I am delighted that so many local people are campaigning to help save the Winter Garden in Avery Hill. These beautiful buildings are indeed a vital part of our heritage. As a local resident and parent of children who grew up in Eltham, I will always work to secure a long-term future for the site.
Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of misinformation about this issue which I think it is important to correct.
Greenwich University, the current owners of the Winter Garden and Mansion Site, have declared that they no longer need the site and therefore want to sell it off. The land is heavily protected from development by the fact that it has been designated as Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) which makes its value much less than if it were not protected. The University would therefore like this protection to be set aside so that they can massively increase their profit from any sale. They have proposed a housing development on the site next to the Winter Garden and the Park.
Unfortunately, discussions have been bogged down over arguments about building houses on the Avery Hill campus rather than putting pressure on the university to fulfil its commitments to maintain the Winter Garden and make sure it is open to the public. This was because the position put forward by the convenor of the Save the Winter Garden Campaign (SWGC) over the last two years has been that Greenwich University should be allowed to build housing on MOL in the hope that this will generate millions of pounds to pay for the Winter Garden.
I fully support the campaign to preserve the Winter Garden, but I will not support a campaign that demands development of MOL. MOL is the equivalent of Green Belt in urban areas and developing on it is extremely controversial. Greenwich borough has an excellent record of defending our open spaces and previous attempts to build on other sites have met with widespread opposition.
Together with thousands of local people back in the 80s and 90s I campaigned successfully to save Oxleas Woods – which is also MOL – from the East London River Crossing. I presented evidence opposing it at the public inquiry.
If we allow developers to run roughshod over our planning protection in this way, then we are setting a very dangerous precedent which will put all our green spaces at risk. I am saddened that the convenor of SWGC does not share these concerns. He has dismissed the open land that the University wants to build on as “scrub, wasteland and scruffy car parks to the west of the site.” This is precisely the sort of language that developers use when they want to override planning protection. You cannot differentiate MOL in this way. If the University get their way, the precedent this it sets will put other local green spaces at risk.
I attended a meeting on 10 December 2015 at Greenwich Town Hall, which had been organised by the Leader of the Council in response to a request of the Friends of Avery Hill Park. At that meeting the representative of the Friends, who was also the convenor of the SWGC, made it clear that he wanted the council to approve Greenwich University’s application for private housing development. He stated that he would be willing to see buildings of up to five storeys in the hope that this would secure money for the Winter Garden. This was an extraordinary statement given that even Greenwich University were not proposing development of that density. I expressed my opposition to that proposal on the basis that it would set a dangerous precedent for the development of MOL and because five story buildings would adversely affect the appearance of the park.
I also question who will benefit from this type of housing development. We cannot go on allowing developers to cash in on former public assets while building houses that local people cannot afford. I made my position on this clear in the recent general election.
Accusations have also been made that discussions over the use of the site for a school have been taking place in secret over the last two years. The site is currently designated for use for education. There is an acute shortage of school places in Greenwich and suitable sites on which to build new schools. We would all be failing in our duty to future generations if we did not explore every practical option to use this site to help deal with this problem.
In July 2017 the convenor of SWGC was told by the leader of Greenwich council in a meeting arranged to discuss the Winter Garden that the government’s Education Funding Agency had called that same day to express their renewed interest in the Avery Hill campus as a site for a secondary school. Astonishingly, he then went on to accuse the council and me in SEnine Magazine that there have been secret talks going on behind closed doors. I was last contacted by the EFA in 2015 and have had no discussions with them about the site until July this year. There is no secret about the use of this site for education and it is disingenuous to suggest there is.
It is important that we focus our campaign on those who are truly responsible for the site. This situation has come about because Greenwich University has failed to fulfil the terms of the agreement it signed in 1992 to maintain the Winter Garden and to ensure it is open to the public 364 days per year.
In 2015 the university withdrew their Heritage Lottery bid. Had that gone ahead it is almost certain that we would have had £2.6 million to spend on the Winter Garden, which would have gone a long way to restoring it. Instead the University announced their intention to vacate the Avery Hill site and to sell it for private housing development.
Instead of pushing the Council to allow the University to override all planning policy and allow the site to be used for another housing development which is unaffordable to local people, we should all be looking to ensure that Greenwich University honour its obligation to resubmit its Heritage Lottery bid. At the same time, we, as the community, together with council, must explore how we secure the long-term future of the Winter Garden in a way that benefits the whole community. I look forward to working with you all to achieve this.