Greenwich: A walk through Woolwich, past and present, with council leader Danny Thorpe

Greenwich: A walk through Woolwich, past and present, with council leader Danny Thorpe

You get where Danny Thorpe is coming from when he provides some information about the big new branch of Tescos next to General Gordon Square. “Winner of the 2014 Carbuncle Cup,” he remarks. “Provider of 400 jobs.” Later, he says that what he doesn’t want for Woolwich – or indeed the borough of Greenwich as a whole – is, “Gentrification. And by gentrification what I mean is sourdough bread, and all that stuff.”

Good luck with that, Councillor. But, even so, a distinction is established and a signature point made. Thorpe, who became leader of Greenwich after the borough elections in May, is a frank and public advocate of change; a regeneration man who’s not content to see the physical or social fabric of his borough atrophy in its own mildew. But his restlessness is rooted in a soil of history, attitudes and tastes that rather snortingly rejects some of the archetypal green shoots of three decades of London boom and growth – hipsterism, “conspicuous thrift”, that kind of thing. On the other hand, a big, bold Tescos, bringing employment and shoppers in their droves? Now you’re talking.

We met by Woolwich Arsenal station, termination point of that strand of the DLR that pegs out once it’s burrowed its way beneath the Thames. The square seems to be a site of both pride and impatience for Thorpe. Landscaped anew in 2011, just in time for the Olympics – Greenwich, it’s sometimes forgotten, was an Olympic borough –  it’s a big, flat space of grass, angled walkways and large water features surrounded by roads and blocky buildings of different vintage and styles. There’s a monster of a big screen in one corner, which Carbuncle Cup devotees might find vulgar. Beyond that, the centuries old Woolwich market, quiet on the Monday afternoon we walked by, gives off a first impression of being an enclave of resistance to modern times.

Walking and talking, Thorpe reminisces about the Woolwich he visited as a child: “My memories of it are of coming up here on the bus, the occasional trip on the ferry, discovering the Woolwich Foot Tunnel and life on the other side of the river.” His roots, and surely a killer trump card in any tangle with the forces of conservationism – perhaps especially, I would venture, the sort that proclaims “I’m With Corbyn” – is that he grew up on the Ferrier estate in Kidbrooke, a classic case of late Sixties/early Seventies system built public housing whose reputation had plumbed the sneering depths of “sink” stereotype within a couple of decades.

Its demolition and transformation into Kidbrooke Village, built by Berkeley Homes, began in 2009. Naturally, it and anyone who ever had a good word to say about it have been denounced by the usual bourgeois ideologues, notably the nitwit Architects for Social Housing. Thorpe, though, is undeterred: “I’ve seen lots of debates about regen and ballots and all sorts. So I just put out a photograph of a blackened out stairwell on the Ferrier and say, ‘This is where I lived.’ As a Labour politician, it’s not my job to defend that. I’m really sorry. You can have all the arguments you want about ballots and who wants to live there, but this was shit.”

Not all shit. “There were some absolutely amazing bits,” Thorpe says. “But let’s stop fantasising about what middle-class lefty people think it is like on some of our estates. Let’s get real about some of the realities and challenges of urban degeneration, and what it means to live in it. I grew up in a very, very workless estate and area. It was my school, really, that taught me there was life beyond the end of the road. I went to Thomas Tallis, which was an open, liberal, sort of crazy school, but it had teachers who worked really hard and who knew in the end that I needed to have my eyes opened, because if they didn’t do it there was no one else to.”

General Gordon Square is a regeneration work in progress for Thorpe, a patchwork of planning battles, big visions and small upgrades. An adjunct of the Tesco planning deal, done before his time as leader, was for a 27-storey tower to be erected close by. This would contain 800 dwellings if built, but only 161 “affordable” ones, most of which would be Sadiq Khan’s London Living Rent type and the rest merely discounted market sale homes. Nothing for social rent at all. The council turned down the application back in March. Attempts are being made to get the developer, Meyers, to rethink.

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Across the way, the Wilko store on Woolwich New Road has been bought by the council with a view to relocating its Waterfront leisure centre there from its current, more isolated, spot by the river. A new Sunday Market day has just got going too, and will operate until the end of the year (sourdough bread, presumably, banned). There is also an indoor market, which Thorpe declares “dead”. Why? “There were people living in there doing wholesale and all sorts that are illegal. There was a dead owl hanging from the roof, apparently to keep the rats out.”

