Andrew Gilligan: What legacy?

December 15, 2012 by  

I’ve been criticised in a few quarters for never saying anything positive about the Olympics in Greenwich, so let me find something good to say about it now: it’s over. Apart from the bill, of course. And the Games Makers’ Christmas single. Oh yes, and the damage to the park, that place of little importance - parts of which, at the time of writing, look a bit like the Somme.

More about the park later. In the meantime, however, let’s talk legacy. You know how keen I am to realise the full benefit for Greenwich of our Greatest Ever Summer. I will shortly be announcing my new Column Legacy Masterplan Framework for a world-class, 21st-century greenwich.co.uk column, a column aimed at inspiring all SE10 residents to Go For Gold!

By no later than August 2136 (date subject to change), my powerful and dynamic vision will bring about the unparalleled transformation of Olympic-related online commentary. In a true expression of the spirit of the Games, it will totally regenerate grassroots column-writing, creating up to 10 million new hyperlocal bloggers (figure to be confirmed) in vibrant multimedia hubs throughout the Lower Lea Valley. Using only the latest exemplar sustainable word-processing technologies, our columns will deliver a lasting legacy for London of year-round sunshine, free drinks and England winning the football.

The real claims actually being made about the legacy of the Games are, in fact, scarcely less preposterous. This week, in an example of churnalism at its worst, the BBC did a story headlined “Olympic legacy report: 5,000 jobs created in Greenwich.” Alas, both the Beeb piece, and the council report it’s based on, only make clear obliquely that all these “5,000 jobs” were temporary. They were “created” only to disappear again. They no longer exist.

Indeed, it appears that the vast majority of even these “jobs” had a lifespan only slightly longer than the average mayfly’s. I was puzzled by the 5,000 figure: I’d thought that across London, including Stratford, only about 1,000 Greenwich borough residents were involved in building the Olympic venues. And indeed, the council report confirms that figure: 1,177 is the number it gives, plus a further 22 apprentices.

Incredibly, it looks like almost all the others in Greenwich Council’s claimed 5,000 total were even more temporary: staff taken on by Locog only for the period of the Games, that is, two to six weeks. Some of them may even have been volunteers – it’s not clear. Frankly, a fortnight’s work as a hot-dog salesman is not going to be the economic lifeline anyone is looking for.

The actual number of real, permanent jobs created for Greenwich residents by the Olympics is almost certainly nil, or possibly even negative. Careful reading of the report reveals that a much-ballyhooed link with China, under discussion since 2007, has so far produced rather more photo-opportunities and trips to Beijing than it has produced jobs for people in Greenwich.

Away from the fantasyland of councillor junketing, a big part of the area’s real economy depends on tourism – but despite the council’s attempts to spin the Games as “a substantial boost to an already thriving tourism industry,” shopkeepers tell me that trade is very sharply down this year.

That’s hardly surprising, since the centrepiece of the Greenwich tourist “offer” – the park and observatory – was completely closed at the height of the tourist season, and partly closed for the vast majority of the entire year. Several other attractions, including the 02, had reduced access, too. Non-Olympic visitors were explicitly told to avoid Greenwich. And even the Olympic crowds were coralled away from anything resembling a local business.

As I reported back in August, trade in the town centre collapsed at what is normally its busiest time. A couple of town centre businesses have closed and I would not be surprised if others had cut staff.

The rest of the council’s report does the usual trick of claiming as “Olympic legacy” a lot of things that were happening anyway – such as the three new hotels that have opened on Greenwich High Road. Hotels earn their construction costs back over a period of many years. The presence or absence of two weeks of sport cannot possibly have any bearing on the long-term viability of businesses like these.

Then there’s the line that Greenwich businesses secured “£28 million of contracts” with the Olympic agencies and their main contractors. Yes, but the vast majority of that £28 million was our own money, taken from us all in taxes. On a simple population basis, Greenwich taxpayers’ share of the Olympic bill was at least £50 million – in practice it will be more, since there are more higher-rate taxpayers in London than in the rest of the UK - so we actually got less back from the Games than it took from us.

But perhaps the crowning inanity comes with virtually the only real “legacy” project in the whole report – almost the only substantial thing in Greenwich that really wouldn’t exist without the Olympics. Can you guess what it is? No? Well, at a cost of £3.1 million, the council will next year open a new “equestrian and horticulture centre” in Shooters Hill to offer courses in “horse handling” for those who want to get a “career in the industry.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this 2012 or 1912? Is there some redoubt, some pocket of hansom cabs and draymen that I’ve missed? Or isn’t the “horse industry” in London these days really quite small?

