Life in Woolwich won’t be the same again. The new Tesco on Woolwich New Road has just opened its doors for the first time. The motto “Every little helps” now looms over General Gordon Square – but will the rest of the struggling town centre be able to live with its giant new neighbour?
The supermarket is just one part of the huge Woolwich Central development – Greenwich Council’s new Woolwich Centre HQ was the first to open, and flats are being built above Tesco. If you approach it from Angelsea Road, it towers above the pub and small shops on Woolwich New Road – this isn’t a development that’s going to be held in much affection outside the town hall and Tesco HQ. Look out for it in next year’s Carbuncle Cup.
Clearly, though, the new store has created hundreds of new jobs – one reason why the council has cosied up to Tesco, despite criticism of the chain from, um, the Labour Party. It’s been the way Greenwich under leader Chris Roberts has done regeneration, by building up close alliances with selected large companies, and relentlessly promoting their work.
But if Tesco’s arrival at one end of Woolwich town centre kills off competition at the other end, will this backfire? Tesco hasn’t had a full-size supermarket in the borough since the early 1980s, when it pulled out of its dowdy old Eltham store. Since then, it’s transformed itself into the country’s biggest retailer by competing aggressively with all-comers. The new store features an optician, ethnic foods and a health and beauty department – it won’t just be Sainsbury’s in the firing line, and the effects may well be felt far beyond Woolwich.
Some of the volunteers who gave out council newspapers during the Olympics will be brought back to encourage shoppers to venture down Powis Street. You’ll have to be at least 35 to remember Woolwich as a thriving town centre, hammer blows over the decades include the 1980s loss of Cuffs department store, the closure of the Co-Op in the 1990s, the closure of the Arsenal and the relocation of Greenwich University and Morgan Grampian publishing. Exiled to zone 4 in public transport, it’s a tough sell to tempt businesses to replace what’s been lost, and there’s been a lack of innovative thinking in trying to fill these empty buildings. (Why not offer them at low rents to creative industries, which worked in Deptford and is working at Second Floor Arts by the river?)
The extension of the Docklands Light Railway and the revamp of General Gordon Square have been bright spots, and it’s true that Tesco might will encourage people to rediscover a town centre they abandoned years ago. But all this is far from certain – what we do know for sure, though, is that the next year is going to be a crucial one for the future of Woolwich.