The other week I found myself in Woolwich’s Marks & Spencer. An underpant crisis does that to a gentleman, you see. I stood for a minute, and looked around me. The shelves looked tatty. Wires hung down from the wall. The decor had barely changed since I was a kid, making 2014 fashion displays look like something out of 1974.
There couldn’t be many stores left with that proud, golden “MARKS & SPENCER” lettering on the front, I mused. Yet the main entrances had been locked up for years, presumably a last-ditch move against shoplifters. While down the road, Woolwich was shiny and new, here was the Woolwich that was still in decline. I must write about this some day, I thought, before remembering I had undercrackers to purchase. That’s the good thing about an M&S outlet shop – cheap pants.
But I’m going to have to go somewhere else for my discount drawers now, because Woolwich’s century-old M&S is for the chop. And it’s the first big headache for Greenwich Council’s leader-elect Denise Hyland, deputy-elect John Fahy, and regeneration cabinet member-elect Danny Thorpe.
They aren’t alone. Down in Gravesend, the council’s furious at the loss of their M&S. Up, way up in Redcar, the council’s planning talks – as is Greenwich. And with good reason. In South Shields, they say even charity shops are being hit by the loss of their store.
“[They] clearly have a lack of commercial judgement,” fumed John Fahy. But let’s be honest here – that M&S has looked doomed since the day it became an outlet store over a decade ago, when the main doors were bolted shut and the wires started hanging down from the ceiling. And the steel frame of the new Charlton M&S has started to emerge in recent weeks, ahead of its opening late next year. Did the arrival of Tesco bang the final nail in the coffin of M&S Woolwich? It’s a moot point after decades of decline.
But just as the national economic recovery is only being felt in a few places, Woolwich’s own re-emergence isn’t all that clear to all either.
Yup, shiny new-ish Tesco (tick), some coffee bars (tick), nice square that everyone likes (tick), but then the rest of it’s all behind the brick walls of the Arsenal. While Wellington Street, between the town hall and the council HQ, is immaculate and bedecked in “ROYAL GREENWICH” propaganda banners; Powis Street and Hare Street look as miserable as ever. If you had a choice, why would you do your shopping there?
And frankly, who’s left to do their shopping there? Big employers have moved out of Woolwich in recent decades and haven’t been replaced. Right opposite M&S on Thomas Street is the Island Site, once home to Thames Polytechnic/Greenwich University, now let out to small colleges. Over the road was Morgan-Grampian Publishing, whose offices are now flats. In the 1960s, according to the Survey of London, Woolwich’s M&S carried lines you’d usually only find in the West End. Today, there aren’t enough people around during the day to even buy heavily-discounted pants.
What to do? A council can’t work miracles, and you can’t force a business to stay, particularly one with shareholders to please. But it’s clear M&S hasn’t got much confidence in a real upturn in Woolwich’s fortunes, and judging by the state of the store, it probably hasn’t done for years. There are no easy answers, but one sign of what’s going wrong in Woolwich was in Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper last week…
The outgoing Dear Leader’s still in charge until Wednesday, so here’s Chris Roberts bigging up a plan for a “cultural quarter” behind the Royal Arsenal brick wall, without mentioning it’s an attempt to replace the ailing Firepower military museum.
Yet who’ll really benefit from this scheme? Roberts’ mates at Berkeley Homes, of course, who own the residential land surrounding the Firepower site. While Powis Street and Hare Street continue to decay, the council is still at Berkeley’s service.
Even more bafflingly, the “cultural quarter” plans seem at odds with the council’s own Woolwich masterplan, which envisage another cultural quarter, this time opposite the current M&S store.
Stroll along Polytechnic Street and you’ll find the neglected and empty-looking original Woolwich Polytechnic building, with intricate decorations around the windows; a mysterious “town hall annexe” which has seen better days, the original Woolwich swimming baths, and the crumbling first town hall from 1842. It’s a ghost street right in the heart of Woolwich.
