Woolwich battle looms as 27-storey Tesco tower is officially rejected

Speak Out Woolwich protest
Speak Out Woolwich protesters gathered outside the town hall

Greenwich Council’s main planning committee blocked plans for a 27-storey tower in front of Woolwich’s Tesco store on Wednesday – but could have set up a battle over a decision made nearly 12 years ago to permit such a tall building on the site.

Councillors unanimously blocked the Meyer Homes scheme for a tower – of entirely private homes – along with three other blocks of between nine and 16 storeys behind the store, providing 804 flats in total.

One objector, John Edwards of pressure group Speak Out Woolwich, said the tower would be “an icon of social division and corporate greed”, while planning chair Sarah Merill said the development would cause “substantial harm to Woolwich town centre and Woolwich as a whole”.

Planning officers said the proposal was “unacceptably dominating and overbearing to General Gordon Square and the surrounding townscape”.

They also said Meyer’s proposals would affect the setting of Woolwich’s listed barracks, fail to provide enough “affordable” housing, show “clear and demonstrable signs of overdevelopment”, block out daylight while the lack of any legal agreement with the council means it would fail to mitigate its impact on the local area.

Meyer has two confirmed offers for “affordable” housing, none of which would be in the tower – either 17% or 13% at social or London Affordable Rent (about 50% of market rent) and 6% or 19% shared ownership, with the rest being for private sale.

It is also offering more “affordable” homes if a grant from City Hall is confirmed – however, councillors were unable to take this into consideration when making their decision.

At the meeting, Meyer insisted that the council’s original outline decision from January 2007 to allow the supermarket and the Woolwich Centre to be built – along with a 27-storey tower – meant the developer had a case to allow its scheme to be built.

Planning officers told the meeting that that 2007 decision had lapsed. But Meyer Homes’ land and planning director Jamie Pearson said that as an application had gone in to extend that planning permission but no decision had been made on it, the company considered that the original outline decision was still live.

Greenwich planning records show that an application to extend the 2007 planning permission was made by Spenhill, Tesco’s development arm, in June 2015, with more details being submitted the following March. Senior planning officer Victoria Geoghegan confirmed to the meeting that the 2015 application had not yet been determined, but said the 2007 outline permission had expired.
Meyer bought the land from Tesco in October 2015 when the retail chain pulled out of property development.

Woolwich tower plans
Meyer Homes wants to build on green space outside Tesco

‘Higher the tower, bigger the profit’

Speak Out Woolwich’s Edwards said: “The 27-storey tower would stand as an icon of social division and corporate greed. That’s why it’s aroused so much opposition. None of the flats in the tower will be for social housing. There’s one three-bedroom apartment at the very top, clearly intended as a penthouse suite, not as a family home.

“The higher the tower, the more profit it makes. The only reason it’s 27 storeys is because it’s the maximum acceptable to London City Airport, not people in Woolwich.

“The housing in phase four, where the social housing would be, is poor. It’s going to impact on the people living there and it’ll impact on their neighbours. The whole development is too big, too bulky, and too high.”

Planning officer Simon Truong showed images of the tower, reminiscent of New York City’s Flat Iron Building, poking poking out behind the Royal Artillery Barracks and the wider development blocking the view down Grand Depot Road from Woolwich Common.

Meyer Homes’ Pearson said the company had “listened to concerns while trying to make the most of the key site in the town centre masterplan and which already has outline planning consent”.

He claimed that the company’s offer of 40% “affordable” housing – much of these would be at shared ownership and 80% market rent – was “fully supported” by the Greater London Authority and made a “compelling offer both in planning policy and local need for affordable housing”.

Pearson added that the company would paying £7 million towards local facilities – “£600 for every man, child and woman in Woolwich Common ward” – along with £1.6 million in Section 106 money towards bus and pedestrian access.

“We believe any refusal would be a missed opportunity,” he said, adding a what appeared to be a jab at Greenwich Council’s current management of a town which has seen attention drift towards Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development on the riverfront: “This will help refocus the centre of Woolwich back where it belongs.”

Woolwich development plans
Greenwich planners’ strongest criticisms were saved for the blocks behind Tesco

‘Very difficult to understand what is acceptable’

Glyndon ward Labour councillor Adel Khaireh said: “You say you’re working with the community – the whole community, with 1,596 objections on a petition and 224 objections [submitted], how is that working with the community when the community is against it?”

Pearson responded: “What became apparent during the consultation is that local residents felt that the centre of Woolwich is being pulled down to the riverside and the town centre has moved there – we had some support for a development to happen that would draw businesses and landscaping and public realm and activity, both daytime and night time.”

Eltham South Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher outlined various changes in local and planning policies since 2007, and asked: “Why have you seemingly not revised your proposals for the site?”

Pearson responded: “Our advice is that the 2007 consent is still live, and on that basis [we can] move forward from a planning perspective on a scheme and site that is in a designated opportunity area. We’ve worked as closely as we can with your planning officers to try to design a scheme which offers as much public benefit as possible.”

Pressed on the issue by Fletcher, Pearson said that Meyer had offered a scheme with a smaller tower, but “it took us four months to get a response … it’s very difficult to understand what is acceptable”. “Our award-winning architects feel this is the right place for a landmark building, particularly with the outline planning permission in place,” he added.

“I don’t think any need for hosing justifies something which in my view would can only really provide substantial harm not just to the town centre of Woolwich but Woolwich as a whole, and that is echoed in the officers’ reasons for refusal,” planning chair Sarah Merrill said.

All 10 councillors rejected the scheme.

Woolwich tower plan
Meyer’s tower would be entirely for private sale

Councillor mistakes

While Wednesday’s meeting showed how decisions made under the developer-friendly leadership of Chris Roberts – now a lobbyist for developers – are still coming back to haunt the council, it also revealed further signs of weakness in the training of councillors on the planning board which will need to be fixed if the council is to take on developers instead of taking orders from them.

Similar weaknesses were highlighted in the meeting which rejected the 770-home Rockwell Charlton Riverside scheme, which has now been called in by London mayor Sadiq Khan.

When Pearson referred to support from the Greater London Authority, Adel Khaireh said the area’s “GLA member” – Len Duvall – opposed the scheme. But the GLA, which is the mayor’s office, is a separate body from the London Assembly, which scrutinises the mayor’s decisions and is what Duvall is a member of.

And in a separate decision earlier – to approve a block on Greenwich High Road – Eltham North councillor Linda Bird asked what “off-site affordable housing” was, a surprising admission from someone who has been a Labour councillor for over four years and would be expected to understand how “affordable” housing is paid for. (This is when a developer pays money to a council instead of providing “affordable” housing in its development, something which is common in smaller schemes.)

All eyes will now be on what happens next – whether Meyer will go straight to a planning inspector, or whether London mayor Sadiq Khan will call the decision in, as he did with Rockwell’s Charlton Riverside scheme and another development in Abbey Wood.

Lewisham row

Woolwich watchers won’t have to look far for a clue. Just a few hundred yards beyond Greenwich borough’s border, Meyer is also trying to develop land beside the Tesco store in Lewisham.

Earlier this year, councillors there rejected plans including a 34-storey block in a similar scheme. Meyer has submitted a new proposal – not increasing the amount of “affordable” housing, but allowing more public access to a 34th-floor viewing deck – while simultaneously appealing to planning inspectors against the refusal of the original scheme.

Neighbours there have started a petition against Meyer’s plans.

The entire hearing on the Meyer Homes Woolwich proposal can be viewed on this YouTube playlist, as Greenwich Council does not webcast or even record these meetings itself.

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