed to sit on the meridian line, but somehow has ended up in Woolwich.
Indeed, when requesting the gift from the mayor of Olympia, Greenwich Council chief executive Mary Ney said: “We have a number of possible locations within our tourism sites which would ensure the statue was enjoyed by millions of visitors every year.”
It’s fair to say the Royal Arsenal isn’t visited by millions of visitors every year. The Berkeley Homes development is supposed to be a temporary home, but so far no permanent home has been identified, despite the meridian line passing through both Greenwich Park and the North Greenwich/ O2 Arena.
Indeed, if the council had decided to place the statue in Woolwich, why not stick it in General Gordon Square, which has been transformed by the Games’ good vibe and is looking like a success story it has every right to shout about?
But on Planet “Royal” Greenwich, only what gets picked up by a lazy media matters, the reality isn’t really of any consequence.
So a city in a hard-pressed country, whose people have been told they must work a six-day week because of their politicians’ failings, donates an expensive statue to the people of London, on the understanding it’ll be seen by “millions of visitors”. Instead, it gets hidden away on a housing development being built by a private firm which is close to the council, instead of being shown off to “millions of visitors” in somewhere that actually gets visited.
Still, shall we retire for some bubbly?
Unfortunately, nobody told the council’s own tribune, Greenwich Time…
So, Oyster cards can now be used on river bus services – good news for me, because I live fairly close to piers and have a small fortune in pay-as-you-go funds on my Oyster card thanks to a few years of Tube refunds I haven’t been able to do much about spending (unless I want to make 15 trips to Chesham). It’s a nice way to travel. you can booze on the boats from Embankment to Woolwich (unlike other forms of Boris-run transport, let’s not forget) and it’ll probably be a boon for well-off Canary Wharf commuters who’ll find it a realistic alternative to the awful Jubilee Line service to and from London Bridge.
On the downside, mind, this is very much a minority sport (the deal doesn’t cover the very limited boat services that head west to Putney), the boats are much slower than alternative forms of transport (and slower than they used to be thanks to restrictions west of Wapping), and the service’s timekeeping and service information is terrible, especially late at night at Embankment Pier when they offer a tempting alternative to trains from Charing Cross, only for them to run early and miss passengers, and the indicators don’t reflect this and the telephone lines are closed.
On balance, it’s a welcome development, but it’s been flagged up for some time and set against the recent cancellation of schemes like the Greenwich Waterfront Transit and the Docklands Light Railway to Dagenham Dock, and the painfully slow progress in getting Oyster accepted on mainline trains, it’s really not a lot. Getting the riverboat network extended might be a goer – boats can’t run fast heading west (although I can recommend the Putney boats – sat on top of a tiny launch on school assembly chairs, with the ticket man selling cans of Stella) but they can speed up east of Wapping, making Thamesmead just-about doable for potential Canary Wharf commuters. I don’t see Boris doing much about that, though…
Nor do I see Greenwich Council doing much, even though it wheeled out a very odd campaign to get Oyster cards accepted on boats (1,000 signatures – woooo!) even though it must have known such a deal was in the offing. Of course, Greenwich could have campaigned for Oyster cards to be extended to mainline trains, or for further extensions to the service, but they wouldn’t necessarily have benefitted riverboat operator Thames Clippers‘ parent company and Dome owner AEG, or Royal Arsenal developer Berkeley Homes, with which the authority has forged close links. Only a cynic would suggest that there was any connection, of course.
Curiously, Greenwich Council claims the boat service to Woolwich is under threat…
Despite this good news, we are waiting for a clear commitment from the Mayor to support the riverboat service between Woolwich and Greenwich. The subsidy for this service is currently due to run out in July.
[Council leader Chris] Roberts said: “We need to see commitment by the Mayor for the long-term future of the Woolwich service.”
The riverboat service to Woolwich is actually subsidised, according to this 2006 report from the London Assembly, by Berkeley Homes – which last year was due to pay 54p per journey (down from £4.30 in 2006). Indeed, they were only due to make the payments if a subsidy was still required, which according to the council it still is.
Clearly Berkeley – which is also helping fund the planned Woolwich Crossrail station – has a commercial interest here. Perhaps the council should be asking Berkeley what its commitment “for the long-term future of the Woolwich service” is before it asks the mayor for taxpayers’ money.