Environment: Urban village menaces Thames wildlife site

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The Independent Online
The old firing range of Woolwich Arsenal, east London, is the focus of skirmish between builders and conservationists. Stephen Goodwin, Heritage Correspondent, looks at the arguments as the new town of Thamesmead prepares to march westwards.

Greenwich Council will next week consider an application to build an "urban village" of 1,500 homes on a wasteground described by conservationists as "one of the last - and finest - of London's wildlife sites beside the Thames".

It seems likely the development by Thamesmead Town and a consortium of builders will get the go-ahead. Planners had always intended that the new town begun in the 1960s should expand westward along the industrially scarred riverside.

The 130-acre site was once a testing ground for the Royal Arsenal munitions factory at Woolwich. In future it will be known as the Galleon's Reach Urban Village with an eventual 2,000 homes, offices, workshops, pubs, a hotel and leisure facilities.

The aim, according to Thamesmead Town, the trust which took over from the Greater London Council, is to give the development the dynamism of a city with the familiarity and "neighbourhood scale" of a village. Work places will be mixed in with the housing and shops and other amenities should be no more than 10 minutes' walk away.

But since firing stopped and the range was abandoned in 1967, wildlife has moved in, assisted by the new town's efforts to clear and cover what was heavily contaminated land. In 1988 the area was designated as of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation.

Fifty plant species rare to London have been found there, including hare's foot clover and thyme-leaved sandwort. It is also home to 16 nationally rare and notable species of invertebrates including Webb's Wainscot moth and the silvery leaf-cutter bee. The insects in turn provide food for a rich bird population.

"If the development goes ahead it will mean the extinction of several species in Greenwich," said the London Wildlife Trust, the country's leading urban nature conservation body. Even the developer's own consultants evaluated the site as one of the top five sites in the East Thames corridor for invertebrates.

Mathew Frith, the trust's conservation manager, said Greenwich should live up to its responsibility as the Millennial borough, refuse the application and "keep the Green in Greenwich". London had lost many superb wildlife habitats over the last decade, Mr Frith added. "It is time that this destruction was halted and we hope Greenwich will set an example to other London authorities."

Thamesmead Town emphasised the close involvement of the Government's Environmental Agency in plans for the urban village which will include a wetland corridor. There will also be a 70-acre riverside park at Tripcott Point where mudflats are an important wintering ground for wading birds.

The conservationists' case does not look strong. The firing ranges are a "brownfield" site that has long been earmarked for housing and huge sums of public money have been spent making it safe.

The clinching argument though it likely to be the pressing demand for new homes. With the Government predicting another 4 million will be needed over the next 20 years it would be a surprise if Greenwich comes down on the side of the leaf-cutter bee.