Planning farce as Greenwich Council backs equestrian centre

“This is a meeting open to the public, not a public meeting.”

Woolwich may be on the way to gaining a Grand Theatre, but there’s still high farce on offer next door at the town hall. There were plenty of unconvincing lines and yells from the audience last night as Greenwich Council’s planning board approved the same council’s plans to build an equestrian skills centre on land surrounded by Woodlands Farm, on the Welling side of Shooters Hill.

The vote went 5-2 with five Labour councillors voting for and the two Tories voting against. Planning is supposed to be a quasi-legal issue, yet votes like really call into question whether that is actually taken seriously. What’s certain, though, is that getting the public involved in the decision was just one big inconvenience.

About 75 people were crammed into a meeting room in the town hall – more than had attended the Peninsula Festival licensing application last month, which had been allocated the larger Woolwich Public Hall at the rear of the complex. Half the audience were for the equestrian centre, the other half were for the redevelopment of John Roan School.

Many of the John Roan crowd had brought children along – yet were forced to sit – or worse, stand – for two and a quarter hours of rows over the equestrian centre, and a ten minute hearing about knocking down a retail barn in Charlton, before the complex John Roan applications could be heard.

When it was their turn to be heard, the John Roan parents were furious – but planning vice-chair Steve Offord claimed there was nothing he could do to rearrange the timetable of the meeting. Which is funny, because I’ve seen planning meetings and even full council meetings rejigged on the night. This was all handy for planning chair Ray Walker – who’d also the Labour group’s chief whip. He couldn’t sit on the John Roan decision as he’s a governor, so managed to head off for an early night at 9pm, instead of having to stay for the full four-hour marathon.

The other problem with the meeting room is an ongoing problem – the acoustics. The sound system in room 4/5 is worn out, and most councillors and council officers talk very quietly indeed. I could barely follow it, and reporters also stuck at the back were struggling too. “All we hear is mumble, mumble, mumble, is that what you want us to hear?”, shouted an objector.

“This is a meeting open to the public, not a public meeting,” Cllr Walker replied, revealing perhaps more than he expected about Greenwich Council’s idea of democracy.

I couldn’t help wondering that if council elections were raucous, hotly-disputed affairs, instead of foregone conclusions, the councillors would have a bit more fire in their bellies and would be heard.

Even more farcially, the meeting room next door also started leaking noise through its partition after half-an-hour. They were talking about the Olympics too…

This blogpost will offer no opinion either way on the development – but after a shedload of personal abuse aimed at me and others who’ve covered the Olympics saga from the anti-Greenwich Park equestrian lobby, I had little time for their complaints about a “horse spa”. It looked every bit like this was the last stand of NOGOE; a proxy for the Greenwich Park equestrian events they’ve failed to stop.

But once past the off-putting sense of entitlement from the NOGOE lobby, who certainly made themselves heard, and whose contempt for anyone who doesn’t share their views has hardly endeared them to local people, the the actual objectors were largely from Shooters Hill itself.

Serious issues with the plan began to emerge which were nothing to do with the idea of a “horse spa” some of the more strident objectors had tried to spread. Nobody on Shooters Hill, it seems, had been informed by Greenwich Council of these plans – a legal requirement. There were genuine worries about horses crossing the busy A207 which runs across the hill. And the issue of covering over green fields which are legally protected.

The planning application claimed there were no similar facilities in the borough of Greenwich – this wasn’t the case, with the New Lodge Riding Centre in Mottingham, on the borough boundary, having featured in an edition of the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time last month.

The most eloquent condemnation of the plan came from Woodlands Farm Trust chair Barry Gray, whose land surrounds the site.

Unlike the strident Greenwich Park gang, he quietly demolished great chunks of the council’s case for building the centre, pointing out that farmland in a location such as this was probably unique in an inner London borough, and rare enough in rural areas. “This is not a small country stables,” he said. “This is a major development.”

“No-one on Shooters Hill was sent a letter about this,” said one objector, who said she’d already seen one horse run down in the area and didn’t want to see another. The horses will use a pegasus crossing to get across the road – although traffic lights are TfL’s responsibility, and we know they’re not keen on new lights being installed. More locals complained of not being told about the development.

Another said she was a regular user of a riding stables at North Cray, near Sidcup, but said she wouldn’t allow her daughter to use the Shooters Hill centre as it looked unsafe. She added that the cash would be better off being spent on saving Maryon Wilson animal park in Charlton to give children “a sense of nature”.

