‘Listen to residents’: Greenwich Council frustrated after mayor blocks housing refusals

Rockwell Charlton Riverside
Rockwell says its Charlton scheme will look like this…

Greenwich Council says London mayor Sadiq Khan needs to listen to local residents after he blocked its decision to refuse permission for two major housing developments in Charlton and Abbey Wood.

Khan has called in decisions about the 771-home Rockwell Charlton Riverside scheme at Anchor & Hope Lane along with a 272-home proposal at Eynsham Drive, close to Abbey Wood station.

This now means the planning process starts again with the mayor taking charge, ending in public hearings at City Hall.

Regeneration cabinet member Sizwe James said: “I am disappointed that the Mayor of London has called in the Eynsham Drive and Charlton Riverside planning applications, both of which were rejected by our Planning Board last month. This means that the Mayor of London, and not the local councillors elected by the people of Greenwich, will decide on these applications.

“At the Planning Board, local residents spoke passionately about the issues they had with the proposed developments. The committee members listened to the residents and shared their concerns about the height of the buildings, the lack of homes for families, and the affordability of those homes.

“After the planning applications were rejected, we hoped that the developers would come back to us with a new application that provided much needed affordable housing for families, in developments of an appropriate size and scale for Abbey Wood and Charlton.”Whilst I respect the rights of the Mayor of London to call in these planning applications, and understand the pressure he is under to get more homes built, we very much hope he will address the concerns of residents in the process.

“I would urge him not to simply wave the applications through, but include us in discussions with the developers to secure a greater proportion of well designed, affordable family homes.

“We also need to learn from the mistakes made in the ’60s and ’70s and create proper neighbourhoods, with walkable streets, places to work and spaces for children to play and socialise.”

Rockwell Charlton Riverside
…but the residents of Atlas and Derrick Gardens say the Rockwell scheme will loom over their homes

Ticking-off over ‘affordable’ housing

But the mayor’s move also comes with a ticking-off for not building enough “affordable” housing in recent years.

City Hall says that while Greenwich has delivered 80% of its targets for new housing in the past three years, it has only delievered 55% of its targets for “affordable” housing – targets which are set to increase under Khan’s new development blueprint, the London Plan.

“Greenwich Council’s recent delivery of housing and affordable housing is below the minimum targets and the proposed development has the potential to make a substantial and positive contribution to the strategic housing and affordable housing targets of the London Plan by optimising the use of an accessible and under-utilised site, thereby helping to address recent under-delivery both in the Borough and strategically,” the mayor says of each site.

Khan has pledged to do what he can do solve the chronic housing crisis in the capital, so he won’t just be addressing Greenwich councillors with his lecture – he’ll be addressing all London’s boroughs because they all have stiff home-building targets to meet.

And if a developer-friendly council like Greenwich can get a dressing-down from the mayor – even if it had good reason to turn down the schemes – then any of them can.

Charlton Riverside trouble

Atlas and Derrick Gardens
The Charlton development site sits behind Atlas and Derrick Gardens, originally built as workers’ cottages for a nearby bargeworks

The scheme at Charlton Riverside has arguably caused the biggest headache for the council – developer Rockwell originally planned a glass 28-storey tower with little “affordable” housing, but was negotiated down to a series of five 10-storey blocks with more “affordable” housing, alongside smaller blocks.

But the council’s new Charlton Riverside masterplan envisages taller blocks being the exception rather than the rule. It sees area having an emphasis on family homes.

While planning officers recommended approval anyway – because it could get development started by the river – local residents mounted a furious campaign. They suspected a done deal because Rockwell had employed former council leader Chris Roberts’ firm, Cratus Communications, to do its lobbying.

But all 11 planning board councillors rejected the scheme last month, with planning chair Sarah Merrill saying the plan was “reminiscent of Stalingrad”.

Khan’s letter to Greenwich Council says the Rockwell scheme “has potential to make an important contribution to housing and affordable housing supply”.

Rockwell’s plans are for 32.4% of the units to be “affordable” housing – an increase inserted at the last minute. Of those, 162 would be for London Affordable Rent – roughly £150/week for a one-bedroom flat – and aimed at those on low incomes, with the remaining available for shared ownership.

Residents in nearby Atlas and Derrick Gardens – built in the early 20th century for workers at the nearby Cory bargeworks – say the Rockwell development will loom over their homes and deny them natural light.

Local industries have also voiced concerns about whether they will be able to continue in business with a large residential development on their doorstep, and Squeeze singer Glenn Tilbrook has complained that his recording studio would be put in jeopardy by the plans.