Ironically enough, part of the site was previously used for one of the few genuine equine enterprises that existed in the “Royal Borough,” pre-Games: the donkey rides that Len Thorne has offered on Blackheath for the last six decades. Mr Thorne was evicted from his traditional pitch, by the Greenwich Park gates, because of the Olympics. Then he found that he was also losing his stables, on Shooters Hill, to the council’s preposterous equestrian legacy project. He died in July, a few days before the Games started, a penniless man, according to his daughter.

The Shooters Hill centre was originally puffed as enabling disadvantaged children to take up horseriding – but a little line in this week’s Greenwich Time says its courses will now only be open to over-16s with “some experience of working with horses.” For its millions, the council is getting only a limited share of the centre’s time – so it could quite easily end up as essentially another middle-class riding school of the kind that exists perfectly happily across the Home Counties without the need for a taxpayer subsidy.

In one final element of the travesty, the centre has been built on what was supposed to be protected Metropolitan Open Land – so the legacy of the Golden Games will actually be less public space in Greenwich for sport and recreation than there was before.

What improvements does Greenwich need for the future? Less traffic, better schools, more jobs? No, silly, what Greenwich needs is less open space, and more horses!

Andrew Gilligan: Market Inquiry: Is It Just A Stitch-Up?

September 20, 2010 by  

Even before the public inquiry into Greenwich Market has finished, the developers who want to knock it down are behaving as if they’ve won.

Look on the website of Bespoke Hotels, the operator of the hotel proposed to replace the existing market buildings – and you will see them describing it as a fait accompli: “Greenwich Market Hotel is set to open in 2013 and will be the centrepiece of the total redevelopment of the market square,” the website says. “The new boutique property… will replace a block of buildings on the eastern edge of the market and will include an additional bedroom block on the upper floors in a new purpose-built property at the centre of the market.”

That raises the serious question of whether the inquiry - with its two weeks of hearings, its mountains of paperwork, its expensive lawyers – is merely a charade. Do Bespoke Hotels know something we don’t? Has a whisper been passed?

Until this disturbing development, opponents of the scheme seemed to have had the better of it at the inquiry. Massed ranks of councillors from all parties lined up to oppose the scheme – one, Maureen O’Mara, saying that it would “tear the heart out of Greenwich.” The council, true to its original, unanimous vote against the plans, has committed resources and people to fight the case that the development should not happen.

Transport – something first identified by this blog – has emerged as a key issue, with the inspector questioning why the developers had submitted no travel plan, as they were asked to by Transport for London, to back up their absurd claim that the new hotel would create no more than 16 extra journeys in the peak hour – with almost all of those people travelling by public transport. Guests arriving at luxury hotels with heavy luggage do not, of course, come by public transport – and there will be up to 200 of them staying each night, not to mention deliveries, staff, restaurant visitors, and so on.

The hotel’s main entrance will be in the middle of the one-way system, causing enormous disruption to traffic as coaches, taxis and cars drop off guests. A new transport objection may be that the hotel’s existence would sabotage the council’s plans to pedestrianise part of the one-way system. That, however, is a much less good argument. Not only would any pedestrianisation scheme be a mistake in itself, but it might actually solve the transport problems caused by the hotel – which could be served without disruption by turning King William Walk into a hotel-only access spur.

Much better to concentrate on the dozens of ways in which the development breaches the council’s own planning policy – the Unitary Development Plan – and the at least two ways it breaches national planning policy guidance.

Interesting, too, that the council’s barrister has focused on the developers’ somewhat sharp practice in reporting the results of its public consultation. As we have noted in the past, true to the finest traditions of “nonsultation,” a large number of respondents who in fact raised significant objections to the proposed design were counted as supporters by the developers. Another piece of alleged manipulation brought up at the inquiry was the developers’ selective use of photographs in their planning application to make the new scheme look more acceptable than it is. Bespoke Hotels describes its new concrete slab as “brimful of character,” which is a pretty clear indicator of the mindset we’re dealing with.

As well as the council and councillors, the objectors included dozens of local residents. Perhaps most interestingly, the developers’ changes to the scheme appear not to have convinced any of the original objectors. The Government’s heritage watchdog, the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), said the revised scheme was still ‘alien’ and the scale of the proposed hotel still ‘dominating.’
While the retention and refurbishment in amended design of the existing roof in place of the previously proposed canopy roof was welcomed, CABE remained concerned that the relationship between the roof and the proposed cantilevering building was still not ‘fully resolved’.

The circular layout of the new central block, CABE said, did not address the needs of the proposed retail units, and along with the amount of hotel accommodation, appeared ‘alien’ in the context of the existing market.

It all sounds quite promising – but then there’s that worrying confidence of the developers. Let’s hope they’re just getting ahead of themselves – and that their arrogance may, as it has all along, prove counterproductive. But there’s still the distinct possibility that this is all a stitch-up.

