Interview with Len Duvall, GLA Member for Greenwich & Lewisham
February 2, 2009 by Adam Bienkov
Len Duvall OBE – Greater London Assembly Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, and former head of Greenwich Council.
“Greenwich town centre isn’t my manor,” says Len Duvall, the borough’s man on the London Assembly. “I’m a Woolwich boy.”
We’re sitting in City Hall, and talking about the town downriver where he lives. The son of two generations of artillery gunners, Duvall was born and raised near the Arsenal and grew up as industry in the area drifted away.
“It’s a place I know well,” he tells me. “I used to hop along the embankment there and play in what was one of the biggest adventure playgrounds going, the ex-Arsenal site.”
Eventually Len’s playground made way for the concrete high rises of modern Thamesmead. Designed for the car, no railways were ever built into its plans and many of the town’s roads did not even have pavements beside them. So while older, more connected parts of the city were able to survive the loss of heavy industry, this new train-free part of town was isolated and vulnerable from the start.
“Of course there is a problem with isolation there.” Duvall admits “But it has always taken more to create a job in the South East generally than anywhere else in London and the reason for that is transport. South East London has always been the Cinderella of transport and that’s why we’ve had to fight for what we’ve got.”
While it’s true to say that the town centre and the Peninsula have benefited from the links brought by the DLR and the Jubilee Line, other parts of the borough have arguably been left behind.
“Look, I live in Woolwich and I don’t want it to be the poorer cousin of the rest of the borough” he insists “but getting what we have got hasn’t been a given. We’ve had to fight for every bit of it and I’ve still got the scars from that.”
For Duvall those fights have led to the recent opening of the new DLR station at Woolwich and to the promise of Crossrail to come. But while these developments will undoubtedly boost some parts of the borough, other parts will not necessarily get their share of the growth,
“Of course it was inevitable that the development at the Dome and the Peninsula would draw resources into it,” he says.
“But if you want any kind of extra infrastructure you have to advocate for it, and I don’t think Boris quite gets that.”
“I think that what Boris did in cancelling the Thames Gateway Bridge was criminal”
He’s talking now about the Thames Gateway Bridge. The crossing, which would have linked Thamesmead to North London, was supported by four of the five borough councils directly affected. However, with the planning inspector, green campaigners and Bexley council all opposed to it, Boris decided to pull out. The decision has left Duvall and Greenwich Council angry:
“I think that what Boris did in cancelling the Thames Gateway Bridge was criminal” he says.
“There was a lot of support for the bridge, but there were two or three roads in Bexley which were opposed to it. Boris could have dealt with those issues but he didn’t face up to it. And you know one of the defining things about being a leader is being able to say no to your mates and so far Boris just hasn’t been able to do that. ”
Yet Len is otherwise warm in his praise for the Mayor. He says that unlike some he “never believed the stuff about him being a racist toff” and tells me how impressed he has been with his work rate.
“He’s definitely hard working,” he says. “I’m not sure he started out like that and I think that was one of the criticisms against him, that he was ‘lazy Boris’ but he’s certainly putting the hours in now.”
Despite this praise, his relationship with Boris has not been an easy one. Appointed by Ken Livingstone to chair the Police Authority, Len’s position was handed over to Boris Johnson last year. Following his now famous intervention in the Damian Green case, Boris and Len very publicly came to blows. The result of these exchanges, was an official complaint made by Duvall to the Standards committee.
This complaint, which has caused Len to come under criticism himself, is still under investigation. But despite this ongoing controversy, he insists that they remain on good terms.
“The thing about Boris, is that he always wants to be liked” he says laughing.
“He wants to know that we can still talk to each other. You’d think that he would be more worried about this investigation, but he’s worrying that we can still get on.”
For now though, Duvall’s main task is in representing his constituency. And in the run-up to the Olympics, what happens in the borough is increasingly coming into the public eye. I ask him whether he thinks people are right to be worried about the Olympics.
“Of course there are legitimate issues about having the Olympics at Greenwich Park and I think the Council need to work harder at addressing those.”
“Greenwich Park isn’t just for Greenwich residents”
“But I think some of those have to be challenged. And the issue is that Greenwich Park isn’t just for Greenwich residents. It’s a London-wide park, it’s a Royal Park, and it’s an international park.”
I ask him what he thinks about the press coverage that the issue has received so far.
“I think we have to be careful about having an Andrew Gilligan knee-jerk reaction to it” he says, referring to articles in the Evening Standard and elsewhere. “Because if you look at where it happened in Hong Kong, there was disruption but now the site is back in action.”
“And look, I don’t live in Greenwich, but I use the park a lot and the last thing that I want to do is to wreck it. Politicians don’t get up wanting to make things worse for people.”
As I gather my things together, I turn and take a look at the pictures on his office walls. Among the campaign posters for the Labour party and the Anti Nazi League is a framed picture of Greenwich and the Thames Waterfront.
For those of us living in the borough, this is just the everyday view of our ‘manor’, but for the rest of the world it will become one of the major views of the UK.
Quite what having it as a backdrop will mean for the flower beds of Greenwich Park remains to be seen. But beyond their margins lies a wider borough far more in need of Duvall’s attention and care.