Could a car-free London start in Charlton?

Did you know yesterday (Tuesday) was World Car Free Day? Bet you didn’t. The idiot over the road whose car alarm has just gone off certainly didn’t. If you live in or near Greenwich, though, you’ll have probably noticed one offshoot from it, Greenwich Car Free Day:

Every year, Greenwich celebrates a Car Free Day, where residents leave their cars at home and enjoy a day of fun activities and entertainment. (more)

Except it doesn’t seem to be happening this year, and what really happened was that cars were simply diverted away from a couple of streets in the centre of SE10 for a few hours on a Sunday. Still, it was a good thing for Greenwich Council to do, and it’s disappointing to see it’s apparently been canned this year – I imagine Run to the Beat (which necessitates another closure) and seemingly endless and unpredictable roadworks have seen to that.


But now the car-free movement has inspired a new group – London Carfree. I went up to Islington last week to hear more. It wants to wants to create London’s first car-free community, partly inspired by a new district of Freiburg, southern Germany, called Vauban.

Cars aren’t actually banned from Vauban, it’s stellplatzfrei – “free from parking spaces”. If you drive, you have to go at walking pace, and you can only stop to pick up or drop off, parking is officially banned. If you do own a car, you’re obliged to use a parking space which costs €17,500 to rent – thought to be the subsidy that car owners get from their use of public roads. Car club vehicles are in plentiful supply, though.

The result, Vauban’s backers say, is a more pleasant place to live, where children can play in the streets and people take up cycling as a means to get around. Other forms of car-free community are possible – some ban cars altogether, others bar through journeys.

There was an interesting discussion afterwards – one gentleman voiced fears about losing the “passive surveillance” supposedly provided by motorists, another asked how people without cars did their weekly shop. You can probably imagine the reponse the second question got.

But how could this work in London? Developers have always wrestled with cars here – from the great motorway schemes of the 1960s (of which the Blackwall Tunnel approach is a result) to the disastrous seperation of cars from people in Thamesmead’s earlier phases. The 1980s pedestrianisation of Woolwich town centre made it a scary place to be at night, more recent developments such as Greenwich Shopping Park just made congestion worse. Other schemes have just paid lip-service to the ideal – the Greenwich Millennium Village is touted as being “low-car”, but why has it got a great big traffic jam through its centre each morning?

Carfree London’s response to that is to develop homes with the huge number of Londoners who do not own a car in mind – at least 1.5 million, and a majority of residents in most inner London boroughs. (At least 40% of Greenwich and Lewisham residents do not own a vehicle.) So where could such a community be? I thought locally – most of the Greenwich Peninsula is pretty much answered for now, as are spots in Woolwich, Lewisham and Deptford, and the Kidbrooke regeneration (which could have been an ideal site) is now under way. And, to be frank, with the contempt London’s politicians have for it, a carfree Thamesmead sounds like a punishment than an opportunity.


Then I realised a solution could be on my doorstep (almost literally), in an area that’s clogged with traffic. Let me introduce you to what’s technically called Land To The Rear Of 40 Victoria Way, otherwise known as “the old Thorn Lighting plant” – which is actually right at the back of the site. It’s a long, long story, and as far as I know it’s not merited any local coverage before.

These days based in Borehamwood and Spennymoor, County Durham, Thorn was (and still is) one of the country’s leading specialist lamp manufacturers, and maintained its London operation at what was the Victoria Trading Estate from 1961, advertising its Atlas and Mazda brands on the side facing the Blackwall Tunnel approach. But the Charlton branch was wound up in the mid-1980s, and the site never found a permanent occupier in the years after – its side entrance on Dupree Road bricked up, the back gates on Fairthorn Road left rusting to this day.

The front of the old trading estate, on Victoria Way, remains in use – it’s currently used by Squirrel Storage, while another occupier, Kerry Logistics, recently moved to Dartford. Some of the land has been used as a car park when Charlton Athletic play at The Valley, 10 minutes’ walk away. The Squirrel site is the last bit of “industry” left on Victoria Way, the lower stretches of which used to be dominated by the Johnson and Phillips/ Delta cable works.


History lesson over. In 2005, Galliard Homes applied to build homes and offices on the Thorn site, outraging neighbours in Dupree Road, Gurdon Road and Fairthorn Road, who understandably didn’t want a huge development looming over their neat terraces. Another bone of contention was Galliard’s plan to use tiny Fairthorn Road as an access point for the development – not the brightest of ideas when the road’s been a sleepy backwater since the day it was built (traffic used to enter Thorn via Victoria Way). Greenwich Council refused planning permission, after advice from then-mayor Ken Livingstone, and finally, so did the government (291KB PDF) after a planning inspector was brought in on appeal.

