853 exclusive: The Ministry of Defence failed to clear up rubbish left behind by travellers for six weeks on a part of Woolwich Common devastated by a grass fire on Monday – despite being told to by Greenwich Council.
Travellers set up camp on the common in early June and stayed for a week, abusing local residents and leaving behind piles of rubbish, including human excrement, on the south side of the common.
Despite complaints from neighbours and local councillors the MoD failed to clear up the mess, with the area being wrecked by a grass fire six weeks later.
The blaze took place a week after a local councillor voiced her fears to council officers that a fire could start on the common.
At the fire’s peak, 125 firefighters from stations across south-east and east London battled the blaze, which was reported at 3.51pm and brought under control four hours later, forcing the closure of the South Circular Road during the evening rush hour.
Barracks has no budget to look after common
Local residents have long complained about the management of the common, which has been owned by the MoD and its predecessors for over 200 years and still sees military exercises from the nearby Woolwich Barracks.
But the barracks itself has no budget to look after the common and no system to maintain it – instead, the common is in the hands of the separate Defence Infrastructure Organisation, which has shown little interest in looking after the common and has no contracts to pick up fly-tipping.
The only routine maintenance is an annual grass cut. One resident has told 853 she saw a mower run over tin cans left behind on the common earlier this year, leaving the sharp aluminium shards behind.
The travellers arrived on Woolwich Common on 5 June. It took five days for them to be moved on, despite neighbours reporting verbal abuse and quad bikes being ridden across the land into the night.
853 has been told by residents that the Ministry of Defence gave the travellers a licence to stay on the land – the MoD has not responded to a request for confirmation of this point.
The travellers left behind a large amount of waste on the common – but requests to the MoD to clear the land went unheeded.
‘They are partners’
In an email to local residents sent on Tuesday 10 July – one month after the travellers left – Woolwich Common councillor Ivis Williams branded the mess “appalling” and promised to follow the issue up, asking council officers to raise the issue with the MoD.
But a week later, nothing was done. On Tuesday 17 July, Williams wrote to a council officer: “are you able to follow up on this please as more rubbish seem to be piling [up]. It would be really sad if a fire is started from the debris scattered across the common.”
A smaller fire actually did break out later that day.
The following day, fellow Woolwich Common councillor David Gardner said in a further email to council officers: “I think to threaten them with relevant environmental orders is now necessary, sadly.”
He added: “We should be very polite as they are partners.”
He added that he had spoken to the Woolwich station commander, Maria Moghal: “I was surprised when she said that the MoD have no system, no contract and no budget for routine maintenance and litter picking of the Common. They just have the grass cut once a year!… This is clearly not good enough.”
On Thursday 19 July, a council officer reported that the MoD had engaged a contractor to clear the fly-tipping up along with “issues relating to an area that contains excrement”, and a date would be set by Friday 20 July for works to begin.
But again, nothing was done, and the major fire broke out on the afternoon of Monday 23 July.
Cllr Gardner tweeted on Wednesday morning that the MoD finally had got a contractor on site to clear up the rubbish, with Greenwich Council enforcement officers present.
The Ministry of Defence has not responded to a request for comment.
Olympic legacy – an unusable common
Despite being closed off to the public for much of 2011 and 2012 for its use in the Olympics and Paralympics, Woolwich Common – which lacked the vocal lobby groups that complained about Greenwich Park and Blackheath being used – saw little benefit from the events, with the land taking years to recover.
The Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery, which uses the common for exercises, used part of Charlton Park instead, with park users complaining that the land was being churned up by their carriages.
This “temporary” arrangement ended up lasting until February 2017 when horses pulling a gun carriage became spooked and bolted across the park, seriously injuring the rider and leaving the carriage smashed against a tree in the centre of the park.
In an email sent to a local councillor at the time, park user Helen Jakeways said: “It was left to a member of the public to try and restrain the horses from trampling the rider who was trapped under the gun carriage, until members of the rest of the Troop arrived on the scene. (The incident went unreported at the time but the soldier, who broke her neck, was given a bravery commendation earlier this year.)
“Regular park users and local residents I have spoken to… including those who witnessed the incident and its aftermath are shaken, appalled and universally angry. This is a busy corner of the park and someone could have been killed.”
The Ministry of Defence has not responded for a request for comment.
What happens next?
The neglect of the common has angered local residents, including long-standing neighbours who recall when the Royal Military Police were a frequent sight in the area and when soldiers from the barracks used to undertake litter picks.
Another bone of contention is its use as a giant car park while a huge Eid event took place at adjacent Barrack Field, in front of the main barracks building. A similar event at Mountsfield Park, Catford, urged followers to use public transport instead.
“Blackheath wouldn’t be treated like this,” one neighbour told 853.
There have been suggestions that Greenwich Council – which has experience from looking after the northern side of Blackheath, which also has acid grasslands – should manage the common and charge the MoD for its services.
But while some residents welcome that idea, others – who have been alarmed by the council’s construction of a wide cycleway across the common this summer – just want the Ministry of Defence to fulfil its responsibilities to look after the space.
And while the efforts of two of the three Woolwich Common councillors – Williams and Gardner – in pursuing the MoD have been appreciated, locals fear others are too scared to challenge the government department, particularly with the threat of closure hanging over Woolwich barracks.
The Ministry of Defence was asked a series of questions about the management of the common on Tuesday morning. It has not yet responded.
(10.35am update: Story updated with more on the Charlton Park incident.)
If you have any views or experiences of the management of Woolwich Common, feel free to leave a comment below.
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