I’m back on greenwich.co.uk – but don’t worry, Cllr Roberts. To adapt the famous old Dogs Trust slogan, this column is just for Christmas, not for life. Over the next two weeks, in an exciting change from my usual role, I’ll be doing my best to spread some festive cheer, to celebrate some of the things that made us all happy in 2012.
(No, not the Greenwich Park Olympics – I promise to carry on being rude about those. If you want to get all dopey about The Summer Like No Other, may I recommend the other 99.9% of columnists?)
And come to think of it, spreading festive cheer doesn’t actually have to involve being nice at all. Something that’s made me and a lot of other people in Greenwich pretty cheerful this year has been the palpable shrivelling of Frank Dowling’s industrial catering empire.
At the beginning of the decade, Frank’s Inc Group was Britain in 1897 – a mighty imperial power, controlling all the key real estate: the Trafalgar Tavern, the Spread Eagle, the Admiral Hardy, the Coach and Horses, the Bar du Musee, the George delicatessen, the Greenwich Tavern, the Inc Bar, the old Cricketers. The shipping lanes of SE10 were constantly patrolled by Frank’s fleet of waiting staff, ferrying lukewarm £24.95 cod goujons from his secret central kitchens beneath McDonald’s (OK Frank, I know you didn’t have a central kitchen – but it certainly tasted like it).
By the end of 2012, as empires go, Frank has become rather more of a Belgium. His Central Greenwich possessions have been reduced from nine to four (the Trafalgar, the Spread, the Admiral Hardy, and the old Inc Bar which has just reopened). The Bar du Musee, the latest to fall, stands empty - a forlorn monument to past, er, glories.
Like many emperors, Greenwich’s Favourite Restaurateur was weakened by a series of disastrous military engagements: with health and safety inspectors, and me, among others. The courts were unkind enough to fine Inc Group more than £20,000 (including costs) after the Safety Police found the floor in the Inc Brasserie had collapsed, leaving a large number of holes in the Dowling operation (I could have told you that for nothing, guys!) Then there was his campaign of abusive threats against yours truly – the latest one while I and a friend were drinking in a Greenwich pub. As I pointed out to Frank at the time, it wasn’t terribly smart to do that in front of a witness.
There’s also that equally traditional imperial problem, overstretch. Frank’s spent an awful lot of money opening new venues in the City, Canary Wharf, and other places where people of taste and discretion, like investment bankers, gather. Alas, the reviews have been even more dreadful than the customers (“astonishingly, almost comically bad in every respect… the staff appeared to have had no training at all… the bravest plan might be to close quickly and start again,” said the Evening Standard of his City outlet, Madison.)
Another hated colonial power that treats Greenwich a bit like Portugal treated Angola delivered us some more good news this year. In October, Greenwich Hospital finally had to abandon its awful plans to turn the market into a copy of Stratford bus station. Partly, of course, this was because the owners of the Cutty Sark have already built a 1980s bus station around their ship – and who wants to be second?
Mostly, though, it was, I believe, the direct result of a campaign waged by local residents and this website in 2009, a rare and welcome victory for democracy. By closely examining the shoddiness of the scheme, and collecting thousands of petition signatures against it, we helped gee up the council to refuse the Hospital planning permission. I, for one, wasn’t expecting that at all – with Nick Raynsford MP and the Greenwich Society backing the redevelopment, it all looked like one of those classic Greenwich stitchups.
Although the refusal was overturned on appeal it was, in retrospect, the key moment, because it delayed the plan long enough to make it unviable. The redevelopment centred on a 100-room hotel. The very size of the thing hinted at the fragile economics of the scheme.
And in the year or so which the appeal added on to the scheme’s timescale, several other new hotels in less sensitive sites were given planning permission in Greenwich, fatally undermining the market for the proposed market hotel. The Hospital had no choice, in the end, but to throw in the towel. Hurrah!
Don’t get too happy, though. It turns out that one of the rival hotels will be run by… Frank Dowling. Fittingly enough for the “Home Of Time,” the Greenwich dial in 2012 kept on turning between good and bad.