More than 1000 sign petition to stop Greenwich removing gardens from Vanbrugh Park Estate

Vanbrugh Park Estate (Phineas Harper)
Vanbrugh Park Estate (Phineas Harper)

More than 1,300 people have signed a petition opposing a directive from Greenwich Council to remove front gardens from an estate.

Greenwich Council is ordering front gardens at Vanbrugh Park Estate be cleared to make way for “safe means of escape from fire at all times” under legislation following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, affecting around half of the estate’s 400 residents.

But affected residents fear their privacy, safety and wellbeing will be threatened and front gardens reduced to “grim” bare patches of asphalt.

The single-storey flats do not have private gardens, but were designed with front-facing asphalt patches that connect to wide communal walkways used by residents for 60 years, petition starter and resident Phineas Harper said.

“They’re a really good way for residents to get to meet each other. I know almost everybody on my block, which is very unusual for London, and that’s partly because of these little gardens,” Mr Harper told the Standard.

Vanbrugh Park Estate in the 1960s (via Phineas Harper)
Vanbrugh Park Estate in the 1960s (via Phineas Harper)

He said plants and benches on the asphalt are used for practical reasons, such as creating shade to prevent windows from intense heat, for elderly people with mobility issues to be able to sit outside, and for safety reasons.

“Those residents who work from home, particularly women on the estate, find that these little gardens provide a bit of privacy, a bit of a buffer between your living room and the communal walkway that anyone can walk down.

“The idea that they’re going to be completely exposed to anybody who happens to walk along the raised street outside the block is a little bit scary. There’s no fob access or anything.

“There’s one neighbor on another block who’s got a mobility scooter. Now the council is saying she can’t even have her mobility scooter outside the block in her front garden.

“The [council is] completely disregarding our safety and in fact, putting some residents at quite serious risk.”

A front garden at Vanbrugh Park Estate (Phineas Harper)
A front garden at Vanbrugh Park Estate (Phineas Harper)

Mr Harper said residents were first notified by the council around a year ago to remove plants from communal areas, which residents complied with, but now the council is requiring everything be removed from people’s front gardens.

Mr Harper said warning letters were distributed ad hoc and regulations kept changing, confusing residents. Last week three men visited the estate and threatened to forcefully remove residents’ items, he claimed.

He said residents are happy to create safe escape routes in the event of a fire, but do not want to clear every item in their gardens.

“We spent quite a lot of money and time reconfiguring a number of the gardens on the block to provide completely clear access all the way along the block. So it’s an extra kick in the teeth that having done all of that work, they’re now asking us to remove even more of these gardens.

Mr Harper said: “That’s why we started this petition, to try and get the council to abandon its tactic of sending men to confiscate stuff and instead to sit down with us and come up with a constructive, proportionate, safe and sensible way forward.”

Residents hope to speak with council representatives at a meeting on Tuesday evening.

If the council does not consider a compromise Mr Harper said court action could be considered.

Musicians Isobel and Jim Kimberley (Phineas Harper)
Musicians Isobel and Jim Kimberley (Phineas Harper)

Pat Slattery, the cabinet member for housing, said the council has a legal duty to ensure safe routes “since the terrible Grenfell fire”.

“The safety of residents living in our council homes is our top priority and we have an absolute duty of care to them all.

“We fully understand residents’ wishes to make their outdoor areas attractive, but we need to ensure that there is a safe means of escape from fire, at all times.

“In the horrible event of a fire, we need to ensure that firefighters are not impeded in their work. We also need to make sure that escape routes are clear and free from flammable materials.

“Since the terrible Grenfell fire, current fire safety legislation means that we have a legal duty and we take this very seriously.”

Mr Harper responded: “Council tenants and leaseholders are getting used to councils invoking Grenfell whenever they want to push through an unpopular project.

“This is a completely different situation. We’re not in a tower block.

“These places were designed to be gardens and they’ve worked well as gardens for 60 years.”