And who is to blame for this carbuncle? Er, me actually…

SEPTEMBER 3rd UPDATE: The Woolwich Central development, which this blog post of June 25th covered, has now been declared the winner of Building Design’s 2014 Carbuncle Cup, as covered by the Guardian, the BBC’s One Show (3 minutes thirty seconds in), Radio Four’s Today Programme (3 hours, 43 minutes in) and many other national media.

When I am chatting with friends and the conversation turns to new development in Greenwich, I freeze. Between 2006 and 2010 I was chair of Greenwich Council’s Planning Board – the committee of councillors that makes decisions on all the big applications – so if we’re talking a new building in the borough there’s a fair chance I was somehow involved in granting it planning permission.

All big developments take several years to go from drawing board to construction, and the credit crunch often made the process even longer than usual. So several schemes that were going through the planning process during my time as chair have only recently been built.

Some of them – the new Thomas Tallis School, the Sammy Ofer wing at the National Maritime Museum, the exemplary new housing development at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, and the new homes and a health and leisure centre being built on the old hospital site in East Greenwich – I can look at with pride.

But there were a few more controversial developments, among them the Woolwich Central development of 960 homes and an 80,000 sq ft Tesco, which opened in November 2012 and which has just been nominated for Building Design magazine’s 2014 Carbuncle Cup. I chaired the Planning Board meeting at which the plans were approved in 2007.Tesco 5

This is the third time in four years that a Greenwich building  has been nominated – the restoration of the Cutty Sark, with the controversial glass box around its hull, won the Carbuncle Cup in 2012. The Woolwich Centre, a council office block adjacent to Tesco (which I will come back to later) was nominated in 2011. This probably says more about the amount of development going on in Greenwich that it does about the council’s ability to assess planning applications (in a London borough where there’s been a lot built in the last few years, a few carbuncle nominations are bound to come up).

In Greenwich the Chair of the Planning Board has some influence behind the scenes and can get plans amended before they come to the Board for a decision. In this case I can plead some mitigation: the plans were already well-evolved by the time I became chair in May 2006, and it turned out there was little scope to change them before they came to a board meeting in January 2007 for decision. But as I was intimately involved in the evolution of the Woolwich Central development over those eight months, I hope I can cast some light on how and why it got planning permission, and what lessons we can learn.

Tesco 3

A CGI of what the development was supposed to look like – note the “Green Wall” of ivy cascading over the car park entrance. This was later dropped to save money

Firstly, its worth remembering that Woolwich Central is not universally disliked – a well-respected local historian tells me that its “a powerful work, and Woolwich needs powerful buildings” and that “the strange angles and the multi-coloured sections… give contrast and excitement”. In the words of its architect, Martin Sagar of Sheppard Robson, the vertical stripes are designed to make it unclear where the Tesco store stops and the flats above start: “the ribbon device unites the composition rather than fragmenting it”, he says.

Boring the building is not, and when the plans were conceived back in the early noughties they ticked a lot of boxes. Government planning policy strongly encouraged (and still does) large supermarkets to be located in town centres.  The development promised nearly 1,000 new homes above and alongside the new Tesco – most of them owner-occupied – whose spending power the council quietly welcomed, given that Woolwich town centre was dominated by downmarket buy-to-let renting and council housing.

Peggy Middleton House being demolished in 2010: there were few mourners

As an added bonus Tesco promised to demolish Peggy Middleton House (“Peggy” for short), an unloved 1970s red-brick council office block that was like a greenhouse in summer and an igloo in winter (and, like most ugly council buildings, home to the planning department), and a similarly unloved concrete block next door, Crown Building. While other councils had opened “contact centres” with a single reception desk and a modern call centre, Greenwich still had an old-fashioned switchboard and umpteen reception desks dotted around a range of shabby buildings. As part of the deal Tesco built the council a new office block (the Woolwich Centre on Wellington Street) which replaced a number of grotty old offices dotted around Woolwich: not just Peggy but several storeys of Riverside House, 1930s and 1950s buildings on the south side of Wellington Street, poky offices in the Edwardian Co-op department store on Powis Street and the Victorian bakery building behind it. Overall the scheme would make the council money: Tesco would pay the council £28m (later negotiated up to £38m) to reinvest in other projects.

How the car park entrance turned out - with no "Green Wall" of ivy in sight, only Zinc and Trespa cladding

How the car park entrance turned out – with no “Green Wall” of ivy in sight, only Zinc and Trespa cladding

There was a charming swagger about the people from Tesco’s development arm Spenhill when they met with me and other councillors in 2006 and 2007: rather than dress down like most developers, Tesco’s then development director Patrick Stones once turned up in black tie on his way to a charity bash. Lots of reassurance was given about how the huge new Tesco would disguise its bulk, and help rather than hinder Woolwich’s small traders. Independent retailers were predicted to occupy small units by the Tesco entrance and around the corner on Woolwich New Road. A “green wall” of ivy and other creepers would climb the building directly above the car park entrance. We were told that the 258 flats directly above the supermarket, in four parallel blocks like a toast-rack and separated by winter gardens, would be a pioneering model of sustainable, high-density urban living.

