COMMENT: It’s been another grim year, but before we finally throw 2021 out with the rubbish, site editor DARRYL CHAMBERLAIN looks back at the past 12 months, lets off some steam, and reveals the most-read stories.
It’s the last day of the year – although it feels more like the 731st day of 2020. At least this website’s still here – and I hope you and your loved ones remain safe and well in what are still troubling times.
First of all, I’d like to thank those readers who donate to this website. It creates a part-time job for me, and means I can pay other journalists every now and then to do things I can’t do. We’re flying a little flag for transparent, accountable, clickbait-free local journalism, with an emphasis on original reporting – not just copying things from elsewhere.
What’s more, you’ve helped us weather what’s actually been a slower year for page views – we’ve published a little less this year, and I suspect the Facebook and Twitter algorithms are against us somewhat. As 853 doesn’t run ads at present, this isn’t a worry – it’s your donations that keep the site going.
As ever, if you’d like to join 853’s wonderful club of members, you are very welcome to sign up at joinsteady.com/853 or presspatron.com/853.
As the alarm bells of coronavirus settled into a background hum for much of the year, there’s been no one big theme beyond Covid-19. The most-read stories are a real mixed bag – those algorithms again, maybe.
For the site, the biggest story of the year was Yohannes Lowe’s investigation into the social care cuts that have blighted the lives of many of Greenwich borough’s residents – work supported by the Centre for Investigative Journalism and Trust for London. It was great to work with Yohannes, a young journalist now at ITV News. Being picked by CIJ shows the esteem this site is held in, which is only possible with your support – we wouldn’t have had the capacity to do it otherwise.
Thanks also to artist Danny Noble for her wonderful illustrations and Angie Mell at Reviewed and Cleared for casting a very careful legal eye over the story.
One of Greenwich’s more hapless councillors dismissed the story without reading it in an email to a worried constituent, calling 853 a “blog site … not monitored or accountable to anyone”. You what?
That said, one councillor’s alarming lack of media literacy does show the limits to publishing on the web – or in this format at the very least. I’m also at the limits of what I can do personally – working alone isn’t ideal, particularly when you’re juggling two jobs.
So we need to work out what local journalism in Greenwich looks like in the future. One thing’s clear – it has to involve other people with all kinds of different skills. Who’s in? Email tell853something[at]gmail.com.
There are madder boroughs than Greenwich – try Croydon or Tower Hamlets – but the mix of insularity and complacency, presided over by a dysfunctional ruling party, makes covering most town hall affairs pretty disheartening.
More worryingly, council leader Danny Thorpe seems to be ubiquitous in the same way his predecessor-but-one Chris Roberts was – and we all know that ended. At least Roberts had the good sense to stay off social media – at times Greenwich feels like it is being run from the leader’s Twitter account.
Despite Thorpe’s ubiquity, there seems to be a vacuum at the top, with tough questions – such as a belated change of heart on the Silvertown Tunnel – dodged in an attempt to pacify squabbling Labour councillors, and an intolerance of scrutiny matched only in Downing Street. It’s not clear if the leadership has any clear principles other than to be in control.
Blocking wheelchair users from a scrutiny meeting discussing their lives was a dismal low that was avoided in other boroughs, selling East Greenwich Library to a church whose leader believes gay marriage is evil suggests that equality is just a hollow slogan. “We’ve always done it this way, so why change?” has become the mantra again.
In many respects, Greenwich’s system of governance and old paternal culture encourages it to be this way, particularly with a largely anonymous cabinet. Whether any of this will matter in May’s council election remains to be seen, but Labour will be fighting on boundaries preferred by the Tories and after picking candidates with just weeks to go, both because of decisions made at the top.
Unfortunately for Greenwich Labour, its clear successes – such as council housebuilding and holiday meals for children, policies Thorpe can take enormous credit for – will barely touch many of the borough’s more engaged residents. Instead, many people, particularly in the north of the borough, will be bewildered by the pace and scale of development in the area and wondering why there isn’t any corresponding improvement to local infrastructure, and why nobody meaningfully engages on the issue.
If life inside the town hall is bad, civic society outside is worse – anonymous hectoring on social media drives councillors, even the good ones, back into their bunkers. It’s ludicrous to call for transparency and accountability from behind an anonymous handle with a load of out-of-context screengrabs.
In 2022, my wish would be for good people who care in Greenwich borough – and there are lots of them – to take a deep breath, organise a little offline, then come back and be the change they wish to see.
Because nobody else is going to do it for you.
