Them and us: Forest Hill

Cultural Learnings of Forest Hill for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Brockley

We all know Brockley's great. All those trees and that art and stuff. And the community! Lovely. You can't buy that in Chelsea. But sometimes, we have to concede that we haven't quite cracked it. Eden lies tantalisingly beyond our grasp.

So, this is the first in a two-part series of interviews, which looks over the fence at our neighbours, to ask what Brockley can learn from the Joneses. Specifically, we think there are two nearby areas that have a lot in common with Brockley - Forest Hill and Hither Green. Not identical of course, but similar: same local Council, comparable (although worse) transport links, similar housing stock (particularly Forest Hill) and demographic mixes - though neither is as ethnically diverse. Neither of them is a "destination", like Blackheath or Greenwich, nor have they been overwhelmed by the forces of gentrification, like Dulwich.

Both of them have qualities to be admired. So we wanted to learn from them and, where possible, steal their best ideas for the greater glory of Brockley.

We began by speaking to Michael Abrahams, Chair of the Forest Hill Society - a group whose workings we find easier to follow than our own Brockley Society. The Society is a relatively youthful organisation, little more than one year old, but it has already established itself as the leading campaign voice against planned train service cuts to London Bridge and has also done some work to improve the local environment.

We began by asking him how the Society engaged with the local community:

"It's important for the Forest Hill Society's credibility that we have a substantial local mandate, so we place a lot of emphasis on local communication and we encourage as many people as possible to come to our meetings. We produce a newsletter and run the website and at the last AGM, we had at least 90 people.

"There are a number of other representative groups in the area, including a traders association and the Friends of the Horniman Museum, we try to maintain regular dialogue with them too."

How is the area changing?

"I'm not sure the population is changing particularly rapidly. There are a lot of people in the area that have lived here all their lives."

What positive changes would you point to?

"The Comedy Club [The Hob] has made a real difference to the area - together with the Horniman Museum, it's a reason for people to visit. I suppose Brockley's equivalent would be the Brockley Jack theatre pub, but that hasn't had the same level of investment put in to it."

How do small businesses cope with the competition from local supermarkets?

"Forest Hill has a long history of Sainsbury in the area and we believe that it's important to have local supermarkets to keep people in the area. Small shops alone won't attract people."

Few things get the readers of Brockley Central as animated as the subject of gastropubs, what's the Forest Hill picture like?

"Yes, we've got gastropubs, like the Dartmouth Arms and the Honor Oak [in the disputed zone] and they're great, but I don't think we'd want all of our pubs to be like that. In Dulwich, they're all gastro pubs and the area has lost something as a consequence. But I think we've got a good mix - places like the Blythe Hill are brilliant old fashioned pubs."

Aside from the issue of rail services, what issue is causing concern at the moment?

"The number of commercial [ie: massive] bins on our main streets is alarming. Planning applications are being granted for businesses without sufficient consideration given to how they will deal with waste [a similar thing happened with the Brockley Barge and, as a result, people walking from the train station are regularly confronted with a dozen overflowing commercial bins]. We don't want to pit traders and the public against each other, but it is a serious problem that needs a co-ordinated approach."

What are your perceptions of Brockley?

"Well we see all the people who are getting off the train at Brockley Station. There are lots of young people disembarking off at Brockley these days and it's good that the area seems to be attracting new people with new energy."

"However, I don't think many people here think of Brockley as a place to visit. It doesn't offer too much to the casual visitor. Dulwich is the place most of us visit if we're going out locally and Sydenham is probably the area that local people most closely identify with."

What do you think Brockley can learn from Forest Hill's experience?

"I'm not sure we can teach Brockley anything very much. It's important to keep pressure up on the Council, but try to be constructive and focused. Our focus here has been on the station (and, before that, the pool closure)."

Do you have a message for the people of Brockley?

"Yes, I do want to take this opportunity to highlight the issue we both face in terms of the possible cuts to the rail services as a result of the East London Line extension. The East London Line will be a great boost to our areas, but it should not come at the expense of reduced main line capacity. I hope people in Brockley will join our campaign by signing the petition."

So, what lessons did we learn from our lofty bretheren?
  1. The more that local organisations, such as the Brockley Cross Action Group and the Brockley Society, can do to communicate their work locally and build their mandate, the more effective they will become.
  2. Gastropubs are good, so long as there are other options
  3. Brockley would benefit from a few more places that persuade people from outside the area to visit - if done well, the mooted gallery at the Tea Factory could be a draw
  4. That commercial refuse, cluttering our main streets, is a problem we share and we should work together to tackle it. More on this topic at a later date.
Next: Hither Green.