New or Old Dover Road?

David, Pat, Nick Raynsford and I visited the windows of Blackheath library last week – the library is not due to reopen until April 26th so we could not go inside, but we could clearly see through the windows the transformation that has gone on inside with new shelving, lighting, décor and ceilings.

The much-cherished shopping parade on Old Dover Road (which is owned by Greenwich Council) has been something of a political football locally for the last four years. An unpopular rent increase in 2006 – albeit much less than first feared – was followed by a rent freeze in 2009, which will last until at least 2012. The much loved greengrocers, cafes and butchers have survived the economic downturn though I am sure it has not been easy. The reopening of the library will help, as will the council’s current review of parking rules on Old Dover Road – currently parking spaces are a free-for-all, which mean that they often get filled early in the morning by long-stay parking meaning no space for shoppers during the day.

The rent freeze did not just happen by accident, or because residents and traders asked for it – though the campaign for one was a big factor, the Labour council was able to deliver the freeze because it had created a “Economic Initiatives Fund” of £1.6m when the economic downturn stated, to shield council services from the downturn and the likely reduction in rent, council tax and fee income. In my own area of expertise, planning, planning application fees have decreased markedly.

This fund allowed the council to hold down fees, freeze council tax, and freeze shop rents on many parades including Old Dover Road. The Conservative Group on Greenwich Council voted to cut the fund by 20%, which would have made a freeze in shop rents on Old Dover Road impossible, or at very least very difficult to afford. The Tories locally are now calling for a temporary rent cut for shops to compensate for the temporary closure of the library which has reduced footfall – a rent cut which would have to be followed by a steep rent increase under the Tories’ plans, given that they had already opposed the budget provision that allowed rents to be frozen here in the first place. The question came up at a very successful hustings meeting the Westcombe Society organised on Saturday night, and I did not hear any clear explanation of why the Tories voted to cut support for the traders here, and then claimed to be on their side.

Labour has bold plans for the Royal Standard area – not just to review parking rules, freeze shop rents and improve the library, but also to rejuvenate paving, making the area easier for pedestrians and cyclists and make it into a worthy “second town centre” for Blackheath (the Standard has always played second fiddle to Blackheath Village ) that everyone living locally can be proud of.

It is a pity that Transport for London have , for the foreseeable future at least, announced that they are unwilling to fund such an overhaul. The council is looking at some smaller-scale changes it can fund from its own resources, and in the longer term we will fight for a better deal for the Standard. In recent years Blackheath Village has been transformed with new paving, better street furniture and so on, and it is high time the Standard gets a similar makeover.

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