The Greenwich Council cabinet meeting of July 23rd passed without much comment last month, probably because one of the most interesting parts of the agenda was heard in closed session. Closed sessions such as these normally happen when the discussion will include information that is subject to a court order, an individual’s financial or business affairs or if negotiations are under way for land, goods or services.
The cabinet have resolved to buy a 2.3 acre site at 82-86 Nathan Way from Tilfen Land in order to build 20 industrial units and a permanent site for the oft-mooted construction skills centre. The majority of the units will be 2,000sqft in size and the £6m development should pay for itself within 11 years.
It’s good to see the council being proactive for a change when it comes to small business, but one thing this project won’t do is create any new jobs. Despite claims from some quarters that the Core Strategy is merely an aspiration, one of the reasons stated for the urgency of this project is a need to house the businesses that are soon to be displaced by some of the policies that the Core Strategy contains.
The Charlton Riverside is one such area due for massive change in the years to come. After many years as an EU enterprise zone where money was pumped in to keep light industry by the river there’s now a council-sponsored drive to replace these units with much more valuable housing. Anybody would think some of the land was owned by the Co-Op’s pension fund…
Another area of light industry due to be cleared is the once award-winning light industrial area in Woolwich Arsenal. Starting life as the iO Centre, and later becoming the L&P Centre after a buyout, the low-rise blocks of industrial units, together with Berkeley’s sympathetic restoration of the adjacent old Arsenal buildings for housing, were citied as one of the ways forward for the capital – a live-work example for all – when people are increasingly forced to live further and further from where the jobs actually are.
How times change. Fast-forward a decade and we now have 20 storey blocks with shoebox-sized apartments going up everywhere in the Arsenal and, despite promises to the contrary from Chris Roberts at the Masterplan decision-making cabinet of April 2012, it looks like the industrial units will be replaced by more towers. There are no plans to relocate the existing businesses, even if the land were available – there are nearly 50 units ranging from a few thousand to 10,000sqft per unit in the Arsenal alone.
Decisions such as these make a mockery of any attempt to promote businesses in our borough outside of big retail. TfL have projected that Greenwich will see one of London’s highest continued rises in population over the next decade and one of the smallest increases in employment. This can only put our infrastructure under far more pressure – if you think these people will be using cars to get to their place of work then you’re sorely misguided. After all, how many people drive to Hammersmith at the moment, and will projects like the Silvertown Tunnel or Gallions Bridge really help them to get there?
There are other ways to drive growth, jobs and business that haven’t been explored. Greenwich Council owns over 10% of the available commercial property in the borough and much of it has been lying vacant for years. Of course, they wouldn’t want you to know this and any requests for detailed information about this have been rejected since late last year.
Not only is this a loss of rents and business rates, it’s an appalling dereliction of duty to our communities and the public realm. It’s all well and good having the big ideas, and even some of these are dubious, but if you neglect the basics then everything and everybody suffers. Reducing business rates further for start-ups and businesses moving into the area, along with advantageous terms and nominal rents for vacant council properties, would cost far less than the £3m+ a year currently spent on the council’s employment programme, and help the local economy and a lot more than 200 people a year. Where does the rest of that money go anyway?
If this “new era” at Greenwich Council continues along the path of the last we’re soon going to reach a critical point of sudden decline in our areas that’ll be very difficult to recover from. The only realistic option with this scenario would be a series of dormitory towns, easy council tax revenues and a transient population putting little pressure on services like schools and hospitals. Surely the current leadership wouldn’t be that lazy or stupid?
I’m crossing my fingers that they’ll see sense, but I’m repeatedly told I’m overly optimistic. What do you think?