Even the site’s name had an authentic pedigree: although Love Lane (as the Woolwich Central development was originally branded) sounded as if it has been lifted from a Beatles song lyric, an alleyway of that name that had passed through the site since the early nineteenth century, possibly earlier.  The development had many features to help persuade sceptics that this would not just be a large Tesco but a whole new quarter for Woolwich.  The site would be framed by two new landmark buildings: a seventeen storey building at one end by the South Circular Road and at the other end the 30-storey Ordnance Tower (later lowered to 26 storeys) facing General Gordon Square. This would be clad in brass “sails” resembling a shell case and which the original architectss Collado Collins said would make “abstract reference to the long seafaring and military tradition of Woolwich”.

Ordnance Tower: version one

Ordnance Tower: version one

Tesco’s proposals received a warm reaction in the London-wide press. The Evening Standard of January 25th 2007, on the eve of their approval by the council’s Planning Board, ran a generally favourable story called “Welcome to Tesco on Thames” which uncritically quoted the planning report’s prediction that the new Tesco would “support the vitality and viability of the borough’s strategic centre and be a catalyst for further regeneration of greater Woolwich”.

Such grandiose language – including a previously unheard-of term, “greater Woolwich” – was part of a consensus, shared by both Labour and Conservative councillors, that a big new supermarket was the shot in the arm that Woolwich’s ailing economy needed. Although I had major doubts about the huge size of the new Tesco I soon realised that others did not agree. I knew that the other councillors on the Planning Board I chaired would vote to approve the scheme and that it was pointless to vote against it myself.

Ordnance Tower - version tower

Ordnance Tower – version two


As well as the demolition of “Peggy” – one of Woolwich’s worst buildings – the development also required the demolition of one of its better ones: the red-brick Victorian General Post Office on Thomas Street, known to older Woolwich residents as “The General”. As soon as I became chair I questioned this but was told that a tall building, overlooking General Gordon Square, was a key part of the development and the Post Office building had to go.

Woolwich Post Office shortly before its demolition in 2011

Woolwich Post Office shortly before its demolition in 2011

Woolwich’s General Post Office was a Queen Anne dolls’ house of a building, built in 1890-91 and probably designed by an Office of Works architect, Edward George Rivers, who did much work for the GPO. To the south an extension was built in 1914-16 by Albert Robert Myers, another prolific GPO architect who went on to design many post offices across southern England, including an extension to London’s main sorting office at Mount Pleasant in the 1930s .

Many post office buildings by Rivers and Myers survive, often now converted to new uses. Rivers’ West Central District Post Office of 1883-84 on Bedford Street in Covent Garden has recently been converted into flats behind a retained facade. In Oxford Rivers’ gothic Post Office on St Aldates still trades (with planning permission recently granted for a restaurant in its vaults), and in Bournemouth and Hereford post offices designed by Rivers are now Pizza Express outlets. In Isleworth, Myer’s neo-Georgian post office is now converted into flats and in Weybridge an estate agents. In Wembley, Tonbridge, Reading and Romford post offices designed by Myers have been successfully converted into pubs, while in Camden Town his former North Western District Post Office is now council offices. In Aldershot and Rochester buildings by Myers are still in use as sorting offices.

The Post Office being demolished, 2011

The Post Office being demolished, 2011

Almost anywhere else in south London – in Bromley, Eltham or Sidcup, and certainly in Blackheath or Greenwich – a redundant Victorian post office would be tastefully, if unimaginatively, converted into offices, flats, a Pizza Express or a Cafe Rouge. But in Woolwich River’s and Myers’ post office buildings were summarily demolished with hardly any protest at all. Given that the post office was only locally listed and was not located in a conservation area, it had no statutory protection and plans for its demolition were not opposed by the government’s design quango, CABE, when they were asked for their views in 2006. Woolwich’s post office was relocated to a meagre counter at the back of WH Smith on Powis Street in April 2008, again with hardly a whimper of protest (in Greenwich town centre a much more modest proposal to keep the main post office open but contract out its management, and insert a retail unit, provoked howls of outrage). At the same time Woolwich’s sorting office was relocated out of the town centre to a banal metal shed in the middle of the Pettman Crescent gyratory a mile to the east.

The Terracotta "VR" seal on the Post Office's side gable: now in storage and awaiting a new home

The Terracotta “VR” seal on the Post Office’s side gable: now in storage and awaiting a new home

One concession was made: because the post office had only narrowly been turned down for listing in 2005, the terracotta Imperial seal on the side gable of the building (with the letters VR – Victoria Regina) was salvaged when the building was demolished in 2011. Its reinstallation on one of the buildings at the base of the 26-storey tower was proposed (in 2008 Collado Collins, the scheme’s original architects, had even said that the town’s Post Office would relocate there). But now that this tower has been abandoned, the seal remains in storage and its fate is unclear. Perhaps it should not be reinstalled at all: such a poignant reminder of a great building only draws attention to the folly of its demolition.

How the design was dumbed down

In practice, most members of the planning board were very relaxed about the demolition of the Post Office and the promise of an “iconic” tall building in its place, and outline planning consent was granted in January 2007 with no councillors voting against. I had tried to argue for its retention, but the prospect of a tall building in place of the Post Office was actively welcomed: “Build it high and build it quick” was the verdict of one of my Labour colleagues.

