Eltham residents have set up a petition to demand Greenwich University and Greenwich Council secure the future of the historic Winter Garden in Avery Hill Park.
The petition comes days after the council’s deputy leader accused one of the area’s local councillors of playing politics in questioning its attitude to the building.
Built for Victorian mining magnate “Colonel” John Thomas North, the Grade II-listed structure is said to be the largest temperate winter garden in the country after Kew Gardens.
But campaigners say the university, which announced plans to sell the Winter Garden and surrounding teaching facilities in December 2014, is threatening to leave the adjacent mansion boarded up when it vacates the building at the end of 2018.
Already, large areas of the structure are in a poor state of repair, and neighbours are fearing for the building’s future.
University and council ‘stalemate’
Campaigners say the stalemate is down to a disagreement over what to with the building, which the university bought from Greenwich Council for £1 in 1992.
Many of the university’s teaching facilities on the site have moved to a new home in Greenwich, and it abandoned a lottery bid aimed at restoring the Winter Garden after deciding to leave.
While the university had hoped to build some housing on the site, the council is said to be insisting it says in educational use – reportedly wanting to relocate a secondary school on the site. Campaigners say it is unlikely a secondary school could raise the funds needed to restore the Winter Garden.
The Save Avery Hill Winter Gardens Campaign, which is holding a public meeting at Christ Church Hall, Eltham High Street at 7.30pm on Thursday 27 July, want the council and university to come up with a “mini-masterplan” for the site to help determine its future.
The matter was raised by Eltham South councillor Nuala Geary at last week’s full meeting of Greenwich Council. In a written response, deputy leader Danny Thorpe said a meeting had been arranged for this month between the council, the university, and Historic England, adding: “It is the university’s responsibility to ensure they meet their obligations in respect of the Winter Garden and the wider site.”
But asked by Cllr Geary if a representative of the Friends of Avery Hill Park could attend the meeting, Cllr Thorpe said it would be “inappropriate at this point”.
And pressed on whether his response meant the council had no obligation to protect the Winter Garden, Labour’s Cllr Thorpe accused the Conservative of “twisting my words in public”, saying the council had “a keen interest” in keeping the Winter Garden open, but it was the university’s responsibility.
He added: “Please stop trying to turn this into a little election issue in advance of the next election, because we’re standing up for people, and holding people to account, and I can only hope you are too, Councillor Geary.” (You can watch the exchange here, 36 mins 40 secs in.)
Cllr Geary later said she was “stunned by the sarcasm” of Cllr Thorpe’s response.
The Avery Hill Winter Garden petition is hosted on 38 Degrees and can be signed here. A hard copy version is in the park’s cafe.
Greenwich Council is considering whether or not it should buy the University of Greenwich’s Mansion site in Eltham, according to a written answer given at Wednesday night’s council meeting.
The university announced last December that it planned to sell the campus at Avery Hill Park, home to the historic Winter Garden, a Grade-II listed Victorian conservatory on English Heritage’s “at risk” register.
Student halls will remain at the nearby Southwood site, but many of the teaching departments have moved to the university’s new accommodation in Greenwich.
The university has already started looking for a buyer, and it’s been reported that 300 new homes could be built there. Greenwich’s regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe says he and council leader Denise Hyland have met the university to discuss the situation.
The question came from Eltham South councillor Nuala Geary. (It’s question 21.)
Is the Royal Borough of Greenwich exploring the possibility of acquiring University of Greenwich’s Avery Hill Mansion site, which has recently been put on the market, and can the Leader confirm that discussions have taken place between the Council, the University and potential developers, prior to the formal sale literature being published?
I can confirm that the Leader and I, with the Chief Executive, have met with the University of Greenwich to discuss the proposed sale of the Avery Hill Mansion site.
At the meeting, the University confirmed that it had undergone some soft market testing in advance of the formal sale.
During 2014 the Council met with a developer and advised them of the current planning status of the site. The Council were also approached by the University and their agent GVA Grimley and again advised them of the current planning status of the site.
At this stage, the Council has not made any decisions on whether or not to acquire the site and continues to talk to the University.
Cllr Geary wasn’t at the meeting, and none of her Conservative colleagues followed the issue up, so nothing was spoken on the issue last night.
The Mansion Site and Winter Gardens were once owned by the old London County Council, so going back into local government ownership isn’t so far-fetched.
Greenwich recently spun off many of its heritage assets – including Charlton House and Eltham’s Tudor Barn – into an independent charity, Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, but last month Denise Hyland indicated its finances may not be strong enough to bid for the site.
It’s striking, though, that at a time of cuts that Greenwich Council is considering stepping in and buying the site itself.
But compared with other London boroughs – particularly neighbouring Lewisham – Greenwich’s finances appear in fine health, with a usable surplus over £360 million (out of an eye-popping £1.2 billion) put down to a decade of frugal spending.
This graph prepared for Lambeth Council’s cabinet compares the inner London boroughs’ reserves with what they spend, with Greenwich second only to Kensington & Chelsea.
That said, it’s not clear how much of Greenwich’s reserves are committed to other projects, such as the Woolwich Crossrail station. Nothing to do with Greenwich’s finances are ever clear.
But considering the affection locals hold the mansion site in, few will complain if Greenwich does end up splashing the cash. It’s one to watch.
The Friends of Avery Hill Park are holding a public meeting on the Mansion Site’s sale on 19 March.
9am update: I’ve tweaked the surplus figure to reflect the true usable sum (you can see the full accounts here).