Greenwich Ikea opening: Preview days announced as traffic anxiety grows

Ikea biscuits
Taking the biscuit? Ikea’s opening is now less than two weeks away

Customers will get their first look inside east Greenwich’s controversial Ikea store on Friday when two preview days are held for shoppers who are part of the retailer’s loyalty scheme.

The store will be open on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd February for people who have signed up to the Ikea Family programme. Customers are asked to register for a morning or afternoon slot on each day. The official opening is set for Thursday 7th February.

Finishing touches are being put to the giant blue warehouse, which will be the Swedish company’s fifth in the London area and its 22nd full-size store in the UK.

Despite widespread anxiety about the impact the store will have on an already-congested transport network – not helped by the store’s first Saturday coinciding with a home match at The Valley – Ikea is promising “its most sustainable store yet”.

Worries about the opening have grown with the appearance of electronic roadworks signs in parts of Greenwich and Charlton promoting the store’s official opening date and suggesting visitors “travel sustainably”.

Past openings have led to chaotic scenes – most notoriously in Edmonton, north London, where five people were taken to hospital in 2005 after a midnight opening went wrong.

Even after the opening weekend, there will still be fears about the potential for gridlock – with incidents of drivers being trapped in the car park of the chain’s Reading store. Issues have also been reported at its Exeter outlet.

Greenwich Shopping Park
Visitors to the existing retail parks already cause serious congestion in east Greenwich and Charlton

Indeed, cars are regularly stuck in the parking areas at the nearby Charlton retail parks at weekends. With an increase in traffic using the Blackwall Tunnel at weekends – and the fragility of both the tunnel and its approach roads – many fear the area will simply grind to a halt.

How did we get here?

The store was given planning permission in March 2014, just five months after plans were first revealed to local residents – an unusually fast approval for such a major development. Ikea claimed the scheme would improve air quality. The planning board split on party lines, with Labour council leader Chris Roberts, regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland, her fellow Abbey Wood councillors Clive Mardner and Steve Offord and planning chair Ray Walker approving the scheme.

Roberts (now a lobbyist for property developers), Offord and Walker are no longer councillors, Hyland was leader for four years after Roberts, while Mardner remains on the planning board. The two Conservatives on the board, Blackheath Westcombe’s Geoff Brighty – the only councillor to represent a ward near the scheme – and Dermot Poston opposed it. Poston, who died in 2017, was accused of “playing to the gallery” by Roberts for opposing the store and praising the design of the ill-fated “eco” Sainsbury’s, which would be moving half a mile east to Charlton.

Ikea store, October 2018
The councillors who backed the Ikea store: Steve Offord, Ray Walker, Chris Roberts, Denise Hyland, Clive Mardner

Members of the public spoke for an hour and quarter on the scheme, with nobody supporting it. Opponents included Labour councillors Mary Mills and Alex Grant – both now longer on the council.

“So many people have got in touch with me – there’s so much wrong with this, I can’t go into detail,” Peninsula councillor Mills said, while Grant branded traffic predictions “nonsense”.

Another opponent was David Gardner – now the council’s deputy leader – questioned why Ikea aimed for 35% of visitors using public transport in Greenwich, when the Croydon store – which lies off a tram line – only had 28%.

Matt Pennycook, then a Greenwich West councillor but now an MP, acknowleged the promised 400 jobs – “the people who will benefit are not in this room” – but added he was “extremely concerned” about traffic and pollution.

“Too much rests on underlying assumptions which may not be realised,” he said.

One resident of Greenwich Millennium Village told the board: “Common sense tells me this will be a nightmare for the area if it goes ahead. We’re not an out-of-town shopping centre, we’re a thriving community.”

Ikea as seen from Greenwich Millennium Village
Ikea as seen from Greenwich Millennium Village

After approval, a rearguard action by local protesters, who branded the store “planned chaos”, attempted to overturn the approval. Tory mayor Boris Johnson backed the council, but while the government briefly paused approval, it allowed the council to go ahead in July 2014.

Plans for legal action were briefly mooted – and an attempt to list the “eco” Sainsbury’s store failed – before campaigners were advised they were unlikely to win without support from TfL, which at the time was chaired by Johnson. Construction work finally began in November 2017.

Ikea Greenwich
There is widespread anxiety about the effect Ikea will have on local transport

100, not 400 jobs for borough residents

The main reason given for approving Ikea was because of the number of jobs it would bring – given as 400 during the planning process. In the end, about 100 jobs went to Greenwich borough residents, senior council officer Michelle Rankin told a scrutiny panel on Monday.

“There’ll be a cohort that will be existing staff moved across, but of those new jobs, at least third are local residents,” she said.

A report to councillors said that the council’s jobs agency Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB) held 10 recruitment roadshows for Ikea, attended by 1,400 residents. It said 250 long-term unemployed people undertook training for Ikea vacancies, leading to 70 job offers, all at London Living Wage or above.

“There’s an ongoing commitment to work with Ikea, so the next phase of the work will be around apprenticeship recruitment,” Rankin added.

GLLaB has been criticised for taking large chunks of money from developers earmarked for local communities – Section 106 agreements, which are meant to be used to mitigate a development’s impact in a neighbourhood. It took £486,000 from Ikea under the store’s Section 106 agreement with the council.

Stephen Brain at Greenwich Ikea launch
First in line for the meatballs: Danny Thorpe (left) at the start of work on east Greenwich’s Ikea with then-mayor Peter Brooks and local councillors Denise Scott-McDonald and Stephen Brain

What’s happening now?