Since 2014, there’s been a masterplan to redevelop the indoor market and create a new Spray Street Quarter, with developers St Modwen and Notting Hill doing the work. The plans include a cinema, a new public square and up to 650 homes, 35% of them affordable. Thorpe acknowledges that the plan is controversial, involving the demolition of a block of older buildings. A local protest group, Speak Out Woolwich, argues the familiar case that the social housing component will be too low and the number of small flats, too high.

Thorpe says there was also “quite incredible institutional resistance from officers,” who cited the income the council got from the indoor market. But a Street Feast food stadium has been given rent-free “meanwhile space” in there for two years, and  Thorpe enthuses about its rejuvenating effects. “Since they opened just over six months ago, they’ve had 30,000 visitors. Now some of those are repeat visitors, but they include older people coming in from Charlton and Eltham. They’ve come and sat down with their family, with their dogs, having a pint, and it’s making them feel differently about Woolwich and what they thought it was like.”

We move on towards the Thames and so into a kind of a transition zone between one piece of Woolwich undergoing refreshment and another, quite different one, with its own distinctive history and a future of a very modern kind. When it was churning out munitions for the great futility of World War I, the Royal Arsenal was called a “secret city“, with its own railway system and 80,000 workers. Last year, Greenwich announced plans to convert its cluster of buildings into what it called “a new creative district for London”, with a theatre, a 4,000 seat performance venue, studios and rehearsal spaces and a restaurant looking out across the river. Council officers have described the total useable floorspace as, “Comparable to, if not larger than the creative space provided in the South Bank Centre”. Thorpe’s predecessor as leader, Denise Hyland, said this Waterfront Woolwich of tomorrow will “cement Woolwich as a destination in its own right.”

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Before we reach the Arsenal space as it is now, there is a psychological border to negotiate, formally known as the A206. A new crossing area is being put in there to assist pedestrians and cyclists with the move between the Town Centre and the clean, new residential quarter to its north, another Berkeleys enterprise. Thorpe likes what they’ve done there: “In Woolwich in the late 1980s we had some of the worst unemployment in the country. When the riverfront died, it was broken and you had this derelict land here, a hidden world, all belonging to the Ministry of Defence. Berkeleys have completely transformed the place and used the heritage assets to very good effect to bring life to that history. You do have a whole new place here. And I suppose, in the gentrification sense, our biggest challenge is how we stop the road leading to a kind of them and us mentality.”

Also on the north side of the road there will be a Crossrail station, guaranteed to have a big “uplift” effect. How can Thorpe ensure that the change it brings – and has already brought, merely by being in the pipeline – will be for the better for, as it were, the many, not the few? He’s optimistic. “For most local people, Crossrail is still a very abstract concept,” he says. “Most don’t yet really understand what it’s going to do, but when you look at the passenger numbers here for the DLR station, they had almost met their annual target in about three months from April. That shows there is a huge latent demand for decent public transport. When Crossrail opens I think it is going to be genuinely transformational. We have to show that there will be opportunities on both sides of the road.”

And further afield too. Down by the widening neck of the Thames, beyond Peter Burke’s cast iron statues, Thorpe is happy to have his photo taken against the soaring backdrop of Canary Wharf, that beacon of booming London’s eastward expansion since the back of the 1980s.

“That looks like a world away,” he says as we contemplate its Emerald City outline.  “But I think the journey time from the Abbey Wood Crossrail station [at the eastern edge of Greenwich] to there is going to be seven minutes. Historically, we’ve talked about regeneration in terms of getting a job in construction, but now there could be thousands of jobs for Greenwich people seven minutes away at most. How do I build aspiration and say to our schools, actually we need to think bigger and beyond?”

Thorpe also sees Crossrail as enhancing the attractions of Greenwich for potential incomers. Like Newham across the water, the borough straddles Inner and Outer London both geographically and socially, an ambiguity reflected in its official designations: the London Government Act of 1963, which created the 32 boroughs, placed it in Inner London, but the Office for National Statistics defines it as an Outer London borough. “I think what we offer is that you can live in the city and occasionally feel like you live in the country,” Thorpe says.  “As a borough, that’s quite a unique selling point for people who want to have a bit more space. You can still buy a three bedroom house in Plumstead for a third of the price you’d pay in Brixton.”

He sees the expansion of City Airport as an asset for Greenwich too, even though separated from it by the Thames. “Some of those jobs and that business is coming to us now. We’ve got flight crews staying here. We’ve got a hotel here which is clearly used by travellers, cos you can see them their suitcases in the morning.”

Upbeat, energetic, can-do. But regeneration, that rather dirtied word, can be a tricky concept to sell. Resistance to change in London, its character and speed, has become more embedded in the political landscape, drawing strength from conservationists and Protest Left alike. No one should pretend that big redevelopment projects don’t create losers as well as winners. But is embracing growth through redevelopment and its inevitable, accompanying, cultural change, in part about a state of mind?

