Today is the tenth anniversary of the DLR extension to Woolwich opening. Lot’s of hope was placed on the new link, and yet a decade on every time it seems Woolwich town centre takes a step forward it then takes one back. A current plethora of closures add to concern about the area.
Firstly, a few weeks ago Starbucks closed. Then Fishyard and Steak restaurant appears to have permanently closed (if wrong happy to correct!) and Peacocks is closing in coming weeks.
Now some of it is no doubt down to national issues, yet closures in Woolwich are nothing new regardless of the national picture.
When it comes to Starbucks, like them or loath them, they’re a mainstay of the High Street and if a major town centre (as classified by the GLA) in London can’t sustain them then questions are raised. Once a mainstay of gentrification, they’re now ten-a-penny.
I’ve lived around Woolwich and worked there for most of my life and am well aware of the reputation the area has from many people – young and old, black and white, rich and poor. It ain’t good. Councillors generally won’t admit that but sadly the prevailing view is not the best.
Which is a massive shame as I’m fond of the town though can see the flaws yet think it has massive potential. It was one motivating factor in setting up this site years ago.
It’s why I was so glad to see plans for the town centre to become a conservation zone revealed this week. There’s a huge amount of wonderful buildings that many town centres would kill to have and should be a real asset. Sadly many have gone and still many are likely to go. Some people say so what given how they appear now not how they could appear after renovation. It’s simply repeating past mistakes.
Some positive changes have occurred in recent years including Street Feast in the old covered market as well as Coffee Lounge in the old Woolwich Equitable building plus the pub next door. Artfix is a great gallery/cafe on Powis Street.
Yet the Coffee Lounge suffered endemic problems with crime culminating in the manager being assaulted. They’re complaints often fell on deaf ears.
And permitting out-of-town stores at Charlton has no doubt contributed to the malaise in places. Even a 2012 masterplan continued to hammer nails into Woolwich by encouraging more out-of-town retail sheds in inner London.
Another concern is landowners increasing rents and not assisting existing business. Is there a long term goal of getting some businesses out?
What could change this situation?
Well, there’s management, or lack thereof and that needs improving. Woolwich still doesn’t have a town centre manager to coordinate projects and funds. That’s unusual for a major town centre. The creative district will see highly paid managers brought in whilst the old part of town misses out.
Council staff focusing on other areas have to manage Woolwich too. No wonder it suffers from a lack of direction.
Very high rents and rates even at apparently “down-at-heel” areas is crippling businesses. High rents do not just affect housing in the UK but commercial space too.
Larger business could pull together to help an area through a Business Improvement District but that would require council support and none seems forthcoming.
Other far more successful areas such as Bexleyheath and Bromley do have Business Improvement District status, and they fund events and improvements in the town centre, provide strategic direction and can lobby for external funds. We know how poor Greenwich Council can be at securing external funds for town centres and public space.
And finally, the old chestnut of Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy income could assist but GLLaB swallows most of it. Woolwich town centre gets little.
So much chance of a turnaround soon? The national picture is bleak with a stagnating economy and those high rents and rates.
British Land purchased much of the town centre recently and that’s really the only likely trigger for change – good or bad. We’ll have to see what they have in mind. Sadly I can’t see the local authority doing enough. The DLR was supposed to boost the town. And it is better than a decade ago though from a very low base. Now the hope is Crossrail. Will it be enough?