Given the concern about the store, and the change in leadership at the council since 2014, many residents would have hoped the council would have publicly held Ikea’s feet to the fire on its responsibility to the local community. But Greenwich Council’s leadership has sometimes seemed keener to talk up the store than Ikea itself, allowing it to sponsor a “sustainability” prize at an awards ceremony and to host a stall at an event in Woolwich in December.

In an interview earlier this month, Danny Thorpe said it was “doing all the right things” by encouraging staff to use public transport.

But the planning permission forces Ikea to do it – specifically its Section 106 agreement, signed in December 2014, and its travel plan, finalised in October 2018.

One of Ikea’s earliest commitments was to pledge to direct drivers to the west of the site “to address network capacity constraints on Peartree Way and Woolwich Road roundabout”, spending £50,000 for new signage encouraging drivers to avoid the Woolwich Road roundabout.

“Ikea believe that the initial opening period (10 weeks), is critical for setting the travel habits to the store and have specifically targeted this time with promotions and offers,” the travel plan states.

‘41% of shoppers will be driving’

Steps taken in the opening weeks include subsidised cargo bike courier deliveries, free blue bags and food vouchers for people who walk to the store, a subsidised trolley to enable people to take products home, and a bespoke minicab service.

It sets a target for 100% of all staff working non-antisocial hours to come by “sustainable modes”, with grants to part-pay for travel passes. As for customers, it expects just 41% to come as car drivers – the remaining 59% would include their passengers as well as people who have taken a bus, walked or cycled. “The health benefits of walking will be promoted (eg, ‘10,000 steps a day campaign’) via the website and social media,” it adds.

How many positive differences the store’s neighbours will see remains to be seen – for any improvements seem aimed at funnelling people to the store, rather than making their neighbourhood a bit nicer or easier to navigate in general. And with less than two weeks to go until Ikea opens, there has been no sign of many of these.

Ikea has paid for Legible London totems and signs to be erected to show the way to Westcombe Park and North Greenwich stations – similar to the Charlton Sainsbury’s, where a small number of Legible London signs appeared between the store and Charlton station, but not to any of the area’s other attractions.

Legible London
These Legible London signs and improved lighting under the flyover are promised by Ikea and Greenwich Council

There will also be “public realm improvements” under the bleak Woolwich Road flyover, as well as the footbridge over the A102 from Tunnel Avenue. Currently, all there is to show for these improvements are the electronic roadworks signs promoting the store’s opening.

Road changes are, however, under way – including a southbound bus lane on Peartree Way, a toucan crossing behind the store on Bugsby’s Way, and a two-way cycle crossing between the Odeon cinema and Greenwich Millennium Village, to follow the same timings as the adjacent bus lane.

The travel plan includes a “public transport preview day” – however, when asked by 853, neither Ikea nor Greenwich Council commented on whether this was happening.

£500,000 has been allocated for bus stop improvements and extra bus services. No extra buses have been announced; it is likely that Greenwich Council is holding onto the cash for a long-hoped-for revival of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit scheme between North Greenwich and Thamesmead via Charlton Riverside.

A travel survey will take place after four months, and the plan will be reviewed after one year, three years and five years.

Further Section 106 commitments include £243,000 towards environmental health and air quality monitoring, £24,000 for public art and £115,000 to Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, which helped fund an outdoor classroom.

Woolwich Road Ikea
A sign promoting the store’s opening has appeared beneath the Woolwich Road flyover

What Ikea and Greenwich Council say

853 asked Ikea what improvements in the area neighbours could expect to see, when the public transport preview day would be and what the electronic signs that have appeared in the area were hoping to achieve.

It sent a statement from store manager Helen Aylett which said: “Ikea Greenwich will be our leading sustainable store in the UK and is incredibly easy to access by public transport.

“As well as the tube and rail, the site is served by several bus routes providing up to 50 buses in each direction every hour, resulting in a bus approximately every 1.5 mins. There will also be 50 bike stands available for customers that choose to cycle.

“To help customers get their goods home, we want to offer plenty of choice when it comes to value, speed and convenience. That’s why we are partnering with Zedify, a bike courier service, available to anyone that lives within three miles of the store. Customers also have the option to hire a Hertz electric vehicle van.

“Our opening marketing campaign encourages visitors to use sustainable methods of transport when visiting the store and to leave their car at home. In addition to this, we have invested around £2 million as part of the Section 106 agreement, which includes improvements to the public realm carried out by the Royal Borough of Greenwich.”

Asked about the electronic signs and the public transport preview day, a Greenwich Council spokesperson issued a statement from Denise Scott-McDonald, the cabinet member for air quality, public realm and transport.

She said: “We are working together with Ikea and public transport providers to promote sustainable modes of travel to Ikea’s most sustainable store. It serves an area of greater London where 42% of households do not have cars. A travel plan was agreed as a condition of planning consent that included secure cycle parking, discounted delivery for an initial period via cargo bikes to local postcodes and all staff to travel by sustainable means. Ikea’s target is for no more than 41% of customers to arrive by car and the electronic roadworks signs, that it pays for, are just one of the ways that it has been informing drivers and local residents.

“In the vicinity of the store new road crossings, bus priority and cycle improvements will complete soon too. We look forward to the store opening on 7 February and all the new jobs it will provide for local residents.”

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