Greenwich Council spent £10,000 on fencing off part of Woolwich town centre to stop people throwing fireworks – and has insisted that the outlay was worth it.
General Gordon Square was closed for two weeks from October 24 after disorder broke out around Halloween and Bonfire Night last year. Fencing was also erected last year but did not prevent four police officers being injured.
Woolwich was largely quiet on Hallowe’en, but serious disorder took place three miles away on the Greenwich Peninsula after invites to “firework fights” were spread on social media.
The erection of the fence came despite the creation of a 24-strong police team to tackle youth violence in Woolwich earlier this year.
Local resident Jonathan Blower, who set up a petition calling on council leader Anthony Okereke to remove the fence, uncovered the £10,000 cost through a freedom of information request.
Blower told 853 that he resorted to the request after not getting a response last year from the former council leader, Danny Thorpe.
The response said that the decision to erect the fence was made by Ann-Marie Cousins, the cabinet member for community safety and enforcement, on the advice of an unnamed “neighbourhood inspector for Greenwich Metropolitan Police”.
Greenwich acted under Section 17 of the Crime & Disorder Act 1998, which says councils should “do all it reasonably can do reduce crime and disorder” in their area.
“As such during the Hallowe’en and fireworks period we close off General Gordon Square to allow for the safety of and protection of the public and prevention of crime and disorder over this period,” the response to Blower’s request said.
“In previous years there has been wide scale disorder in General Gordon Square during the Hallowe’en and fireworks period and the gating of [the square] allows Safer Spaces [council wardens] and the Metropolitan Police better control of the area and allows the public to feel safer during this time period.
“In previous years young people have used General Gordon Square to cause anti-social behaviour and crime by way of throwing fireworks at the police and safer spaces officer [sic] as well as endangering the lives of members of the public. This gating allows for a safer environment for members of the public over this time period. The gating is normally only in place for a very short timescale.”
The cost of the fencing was nearly two-thirds of the £16,300 Greenwich last contributed to the organised display on Blackheath that was cancelled this year because of budget cuts in neighbouring Lewisham.
Blower told 853: “I put in a freedom of information request on this not because I think it’s fine for kids to shoot fireworks in public places – clearly it’s not – but because, as a resident here, I value our public spaces. I decided to use freedom of information legislation because I didn’t get a single answer when I emailed the leader of the council about this issue three times last year.
“The shifty response of the police and the council was legally dubious, disproportionate and ineffective. Ineffective because it simply displaced the anti-social behaviour elsewhere, as we saw.
“Disproportionate because everyone who would normally use the busy square was punished for the potential crimes of a tiny minority. Legally dubious because the council presumably has a duty to consult the public if it wants to deprive them of a public space, even temporarily.”
He added: “I’ve lived in Woolwich for eight years and I have a strong sense of civic pride. But it’s hard to be proud of a place where police punish the wrong people for potential crimes and where the local authority treats public spaces like its own private property. I’m worried that so few of us seem to be worried about this.”
A Greenwich Council spokesperson told 853 yesterday: “The safety of our residents is our top priority. Following a request by the police, based on intelligence and previous disorder, fencing was installed around General Gordon Square temporarily to manage anti-social behaviour over Halloween and bonfire night period.
“Overall, the feedback was positive for the action that we took. We believe that we did the right thing based on the information we had to keep our residents safe. This year we have not experienced the same level of trouble as the previous two years – and many people have recognised this.
“Taking into account the intelligence that we had, we believe the cost of the hire, installation and removal of the fencing was worth it to keep our residents safe. Proactive efforts to prevent is always better than to cure.”
“Alongside the police and our other partners, we will evaluate what action and plans, if any, are necessary next year.”
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