Woolwich Common fire: Ministry of Defence ignored council demands to remove travellers’ rubbish

Woolwich Common
Rubbish had been left on the common for weeks before the fire

853 exclusive: The Ministry of Defence failed to clear up rubbish left behind by travellers for six weeks on a part of Woolwich Common devastated by a grass fire on Monday – despite being told to by Greenwich Council.

Travellers set up camp on the common in early June and stayed for a week, abusing local residents and leaving behind piles of rubbish, including human excrement, on the south side of the common.

Despite complaints from neighbours and local councillors the MoD failed to clear up the mess, with the area being wrecked by a grass fire six weeks later.

The blaze took place a week after a local councillor voiced her fears to council officers that a fire could start on the common.

At the fire’s peak, 125 firefighters from stations across south-east and east London battled the blaze, which was reported at 3.51pm and brought under control four hours later, forcing the closure of the South Circular Road during the evening rush hour.

Woolwich Common fire
125 firefighters worked to put out the blaze on Monday

Barracks has no budget to look after common

Local residents have long complained about the management of the common, which has been owned by the MoD and its predecessors for over 200 years and still sees military exercises from the nearby Woolwich Barracks.

But the barracks itself has no budget to look after the common and no system to maintain it – instead, the common is in the hands of the separate Defence Infrastructure Organisation, which has shown little interest in looking after the common and has no contracts to pick up fly-tipping.

The only routine maintenance is an annual grass cut. One resident has told 853 she saw a mower run over tin cans left behind on the common earlier this year, leaving the sharp aluminium shards behind.

Travellers’ tale

The travellers arrived on Woolwich Common on 5 June. It took five days for them to be moved on, despite neighbours reporting verbal abuse and quad bikes being ridden across the land into the night.

853 has been told by residents that the Ministry of Defence gave the travellers a licence to stay on the land – the MoD has not responded to a request for confirmation of this point.

Woolwich Common, 6 June
The travellers occupied Woolwich Common for five days from 5 June (photo taken by a local resident)

The travellers left behind a large amount of waste on the common – but requests to the MoD to clear the land went unheeded.

‘They are partners’

In an email to local residents sent on Tuesday 10 July – one month after the travellers left – Woolwich Common councillor Ivis Williams branded the mess “appalling” and promised to follow the issue up, asking council officers to raise the issue with the MoD.

But a week later, nothing was done. On Tuesday 17 July, Williams wrote to a council officer: “are you able to follow up on this please as more rubbish seem to be piling [up]. It would be really sad if a fire is started from the debris scattered across the common.”

A smaller fire actually did break out later that day.

Before the fire: Woolwich Common on 6 July, nearly four weeks after the travellers’ departure

The following day, fellow Woolwich Common councillor David Gardner said in a further email to council officers: “I think to threaten them with relevant environmental orders is now necessary, sadly.”

He added: “We should be very polite as they are partners.”

He added that he had spoken to the Woolwich station commander, Maria Moghal: “I was surprised when she said that the MoD have no system, no contract and no budget for routine maintenance and litter picking of the Common. They just have the grass cut once a year!… This is clearly not good enough.”

On Thursday 19 July, a council officer reported that the MoD had engaged a contractor to clear the fly-tipping up along with “issues relating to an area that contains excrement”, and a date would be set by Friday 20 July for works to begin.

But again, nothing was done, and the major fire broke out on the afternoon of Monday 23 July.

Woolwich Common fire
An area the size of four football pitches was damaged in the fire

Cllr Gardner tweeted on Wednesday morning that the MoD finally had got a contractor on site to clear up the rubbish, with Greenwich Council enforcement officers present.

The Ministry of Defence has not responded to a request for comment.

Olympic legacy – an unusable common

Woolwich Common in 2011
Woolwich Common was used as an Olympic shooting and Paralympic archery venue in 2012

Despite being closed off to the public for much of 2011 and 2012 for its use in the Olympics and Paralympics, Woolwich Common – which lacked the vocal lobby groups that complained about Greenwich Park and Blackheath being used – saw little benefit from the events, with the land taking years to recover.

The Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery, which uses the common for exercises, used part of Charlton Park instead, with park users complaining that the land was being churned up by their carriages.

This “temporary” arrangement ended up lasting until February 2017 when horses pulling a gun carriage became spooked and bolted across the park, seriously injuring the rider and leaving the carriage smashed against a tree in the centre of the park.

