In conversation with Nick Raynsford, MP for Greenwich and Woolwich
December 22, 2012 by Rob Powell
In the second of our end-of-year interviews, Greenwich.co.uk speaks to Greenwich & Woolwich MP, Nick Raynsford about the past year and a look ahead to the future.
Nick, what has your highlight of the year been?
2012 has been an extraordinary year for Greenwich. It started in the depths of winter with snow on the ground and the King’s Troop coming into Woolwich. A remarkable and very impressive occasion where people turned out in huge numbers to welcome this rather grand ceremonial init from the British army and it reinforced the military connections with Woolwich.
We than had the Queen’s arrival for the opening of the Cutty Sark and the confirmation of the Royal Borough status. Terrible day, poured with rain but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm.
And then of course we had the Olympics and Paralympics and, as you know I’ve been a strong supporter of this for many years and I know not everyone has agreed but I thought it was a triumph. It showed Greenwich as its very best. The town centre looked great. The equestrian events were magical and the Modern Pentathlon allowed the world to see the last Olympic event at Greenwich before the closing ceremony.
It was very impressive for Greenwich and will last in the memory of people for a very long time to come. It was an amazing year and I will look back on it for the rest of my life as one of the highpoints of my time as MP for Greenwich.
There was of course controversy over the use of Greenwich Park – how do you think it performed as a venue?
I think it was one of the most attractive of all the Olympic venues and loads of people have said this, not just people in Greenwich or even the UK but international visitors just felt this was a spectacular location. The park looked beautiful and there was extraordinary vistas down through the naval college and across the river Thames.
The overhead camera which went from the Wolfe statue at the top of the hill all the way across to the Isle of Dogs produced some quite wonderful overhead views, not just of the equestrian event but also of the lcocation. It encapsulated the grandeur and beauty of Greenwich and that was beamed all around the world.
Do you think the differences of opinion, sometimes expressed very strongly, that existed will leave any lasting divisions within Greenwich?
I hope that people, even those that were opposed to it, will recognise that this was a great event for Greenwich and it didn’t actually cause lasting damage to the park. Yes, there’s been grumbles about the length of time it’s taken to get all the kit down and get the grass re-turfed and so forth but actually nature is a wonderful healer.
My guess is that the park next summer will look more spectacular than ever and ultimately it’s been one year that may have involved interruption in people’s access to the park but it’s brought all sorts of wider benefits to Greenwich and the park will once again be fully accessible next year so I hope people will get over it and say, “yes, we didn’t agree but it wasn’t as disastrous as we thought it was going to be.”
With so many events happening during this year, will it be followed by an inevitable lull as it would be impossible to top 2012?
Well one thing I didn’t mention was of course the opening of the cable car which was another great event and that points to the peninsula where progress has been seriously slowed down due to the recession but there’s now a real hint that things are going to move fairly rapidly.
There’s new Chinese investment coming in and it seems likely that we’ll see a start on several thousand new homes on the peninsula within the next year and that will be hugely important because we need housing desperately in London and in Greenwich so there will be things in the years ahead to celebrate as well as what we can look back on.
So you’re optimistic about the cable car, because statistics seem to suggest a big drop off in usage after the Olympics?
The figures are extraordinary. From the moment it opened until the end of the Olympics, it took a million passengers. That was masively more than anyone expected, it was hugely popular but as a summer attraction.
Since then, the numbers have plummeted because it’s not really very sensible for normal travel use though I did find myself using it unexpectedly. A few Sundays ago when I came from a conference in Kosovo, I got back in to City Airport at half past eight on a Sunday evening and I got the news the Jubilee Line was down. For me, living in North Greenwich, my journey back from City Airport is usually very easy. I thought I was going to have to go down to Woolwich and get the bus but no, I was reminded the cable car had opened so there was I complete with my luggage getting on the Emirates Air Line to fly over the Thames to complete my return journey. So, it has some benefits for regular users.
Should it be brought within the Travelcard?
Well it’s within the Oyster card system but you have to pay a premium and I think that’s almost inevitably going to continue. The thing I think is good news is that the price is not massively disproportionate whereas you pay a huge amount to go on the London Eye and indeed to walk over to O2. Actually the £3.20 to use the cable car, so long as you have an Oyster Card, isn’t in my view unreasonable.
What I’m really quite excited by is the possibility which is being discussed of an extension going on to Canary Wharf because that would make an enormous difference in terms of accessibility to the O2 and to North Greenwich. I think it could well be another attractive option.
Could the cable car be the first of many?
I wouldn’t say “many” but it could be the first of two.
Another big event of the year was the reopening of the Cutty Sark, which has had mixed reviews having been named as best new tourism project but also given the carbuncle cup for ugly design. Now it’s open, what’s your view of the restoration?
If you go down in to the dry dock underneath the cutty sark and see it as it’s now presented it’s quite amazing and this is a view that nobody has ever had before so I think it’s a success. I know there are questions about whether the glass cover that protects that dry dock is appropriate but actually what it does is it creates a quite wonderful environment in the dry dock where people can see what is the most defining characteristic of that ship, its very elegant hull which meant it was very fast.
What do you think of the Greenwich Pier buildings that opened opposite the Cutty Sark in 2012?
The concept of two buildings with a gap between them which would give the access to the pier did not seem to me to be a bad idea when it was first suggested in 1997. At that stage the design was rather more elegant and I’m afraid the current design is disappointing.
