Cllr Nigel Fletcher, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition on Greenwich Council, says riots in his borough meant political differences were put to one side
Could there be anything worse for a community than seeing violent thugs and looters tear it to pieces, leaving much of it smashed and burnt out? It seems barely possible. But how about if after such destruction has taken place, the rest of the world barely acknowledges it has happened?
Such was the sad fate of Woolwich earlier this week, after it fell victim to the night of insane criminality that swept London on Monday. In the town centre, police in riot gear were driven back as a large crowd of marauding vandals stampeded towards them. Shortly afterwards the Wetherspoons pub on the corner, where my colleagues and I often repair after Council meetings, was smashed and set ablaze.
Other fires also raged – the new Wilkinson’s store, opened by our Mayor just a few months ago, a police car, Ladbrokes… and so it went on. One building in the shopping precinct was so badly burnt it partially collapsed. Shopfronts were smashed in, and thieves made off with armfuls of stolen goods.
But there were no TV crews on the scene to witness this carnage. Some dramatic video of police officers coming under attack was uploaded to YouTube by local video producer Mike Jelves and used widely on news channels, but even this was initially mis-captioned as being from elsewhere. With so much else going on elsewhere, the trashing of Woolwich was overshadowed by events in other parts of London.
In the morning, I went to survey the still-smouldering aftermath. Residents milled around, shaking their heads in disbelief, and some were close to tears. But many news organisations still seemed blissfully unaware of the extent of the damage. Maps of affected areas that appeared in the Evening Standard and on Sky News completely ignored Woolwich. The lack of TV pictures on the night had clearly had a lasting impact.
Frustratingly, much greater coverage was given on Tuesday and Wednesday nights to events in Eltham, where my own Council ward is situated. The presence on the streets of a group of local people pledging to defend the town caught the attention of the media, especially when reports emerged that a number of English Defence League supporters had come from outside the area and disgracefully tried to exploit the situation to stir up trouble. The Sky News helicopter hovered overhead, and reporters broadcast live from the scene. But despite some drunken disorder as police dispersed the crowds, there was no serious violence or damage done.
In the political debates of Greenwich Borough my Conservative colleagues and I sometimes complain that the wards we represent in Eltham receive less attention than Labour-held Woolwich. But this week was not the time for such feelings. After events like these we are not party factions, but representatives of a united Council. When local government minister Bob Neill visited Woolwich on Thursday (pictured) to see the damage and explain the package of Government assistance, he found Greenwich Conservatives at one with the Labour leadership of the Council on the need to support those whose businesses were wrecked and make sure the criminals are brought to book. And whether in Eltham, Woolwich or elsewhere, the actions of a destructive minority will not be allowed to tarnish the reputation of the overwhelmingly decent majority of our residents.