Greenwich Council has drafted in the UK’s former top civil servant to lead a commission to recommend policies to help it combat poverty in the borough.
Lord Kerslake, who as Sir Bob Kerslake was the head of the Home Civil Service for five years until 2015, will chair the Greenwich Fairness Commission, which will have “a particular focus on tackling child poverty and making Greenwich a fairer place for our residents”.
The council’s decision to launch the commission is an acknowledgement that developers’ investment in the area isn’t trickling down to those who need help – or in Woolwich’s case, across the A206. While unaffordable residential towers sprout up by the Thames, the council report announcing Kerslake’s appointment notes “a sharp increase over the past two years in the number of people presenting to the council as homeless”.
Five other London boroughs – Islington, Camden, Tower Hamlets, Croydon and Redbridge – have already set up commissions, making recommendations aimed at making sure disadvantaged residents have the best chance of improving their lives and getting out of poverty.
For example, Islington’s recommendations aimed to tackle issues such as childcare, literacy, poor health, use of community space, and public safety.
The appointment of Kerslake, who was also the permanent secretary to the Department of Communities and Local Government under Sir Eric Pickles, will no doubt be aimed at hushing grumbles from local Tories that the commission will simply be a stick to beat the government with. One council cabinet member – likely to be community wellbeing member Denise Scott-McDonald – is likely to sit on what is otherwise billed as an independent panel “drawn from the local private, voluntary and further/higher education sectors”.
That said, Kerslake is not an entirely disinterested party – these days, he is chair of Peabody, the housing association which is now redeveloping much of Thamesmead, on the borough’s eastern boundary.
The commission will hold four or five meetings to gather evidence and is expected to cost £20,000. It will report back to the council by the end of the year.
In a separate development, a vital stage in attempting to rejuvenate Woolwich’s fortunes has been reached, with Greenwich Council’s cabinet set to ratify a decision to sell the crumbling block containing Woolwich’s covered market to developers St Modwen and Notting Hill Housing Association to build 650 homes, a cinema and a new public square.
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.
It’s been a very long time in coming, but walkers and cyclists could soon be able to use the Thames Path uninterrupted between Charlton and Woolwich – with plans to build a new path over the riverfront.
Currently, the Thames Path from central London stops dead at the Thames Barrier, with anyone wanting to continue eastwards having to continue via the busy Woolwich Road before walking through the King Henry’s Wharf housing development.
During the week, walkers in the know can sneak through an unsigned shortcut through the Westminster Industrial Estate – but these barriers prevent cyclists from using it.
Plans to plug the gap were first revealed in September, at Greenwich Council’s first “cycling forum”, after negotiations with landowners. Now they’re slowly starting to become reality, with one phase having already received planning permission, and another currently in the planning process.
The scheme is particularly good news for the enormous creative arts hub Second Floor Arts, as the new route will run right past its entrance. Greenwich hopes it will be complete by April 2017.
Heading from east to west… (apologies for the duff photos, which are of a display board at the cycle forum event).
Phase 1 is currently going through the planning process (see application 15/3519/F), and consists of a ramp from Warspite Road which will then sit on top of the riverfront, taking the route round to the existing Thames Path at King Henry’s Wharf. Or, strictly speaking: “Construction of combined footway / cycleway bridge, a 1.4m high pedestrian parapet with lighting incorporated into the parapet posts, erection of a wooden fender structure in the foreshore area.” Comments on this need to be with the council by 29 December.
Phase 2 already has planning permission (see application 15/2972/F). It consists of a ramp between Unity Way, the street that leads to the Thames Barrier visitor centre, and Bowater Road, inside the Westminster Industrial Estate. This means there’ll still be a diversion away from the river (and the deteriorating Mersey ferry Royal Iris, moored here) but nowhere near as long and inconvenient as the current scheme. Greenwich hopes to start work on this before April.
While the scheme would make life easier for walkers, it also opens up the Thames Path as a viable cycle commuter route for people in King Henry’s Wharf, Woolwich Dockyard Estate and beyond – a twenty-minute pootle on a bike to North Greenwich being much quicker and more pleasant for those who are up for it than squeezing onto an overcrowded bus.
