When Woolwich’s main square was fenced off without warning last October, many locals were shocked and surprised. But Greenwich Council officers had planned to close General Gordon Square seven weeks in advance – without telling residents.
No safety or equalities assessment was carried out on the decision to close the square for two weeks, which was made by an unnamed council officer, an investigation by this website has discovered.
Greenwich had originally claimed that the closure was at the request of the Metropolitan Police – but now both Scotland Yard and the council say that the decision came from the town hall.
The only written record of the closure came in a brief email from Ann-Marie Cousins, the cabinet member for community safety, saying she had “no objection in principle” to the closure. But her request to see a report for a previous year’s closure appeared to have been ignored.
Greenwich Council closed General Gordon Square for two weeks from October 24, citing safety concerns after disorder broke out around Halloween and Bonfire Night the previous year. Fencing was also erected in 2021, but did not prevent four police officers being injured when youths threw fireworks – an operation that Scotland Yard yesterday described as a “success”.
In the event, Woolwich was peaceful in 2022, but disorder broke out three miles away on the Greenwich Peninsula.
There was criticism online and an online petition set up to protest about the closure, which cost the council £10,000.
Jonathan Blower, who set up the petition, told 853 last November: “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.”
Despite having made the decision to close the square seven weeks previously, there was no warning given to locals, and 853 understands most councillors were also taken by surprise. A week into the closure an amateurish sign was put up to explain the closure and people were allowed into the square, but only from one corner of it. “Doesn’t look very inviting inside the cage,” one resident wrote on social media.
The decision to fence off part of Woolwich came just seven months after a 21-strong police team dedicated to crime in the town centre was unveiled with a photocall alongside Danny Thorpe, then the council leader.
Months to get answers
853 used freedom of information laws to ask both Greenwich Council and the Met to ask for documents relating to the closure.
Greenwich took three months to respond and could only produce a single email sent from Cousins to Sean McDermid, a senior council officer in charge of community safety, and Anthony Okereke, the council leader, on September 6 – some 48 days before the square was closed.
“I have no objection to this in principle. Prevention is better than cure,” Cousins wrote. “However, could I please have sight of the monitoring outcomes from last year’s fencing operation – assuming one was done – I’m interested in ensuring that the lessons to learn are taken into consideration.”
But there is no record of a response and the council did not answer when asked directly if Cousins was sent the report.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police could produce no documents at all after a five-week search, and would only say that “verbal conversations took place between the council and the borough commander regarding community safety over that period”.
When it was pointed out that 853 had sent several enquiries to its press bureau, so it would have documents, the Met then eventually found the reply chain which appeared to indicate that the question was initially sent to officers in west London to answer.
Then on October 31 an unnamed officer in the south-east London command unit tried to get an answer, commenting “not sure it was us who requested the fence or LA [local authority]”. No response was recorded.
‘Locals had asked for measures’
Asked why Greenwich Council did not engage with residents about its plans to close the square, a spokesperson said on Friday that locals had called for measures to be taken to stop disorder.
“The safety of our residents and our staff is our top priority. General Gordon Square was temporarily closed last year around Halloween, and then around Bonfire Night, to prevent the antisocial behaviour that took place in 2021 from happening again,” the spokesperson said.
“Local residents had requested that we take preventative action, and we are pleased that General Gordon Square avoided the same disturbance as before.
“The decision to temporarily close the square was taken by council officers in agreement with our elected members including the cabinet member for community safety and enforcement and does not need public consultation. The majority of feedback we received from the local public was in support of the closure. Going forward, we will consider what engagement is appropriate in line with our statutory duty to tackle crime and disorder.”
Scotland Yard did not say why media queries about the fence went unanswered last year. A spokesperson told 853 yesterday: “The Met supported the council’s decision to close the square from the end of October – beginning of November 2022 due to the success of closing the same area the previous year. In 2021 no disorder took place inside the perimeter and the area was much safer.
“In 2022 there was no disorder or anti-social behaviour in Woolwich town centre for the first time in more than five years. The policing plan was discussed with community members in advance.”
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