Greenwich Council has been “badly let down” by the developer in charge of rebuilding the crumbling Morris Walk Estate, its senior councillor in charge of housing said last night as it approved plans to knock down the 1960s estate.
The council entered into a 12-year deal with Lovell in 2012 to redevelop the Connaught Estate in Woolwich town centre and the Morris Walk and Maryon Road estates, on the Woolwich/Charlton border.
While Lovell has pressed ahead with turning the Connaught – close to the under-construction Crossrail station – into the Trinity Walk development, where 445 of the 689 homes are for private sale, work has not started on Morris Walk or Maryon Road. This is despite the council having spent years moving tenants and leaseholders out.
Chris Kirby, the cabinet member for housing, told the cabinet – the council’s main decision-making body – that the council has been asked for “vacant possession” of the blocks. “When that process had begun, we were informed that the build date could not be met,” he said.
“To say I am disappointed doesn’t cover my feelings towards that. I feel badly let down by Lovell and I have told them in no uncertain terms.”
The agreement was signed off by former leader Chris Roberts and his cabinet, which included current Woolwich Riverside councillors John Fahy and Jackie Smith, whose ward covers the estate.
“If we were writing it now we would design it in a different way, but I’m not here to unpick old agreements,” Kirby said.
“Where we are in is a really difficult negotiation about bringing the build date forward. There’s a huge amount of concern and frustration about the start date – it’s difficult to give a running commentary on a negotiation, but as soon as we have concrete information for residents, we will do.
“We’re looking for that start date to be as soon as possible. We’re working with Lovell, with PA Housing [the housing association involved in the scheme], with police and with residents to mitigate the fallout from where we are.”
‘Not short of a bob or two’
Addressing the cabinet, John Fahy spoke of how Lovell’s parent company, Morgan Sindall, presented to councillors at the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth last week that it had “£2billion in 2012, and £2 billion in 2019”, “They’re not short of a bob or two,” he said.
Kirby responded: “I just agree with you. Developers are allowed to get away with this kind of activity all around the country and what we need is a radical government that’s going to stop landbanking and restore grants for the building of social homes.”
Council leader Danny Thorpe defended the original deal with Lovell, saying the estates were “exempted” from the Decent Homes Programme, a Blair-era programme to bring social housing up to scratch. “We can’t defend squalor, we want to see a decent standing of housing moving forward, and we will be holding PA Housing to account for their actions as well.”
Councillors also approved a decision to approve compulsory purchase orders on the estate on improved terms, following a government decision involving Southwark Council and the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth. “This is now seen as best practice, which is why it is back before us tonight,” Kirby said.
Network Rail first told Greenwich Council about its plans for the Angerstein Wharf branch crossing, across a freight line on the east Greenwich/Charlton border, in April 2018, emails released by the track company under the Freedom of Information Act show. Several council officers were involved in discussions and three site visits were held.
Councillors for Peninsula ward – who would have known of the importance of the crossing – were not told about the issue and neither was Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook, The Charlton Champion has established. The council maintains “there was nothing to tell residents” at the time.
A council officer dealing with conservation was also involved in a discussion about the planned closure in December and January 2019.
Network Rail sent the council a formal notice warning of the crossing closure on 14 February 2019, but the Valentine’s Day missive went unanswered until after a neighbour of the crossing used Twitter seven weeks later to say that residents had received letters about the closure.
Greenwich then threatened Network Rail with a injunction to prevent the closure of the crossing, which is used by hundreds of people each day heading to and from Westcombe Park station. It is one of a handful of foot crossings on London railway lines, and has grown in importance since new housing was built on the Charlton side of the crossing at Fairthorn Road.
The plans, which are to accommodate a resignalling of the line to and from the Angerstein aggregates wharf by the Thames, have now been put on hold.
‘A full diversion is the way to go’
Network Rail first told Greenwich Council about the plans on 11 April 2018 – 12 months before neighbours found out. An unnamed member of Network Rail’s track renewals team warning that works were planned in May 2019 that “may affect the nearby foot crossing at Farmdale Road”, asking to set up a site visit. No response was received for a week until after the Network Rail officer sent a follow-up mail, after which a site visit was arranged by Greenwich’s street works area co-ordinator. An email sent from Network Rail after this visit states “I think we both formed the opinion that a full diversion is the way to go”.