The money for this is coming from Transport for London – as mentioned last week in the post about hire bikes and Greenwich town centre, many of Greenwich’s cycle-friendly schemes are either coming either from TfL money, or through adapting renewal schemes when roads need resurfacing or reworking.
Separately, there is also a scheme to introduce a stretch of segregrated cycle lane on Plumstead Road, in an attempt to fix a botched road scheme from a decade back. “Light segregation” is also due to be installed on a cycle lane in Rochester Way, Kidbrooke, shortly.
Greenwich has a newsletter for people interested in cycling infrastructure in the borough – email cycling-strategy[at]royalgreenwich.gov.uk and ask to be put on its list.
“Everybody’s interested in the job I’m doing, what I’m up to. Yeah, I love it. I’m very proud. You get to see all the vessels that go by, get to see some beautiful vessels.”
Here’s a short film of the Woolwich Ferry’s captain, David Watkins – produced as part of the great 1,000 Londoners series.
In an easier world, the fire brigade being called to a stuck lift in Greenwich Foot Tunnel would have been Proper News. I would have asked the fireman if anyone was stuck in there. I might have waited around for a bit to see if anything happened.
But it happens too often, regular users tell me. So I wheezed my bike up the south stairs last night, gazed out at the flashing blue lights of the fire engine (presumably parked well away so nobody thought the Cutty Sark was on fire again), and went off on my merry way.
Last week, Greenwich Council announced it’d been given £200,000 by TfL to trial a safe cycling scheme in the tunnel, along with its quieter sister crossing at Woolwich. Currently, there is a blanket ban on cycling that is widely flouted and little-enforced.
When there are too many pedestrians in the tunnels, cyclists will be told to get off and walk. While there is money for enforcement measures, it remains to be seen quite how it’ll work.
While new investment in cycling is to be welcomed, is this really the right solution? The over-engineered lifts still aren’t working properly (particularly at Greenwich – vandalism is more of an issue at Woolwich) – the product of a botched £11.5m refurbishment scheme – so perhaps fixing those should be more of a priority.
But perhaps the council is resigned to their unreliability – it’s working on a smartphone app which will send alerts to warn people that the lifts are stuck.
Demand for cycling routes to Canary Wharf is increasing, so a hundred grand on turning the Greenwich tunnel into what may effectively become a cycle tunnel is clearly a magnitude cheaper than creating the sorely-needed new cycling/walking routes across the Thames.
It’ll take a lot of work to ensure the small tunnel doesn’t become an effective no-go zone for people on two feet – is any piece of technology up to making sure pedestrians are safe? Perhaps that breed of aggressive, anti-social cyclist that charges through the tunnel – the ones many cyclists hate, too – has won this battle down to sheer strength. Or because nobody really wanted to take the pedestrians’ side.
Whatever happens, FOGWOFT, the Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, will be watching the scheme – and if you’re a regular user, on foot or on two wheels, it may need your help in doing just that.
Gazing out at that fire engine last night, though, I couldn’t help comparing the situation with that of the Charlton skate park row, where Berkeley Homes has effectively given Greenwich Council £360,000 to move the Royal Arsenal Gardens skate park to Charlton Park, well away from the plush investment opportunities it plans to build there.
Part of the plan is to pass a bylaw banning skateboarders from Woolwich’s General Gordon Square, who do little harm and bring life what can be a bleak space on quiet nights. Rather unrealistically, the council hopes they’ll take their boards and get on a 53 bus to be banished two miles up the hill, well away from Berkeley’s buyers.
It’s very telling that Greenwich Council wishes to criminalise these young people for these minor misdemeanours in Woolwich, while backing down on similar infractions in Greenwich Foot Tunnel. But the kids in Woolwich have no clout, while the foot tunnel cyclists are often heading to well-paid jobs in Canary Wharf. One rule for one group, another for the rest – such is life in a “royal borough”.
An outdoor theatre production celebrating the life of Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo has gained £100,000 in funding from Greenwich Council after backing from council leader Denise Hyland.