“Yes,” Thorpe replies. “And that’s about civic leaders telling the story. With Tesco, I’ve said, ‘This is how many jobs we’ve got and this is where the people doing them live’. I can tell you that plenty of the construction workforce on estates of ours being redeveloped by Lovells are people who live in the borough. The point, really, about regeneration is that you’ve got to have some of those arguments. You’ve got to be the one who says what this is and who it is for. You can’t just hand the argument over to people who are already living in four-bedroom houses. There is a new kind of civic leadership growing in London. We are talking, as London leaders, about how resilience is the name of the game in the current climate and being clear about what the offer is, because there are so many people now willing to chuck stones and have a go, especially with Twitter and stuff. It can be quite daunting.”

Thorpe doesn’t name names, other than to say that Waltham Forest’s Clare Coghill, like him one of the capital’s newer council leaders and equally upfront about her big vision for her borough, has been a very supportive colleague. But a list of other advocates for development and what Sadiq Khan calls “good growth” who conspicuously strive to nurture local support for it might include Barking & Dagenham’s Darren Rodwell, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and Camden’s Georgia Gould. Thorpe readily describes himself as, “One of a new generation who are up for having the community conversation – taking people on the journey. That sense of local people needing greater engagement and accountability at this time is quite strong.”

He describes visits to Plumstead where, he says, “A lot of people felt very neglected and that the council wasn’t interested in them. It’s about being there in the room and having the conversation, so you’re doing it in a genuine way. That’s time intensive, you know, but it’s about a partnership between us and the communities that elected us. It’s community development principles writ large.”

Pursuing those principles is not straightforward. It can mean disappointing people you are unlikely to persuade and fighting battles you cannot fully win. Arguing for renewal often means bumping up against divisions between age groups, with older people “absolutely” less keen on it, Thorpe says. He is pleased that Greenwich has been allocated enough money by Mayor Khan to help fund the building of 588 new council homes – not quite the 750 the council bid for, but not bad – but “disappointed” that the Mayor has “called in” two housing schemes the council’s planning committee rejected in August, meaning that he might push them through against Thorpe’s wishes. The Mayor’s decision was partly based on Greenwich’s lack of progress with housing delivery in recent years (despite the huge Greenwich Peninsula scheme, itself hit by the recent market slowdown). Yes, Thorpe wants to speed overall housing supply up. But he also needs to carry local residents with him. He says he shares the committee’s view that the new buildings proposed for the two sites would be too big.

Other “fun stuff”, as he wryly calls it, includes a cruise ship terminal given the go-ahead for construction at Enderby Wharf on the Peninsula, which Thorpe would like made greener and, on a related theme, the Silvertown Tunnel, which he says, “I don’t think anyone’s ever happy with.” But: “There’s a fundamental question about whether a tunnel built in 1897 for some horses to go through [the Blackwall] is suitable for 2018 forms of transport, and the answer is absolutely not.” Thorpe says that Greenwich is continuing to seek “appropriate mitigation” to constrain growth in private car use through the borough simply to use the new tunnel to head elsewhere. “Clearly, the tolling and stopping generating new traffic is the number one aim. We’ve been putting that on Heidi’s radar,” he says, referring to deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander. “Our line has always been that we’re happy to support new river crossings as long as public transport is integrated into them.”

Such are the cases that must be made and balances that must be struck by any London borough seeking a progressive path through those perennial but lately more aggravated London conflicts between between continuity and change, old ways and new. Speaking again of the Ferrier, Thorpe, though glad the “shit” housing blocks have gone and full of praise for the “phenomenal” new public spaces there, fondly recalls things about the estate he liked when growing up. “The most amazing thing about the Ferrier, which has been maintained throughout, is the sense of community. That was very, very strong. We used to have these great squares where everyone played. The Wat Tyler Park was a place of action and excitement. Not always the right type! But it was a kind of placemaking space. There was always something going on. There was a fantastic chip shop. There were community facilities that were for everyone.”

Maintaining the old spirit while seizing opportunities for renewal and helping residents to reach out and seize them too, is the name of the new leader’s game. Greenwich might have a peninsula, but that is not the same thing as being an island. “One thing about Greenwich,” Thorpe remarks, “is that it’s been quite insular for years. We’ve never really realised how much we can do, not only for our residents but also for the city as a whole.”

Update, 14 November 2018: The day after this article was published, on 13 November 2018, the Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal scheme was abandoned by its prospective developer. Report from the 853 blog.

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