“This is a meeting open to the public, not a public meeting.”
Woolwich may be on the way to gaining a Grand Theatre, but there’s still high farce on offer next door at the town hall. There were plenty of unconvincing lines and yells from the audience last night as Greenwich Council’s planning board approved the same council’s plans to build an equestrian skills centre on land surrounded by Woodlands Farm, on the Welling side of Shooters Hill.
The vote went 5-2 with five Labour councillors voting for and the two Tories voting against. Planning is supposed to be a quasi-legal issue, yet votes like really call into question whether that is actually taken seriously. What’s certain, though, is that getting the public involved in the decision was just one big inconvenience.
About 75 people were crammed into a meeting room in the town hall – more than had attended the Peninsula Festival licensing application last month, which had been allocated the larger Woolwich Public Hall at the rear of the complex. Half the audience were for the equestrian centre, the other half were for the redevelopment of John Roan School.
Many of the John Roan crowd had brought children along – yet were forced to sit – or worse, stand – for two and a quarter hours of rows over the equestrian centre, and a ten minute hearing about knocking down a retail barn in Charlton, before the complex John Roan applications could be heard.
When it was their turn to be heard, the John Roan parents were furious – but planning vice-chair Steve Offord claimed there was nothing he could do to rearrange the timetable of the meeting. Which is funny, because I’ve seen planning meetings and even full council meetings rejigged on the night. This was all handy for planning chair Ray Walker – who’d also the Labour group’s chief whip. He couldn’t sit on the John Roan decision as he’s a governor, so managed to head off for an early night at 9pm, instead of having to stay for the full four-hour marathon.
The other problem with the meeting room is an ongoing problem – the acoustics. The sound system in room 4/5 is worn out, and most councillors and council officers talk very quietly indeed. I could barely follow it, and reporters also stuck at the back were struggling too. “All we hear is mumble, mumble, mumble, is that what you want us to hear?”, shouted an objector.
“This is a meeting open to the public, not a public meeting,” Cllr Walker replied, revealing perhaps more than he expected about Greenwich Council’s idea of democracy.
I couldn’t help wondering that if council elections were raucous, hotly-disputed affairs, instead of foregone conclusions, the councillors would have a bit more fire in their bellies and would be heard.
Even more farcially, the meeting room next door also started leaking noise through its partition after half-an-hour. They were talking about the Olympics too…
This blogpost will offer no opinion either way on the development – but after a shedload of personal abuse aimed at me and others who’ve covered the Olympics saga from the anti-Greenwich Park equestrian lobby, I had little time for their complaints about a “horse spa”. It looked every bit like this was the last stand of NOGOE; a proxy for the Greenwich Park equestrian events they’ve failed to stop.
But once past the off-putting sense of entitlement from the NOGOE lobby, who certainly made themselves heard, and whose contempt for anyone who doesn’t share their views has hardly endeared them to local people, the the actual objectors were largely from Shooters Hill itself.
Serious issues with the plan began to emerge which were nothing to do with the idea of a “horse spa” some of the more strident objectors had tried to spread. Nobody on Shooters Hill, it seems, had been informed by Greenwich Council of these plans – a legal requirement. There were genuine worries about horses crossing the busy A207 which runs across the hill. And the issue of covering over green fields which are legally protected.
The planning application claimed there were no similar facilities in the borough of Greenwich – this wasn’t the case, with the New Lodge Riding Centre in Mottingham, on the borough boundary, having featured in an edition of the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time last month.
The most eloquent condemnation of the plan came from Woodlands Farm Trust chair Barry Gray, whose land surrounds the site.
Unlike the strident Greenwich Park gang, he quietly demolished great chunks of the council’s case for building the centre, pointing out that farmland in a location such as this was probably unique in an inner London borough, and rare enough in rural areas. “This is not a small country stables,” he said. “This is a major development.”
“No-one on Shooters Hill was sent a letter about this,” said one objector, who said she’d already seen one horse run down in the area and didn’t want to see another. The horses will use a pegasus crossing to get across the road – although traffic lights are TfL’s responsibility, and we know they’re not keen on new lights being installed. More locals complained of not being told about the development.