In 2007, Galliard came back with a modified scheme. They’ve already pre-sold properties under the name “The Constellation”, without actually obtaining permission to do anything – apparently early publicity for the proposal didn’t actually mention the word “Charlton”, with its website currently implying the site is on the Greenwich Peninsula. And that’s where the trail goes cold. Two years on, the application has not been progressed any further.

A whole swathe of local addresses, in Blackheath, Charlton and Greenwich, are listed as being involved in a consultation in October 2008. My address is on there, and I hadn’t heard anything, although Greenwich Council’s planning department says I should have done. I certainly hadn’t seen any notices on lamp posts, the usual sign something’s happening. It’s not the first time I’ve not heard anything about a big planning application on my doorstep, and I don’t think it’ll be the last. (While this is probably a Royal Mail issue, it does highlight once again how poor communication is between the council and the people who pay for it.)


Anyhow, here’s what’s proposed, according to Greenwich planning:

Demolition of existing warehouse building (9,625 sq.m.) and the erection of a part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6 storey building comprising 209 flats (99 x 1-beds; 63 x 2-beds; 44 x 3-beds and 3 x 4-beds), three live/work units (299.3 sq.m.) together with offices (469.1 sq.m.) and associated basement car-parking for 169 vehicles and the provision of external landscaping.

That’s parking for 169 vehicles, all meant to use Fairthorn Road. Which, I repeat, is tiny. Because the Thorn site will be separated from the Victoria Way side of the old trading estate, there’ll be no access there. A ramp would be built to link Fairthorn Road with the new development, risking the character of this quiet corner of Charlton. All in all it’s a very closed-off corner of the world, surrounded by an industrial estate, two railway lines, the Blackwall Tunnel approach and the backs of houses, with only one way in or out. On its own, it’s hard to see the Thorn site looking like a desirable place to live.

The present economic climate means it may be a while before we see movement on this land. It’s likely, however, that sooner or later, this old industrial land will fall to redevelopment. So perhaps we should be a little more proactive with this? Can’t this site become London’s first car-free community? If the whole Victoria Trading Estate becomes available – and that would involve moving Squirrel Storage to somewhere suitable – this could become a serious option.


The full site is fantastically located for public transport – midway between Charlton and Westcombe Park rail stations and with a whole heap of bus services nearby. Opening up the whole site for redevelopment also means Victoria Way can also be used for access, taking pressure off Fairthorn Road. It’d double the number of homes that could be built – but would also mean the site would be big enough for a proper community where people took precedence over cars, giving them – and their neighbours – a more peaceful lifestyle.

What do you think? Clearly it’s only an initial thought, and one that’s partly borne out of bafflement with what’s going on at the old Thorn site. If you know any more about the comings and goings there, I’d be grateful to hear it. One day, though, that land is likely to see homes built on it – and it’s time we seriously thought about the kind of thing we want to see there, and how we’re going to achieve it, instead of leaving it to developers with their eyes on making a quick killing.

If you want further details of Galliard Homes’ proposals for the Thorn site in Charlton, use use the Greenwich planning department’s search page and look for reference 07/1725/F.


  1. Last time I checked 40% wasn’t defined as a majority….

    For me a car is an essential part of life if I ever want my children to spend much time with their grandparents. They live 180+ miles away and to get there on public transport is just completely impractical. I do try not to use my car for short local journeys unless absolutely necessary. Although obviously now U have a car, “if it’s raining” equates to absolutely necessary, which of course it isn’t.

  2. Indeed, 40% isn’t a majority, which is why I said “most inner London boroughs”. It’s over 50% in (from memory) Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Southwark. It’s over 40% in Greenwich, Lewisham, Wandsworth and Hammersmith & Fulham. Can’t remember which band Islington fell into.

    For a lot of people, car-free communities wouldn’t be practical. But for a huge proportion of Londoners, they would be – and they aren’t being catered for. Would a car club suit you at all?

  3. Often wondered what was going on with the Thorn site. Have forwarded info to Ian as he worked there for a fair few years, well he worked for Thorn for about 20 years in total but obviously not all in Vic Way.

  4. I’ve been pondering (but clearly not yet posting – what a failure my blog is turning out to be!) writing about my experience in recent months of attempting to go ‘car-free’ at the outer edge of an outermost London borough.

