Radio 4’s Any Questions comes to Blackheath

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys yelling at the telly when BBC1’s Question Time is on, then you might like to know the programme’s older and (arguably) better sibling, Radio 4’s Any Questions, is coming from Blackheath Halls on Friday 26 October. If you want a free ticket, then get in touch with Blackheath Halls and ask if they’ve got any left. (And if they do, please let us know here.)

The programme’s there to mark the 75th anniversary of the Blackheath Society, which is marked with the inscription in the middle of the heath pictured above, which I thought looked hideous when it appeared last year, but looks much nicer since the pathways have been upgraded. Perhaps someone could ask the panel if wide open spaces in big cities belong to their immediate neighbours, or the wider community…


  1. Perhaps someone could ask is a local blogger taking potshots at local people who care about their local environment is helpful or constructive…

  2. Toni – it’s Friday. I am tired.

    Franklin – isn’t it a genuine question? Amenity societies should be treated with the same level of scepticism as local councils in my book, and the Blackheath Society didn’t cover itself in glory during the OnBlackheath episode.

  3. Why on earth should amenity societies be treated with the same level of scepticism as local councils?

    Amenity societies are grassroots organisations of unpaid volunteers whose only goal is to stand up for and help improve their local areas. They represent the quintessence of civil society – self-organising, voluntary, decentralised. They don’t control taxpayers’ money, don’t write laws, and don’t make decisions that determine people’s futures. And – if I haven’t made it clear – they don’t get paid, and don’t receive any taxpayer funding. So why should you presume that they should be accountable to anyone other than their members?

    You might believe that the Blackheath Society “didn’t cover themselves in glory” over the OnBlackheath debate, but I suspect that they were representing the views of the majority of their members. As we’ve discussed at length on this forum, there are perfectly legitimate reasons for local residents to oppose the use of the Heath for a pop concert, not least the commercialisation of a public open space. The fact that you disagree with that view doesn’t warrant endless sniping at them for defending their members’ perfectly legitimate opinions on that issue.

  4. Why should amenity societies be accountable to people beyond their membership? Because their opinions carry great clout with local authorities.

    Amenity societies get special meetings with Lewisham Council and are specially consulted by Greenwich, even when they seem to represent a small band of people (I’m thinking of the Charlton Society here).

    Why on earth should they be immune from criticism? Sheesh.

  5. Last time I looked amenity societies weren’t elected by local people, so they can’t claim to represent an area in a way that at least a local council should be able to. Yet councils look to them for opinion on things that affect the whole community. So yes, we should be sceptical of them.

  6. I asked ‘Why should local amenity societies be treated with the same level of scepticism as local councils?’ Not ‘why should they be accountable to people beyond their memberships?’ Sheesh.

    And – newsflash – the amenity societies’ opinions don’t carry as much clout with the local councils as you seem to think. Whatever clout they do carry, they carry as a result of representing the views of their members, local residents, and making well-reasoned arguments to back up their views. That’s their purpose.

    I think we can agree that local civil society is important, right? And that for the amenity societies to survive and to speak for all of their community, they need a constant influx of new people and new ideas?

    Well, you’re putting people off joining the amenity societies by misrepresenting them as all-powerful, unaccountable killjoys who are secretly scheming to dictate the councils’ decisions.

    In reality, the local amenity societies are just local residents who volunteer their time and energy to stand up for and improve their local communities. Surely that’s something that you should support, rather than constantly attacking?

  7. Clare –

    Last time I looked the local council (1) was elected by a small minority of local people and (2) doesn’t do a particularly good job of being transparent or accountable to local people.

    Amenity societies are open to anyone to join. Their committees are elected by their membership annually. Most importantly, they’re local people who volunteer their time and energy with no motive other than to support their local community.

    What’s there to be sceptical about?

  8. I think the Blackheath Society did a good enough job of presenting itself (however unfairly, and I know this distressed its top brass) as “unaccountable killjoys” over the OnBlackheath farrago.

    And what about the Greenwich Society *supporting* the Greenwich Market redevelopment?

    I don’t think amenity societies are open and transparent either – not since I was turned away from their joint meeting with LOCOG at Blackheath Halls (despite having emailed the Blackheath Society first to try to gain press access).

  9. Franklin – everyone has a right to vote. Some people choose not to use that for whatever reason, but that still makes local councils democratically accountable to the areas they represent. Whether they do that well or not is a totally separate debate.

    Amenity societies are open to anyone to join, I agree, however their membership is entirely self-selected, so although their committees are elected by their members, the membership does not have a given right to represent the local area. Great that you feel they wish to volunteer to support their local communities, but I would question your statement about their motives – we don’t know what the motives of people who join amenity societies are – we can speculate but we don’t know. They do carry weight with councils and they represent only the views of their members which may differ from the wider community at large.

