After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye

Out on the doorsteps on Kidbrooke Park Road. From left to right: Don Austen, Jackie Smith, Alex Grant, Cherry Parker, David Gardner, Damien Welfare and Paul Morrissey

Out on the doorsteps of Kidbrooke Park Road, May 2014. From left to right: Don Austen, Jackie Smith, Alex Grant, Cherry Parker, David Gardner, Damien Welfare and Paul Morrissey

At the local elections on Thursday I’m retiring after 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park. I have mixed feelings about stepping down but having just turned 40, and with a young family, I feel it’s time to move on.

Farewell messages from retiring politicians can make turgid reading. Often they’re a final act of spin, trumpeting successes and making excuses for past mistakes. So rather than just go on about what I have done personally, I’ll reflect on how Blackheath Westcombe ward has changed since I was first elected in 1998, what it’s like to represent the area, and the future challenges it faces.

I was first elected for the old Vanbrugh ward in 1998, but in the 2002 boundary changes Vanbrugh was absorbed into the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward. Since 2006 I have been the only Labour councillor for the ward (the other two seats are currently held by Conservatives). Blackheath Westcombe ward’s knife-edge election results reflect how mixed the area is, with wealth sitting alongside pockets of poverty. Since I was first elected in 1998, property prices have risen dramatically and it could be argued that the ward has got more gentrified. But as the 2011 census showed, these changes have not benefitted everyone: levels of home ownership have actually fallen, due to the rise of buy-to-let, and less than half of Blackheath Westcombe ward’s residents now live in homes that they own.

The stereotype of Blackheath and Westcombe Park residents as middle-class, white owner-occupiers in well-paid managerial or professional jobs and tuned permanently to Radio Four is, like most stereotypes, wide of the mark. This area is diverse: although 57% of Blackheath Westcombe ward’s adult residents have degrees, less than 70% define their ethnic background as “White UK” and more than a third of households do not own a car.  24% of the ward’s residents now live in private rented accommodation (up from just 16% in 2001) and another quarter – much more than many people think – rent their homes from the council or housing associations.

The Labour council, and the last Labour government, have done much to improve public services in the area over the last 16 years, much of which I can take little personal credit for. Public buildings that were crumbling in 1998 are now refurbished or rebuilt. John Roan and Thomas Tallis schools have flourished, with improving results and excellent headteachers. Both these secondary schools have been rebuilt and hopefully Invicta Primary will follow, though the budget that Michael Gove has allocated for its new building is tight. The council has done much to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclistsBlackheath Library on Old Dover Road has been refurbished and a new library and leisure centre are now being built on the old hospital site at the bottom of Vanbrugh Hill. Blackheath Westcombe ward has a great community police team, based upstairs from Marks and Spencers at the Royal Standard. Having five or six police officers or PCSOs dedicated to the area has made a huge difference and I hope the team survives the Met police’s ongoing shake-up of neighbourhood policing: back in 1998 there was just one police officer dedicated to Blackheath, who in practice was often called away. Read more of this post

OnBlackheath: getting the balance right between music and nuisance

On Blackheath logoSo now we know the line-up: the OnBlackheath music festival being held on the Heath on September 13-14 will be headlined by Massive Attack, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, Imelda May, and the Levellers.

Up to 30,000 people are expected to come and enjoy a weekend of music, a Kid’s Stage, a farmer’s market, Street & Fringe Theatre, ‘Walkabout Entertainment’ and a  ‘Food Village’ featuring Gizzi Erskine’s Chefs Club, at the western end of the Heath just south of the A2.

This festival, sponsored by John Lewis and promoted by the legendary Harvey Goldsmith, has had a long and controversial birth: in 2011 the Blackheath Society unsuccessfully challenged the license it had been granted by Lewisham Council in the courts. Originally due to be held in the midst of the Olympics, it has been postponed twice, from 2012 to 2013 and then again to 2014. Greenwich councillors have expressed concern to Lewisham Council (on whose side of the heath OnBlackheath will take place) about potential noise problems and the cumulative impact of OnBlackheath taking place in September, shortly after the Good Hope Festival, which was to be held on the Heath on 2-3 August. Although the Good Hope Festival was granted a license in March, its organisers announced in April that it would be postponed until 2015.Blackheath - new signs 2008

The OnBlackheath Festival had aroused more concern than the Good Hope Festival had. Some local people regret Lewisham’s decision to grant a commercial music festival a license in the first place, although others welcome southeast London’s first major music festival.

There’s a big difference between the commercial OnBlackheath (which is promoted by Harvey Goldsmith and sponsored by the John Lewis Partnership) and the Good Hope festival, which is organised by the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, set up in honour of Jimmy Mizen, a teenager who was tragically murdered in Lee in 2008.