Yet another referred to the 59 responses to a consultation, asking: “If it’s so popular, why have only five people written in to support it?”

To the neutral observer, this was looking on shaky ground. But not inside Woolwich Town Hall this wasn’t. Greenwich councillor Denise Hyland gave an odd speech: “I had my tree-hugging days in the 1980s fighting for Oxleas Woods – but this is nothing like that.”

The centre would be for the young people of the borough “who want to work with their hands” – although what employment opportunities there are in south-east London for farm hands was not specified.

“People will be resistant to change, I ask you to help create a skills facility for the future,” she added.

The skills question came up again. A representative from Hadlow College, which will have a base on the site, gave a slick speech in which he said his employers “give students life chances”.

Yet somehow, I couldn’t help get the image out of my head of young people being written off, and sent to Shooters Hill to chomp on a bit of straw and be condemned to toss hay for the rest of their lives. Obviously, this won’t be the case, but the “for” case really wasn’t stacking up.

Shooters Hill, August 2011
Eyes down: The planning notice outside Woodlands Farm at the end of August
Then the “O” word was invoked.

A chap from the British Equestrian Foundation cited “the enthusiasm of local people” for Greenwich Park Olympic test events, and was greeted with mocking laughter. LOCOG equestrian chief Tim Haddaway spoke briefly, but didn’t look as self-assured as usual – if LOCOG had been behind this, they’d have probably done a better job of preparing for this than the council.

Various members of the planning board gave their verdict. The gloriously curmudgeonly Conservative Dermot Poston mocked Hadlow College’s claims of being community minded, declaring the proposal was the worst he’d ever heard in his years on the planning board: “It’s quite clear that this community is against the scheme.” The view from Shooters Hill towards Kent and Essex was, he added, among the most remarkable in any European city, and should be protected.

Vice-chair Steve Offord said he was surprised Woodlands Farm was against its neighbour being developed. “This will compliment Woodlands Farm very well,” he continued, pausing to admonish protestors. “You won’t change my mind by shouting out.” There’s no love lost on either side.

Council leader Chris Roberts did make a telling point for the developers. “If we were sitting here discussing a proposal to build Woodlands Farm, there would be objectors,” he said. But why was a passionate advocate for the Olympics in Greenwich borough deciding on a development which was heavily tied to those same Olympics, and that he’d already spoken out in favour of?

What about the Shooters Hill locals who hadn’t been told about the scheme? It was advertised in Greenwich Time, the council officer said. So clearly everyone is expected to wade through the council’s propaganda weekly on the offchance there’ll be a tiny notice about a major development in their neighbourhood. Would that really stack up if put to a higher authority?

The vote, when it came, was predictable – straight on party lines. And you can hear the reaction…

There were some conditions, but I haven’t a clue what they were since the discussions couldn’t be heard.

So, there it was. A meeting that was barely audible, and a controversial proposal to build on farmland sailing through on party lines despite its shaky grounds. Sure, many of the anti-Olympics protesters are an unpleasant crowd who rile local councillors with their sense of entitlement. But the local council’s contempt for democracy simply fuels that unpleasantness. If this was a Tory council, there’d rightly be mass outrage and ridicule from very loud voices. But those loud voices stay silent when a Labour fiefdom bludgeons its way through unpopular schemes like this.

Outside, a commotion continued for some time. I was told it was combative Olympics cabinet member John Fahy discussing matters with the protesters. At least one of the council’s ruling body actually talked to them, rather than at them, I suppose.

The equestrian centre may be a good thing. After all this, I sorely hope it will be. But corners were cut in getting it through planning – hopefully the same corners won’t be cut in building the thing.

PS. In case you were wondering, the John Roan School redevelopment plans went through unanimously – there’ll be a new building on Westcombe Park Road and the older Maze Hill site will be revamped.

21 comments

  1. I was at that meeting last night and agree what a fast it was however, those who were campaigning against it were nothing to do with issues regarding lobbying the Olympics. We relish the idea that the Olympics are coming to our town and draw in much needed revenue for all. However, what we disagree with is ‘Bit by bit we are losing our land’. Have you not looked a round you at all the green spaces that are being built on, it’s a travesty.