Yet nothing’s happening to bring this back to life – indeed, the Woolwich Grand Theatre looks set to be replaced by flats. Fill this block with creative businesses, as promised in the masterplan, and you’d at least generate some daytime trade in Woolwich that had some money to spend.
But instead, Greenwich Council remains focused on pleasing Berkeley Homes above any other business, and while that continues, it’s hard to see the rest of Woolwich really getting much of a look-in.
Once Chris Roberts leaves on Wednesday, maybe the new leadership might change tack and look at ways to make sure the effects of Woolwich’s revamp are felt more evenly. At a hustings event for Woolwich Riverside ward, Labour’s Jackie Smith even suggested the wall surrounding the Arsenal come down – “if it happened in Berlin, it can happen in Woolwich”. It’s time to talk and find new ideas for Woolwich, instead of the old approach of painting over locals’ views.
And maybe for that Arsenal “cultural quarter”… what about a nice new M&S outlet store? Otherwise, I’m going to have to start stocking up on cut-price undercrackers very soon…
8.05am update: John Fahy has written to M&S: “The alternative to this proposal should be to dispense with the Outlet brand,restore the M&S brand and extend the Simply Food floor space.”
Why is it that the Arsenal site has developed this elite mystique?
This post and the Jackie Smith’s awful Berlin analogy are making the site out to be something it’s not.
On site today there’s dozens of industrial units and small businesses employing plenty.
By way of amenities there’s Firepower, Greenwich Heritage Centre, Tesco Express, a pub and a cafe.
What makes it so obviously different from Woolwich town centre is the complete absence of betting shops.
Yes I agree town planning is dis-jointed, but the perception that the wall on the Plumstead Road is the problem is a nonsense.
I disagree that this stretch is stagnating – just opposite is a lovely new TK Maxx store. The problem is that the M&S branch looks shocking and as you say, has had no investment for years. I don’t think it is the role of the council to keep it open by telling M&S what they should do to the store. M&S are a commercial company and M&S would have weighed up the demand for various options before taking the decision to pull out.
I certainly agree with the ‘Berlin Wall’ comment, with the arch in the market being ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ separating East and West Berlin – no guesses as to which is which.
The real problem is that shops are over-capitalised; there are too many and many shoppers go online for significant purchases. Saying that Greenwich town centre is now quite unattractive and is being sterilised by the on-set of big brand shops and restaurants; Woolwich does need to become ‘edgy’ to attract in the punters – a proper bric-a-brac market might be a start (and there are many empty premises).
I have mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand – anti consumerist and anti materialist that I am, I think: meh, good riddance. On the other, I am a realist and do not want to live to see the demise of Woolwich. I think the problem is twofold. The council, much like the Romans, want to give the people their “Games”. Its a distraction to what is actually going on. So, we have a shiny new concrete square with shoe wash/bird bath facilities and a nice big BBC propaganda screen to keep the masses occupied. On the other, this is predominately a poor area. Its not hard to see that the likes of Poundland, Primark and cheap supermarkets can thrive whilst M&S looks like a ghost store most of the time (unless you are queuing for a sandwich). I could get into a debate on the quality of M&S clothing being higher in the main, but that quality comes at a Outlet price that the majority of residents are not prepared to pay. They are just too expensive for the demographic.
As regards the continuing Arsenal development, I can see there being two Woolwich shopping centres when the new development takes off down toward the river, an alternative High Street if you will. As it is, the majority of Arsenal residents, who are in the main City workers commuting too and from Canary Wharf or London, stream off the DLR and walk straight into the Arsenal with Tesco Metro bags in hand. So, they do not contribute to the local economy. Perhaps this habit extends to other goods as well. The Arsenal is an Oasis or as I prefer to see it the land of the “haves” whilst those outside are the “have nots”.
