Odd goings-on at a meeting of Greenwich Council last night. It should have been an important night if you live in the riverside part of Charlton, as a long-standing application to build a new Sainsbury’s store on Woolwich Road, on the site of the old Wickes branch, was to have been have been approved or rejected.
In short, Sainsbury’s has run out of space in its Greenwich store, and would like to open a new store half a mile down the road, to the same environmental principles as its 13-year-old current branch.
Marks & Spencer would take up space in the building too, and developer LXB – which has bought up much of the Charlton retail space – has spent a lot of time wooing local residents’ groups and pledging that it’ll bring a bit of life back to the Woolwich Road.
The planning application was submitted in May, and these things are meant to take 13 weeks to come to a decision. In “Royal” Greenwich, this actually took until the penultimate day of November to be scheduled for a decision.
But that wasn’t enough. Four days after Woolwich’s new mega-Tesco opened, on the night of the meeting, Greenwich Council’s planning board decided to delay the Sainsbury’s application even further. But why?
Apparently, a site visit was needed. Even though this is a prominent site, sat between two A-roads, and a visit could have been arranged at any time within the past five months. Also, a “retail impact assessment” was required – but why couldn’t have been done in the five months it took this application to come before the planning board? After all, it’s 13 months since a councillor voiced reservations on he effect this would have on Woolwich.
All of this came as a surprise to the council’s planning officers, but it was to no avail – Sainsbury’s application, submitted in May, was booted well into the long grass.
How did this happen? Well, there was an exchange of scribbled notes, which started with regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland (of foot tunnels fame), and involved council leader Chris Roberts, planning director Steve Pallett and planning chair Ray Walker. And then, mysteriously, the item was struck off the agenda.
Incidentally, across the road from Woolwich Town Hall, and a couple of miles from the Sainsbury’s site, a new mega-Tesco has just opened. Tesco built the council’s new HQ as part of the deal, and council leader Chris Roberts has spoken warmly about the job opportunities the new store has brought.
Wisely, though, as a member of the planning board, Chris Roberts didn’t appear in the photos marking the store’s opening on Monday – leaving that to mayor David Grant, MP Nick Raynsford and Abbey Wood-based Olympian Zoe Smith, with a cheque from Tesco to the council’s charity.
But despite his endorsements of Tesco in Woolwich, he was still able to take part in an exchange of notes which resulted in a planning decision about a rival’s store being deferred for a “retail impact assessment”. (Even though one had already been done – see below.)
So, what on earth is going on? Local campaigners in Charlton want to use the Sainsbury’s scheme (and the long-delayed Travelodge, also backed by LXB) as leverage to make the Woolwich Road less of a filthy rat-run and more of a pleasant place to live.
Yet despite months of prevarication, Greenwich Council has kicked it into the long grass, just as a rival’s store opens. What is going on in a council run by a party which, on a national level, brands Tesco “an almighty conglomerate”?
11.45am update: It’s been pointed out to me that a retail impact assessment had already been done – it’s two documents in this enormous bundle here. Council officers, meanwhile, had been working under the belief that the issue would be discussed last night. What is going on?