Andrew Gilligan: Small Shops Under New Threat As Sainsbury’s Comes To Town

August 25, 2010 by  

Greenwich town centre is to get a new Sainsbury’s supermarket, triggering a potential new threat to the town’s remaining independent shops.

The motorbike accessories store in the same Greenwich High Road block as the existing Co-op is closing down. On its windows are statutory notices announcing that Sainsbury’s is applying for an alcohol licence for the premises. The new store – about the same size as the Co-op by the looks of the site – will be the third new supermarket chain to open in recent years, after the M&S Simply Food at the Cutty Sark and the Tesco Metro on Trafalgar Road.

The post-Tesco fate of the other shops on Trafalgar Road – closure for some, reduced business for many - could be a worrying portent of the future. The new Sainsbury’s will be within a minute’s walk of Greenwich’s main cluster of independent food shops – the greengrocer, butcher, cheese shop, fishmonger and general grocery on Royal Hill.

True, these places have managed to cope with the Co-op, for years. But Sainsbury’s stock is likely be more directly competitive with them – more fresh food, more bourgeois comforts and more upmarket stuff than the Co-op – meaning that it’s a more serious threat.

And the competition between the two neighbouring supermarkets may also (temporarily) drive down prices on the basics and staples to an extent which damages Royal Hill. I found last year that the prices of the Royal Hill shops were suprisingly competitive with the Co-op (then Somerfield). If both of the retail behemoths are prepared to sell things at a loss as they battle it out, however, it seems unlikely that the smaller players will be able to compete on price. That could do them great damage.

At the same time, perhaps the most consuming retail issue in Greenwich – the fate of the market - is about to come to a head. Planning permission for Greenwich Hospital’s hateful scheme to knock down the market was refused exactly a year ago. But the Hospital’s appeal against the decision will be heard by a planning inspector at a public inquiry between September 7th and 17th.

Greenwich Hospital’s changes to the scheme – principally keeping, though reglazing, the roof – don’t seem to have convinced anyone. The existing shops will still be demolished and the number of stalls, and the food court, reduced. The site will be dominated by a 100-bedroom hotel.

On Sunday, as we covered on the site, there was a demo against the plans, with the three local councillors handing out leaflets claiming that even the revised proposals “will see the end of Greenwich Market as we know it.” This is true – because the cost of the redevelopment will almost certainly mean that the Hospital will have to raise the rents to a level beyond that which the existing independent traders can afford. Hays Galleria or Spitalfields, next stop!

The cynical view is that the tourists won’t be able to tell the difference. But of course they will – and we most certainly will. The market was so rammed this weekend that, to the rage of passing motorists, the demonstrators had to stand in the road. If it’s turned into a feeble appendage of a 100-room hotel, with added chain-stores, it won’t be anything like as much of a draw to the town.

As well as the local councillors, the influential Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment – the Government’s design standards watchdog- has attacked the revised scheme. In their response to the planning inspector, CABE said the new plans were still ‘alien.” They criticised the proposed layout of the market, the ‘dominating’ scale of the boutique hotel and the detailing of the glazed roof.

They branded as “awkward” the proposed new route from Greenwich Church Street into the market. And they said that the relationship between the roof and the proposed new buildings on either side was still not “fully resolved.”

I’ll be covering the saga of the market and the public inquiry in more detail within the next two weeks. But we should look at the onward march of the supermarkets – a Waitrose and a further Tesco are also rumoured – with just as much alarm.

Andrew Gilligan: Eight days to save the market

July 22, 2010 by  

“You pig,” said the text message on my phone. “You are such a low life. You kill Dr Kelly again, you putzer.”

As you might guess from the somewhat obscure nature of the deadly insult (whatever is a “putzer?” Even the OED can’t tell me) it was another billet-doux from Greenwich’s Favourite Restaurateur, Frank Dowling, showing all the courtesy we have come to expect from his much-loved industrial catering empire.

Frank often reacts badly to criticism. Last year, after I pointed out that some of his most expensive outlets had failed their hygiene inspections, he rang me up to call me a “c***.” My report of this conversation is still the top item when anyone Googles you, Frank!

Let’s wait to see if anyone from Greenwich Hospital sends a rude text after this week’s column. I’ve been looking in detail at the changes submitted to the planning inspector as part of the Hospital’s appeal against the refusal of planning permission last year.

The Hospital – no doubt hoping to head off inconvenient calls for the whole application to be re-run – itself describes its changes as “minor alterations.” They are indeed relatively minor, and therefore change few of the objectionable features of the scheme which led to its unanimous rejection by councillors.

