Greenwich councillors back down on gasholder after legal threat raised

East Greenwich Gasholder
The gasholder was part of the former East Greenwich Gas Works

Greenwich’s planning board has backed down and allowed a legal procedure which will stop gas from being stored at the site of the historic gasholder next to the Blackwall Tunnel.

Councillors were told the borough could face legal action if they continued blocking the procedure, which would also stop the nearby St Mary Magdalene school from fully opening.

Planning officers have already given permission for the No 1 gasholder, which sits at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel approach, to be demolished after owner SGN used a planning loophole known as “prior notification”.

But the technicality which allows gas to be stored on the site – a hazardous substances consent – remains in place, and needs to be revoked if St Mary Magdalene, just to the south of the site, is to fully open in September.

It also needs to be revoked for the Silvertown Tunnel – which received planning permission in May – to open as planned in 2023.

Last week, councillors on the planning board voted by 6-5 against revoking the permission, with Eltham South Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher saying: “I’m not convinced we should be doing SGN a favour until they come back and say what they want to do with the gasholder site,”

But the gasholder was back on the agenda for last night’s meeting, with council officers warning that they had received outside legal advice suggesting the decision could be challenged in the courts on several grounds.

Fletcher said: “I understand the reason this has been brought back, but it does feel like the way they hold referendums in certain countries, how they keep holding them until they get the right result.”

But there was still no news on what SGN wanted to do with the site, planning officer Beth Lancaster told councillors.

Fletcher complained that officers should have told councillors at the time that their grounds for opposing the decision weren’t valid, to which planning chair Sarah Merrill (Labour, Shooters Hill), said: “I agree. I can’t say any more than that, but I do agree and I have made that known.”

A council lawyer said that officers could not have pointed out in public that councillors were making invalid points because Merrill proposed approving the decision rather than rejecting it (although 853 has seen this happen before at past planning meetings).

Councillors were also told it would not be possible to lift the restriction on St Mary Magdalene school opening because it was put in place by the Health and Safety Executive – something else they were not told the previous week.

They then turned to what they could do save the structure: Merrill said: “As a borough, we should be consulted and negotiating with SGN on what happens next and maintaining, as they’ve done at King’s Cross, at least the steel structure around the outside, and that is a job for our regeneration team.”

But a council lawyer pointed out the King’s Cross gasholder was listed – and nobody mentioned that Greenwich Council has not put even a local listing on the structure. This is in contrast to Lewisham, which put a listing on the Bell Green gasholders at Sydenham (although its officers have also approved demolition, again because of the “prior notification” loophole).

After a suggestion from Nigel Fletcher, councillors voted by 6-1 with one absention to allow the hazardous substances permission to be revoked, but telling council officers to contact SGN and make clear that the planning board wanted to see the structure retained. “We can’t force them to the table,” senior planning officer Victoria Geoghegan said.

Video of the discussion can be seen in full here:

Viewpoint: ‘Greenwich’s threatened gasholder is a local icon – it deserves to be saved

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