There were several changes as detailed applications rolled in over the following three years. Because of the recession from 2008 onwards Tesco said a “fundamental review of the scheme” was required before construction could start. Collado Collins were now off the job and in February 2009, and again in September 2010, new architects Sheppard Robson proposed “relatively modest changes” (all of which the council agreed to) which seemed innocuous but in practice dumbed the design down considerably.

A row of retail units was originally promised to go along here: instead there are bin stores and substations. A lively street frontage it is not.

A row of retail units was originally promised to go along here: instead there are bin stores and substations. A lively street frontage it is not.

Firstly, changes to the housing mix were made, some of them for the best: studio flats were omitted and the number of two and three-bed flats was increased, reducing the number of new homes above the store from 296 to 258.  But Tesco also changed the tenure mix of these homes to segregate the private homes from the affordable ones. Two blocks which were originally mixed were now made completely affordable housing, with no private units, while another block had all its affordable housing removed and was made private housing only.

Further changes in 2010 meant that all of the private homes were accessed from Love Lane on the western corner of the site, with the affordable homes accessed separately from Grand Depot Road and Engineers Row. People in private housing would not now have to share their entrance lobbies, corridors or lifts with people renting their homes from a housing association, who were to be confined to the least attractive blocks, directly fronting on to the busy Grand Depot Road.

Secondly, the level of the car park was raised, firstly by 1.5m and then by a whole storey, to reduce the need for excavation (and cutting the number of lorry trips to the construction site by 5,000). Residents’ car parking was moved from an upper level into Tesco’s car park. Sadly this had a lot of knock-on effects. The Woolwich New Road frontage lost several ground floor windows because residents’ dustbins were moved to new “refuse store areas” accessed from the pavement. Where a row of small shops had originally been proposed a storage area for dustbins has been built instead, making a key frontage a lot less active.  Because the car park was made higher the supermarket above it is also had to be raised, further complicating pedestrian routes through the site: a newly-opened alley, Royal Engineer’s Row relies on a high staircases and five flights of ramps at each end to surmount the mountainous hulk of Tesco’s car park. The ramps were deemed to be a waste of space so lifts were proposed in 2010 at either end of the path for those unable to use the stairs: an inelegant solution that may prove costly to maintain.

It's a pity that more care was not paid to the pavement around the development - here it is almost blocked by two huge utility boxes

It’s a pity that more care was not paid to the pavement around the development – here it is almost blocked by two huge utility boxes

Thirdly, the coloured cladding for the building’s lower levels was changed from Fibre-cement panels to a flatter, cheaper material, Trespa. The proposed “green wall” of creepers directly above the car park entrance was dropped because its successful maintenance could not be guaranteed.

A fourth change was even more fundamental: the 26-storey tower at the northern end of the site remains unbuilt. This had always been the scheme’s weak spot: although the original tower proposed by Collado Collins would have resembled a shell casing from some angles, it would look very bulky from others because its plan form would be rectangular, not cylindrical. In 2006 CABE said that this tower “would not meet these tests of CABE/English Heritage guidance” and that the council should not give it planning consent without more detail: in other words it was simply not good enough. CABE added that the “local authority cannot afford to consent a tall building that is not of the highest quality. It would be better not to have a tall building on the this site than one that does not represent the renewal of Woolwich”: advice that the council did not follow when it approved outline plans for the tower in January 2007.

In January 2009 the council was shown more detailed plans for a slimmer, chevron-shaped tower designed by Wilkinson Eyre, still 26 storeys high and with a public viewing platform on the top floor, but no detailed application followed. In 2010 Tesco proposed “temporary landscaping” of the northern  end of the site until the tower could be built. But four years later these Tellytubby-style triangular “sculpted grass mounds” look pretty permanent, and in late 2013 the council admitted that a tower might never be built at all.


Two years after it was built, there is still an empty shop unit on the corner of the site right by Woolwich New Road

Two years after it was built, there is still an empty shop unit on the corner of the site right by Woolwich New Road

Nearly two years after Tesco opened it’s easy to see the development’s shortcomings. The buildings are clearly distinctive and the zinc cladding on the residential blocks does not look cheap: they have an unusual profile with glazing on their south and north sides and striped cladding to the others, a bit like smartphones laid on their side. Those with an architectural eye may see echoes of the window surrounds at the Danish embassy, a brown metal block on Sloane Street designed by Arne Jacobsen. But they are extremely high and cry out for a better focal point than their Tesco Extra signage.

The real problems, as so often with tall buildings, arise when they meet the ground and on a sloping site like this the problems are multiplied. The Woolwich New Road frontage makes elementary howlers: mostly it is just blank walls facing Pugin’s St Peter’s Church across the road. Apart from a few front doors to maisonettes  towards the top of the hill furthest away from General Gordon Square, there is hardly any activity facing the pavement here. The frontage on Woolwich New Road and Grand Depot Road, which the Planning Board had been promised in 2007 would be “wrapped with active usage”  is now mostly taken up with doors to bin stores, electricity substations, or the entrance to Tesco’s car park. A promised neighbourhood police office, promised to open as long ago as 2007, is still not open in 2014, even though the police station around the corner on Market Street has now shut its doors. Of the five shop units by Tesco’s entrance which had been earmarked for “independent retailers” three are still vacant and the others are both fast-food joints: a Subway and a Domino’s Pizza.

