Greenwich? Isn’t that where the Millennium Exhibition will (touch wood) open at the end of 1999? Well, yes and no. The exhibition site is actually on the North Greenwich Peninsula, on a redundant gasworks site near the Blackwall tunnel and about three miles from the Greenwich the tourists presently visit.
That Greenwich has the Cutty Sark, the Royal Naval College, and a stylish Georgian town centre designed by Joseph Kay around 1830, with Hawksmoor’s St Alfege terminating its main vista. It has the National Maritime Museum, the royal park, and Wren’s Old Royal Observatory up on the hill. But that Greenwich is feeling a bit neglected.
Not that it fears the tourists (currently about 2.75 million) will disappear. The worry is rather that a high proportion of the 12 million people expected at the exhibition site will also want to visit Greenwich proper, and that the government and the Millennium Commission are failing to provide for them. The Department of National Heritage has nominated ‘Royal Greenwich’ as a World Heritage Site, and expects the official designation to be made some time next year, which can only increase the pressure. But when asked about taking road traffic (already in squalid and dangerous conflict with people on foot) out of the town centre, the DNH says: ‘That is a matter for local authority’.
Local antique shop proprietor, restauranteur and conservationist, Richard Moy, believes this is not good enough. The town centre, he says, is afflicted by ‘day-long, year-long flows of non-local traffic’ with long tail-backs and much congestion. The conflict between visitors arriving at Greenwich Pier and wanting to reach the museum and park is already acute. ‘The Millennium Exhibition, even with park-and-ride and park-and-float, is bound to make things worse. Without some form of relief, the situation will become intolerable’.
Greenwich Council does, indeed, have an answer. Following a study by transport consultants Colin Buchanan & Partners, it concluded that the best answer was to bypass Greenwich town centre with a new road taking through traffic from the Blackwall Tunnel approach road to Deptford Creek, with its most sensitive section, in front of the Naval College, sunk in a concrete box under the foreshore. Extensive public consultation showed 74 per cent support for the scheme locally. The Greenwich Society, of which Moy is a leading member, strongly supports this. Not surprising: ‘It was originally our idea’.
There are just two snags, however. The council – which is also responsible for such high unemployment areas as Woolwich and Deptford – is skint. And its valiant but fruitless efforts to attract government or Millennium Commission funding have run out of time. The bypass cannot now be built in time for the year 2000.
Some things are going right for Greenwich. Work has now started on an extension to the Docklands Light Railway from the Isle of Dogs across the river to Greenwich and on to Deptford and Lewisham. And thanks to a campaign by the council and local interests, it will now include a station in the town centre - which the government until recently insisted was unnecessary. The extension should open in early 2000 (almost in time for the millennium celebrations) linking the town centre to the exhibition site via Canary Wharf and the Jubilee Line.
Another hopeful sign is that money from various government programmes – Single Regeneration Budget, for instance, and the new Capital Challenge – looks like flowing into the town. A high priority is to refashion and upgrade Cutty Sark Gardens – an ugly concrete–clad space atop a little used underground car park. Another priority is to redesign and replace paving, signposts and street furniture. Pending a bypass, sheer visitor numbers may lead the council to pedestrianise two sides of the present town centre gyratory.
But neither that nor the experimental ban on heavy lorries begun last spring are a long-term solution. Despite opposition from Greenwich MP Mick Raynsford, most local opinion still wants a bypass. Council leader Len Duval has said he now sees it as a necessity for the early 21st century, and is busily pursuing the avenue of private finance.
But what a way for any government to treat ‘the national heritage’. It announces that such sites as Greenwich, Stonehenge and the Tower of London are international treasures; but when the locals, or English Heritage point out that heavy traffic needs to be diverted, it passes the buck – in the case of Greenwich, to a cash starved local authority and a sceptical private sector.