Something strange happened in Woolwich during the Olympics and Paralympics. The town centre – well, General Gordon Square – became a nice place to be in, far removed from the days when council staff used to have to fish turds out of the fountain each morning.

Much of the credit has to come down to Greenwich Council’s remodelling of the square. Now it’s no longer an underwhelming traffic island, it’s becoming a genuine focal point. One night during the Paralympics, I came home via Woolwich on a balmy night to find the atmosphere almost Mediterranean – it was long past 11pm, but with people out in the square, and the fantastic artworks that have appeared on shop shutters – I felt a hint of Barcelona about it. Or maybe it was the skateboarders that reminded me of Plaça de Catalunya…

All it needs, though, is something worthwhile to pop up in the old Woolwich Equitable headquarters. Largely abandoned since the now-defunct building society shipped out to Bexleyheath in the 1990s (to an HQ closed when it was bought by Barclays in 2000, although now to become the new civic centre for Bexley Council), it’s been refurbished and is being slowly let out to new businesses. A small health centre aside, though, what’s turned up hasn’t been impressive – two bookies and a convenience store, with the corner site facing Greens End remaining empty.

Enter a firm called Antic, which runs a shedload of London pubs, and has specialised in turning around troubled sites. Its best known venue is the
Dogstar in Brixton, but it also revamped the old Paradise Bar in New Cross into the fine Royal Albert pub.

Most recently, it’s transformed Catford’s miserable Copperfield into the Catford Bridge Tavern, while Lewisham’s crappy old Coach and Horses has been reinvented into the Ravensbourne Arms, arguably one of the best pubs in south-east London. Antic’s recipe is simple – get some decent beers in, serve some good food, and put on a few events every now and then. I’d love for Antic to open a pub in Greenwich, but instead it went for somewhere a bit tougher…

Antic had its eye on the old Woolwich Equitable site – and put a licensing application in to turn part of it into a new pub, The Woolwich. The full details are available here. Woolwich isn’t exactly awash with quality pubs, and lost one of the few decent ones in the town centre when the Director General closed to make way for the council’s new HQ. In addition, another pub facing General Gordon Square, The Pullman, went a few years back so the Docklands Light Railway could be built.

What did Antic want to offer?

“Good quality pub and restaurant located on the main square in Woolwich. The pub will have a premium offer with a high quality British menu served throughout but with a restaurant area on the mezzanine level. The pub will have extended hours in common with the other pubs within Antic, allowing it to be fully utilised as an asset to the local area.”

Those late hours were to 2am at weekends, by the way – which compares with the 3am and 4am licences dished out by the council elsewhere in Woolwich.

So, a new firm to the area, with a good track record of turning round dodgy boozers into prime public houses – surely this would be right up the council’s street?

Nope – they turned it down.

“The Sub-Committee agreed that while the applicant had good intentions there would be a negative cumulative impact on the Woolwich Town Centre Saturation Zone which the applicant had neither addressed or put forward representations to show how there would be no impact. The Sub-Committee found that the prevention of crime and disorder licensing objective could not be met and was likely to increase instances of crime and anti-social behaviour in the Town Centre, and in particular in General Gordon Square. The Sub-Committee therefore refused the application.”

In short, both the council and the police think there are too many licensed premises in Woolwich, even though there are two fewer than there were a decade ago. Here’s the police’s objection, delivered in Comic Sans:

What I don’t understand is – how on earth does Greenwich Council, or the police, expect to attract people into Woolwich in the evening if it doesn’t have anywhere decent to go? Antic’s pubs succeed in pulling in visitors from well beyond their neighbourhoods; options for a decent night in Woolwich are pitiful to say the least. It should have been clear that this place wouldn’t be competing with the likes of the The Great Harry or the Earl of Chatham (and its mystifying 4am licence), yet somehow both police and council seem to see all pubs as potential dens of evil, instead of as community hubs.

Towns aren’t regenerated by expecting people to be in bed by midnight, yet the refusal of the licence for The Woolwich coincided with signs being slapped everywhere for a “dispersal zone” targeting groups of youths.

If a more diverse range of people were attracted into Woolwich for a more diverse set of nights out, perhaps those groups wouldn’t gather in the first place – more eyes on the street will keep the streets safer than any authoritarian threat from police.

Hopefully Antic will be back with another application, because Woolwich needs somewhere like this badly. The Dial Arch, behind the walls of the Arsenal, showed that if you open a decent-ish pub, you can pull a crowd in. A good pub at the Equitable House site would really transform Woolwich. Instead, though, I fear a small-minded council has blown it once again.