More empty shop units on the way to Tesco's entrance. They do not signal that this is a place to linger in after the shopping's done

More empty shop units on the way to Tesco’s entrance. They do not signal that this is a place to linger in after the shopping’s done

Despite the cost-cutting the materials are generally quite hi-spec, and the design can’t be criticised as being of-the-shelf. There are many recent resi-over-retail developments in London, but none of the others looks like Woolwich’s Tesco. Woolwich Central’s problems did not arise from a shortage of good architects. Sheppard Robson are a good firm and the development was overseen by a high-calibre design panel chaired by Paul Finch (then chair of CABE and a former editor of all three of the UK’s top architectural magazines: Building Design, The Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review). As well as the architects working directly on the scheme the panel also included Tobias Goevert of Design for London, Paolo Testolini of BDP and Mark Fitch, a transport planner at Colin Buchanan and Partners: all people who know what they are talking about. Although a Chinese wall prevented me from attending the design panel meetings their minutes from 2007-08 show that the panel members were pushing for high design quality, careful thought about how such a large supermarket could be shoehorned into the site, and if possible, the retention of the locally listed Post Office buildings on the site. But they were trying to close a stable door after the horse had bolted.

The real problem was that the consequences of such a huge supermarket on the site had never really been thought through. The supermarket is not quite as big as first proposed – in 2005 Tesco originally proposed a huge 11,892 sq m (128,000 sq ft) store, reported in the media to be “Europe’s largest supermarket”, but an upstairs mezzanine floor was scrapped and the council argued them down to 7,400 sq m (80,000 sq ft). But it’s still a very large supermarket, with as much floorspace for clothes and electronics as for groceries.

Where the Victorian Post Office and Sorting Office once stood there was supposed to be a 26-storey tower. Instead there's an oddly purposeless open space - are those hillocks there to be climbed, or to hide behind?

Where the Victorian Post Office and Sorting Office once stood there was supposed to be a 26-storey tower. Instead there’s an oddly purposeless open space – are those hillocks there to be climbed, or to hide behind?

Rather than futuristic this Tesco seems oddly dated: such large supermarkets were already falling out of fashion by the time of its opening. Instead of doing one big weekly shop in a hypermarket, customers nowadays tend to shop more locally and frequently, or online. Just as the Tesco in Woolwich was being built, Tesco was abandoning similar large supermarket projects elsewhere in London: its plans to expand an existing Tesco Extra shop in Purley, near Croydon to 12,913sq m were dropped in 2008. After a 14.3% fall in pre-tax profits, Tesco’s 2013 annual report promised “an end to the big store space race” and did not contain a roll-call of hypermarket openings. Tesco’s growth is now in smaller convenience stores and online shopping and the Woolwich store seems an anachronistic white elephant. Anecdotal evidence suggests that sales are much lower than expected – crucially, even on a Saturday morning the Tesco is very uncrowded with many checkout lanes closed and only  short queues at the open ones. The cavernous Woolwich Tesco is like an underused church: Londoners may still like to shop but they now prefer to do so in smaller places of worship.

Even if it is busier than it looks it is far from clear how a huge supermarket can be the solution to Woolwich’s long-term economic problems. No proper analysis was undertaken of what the impact would be on retailers elsewhere in the town centre, or whether the 400 new jobs at Tesco would be offset by job losses at other retailers. A new 13,000 sq m Sainsbury’s and 7,500 sq m Marks’s & Spencer side by side in Charlton, due to open in 2015, will not help, and the Marks and Spencer in Woolwich itself recently announced it was closing. Woolwich needs to accept that its days as a major retail centre may be over: the post-Portas Grimsey Review recently argued that there is already too much retail space in the UK and that struggling town centres need to convert existing retail space to leisure and residential uses, not build more. According to Grimsey, new retail developments often only hasten the decline of town centres, and I fear Woolwich’s Tesco is a good example.

What might have been - an early proposal sketch (looking north up Woolwich New Road) showing trees, hanging gardens, and front doors facing onto the street.

What might have been – an early proposal sketch (looking north up Woolwich New Road) showing trees, hanging gardens, and front doors facing onto the street.

The development did not arise from a longstanding preference for Woolwich New Road as the location for a big new supermarket. Although the  2006 Unitary Development Plan (the council’s planning blueprint; UDP for short): had said the Peggy Middleton House site was suitable for “a mix of residential, retail and/or business/employment uses”, no mention was made of a large supermarket. It had long been assumed that new retail development in Woolwich would take place on or near Powis Street, not half a mile away on Woolwich New Road: a 2004 “Woolwich Strategy and Framework Plan” had envisaged a new mall to “anchor Powis Street with the DLR at the eastern end and Department Stores at the western”, and made no mention of Woolwich New Road as a suitable location for a new supermarket. To add to the confusion the council’s 2006 UDP said that the Post Office was locally listed and “its retention is encouraged,” but identified the Peggy Middleton House site as suitable for mixed use development, adding that “large scale retailing proposals would need frontage on General Gordon Square.”

