Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe says the authority will look again at how Woolwich’s controversial Spray Street redevelopment scheme will affect black and minority ethnic communities.
Developers St Modwen and Notting Hill Housing plan to knock down shops as well as the old covered market, replacing them with 742 new homes, shops, offices, a cinema and a new public square as part of a major regeneration scheme promoted by the council.
Scores of BME-run business face being forced out of the area, with one shop owner telling a public meeting run by local lobby group Speak Out Woolwich that he had been offered new premises three miles away in Abbey Wood.
At the close of Monday’s event, Thorpe left without saying goodbye to organisers, complaining that they had been rude to him, after the meeting’s chair John Edwards asked for the council to be more open with the group about plans for the area.
Speak Out Woolwich has raised questions over whether an equality assessment submitted by the developers has been sufficient, with one bone of contention whether it covered a wide enough area – the current assessment covers an area as far west as Charlton, but doesn’t extend as far east into Plumstead and Thamesmead, despite their dependence on Woolwich as an economic centre.
Thorpe said: “In March this year, particular concerns were raised that somehow the Spray Street development was somehow all about clearing out BME organisations from Woolwich. I absolutely refute that, it’s completely untrue, and to that extent, I made sure we were out engaging and talking to people, we had a meeting where we invited all the businesses down – about 23 attended.
“Whatever views you want to have have on the development, I just want to assure you that clearly, the council is about a Woolwich that works for everyone, and we’d never be involved in targeting a particular community.
“At that meeting, some people said, ‘I’m really concerned, I want more information,’ others said, ‘how much do I get to leave?’. So there is a diffeence of views within Spray Street businesses themselves.”
He added: “The council is now in the process of developing a new equalities assessment, which is specifically about understanding the impact of using compulsory purchase powers on organisations and protecting groups in the Spray Street area.”
Thorpe also said that two firms – Tree Shepherd and GL Hearn – had been appointed to “reach out” to businesses in the area. But one businesswoman – Barareh Berendji, who runs a dental surgery with her family – was scornful of the efforts of Tree Shepherd, which is also involved in the controversial Elephant & Castle shopping centre redevelopment.
“I’ve been approached by Tree Shepherd, they came to visit our practice to tell us how to run a business,” she said. “I know how to run a business! I don’t need someone to help me to run a business, I need someone to help me keep my business!”
But Thorpe was angry after chair Edwards commented at the end about the difficulties Speak Out Woolwich had in dealing with the council (video above, starts 25 minutes and 30 seconds in).
“We have found it very frustrating as a group. We want to make a positive influence in Woolwich. You talk about pre-engagement we’ve asked repeatedly to be involved at an early stage with any new developments that are coming up. The first we ever get to hear about things, usually, is through 853 and From The Murky Depths. We don’t hear about it through the council.
“The feeling we’re left with is that there isn’t a desire to engage with us. Now that could be mistaken, and if it is mistaken, the council needs to think about how it seriously starts to engage with communities at an early stage. Otherwise, people don’t believe it, and we all want to believe it.”
An uncomfortable-looking Thorpe did not respond to Edwards’ point, but as soon as the meeting finished – and after both 853 and Speak Out Woolwich had stopped filming the event – the council leader walked off without saying goodbye to him. When Edwards called out to him, Thorpe returned, and 853 understands that he accused Edwards of being rude.
Survey of London author and historian Peter Guillery contrasted the approach taken by St Modwen and Notting Hill – to demolish the whole area around Spray Street and start again – with the construction of the Woolwich Dockyard Estate in the 1970s, which provided social housing and kept heritage facilities such as the old docks and the Clockhouse community centre. It provided “genuinely affordable housing combined with respect for local history,” he said.
“Woolwich is gradually, but losing its distinctive character. It was never just another south London suburb, it was historically a very proud town and separate from other south London districts,” he added.
“It had, as the writer Ian Nairn put it, ‘thumping self-centred vitality’. This has been sapped, particularly in the Arsenal.”
Guillery also referred to the demolition of the Director-General pub and the old post office and warned the Spray Street scheme would “wipe out a whole lot more of old Woolwich”.
One shopkeeper, Mr Patel from a newsagent on Woolwich New Road said: “I’ve been trading on the same spot for 35 years. It’s always been at the heart of the community, we had a thriving Woolwich market which the council has let it run down over the years.
“We’re all in favour of change… but we’re part of the community and we make it tick. I had a laughable offer from someone from Tree Shepherd – ‘if we relocate you to Abbey Wood, would you be happy with that?’
“I mean, we want to be part of this, we’ve worked our lives here. We should be allowed to be where we are and be given a place to trade from, instead of just being bought out and moved on. We want to be part of this community.”
The meeting also heard from the Twentieth Century Society, which is hoping to get the covered market listed, while Save Britain’s Heritage director Henrietta Billings compared the fight to save it with the successful battle to preserve Smithfield Market in the City.
“These buildings can be reused, and what we’re seeing here [in Woolwich] is the demolition of an entire inner city site,” she said.
“It’s busting with history, it tells a fascinating story about the development of Woolwich, and it really isn’t good enough for the developers to be coming forward with proposals for complete and utter obliteration.”
St Modwen and Notting Hill is due to go before Greenwich Council’s planning board in the autumn, although if the Twentieth Century Society is successful in getting the covered market listed, this timetable could be delayed.
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