The other week I found myself in Woolwich’s Marks & Spencer. An underpant crisis does that to a gentleman, you see. I stood for a minute, and looked around me. The shelves looked tatty. Wires hung down from the wall. The decor had barely changed since I was a kid, making 2014 fashion displays look like something out of 1974.
There couldn’t be many stores left with that proud, golden “MARKS & SPENCER” lettering on the front, I mused. Yet the main entrances had been locked up for years, presumably a last-ditch move against shoplifters. While down the road, Woolwich was shiny and new, here was the Woolwich that was still in decline. I must write about this some day, I thought, before remembering I had undercrackers to purchase. That’s the good thing about an M&S outlet shop – cheap pants.
But I’m going to have to go somewhere else for my discount drawers now, because Woolwich’s century-old M&S is for the chop. And it’s the first big headache for Greenwich Council’s leader-elect Denise Hyland, deputy-elect John Fahy, and regeneration cabinet member-elect Danny Thorpe.
They aren’t alone. Down in Gravesend, the council’s furious at the loss of their M&S. Up, way up in Redcar, the council’s planning talks – as is Greenwich. And with good reason. In South Shields, they say even charity shops are being hit by the loss of their store.
“[They] clearly have a lack of commercial judgement,” fumed John Fahy. But let’s be honest here – that M&S has looked doomed since the day it became an outlet store over a decade ago, when the main doors were bolted shut and the wires started hanging down from the ceiling. And the steel frame of the new Charlton M&S has started to emerge in recent weeks, ahead of its opening late next year. Did the arrival of Tesco bang the final nail in the coffin of M&S Woolwich? It’s a moot point after decades of decline.
But just as the national economic recovery is only being felt in a few places, Woolwich’s own re-emergence isn’t all that clear to all either.
Yup, shiny new-ish Tesco (tick), some coffee bars (tick), nice square that everyone likes (tick), but then the rest of it’s all behind the brick walls of the Arsenal. While Wellington Street, between the town hall and the council HQ, is immaculate and bedecked in “ROYAL GREENWICH” propaganda banners; Powis Street and Hare Street look as miserable as ever. If you had a choice, why would you do your shopping there?
And frankly, who’s left to do their shopping there? Big employers have moved out of Woolwich in recent decades and haven’t been replaced. Right opposite M&S on Thomas Street is the Island Site, once home to Thames Polytechnic/Greenwich University, now let out to small colleges. Over the road was Morgan-Grampian Publishing, whose offices are now flats. In the 1960s, according to the Survey of London, Woolwich’s M&S carried lines you’d usually only find in the West End. Today, there aren’t enough people around during the day to even buy heavily-discounted pants.
What to do? A council can’t work miracles, and you can’t force a business to stay, particularly one with shareholders to please. But it’s clear M&S hasn’t got much confidence in a real upturn in Woolwich’s fortunes, and judging by the state of the store, it probably hasn’t done for years. There are no easy answers, but one sign of what’s going wrong in Woolwich was in Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper last week…
The outgoing Dear Leader’s still in charge until Wednesday, so here’s Chris Roberts bigging up a plan for a “cultural quarter” behind the Royal Arsenal brick wall, without mentioning it’s an attempt to replace the ailing Firepower military museum.
Yet who’ll really benefit from this scheme? Roberts’ mates at Berkeley Homes, of course, who own the residential land surrounding the Firepower site. While Powis Street and Hare Street continue to decay, the council is still at Berkeley’s service.
Even more bafflingly, the “cultural quarter” plans seem at odds with the council’s own Woolwich masterplan, which envisage another cultural quarter, this time opposite the current M&S store.
Stroll along Polytechnic Street and you’ll find the neglected and empty-looking original Woolwich Polytechnic building, with intricate decorations around the windows; a mysterious “town hall annexe” which has seen better days, the original Woolwich swimming baths, and the crumbling first town hall from 1842. It’s a ghost street right in the heart of Woolwich.
Yet nothing’s happening to bring this back to life – indeed, the Woolwich Grand Theatre looks set to be replaced by flats. Fill this block with creative businesses, as promised in the masterplan, and you’d at least generate some daytime trade in Woolwich that had some money to spend.
But instead, Greenwich Council remains focused on pleasing Berkeley Homes above any other business, and while that continues, it’s hard to see the rest of Woolwich really getting much of a look-in.
Once Chris Roberts leaves on Wednesday, maybe the new leadership might change tack and look at ways to make sure the effects of Woolwich’s revamp are felt more evenly. At a hustings event for Woolwich Riverside ward, Labour’s Jackie Smith even suggested the wall surrounding the Arsenal come down – “if it happened in Berlin, it can happen in Woolwich”. It’s time to talk and find new ideas for Woolwich, instead of the old approach of painting over locals’ views.
And maybe for that Arsenal “cultural quarter”… what about a nice new M&S outlet store? Otherwise, I’m going to have to start stocking up on cut-price undercrackers very soon…
8.05am update: John Fahy has written to M&S: “The alternative to this proposal should be to dispense with the Outlet brand,restore the M&S brand and extend the Simply Food floor space.”