Blackheath residents fear phone mast at end of their gardens after Greenwich Council planning blunder

Siebert Road, 1 August 2017
The proposed mast would be built on this piece of green space between Westcombe Hill and the A102

A Greenwich Council planning blunder means residents in Blackheath may get a mobile phone mast at the end of their gardens – despite planners refusing permission for it.

Residents who thought their protests against the mast had paid off were shocked to find diggers turning up last week – and had to persuade contractors to stop work.

Agents acting for Vodafone and O2 applied for permission to build a mast on land off Siebert Road, next to the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach in September 2016. The land sits between homes on Westcombe Hill and the dual carriageway.

Council planners refused the application in November after protests from residents, citing its “prominent location, height, design, scale, appearance and poor siting would lead to a cluttered and an over-dominant appearance within the location and when viewed from the neighbouring conservation area”.

Westcombe Hill, 1 August 2017
The mast would be right behind these houses on Westcombe Hill
But the council took too long to reject the application – under planning law, a council needs to respond within 56 days to prevent this type of application. Greenwich took 57 days to respond, meaning Cornerstone Telecommunications Infrastructure Ltd (CTIL), which runs Vodafone and O2’s networks, got permission to build the mast by default, so long as the property owner agrees.

However, there is confusion as to who actually owns the land – it had been believed it was owned by Greenwich Council, but Land Registry documents indicate that it is actually owned by Transport for London, which controls the adjacent Blackwall Tunnel approach road.

Confusion over the land ownership and relevant permits meant contractors had to stop work, while residents have been urged to lobby TfL to refuse permission if it is confirmed that the mayor’s transport agency owns the land.

Siebert Road, 1 August 2017
Residents already have to live with the noise and pollution from the A102 – typical evening rush-hour congestion can be seen behind
A letter sent to residents by senior planning officer Victoria Geoghegan and seen by this website says: “Regretfully and due to a systems error, the application wasn’t determined within the 56-day period which means it is deemed to be consented and the mast can now be installed provided all other permissions are obtained.

“It is extremely unfortunate that the application wasn’t determined in 56 days given representations objecting to the scheme were made. I can assure you that the system now now been corrected to ensure this will not happen again.”

A series of blunders

The Siebert Road blunder is the latest planning mistake to anger residents – in May, a similar incident saw a mast erected at Foxfield Primary School, Woolwich, after “human error” meant the council did not object.

And last month, furious residents lashed out at the council after it refused permission for William Hill to turn a bank in Plumstead High Street into a betting shop – then neglected to defend the appeal, leading to the refusal to be overturned. The planning inspector condemned the “abject and repeated failure” to produce a key document in the case, which has exacerbated already poor relations on social media between councillors and locals.

It’s also emerged that another controversial development across the other side of the borough – 27 flats at a former bookbinders on Blackheath Road, west Greenwich – is also to be decided by a planning inspector after the council failed to respond. Locals had also objected strongly to the development.

Non-response is also a feature of the Siebert Road case – a planning document reveals that Vodafone had tried to begin discussions with Greenwich about the proposed mast in October 2015, but nobody replied.

Plumstead pressure on planning councillor

This latest planning foul-up adds to the pressure on council deputy leader Danny Thorpe, whose job is to oversee the planning department. Thorpe juggles his role as cabinet member for regeneration and sustainability – given the huge projects taking place in Greenwich, is surely one of the most demanding in London – with work as a teacher.

In the Plumstead William Hill case, Thorpe initially blamed the Planning Inspectorate, before being having to apologise for “not defending [the appeal] as strongly as it should have been” when the truth of what happened emerged.

When one resident complained he “didn’t keep an eye” on the issue, he accused her of “personal attacks and slurs”. He later lashed out at blogger From The Murky Depths, who has done much to expose issues within his department, as “an angry anonymous typist”.

Residents are now starting their own Plumstead Party to contest next year’s elections.

Greenwich Council sorry

Back in Blackheath, residents are lobbying local politicians and starting their own campaign, Westcombe Hill Against the Mast (Wham) to fight the proposal.

A spokesperson for CTIL told this website: “Vodafone and O2 customers expect to be able to use their mobiles and devices where they live, work and travel. Base stations are low powered devices which cover approximately half a mile in radius, therefore we have to put base stations close to our customers.

“Vodafone and O2 identified that they need to improve the coverage to their customers in Blackheath and we now have consent for a base station on Siebert Road. We have received a query on the land ownership at the proposed location and are currently investigating this point.”

A Greenwich Council spokesperson said: “The Royal Borough listened and responded to residents’ objections to this phone mast. Planning permission was refused on 14 November 2016. An IT fault regrettably resulted in this decision coming after the legal 56 day period and therefore planning permission was attained ‘by default.’ We apologise to residents and are determined, going forward, to make sure that all works on the site only proceed with the landowner’s permission.”

Addressing the recent planning mistakes, the spokesperson added: “We are committed to doing the very best that we can to listen, record and act on residents’ views for each and every planning application. We have apologised to residents where mistakes have been made and are working hard to make sure that such errors do not happen in the future.”

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