The most significant change is that the existing market roof will be kept, certainly an improvement on the Bluewater/ Stratford Bus Station combo we were promised before. However, the shops at the sides will still be demolished and a large new hotel, rising to four storeys, will still be built. The number of rooms in the hotel has been reduced fractionally (but is still “approximately 100”) and its roofscape profile has been slightly changed by removing louvres from part of the central block.

The overall effect of the changes is to reduce the built footprint of the hotel by just 2.6 per cent – from 5625 square metres to 5477 sq m. The overall built footprint of the scheme will fall by 4 per cent. This still represents a more than doubling of the footprint on the site, an increase in density which lay at the heart of the council’s reasons for rejecting the scheme.
As the council’s decision notice stated, the new build would have “an unbalanced and detrimental relationship with the established urban fabric of the area;” would be “visually obtrusive…to the detriment of the adjacent Grade II listed buildings;” would be “out of keeping with its historic surroundings;” would have “an adverse effect on the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage site in which it is located;” would cause “the overdevelopment of the site and…adversely affect the existing patterns of development;” would “lead to ‘town cramming’;” would “impact on the free flow of traffic;” and would “result in additional congestion and obstruction on the local highway to the detriment of pedestrian and highway safety.”

All these objections are related to the height and density of the hotel, which would poke visibly up above the existing buildings, and none has been significantly changed by the Hospital’s “minor alterations.”

The Hospital continues to make the ridiculous claim that its redevelopment will create only 18 extra person movements per hour, 16 of them by public transport, a proposition rejected by councillors. The proposed hotel alone will accommodate around 200 guests, with the vast majority (since they are carrying luggage) likely to arrive by car, taxi or coach. The hotel’s main entrance is in the middle of the one-way system and will almost certainly cause significant congestion.

Do not for one moment imagine that the retention of the roof should end objections to this scheme. The eviction of traders during the construction period (without enough space in the temporary market for many of them) will drive many out of business. The mix of shops and traders in any new market/ shopping centre is likely to change fundamentally, since higher rents will need to be charged to recoup the cost of the redevelopment. Whatever the Hospital says now, a redeveloped market has a Hays Galleria and Starbucks future.

The law says that the appeal ought to be decided on whether the council properly applied its planning policy, the Unitary Development Plan, and national planning policy guidance. It seems clear that it did. The council said the original market proposals contravened the UDP in ten places, and also breaches national planning policy guidance twice. The amended plans are still in breach of PPG and of at least nine policies of the UDP.

The public inquiry into the proposals will be held on 7 September. You have until 30 July to object to the Planning Inspectorate. The address is: Alan Ridley, Planning Inspectorate, Room 4/02, Temple Quay, Bristol, BS1 6PN.

Andrew Gilligan: Greenwich Market: Hospital may get rid of even more stalls

July 15, 2010 by  

GREENWICH Hospital’s issuing the food stalls in the market with notice to quit has prompted an outcry. But it may be only the first part of the Hospital’s plan to undermine the market in order to clear the way for its redevelopment.

Traders believe that the Hospital’s new managing agents, Nelson Bakewell, are considering adopting a proposal with which they did considerable damage to another market they managed, Covent Garden. After the food stalls go, this website has been told, the Hospital is considering getting rid of all stalls which sell “manufactured” goods. In other words, only people who make their own wares will be allowed to remain. (The second-hand day won’t be affected.)

Between 20 and 40 permanent stalls – out of around 90 – would go, and a similar proportion of the casual traders. A committee may be drawn up to decide which traders are “creative” enough to remain and which need to be ejected.

You can see a sort of purist, idealist logic in this – making it a truly “craft” market. It’s true that there’s a certain amount of tourist-targeted tat in the place at the moment. But in the end it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the mix that is needed to make a market successful. It also risks quite a seriously large number of empty spaces if the hoped-for creative geniuses do not materialise.

The Hospital has dropped Urban Space, the manager which revived the market to its present pitch of success. Nelson Bakewell, the new agents, have decided, in the words of one source, that what they want from the market is greater “predictability” – of income and takings, which of course also equates to greater predictability of content. Hay’s Galleria, here we come!

“They say they can predict the shops, but not the stalls,” said one source. “They want to look at a spreadsheet and know what’s going to happen, but successful markets don’t work like that. You’ve got to be more flexible and more creative.”

The Hospital and Nelson Bakewell have also parted company with two key people running the market – Shaun Hose, a consultant engaged to draw up a “creative vision” for it after councillors rejected the redevelopment plan last year, and Patrycja Nowak, the market manager inherited from Urban Space. Both resigned over what other sources say was their concern about the direction in which the new management was taking the market.

“I simply do not believe they know what they are doing,” said one person closely involved with the market. “We have been waiting for months for them to tell us what their vision is for the stalls part of the market and we still don’t know. I think the problem is that they don’t know themselves.”