The stairs up to the new pedestrian walkway - the consequences of a two-storey car park that could not go underground

The stairs and lift up to the new pedestrian walkway – the consequences of a two-storey car park that could not go underground

Once Tesco approached the council its preference for retail development on or near Powis Street was suddenly dropped:  a 2005 council presentation entitled “A Future Vision for Woolwich” hailed the Peggy site as a “major site in heart of Woolwich for mixed-use development” including a large supermarket, which would “reinvigorate the site which is presently severely under-utilised”. To “connect the site with the town centre” and “ensure that retail development could be secured”, the presentation said that “A comprehensive approach to the site, including Crown House [sic] & Post Office is required,” a circular argument that did not explain why retail development on the site was necessary or welcome in the first place. The site was suddenly deemed to be suitable for a supermarket largely because of a housekeeping problem at Greenwich Council:  the pressing need to rationalise the council’s office provision in Woolwich and create new civic offices. The tail was already wagging the dog.


Woolwich Central from General Gordon Square. The 1860s terrace on the right-hand side faces an uncertain future

Woolwich Central from General Gordon Square. The 1860s terrace on the right-hand side faces an uncertain future

Woolwich Central is still work in progress: a new masterplan for the Thomas Street end of the site (where a charming row of unlisted 1860s buildings survive – let’s hope they don’t suffer the same fate as the Post Office) is in preparation. Despite warm words about “putting the public sector in the driving seat and steering economic growth and regeneration,” and “achieving the vision set out in the Masterplan” it seems few lessons have been learnt from the mixed success of the Tesco development. Thomas Street actually worked very well before Tesco arrived. The juxtaposition of the Victorian Post Office building and the 1860s terraces alongside was charming and together they were by far the oldest frontage on General Gordon Square, and arguably of  greater architectural quality than any of the square’s other sides. In the name of “regeneration” a key heritage asset was unnecessarily knocked down to make way for an iconic tower that will probably never be built, and today the cleared site seems to serve no clear purpose other than to attract shoppers into a vast Tesco store.


The view from Tesco’s non-food section down onto General Gordon Square – impressive, but Equitable House was never designed to be viewed from a distance, and frankly it shows

One good by-product is the new civic building next door. Although it was nominated for the Carbuncle Cup in 2011, HLM architects’ Woolwich Centre works well, even if the white render of the upper floors looks dull and lifeless under a skin of glass. Above all, the open atrium at the front and the brick and stone of its lower floors show that a council can produce decent civic architecture, where visitors do not feel stigmatised or undignified. It is easy to forgive the silly top-floor viewing gallery set at an angle of 30 degrees (the council’s then Leader Chris Roberts had admired a similar angled feature on the facade of Michael Wilford’s British Embassy in Berlin and asked for it to be replicated in Woolwich). Though its angle is pointless the Survey of London hails the gallery for “saving the main block from too monolithic an appearance”. Because the building was finished in 2011 just as the new coalition government was inflicting heavy cuts on local government, it opened without much fanfare, and emphasis firmly placed on the ground floor library – judged to be London’s busiest in 2012-13 – not the six storeys of offices for 3,000 council staff upstairs.

But the demolition of Woolwich’s Post Office for an “iconic” tower that may never be built will be remembered for decades to come as a major blunder, and I still regret not kicking up more of a fuss at the time. I’m reminded of the fate of Northampton’s Emporium Arcade of 1901, which was knocked down in November 1972 to make way for the Grosvenor Shopping centre, a loss mourned by Ian Nairn in a documentary made just before the wrecking ball arrived – ‘if they do pull this place down it’ll be a diabolical shame,’ said Nairn on camera. “The success of the scheme depends on a new service road – my answer to that is change the scheme ,” said Nairn, scorning Northampton council for having judged the arcade to be “of no architectural value”. In Woolwich, a similar Victorian building was knocked down and replaced not with a new shopping centre, but a pointless void in front  of one.

The site in summer 2012, with construction almost complete

The site in summer 2012, with construction almost complete

Let’s hope that whatever does happen on the Post Office site will repair some of the damage. At the other end of the site near the barracks,  an exhibition of the next residential phase was held on May 23rd and May 24th – when councillors and other political types were busy at an election  count. The plans (which unhelpfully can no longer be viewed on the Woolwich Central website) showed a sequence of blocks even higher than those already been built above Tesco, and higher than what was given outline planning permission back in 2007. Another feature of the original plans – a diagonal gap between the blocks to preserve views of Woolwich Town Hall’s clocktower from Woolwich Common – has disappeared.

The council became so fixated on the opportunities that Tesco offered to deliver new civic offices that crucial details were overlooked. The design watchdog CABE had harboured doubts all along: in 2006 their first comment was that the scheme was “wanting in terms of urban design”. Although CABE later became happier, they prophetically warned that “many aspects of the scheme could be problematic to the quality of the public realm and as a place to live if it is implemented in a slightly different way”. In other words, details matter and seemingly minor design changes can have devastating consequences.

For the time bring, there is a great view of Woolwich Town Hall's clocktower from Woolwich Common - but this is likely to disappear once the final phase of Woolwich Central is built.

For the time bring, there is a great view of Woolwich Town Hall’s clocktower from Woolwich Common – but this is likely to disappear once the final phase of Woolwich Central is built.

When the developers presented a second round of change to the scheme’s design in 2010 they argued the opposite, saying that the bigger picture was more important than design details: “It is easy to become focused on small scale changes, rather than recall the bigger picture issues arising from this significant mixed-use proposal.” But by focussing too much on the “bigger picture” all sorts of problems crept into the development. Planning policies that encourage large supermarkets  to go in town centres – the so-called “sequential test”  – are well-intentioned, but in practice can mean that town centres receive large, inflexible boxes to which its street patterns are not suited.