Charlton Park in 2013
Churned up by horses: Charlton Park in 2013 (Photo: Helen Jakeways)

Charlton Park, 2016
March 2016: Three years later, the King’s Troop were still churning up Charlton Park. They would leave after an incident a year later (Photo: Helen Jakeways)

In an email sent to a local councillor at the time, park user Helen Jakeways said: “It was left to a member of the public to try and restrain the horses from trampling the rider who was trapped under the gun carriage, until members of the rest of the Troop arrived on the scene. (The incident went unreported at the time but the soldier, who broke her neck, was given a bravery commendation earlier this year.)

“Regular park users and local residents I have spoken to… including those who witnessed the incident and its aftermath are shaken, appalled and universally angry. This is a busy corner of the park and someone could have been killed.”

The Ministry of Defence has not responded for a request for comment.

What happens next?

Woolwich Common, 6 July
Greenwich Council contractors building the cycleway on 6 July, next to the travellers’ flytipping

The neglect of the common has angered local residents, including long-standing neighbours who recall when the Royal Military Police were a frequent sight in the area and when soldiers from the barracks used to undertake litter picks.

Another bone of contention is its use as a giant car park while a huge Eid event took place at adjacent Barrack Field, in front of the main barracks building. A similar event at Mountsfield Park, Catford, urged followers to use public transport instead.

“Blackheath wouldn’t be treated like this,” one neighbour told 853.

There have been suggestions that Greenwich Council – which has experience from looking after the northern side of Blackheath, which also has acid grasslands – should manage the common and charge the MoD for its services.

But while some residents welcome that idea, others – who have been alarmed by the council’s construction of a wide cycleway across the common this summer – just want the Ministry of Defence to fulfil its responsibilities to look after the space.

And while the efforts of two of the three Woolwich Common councillors – Williams and Gardner – in pursuing the MoD have been appreciated, locals fear others are too scared to challenge the government department, particularly with the threat of closure hanging over Woolwich barracks.

The Ministry of Defence was asked a series of questions about the management of the common on Tuesday morning. It has not yet responded.

(10.35am update: Story updated with more on the Charlton Park incident.)

If you have any views or experiences of the management of Woolwich Common, feel free to leave a comment below.

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8 comments

  1. Does Woolwich Common benefit from anything equivalent to the Blackheath Joint Working Party, which brings together local amenity groups and ward councillors from both Greenwich and Lewisham to care and campaign for the heath?

  2. Thank you for this 853. You have pulled together the serious concerns which local residents have had over many years, which have been comprehensively ignored by the MoD, who are clearly a law unto themselves with no one holding them to account.

    I know Cllr Jackie Smith has been instrumental in obtaining powers to remove travellers swiftly from land where they have no right to be, but this power is negated if the Army chooses to assume an authority which is not theirs to give.

  3. does the land have some sort of legal status that will prevent it being built on when the barracks close? The cynic in me says they are abandoning it so they can get a couple of thousand homes on it…

  4. This is a useful piece of investigation.

    Since the Queens Troop enjoyed the use of our local park (at times making a muddy mess of the grass), it would be nice if they would volunteer to do regular “litter picking” on the Common if there is no other provision. Do they have no pride in their surroundings?

    Good to see that the local Councillors have been active. What about the MP? They are surely in a better position to put some pressure on the MoD.

  5. Years ago there use to have two men walking around with bags and grippers picking up some of the rubbish I think as a community we shoUldale arange a line up and everyone who loves the common should help clean it just am willing

  6. Great article Darryl thank you. I spent 5 years complaining about the King’s Troop use of Charlton Park and pointed out on many occasions not only the state the Park was left in after each and every session, but also the inherent safety risks involved in having horses pulling tonnes of gun carriages at speed round an open park full of joggers, dog walkers and young children. I was repeatedly assured that “there was nowhere else for the King’s Troop to exercise” which was somewhat baffling given the amount of open flat grass land in front of their own Barracks – apparently “not suitable for horses”. Clearly, they managed to find somewhere after the incident last year – they were lucky no-one was killed as there were never any measures in place to prevent the incident that happened. I was also repeatedly assured that Woolwich Common was going to be “repaired” after the Olympics so the Troop could exercise there instead, but after a cursory bit of grass planting on top of visible rocks and pebbles in 2013/14, obviously unsuitable for horses to exercise on, nothing was done. Responsibility for this was batted backwards and forwards endlessly between the Council, MOD and the DIO despite ongoing attempts on my part to get political intervention. And finally, I was constantly assured that LOCOG / ODA had set aside a sum of money for repairs to Charlton Park once the King’s Troop had stopped using it. It would be interesting to know where that is now – it certainly didn’t end up being used to repair the Park. Unsurprising that the Common wasn’t cleared of rubbish before the fire.

  7. Leaving the common to grow wild would fine if sheep were grazing on it. Needs to be maintained properly.

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