The Hospital not knowing what it is doing would be one possibility. But the other possibility is that they know exactly what they’re doing. I’ll cover the Hospital’s new, revised plans for the redevelopment – now being considered by the Planning Appeals Inspectorate – in more detail in next week’s column. But, just as in the plan that was rejected, it appears – and our sources confirm – the floorspace available for the market stalls and their associated storage will be less than it is now, even without the demands the proposed new hotel is likely to impose on that same, limited floorspace.

Less space implies, of course, fewer stalls. But if lots of the stalls have already been chucked off, they won’t be in a position to complain about the redevelopment. And the quieter the market becomes, the less justification there is for not redeveloping it.

The eviction of the food stalls is blamed by all our sources on Greenwich’s second least-favourite institution, after the Hospital, Frank Dowling’s Inc Group. Dowling – all our sources say – demanded that the food stalls be removed because they were damaging the trade of his pubs and restaurants.

I can quite understand the deadly peril for Frank’s third-rate catering empire of having to compete for business with outlets that might be quite good – though Frank, it should be said, last night denied to me that he’d made any such demand over the food stalls and “didn’t even know” they were going.

But whatever motivated it, the moves on the market appears to be part of a wider agenda. Just as I described in my previous column with the shops, Greenwich Hospital appears to be hollowing out the retail core of the town to reduce resistance to its still overbearing and inappropriate redevelopment plans. As I’ll explain next week, I have a feeling it’s not going to work.

PS – Sorry about the long gap since the last column. I’ve been on holiday – back regularly now!

Andrew Gilligan: Where have all the shops gone?

June 2, 2010 by  

HAVE you noticed how many empty shops there are in Greenwich, all of a sudden? In the town centre (excluding Royal Hill) there are 19. The shop that was Warwick Leadlay, at the entrance passage from Nelson Road to the market, is the latest to fall vacant – for the second time in two years.

The only thing in the shop now is a notice in the window from its most recent tenant, Graham and Green, announcing that they have relocated to Notting Hill. That could stand as an epitaph for the folly of Greenwich Hospital’s retail strategy. They elbowed out a business, Warwick Leadlay, that had provided decades of stability on the retail scene, to bring in a trendy outlet that fled back to its comfort zone as soon as it realised that SE10 is not, thank God, Notting Hill.

Around the market, nearly half a dozen shops are vacant. Next to the Post Office, the big Bottoms Up site has been empty for months. The parade at the Greenwich end of South Street now has two vacant shops. The clothing shop in King William Walk has closed. Two of Frank Dowling’s pubs and bars, the old Cricketers (aka the Lani Tiki Lounge) and the Inc Bar above the market arch, are dry. The travel agency near the DLR station has flown away.

Some of it, no doubt, is because of the recession. Some of it is because of Greenwich Hospital’s wish to redevelop the central Market site. It is gradually moving traders out of the bits it wants to demolish, to boost its loathsome scheme to turn the Market into a hotel with a modern shopping precinct attached – unanimously rejected by the council last year, but the subject of an appeal and public inquiry this summer. More on this soon.

Some of it, though, may be because Greenwich shops depend on visitors, and it is simply not an attractive place to visit at the moment. This used to be somewhere that visitors (if not locals) came to shop. But as well as the shops, we have of course lost about three-quarters of our markets. I am increasingly struck by how hugely disappointing the town must now feel for those visitors who can remember it from a few years ago.

The dominant feature of central Greenwich has become a series of hoardings concealing, variously, a mutton-headed tarting-up (the foot tunnel), a national tragedy (the appallingly botched restoration of the Cutty Sark), a vaguely unneccesary “improvement” (the Sammy Ofer wing at the Maritime Museum), an endlessly-delayed project (the pier) or a supposed future university, currently and almost certainly now indefinitely an empty space (the old Village Market site.) And that’s before the Olympics get started…

As the new government starts to wield the axe, the assumption in many quarters seems to be that all public spending is good and that any cuts to it are bad. Much of the time this is, of course, true. But Greenwich increasingly strikes me as a textbook example of just how destructive public spending and official improvement-mania can be. We would have almost certainly have been happier, and our town would have been busier, if they had just forgotten about thir grand plans and left the pier, the foot tunnel, the Cutty Sark, the Maritime Museum, the park and the Village Market alone.

Andrew Gilligan: Park Olympics: A Potential Nuclear Bomb for the Council

May 20, 2010 by  

After giving the Olympics planning permission in March, Greenwich Council may dare to hope that the issue is over. I’m much less sure. It would, for instance, be wrong to see the recent council elections, at which Labour was re-elected, as providing any endorsement for the council’s policy. All the opposition parties supported the Olympics, too.

