Speak Out Woolwich protesters, 13 December 2017
Speak Out Woolwich protesters gathered outside Woolwich Town Hall

Wednesday night at the council: A 1,407-signature petition against plans for a 27-storey tower block in front of Woolwich Tesco was presented to Greenwich Council on Wednesday night, with protesters appealing to councillors to deliver more social rented homes in Woolwich.

Woolwich Common councillor and cabinet member David Gardner presented the petition, gathered by campaign group Speak Out Woolwich, which protested outside Woolwich Town Hall ahead of the meeting.

Developer Meyer Homes wants to build the tower on green space in front of the supermarket with three other blocks of between nine and 16 storeys behind the store, providing 804 flats in total.

The developer is already appealing against Greenwich Council refusing it permission to fence off the green space, which it bought from the retailer in 2015.

Woolwich Town Hall - council meeting
Kate Heath and Dorota Paluch address the council

Spokeswoman Dorota Paluch told councillors (watch here): “We are currently in the grip of a housing crisis with rising homelessness and a growing inequality gap. Speak Out Woolwich believes that, only by the council listening to local residents and working together with us, can we remedy this problem.”

Paluch said that across Greenwich and Woolwich, the number of available social rented properties had been greatly reduced, adding: “DIvisions based on wealth are being created in the heart of our community.

“Woolwich needs a regeneration plan which puts local people first, not private developers. Even so-called ‘affordable’ homes are unaffordable to many in our community.”

Colleague Kate Heath said the council was going against its own recommendation, and asked for it to “take a firm and strict approach in rejecting plans that fail to meet both the council’s and residents’ standards”.

Speak Out Woolwich
Campaigners want the council to provide more social housing

Deputy leader and regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe, who also sits on the council’s main planning committee, said he shared the “frustration” of the group. (Watch here)

“Too often on a daily basis we come into this building and find residents outside the Woolwich Centre with their bags, who have been made homeless. It’s a complete fact that the housing market is broken, and as a council we’e made the case that we need the tools to be able to deliver, to build the homes people need.

“I don’t think there’s a single person in this room who thinks a 28-storey tower with no affordable housing is the answer to the housing crisis.

Thorpe said he “understood concerns about putting developers first” and said the council had introduced “stakeholder forums so we can have residents, developers, groups from across the borough in the same room to have these conversations”. “When I took up this post, I was really conscious that the council was often squeezed in the middle,” he added.

Thorpe added that Greenwich was one of only five boroughs that had delivered over 35% “affordable” housing and had delivered 1800 “new, geneuinely affordable homes” over the past three years, compared with 100 in Bexley. “We are working day and night to deliver as many socially rented homes as possible.”

Speak Out Woolwich protesters, 13 December 2017
Housing concerns roused strong feelings in the town hall

Council housing ‘has become a dirty word’

But Thorpe later angrily criticised a former Conservative councillor in the public gallery, who also said in a question that “council housing” had become a “dirty word” in the borough.

Eileen Glover, a former Eltham South councillor who quit the Conservatives after she was deselected, criticised the council’s use of its own company, Meridian Home Start, to deliver “affordable” housing at Shepherd Leas in Eltham, saying many on the housing waiting list would be ineligible for the new homes it was planning to build.

“We don’t need ‘affordable’ housing, we need good quality council housing,” she said to applause from the Speak Out Woolwich protesters. (Watch here)

Thorpe said: “If we’re going to take lectures on social housing from a former Tory councillor who now masquerades as an independent Conservative then you’ve got another thing coming, Eileen.” (Watch here.)

He added: “I was born on the Ferrier and I’m proud that this borough still has council housing and has not sold off its stock to housing associations. Look at the disasters that have unfolded in Kensington and Chelsea where we have ALMOs [arms-length management organisations] that have done a real disservice to residents.”

Thorpe said that homes from Meridian Home Start at Shepherd Leas would be at 50-60% of market rent, which was “another Labour achievement”.

Danny Thorpe
Danny Thorpe was involved in a heated clash with a former councillor

‘Parochial’ concerns about Eltham developments

There were other harsh words for Tories when Eltham North councillor Charlie Davis asked why residents couldn’t see an action plan for Eltham town centre.

Thorpe said: “Residents don’t want to see bits of paper, they want to see Labour investment such as a cinema and a transformed high street, all symbols of decisions made in this chamber in partnership with residents. As with other areas, Eltham continues to grow and prosper.” (Watch here)

When Davis stepped up later to ask why developers’ cash from building flats on the site of Eltham Baths had gone to Cutty Sark Gardens in Greenwich, across the other side of the borough,

Thorpe replied:“The fact is, in relation to Section 106 and CIL [Community Infrastructure Levy] money, that money has to be spread across the borough, because it’s about mitigating and managing the impact of that development.

“So I’d suggest, if after the Christmas break, Cllr Davis would like to have a chat with me about being less parochial, I’d be more than happy to assist.” (Watch here)

Davis did not respond to ask how money for Cutty Sark Gardens mitigated the impact of building a block of flats four miles away.

Abbey Wood crown post office -copyright Julian Osley
Abbey Wood is the last remaining crown post office in Greenwich borough (photo: Julian Osley, used under Creative Commons) Credit: Julian Osley via Creative Commons

Abbey Wood: Two libraries, no crown post office

The council was also addressed by Mole Mead of the Communications Workers Union – unusually, in a time meant for residents’ questions – about the threat to Abbey Wood crown post office, the last one remaining in the borough.

Mead told councillors that this meant newcomers to the UK would no longer be able to recieve UK Border Agency information anywhere within Greenwich borough as only crown post offices offered those services. (Watch here)

“In Greenwich, if we lose that, we will have absolutely nothing for these people, and that is an appalling situation to find ourselves in,” he said.

Mead pointed out there were two libraries being built in the area – one for Bexley Council, the other for Greenwich Council. “You don’t need two libraries in the same street,” he said.

He said Greenwich could put the Post Office under “serious pressure” and offer it space in its library in Abbey Wood to provide services.

Danny Thorpe said the council was “concerned about job losses” and lamented poor service in privatised post offices. (Watch here)

He said moving the post office into the new library at a peppercorn rent was a “reasonable suggestion” but added: “We did want to engage with Bexley on the development of the library, but actually, as a Labour council, we don’t believe in handing over libraries to community groups, we believe in councils running libraries.”

Greenwich’s libraries are actually run by not-for-profit group Greenwich Leisure Limited, while next door Labour Lewisham has handed over most of its libraries to community groups.

“We’ve not closed a single library”, he added. (Ferrier library closed without replacement in 2012.)

Pay up if you want space in Eltham Centre, police told

However, while Thorpe said the council would consider a peppercorn rent for Abbey Wood post office, his cabinet colleague Jackie Smith ruled out allowing the Metropolitan Police to use space in the council’s Eltham Centre to house officers following this week’s closure of Eltham police station.

A written response to Tory leader Matt Hartley said the Met was seeking “rent-free” accommodation in council buildings, but the council would “need to seek a rental payment from the police if we are to obtain value for money for Greenwich Council taxpayers”.

She said discussions on the matter would continue.

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