It’s slightly larger than it should have been and am afraid that characteristic of some of the retailers who want to put garish publicity on the outside is not in my view appropriate in Greenwich. So I have some criticisms but I think back to that old previous structure, that ghastly tin shed that was there from the 60s, and I’m not going to say I’m sorry about that disappearing.
Has the iconic view from across the river been damaged?
Not really, providing there isn’t a large neon sign.
What’s your view on the proposed closure of Lewisham A&E?
My feelings about the health service are firstly that it was was not appropriate or necessary to appoint a Trust Special Administrator. I think that the old body, South London Healthcare Trust, was doing a good job in improving standards and I’ve seen a lot of evidence of improvement at the Queen Elizabeth and I think they should have been given more help and support to continue that work rather than the whole thing be thrown up in the air and a whole new series of proposals brought forward.
I secondly think that the proposed closure of the A&E at Lewisham is a disaster. It will put enormous pressure on the other A&Es. Already the QE’s A&E is working at very near capacity – working very well but at near capacity – and I can’t see how they can take much additional pressure and the same goes for King’s.
So I am just very sceptical about the proposal to close the A&E. I think there is some logic in linking the Queen Elizabeth with Lewisham, demographically the areas have a lot in common and there was always something slightly odd about the link between Greenwich and Bromley which are a long way away from each other and are a very different characteristic.
So I’m not totally opposed to the Trust Special Administrator’s recommendations. I think are good elements there but I do feel the proposed closure of the A&E at Lewisham is a fatal flaw and will generate huge public opposition.
What do you say to people who are worried that the proposed Silvertown link tunnel would make congestion and air quality on the peninsula even worse, and that the proposed tolling would simply push some drivers along to Rotherhithe instead?
Well air-quality is already absolutely ghastly because traffic backed up at the approach to Blackwall. When you’ve got vehicles standing in a queue, all emitting fumes, you’ve got worse problems with air-pollution then if you’ve got relatively free flowing traffic
So I am a supporter of Silvertown because it will relieve the pressure but this is only in my view acceptable if you introduce tolling at Blackwall, and in doing so you can keep control over the volume of traffic in the area and you can adjust the toll if it looks as though it’s becoming too attractive.
There is a very difficult question about where you stop tolling. At the moment, Blackwall suffers because Dartford is tolled but Blackwall isn’t so those people who want to avoid paying the toll use the Woolwich Ferry or Blackwall and that is adding to pressure there. I think it is overwhelmingly sensible to toll Blackwall as well as Dartford but in the long term I suspect we’ll probably have to introduce a toll at Rotherhithe as well but I think that will be a step too far in the short term and my guess is that as long as the tolls are managed sensibly you can avoid putting undue pressure on Rotherhithe at the time that tolls are introduced at Blackwall.
The Greenwich Market redevelopment is not now going ahead. You were a supporter of the scheme – do you think it’s a loss to the town that the redevelopment and the new boutique hotel won’t now happen?
I think it is a loss. The good news is that the market is safe, there’s no question that the market is going to continue and, as I remind people that when this whole saga began many years ago, it was against a background of advisors to Greenwich hospital suggesting closing the market and filling the interior area with luxury housing which all of us objected to.
So I think there has been some losses in the abandonment of the scheme; the hotel is one, not doing more sensitive replacement of the post war infill in King William walk which doesn’t really fit very well into the Joseph Kay streetscape – that would have been improved by the scheme. But the overriding positive is that the market is safe.
Lord Adonis said on Twitter recently after attending a launch event for the Greenwich Free School, that you were a supporter of the free school. Does that reflect your view of the new free school?
I went to the free school two or three weeks ago. I was very impressed with the atmosphere, the ethos, the clear commitment to delivering high-quality education and the fact that this was a genuinely mixed group of pupils. The worry that many people have about free schools is that they will simply attract relatively privileged groups who are looking for a better education for their children then might otherwise be available. That would be socially divisive. That is not the case, as far as I can see, at the free school and I think the quality of what they’re doing there is very impressive. That is ultimately the most important thing.
We’ve got to have high standard education for pupils in Greenwich. The population is beginning to rise, there is predominantly pressure at primary school level at the moment but that’s going to extend to secondary schools before long so a wider range of secondary schools meeting a full range of needs and providing high quality education is vital.
Next year we’ll see the UTC open on the former Greenwich training company site near the Thames Barrier. That will be a further important addition to the range of educational opportunities.
I mentioned that Lord Adonis had tweeted about you. Lots of local MPs are now on Twitter but there seems to be one notable omission – do you have any plans to join?
I’m afraid not. This is an old dog who is too old to change tricks and I shall continue to follow more traditional and old-fashioned ways of communicating.
Have you decided whether you plan to stand at the next general election?
No I haven’t decided and I’ve always taken the view that that’s a decision I need to take in view of two things. Firstly, whether the electorate feel that I’m capable of doing a good job and secondly whether I feel myself I’m capable of doing it and if I begin to feel that I’m not as fit and lively as I have been in the past, then maybe I’ll take a decision to stand down but at the moment I’m feeling pretty fit and no decision has been taken but I will in the next year or so reach a view.
Thanks to Nick Raynsford and thanks for some of the questions which were submitted via Twitter and Facebook.