    The new skills centre will not be an Olympic Legacy as the Olympics will not be using it nor are they giving any money to it. It is a college actually a university that will have 600-1000 students that will be paying £9000 a year to attend now tell me who the hell will be able to use it, who in Greenwich will benefit from it? Children? No! Hadlow College have facilities only for 16+. Maybe people with disabilities? No! Because they have no facilities to be able to have people with disabilities plus there will only be two disabled car parking bays. What about people who have never seen a horse, low income families? Yeah right…..No! Again who will benefit from this venture? I will tell you Greenwich Council and Hadlow College. Well done Greenwich Council!

    Has anyone spared a thought for the donkey guy, he has had donkeys on this land for 30 odd years. It seemed Greenwich Council were ok all the time he was renting the land. He has had donkey rides on Blackheath for 64 years and Greenwich Council said that he has to go. However, where is he to go?

    Again Greenwich Council consulted 199 people and out of those were all from Bexley. No on in Greenwich was consulted.

    Regarding the conditions to the build Cllr Roberts stated that ‘if the buildings are not being used they will have to be taken down’ Are you kidding me….this is going to be a multi million pound venture I can’t ever see that ever happening.

    My last point is save our open spaces!

  2. In response to the above message.

    Firstly, I would like to add that this is a blog spot where people like me are able to air our objective views. What, Labour Cllrs are doing, basically arguing with me here, I do not know.
    I have nothing to hide nor do I have an agenda.

    I may like to add that actually yes I do NOW support the conservatives, why? Only because my Labour candidates did not want to support me in my campaign nor did they want to present my passed petition. Not that it had any relevance for my reasons to campaign and be at the planning board meeting on 13th October 2011 to ‘Save our open spaces’ something I am passionate about.

    I would also like to add that I believe people have a right to know exactly what is going on and being up front and honest is what I am about, maybe Greenwich Council and its supporters should take a leaf out of my book.

  3. http://www.greenwichconservatives.com/news/1232

    http://www.greenwichconservatives.com/news/1231

    Here you can see my views and my comments on the things I am passionate about and that there is no hidden agenda only a middle aged women who believes that open spaces should stay open spaces, not for me, I have had my enjoyment out of them but for future generations.

    A little bit about me; I was brought up on a very rough estate, now I live in a council house in the Charlton Ward, I am working class, however, I am unemployed at the moment, I have a 19 year old daughter at uni and I am hoping to be a Forensic Psychologist. I am passionate about the things I believe in and all I want to do is protect and support people and things that I believe need protecting that is just who I am. I hope that is open enough for you.

  4. I too was at the farce that was the Council Planning Meeting for the Equestrian Centre at Greenwich Town Hall on 14th October, shame on the council for not having the courtesy to have a PA system that worked so members of the Public could hear what was being said instead of just a continuous mumble, you are elected to be able to address the public perhaps a few lessons in voice projection would be of benefit!!
    *Despite a council chamber packed with objectors
    *Despite 52 letters against and only five for this application
    *Despite over eight objectors making presentations on numerous issues
    The planning application Greenwich Council had made to themselves was passed, was I surprised no!!
    A an Olympic Legacy for Equestrian experience would provide a facitilty for all to have the opportunity to ride or spend time with horses, this facility is not an Olympic Legacy.
    Residents have been deliberately uninformed regarding this proposal the Council had hoped it would pass quietly through unnoticed, well they failed ,the number of people inattendance last night was testament to that.
    Residents should know that this project is a commercial project for Hadlow College, an Agricultural Training College based near Tonbridge in Kent, and Greenwich Council; what it is not is a Post Olympic legacy in the form of a riding establishment for the residents of Greenwich across all age groups and including disabiltiy to learn horsemanship and how to ride, the riding at the College will be for Hadlow College Students age 16+ and one wonders how many of Greenwich applicants if any, would make it through the College selection process.
    My issues are too many to list and it is a shame I cannot post pictures of the traffic on Shooters Hill where the proposed Peagasus crossing would be it is difficult enough crossing this road on foot let alone a horse.
    The vehicles from the Ambulance Station on the Greenwich side of the hill come down this route to access all incidents on the south side, what would happen to horses waiting to cross in this situation a terrifying thought.
    A equestrian student was killed at Hadlow College over two weeks ago but I expect the response to this would be ‘accidents happen’,in my presentation I brought to attention the fact that fifty years ago a horse had been spooked by children letting of bangers in the woods the rider was thrown but survived her horse was killed on the hill, will this form of activity become sport for local yobs as an alternative to riding motorbikes?
    The footprint for this project is huge and the elevations of seventeen metres for some of the buildings will change for ever the wonderful view from Eaglesfield across open fields and farm land

