Life On Marsh

The events of the last few days put me to mind of a document that came into my possession some months ago and which, I confess that, being a rather large, old-fashioned typewritten volume, I put aside for some of the other goodies in the bundle  it came with.

The title doesn’t quite say it all. It’s actually a report, “A Report on the River Way Police Holding and Training Centre“, created in 1984, by the London Borough of Greenwich, Police Sub-Committee Support Unit. The sticker on the cover says it’s embargoed until (date crossed out) but I reckon that it must be fair game now, twenty seven years later.  And an angrier document you’d be hard pressed to find.

It’s basically an Inquiry into a Police holding and training unit that sprang up on the peninsula in 1982 with the barest nod of notice from the Met, and even that nod was only after long-lens shots of it had been published in the Mail. This document is the council’s furious response to what they believed was going to become some kind of riot-base for any trouble that London might cough up, including vast quantities of police being barracked there, testing of water canon, plastic bullets and other, yet-to-be-invented riot tactics, as well as, by stealth, spilling over into being a detention centre and perhaps even a prison.

Of course the early 1980s were interesting times. The Brixton Riots had caught the Met off-guard and the resulting report by Lord Scarman was not entirely complimentary.  The Miners Strike was just kicking off  (it officially began in 1984 but rumours long before that, that Margaret Thatcher intended to take the miners head-on can’t have escaped the Police; everyone else knew it). The Poll Tax was still but a twinkle in Thatcher’s eye, but all manner of other public disturbance – not least from the Greenham Women over in Berkshire and that ghastly Notting Hill Carnival were perpetual thorns in the 1980s copper’s side.

The hasty creation of a riot training centre was their response, and as the report discovered (from what the police actually revealed; there are constant complaints of secrecy and refusals to co-operate with the council’s Inquiry) it does appear to have been hasty, and quite hap-hazard. That they chose Greenwich does seem to be entirely by chance – a guy anonymously called up a few estate agents then drove his car around likely-looking places.

Greenwich council was livid. It was the days of Old Labour, and Old Labour was angry. The sheer outrage contained within this document probably couldn’t be replicated these days; there would have to be some modicum of at least being seen to take both sides of the situation on board, but these two rutting rhinos, Greenwich Council and the Metropolitan Police, appear to have locked horns and just charged.

Here is a quote from Page One:

It will  become clear to members on reading Part One of this report that the Police, although well-prepared for the Inquiry, were decidedly unforthcoming. They  did much to obscure issues and manipulate evidence with the result that the Council was unable to arrive at a rounded consideration of the police objectives in dveloping a Holding and Training Centre on the River Way Site.

It goes on to say, still on Page One:

In certain respects the report will seem strangely inconclusive. Members will realise that this results from the impossible degree of secrecy and lack of democracy which the Metropolitan Police allows to prejudice its relations with Local Authorities. This report, hopefully, will strengthen Members resolve to bring about real and democratic accountability of the police in the Metropolitan area.

So – back to basics (oops – an unintentional musical reference there…) Exactly where are we talking about? Well, River Way is the bit around The Pilot on the Peninsula. Remember that this was loooong before people even started thinking about the Millennium, and it was still mainly gas works. Here’s the council’s plan of the site:

The Council is, frankly understandably, deeply concerned at what kind trouble this is going to bring to the borough and the document is a tirade of anger, impotence, fear and, I have to say, just the tiniest spot of NIMBYism.