The regeneration of Woolwich over the last decade has relied on two huge projects: Tesco and the new Crossrail Station due to open in 2018. But regenerating places like Woolwich isn’t achieved just by big supermarkets or railway stations. Making a place somewhere you want to live, work or hang out in is down to lots of little things – thoughtful public spaces like the new General Gordon Square, new pubs and restaurants, community projects like the Woolwich Ideas Exchange that local councillor John Fahy has helped set up – not just big-ticket projects.

No matter how you dress it up, Woolwich Central is a huge two-storey car park with a supermarket above and some flats on top: a type of development completely alien to London town centres like Woolwich and one which struggles to integrate well. Woolwich Central is at best a red herring and at worst an obstacle on Woolwich’s road to recovery. It may not be a carbuncle but it is a flawed project and I regret my role as its midwife.

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38 Responses to And who is to blame for this carbuncle? Er, me actually…

  1. Great post. The abandoning of greenery because upkeep could not be guaranteed is a shocker. This is a company making annual profits of £3 billion yet cannot confirm it will maintain greenery.

    The grey trespa bands are drab, dreary and ugly. The architects reason for using them, and for The vertigal bands is pretty laughable. There’s many other better ways to blend a ground floor store and flats above together. Trespa itslef resembles cheap plastic. To allow a downgrade to that was a mistake and the council need to be aware of future alterations to planning after approval where this material pops up. It has a role but fails on this building.

    The hope it will attract owner occupiers could well be misplaced. There’s no reason it wont become another block of buy to let flats, occupied by those people without much spending power the council doesn’t like. The building is pretty hideous in many parts, after all the cut corners, and that will dissuade the people the council were hoping would come.

    On the bright side the tower didn’t appear. It would have been value engineered within an inch of its life too. I have no problem with towers, but with badly designed towers. The proposal was one of those. We are now building some very good tall buildings across the UK and London now. Let’s hope future proposals take their queue from those not the dreary grey trespa tower with small windows originally proposed.

  2. One more thing – I think the days of Woolwich as a town centre being over is fundamentally wrong. There’s huge potential but such a lack of initiative and innovation from many local parties – the council, landowners, and other organisations. There isn’t too much retail space in Woolwich. There are rents and rates that are too high for many independents to give things a go. Offering free rent/rate periods, or peppercorn rents for x amount of months, would get many giving things a go and bring some vitality to the town. This has happened across London and the UK to great success in places. Woolwich has the ingredients to succeed too.

    There’s a huge catchment area as it is,with huge numbers of housing in the pipeline. There is the DLR line (with huge redevelopment planned just over the river along the DLR line) and Crossrail coming. A million more people at least will be in London in the next 10 years. Most want to visit big malls but also enjoy things on their doorstep. But Woolwich needs to offer far more. The area seems in a state of paralyses and not taking advantage of the many assets it has and the opportunities that are there.

    Almost everyone I know who lives in SE London avoids Woolwich like the plague as it is. It is hugely disliked by many and avoided whenever possible and I don’t blame them. I only go if meeting someone who works there for a quick drink and even then most people want to get away.

    It needs better maintenance. It needs innovation to attract better pubs, shops and leisure. People treating it like shit need to be penalised.

  3. Nikki says:

    This is fascinating, thank you so much for taking the time to put all of this down. I agree on the relative success of Tesco vs the Greenwich Centre: I quite like the (outside) of the Greenwich Centre, but I think it will be a long time before Tesco stops feeling like an assault on General Gordon Square.

    At a slight tangent, and speaking as someone who joined an amenity society because she was worried about the disproportionate amount of influence small groups of people (i.e. amenity societies) have on planning decisions: it strikes me recently that Woolwich’s residents could really do with more of a voice. There aren’t enough busy-bodies busy-bodying on Woolwich’s behalf, yet spending 2 minutes on Twitter will show you that there are plenty of people with ideas about what Woolwich should be. Another example is the treatment of Woolwich Common post-Olympics compared to the restoration of Greenwich Park. No one (I should say, that I know of) is out there agitating for the Common to be restored to its former state; I would guess that if a similar thing had happened in Greenwich it’d be a national story.

    Unlike fromthemurkydepths I find Woolwich growing on me as I spend more time there. It has things going for it, and I mean outside the wall. But my background is from the North West: it has the feel to me of towns abandoned there throughout the 80s and 90s and now trying to drag themselves up by regeneration while the jobs that supported the people of the towns are still going. It’s a Preston of the South East: what will turn it around, I would guess, are jobs and transport before more glass and steel.

  4. Dawn says:

    The problem in Woolwich is Greenwich Council. Too interested in keeping business rents/rates high and in furthering their own interests/pet projects they are missing an obvious opportunity in the regeneration of Woolwich. Offer zero or very low rents/rates to independent businesses wanting to open up in Powis Street and they’ll come. Why is the Council not pulling out all the stops to get M&S to stay in Woolwich? Because they’re incompetent and inept.

