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.