Duncan Mackay

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while a warm glow of affection for my country and fellow citizens steals up on me.

Usually it comes on a cricket-field or some well-appointed rural pub.

On Tuesday night, it accosted me in Woolwich Town Hall.

This is that particular type of imposing civic edifice in which even the gents’ urinals, made by a Scotswood-on-Tyne company, are monuments of the engineering prowess that built an empire.

It wasn’t the building itself, though, that was responsible for my sentiments.

It was what was going on inside.

This was D-day for the plan to stage the 2012 Olympic equestrian events in Greenwich Park, a World Heritage site of immense importance to this local south-east London community.

Greenwich Council’s Planning Board had gathered, on a three-foot high stage, to pronounce on the plan.

They were joined in a yellow-walled hall by perhaps 200 other people, including London 2012 chairman Lord Coe, while a small knot of protestors did their thing in the drizzle outside.

This was potentially a grisly way to spend an evening – and not just because of the near-certainty of acquiring a neck-ache.

As a gentleman in a blue shirt outlined the proposal, with intonation pitched somewhere between a tour guide and a traffic policeman, I feared the worst.

But then the general public got their say, pros as well as antis, for the most part in three minute slots, and I gradually became transfixed.

It was the calm yet determined dignity with which most made their points, trenchant or batty, over the three-and-a-half hours I sat there that struck a chord.

I’m not sure that anyone in the room, in their heart of hearts seriously expected planning permission to be turned down.

Official after official had told me in the preceding days that there was "No Plan B", although one did eventually allow half-jokingly that "there might be a Plan Z".

Yet some of these residents had plainly devoted hours and hours to unearthing the minutiae they required to make their cases.

As a quintessentially English exercise in local democracy of sorts it was very moving; the Orwell of The Lion and The Unicorn would have felt instantly at home.

What is more, it will probably bear fruit, in the sense that the powers-that-be, I’m sure, will think very carefully before going back on their word or trying to cut corners, even once the intense pressures to which they will be subjected by bean-counters, security operatives and, worst of all, TV producers are ratcheting up in earnest.

It has to be said that this appeared a community singularly well-equipped to ensure that their concerns got a thorough airing.

It wasn't so much George Orwell as Hugh Scully who I kept expecting to see walk through the door between the attendants.

Truly, you could imagine the same audience being present (minus possibly Lord Coe) for an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

I would think the collection of doctorates and PhDs in the hall was worthy of All Souls.

Frankly, if I lived in Greenwich, I would be profoundly wary of what is about to happen to the Park - less because of fears about permanent damage than worries over restricted access.

If this was Nimbyism, however, it was putting on its most attractive face.

One woman behind me had even brought a thermos.

I took a note of some of the most arresting points and phrases.

"LOCOG does not know where the bat roosts are."

"I have intimate knowledge of at least six conduits" – this from a man with a strong European, possibly German, accent offering to carry out a survey of these park conduits at his own expense.

"Worldwide there are 689 World Heritage sites."

"I’m actually still reeling from the artist’s impression of the stadium."

"This is a landscape that has survived and grown graceful in old age."

This last description could equally have applied to many of the audience.

There was also a tale which I didn’t completely grasp relating to Tudor bricks that had somehow "emerged spontaneously", at least I think that was the phrase used.

What was very noticeable too - and Orwell would have recognised this - was how obedient the speakers were when asked by the chair to wind up because their time had elapsed.

This even though many of them had plainly poured life and soul into their doomed attempt to encourage a No vote.

The audience did draw the line at Councillor Ray Walker’s urging to: "Please don’t clap because we will be here all night if you do."

Yet most of the bursts of applause that punctuated proceedings were brief if often enthusiastic.

Though I had to leave well before the dénouement (a 10-2 vote in favour of the application), officials from a variety of interested bodies - including a man from the Royal Parks with terrifyingly shiny black shoes – were all on their best behaviour. 

Is this sort of thing happening in Sochi?

Did it happen in Beijing?

I think Britons can take pride and heart in the fact that it happens here.

David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering last year's Beijing Olympics. An archive of Owen’s material may be found by Twitter users at www.twitter.com/dodo938