Greenwich has already committed £100,000 to GDIF, of which £20,000 was already earmarked for The Four Fridas.
Now the council is paying an extra £80,000 to festival bosses to secure the 45-minute long display of music, dance and flight, with a further £250,000 coming from Arts Council England and £60,000 from other sources.
Audiences will be able to stand and watch the show for free, with seats costing £16.
Kahlo, who died in 1954 aged 47, took up painting after being seriously injured by a trolleybus as a teenager. Her tempestuous personal life was explored in the 2002 film Frida, for which Salma Hayek was nominated for an Oscar.
An animated film will explore Kahlo’s “legacy as a disabled artist”, while the show “will feature a unique and powerful pre-hispanic Mexican cultural tradition by a group of young women from the village of Xochiapulcho in the Sierra Puebla, enacting the flight of the Voladores” – a ceremony that involving participants flying around a pole.
While the show is bound to pull in the crowds, the generous grant is likely to raise eyebrows at a time when the council is continuing to plead financial hardship. Over recent years, funding has been diverted away from smaller arts and cultural projects into larger, big-ticket events under the Royal Greenwich Festivals banner.
Smaller-scale grants have now been made available for community projects, and the council made a minor contribution to the Blackheath fireworks last year for the first time since 2009. But the Plumstead Make Merry festival is still struggling to survive while there remain fears for the future of Charlton’s Maryon Wilson Animal Park, an early victim of council cuts.
In any case, the funding decision continues a pattern of the council suddenly awarding extra funding to GDIF once programmes have been printed and press releases already sent out – the council found £100,000 at short notice in 2011.
“During a time of increasing financial pressures, Royal Greenwich is unique in making a significant investment in arts and culture to stimulate regeneration and access to the arts,” the council report says.
It adds the Four Fridas funding “strengthens Woolwich’s case as London’s newest cultural destination”, citing a decade of regeneration including new transport links, significant investment in residential, leisure and business development and evidence of grass roots arts-led development”.
How much this is actually apparent to the world beyond Woolwich Town Hall is worth questioning, though – an Evening Standard feature on the show describes Woolwich as “a part of London that is in desperate need of improvement”.
Other big arts events getting council funding – “developing awareness of ‘brand Greenwich'” – this summer include Greenwich Dance Festival (May-July £30,200), Greenwich International Book Festival (21-24 May, £12,000), Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival (23-30 May, £17,000), Greenwich Music Festival (June 2015 – March 2016, £25,000), Parksfest (May – July, £26,400) and the one-day Greenwich World Cultural Festival (£20,800).
Update, 7.50pm: After writing this, I took a trip down to the open studios at Woolwich’s amazing Second Floor Studios & Arts, a community of 400 artists tucked away by the river (next door to where Ed Miliband’s notorious pledge stone is being stored).. Having a wander around, I couldn’t help wonder why Greenwich Council doesn’t take advantage of this if it wants to turn Woolwich into a creative hub.
Instead of blowing £100,000 on marching people up to the barracks for a show that will be gone in four days, why not use that money to help artists actually set up shop in Woolwich town centre? Greenwich town centre isn’t a year-round cultural hub despite having had GDIF events for years – so why would Woolwich be any different? Amazing as The Four Fridas may be, will it really have any lasting effect once the last visitor has walked back down Grand Depot Road? Or is this just one big, ever so alluring, ego trip?
Back in January, this website noted the sudden cut to bus route 53 caused by roadworks by Westminster Bridge. The service stopped running the full length of its route to Whitehall, depriving many local workers, from cleaners to civil servants, of their usual route to central London.
The diggers have moved away from Bridge Street, but initial dates for the restoration of service in March and then April have been missed. Transport for London blames new works at the Elephant & Castle for continuing to stop the service at Lambeth North. However, no other bus through the Elephant is suffering such a severe cut in service.
Local politicians have been strangely silent on the matter – at least in public – although I do know Woolwich Common’s Labour councillor David Gardner has raised the issue with Transport for London, citing the number of low-paid workers who use the bus.