    I won’t steal my own thunder and/or bore you now by going into full detail, but essentially it boils down to two lists: things you can do out here without a car and things you can’t.

    (a) Travel to and from just about anywhere in Greater London between about 5am and about 12.30am, with varying degrees of speed and directness.
    (b) Do (a) affordably.
    (c) Enjoy pretty good flexibility and frequencies of service on the various types of public transport.

    (1) Travel very far beyond the boundary of Greater London with anything like the operational hours, flexibility or frequency on offer within.
    (2) Get anywhere unserved by TfL buses for anything like a reasonable price.
    (3) Leave central London much after midnight and still be able to get home without needing a taxi*/walking for 40 minutes.
    (4) Travel a few miles north, across the Thames, without spending around two hours on public transport, or being restricted to shopping hours, high fares and hourly frequencies via the sole Dartford Crossing-using bus between Bluewater and Lakeside.

    I think that’s the gist of it. In typical everyday terms, the actual day-to-day lists I’ve encountered in my months of genuinely embracing the ‘car only when necessary’ approach have pretty much boiled down to – Can: do most stuff, Can’t: go to visit my parents a few miles outside Greater London.

    Moving towards London, as you know I’ve been considering doing to Woolwich, would resolve (3) and (4), and make (1) and (2) less relevant as all sides of us would become TfL-served. Still wouldn’t resolve getting to my parents’, but if it meant we sold the car then I’m sure the savings on running it could fund a taxi from their nearest station or something!

    All of which looks like the recipe for, if not the entire contents of, a vaguely interesting post or two for Bexcentric, but possibly an excessively long and somewhat off-topic comment for 853. Sorry!

    [* I’ve still never (as far as I can remember) used a taxi in Greater London, in all my years living in or near it. I don’t mean this to sound offensive to those who do use taxis, but to me personally it always feels like the lazy/cop-out/wasteful option, compared to the delights (and I do mean delights) of poring over TfL’s wonderful spider bus maps and finding a way to do the same trip by bus instead of calling a cab. It does mean we always end up leaving London by just after midnight, though!]

  5. While a car club might well be a sensible option, I’m afraid I’ve fallen into the lazy trap of the convenience of having my own car now. And realistically, while we can afford to own one we probably will. It just makes life with two toddlers that much easier. And I need all the help I can get with that at the moment!

  6. Hmmm, you are doing even less consultation that Galliards did. When did you run your idea past the residents of Fairthorn Road and Gurdon Road, many of whom do not have English as their first language and/or do not have access to the web at home? The fumes and air and noise pollution for people in their gardens on the south side of Gurdon Road, from your new car park, would be awful. Not to mention loss of privacy. There would be arc-lights on all night – believe me, what you are suggesting would result in a drastic deterioration in quality of life for people on that side of Gurdon Road, which includes a lot of retired people.

    Anyway, Galliards have bought the site, and I am sure that they would make more money out of building dwellings on it than running it as a car park. I seem to remember that it would cost at least a million to demolish the old warehouse.

  7. Hmmm, you are doing even less consultation that Galliards did. When did you run your idea past the residents of Fairthorn Road and Gurdon Road?

    I didn’t know blog posts and rough ideas, designed to spark a bit of debate, needed full consultations. Glad to see you’re here, though…

    …many of whom do not have English as their first language and/or do not have access to the web at home?

    I’ve done some chatting with people in those streets (wearing another hat) – it’s not a picture I recognise. I’m sure anyone who doesn’t speak English as their first language and who do not have access to the web won’t be insulted by me raising the question of what happens there. After all, I have no power, I am musing aloud. Did the council consult them, though? They have power, I do not. And did they consult you, Indigo? And have you spoken to those neighbours about what happens there? I’d like to know people’s opinions on what’s going on there.

    There would be arc-lights on all night – believe me, what you are suggesting would result in a drastic deterioration in quality of life for people on that side of Gurdon Road, which includes a lot of retired people.

    Where did I mention arc-lights?

  8. I was a bit fierce. Apologies. Yes, I live here and was very active in helping to see off Galliards’ last two planning applications – created and distributed window stickers, consulted plans, conferred with neighbours, attended and spoke at the public inquiry, accompanied the inspector and Galliards’ representatives around when they made their site visit (and arranged for them to visit two or three separate residents in Gurdon Road).

    Sorry, but – having lived here since 1979 – I must assure you that a lot of people in this neighbourhood do not have English as their first language.

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