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Brave New World
Meridian – June 2008

Woolwich is becoming a very different place, as Mark Smulian discovers

Even Woolwich's warmest admirers would, surely, have admitted that by the middle of this decade the town had distinctly seen better days.

Once thriving, it was hit by the loss of major employers and its relative distance from central London.

Now, a new Woolwich is rising, though it remains to be seen how well the town's economy does even with 1bn in investment due to provide, among much else, thousands of homes, a large Tesco store, a new centre for Greenwich Council, and better rail and bus links.

It would all no doubt surprise Woolwich's first inhabitants, who lived there in the Iron Age. This area has history. From the 16th to the 19th centuries the town boasted one of the country's main dockyards, and the opening of the Royal Arsenal in 1695 marked the start of a long association with the military. The loss of the Siemens factory in 1968 and the Royal Arsenal in 1994 meant serious economic decline, though the latter created the chance to redevelop the site for homes and businesses, while preserving its historic buildings, and for the creation of Firepower! the Museum of the Royal Artillery.

Will the rash of regeneration projects mean that Woolwich no longer lags behind most of London economically? John Anderson, chairman of Berkeley Homes Urban Developments, the area's most active housebuilder, certainly thinks so. 'Woolwich is a place on the cusp of change,' he says. We will be making a planning application in the spring, which, if successful, will mean we will have built more than 5,000 new homes in the area.'

To date, Berkeley's developments have been a mix of everything from studio flats to four-bedroom homes; but one-to-three bedroom flats will to predominate on the town centre and riverside sites it will turn to next. Mr Anderson welcomes the planned Tesco store, which he sees as helping to plug one gap in the area's amenities. 'The local environment has tremendous scope for retail growth and for restaurants and bars, which are very limited. In fact it needs more leisure facilities generally,' he says.

James Wiggam, Tesco's regional corporate affairs manager, says it plans an 80,000 sq ft Tesco Extra store, which is due to open in 2011 and provide 400 new jobs. 'Greenwich is strange because the borough has no large Tesco store,' he says. 'This will be our first. 'Woolwich is attractive to us because of the investment that is going in there.' The store will be well integrated with the town centre, with a number of walkways through its site and a car park that will be free - whether or not users are Tesco patrons.

Tesco's project is part of the 400m Love Lane regeneration scheme being developed in partnership with Greenwich Council and property firm St James' Investments. It will include 900 homes, open space, and new civic offices. A council spokesman says its new offices will house public facilities, including a service centre, customer contact centre and library, in addition to housing staff from various council departments. As well as acting as catalysts for regenerating the town centres, these integrated centres will ensure new and improved services that are easier to access, enabling customers' enquiries to be dealt with more quickly and efficiently,' the council says.

These projects will bring thousands of new residents and jobs to the area. How will people get there? From next year, the overground rail service to central London will be supplemented by an extension of the Docklands Light Railway, providing a more convenient link to London City Airport, Canary Wharf and Stratford than is currently available via Woolwich's Victorian foot tunnel and the ferry. Tunnelling is complete, and work is in progress on the DLR's interchange station at Woolwich Arsenal.

Slightly later, scheduled for 2011, is the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, which will run from North Greenwich tube station to Abbey Wood via Woolwich and Thamesmead. This is sometimes rather misleadingly described as a 'tram', but it will use conventional buses with parts of their route segregated from ordinary traffic. Vehicles will use the busway built for the Millennium Dome between North Greenwich and Bugsby's Way, then join ordinary roads to Woolwich, where they will serve the town centre and Royal Arsenal before joining the section to Abbey Wood, parts of which will be on segregated busways.

The largest transport improvement though will be Crossrail, due in 2017. This will provide fast links to central London and Heathrow from a terminus at Abbey Wood, but the original plans bypassed Woolwich. Public pressure, led by Greenwich Council, saw provision made for a station in the town centre - near to, but not part of, Woolwich Arsenal.

A council spokesman says: 'Greenwich and its partners successfully argued that although Woolwich has suffered from decades of decline it is now involved in a huge programme of regeneration that will make a large contribution to the future growth of the local, regional and national economy and help make Crossrail a success.'

Crossrail is expected to lead to an increase in property values, and it was this that enabled Berkeley Homes to do a deal by which it would build the Crossrail station, and then develop above it. Mr Anderson says: 'When the people behind Crossrail decided the Woolwich stop would be too expensive we worked out a way in which the line could come here.'

Apart from Crossrail, the other transport improvements should be in place by the time Woolwich hosts the 2012 Olympic Games' shooting events. The council is 'determined that this should include a strong sporting legacy' for the area, in addition to the economic boost expected from the games.

Another spur to the area's recovery has been the relocation of the Coldstream Guards to Woolwich Barracks, after the army decided to sell their former home at Chelsea. Woolwich barracks had 'been used, but not at full capacity for many years', an army spokesman says.

He says other commitments prevented the planned military parade to mark the regiment's arrival. Perhaps they will march to greet the first Crossrail passengers...