I don’t know what the future will hold for Woolwich. Presently it doesn’t look favourable. The regeneration I see started at the top, with the councils £65M new HQ, rebranding at god knows what cost as a Royal Borough and then the two squares, both of which are a nightmare in the event of a utilities issue due to their reinforced concrete construction. Is the state of the grass on the main square worth mentioning? Its not likely to get better as summer approaches and more public wear and tear happens.
Its all enough to make you weep.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Larry – how much does what happen in the Arsenal actually benefit the economy of the rest of Woolwich?
Thanks to all who have commented so far – and sorry for any delays in getting comments through moderation.
I was in Woolwich last Friday for the first time in ages and it looked and felt grubby. The impression was completed by the youths jumping the ticket barriers at the DLR station whilst the attendant looked on indicating that this was a regular occurrence and it would be too much hassle to challenge them. No wonder M&S are closing down.
For the record I live in Kidbrooke (Blackheath borders to Foxton’s LOL) so I’m hardly looking down from a great height!
The Council should stop throwing council tax payers money at Woolwich and allow it to find its own level.
A real shame if it goes as it’s one of the last links to the more prosperous and thriving Woolwich that existed up to the 80’s which I’ve often read and been told about, and how it had many great department stores etc.
The fact the building hasn’t been updated for a while added to that, with many attractive features and details intact. The top photo shows the attractive tiled flooring and handrails. The exterior looks good with its tiling, and there’s the windows and doors. All non-modernised and all the better for it. Whatever happens I hope these all remain in a coherent form and not destroyed as happened so many times before in Woolwich. Woolwich M&S is a classy building that would look fantastic if given a slight clean.
You touched upon the Charlton M&S. A sad sign when a big out-of-town retail barn could be a factor in the closure of a high street shop and raises questions again of whether Charlton is ideal for so many big barns and acres of tarmac car parking. Having said that it surely shouldn’t be – the population catchment for both is huge. I can’t imagine the rent at Woolwich is very high. If it is high maybe a deal can be struck for a reduction as I doubt many quality retailers would want to move in.
Gavin – the council should not stop putting money and effort into Woolwich. Most of what has happened isn’t paid for by them – its often TfL / GLA / Mayor of London which would not be spent in Greenwich borough at all eg the main square project. They need to focus on other areas to a far greater extent but not turn away from Woolwich. Their focus on public space and streets is pretty dire all over and could do with more energy and money behind it – there’s many potential sources of external funding.
I havn’t been in a while but I was wondering are the council regularly maintaining and jet-washing the new paving areas, road surfaces and street furniture on the squares as well as the old areas? Becuase that is something that is essential to maintain an attractive area.
One other point I forgot to make – in new renders of the public space by the new Crossrail station the wall is absent at that point (the part near Dial Arch facing Plumstead Road).
One of the biggest barriers between the Arsenal site and Woolwich is that main road. It may only be metres wide but it might as well be miles. Add in the wall and it’s an obstacle course.
Larry, if all you’ve seen is a foot wash/bird bath facility then you’re a lucky man. It has been put to other uses by the dog and human population.
I remember hearing that nearly all the shops in Powis St are owned by the same landlord who charge pretty high rents – hence too many empty premises. As for the council destroying Woolwich, do me a favour. The Arsenal ordinance factories used to employ 80,000 people. London and indeed the UK as a whole has seen its manufacturing sectors hard hit over the last few decades. To blame Woolwich’s decline on the Council is over the top.
Most of Woolwich town centre is owned by an outfit called Powis Street Estates, which bought it from the Prudential some years back.