It is the NIMBYism that’s easiest to lend an air of desperation. The report, before it goes into police/safety considerations, goes for, as its main grounds for objection

1) The proposed use is considered to be a gross under-utilisation of prime industrial land (ahem…)

2) The proposed use conflicts with the greater London Development Plan as the site falls within one of the preferred industrial areas designated in the plan. (ahem, ahem…)

3) The proposed use conflicts with the Council’s policies which seek to ensure that new uses and developments in the industrial riverside area achieve employment densities of more than 20 jobs per acre (ahem, ahem, ahem…)

But this does appear to be an Inquiry that just isn’t getting any kind of real co-operation. Time and again, the police fail to provide documents, refuse to answer questions and just plain don’t play ball:

Cross-examination on the second day of the Inquiry soon established that Mr. Hibbs had not brought the additional files. He produced a report published internally by the post-Scarman Working Party but refused to disclose it on the grounds of confidentiality and security. Counsel for the police strongly objected to its disclosure and alleged that the Council had entered into a “fishing party.” The Inquiry Inspector had no power to order disclosure.

The report reveals serious concerns about what was actually going on at this place. As a holding-bay for a thousand officers (that’ll be your twenty jobs per acre, then…) the council was not only scared of what they might be training with – much of the report consists of long sections on water canon, training with dogs, horses, paramilitary-style ‘special ops’, petrol bomb training, eviction training (think Greenham) shield training, the use of batons, riot sticks, truncheons, staves and pick-helves, CS gas, plastic bullets and helicopters. The council is worried, not just about transport-access and the potential danger to locals, and at what level the military, too, are involved, but of the iffy prospect of  ’trained riot police, who are not locally accountable” in Greenwich.

The police, of course, gave as good as they got, even if their arguments often fell on deaf ears. The council felt “that police evidence to the Inquiry purporting to claim that the River Way ‘Holding Centre’ would permit the more efficient and effective policing of the Notting Hill Carnival was unjustified and grossly manipulative.”

So – what did the Council want?

There are many, many recommendations, many taking the form of direct anti-plastic bullet and water canon stance, demands that horses should not be brutalised nor dogs trained to ‘shout and howl in a provocative manner’. But basically this is a call for openness from the Gene Hunt style of policing:

That the area surrounding River Way and all the approach roads should be fully signposted by the Council. Sign Posts should be large and inform visitors and residents in some detail what is going on at the site. It should be made clear on the signs that the kind of training that is being undertaken by the Metropolitan Police is a danger to the safety and the welfare of the inhabitants of London.”

So. Twenty Seven years after the report, and much has changed, from the site itself to the language one might use in a report. As for the rest, well, I leave it to you to decide…



the attachments to this post:

D Tel 2.jpg
D Tel 2.jpg

Riot training in Greenwich 3
Riot training in Greenwich 3

Riot training in Greenwich
Riot training in Greenwich

5 Comments to “Life On Marsh”

  1. Steve says:

    Yes, I remember the place – I used to run past it most days. Can’t remember when or why it was closed, though.

  2. Mary says:

    The site was the British Steel Riverside Steel works (before nationalisation Redpath Brown/Bolckow Vaughan). It had been closed down – and there had been some industrial action there = again, can’t remember any details. The site is roughly now the whole area south of the Pilot between the river and West Parkside – going back over and past John Harrison. People may remember the railway line which ran past the Pilot and crossed what was then Riverway -that would have been their boundary.

  3. Mary says:

    and ps – I am not sure of your picture. THE source of good pictures in the Peninsula in that era is old episodes of Dempsey and Makepeace

  4. transpontine says:

    Interesting. I imagine the current leadership of Greenwich Council would say instead ‘riot control centre? Ooh give me a baton and I’ll bash them myself, then evict them and put their children into care to show how tough I am on crime. Actually can’t we rename it the Christopher Roberts Insitute of Counter-Insurgency?’.

    The steel works closed down in the late 1970s I believe, having been occupied by workers in in last days to prevent its closure. Yes they used to make things in Greenwich rather than brand it as a Royal borough monarchist theme park.

  5. Alf Egee says:

    Site was used as the SPG training ground but only for a couple of years around the mid 80′s – I used to watch them from my rear window in Riverway. Longer term the site doubled up as a secret squirrel heliport bringing politicos & other military types into London at all hours. Perk of course was the Old Bill were well in with the management of The Pilot, hence many an ‘official’ late lock in for the few who drank there at the time.