By now I expect most of you know how the mayor’s representation meeting went – just as I predicted, I’m afraid. I sat there dutifully through the whole performance, but it left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I’ve put off writing this until now, ten days later. What kind of democracy is this where one man can totally over-rule the views of our locally-elected council members and MP like this?
Sadly, it seems to me that wily Boris used a largely feigned show of interest in the two local heritage projects (Sayes Court Garden and Build the Lenox) as a smoke-screen behind which to calmly wave through the atrocious development proposals. What’s more, despite paying lavish lip-service to them, the two projects were in reality left with not much more than the offer of feasibility studies and negotiations, rather than any firm commitments. The serious concerns of the local community about the height of the towers, the scale and position of the buildings, inadequate transport, social exclusion, and so on were simply brushed aside time and again, in such a facile and formulaic fashion (“the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of the Master Shipwright’s House; “the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of Deptford High St”, and so on, ad nauseam) that it led to frequent gasps and outbreaks of incredulous laughter among the audience.
As for Sayes Court Garden: Boris showed his true level of interest several times by referring to it as “Sayes Park”. He is not unique in confounding the modern park with Sayes Court Garden, but he took it a step further by raising the suggestion of incorporating part of the park into the proposed Sayes Court Garden project. Why? Because the project needs more land to be viable, at least one hectare according to the National Trust’s Mike Buffin, but the developers have so far offered just a measly half hectare. Boris thought he’d found a solution which would mean Hutchison Whampoa didn’t have to cede any more land – i.e., grab some of the existing park (outside the boundary of the development) instead. Understandably, the Lewisham Council contingent were not impressed by this ploy.
But to put all this in perspective: Evelyn’s Sayes Court Garden extended over an area of 100 acres – that’s over forty hectares! So, how could a project confined to such a tiny area as half, or at most one hectare possibly “express the John Evelyn legacy”, as the GLA spokesman put it?
By contrast, the developers appear to have latched onto the idea of a “John Evelyn centre” – i.e. allocating part of one of the blocks they intend building, over the site of the manor house, in which a horticultural training institute would be based. For this they said they were earmarking over two million pounds. I have two observations to make on this.
Firstly, I’m afraid it came as no surprise to me when Boris commented that he couldn’t really “see the merit of seeing the foundations of a workhouse” and even that he thought “that chunk of territory was of negligible interest” (!) Had I been able to respond, (and I wonder why the developer’s archaeologist didn’t say this?) I would have pointed out that the archaeology done so far has only exposed the topmost layers of remains on (only part of) the site of the manor – so what would be on view to the public is mostly the nineteenth century workhouse and emigration depot. To explore deeper would have meant extending the area of the trench and removing these late levels; something I suppose they felt went beyond the remit of an “evaluation” dig. But if the remains are to be displayed in future as those of Sayes Court Manor House, surely this demands further excavation work to locate as much as possible of what has survived of the manor house itself?
Secondly, it seems to me that a disproportionate amount of emphasis – and potentially, money – is being given to the delivery of a building, and within that the setting up of an organisation, as opposed to the creation of an actual garden which would be worthy of Evelyn’s desire to create a Deptford Elysium.
As his friend Abraham Cowley said in his poem “The Wish” : “May I a small house and large garden have”…