Greenwich Labour councillors have voted down a motion opposing the proposed demolition of East Greenwich’s historic gasholder, which has stood on the peninsula for over 130 years.
Plans by the gasholder’s owner, SGN, to take down the structure next to the Blackwall Tunnel were given the go-ahead by council officers earlier this year.
A motion from Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher asked the council to take steps to ensure the demolition would not happen, as well as commissioning a report on whether the council could have done things differently to keep the structure in place.
But Labour councillors – including two from Peninsula ward, where the gasholder is – voted the motion down. Denise Scott-McDonald and Chris Lloyd opposed the motion backing the gasholder, while ward colleague Stephen Brain left before the vote. Charlton councillor Gary Dillon, attending his first full-length council meeting, broke with Labour ranks and abstained.
While gasholders around Europe are now mainly redundant, the striking structures have been reused in various locations for leisure, arts and residential purposes.
Councillors ignored a petition signed by 1,300 people calling on the council and SGN to protect the structure, which was presented earlier in the evening by Scott-McDonald.
‘It is a heritage asset, even if it isn’t listed’
Fletcher told councillors that council planning policies should be protecting the 1888 structure, one of the last remnants left from East Greenwich Gas Works and locally nicknamed “Jumbo” after it was built.
He added that it was called “highly significant in a national context” by English Heritage in 2002.
“It is, by common consent, a heritage asset. Our own core strategy states that ‘the Royal Borough will protect and enhance the heritage assets of Royal Greenwich,” he said, adding that this applied even if a site wasn’t listed.
Fletcher noted that opponents of listing the gasholder at one attempt in 2007 included former Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford – an ardent supporter of the Silvertown Tunnel, the construction of which will be made easier if the gasholder is demolished.
“Without that protection, it fell to this council to take action locally if it chose to do so – sadly, it did not. It could have been locally listed, designated a conservation area or we could have issued an Article 4 direction – requiring planning permission for development – or ultimately we could have purchased the site.”
‘Attack on planning officers’
SGN was given “prior approval” to demolish the structure – a procedure which differs from planning permission, which does not require councillors to be consulted – earlier this year, which Fletcher called “utterly unsatisfactory”.
But backbench Labour councillor Norman Adams called it “an implied attack on the conduct of planning officers”.
And strategic development cabinet member Sizwe James said a planning brief for the area had “left the issue open” on whether the structure should be retained.
He also criticised the motion referring to “planning permission” for the structure’s demolition, saying that government rules had effectively condemned the gasholder.
“The government has in effect made it a permitted development provided a prior notification process is undertaken,” he said.
“The council had to make a decision in only 28 days – this was not a standard planning application, and government has set very clear parameters, including a default in favour of permission should a decision not be made after 28 days.”
But no amendment to the motion was forthcoming from the Labour benches, and the two Peninsula ward councillors remained silent during the debate.
‘An attempt to crystallise council’s position’
Fletcher said: “I thought from many of the public statements that had been made during election campaigns by members opposite that we might hae reached some consensus.
“I’m surprised not to hear from the ward councillors, who spent the entire election campaign saying they were in favour of this gasholder’s rentention. Why have they not spoken this evening? Are they in favour of it?”
Scott-McDonald sat impassive while Lloyd – who said on Twitter on election day in May that he was “fighting to save Jumbo” – fidgeted and smirked.
“It goes to prove to what we said earlier – it takes the opposition to raise issues that Labour members will not raise,” Fletcher continued.
“This was genuinely an attempt to crystallise the council’s position and put us in a stronger position.”
Conservative councillors voted for the motion, all Labour councillors – except Gary Dillon – voted against it.
While Labour councillors appeared to argue they were powerless to change the fate of the gasholder, the debate came after councillors spent half-an-hour discussing a Labour motion on a levy on tobacco companies – something which the council has no power over.
And their colleagues in Lewisham have slapped a local listing on two gas holders at Sydenham which SGN is also seeking to demolish.
Labour councillors’ refusal to back protecting the gasholder came after a planning meeting last week deferred a decision whether to revoke the hazardous substances consent on the gasholder site – a step needed for the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel and to fully open nearby St Mary Magdalene school.
After lengthy discussion (which can be seen here) councillors voted to defer the issue until July’s meeting over concerns that a promise from SGN not to seek compensation over the issue (even though SGN wants the permission revoked) was not legally binding.
Watch the full council discussion on the East Greenwich gasholder on the Greenwich Council website.
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