Another said she was a regular user of a riding stables at North Cray, near Sidcup, but said she wouldn’t allow her daughter to use the Shooters Hill centre as it looked unsafe. She added that the cash would be better off being spent on saving Maryon Wilson animal park in Charlton to give children “a sense of nature”.
Yet another referred to the 59 responses to a consultation, asking: “If it’s so popular, why have only five people written in to support it?”
To the neutral observer, this was looking on shaky ground. But not inside Woolwich Town Hall this wasn’t. Greenwich councillor Denise Hyland gave an odd speech: “I had my tree-hugging days in the 1980s fighting for Oxleas Woods – but this is nothing like that.”
The centre would be for the young people of the borough “who want to work with their hands” – although what employment opportunities there are in south-east London for farm hands was not specified.
“People will be resistant to change, I ask you to help create a skills facility for the future,” she added.
The skills question came up again. A representative from Hadlow College, which will have a base on the site, gave a slick speech in which he said his employers “give students life chances”.
Yet somehow, I couldn’t help get the image out of my head of young people being written off, and sent to Shooters Hill to chomp on a bit of straw and be condemned to toss hay for the rest of their lives. Obviously, this won’t be the case, but the “for” case really wasn’t stacking up.
Then the “O” word was invoked.
A chap from the British Equestrian Foundation cited “the enthusiasm of local people” for Greenwich Park Olympic test events, and was greeted with mocking laughter. LOCOG equestrian chief Tim Haddaway spoke briefly, but didn’t look as self-assured as usual – if LOCOG had been behind this, they’d have probably done a better job of preparing for this than the council.
Various members of the planning board gave their verdict. The gloriously curmudgeonly Conservative Dermot Poston mocked Hadlow College’s claims of being community minded, declaring the proposal was the worst he’d ever heard in his years on the planning board: “It’s quite clear that this community is against the scheme.” The view from Shooters Hill towards Kent and Essex was, he added, among the most remarkable in any European city, and should be protected.
Vice-chair Steve Offord said he was surprised Woodlands Farm was against its neighbour being developed. “This will compliment Woodlands Farm very well,” he continued, pausing to admonish protestors. “You won’t change my mind by shouting out.” There’s no love lost on either side.
Council leader Chris Roberts did make a telling point for the developers. “If we were sitting here discussing a proposal to build Woodlands Farm, there would be objectors,” he said. But why was a passionate advocate for the Olympics in Greenwich borough deciding on a development which was heavily tied to those same Olympics, and that he’d already spoken out in favour of?
What about the Shooters Hill locals who hadn’t been told about the scheme? It was advertised in Greenwich Time, the council officer said. So clearly everyone is expected to wade through the council’s propaganda weekly on the offchance there’ll be a tiny notice about a major development in their neighbourhood. Would that really stack up if put to a higher authority?
The vote, when it came, was predictable – straight on party lines. And you can hear the reaction…
There were some conditions, but I haven’t a clue what they were since the discussions couldn’t be heard.
So, there it was. A meeting that was barely audible, and a controversial proposal to build on farmland sailing through on party lines despite its shaky grounds. Sure, many of the anti-Olympics protesters are an unpleasant crowd who rile local councillors with their sense of entitlement. But the local council’s contempt for democracy simply fuels that unpleasantness. If this was a Tory council, there’d rightly be mass outrage and ridicule from very loud voices. But those loud voices stay silent when a Labour fiefdom bludgeons its way through unpopular schemes like this.
Outside, a commotion continued for some time. I was told it was combative Olympics cabinet member John Fahy discussing matters with the protesters. At least one of the council’s ruling body actually talked to them, rather than at them, I suppose.
The equestrian centre may be a good thing. After all this, I sorely hope it will be. But corners were cut in getting it through planning – hopefully the same corners won’t be cut in building the thing.
PS. In case you were wondering, the John Roan School redevelopment plans went through unanimously – there’ll be a new building on Westcombe Park Road and the older Maze Hill site will be revamped.