Avery Hill Winter Gardens

Eltham residents have set up a petition to demand Greenwich University and Greenwich Council secure the future of the historic Winter Garden in Avery Hill Park.

The petition comes days after the council’s deputy leader accused one of the area’s local councillors of playing politics in questioning its attitude to the building.

Built for Victorian mining magnate “Colonel” John Thomas North, the Grade II-listed structure is said to be the largest temperate winter garden in the country after Kew Gardens.

But campaigners say the university, which announced plans to sell the Winter Garden and surrounding teaching facilities in December 2014, is threatening to leave the adjacent mansion boarded up when it vacates the building at the end of 2018.

Already, large areas of the structure are in a poor state of repair, and neighbours are fearing for the building’s future.

University and council ‘stalemate’

Campaigners say the stalemate is down to a disagreement over what to with the building, which the university bought from Greenwich Council for £1 in 1992.

Many of the university’s teaching facilities on the site have moved to a new home in Greenwich, and it abandoned a lottery bid aimed at restoring the Winter Garden after deciding to leave.

While the university had hoped to build some housing on the site, the council is said to be insisting it says in educational use – reportedly wanting to relocate a secondary school on the site. Campaigners say it is unlikely a secondary school could raise the funds needed to restore the Winter Garden.

The Save Avery Hill Winter Gardens Campaign, which is holding a public meeting at Christ Church Hall, Eltham High Street at 7.30pm on Thursday 27 July, want the council and university to come up with a “mini-masterplan” for the site to help determine its future.

‘Election issue’

The matter was raised by Eltham South councillor Nuala Geary at last week’s full meeting of Greenwich Council. In a written response, deputy leader Danny Thorpe said a meeting had been arranged for this month between the council, the university, and Historic England, adding: “It is the university’s responsibility to ensure they meet their obligations in respect of the Winter Garden and the wider site.”

Greenwich Council meeting response

But asked by Cllr Geary if a representative of the Friends of Avery Hill Park could attend the meeting, Cllr Thorpe said it would be “inappropriate at this point”.

And pressed on whether his response meant the council had no obligation to protect the Winter Garden, Labour’s Cllr Thorpe accused the Conservative of “twisting my words in public”, saying the council had “a keen interest” in keeping the Winter Garden open, but it was the university’s responsibility.

He added: “Please stop trying to turn this into a little election issue in advance of the next election, because we’re standing up for people, and holding people to account, and I can only hope you are too, Councillor Geary.” (You can watch the exchange here, 36 mins 40 secs in.)

Cllr Geary later said she was “stunned by the sarcasm” of Cllr Thorpe’s response.

The Avery Hill Winter Garden petition is hosted on 38 Degrees and can be signed here. A hard copy version is in the park’s cafe.