The future of the Greenwich Heritage Centre remains “under discussion” and it may not move back to the Royal Arsenal as promised, councillors were told last night, three years after it was evicted from its home in Woolwich to make way for a £31m arts centre.
Thousands of artefacts and historical records have been stored in a warehouse in Charlton since the centre suddenly moved out of the Royal Arsenal in July 2018 so its base could be converted into Woolwich Works.
Users were told that the centre would move back to the Arsenal in 2023 – but the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk is due to sign a five-year lease on the building originally earmarked for the heritage centre.
Meanwhile, the lease on the warehouse in Charlton runs out in 2024 – with long-term plans to build a new road through the site to serve the new Charlton Riverside developments. The Anchorage Point industrial estate on Anchor and Hope Lane, where the warehouse sits, is being sold so a new school can be built.
While users have been able to visit Anchorage Point by appointment – in contrast with the open-door policy at the heritage centre’s old base at Woolwich – this has not been possible since the pandemic began in March 2020. It will reopen for appointments later this year, councillors were told.
Quizzed by David Gardner about the “sudden inexplicable change” in strategy, Daniel Stanesby, the council’s assistant director of capital projects, told councillors there were “ongoing conversations” about the centre’s future.
“We’ve done a lot of work at Anchorage Point to create a centre that’s operational, the future beyond that is under discussion,” he said.
The centre was opened by the council in 2003, and was spun off – along with Charlton House – in 2014 into the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, with claims that it would be easier for an independent body to access outside grants.
Pippa Hack, the council’s director of regeneration, enterprise and skills, said that the trust’s chief executive, Tracy Stringfellow, had been in discussions with a senior council officer about its “security of tenure” at Anchorage Point.
“The lease runs until 2024, it’s not impacted by the school proposal but it will be ultimately impacted by the east-west route through Charlton Riverside,” she said, adding that it was unlikely that work on the new road would begin before then.
Hack said that the Woolwich Exchange development – around the former covered market – could also provide a new home for the centre.
“We are in discussions with Tracy about coming back to Woolwich and what that might mean – and looking at a range of options in terms of Woolwich Works but also other things in the heart of the town centre, for example Woolwich Exchange might present an opportunity as well.”
Gardner said that he was “a bit bemused” by the uncertain future for the archive, adding that he understood that the heritage centre was to be “an anchor” to the Woolwich Works plans.
Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy said that both residents and councillors were “shocked … that the heritage centre had been snatched away in the dead of the night without having an opportunity to discuss or influence [its future]”.
“We owe it to residents to have it back in its proper place in the Arsenal. I’m not starting a petition or chaining myself to the gates of the Arsenal, but that might happen some time in the future,” he said.
“I do think it is an issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.”
Hack said that it was unlikely there would be a final answer on the future of the centre by September, when the panel’s next meeting is due to be held.
“We’ll have to review whether [moving back to the Arsenal] is possible or if that’s not possible, what the alternative options might be. We want to work with Tracy and her team and we will.”