Thank you for your support: Twenty stories from a 2020 to forget

Cutty Sark Gardens closed
The pandemic saw large parts of Greenwich town centre fenced off in the spring

With hours to go until we punt 2020 into the dustbin of history, 853 site editor DARRYL CHAMBERLAIN looks back on a difficult 12 months.

It’s been a year none of us will forget, mostly for the wrong reasons, and I hope this update on 853 in 2020 finds you and your loved ones safe and well.

Before we send a truly awful year packing, I’d like to thank you for your support of this website in 2020 – particularly those who have helped to fund it, providing not only a part-time role for me but also, for the first time, I’ve been able to pay others to contribute original stories about issues that matter in SE London. Together, we’ve managed to do something valuable this year, and I’m incredibly proud.

It’s hard to talk of highlights when so many have suffered, and the pain is going to go on for some time yet. But I would like to mention one thing – this year we got our first grant, of €5,000, from the European Journalism Centre, to help boost our coronavirus coverage. From the brilliant Old Cottage Cafe in Charlton sending meals to the vulnerable, to the tireless work of Greenwich Mutual Aid and WSUP in Woolwich; the Crofton Park dry cleaner looking at a worrying future and the hopes and fears of the Pepys Estate in Deptford, we picked up on aspects of our year that would have gone unnoticed if it was left to the legacy local press.

Thanks to Tom Bull, Emily Finch, Nikki Spencer, Laura Day, Mark Captain, David Jesudason, Hugo Greenhalgh, Sam Davies, Ian McCawley, Emma Finamore and Lance Bohl for contributing, and to Kat Hind, a journalism student who also chipped in during the eerie days of the spring lockdown.

Imagine if there was an outlet that could do that all the time, eh?

Our coronavirus reporting wouldn’t have been possible without people funding us in the first place. And I hope it proves the value of real local journalism – a named reporter making contacts in the community, doing original research, getting answers to questions rather than relying on social media, and highlighting stories that need telling.

Every pound to 853 is keeping original reporting going, something I can’t emphasise enough.

Together, I hope we can keep it going in 2021. If you’d like to help make sure it does, please support us at steadyhq.com/853 or presspatron.com/853.

In the early days of the lockdown we also managed to raise £5,000 for the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust’s charity, which I’m hugely proud of – although the experience was slightly soured by not being able to get a comment from the trust thanking readers for their generosity, despite trying several times; a further reminder that there are still barriers to get over.

We served up 1.1 million page views this year. 853’s (still growing) competition is Twitter and Facebook rather than the wrecked remains of the legacy local press, which largely gave up on Greenwich and its neighbours this year (unless someone else was paying for it, usually the BBC). Twitter is an increasingly cramped, polarised and horrible bully’s pulpit, Facebook has been a mess for years. Both are warping people’s worldviews but remain impossible to ignore.

We were actually given some free Facebook ad credits this year – they resulted in a lot of work moderating comments, but hardly any clicks on the site. Next year will see a Facebook “news” tab arriving in the UK – perhaps that might achieve better results. If we can get on it…

One thing that has boosted page views, oddly, has been a large number of views from Android phones, where 853 seems to become a recommended link from time to time. Lots of work from local democracy reporters, in particular, have been given rocket boosters by this. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is paid for by the BBC to help local media; they are typically employed at the big newspaper groups so they don’t work directly for 853, but we do keep in touch about issues.

The LDR scheme has been incredibly useful this year – especially being able to tap into Gráinne Cuffe’s reporting in Lewisham. Thanks to her; and thanks and farewell to Greenwich reporter Lachlan Leeming (now back in Australia with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph) and City Hall’s Jessie Mathewson (off to The Economist, no less – welcome to Joe Talora, who replaces her). I had hoped that we could employ someone through the LDR scheme ourselves but the barriers for entry remain too high, sadly.

News Shopper website screenshot
The government excluded readers of 853 from its public health ad campaigns, but the American-owned News Shopper was been chosen for support

Thank you also to the Independent Community News Network, which represents 853 and over 100 other British outlets. But no thanks to Boris Johnson’s government, which refused to consider placing public health ads in independent outlets – something which would have been an enormous boost to some of our fellow titles, and we would have been up for playing our part too. Instead, ministers funnelled the cash to major groups who responded to the bung of taxpayer cash by cutting back their coverage in SE London even further. The News Shopper ceased its Greenwich and Lewisham print editions, the Bexley Times simply vanished off the face of the earth.

I’m grateful to ICNN for speaking up on this, as well as to Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook and London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, and to everybody who has supported and spoken up for this site and the wider sector.

