Plans to revamp the Avery Hill Winter Garden would boost Eltham High Street and bring a wider range of visitors to the area, Greenwich Council told the government in a failed bid for £4.75m of “levelling-up” money, 853 can reveal.
Council leader Danny Thorpe and Eltham MP Clive Efford reacted with anger last October when the government refused to help fund the restoration of the crumbling glasshouse, the second largest of its kind after Kew Gardens.
The Winter Garden is part of Greenwich University’s former Mansion site, which is being converted into a boys’ school for the Harris academy chain.
Greenwich University has agreed to transfer the Winter Garden to the council, along with money to help restore it.
But the council says this money is not enough – and it was turned down when it asked for money from the government’s Levelling Up Fund to match the university’s dowry.
Last week, the council said it would consider another application to the fund and look at other ways to fund the project – but, unlike the recently-opened £45m Woolwich Works arts centre, it would not pay for it out of its own funds.
Despite the Winter Gardens’ importance to the local area, most of the discussion around the scheme has taken place outside the public gaze.
What is the Levelling Up Fund?
The Levelling Up Fund was announced last year with the aim of “investing in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the UK”. However, as with many of the Johnson administration’s “levelling-up” policies, it has been criticised for neglecting left-behind areas of London and favouring areas where the Conservative Party has most to gain.
When Greenwich’s bid for £4.75m was rejected last October, Efford decried it as a “a slush fund for the Tories to use to bribe voters in Tory marginal seats”. He added: “Only a smattering of money will find its way to Labour areas in an attempt to cover up their deceit. It’s a disgraceful abuse of power and taxpayers money.”
Thorpe called the rejection of the bid – in the Conservative-voting Eltham South ward – “a blow to the community”.
The Levelling Up Fund is nothing other than a slush fund for the Tories to use to bribe voters in Tory marginal seats. Only a smattering of money will find its way to Labour areas in an attempt to cover up their deceit. It's a disgraceful abuse of power and taxpayers money https://t.co/gBLzeFowtp
— Clive Efford 💙 (@CliveEfford) October 31, 2021
853 asked the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for details of Greenwich’s bid under freedom of information laws. The department, run by Michael Gove, took three months to respond, and rejected the request – despite the fact that it actually demanded councils publish the bids themselves.
It also refused to release civil servants’ scoring of the bid.
What is planned for the Winter Garden?
Greenwich hopes to renovate the glass house buildings and ornate pond conservatory, repurpose the fernery building to create an events space, expand the building to support its use as a venue, and replant and landscape the Winter Garden itself.
The building “is in a state of disrepair and the planting is tired and unkempt”, the application says, adding that while it is “brimming with potential” there is little to persuade return visits.
“Bringing new visitors to the Avery Hill Winter Garden and broadening its appeal to the diverse communities of Royal Greenwich [sic] and beyond is central to our vision of the building’s future,” it says.
A survey of users found that most visitors were “white heterosexual Christians”, it added, adding that this also the case for attendees of the Sparkle in the Park winter festival in Avery Hill Park in December 2020.
“Anecdotally it is indicative of a lack of diversity in visitors to the garden,” it says.
The make-up of visitors is also likely to reflect the local community – Eltham South has the second-lowest black and minority ethnic population in the borough, according to 2011 census figures. This is not mentioned in the application.
A high street boost?
Renovation would also boost Eltham High Street, the bid says, despite the fact that it is nearly a mile away on foot.
“There is a unique opportunity to drive footfall … this will increase the stability of local employment,” it says.
“At present, over 20 per cent of commercial properties in the borough are unoccupied.”
It adds that “recent cycle lane improvements in Eltham High Street will aid access to this site”.
The council’s application says it envisaged falls in obesity because people would be encouraged to walk in Avery Hill Park, while land values would be increased because there would be more visitors to Eltham High Street.
Woolwich Works and the recent refurbishment of Plumstead library are cited as examples of the council’s experience in revamping historic buildings.
The application form stated that the council should publish the bid document on its website as part of its “commitment to greater openness in the public sector”. However, www.royalgreenwich.gov.uk/LUFbid, where the council said it would publish its bid, returns a blank page.
No council funds for renovation
Last week Nigel Fletcher, the opposition Conservative leader and Eltham South councillor, called the government’s refusal to fund the project “disappointing”.
He asked the council’s deputy leader, Denise Scott-McDonald, if the council would be willing to underwrite the project itself.
“No,” Scott-McDonald said, adding: “We will continue to look at other forms of funding. We met the levelling-up team and they said there will be other opportunities, so we will be happy to pursue that.”
However, Scott-McDonald also made a dig at the government’s handling of the fund, referring to reports about a Tory peer receiving £330,000 to repair a track leading to an art gallery and museum on his East Sussex estate.
“I wonder if we had some aristocrats living in Avery Hill, whether it would help us to get the money,” she said.
Last month The Good Law Project, a group of public interest lawyers, withdrew plans to take the government to court over the allocation of funds.
What happened elsewhere in London?
Four London boroughs did receive funds: Brent, Ealing, Newham and Tower Hamlets. Newham – one of only two boroughs to be given a “priority 1” status in the process – got nearly £40 million from two separate bids.
The only other council in SE London to apply was Southwark, which wanted £25m to revamp Peckham Rye station.
The capital’s two most affluent boroughs also applied – the City of Westminster wanted £20m for a scheme in Oxford Street, while Kensington & Chelsea asked for £17.5m for improvements to Ladbroke Grove station.
City Hall was also unsuccessful, after bidding for £9.1m for a new railway station at Beam Park, a major new development near Dagenham – despite the fact that the development is partly in the borough of Barking & Dagenham, another “priority 1” borough.
What happens next?
A second round of bidding for the Levelling Up Fund is expected soon, while there are other opportunities for the council to bid for money.
However, critics will say that the council could have covered the relatively modest sum with a more aggressive approach to getting money out of developers. Last week the council planned to review its community infrastructure levy rates, which are much lower than other comparable boroughs that have enjoyed windfalls to help them with similar community schemes.
Any new boost to funding, though, will come too late for the Winter Garden – which could soon become a drain on council funds if money is not found soon.
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