Bright future on the horizon for Greenwich : DOCKLANDS A SPECIAL REPORT

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The talk along the Greenwich waterfront is of change. Over a lunchtime pint in the Anchor and Hope looking out at the wooden jetties at low tide, locals ponder how life in the south London borough once was and how it might be in the future.

Due to its age (The Domesday Book recorded the village of Grenviz in 1086) it is rich in heritage and littered with landmarks, including Sir Christopher Wren's baroque masterpiece, the Royal Naval College.

Greenwich's seven-mile river front from Deptford to Thamesmead was once one of the busiest stretches of the Thames, boasting a concentration of prosperous heavy industry.

Ships, ropes and underwater cables were all manufactured here and in its heyday during the First World War the Woolwich Royal Arsenal employed more than 80,000 workers.

But times have changed and Greenwich has suffered a decline. Unemployment is running at 14.2 per cent and a council report last year said many families were suffering from "serious poverty''. The report found one in four residents were living on annual incomes of less than £5,000, and one in three people could not always afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Councillors hope that, through education and awareness programmes, they are beginning to exorcise the spectre of racism which still haunts the borough. In the past few years it witnessed three murders which are now widely accepted as having been raciallymotivated.

Greenwich now has a vision for the future which is becoming the focus of attention in the Docklands as Britain gears up for the millennium celebrations in a few years.

Not only do the council and the Greenwich Waterfront Development Partnership (a business and development agency) have plans for a year-long festival, but they also have longer term proposals to breathe life back into the area.

The festival will be based on the themes of time, travel and discovery, including a host of arts and cultural activities and the building of a planetarium, all sandwiched between two giant end-of-year parties.

The events will take place on a 296-acre site on the Greenwich peninsula, formerly inhabited by a British Gas plant.

It has already received the backing of the London Tourist Board and later this year Greenwich will apply to the Millennium Commission for funding.

The economics supporting the bid sound impressive: the festival will attract 12 million visitors, generate an income of £224m and create profits for British companies of £17m. But the borough also has a strong historic and scientific claim to throw a millennium bash.

Greenwich is dissected by the Meridian, the imaginary line chosen in 1884 as the Zero Meridian, starting point for the world's time zones.

Without reference to Greenwich Mean Time, no one would know when to pop their champagne corks on the stroke of midnight when the new millennium officially begins.

The line materialises for a few feet at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park in the form of a brass strip on which visitors stand and have their photographs taken in two hemispheres at once.

"We have this unique connection with time,'' said Andrew Parry, millennium project co-ordinator for the Partnership.

"That is something which makes Greenwich the natural place for such a festival which, after all, is designed to celebrate the passing of time.''

After the festivities die down more permanent projects will be implemented, including a new community to be created on the peninsula site. Blueprints show plans for more than 5,000 homes, commercial and office developments and a central activity zone including a community centre, school, library and health centre.

Greenwich is also pushing for a cross-borough tram network, a deep water terminal for the world's biggest ocean-going liners which presently have to dock several miles down river at Tilbury and is looking to develop the possibility of a river-based commuter network. Work on this project could start as soon as next year, said Mr Parry.

Transport is crucial for Greenwich which has never been served by an Underground line. More than two million visitors each year come to enjoy the parks, the museums and the unique attraction of Britain's first publicly open Russian submarine moored by the Thames Flood Barrier.

But gripes should be silenced by the coming of the Jubilee Line Extension which is being built beneath the peninsula and the building of a station near the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel.

The Docklands Light Railway too is to extend its track under the Thames from the Island Gardens terminus on the Isle of Dogs, with the possibility of a station near the Cutty Sark, provided an estimated £100m of private finance can be found.

Government funds have been forthcoming, however, for the Woolwich Revival, a scheme to rejuvenate one of the most depressed areas of the borough.

Last month ministers announced a £24.8m grant which the council hopes to channel into crime prevention, environmental improvements and raising educational standards. So for the lunchtime drinkers along the waterfront, maybe the sign of the Anchor and Hope symbolises not just the name of the local pub, but also the vision of a bright future for their local borough.