Last year we were boosted by loads of stories from the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service, including Gráinne Cuffe’s reporting from Lewisham. Sadly for us, Gráinne is no longer with the service; she’s now at the brilliant Inside Housing, where she’s already doing superb work. Thankfully, we still have Joe Talora at City Hall, keeping tabs on the mayor and assembly.
Changes to the way the LDRS is delivered in many London boroughs – including Greenwich and Lewisham – mean we’re using far fewer stories than before, at least for the time being. That means more work for me in Greenwich – and less time to do the kind of stories that need more time.
It will also mean fewer Lewisham stories on the site, unless I can find a regular reporter there (and can afford it), as juggling two boroughs is very difficult.
Hopefully things will change, but that’s the way it is right now.
In general, the odds remain stacked against tiny news operations such as this – even though the big media companies do next to nothing in this part of the world unless someone else pays for it. Nearly two years into the pandemic, the Westminster government continues to funnel cash to giant media groups in the form of coronavirus advertising while ignoring the independent sector.
We keep going, though, and the Independent Community News Network continues to help fight our corner.
But at some point, a small operation like this has to make the leap into something bigger. There are things I want to do that I just haven’t got the capacity to do. At present, the help isn’t there. In some respects, it’d be easier to scrap all this and start again with a different model. But if anyone with some cash wants to start an accelerator programme for local news, I’ll bite their hand off. For now though, we keep going.
And on that note, here are the big stories from the year…
1. TfL’s 2021 fare rise: Bus fares up 5p, but tourists pay £5 to use cable car (15 January)
The end of the fare freeze topped the charts for this year. With the cable car seeing huge numbers of tourists in the summer, hiking cash fares may well have been a smart move for a cash-strapped TfL. Brace yourself for 2022’s nasty surprise, likely to be announced in a few weeks.
2. Victorian terrace to go as Greenwich councillors back 34 new homes in Woolwich (6 January)
This, not Morden Wharf (just outside the top 20), was the planning controversy of the year for 853 readers, as cherished but neglected Victorian homes were condemned to the bulldozer. Locals in Woolwich and Plumstead were not impressed.
3. Construction work begins on Sadiq Khan’s Silvertown Tunnel (13 March)
The arrival of anonymous white hoardings signalled the start of demolition and tree-cutting for Sadiq Khan’s roadbuilding project, while on the north side of the Thames, pile drivers started hammering into the ground. The tunnelling machine itself is due to start work this April.
4. Blackheath fireworks off because of austerity cuts (29 September)
No other outlet bothered doing this simple story, so 853 did an hour’s work and took all their page views instead. Don’t bank on the fireworks being back in 2022 – we reported in 2020 that this was likely to be a two-year pause.
5. Tower Hamlets looking into joining Greenwich as a royal borough (Rachael Burford for LDRS – 11 March)
Don’t do it! A bid by Tower Hamlets councillors to make their area look pompous and silly got lots of attention. You’d think they had enough to worry about. This one came to us via the Local Democracy Reporting Service – reporter Rachael Burford was snapped up by the Evening Standard in the summer.
6. Woolwich Works boss: My Robin Hood approach will help local community (Nikki Spencer – 19 September)
The opening of Woolwich Works added much-needed glitz to SE18 this year. Nikki Spencer’s chat with its boss, James Heaton, meant we were the only local outlet to find out what his plans were. Arguments over the cost, however – a self-inflicted wound by Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe – look set to rumble into the new year, but may fade as Crossrail brings new visitors.
7. Pocket Living ‘micro flats’ on Charlton estate passed by Greenwich councillors (17 February)
This plan for small flats on an odd bit of land on a council estate overlooking The Valley followed a huge row within the local Labour Party. Labour councillors objected to their Labour council selling land to a private developer backed by the Labour mayor to build discounted homes for first-time buyers. Who said local politics wasn’t dysfunctional? Work is due to start in the new year, Pocket says.
8. Southbound Blackwall Tunnel to be closed this Sunday for fire safety works (20 July)
TfL’s press release – printed verbatim elsewhere – didn’t make clear that the tunnel was being closed all day. A quick check with TfL made for a much more useful story. Then flooding also closed the northbound tunnel that afternoon, and closed North Greenwich station too. Happy summer memories, eh?
9. Euro 2020 in Greenwich Park gets red card as fan park moves to Trafalgar Square (14 April)
Like the fireworks, a simple story nobody else bothered to do. City Hall’s press office didn’t even move itself to answer our enquiry on this (Royal Parks’ did).
10. Mass testing: All Greenwich borough residents asked to take rapid Covid-19 test (13 March)
Did you take your test? During 2021, over 3,000 people clicked from this website to local coronavirus information in Greenwich – mostly to rapid testing information. There were 2,000 clicks to the government’s Covid-19 testing pages, and over 800 for pop-up vaccine clinics. And if we included stories published in 2020 in this list, then news about the Plumstead testing centre would be at number two.
