Council outlines vision for Woolwich but can’t answer ‘What went wrong’ in Eltham?

At a Council meeting this week, Councillors discussed plans for development on the Greenwich Peninsula and in Charlton, but were left asking ‘what went wrong’ in Eltham.


On Thursday Council Officers reported back to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee of Councillors, outlining the Growth and Investment strategy for Greenwich.  The presentation focused on the four Masterplans laid down by Greenwich Council covering Woolwich, Eltham, Charlton and the Peninsula. 


Starting with the Peninsula, Officers described some fascinating plans to help create a ‘Digital Peninsula’ based around encouraging students from Ravensbourne to set up businesses in the area following their graduation.  Although this had already cost £50,000 for consultants, there was a clear vision for the area, with plans to remove the gas holder (a Health and Safety issue) and create new housing and a school in the future. 


Then Officers moved on to Charlton, where there was a more mixed message, with some current businesses seen as desirable and others potentially needing to move.  It was felt that the lease signed by Sainsburys was so restrictive that it would be impossible for them to move, meaning we could reply on their presence for the next 65 years.  Indeed, better than that, in order to make a benefit of a disadvantage, Sainsburys had turned the area into a proper depot, which apparently meant that almost all of the internet shopping for the firm across the borough came from that one store.  In addition, the Royal Greenwich UTC (specialising in vocational qualifications for construction) which has been developed under Coalition Government plans, was seen as a real bonus for the area in starting to draw more people in. 


As Officers moved their presentation along the river, they came to Woolwich, which caused the most debate of the three northern sectors.  Officers were again clear that there was a strong vision for the area, with potential for further development of historic buildings which had often been overlooked.  Councillors comments and discussion focused heavily on the Leisure Centre (which the Council hoped could be moved), the fact that at least one Cabinet Member was not fully on board with the project as he had attended the Planning Board meeting to oppose the tower blocks (good for democracy was the response) and the way that Woolwich was increasingly drawing new people to it to live and shop.  One Labour Councillor noted that a lot of different people, including from Eltham, were now coming to Tescos and a couple expressed concern that the older communities were being left out of the development of the new Woolwich.  Overall however, despite the problems with excessive building of flats, it was hard to disagree that with the claim that with Crossrail Woolwich  would be a major transport hub outside of Central London and it was proudly boasted that the Travelodge had 95% occupancy, making it one of the best in their chain (interestingly attributed partly to the prison as visitors and lawyers needed somewhere to stay). 


Which left us last (and in Greenwich Council’s minds least) with Eltham.  The feeling of being an add on was so palpable that at the end of the discussion, one Labour Councillor suggested that while Eltham was once thriving, it was not now – he asked whether the work had been done to figure out what had gone wrong?  Cllr Drury asked for updates on the Grove development and the Coronet project and questioned whether the Masterplan for Eltham was worthwhile given such a major player on the High Street as Marks & Spencers chose to oppose it.  Compared to the clarity of the other visions, Eltham was clearly uncertain with no idea where a new school might be built if Eltham C of E was moved and problems with deliveries to shops being from the front rather than the rear.  One Eltham Councillor made the strange decision to attack Debenhams, Boots and Marks & Spencers as having downgraded their retail offer and asked the Council to put pressure on them to sort this out.  The discussion finished with some comments about Eltham Palace needing to become a greater part of the High Street, but no answers as to how this might be achieved – a metaphor for the wider discussion on Eltham.


Eltham Councillor Spencer Drury said “It was hard not to notice how much of a second class citizen Eltham appeared to be.  The plans for other areas had received substantial investment through employing consultants and seemed to have some interesting ideas (like the Digital Peninsula) however, Eltham appeared to have received nothing like this level of support.  Far from treating New Eltham, Mottingham and Kidbrooke as part of a wider Eltham area and developing a vision across our part of the borough, the Council appears to be happy to shrug its shoulders and hope the private sector steps in.  Of course, when the private sector does do this, the local MP opposes their plans, which is one of the reasons that the Coronet remains incomplete after all this time.”


“Eltham Conservatives will keep asking questions and putting pressure on the Council, but without more opposition Councillors in Middle Park & Sutcliffe or Eltham West ward it is always going to be an uphill struggle.”