A senior Greenwich councillor has been accused of being “disingenuous” over the future of Woolwich town centre after claiming that a community group had withdrawn from proposals to hold a joint workshop into a new plan for the area.
The disagreement centres on a consultation for an “urban design and public realm strategy” for Woolwich, which closed on Monday after just four weeks.
Greenwich had planned to hold a “community workshop” with Speak Out Woolwich – which has been critical of other council plans for the area – on the issue, but abruptly withdrew just two weeks before the consultation began.
However, at Wednesday night’s council meeting, cabinet member Sizwe James claimed it was Speak Out Woolwich that pulled out of the workshop. 853 has seen emails which indicate that was not the case, with a council officer confirming the authority was concentrating on its own events instead.
Both Speak Out Woolwich and the council eventually held different events – Speak Out put on a community conference on Saturday 2 February, which was attended by 120 people; while the council held an exhibition in a disused Barclays Bank later that week.
New strategy for Woolwich
Greenwich Council hopes the new strategy for Woolwich will help drive a revival in the area’s fortunes.
Details of the council’s plans are scarce and exhibition boards from its consultation sessions are now buried deep within the council website, where they cannot directly be linked to, but 853 has found them and combined them into one document.
Proposals include a new square on the riverfront, another square on Powis Street, “transforming the A206 and South Circular Road into an avenue with tree planting”, and “attractive walking routes leading into the centre”, “improvements to Monk Street” and a proposal to “simplify” the bus network by rerouting some to run in both directions along Beresford Street or Burrage Road, rather than through General Gordon Square or Sandy Hill Road.
The consultation on the proposals closed on Monday after just four weeks – the council’s own guidelines say consultations on masterplans should last between four and six weeks, six weeks for other plans.
A tale of two conferences
In a written answer to a question from Edwards asking why the council did not attend the Speak Out conference, James said the council’s consultants, Urban Initiatives Studio, “were preparing exhibition boards” at the time that Speak Out Woolwich was holding its event – a Saturday afternoon – and that “the Royal Borough [sic] had prioritised the public exhibition, meaning that officers were unable to attend Speak Out Woolwich’s event”.
Responding to James at Wednesday night’s meeting, Edwards – who was twice interrupted by ceremonial mayor Christine May while speaking – called his answer “disingenuous”. “If, as stated, you really wanted to reach as many residents and workers and different communities as promised, you would have attended the event,” he said.
“Telling us that external consultants could not attend because they were preparing exhibition boards on a Saturday afternoon is, frankly, ludicrous, Officers were not, as stated, unable to attend, they clearly had been told not to attend.
“What a wasted opportunity and a public embarrassment for the council.”
In response, James said: “This is not a disingenuous response and Mr Edwards knows full well that we were running our own consultation process and he chose to have his Speak Out Woolwich event separate to that. When we met at the stakeholder forum the idea was to have it jointly.”
‘Public embarrassment for the council’
Replying to James – again, interrupted twice by ceremonial mayor May – Edwards said: “You’ve not explained why you’ve said this consultation was done in conjunction with community groups when it was not – why? Does the council understand the difference between genuine community participation and tokenistic consultation which fools no-one?”
James attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone than the mayor in his reply, said: “The chair of planning is arranging a walkout with the council, Speak Out Woolwich so… – perhaps we can build bridges, and improve our relationship, because having a ding-dong at full council is not going to help anyone.
“We accept your consultation went well, ours went well, the purpose is to capture the community voice of Woolwich, between us, we’ve done that.”
Council withdrew from Woolwich workshop
Contrary to James’s statement at the council meeting, 853 has been able to establish that it was actually Greenwich Council that pulled out of Speak Out Woolwich’s event. This website has seen an email from December 2018 where James agrees that the council and Speak Out Woolwich can work together on a community workshop, and a further one the following month from an officer stating the council would not attend Speak Out’s event.
Edwards emailed James on 2 December to say: “Hello Sizwe, Further to the chat we had on Thursday about a community workshop, can you please let me know how you want to move this forward? Thanks, John.”
James responded on 7 December: “Hello John, We will be going ahead with this. [Two council officers] are giving thought on the options and will be in touch with you asap to take it forward. In the meantime, please let us have your suggestions. Best wishes, Sizwe.”
But by 14 December, the council’s attitude had cooled. A senior council officer, who 853 has chosen not to name, wrote to Edwards to say: “Whilst the council find the voice and input of community groups invaluable, it is not appropriate for SOW to co-chair the workshop with officers, nor be the main organiser of the various strands to this further engagement. It will be Council led as ultimately the SPD will be a supplementary planning guidance that will aim to shape and direct future growth and development for all.”
On 14 January, the same council officer wrote: “Thank you for the updated email which I have discussed with Cllr James, Cabinet Member. As you are aware we are also undertaking a community consultation event as requested and encouraged by the community, so we will focus on this rather than attending your Saturday 2nd February event.”
Speak Out Woolwich grew out of protests over the council-backed Spray Street redevelopment scheme, which would see a whole chunk of the area demolished and replaced with a development including 742 homes and a new cinema.
While it has a rapport with some councillors, it has a strained relationship with the council leadership.
‘Lack of any affordable housing vision’
Speak Out’s own response to the council consultation says it welcomes the need to “end the divide between the Royal Arsenal and the Town Centre”, but warns that the council’s £31m Woolwich Cultural District “has the very real potential of further dividing the Royal Arsenal from the Town Centre”.
It suggests making more use of the Tramshed and encouraging cultural life to spring up around the old Greenwich University buildings on Bathway – something envisaged in the original Woolwich masterplan, before the demolition of the Woolwich Grand Theatre in 2015. One cultural group based on Bathway, Protein Dance, is to move to the Cultural Quarter when it opens next year.
Speak Out also questions plans to move the Waterfront Leisure Centre to General Gordon Square and says “there is a lack of any vision for more genuinely affordable local housing, including family housing”.
“To date the Royal Arsenal has delivered only 8% genuinely affordable housing (against a borough policy of a minimum 24.5%) and other major developments in Woolwich tell a similar tale. It is a tale of gentrification that excludes local people,” it says.
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