37 replies on “Has Greenwich Council blown a chance to transform Woolwich?”

  1. What a shame! An Antic pub in Woolwich would’ve been great & surely an attraction for possible buyers of the new flats being built on the opposite side of the square. The Royal Albert doesn’t seem to cause an issue in New Cross, Woolwich isn’t that dissimilar a place. It’s sad that Equitable House hasn’t been given over to a business which would actually enhance the area, just language schools which don’t last very long. Have to say though, the convenience store is very handy when returning home late!

  2. Steve – I think the Ravensbourne has been hacked. Unless the Taliban nip out for a pint after shooting up a fuel convoy…..

  3. Yes, the Royal Albert’s site had clearly been hacked last night. Shame, although maybe appearing to back refreshing thirsty Taliban rebels probably doesn’t help licensing applications!

  4. Belay my earlier. I’ve shown it to an Arabic-speaking colleague. It is Iraqi Jihadists.

    The opening caption reads “This site has been hacked by Dr zero”

    The fuel convoy was shot up some time ago.

    Interesting though, is someone going to tell the Ravensbourne??!!

  5. Such a shame. As a regular visitor to Woolwich I know that the offer for a decent pint in pleasant surroundings and the prospect of some decent food in the town centre is not that great. Woolwich is changing and a decent place to meet and eat is much needed, Add to that the fact that the building is listed and desperately needs a new use that is a good fit with the splendour of the former banking hall and this all adds up to a missed opportunity.

  6. I love Woolwich. I still class it as my hometown even though I haven’t lived there for a few years now.

    It’s all very well saying the area is “saturated” but when it is saturated with lousy boozers it’s hardly a marketing draw for home buyers, renters and businesses.

    I lived in Erith once in one of the new developments on the riverside. The flat was awesome, the rent was reasonable but given there was only one half decent pub and no restaurants I didn’t exactly have a hard time leaving when I had to.

    You can build the nicest apartments in the world but if the surrounding facilities are not up to scratch people will quickly move on to other areas or spend their money in other areas thus creating horrible Ghost Towns of boarded up shops and pubs.

    The Dial Arch is a lovely pub and I only wish it was there when I lived there. Up until then the only other pubs I would frequent in Woolwich was the Great Harry and the Rose Tavern. There are not many restaurants I can think off the top of my head in Woolwich therefore it really could have done with a pub providing good food and good beer. I certainly would have come to town to try it out (especially as friends of mine are regulars of the Royal Albert and cannot say a bad word about it).

    I think the council have shot themselves in the foot Royally over this. Let’s hope Antic do not give up as I would love to see a new decent pub in Woolwich. I will certainly pop by to check it out!

  7. Chris and Darryl – I’m guessing that it was the “Arms” part of the name that appealed to the jihadists!

  8. Carys – really apt comparison with Erith. There’s some lovely places by the river there, but by heck it’s a neglected ghost town.

  9. I totally agree about the square having great vibes during both olympics. There were lots of people about clapping and cheering during the events – it was good fun and friendly.

    Woolwich really really needs an alternative on the level of the Dials Arch pub and also somewhere friendly to watch football (Dials, the Bull, The Rose Inn, O’Conners – all no).

    We haven’t tried The Earl of Chatham since I was frisked for a knife one Friday eve after work.

    I still don’t really understand why the public aren’t allowed in the “box” above the library – staff only I was told. What a great place to meet that would make.

  10. Back on topic!

    I had no idea of the existence of those beautiful looking paintings on the shutters. How long have they been there? I really must take a potter down to have a butchers.

    But there lies the rub, there is nothing else to attract me to Woolwich. Can anyone seriously imagine a nice night out in Woolwich? Maybe the proposed place could have made a difference.

  11. I am amazed that the council don’t see the merit of a quality boozer in town. “In my day” there were several pubs in town and weekends were terrible at 3am – kicking out time for the Ordnance – my old stomping ground – and the Pullman. TJs was open til 5am I think. There used to be rolling fights down that stretch of road and we lost a window at the Ordnance to street bins being thrown through three times. (It was always the same window too!) I can see why the Council don’t want to go back to those glory days, but the demographics of the catchment area of town centre pubs have changed hugely since then. Eejits.

  12. I can remember when Woolwich was a great place for a night out especially if there was a good band at the Tramshed. Mind you there were students in the town in those days. Nowadays nothing. An upmarket pub in the old Woolwich building would be ideal and, as everyone else says, it would be a good attraction. Yes the so called Royal Borough of Greenwich has scored a spectacular own goal here. I am sure that a compromise could have been sorted out.

