You might have read over on the Charlton Champion about the kerfuffle surrounding Greenwich Council’s plans to build a BMX track in Hornfair Park. It got planning permission on 25 May, so it’s going ahead.
On paper, this should be a good thing, for it will provide a new distraction for young people in a locality where there’s pretty much nothing to do. However, many locals were concerned about it attracting more crime to an area that’s already a drug-dealing hot spot. The park’s seen better days, and many complain that crack dealers use the unlocked open space after dark.
Indeed, an idea which should have been universally welcomed instead managed to anger and alienate a large proportion of the park’s neighbours, who complained about a lack of consultation and felt the whole thing was a done deal.
How did this happen, though? In typical Greenwich fashion, it begins, and ends, with the council’s reliance on its weekly propaganda rag as its main channel of communication.
A fortnight-long “consultation” kicked off with a glowing front page story in Greenwich Time, showing leader Chris Roberts and then-deputy mayor Jim Gillman posing with the obligatory smiling kids. Jim Gillman is also one of the local councillors for Hornfair Park, so arguably should have thought twice before publicly backing the scheme. (He’s also the man who changed his mind about opposing his own mayor-making ceremony.)
Further information was restricted to a few information boards in selected locations around the borough. No leaflets were sent through people’s doors.
Many locals found out about the consultation long after it began. Of the 111 responses, more came from SE9 postcodes at least a mile away, and from addresses outside the borough, than the SE3 and SE7 postcodes immediately adjacent to Hornfair Park.
Of those 111 responses to the official consultation, 104 were in favour. By contrast, 577 people signed a petition against the scheme, and 149 took the time to write letters of objection.
Further eyebrows were raised when, in the run-up to the council planning meeting, the track proposals featured in Greenwich Time once again – with a front page splash declaring “it’s wheely great!” Should a planning authority really be publishing this kind of thing in the run up to making a decision on a contentious proposal?
Just as odd are some of the letters of support submitted to the planning board. They appear to have actually been written to support a claim to the mayor for funding, but were included as supporting documents to the planning application. The Access Sport charity thought it a fine idea, as did Lewisham Council and Bexley Council, as well as London & Quadrant housing association.
Five local schools also thought it was a top idea. Great minds think alike? We’ll see. Here’s what Barnaby Ash, headteacher of Blackheath Bluecoat school had to say:
Olympic champion? Subject leader? Multi-sport hub? All impressive language. So what did the Eltham Foundation School (the old Eltham Green school) have to say?
School sport manager Jane Simber was so impressed with the scheme, she penned exactly the same letter as Blackheath Bluecoat. Even down to the errors in the third and final paragraphs. What did Kidbrooke School have to say, then?
I wonder what headteacher Tricia Jaffe says to her pupils about plagiarism? Meanwhile, over at Charlton Manor Primary School…
Yup, the same. Also, the same letter from Charlton School, too, right down to that mistake.
Now, not having attended the meeting, I don’t know what kind of discussion was had by the planning board. But after such a limited consultation process, and glowing coverage of the scheme in the council’s weekly newspaper, what confidence can local residents have in a Greenwich Council process that sees identical letters submitted by schools – most of which are under control of Greenwich Council – in support of a scheme backed by the same Greenwich Council?
So that’s 500 locals who’ve seen what they think is a done deal approved right under their noses. There’s talk of getting a judicial review of the process. It’s certainly possible to argue that Greenwich sailed very close to the wind here.
This isn’t about whether or the scheme was the right scheme, it’s how it was handled. If you’re wanting to build an oil refinery, it’s understandable that you may want to steamroller over objections from local residents. But if you’re their local council, shouldn’t you act in a more careful manner?
The real losers could end up being the three Labour councillors who represent the area – including Jim Gillman, first seen endorsing the scheme alongside those happy kids.
With Conservatives plotting revenge after losing two of their local seats last year, if those 500 residents are still angry come the next election, all three councillors – or whoever gets selected in their place – could end up paying the price for what was carried out in their names.