More importantly, and more dangerously for the council, the way Greenwich made its decision appears to be in direct breach of two key principles of planning law and the Local Government Code of Conduct, and of broader legal principles governing the way in which public bodies must make decisions.

Under these rules, local authorities and their members have a duty to approach planning applications with an open mind and without prejudgment. They are under an absolute legal requirement to invite objections, consider them properly and go through a full consultation process. They are supposed to judge each application on its merits, carefully examining the details presented to them for compliance with their planning policies.

And there were many details. Locog's application amounted to thousands of pages - setting out all the things the council was supposed to think about before it gave the go-ahead. We can, however, definitively prove that the entire process was a charade. Long before any actual application was presented, the council stated publicly that its mind was made up. Before even a single objector was heard, the council said, in effect, that they would all be ignored. Before even a single page of evidence was produced, the council made clear that the application would be passed.

The key piece of evidence is Greenwich Time, the council's propaganda newspaper, performing a useful service for perhaps the first time in its sorry life.

On 9 September 2008, more than a year before the planning application was even submitted, a Greenwich Time headline about the proposal piped: “Course the Royal Park will be fine!” and described the park’s hosting of the events not as an if, but as a when (“The o2, Greenwich Park, Woolwich Barracks - three world-class venues that will put Greenwich firmly on the world stage when they host up to a third of the events at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.”)

On 30 September 2008, Greenwich Time trumpeted: “A first look at the new [Olympic] cross-country [course] map - and it looks just great!”

On 6 October 2008, Greenwich Time described the park’s use for the Olympics as a “field of dreams” and stated: “The Olympic and Paralympic Games are coming to London - and Greenwich - in 2012... at the 02, Greenwich Park and Woolwich Barracks... Let the excitement sink in." It described the use of the park as a “’natural’ for the Games” which would offer an “unparalleled opportunity” for the area. This is the council's official voice speaking, don't forget. Does it sound a bit like prejudgment to you?

On 8 December 2009, just after the planning application went in, Greenwich Time announced: Greenwich will host a number of Paralympic sports in 2012... The Paralympic equestrian events will be held at Greenwich Park.” The same words were used in an official council press release, four days before.

And on the morning of the planning meeting itself, 23 March 2010, Greenwich Time plopped onto my mat complete with a big map showing the Park as an Olympic venue and a double-page spread on how “a temporary arena will be built within the Park to host the equestrian events.” Actually, boys, at that stage it was still theoretically an “if” – because you hadn’t made your decision, remember?

In an age when even the most trivial decision has to be consulted on, at the risk otherwise of being struck down by the courts, Greenwich Council has left a huge flank open here. Of course, many such decisions are fixed well in advance. Consultations and suchlike procedures are usually shams. But great care is normally taken to pretend, to go through the motions of open-mindedness. I can't remember any case in the past where a public authority has so blatantly announced the outcome at the beginning of the decision-making process.

This indisputable evidence that the council acted with predetermination and a closed mind seems to me to offer significant scope for legal or other challenge.

Andrew Gilligan: The Election Verdict and the Council Leader’s Bottom

May 12, 2010 by  

CHRIS Roberts, newly re-elected leader of Greenwich council, reacted to his victory at last week’s polls with characteristic grace. “Chicken run, my arse, that’s my comment for greenwich.co.uk!” he shouted, according to site contributor Darryl Chamberlain. (Mr Roberts, as we revealed here last year, performed a moonlight flit from his previous ward, Peninsula, to safer territory in Glyndon.)

We need not dwell on Mr Roberts’ arse in this space – we already see more than enough of his fine, manly jaw in the pages of Greenwich Time – but close analysis of the results shows some interesting patterns.

In the council elections, across the borough as a whole, the Labour vote share was 46 per cent. This delivered them nearly 80 per cent of the seats – ah, the joys of first-past-the-post!

The Labour vote rose by 4.7 per cent in the borough as a whole, though some wards in the east of the borough showed rises of up to 12.6 per cent. Such a rise is not that surprising given that 2006, the last time the council was fought, was a shockingly bad year for Labour in London.

Fascinatingly, however, all three wards covered by greenwich.co.uk – Greenwich West, Peninsula and Blackheath Westcombe - saw falls in the Labour vote.

Not huge falls, for sure – Labour dropped by 5.6 per cent in Peninsula, 2.6 per cent in Blackheath Westcombe, only 0.2 per cent in Greenwich West - but still very much against the trend. It does seem as if the residents of SE10 and SE3 are growing gradually more sceptical of the council’s general wonderfulness. Perhaps Mr Roberts was right to be cross with this website after all!