So, here are the 20 22 most-read stories of 2020, as read on 853, together with a few personal directors’ cut comments from me. (Two more stories have been added as they climbed into the top 20 after this list was compiled…)

1. Blackheath tea hut manager says move to old toilet would be a dream (20 February)
A headline that made no sense outside southeast London. Maybe the sign of bad things to come was the driver who collided with the Blackheath tea hut at the start of January – seriously injuring one person and wrecking a much-loved business.

2. TfL bailout: Scrapping free child travel will cost us £16m, councils tell government (30 May)
Much of the year saw London’s children used as weapons in a war over Transport for London’s finances, largely staged to feed the prejudices of voters far from the capital. The plan fizzled out, but while politicians seek to divide and rule, the threat may never entirely go away.

3. Drivers fined £3m for breaking Lewisham Council’s low-traffic neighbourhood rules (21 October – Gráinne Cuffe for LDRS)
Rows over low-traffic neighbourhoods generated far more heat than light; particularly with traffic levels rocketing everywhere after the first lockdown. In general, this has made them quite difficult to cover beyond photos of angry people pointing at traffic jams which may have been there anyway. We relied largely on Gráinne Cuffe’s reporting for coverage of the enormous row over attempts to cut rat-running in parts of Lee Green and Hither Green – if it wasn’t for the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter Service, there’d have been almost no coverage of it at all, anywhere, a sure sign of market failure.

4. We’ll oppose Charlton Athletic leaving Greenwich, council leader says as EFL warns club (27 July)
The year also saw turmoil at Charlton Athletic as the club was bought by a shambolic consortium who fell out within weeks. Before Danish-American businessman Thomas Sandgaard rose to the rescue, the club – and its home at The Valley – looked under real threat. Oddly, the South London Press‘s excellent sports team did almost exactly the same story two weeks later in what looked like an choreographed move to prove a point to someone.

5. ‘Healthy neighbourhood’ Lee Green road closures to begin next week (24 June- Gráinne Cuffe for LDRS)
And so it began… this story was largely fuelled by Google searches throughout the year. Interestingly, stories about the equivalent closures in Greenwich never got anywhere near as much traction. Ultimately, people’s views on this will be governed by their own views of motor cars in society – the widespread use of which for short distances continues to be encouraged by local authorities, whatever they say (ever tried taking your stuff to the recycling yard on the bus?).

6. TfL bailout: Mayor and Tory rival unite against South Circular congestion charge proposal (16 October – Jessie Mathewson for LDRS)
Another idea tossed out to grub for votes in areas that have been led to believe London really is paved with gold. It also fizzled out, but served its purpose in feeding more north-south division.

7. Summer nights at Blackheath drive-in attacked by Greenwich councillor (8 July)
The top story about Greenwich Council was one its press office couldn’t be bothered responding to. Tone deaf? Yes. Hypocritical? Yes. Idiotic? Certainly.

8. Close your schools, Greenwich Council tells heads as virus cases shoot up (13 December)
A late entry. This became a bit of a shambles as academies pushed back on the idea, then Whitehall issued legal threats, but provided an early warning the wider, national mega-shambles of the Johnson government effectively cancelling Christmas. Announcing by Twitter on a Sunday afternoon gave the government an extra day to throw its weight around; acting a day later and in concert with others could have put Greenwich in a better position.

9. Greenwich Labour councillor Tonia Ashikodi spared jail for housing fraud (4 March)
Your funding helped 853 be the only outlet represented at Inner London Crown Court for the whole of a week-long trial which feels like it took place a decade ago.

10. Lewisham Council road closures plan ‘prioritises some lives over others’ (17 January – Gráinne Cuffe for LDRS)
A story written before the pandemic, yet which managed to pinpoint the key flaw in Lewisham’s anti-ratrun programme; that it appeared to prioritise a more affluent area over another. It’s a perception that only grew over time, and was reflected in the Greenwich scheme too.

11. Greenwich Labour councillor Tonia Ashikodi found guilty of housing fraud (12 February)
There’s a line in this story: “The councillor looked stunned by the verdict when she left court.” Nothing can really sum up seeing the look on someone’s face when they realise that their world has collapsed before them and nobody will protect them any more. It was more tragedy than comeuppance; though I expect I’ll have to wait a long time for an apology for the abuse and threats that came from reporting her property affairs.

12. New schools shambles as government leaves Greenwich and Lewisham primaries off closure list (31 December).
A story published on the last day of the year forced its way into the top 20 – if the education secretary had announced his baffling decision the day before, it would have made the top 10.