  5. Blimey, Councillor John Fahy, if you’re so obsessed with petty party point-scoring that you accuse all the many, many objectors to this scheme of supporting the Tories and ignore evidence on a planning decision just to tow the party line, you really shouldn’t be in your position of power. Why do you assume Toni is a Tory supporter? You just don’t have a leg to stand on so you resort to political name-calling. Darryl is right, if the Tories had done this there would have, justifiably, been uproar. If you and your Labour mates had listened to the community you supposedly represent, you would have got a lot of respect from everyone (but then again, listening didn’t work with the campaign against the Iraq war either). And fyi I don’t vote for any particular party, as I have no faith in party politics, just to make that clear to avoid any accusations.

  6. Important to know where people are coming from. People know where I stand on a wide range of issues . Toni is perfectly intitled to her point of view,despite her active involvement ibn the Tory Party. Is there a genuine belief in the environment,I suspect not except in terms of frustrating the decision making process. The proposed Equestrian Centre is a modest development and will be a terrific asset for the community. Similar Equestrian Centres are built on similar sites across the country and welcomed. As far Jack,never votes for anybody,well it takes all sorts

  7. Yes I do have a right to my opinion and I am so happy that we have the internet. it is good that everyone has a voice and can come to blogs etc to air their views. As for the comment regarding my ‘genuine belief in the environment’ It is genuine, it is only by campaigning to protect Hornfair Park from a ‘white elephant’ that I came across the issues regarding so much building work happening on ‘open spaces’. I did not come across it by chance but by so many people who wanted my help. It is also important to have things in Towns that are necessary and that there is a real need for them. Do we really NEED an ‘equestrian Centre’ I think NOT, especially as we have lots of riding schools in and around the borough already. What we do need is open spaces, free places, where people can exercise, that are family orientated, access to free sporting facilities, surrounded by plant and wildlife. It is important that we have these areas not just because we have one of the biggest obesity issues in this country but for the psychological well being of adults and children. It’s no fun playing in a concrete jungle! The equestrian centre will provided 8 hours per week for outside use. Meaning members of the public may get the opportunity to use it. However, if the horses all belong to the students how will that ever happen? I cannot see this venture being, in anyway, beneficial for the community it will sit in.

  8. It seems to me that the decision-making process is deeply flawed. As the proposed development was poorly advertised, local people not informed (Not everyone receives Greenwich Time, so when will the Council stop pretending that putting a small notice in that “newspaper” counts as proper warning?), petitions not accepted and the proceedings inaudible, then how can the process be considered to be properly democratic? People are entitled to their opinions, and just because they do not agree with the party-line held by Greenwich Council, there is no justification in disregarding their opinion, insulting them in a public blog, or making it so that their opinion is not able to be heard. What we are seeing here is the inevitable result of the people who decided to put the Equestrian events on in Greenwich having no real idea of what that really entailed. Now we are stuck with the Olympics we are stuck with these kinds of knee-jerk decision-making. I wonder what details the ‘final mile’ consultations will reveal for residents this week….(Devonport House Wed/Thurs/Fri, I beleve).

  9. Ah, John Fahy, you do like a scrap, don’t you? You also seem very arrogant. By all means criticise people who you think don’t support your own political clique. But there are very many people, myself included, who aren’t politically affiliated and who object strongly to this equestrian centre being built on Metropolitan Open Land. You say it’ll be an asset to the community. Really? Is this equestrian centre vital for Greenwich and Bexley? Or would it be better to leave it for everyone to use and for the wildlife, walking and peace that this unique space offers? This land is for all to use, for free, this is a very important fact. This land is not for your political pet projects because you want to wind up your rivals or people you don’t like much. The equestrian centre will be used in a limited way by a small number of people, and there are other facilities existing for them already, with no complaints, why does this new one have to be built suddenly? A shopping mall could equally be described as an asset to the community, but that wouldn’t justify building it on rare public land next to ancient woods. You say other similar centres were built on similar sites across the country and welcomed. You mean, other centres were built in places next to the last bit of ancient woods by the only bit of open-access farmland and a local nature reserve in a crowded city, in these other places? I don’t think so. I may be “all sorts” to you, but better that any day than be like you, selling your conscience, looting public land and spitting on people in order to support some warped, trivial political ideals and hold on to power. Yes, it’s important to know where you’re coming from.

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