11. Hundreds of homes due as Lewisham Centre owners seek views on rebuild (18 November)
Bewildered by new-look Lewisham? You ain’t seen nothing yet… detailed plans for the future of the shopping centre are due in late 2022, but expect more towers and more flats alongside the shops.
12. Riverside brewery and taproom to come to Greenwich Peninsula’s Morden Wharf (11 April)
Funnily enough, a story about beer proved to be more popular than the bitter row over the development plans here. Mmmm, beer. Maybe our pals at Deserter had the better idea.
13. Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College Streetspace cycle route closes (29 April)
This decision was reversed within hours of the story being published, after calls were put in to Greenwich Council and Transport for London.
14. Don’t drive to Greenwich Park – stay local during lockdown, park bosses plead (22 January)
One of the more bizarre lockdown stories – “please don’t drive here (but our car parks are open if you do)”.
15. High Court throws out Lewisham Council’s permission for 110 social rent homes (Gráinne Cuffe for LDRS – 19 May)
We wouldn’t normally cover Sydenham, but this was a huge story in our neighbouring borough, with possible implications for a controversial scheme off Blackheath Hill too. In short: people living on a relatively plush housing estate, run by the City, objected to the corporation’s plans for more new council homes. They raised the funds to get Lewisham’s approval overturned – but the council came back a few weeks later and approved it again, this time for good.
16. Kings Ferry dethroned as commuter coaches run for final time (24 December)
Funny what grabs people’s attention – hardly anyone in our part of SE London would have travelled on them, but we all knew the Kings Ferry coaches.
17. Greenwich Council plans 5% council tax hike as Khan adds £30 to bills (8 January)
We aren’t far off from a similar announcement – but with a bigger chunk added by City Hall.
18. Greenwich’s B&Q could go in plan for 1,400 homes on Ikea car park (18 March)
Car parks are a massive waste of space, so why not build new homes on top of them? Oh, that many homes? An intriguing proposal that could change the face of a corner of Greenwich will be one of the stories to follow carefully in 2022.
19. Hills and Vales: Residents ‘stunned’ by Greenwich Council plans to water down low-traffic scheme (1 July)
Followed up by BBC Radio London, which at least managed to get a response from the council. We’ll find out the fate of Greenwich’s only low-traffic scheme in the new year.
20. Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnel users’ group to disband in frustration (23 March)
Then the lifts at Greenwich completely packed up. They should be patched up in the new year.
21. Extend DLR to Abbey Wood as well as Thamesmead, councillors tell TfL (30 October)
Maybe we’ll see the DLR to Thamesmead if developers pay for it, but sadly a sensible link to Abbey Wood feels like it’ll go on the same pile as the DLR on stilts to Eltham, trams to the Greenwich Peninsula and the Charlton Church Lane funicular. (One of these has been made up.)
Bubbling under: Morden Wharf approved, the first chance to get walk-in jabs at The Valley, more low-traffic stuff, Quietway 1 becomes Cycleway 10, the rejoicing as Southeastern was sacked, Street Feast’s collapse going unmourned in Woolwich, Greenwich Council’s desire to see the return of Greenwich Park traffic, and the multimillion-pound tale of the Woolwich Crossrail bill.
What about 2022? We should finally get Crossrail in the spring – probably just after Punchdrunk opens its venue in Woolwich. How that plays out is going to be fascinating. Who’s going to be putting the effort into getting visitors to cross Beresford Street to help boost the rest of Woolwich?
At least Woolwich will have new transport – the prospect of steep cuts in the rest of Transport for London hangs over us. We’ll also see what will remain of the various low-traffic and cycling schemes brought in during the first year of the pandemic. Sadiq Khan will also be building a very big hole for himself, with tunnelling due to begin in Silvertown this spring.
We’ll have council elections in May, which are likely to be particularly vicious, although new boundaries in Greenwich will bring new faces and, because of Labour Party rules, more women. (Prediction: Labour 43, Tories 11, Green 1, Anonymous Twitter users 0.)
Settle down for the behind-closed-door battle for power after, as Labour councillors decide whether they’ve had enough of the cult of personality surrounding the town hall – or to shelter beneath it instead.
Down the road, Lewisham will be London borough of culture, providing something to look forward to in what looks like a bleak year ahead. And City Hall will move to the Royal Docks, but will no doubt feel as remote as ever.
On that note, happy new year and fingers crossed for 2022. Hopefully we’ll all be in a better place in 12 months’ time.
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