13. Notorious Blackheath rat-run is among first to be opened to walking and cycling (12 June)
This looked like a brave new dawn, instead it turned into a mess. I cycle along this route a lot, and it’s pretty grim – this should have been a reasonably simple point closure. Regular readers will know this site leans towards walking and cycling – campaigning against the Silvertown Tunnel began on these pages eight years ago – but we also like things to be done properly. Poor planning and inter-borough bickering turned this into a mess; a rat-run in Lewisham Council’s eyes appeared to be a vital route in Greenwich’s.

14. TfL to ask government for £800m for Thamesmead DLR – but Bakerloo extension goes on back burner (30 September)
Most transport these days is planned to suit developers and to increase land values: the Bakerloo line extension goes down the Old Kent Road because of the potential there, rather than through Camberwell where most people have to take the bus. It’s the same with the limp DLR plans in Thamesmead; the short stump is designed to suit Peabody’s plans for an undeveloped chunk of land, rather than the needs of those condemned to the 472 bus. After 50 years of promises, Thamesmead still deserves better, but lacks champions to speak up for the place.

15. It’s here: Blackheath rat-run opened up to walkers and cyclists from today (17 June)
There’s a reason why I did so much on this – and it wasn’t just because it’s somewhere I cycle through a lot. It’s because how Lewisham treated this would give a clue as to the success of its other schemes. And so it proved, to an extent. Minor follow-up: after the scheme stopped, the planters stayed in place, narrowing the road, for months after – making the street more dangerous for cyclists, not less. Slow handclap…

16. TfL cash crisis: City Hall Tories refuse to oppose free children’s travel cuts (4 September – Jessie Mathewson for LDRS)
There’s one for your election leaflets. In Yorkshire.

17. ‘One of the worst applications I’ve seen’: 63 flats approved for Blackheath Hill by Lewisham Council (17 December – Gráinne Cuffe for LDRS)
Another late, late entry. Had this just been a few metres north, this would have been down to Greenwich’s planning board. In the end, this squeaked through Lewisham’s strategic development committee; despite both builders and officers admitting it would knock out neighbours’ daylight. Lewisham loves a long planning meeting, and local democracy reporter Gráinne Cuffe sat through a four-hour epic. This story may rumble on…

18. Greenwich Council planners back knocking down ‘heritage’ terrace in Woolwich (23 December)
Heritage or housing targets? You decide. Oh, alright, councillors will decide. Or a planning inspector will.

19. South Row: Greenwich Council says it wasn’t consulted about Blackheath rat-run scheme (20 June)

20. Walk-in Covid-19 test centre to open off Plumstead High Street (22 October)
Because the council prioritised the words “Royal Borough of Greenwich” on its information page, our story about Plumstead, a real place that people understand, beats it in search engine results. Nearly 1,000 people have clicked through to gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test from our website this year; a further 800 have clicked through to information about fast lateral flow testing – for those without symptoms – in the past nine days alone.

21. Thousands have stopped paying council tax, Greenwich finance chief reveals (8 May)
A small but telling sign of the economic effect of the pandemic – cancelled council tax direct debits. The outlook is grim for many councils. While Greenwich seems a little better insulated than its neighbours, the coming years still look to be painful.

22. Wilko to quit Woolwich as leisure centre plan gathers pace (24 January)
Closing today, in fact. There’s no better way to undermine your claims to be addressing the climate emergency and the decline of Woolwich than allowing a major retailer to leave town for a traffic jam-plagued retail park, but somehow that’s what was allowed to happen. Expect the new leisure centre – and the housing to pay for it – to glide through planning in the spring.

Bubbling under: Sparrows Lane, Woolwich barracks, the amazing waste of the Residents’ Rainbow light show, Brook Estate development plans (this was the most interesting story of the year for me), property guardians being evicted (the most-read story from our coronavirus grant – thanks Emily), the Greenwich rose garden, the hard-border ballad of Upwood Road (which was the most fun).

Plenty more where that came from in the New Year. The virus and its ramifications will cast a long shadow over 2021 – it feels we haven’t appreciated just how perilous the next few weeks and beyond will be.

We’ll also see more council housing appear in Greenwich – with the associated photocalls, and maybe even an award or two. Woolwich Works, the council’s £31m arts project, will open, amid a flurry of activity (Including a £17m government grant announced on Boxing Day) designed to give CPR to SE18. If Sadiq Khan sees through his plan to build the Silvertown Tunnel, work will be getting under way – possibly before the most depressing mayoral election since the last one.

And maybe, just maybe, we could see Crossrail appear at the end of the year. Maybe. Don’t bet on it.

Here’s to 2021 – see you on the other side.


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