There does also seem to be a bit of an anti-Olympic vote. As well as the three wards around Greenwich Park, the two Woolwich wards, Common and Riverside, both very solidly Labour, also saw a drop in the Labour vote, against the trend. Woolwich Common is, of course, the place where the Olympic shooting events will be held. (The new Royal Arsenal development, with its influx of middle-class residents, will have been another factor in the Labour drop in Woolwich Riverside.)

The only other ward in the borough where the Labour vote fell a bit was Glyndon. There are no Olympics there, no bolshy websites. But Glyndon was the ward where Chris Roberts was standing.

Greenwich will be even more of a Labour fiefdom for the next few years, even though the majority of voters did not vote Labour. But relief may soon be at hand. One of the “political reform” proposals being batted around in the Lib-Con coalition talks this week was changing local council elections to a form of proportional representation. That feels like the kind of thing the Tories could give the Lib Dems to make up for opposing PR for Westminster.

Maybe, just maybe, the next few years will be the swansong of the Greenwich one-party state. Remember that, councillors, won’t you, in the hugely unlikely event that you’re tempted to behave arrogantly?

Labour vote share - 2010 council elections by ward

% Change on 2006
Abbey Wood 52.2 +12.3
Blackheath Westcombe 34.1 -2.6
Charlton 51 +5.7
Coldharbour 33.6 +6.2
Eltham N 34.9 +10.6
Eltham S 27.4 +7.9
Eltham W 51.1 +1.2
Glyndon 58.5 -0.9
Greenwich West 40.5 -0.2
Kidbrooke 46.1 +6.5
Middle Park 39.7 +1.6
Peninsula 40.1 -5.6
Plumstead 55.1 +5.1
Shooters Hill 47.8 +5.4
Thamesmead Moorings 59.7 +12.6
Woolwich Common 61.5 -0.4
Woolwich Riverside 56.5 -6.5
Total 46 +4.7

Seats: Labour 40, Conservative 11

Andrew Gilligan: How To Make The Most Of Your Vote

May 3, 2010 by  

This column - unlike, say, Greenwich Time - does not do party political propaganda. Since living in Greenwich, I've voted for all four parties contesting our three local council wards. I'm not going to tell you how to vote,  and I doubt you'd take any notice if I did. What I can do, however, is give you the information to decide how you can best use your votes to produce the effect you want.

If you are broadly satisfied with the council, the choice in any of our local wards is easy - give all three of your votes to Labour. If you are dissatisfied, and want change, you'll have noticed that all the other parties have, at various points, been sending round leaflets claiming that they are the only ones which can beat Labour, that it is a "two-horse race" and that voting for anyone else is a "wasted vote."

In a sense, each of them is right - depending on where they say it. In each of the three wards, a different opposition party has the best chance of defeating Labour. First, you need to know which ward you live in.

Greenwich West is anything west of the park and Naval College. This includes the town centre, West Greenwich, and the bits of SE8 that are in Greenwich borough, such as Millennium Quay. All three of this ward's councillors are currently Labour.

Greenwich West is a contest between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with the Conservatives some way in third.

Peninsula includes East Greenwich (between the railway line and the river) and GMV. The boundary starts at the Trafalgar Tavern, goes down Park Row, turns along Park Vista (including the houses on both sides), and then follows the railway line. All three of this ward's councillors are currently Labour - though, in a sign of potential vulnerability, one of the sitting Labour councillors, council leader Chris Roberts, has done a "chicken run" to a a safer ward.

Peninsula is probably a contest between Labour and the Greens, though the challenger here is less clear than in the other two wards.

Everything south of the railway line, east of the park and west of the A102 (M) is in Blackheath Westcombe. This includes nearly all of Maze Hill, the Blackheath Standard area, Westcombe Park, and the bits of Blackheath Village that fall in Greenwich borough. One of this ward's councillors is Labour and the other two are Conservatives.

Blackheath Westcombe is a contest between Labour and the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems a long way in third.

The ward map is here and you can check any specific address here.

The judgments I've made are based on the results at the 2006 council elections (and on no other elections - the Mayoral vote is not really comparable.) There are three councillors in each ward, so you have three votes. Last time, Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives each stood three candidates in each ward. The Greens only stood one candidate in each ward.

The percentage shares of the vote for each party in 2006 were as follows:

  Labour Lib Dem Conservative Green
Greenwich West 40.7% 31.9% 19.6% 7.9%
Peninsula 45.7% 21.7% 21.3% 10.9%
Blackheath Westcombe 36.7% 17% 39.1% 7.2%

Because the Greens only stood one candidate in each ward in 2006 (they are standing three in each ward this year), they limited their capacity to get votes and these figures probably understate their level of support. Many Green supporters would probably have cast more than one of their votes for the party had they been able to. There are also substantial differences between candidates of the same party - in Peninsula, Mary Mills got 250 more votes than her two Labour colleagues.