  5. maryorelse says:

    Alex, Alex, Alex. Thank you for this. Its not just you, (and me, and everyone else), messing about with Woolwich – you won’t remember the demolition of wonderful terraces on Woolwich Common in the 1970s, the botched design of Woolwich Dockyard – and so much else.
    There are a number of tiny points I could make and the only one I am going to pick on is to say that in White Hart Depot were piles of things ‘saved’ from the demolished great buildings of Woolwich – and I guess they all went in the skip (or am I wrong?).
    I also know that so few people understand that ‘regeneration’ doesn’t just mean big buildings – and that when I look at what we have done to Greenwich Peninsula I could sit down and cry.
    Everyone means well when they start out – everyone tries to get it right.

  6. Deborah says:

    I remember the council’s appalling obdurate attitude towards the houses opposite Woolwich Common (not to mention several other buildings in Woolwich and Plumstead) and those people and organisations (including the Government of the day) that opposed their demolition in the 1970s. Back then, the emphasis was on large, yet piecemeal schemes that did not look at the bigger picture in terms of architecture, people’s day-to-day lives or knock-on financial impact. Things don’t seem to have changed – you only need to look at appendices attached to Planning Committee Agendas to understand that the obdurate attitude is still there.

    I am alarmed by your reference to a mall in the Powis Street area. It seems, to me at least, that it would be foolhardy to try to compete with so many other, identikit shopping precincts. Bexley stole the march in this respect, in any case, at a time when Greenwich’s reaction to the loss of large employers in Woolwich and Charlton was to clobber remaining businesses with drastically increased business rates – thus reversing the fortunes and importance of the two shopping areas: Bexleyheath was no longer a fuddy-duddy suburban town selling school uniforms and corsets to fuddy-duddy suburban people, whilst Woolwich became a tacky shanty town full of discount shops and a McDonalds. Bye bye Cuffs, BHS, Woolworths, Littlewoods – even Tesco.

    Woolwich needs to offer an alternative for shopping, dining and entertainment and to emphasise the best of existing buildings. I agree that it is advisable to attract three or four large shops into Woolwich which, together with a cinema and a theatre, would be the cornerstones or linchpins to a thriving market town.

    I understand that the Council successfully applied to Boris for a grant for Eltham High Street to help pay for refurbishment of shop fronts, so that the original architecture could shine through. This is what is needed for what remains of Henry Church’s shops in Powis Street. Each group has it’s own individuality whilst, as a whole, the buildings provide a conformity and cohesiveness through such features as the Dutch-style gables.

    The new Leader promised to take into account the views of local people. Well, we are talking are you listening?

  7. Deborah says:

    It has just occurred to me that the western end of Powis Street and the same side of Hare Street is so ignored these days, that I completely failed to mention the demise of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society!

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  9. Great post, thanks for this. Not only very well written, also a valuable analysis of the process by which potentially good ideas (I’m not referring to building a huge Tescos in Woolwich, that was always a silly idea) get watered down, ditched or amended as developers plead changing circumstances in order to wriggle out of commitments – whether that’s to construction of actual buildings, or those little details such as green walls which can make a huge difference to the finished product. Every council planner/planning committee member should be made to read this!

  10. richey1977 says:

    Thank you for this insight. I’ve shared it with friends and neighbours in Dartford, as we’re next in line for Tesco’s demolition of our heritage and culture.

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  16. Alison Miller says:

    Alex, your honesty is refreshing. The following may provide an insight into how closed the mindset was during the planning stages. My next door neighbour approached a local councillor electioneering on the street to register her concerns about the Tesco development. The said councillor refused to listen because my neighbour was clearly someone who was “not going to vote Labour”. The feeling people have in Greenwich is, that no matter what kind of consultation takes place it is merely window-dressing for decisions already made.

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  19. Philip Rainbird says:

    Living in Plumstead, we`ve witnessed the long slow decline of Woolwich over several decades. The Tesco development is part of the end game. Alex Grant`s article really nails it, and even ends with an apology for his role in the planning process. No surprise that the strangely ubiquitous Chris Roberts bears responsibility for the cranked turret of the council Kulturpalast. As for the Tesco monolith, just visit the ghastly place and experience sick building syndrome first hand, try to choose acoustic overload or spatial crowding as the worse characteristics. Alex Grant shows the cascade of shady decisions that resulted in a kind of corporate arcology more appropriate to a William Gibson sci-fi novel mouseclicked into Woolwich by a committee of non-residents.

  20. Thanks for stating your reasons on the decisions you made on behalf of the council. With funding from Tesco and redevelopment, who wouldn’t have continued with the proposed masterplan?
    In hindsight the Architect and developer have produced what they thought was a futuristic vision. Not everyone can see what they saw in the future and maybe we are not there yet!

  21. JB says:

    Wow, I have never seen such an honest outpouring. Fascinating read and such a shame that all seem to be led by the money and overall power of the giant store. Here’s to the small scale regeneration on an organic basis. Some of us are out there doing that, but we cannot compete with the big boys’ big visions

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  24. X Trapnel says:

    This is a fascinating and admirably honest account. Thank you and congratulations.