  13. Incredibly stupid decision. A chance for a massive shot in the arm for Woolwich spurned because the police send out a reflex-like rejection. Seemingly no one in the council or the police looked into the type of pub it would be and who the pub group were. One that has good quality pubs that do good beer and food. I wonder if the imminent (or has it gone already?) closure of Woolwich Police station was a factor?

    I love how they say it’s ‘very saturated’. Have these people been to town centres anywhere else in the country? Woolwich is mostly dead in the evening.

    Chris – those shopfront images were done by a group from Bristol there was a vid elsewhere on the BBC site. The graffiti/street art scene in Bristol is amazing. Fantastic works all over the city, and they had a festival on over the summer where artists painted on grotty 60s buildings awaiting demolition. Council supported as well. Imagine Greenwich being as forward thinking as that.

  14. “If a more diverse range of people were attracted into Woolwich for a more diverse set of nights out, perhaps those groups wouldn’t gather in the first place – more eyes on the street will keep the streets safer than any authoritarian threat from police.”

    I agree, but unfortunately Antic failed to explain that in their application.

    Woolwich Town Centre is designated as a ‘Saturation Zone’ and as such it is not enough for an applicant to have a good track record, but the applicant has to show (in writing, in the application) that the new premises will not add to the problems. That is how the Licensing Act works.

  15. Woolwich Town Centre has improved and its reputation has improved. No one can doubt that some progress has been made but there is much more to do. The shopfronts are an amazing improvement. I would certainly prefer more good quality pubs and restaurants than the growing number of betting shops. The Market needs a significant makeover to support the Town Centre. The night life economy is stagnant and needs some serious attention. The Film Club in the Grand Theatre is slowly building up its profile. My colleagues and I are determined to secure improvements. We would welcome some feedback from interested parties. Write to us at the Town Hall. I hope we can set up a discussion group to develop ideas.

  16. John Fahy

    In view of all the favourable comments here , could you use your best endeavours to persuade your colleagues to look again at Antic’s proposals should they re-apply for a licence for these premises

  17. If anyone wants to take Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy up on the discussion group, he can be found on john.fahy[at]

  18. Not to worry people, if the Deptford experience is anything to go by, an accountant of the turf will pretty soon fill the vacuum and even the Greenwich planning mafia will be powerless to stop that infection. Thanks to the worst change in legislation ever drawn up by a Labour government……..unless anyone knows a worthier candidate for that honour ?

  19. There was a very recent (6th September 2012) Leeds case, very similar to this.

    An application, made by Brewdog (reportedly a very good operator of a similar standard to Antic) was initially refused at the council hearing due to being in a Cumulative Impact Zone (due to an objection by Police), but won on appeal.

    The judge said: “The Cumulative Impact Policy was introduced with the best possible motives to control the grant of licences to new premises [however] it cannot be the policy of the Cumulative Impact Policy to bring the iron curtain clanging down to allow such clubs [e.g. existing misbehaved ones] to continue to trade while shutting out Brewdog which attracts more discerning customers who do not engage in binge drinking”.

    He finished: “I accept that the Committee and the Police did their best but their application of the Policy was too rigid. They seemed to take the view that man was made for the Policy, when the Policy should be
    made for man.”

    I think this happened in this (Greenwich) case, IMHO.

    Common sense can prevail then; one just needs to look towards a higher court to get it, sometimes.

    Let us hope they reapply, and perhaps get some much needed support from local residents second time round?

  20. Closer to home, Black Vanilla ice cream bar in Greenwich – which had an application to sell champagne (for gelatos) thrown out on similar reasons – finally got a licence last week.

    These things aren’t as black and white as, it would appear, our council thinks they are.

  21. Hi Just to let everyone know, all our Antic sites have been hacked, it’s being sorted as we speak. Absolutely nothing we can do about it I’m afraid but very much NOT what we condone!

  22. I arrived in Woolwich two years ago, originally renting in the Royal Arsenal. My wife and I have just bought a place up the road and are making our home here. In all that time, all we have said to ourselves as we get off the DLR is ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if some enterprising souls opened up a quality pub on the town-side of Beresford Road?’.

    When I learned of Antic’s plans to tenant the Equitable Building I was thrilled! Just what the place needs. How could anyone object? When I learned that Greenwich Council knocked it back, I was just about struck dumb! Might be time to run for Council.

Comments are closed.