So I have also worked out each party's share based on average votes per candidate. They were as follows:

  Labour Lib Dem Conservative Green
Greenwich West 34.9% 27.3% 17.6% 20.2%
Peninsula 37.6% 17.9% 17.4% 27%
Blackheath Westcombe 32.1% 14.9% 34.2% 18.9%

One last thing - you can, of course, register a qualified endorsement of/ protest against the council by splitting your votes, giving some of them to Labour and some to the opposition.

Happy voting!

Andrew Gilligan: Local News – The “Greenwich Time” Way

April 28, 2010 by  

THE DAY that Greenwich Council's propaganda newspaper, Greenwich Time, announced the BRILLIANT news that this is to become a royal borough, it seemed only right to put a picture of the monarch on the front page.

No, silly, not that absurd interloper, the Queen. She was rightly relegated to page 3. Page 1 was reserved for the traditional anvil-jawed photo of our very own age-old symbol of pomp and majesty, council leader Chris Roberts. "Residents, businesses and the millions of visitors to Greenwich will share in our delight at this wonderful news," said King Chris (note the use of the royal we.) That issue was billed as a "souvenir edition." But for Mr Roberts, every edition of Greenwich Time is a souvenir!

Inspired by a discussion this week on greenwich.co.uk, I went through some recent back numbers of South London's very own Court Circular, to see just how many times Mr Roberts and his Labour chums have been puffing themselves at our expense. And the results from the international jury are now in.

Total number of mentions of Labour politicians: 98.
Total number of mentions of non-Labour politicians: 0.
Total number of pictures of Labour politicians: 29.
Total number of pictures of non-Labour politicians: 0.

Mr Roberts, by the way, features on the front page in 8 out of the 12 issues I examined, often with a picture. And when, by some terrible oversight, he is left out of the front-page story, he nearly always gets a column and picture inside ("I was surprised to be told today that I will receive an award as the Greenest Leader in South London...")

Other very special Greenwich Time stars include Greenwich West's own Maureen O'Mara - who must, on this tally, be a bit worried about holding her seat - and John Fahy, never pictured without a shovel in his hand. And we mustn't forget Nick Raynsford MP. He might be hard to find on the streets of Greenwich, but he makes up for it in Greenwich Time. Lib Dems? Tories? Greens? You what?

There isn't space here for a full list of all the Pravda-esque inanities of "the newspaper campaigning for a greater Greenwich," but the one that made me laugh the loudest was the fearless scrutiny by one Nick Day of the council's response to this winter's snow.

"The extended spell of severe weather must have been testing the council's resources to breaking point," wrote Mr Day. "I've been frankly amazed at the impressive response...I've often been quick to hold the council to account, so I must be equally quick to praise the grit (sorry!) and determination that officers and workers have been applying to their immense task."

You certainly should be sorry, Nick. Actually, I seem to remember that there was relatively little snow in south-east London by comparison with the rest of the country, and what there was was not cleared conspicuously effectively in Greenwich.

Some stories have been so good that Greenwich Time did them twice - like the one on falling bus crime and burglary figures, front-paged on both the 5th and 19th January ("Making you much SAFER") and based on a possibly dodgy comparison. The shortage of space created by the repetition of such stories was no doubt why other news - like the excoriation of Greenwich's social services as "shocking," "arrogant" and "very poor" by a High Court judge - never made it into Greenwich Time.

My tally of councillor and MP mentions, by the way, covers less than three months' worth of Greenwich Time, between 5 Jan and 23 March. Some vestigial respect for democratic decencies (or more likely the fear of court action for breaking electoral law) has kept the politicians out of the paper over the last month.

But, even during the election campaign, Greenwich Time has found a sneaky way to push the Labour message. The front page of the April 13 edition ("Spring in our step... Local businesses crack on despite the credit crunch") told everyone that the "green shoots" of recovery were back: "Confidence [in Greenwich businesses] is growing by the day... There is a realisation that they have survived the abyss... Some businesses have sadly disappeared, but far fewer than may have been feared," wrote the chair of the local chamber of commerce.

In the 1950s, as part of some dastardly imperial plot against the French, civil servants of the Colonial Office successfully persuaded the people of the Pacific island of Tanna to worship Prince Philip as a god. Portraits of the deity still hang in many a grass hut. Mr Roberts is clearly trying the same trick with what he believes to be the simple, credulous people of Greenwich. In me and others, the sheer clumsiness of the operation has had the opposite effect - making me automatically mistrust everything the council does, even if it is worthwhile.

The Tories are promising, if elected to the council, to close down Greenwich Time, which sounds like a good idea. This ridiculous apology for a newspaper has become the prime symbol of a council that treats its citizens like idiots.

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