    It would be great if you could move on to the wider question of why Greenwich Council has such a consistent track record of promoting awful development in the borough whilst demolishing good existing buildings. This goes back at least to the 1970s as others have said – Council triumphs include Woolwich Common, the awful Dockyard development on a wonderful site, Peggy Middleton House itself, and the dreadful flats at the top of Charlton Church Lane, now happily demolished. It continues. Recent developments throughout the borough are almost invariably over bearing, cram too much on to the site and favour standard solutions over a sensitive response to the site. The Cutty Sark development is shockingly bad. Common themes spanning more than 40 years are an apparent indifference, even contempt, for good design, and a willingness to take the word of developers and companies like Tesco when they promote their schemes which is, at best, naive. Yet you obviously care about trying to make the borough better and are thoughtful about design. Probably others – officers and Councillors – do too. Greenwich has some of the very best spaces, buildings and architecture in London – and I don’t just mean ‘historic Greenwich’ / WHS. Yet the culture of the Council is indifferent or hostile and always has been. It would be interesting to know why.

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  26. W T says:

    Firstly an interesting post Alex.

    Secondly, in recent years I’ve seen large Tesco developments around the UK in Stockport, Chesterfield, Sheffield (The Wicker), Slough, Ashford Kent. Without exception they are monolithic car-dominated developments with no relation to the local context. Clearly Tesco don’t give a sh*t about decent architecture or planning so why did you think they would treat Woolwich any differently?

  27. AW3 says:

    Ealing Council, whose planning department has made some eyebrow-raising decisions over the past few years, could learn a lot from this. Their bungled attempt to regenerate Acton’s town centre is centred around… building a big supermarket and car park with a couple of hundred flats on top. Right in the town centre, with no public space and no underground car park.

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  29. Alex Grant says:

    Thanks to everyone who has commented here for their input. Just two points of clarification:

    1 I do not think that Woolwich Town Centre should decline, or even that it will: as several people have said, it has a good chance to prosper as long as it can be reinvented as a niche shopping centre. I don’t in fact buy the argument that Tesco itself will condemn the Town centre to further economic decline: I suspect Marks and Spencer would have closed anyway even if a large Tesco had not opened (lots of other towns in North Kent, such as Gravesend, are also seeing M&S pull out). The ill effects of Woolwich Central are more subtle and insidious: its “Every Little Helps” message that a large big-box supermarket is a magic wand insults the intelligence, and the Carbuncle accolade will haunt the Town centre and bring negative publicity for some time to come.

    2 I agree that in terms of materials – and originality – Woolwich Central is better architecturally than many other Tesco developments (such as the horrendous Welling Store, which has all the grace of a cardboard box).

  30. Wendy Higgs says:

    Tesco, Woolwich – an alternative view

    The problem with architectural prizes is that new buildings are viewed in isolation from the people whom they ‘serve’. This is of necessity – those who evaluate them are unlikely to know the area and its community.
    Is a building to be seen purely in ‘artistic’ terms?

    8+ REASONS why Tesco in Woolwich is ‘valuable’ and functional to those who work there, live there and visit there frequently:
    • The new Tesco feels and is part of the regeneration of Woolwich
    • It overlooks the immensely popular and recently made useable Town square area: the centre now of Woolwich. Its location at one side of the square is ideal.
    • Tesco café has ceiling-to-floor windows the whole length of one side facing the square. It has comfortable leather settees and easy chairs next to the windows. Second floor up, it is highly popular with folk who like to feel part of the scenes around. Woolwich is a lively community and we are busy people.
    • Its modern design –simple lines – balconies for all flats (many of which are sunny during the day) – and the use of low-key colour and stainless steel strips plus curved surfaces is in keeping with the tastes of coming generations (personal communication!). No pastiche in sight.
    • Tesco has provided 3 hours free parking in the very heart of the town.
    • Its remit meant it provided funding for the new Royal Borough of Greenwich Town Hall and Council offices. This new Woolwich Centre is directly opposite the previous Town Hall which is stylish and a Listed Building. This provides a sense of continuity.
    • The Centre also leads directly into the dynamic and most popular new library.
    • All these buildings are at one side of Tesco and appear as part of one complex.
    • Tesco has been built in a modern and welcoming design. I would say that the vast majority of people in Woolwich like and appreciate its presence. It has brought with it business and jobs.

    In essence the building’s design, location and presence ‘works’ in Woolwich and in the surrounding area. It has a role in its community and is valued as such.

    Wendy Higgs 11.09.2014

    PS I have no connections with any part of the design or building of Tesco. I do not have any connections or influence with the Royal Borough of Greenwich or its Council Services.
    I have worked in the Borough in a community-visiting position in the past but live in a neighbouring Borough now. I love the area and at present work as a volunteer in a shop in Woolwich.

    • Alex Grant says:

      Dear Wendy

      Thanks for your views – I don’t disagree with everything you say. The Woolwich centre itself is quite a good building. The problem is that Tesco, and its car park, are simply too big for a town centre site, and the way they relate to Woolwich New Road is woeful.

    • erinschoice says:

      Wendy, I live in Plumstead have have done over twenty five years and I would back up the comments in Alex Grant’s reply.

  31. SE18Local says:

    I think the fact that the post office was demolished is borderline criminal. No doubt Tesco would call this ‘landscaping’, or (more laughably) a ‘wildlife reserve’, whereas the truth is that the small piece of land is now a dogs toilet.

    I’m not the only local who find the Tesco vaguely threatening, and I no longer shop there, preferring a bus ride to anywhere else.

    Tesco and the council should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Does anyone really think they are? (“Ker-ching!”)

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