Abbey Wood anger

Abbey Wood render
The Abbey Wood site is on the site of the current PDSA pet hospital, which will be replaced. The blocks to the right represent the buildings Bexley Council has given outline approval for

Council officers also recommended approving 272 homes in buildings of three, eight, 14 and 17 storeys at Eynsham Drive, on the borough boundary at Abbey Wood.

Here, councillors were unhappy about officers recommending approval based on the fact that neighbouring Bexley Council has approved – in principle – towers of 15 storeys across the road on the site of the first phase of Thamesmead.

Former council leader Denise Hyland – who had sat on the planning board ever since her election to the council in 2006 before leaving it this May – was among those to speak against the scheme. She criticised the lack of car parking spaces, saying it was unreasonable to expect residents to use public transport.

While on first sight a tower near a major rail station may seem a no-brainer, Eltham South Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher gave this insight into the board’s thinking on Twitter.

Again, Khan says the scheme “has potential to make an important contribution to housing and affordable housing supply”.

The Abbey Wood scheme would have provided 35% “affordable” housing – 67 homes at social rent and 28 for intermediate rent or shared ownership.

The Crossrail factor

TfL Rail train at Acton Main Line, May 2018
Crossrail is coming to Abbey Wood – and will have an effect on Charlton too

One factor for Khan taking over these applications were that these sites are “accessible” – the Eynsham Drive development is a short walk from Abbey Wood station, where Crossrail will terminate from December.

But the picture is less clear-cut for the Charlton site. While nearby Charlton station won’t be served by Crossrail trains, there will be some more space gained from people further down the route switching to the Elizabeth Line. But how many, and just how long this benefit will last for, remains to be seen.

Access to North Greenwich tube, meanwhile, is hampered by packed-out bus services, the growing Greenwich Peninsula population and traffic congestion, which locals fear the Silvertown Tunnel and forthcoming Ikea store will worsen.

Just as with the lack of “affordable” housing, poor-decision-making in the past – such allowing the area west of Anchor & Hope Lane to be filled with retail parks – may well have come back to haunt the council But inside the town hall, there is concern that City Hall does not appreciate just how fragile the local transport infrastructure in Charlton actually is – making defending a detailed masterplan all the more difficult.

Planning board blues

Greenwich Council planning board
The new planning board is the first in years not to have a cabinet member on it

The new planning board – which does not feature a cabinet member for the first time in many years – has raised eyebrows by refusing these schemes and challenging council officers on the East Greenwich gasholder.

While council leader Danny Thorpe has earned credit for removing cabinet members from the committee, it is clear some of the new members might need some more training in planning matters – during consideration of the Abbey Wood scheme, one even asked what “outline approval” meant.

It would be easy to paint the refusals as a council swinging to the left, but that would be lazy – old hands on the committee barely known for their radicalism such as Norman Adams and Clive Mardner are also asking difficult questions along with the two Tories, Geoff Brighty and Nigel Fletcher.

Instead, the planning board’s new-found feistiness is likely to be merely a correction after years of dodgy decisions and – under the regime of Chris Roberts – allegations of behind-the-scenes bullying.

Victoria Way, June 2018
Councillors never explained to furious residents why they approved this site in Victoria Way, Charlton for housing with a huge car park

After all, many councillors have been privately (and not so privately) appalled after seeing residents effectively told to get stuffed by Greenwich planning committees.

Decisions such as that to allow the cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf in 2015 have done lasting damage to the council’s reputation.

Even as late as January 2018, councillors on the then-planning board did not even bother to explain to residents why they approved housing at Victoria Way in Charlton that included a huge car park in an area prone to rat-running and congestion. (The lobbying company there was Roberts’s Cratus Communications.)

So it is natural that councillors would want to try to mend still-frayed relations with residents, and the situation is likely to settle down with time.

In a case of “be careful what you wish for”, many in and out of the council have thought a planning appeal in the north of the borough would get residents and the town hall back on side. Now it’s the mayor calling the shots, the odds are on an embarrassing reversal.

There has been speculation for some weeks that the refusal of the Charlton and Abbey Wood plans was rigged so that Khan could take them on and take the political heat off the council leadership. One well-placed town hall source has described this rumour to 853 as “bollocks”.

Councillors had, however, hoped that the refusals would prompt the developers to come back with more acceptable proposals. To see Khan take the side of the developers will hugely disenchant many in the local Labour party. It may well rebound on him when he stands for re-election in 2020, and finds fewer takers for door-knocking in SE2 and SE7.

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