After this, a further email from Network Rail which appears to have been sent to the planning team says “we need some assistance from yourselves to help us evaluate what we can do with the crossing to ensure public safety and rail transport safety”.
Responses include an email from one Greenwich Council officer to another stating “I don’t know what the Farmdale Road foot crossing is (level/bridge) as it’s not clear on the plan”.
On 9 May 2018, a planner responds to say: “The council would be likely to object to any closure since the route is well used by local people and by virtue that the passageway continues access over the A102 to Westcombe Park railway station, a route previously under threat when the A102 was built and with that the footbridge now seen over that road. NR could, of course, provide an alternative route in the form of a subway beneath its line.” A further site visit was held on 22 May 2018.
After that site visit, a council structures and street lighting manager emails with a summary of what was discussed, including plans for Network Rail to install CCTV as part of a risk assessment. But no further response was sent by Network Rail.
Network Rail has told The Charlton Champion: “After that meeting Network Rail undertook the process to understand the status of the crossing.”
‘Our closure of the foot crossing’
Separately, in November 2018, a Network Rail officer emails to comment on Greenwich Council’s plans to locally list the crossing – a mild form of protection against development – and states: “We would be happy to discuss with you further regarding the potential listing of these items and whether that is compatible with our closure of the Angerstein Wharf foot crossing.”
In mid-January 2019, a Greenwich officer emails to set up a meeting with their Network Rail counterpart. Network Rail has said this was followed by a third site visit to the crossing on 13 February.
Then on 14 February, a formal letter was sent by email warning of the closure of the crossing.
It promises: “We will erect clear signage either side of the crossing to make it clear when the closure will commence… As we have been in close liaison with you about these works, we wanted to inform you of this.” Greenwich Council says it did not receive this letter.
No response was received until 8 April – two days after a neighbour of the crossing tweeted about a letter he had received about the plans.
Got a letter from @networkrail which seems to say the Angerstein foot crossing will be permanently closed. Anyone know if this is true? No consultation that I’ve been aware of. Will mean more people walk along polluted main road. @TheMurkyDepths@mtpennycook
The tweet was included in the email. Meanwhile, the councillors and MP were finding out about the scheme for the first time through complaints from residents.
“I am not aware that Network Rail has notified the council directly of the proposed work,” the email states, while a further mail from the head of highways cites “a number of strong high level representations today objecting to the proposed crossing closure”.
The council then threatens an injunction, at which point Network Rail removes its plan to close the crossing. Asked what happened to the “clear signage”, a Network Rail spokesperson said: “The closure notice and information relating to the alternative route was displayed on the over bridge on the approach to the crossing and along Farmdale/ Fairthorn Road for the recent works and the Angerstein resignalling commissioning at Easter.”
A third site meeting was held on 12 April 2019 – a year and a day after the council was first told about the plan, and a few days before The Charlton Champion sent its Freedom of Information request – with an email from Greenwich Council confirming “that self-closing gates are to be installed to ensure that the public will be reminded that in opening these that they are at a level crossing”.
“I look forward to a copy of the letter bound for stakeholders and residents and further details of the works programme during the course of next week.”
Many current and former Greenwich councillors have long remarked privately that they are often the last to know about issues in their areas. Furthermore, the correspondence shows that officers were unaware of the crossing or its impact on the local area – which could also explain the council’s attitude to the consequences of the nearby Ikea store, where long-promised measures to assist pedestrians and cyclists have yet to be completed.
A Greenwich Council spokesperson told The Charlton Champion: “The council did not support Network Rail’s closing of the Angerstein Wharf crossing at short notice and with no consultation with residents in April 2019. When Network Rail made their initial enquiry to us in spring 2018 we were clear that they had not provided enough information of their plans.
“When we heard nothing further we assumed that their plans had changed and therefore there was nothing to inform residents of.
“The council has no record of receiving a formal closure notice from Network Rail in February 2019. If we had, we would have challenged their proposals and briefed our elected members then.
“In April we were as surprised as residents to find out what they had done. We swiftly instructed our legal team who persuaded Network Rail to postpone their plans. We will be meeting Network Rail next month and we will go prepared with legal advice regarding the status of the path and Network’s Rail statutory obligations to keep it open.”