But whether we like it or not OnBlackheath is definitely now going ahead. Following discussions with the organisers the Blackheath Society is now largely happy with the way the event is being planned, and Lewisham has attached a number of new conditions: no more than 15,000 people can attend each day (the organisers orginally wanted 25,000), noise reaching nearby homes can’t be any higher than 70 decibels, everyone must go home by 1030pm, and no alcohol will be served after 930pm. A recent Blackheath Society statement says that the society is now “looking forward to being part of the process taking this event forward, engaging constructively with London Borough of Lewisham on the detailed plans (which we are still awaiting) and addressing local residents’ concerns.” The society adds that they are pleased that there is “a commitment to a full review” after the festival closes.

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Is IKEA a good idea for Greenwich?

sainsbury-greenwichHow quickly do the architectural innovations of the late Twentieth century become redundant in the Twenty-First! The iconic Sainsbury’s store on Peartree Way, with its partly glazed roof, curved lines and timber cladding, is due to be made redundant once a much larger Sainsbury’s opens down the road off Bugsby’s Way in 2014.

IKEA have now put forward plans to take over the site – and knock down the Sainsbury’s building, which was nominated for the Stirling Prize and won the prestigious RIBA Sustainability Award in 2000. Until now it had been hoped that a new retailer would adapt the building, not demolish it.

Tony Duckworth, one of the Environmental designers of the Sainsbury’s store, predicted last year that the most likely outcome was its demolition (see a blog post from 2012 here). I’m sorry that it seems he has been proved right. Read more of this post

Blackheath: a birthplace of rebellion, not just Golf

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) giving an election address on Blackheath, General election February 1874

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) giving an election address on Blackheath, General election February 1874

The Blackheath Societys new digital archive of photos and prints is a reminder that Blackheath is not just a sleepy Kentish village, famous only for the invention of Golf, that became a south London suburb. Blackheath also has a proud radical past.

The archive was subject of a week-long exhibition at Blackheath Halls in late September, which I was lucky to be at the launch of. Though the exhibition is now over, all you need do is go to www.blackheatharchive.org, register with your name and email address and you can browse all 1,500 images collated so far.

The archive is an organic thing and needs to grow further. The Blackheath Society welcomes donations of photos (I am donating some of my own limited archive of photos of places, and political events, in Blackheath and Westcombe Park from the last 15 years). Read more of this post

Mycenae House: from nunnery to New York deli

Mycenae HouseA more stable future beckons for Mycenae House Community Centre. After years of negotiation, the Vanbrugh Community Association (which runs the community centre) is now agreeing terms with Greenwich Council for a long lease on the building, which they currently occupy on a “tenancy at will”.

A long lease will give the VCA more security, and also will make it easier for them to raise funds for improvements to the building – for example, a much-needed lift to the upper floors.

It was pleasing to see improvements to the building started while the lease negotiations rumbled on:  the installation of a ramp to the front door for wheelchair users, a rewire, and roof repairs funded by the council a few years ago.

Now, the cafe-bar has just been spruced up by the VCA, to look less like a student bar and “more like a New York-style delicatessen,” according to the community centre’s imaginative manager, Mark Johnson Brown. New seating, lighting and tiling has been put in and the bar has been turned by ninety degrees to look very trendy indeed.

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Baroness Thatcher: why the best reaction from the left is dignified silence

ThatcherBy coincidence, just a few hours after Baroness Thatcher’s death was announced on April 8th, a friend and I had tickets booked to see This House, a play by James Graham at the National Theatre, in which Mrs Thatcher is not portrayed on stage but whose presence is felt throughout.

The play’s subject is the desperate measures taken by the Labour Whips to keep the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s in power. The small cast has to take its own desperate measures backstage, as the taut script requires many nifty costume changes from the drab brown suits of Labour MPs to the slightly smarter garb of the Conservatives, with a smattering of Liberal, Ulster Unionist, SDLP, Plaid Cymru and Scottish nationalist MPs thrown in for good measure.

Oddly, the only women who feature prominently on-stage are two young Labour women MPs, Helene Hayman and Ann Taylor, who are negotiating their way through the macho world of the Parliamentary Labour Party, just as Thatcher had done a decade before in the Tories. Read more of this post

Come and visit the secret woodland of SE3

Who knows that there are several acres of woodlands between Vanbrugh Hill and Maze Hill, just south of Maze Hill station? This bank of trees on the hill can be clearly seen from the station, and from pretty much anywhere in East Greenwich looking southwards. But rarely have the newly-christened Westcombe Woodlands (which have been owned by the Blackheath Preservation Trust for many years to save them from development) been opened to the public.

Now is your chance to come and have a look – the Friends of the Westcombe Woodlands are having an open day on Saturday June 16th.

All are welcome any time from 11am to 4pm – the entrance will be signposted off Maze Hill cul-de-sac (nos. 67-99 Maze Hill). For further information, e-mail westcombewoodlands@hotmail.co.uk. There’ll be tours of the glade in the woodlands, bird and bat box making, refreshments, a display of photos showing work done on volunteer days, and a chance to talk to members of the newly-formed “Friends” organisation about plans for the future. Read more of this post