Greenwich Council failed to produce any written reports on whether fencing off the borough’s main public square over Halloween stopped crime, this website has uncovered.
The council spent £10,000 last year on sealing off General Gordon Square, in the heart of Woolwich, for two weeks last October over fears of antisocial behaviour. Four police officers were injured when youths threw fireworks the previous year, when the square was also fenced off.
While Woolwich was quiet on Halloween, disorder broke out on the Greenwich Peninsula.
At first, the council claimed that it had acted on police advice, but investigations by 853 found that the town hall had made the decision alone without making any safety assessments.
Now a freedom of information request has uncovered that no written assessment of the closure was produced – and the council officer in charge has now left.
The only written record of the closure that exists at the council’s Woolwich Centre HQ – other than invoices for fencing – is in a brief email from Ann-Marie Cousins, the cabinet member for community safety, telling Sean McDermid, the council’s assistant director in charge of community safety, that she had “no objection in principle” to the closure. Cousins’ email was sent in September, but residents were not warned until the square was fenced off seven weeks later.
The councillor also asked to see the “monitoring outcomes” from the previous year’s operation – but no report was made. No report was made in 2022, either, despite a petition against the closure and regional media attention from MyLondon, the News Shopper and South London Press.
Instead, “a verbal update on outcomes was given to the councillor, by the assistant director, who has since left the council”.
No records were kept by the police about the closure either, although Scotland Yard said last month that the Met had supported the council’s decision. A dedicated police team for Woolwich town centre had been unveiled a few months earlier, in the run-up to the council election.
Matt Hartley, the council’s Conservative opposition leader, said that the council needed to act more transparently about closing public spaces and to look again.
He said: “The council has a difficult balance to strike here, and is under a duty to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour – including through preventative measures if necessary. It is important, however, that all decisions about our public spaces are based on clear evidence and made in a transparent way. Based on what has been uncovered, it seems that this hasn’t been the case when it comes to the closure of General Gordon Square.
“No one wants to see the square closed off and I really hope this tactic won’t be deemed necessary in the future. If it is judged to be necessary for a specific reason, then that decision should be made by the cabinet member and based on a written rationale.
“And it’s clear that the impact of the closure of General Gordon Square around Halloween last year needs to be reviewed – including consideration of any knock-on impacts this may have had elsewhere – to help inform any future decisions on this.”
Asked to respond to this story, the council did not address why it did not keep a written record of how the closure went.
A spokesperson said: “After a series of anti-social behaviour in General Gordon Square in autumn 2020, local residents requested that we take preventative measures to avoid this happening again.
“As such, the square was temporarily closed last year around Halloween, and then around Bonfire Night. This decision was taken by council officers in agreement with our elected members including the cabinet member for community safety and enforcement.
“Following the closure, the cabinet member was fully briefed on the outcome. We were satisfied that the actions taken, based on police guidance, were appropriate and were pleased that General Gordon Square avoided the same disturbance as before. The majority of feedback we received from the local public was also in support of the closure.
“This policy is not concrete and is reviewed on a case by case basis. The decision to fence off the area at any given time is always taken with the help of the police based on their assessment of the public order risk at the time.”