What a sad day for Woolwich. I Grew up in Woolwich in the sixties I remember the hustle and bustle, The crowds the Big department stores, Cuffs ,Garretts, Woolworths, BHs, Co-op Lyons tea house .The Real Woolwich market. its been heart breaking watching the systematic demise of a once proud Shopping centre , And it was a TRUE shopping centre. Those resposible should hold there heads in shame. Its not all about recession and Internet . Its about short sightedness and a lack of direction. We have had 10s,of 1000s of new homes built on the Woolwich arsenal site A new DLR .. Yet all of the new retail businesses are now located in Charlton. People would return to Woolwich if there was something worth buying. Not just phones and second hand computer games. If its not sorted out soon You will find TK maxx moving out. And whats the ODDS on one or three bookies biting the dust too
Sad news. If the M&S in Woolwich hasn’t had strong sales then I think the lack of investment by the management is partly to blame. You can be sure whatever replaces the store will be down market e.g. Another godforsaken betting shop!
I’m very late to this, but I thought someone ought to defend Jackie Smith over her ‘Berlin Wall’ comment: ‘Bringing down a wall brought people together in Berlin, perhaps it can work in Woolwich too’ It was a light-hearted remark, made at the recent Woolwich Riverside hustings. The context was that it was a response to the suggestion from another serving councillor that they could look at bringing down the wall surrounding the Arsenal as it’s not listed, if people thought that would do more to integrate people living in Woolwich and if that would be a desirable thing. Honestly, no one was comparing Woolwich to East Berlin, nor the RA to the decadent West.
The following statement regarding the expected impact of the new Bugsby’s Way M&S on Woolwich Town Centre comes directly from the ‘Retail and Economic Development Statement’ (paragraph 4.6.5) that accompanied the application:
‘Overall the retail at Bugsby’s Way will complement, rather than compete with the existing centres within the Borough.’
More developer rhetoric accepted blindly by the planning officers. I hope the council are suitably embarrassed.
I am not getting into a Charlton V Woolwich row, but DB is right when he/she says that planners will swallow whatever developers want them to, probably because of the vapours coming down from high places. Why else has the IKEA scheme been pulled in? From what I have read whatever IKEA said three times was true and the planning board would have believed the moon was made of cheese if it had been put forward by IKEA. I have met people who went to that planning board thinking they would have a voice, and they came home like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. So yes, planners have something to answer for, but there are others in the mix who need holding to account.
just seen this article & i worked for the woolwich branch for a short period and I am surprised the store did not shut down sooner, as it was an “outlet” it got the tatty end of leftovers to try & sell, the majority of staff were recruited a number of years ago and were stuck up & went out of their way to make my life difficult as I was not hired by the former manager(the former manager who hired all her family & friends & then took them all away on hol leaving the store with 3 staff) & they simply do not care.
to be honest I hate woolwich but I am stuck here, other than popping into tesco for bits & bobs I avoid woolwich & powis st the whole area needs ripping down & restarting, its horrible & that is due to the local population, noone want to shop/visit a ghetto, I go out my way to go to greenwich or bexleyheath or bluewater anywhere that is not woolwich, even croydon is nice when compared to woolwich
and please not another betting shop or ethnic shop
Just been reading all above comments some very interesting I moved here from Tottenham in 1976 and thought it was great I also worked in Woolwich for 25yrs Morgan Grampian and Woolwich Staff Agency and the changes have been enormous but there was also a lot of employment when I worked in the staff agency which reflected in the activities of Woolwich town centre, the stores and market even pubs always busy. Then rents escalated and drove many business away including Next, I also heard that rents were very low at Marks and Spencer encouraging them to stay in Woolwich it is encouraging to see a revamp of the area but if there are no decent shops to shops and restaurents to eat in why would you bother, an over 55’s development with prices starting at £500.000 I mean surely you would want to shop and eat in a safe and attractive environment. Who is responsible for the demise of Woolwich, rents, greed, poverty, online shopping too many unemployment migrants in one area hence £ and ethnic shops I think unfortunately it’s the way of life but I have not given up on Woolwich I still pop in weekly and pray it won’t become a ghost town, meanwhile my free pass takes me to Kingston now that is a great shopping town town planners take note.
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