    That’s why we should be sceptical of them. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy scepticism after all.

  10. “The programme (Any Questions) is there to mark the 75th anniversary of the Blackheath Society”.

    I don’t think that’s right. I think that’s just something the Blackheath Society’s self-perpetuating management committee, consisting of just 12 people acting entirely off their own bat and never (or very rarely) formally consulting the society’s largely quiescent membership on anything, has decided to claim.

    I don’t think 99 percent of the national radio audience for Any Questions could give a damn about Blackheath, leave alone the Blackheath Society and its 75th anniversary. Why on earth should they?

    In actual fact, Blackheath Society currently is hugely detested by many residents in and around Blackheath itself, especially but not exclusively younger ones (those under 60), for several of its recent activities. These include its expenditure of a hefty £80,000 in a long-draw-out and ultimately failed court battle last year to halt plans for a projected annual pop festival on the Heath.

    Blackheath Society likes to portray itself as the benevolent “Guardians of the Heath.” It’s many critics portray it as a predominantly undemocratic group of wealthy, mostly elderly individuals determined to maintain things in Blackheath their way – but these days making less and less of a fist of that.

  11. Clare –

    Likewise, everyone has the opportunity to join their local amenity societies. Some people choose not to take part. That’s fine, of course. But I still don’t see any reason that those who choose not to join should snipe from the sidelines at people who are trying to do what I see as admirable things, like supporting their local community.

    Also, it’s important to point out that the amenity societies don’t claim to represent everyone who lives in their area. They only claim to represent their members and their views.

    Finally, I’m an active member of the Greenwich Society, so I do know something about people’s motives for joining and taking part. Like all G Soc members, I vounteer my time and energy for one reason only: to make Greenwich a better place to live and work. I certainly don’t benefit personally, and indeed don’t relish giving up my time with my family to do glamorous things like delivering newsletters on a cold and rainy winter night or attending meetings in drafty halls. But I do so because I believe that community is important and that civil society groups help prevent anonymisation, atomisation and social fragmentation, which is particularly important in big cities like London.

  12. Writing as a former Blackheath Society secretary, I think I can claim to know as much about people’s motives for joining amenity societies as Franklin and, what is more, I am happy to post under my real name. The fact is that even the best of motives don’t necessarily result in the best outcomes for the community as a whole. Until this year I have maintained a high regard for the Society but a number of recent decisions and activities have been deeply troubling. I cannot accept that I or anyone else should be prevented from voicing concerns simply because these decisions have been made by well-meaning volunteers.

    Foremost among my concerns is the Society’s actions with regard to the closure of the Village library. To begin with, the Society assured its members it would be fighting the proposed closure vigorously, in accordance with the widely-voiced wishes of the local community.

    Regrettably, the Society did very little to ensure the library’s survival. This only became apparent at the public meeting at the Blackheath Halls in October 2010 when those of us who attended in the hope of persuading the council to rethink its plans were in for a rude shock. In the event we were presented by a fait accompli cooked up between Lewisham Council and Age Exchange, a local charity devoted to the elderly – and with the full knowledge of the Blackheath Society.

    This was when we heard for the first time that Lewisham council had already decided to get rid of our library and to give £200K to Age Exchange, which is actually situated in the borough of Greenwich, in return for a much reduced library service. This news was imparted by Sir Ian Mills, chair of Age Exchange, who made a presentation from the platform and left us in no doubt that this was a done deal.

    As if this weren’t bad enough, the moment Sir Ian had finished speaking, and without waiting to hear what local residents might have to say, the Blackheath Society’s chairman leapt to his feet and pledged the Society’s full support for AE’s plans. I don’t think it is unfair to say that people like me were literally stunned into silence.

    If Michelle O’Brien is right, and the Blackheath Society is indeed “hugely detested” by many local residents, they have only themselves to blame.

  13. Wholeheartedly agree with Gina. I expressed my views about the Library to the Blackheath Society but had no acknowledgement – though I have been a member for more than 40 years and even used to take the Minutes (hateful job) in the early days. What irks me most re the library is that those who succeeded in getting Age Exchange to take over the library were extremely economical with the truth – I heard it said that the Blackheath Society Users’ Group had every support in its efforts to retain the library and “I did not give in until I knew there was no chance” or words to that effect. This is not true. Many of us stood by the Farmer’s Market and on street corners in all weathers, with our magnificent banner, collecting signatures to our petition. Lies, damn lies. To be the Devil’s Advocate it has to be said that they couldn’t very well have closed New Cross and other libraries and left the Village one. They should have kept them all open and stopped the Blackheath Assemblies which are a waste of time and resources.

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