Lewisham councillors have approved a 34-storey tower block next to the area’s Tesco superstore – despite the development only offering 20% “affordable” homes.
The Meyer Homes scheme, which consists of three blocks of 34, 14 and eight storeys, was passed by four votes to three after planning officers said the council could not negotiate a better deal on low-cost housing.
One councillor said it would be “indefensible” to refuse the scheme – but a neighbour said he feared for the future of his home after seeing cracks appear during the of construction to the nearby Lewisham Gateway towers.
Of the 365 homes in the scheme on Conington Road, close to the border with Greenwich borough, only 73 will be “affordable”. Of those, 30 would be for discount market sale. Just 16 would be for social rent, with 27 for “affordable” rent – the two categories making up 12% of the housing on offer.
Meeting audio: Planning officers introduce the scheme
The two cabinet members who sit on Lewisham’s strategic development committee – Lewisham Central councilor Joani Reid (safer communities) and Telegraph Hill’s Paul Bell (housing) both voted against the scheme. The committee is the equivalent of Greenwich’s planning board.
But Catford South councillor Alan Smith – former elected mayor Steve Bullock’s one-time deputy – led councillors who backed the scheme, reflecting a divide between the council’s old guard, who fear wasting money on appeals, and those close to Bullock’s successor Damien Egan, who are keen for the council to be more ambitious on housing targets.
Lewisham were already facing an appeal to planning inspectors from its refusal of an earlier version of the scheme. The version councillors voted for on Wednesday featured public access to a viewing platform on the 34th floor for three hours each day.
Opponents are now pinning their hopes on London mayor Sadiq Khan calling the scheme in – either to scrap it or to increase the number of homes for rent.
Meyer Homes is also trying to redevelop land at other Tesco sites including Woolwich, where Greenwich Council recently refused permission for a project including a 27-storey tower.
“This is our most important scheme,” Meyer’s land and planning director Jamie Pearson told Lewisham councillors. “We’ve worked really hard and positively with your planning officers.”
The scheme also includes the landscaping of the River Ravensbourne through the site and a new public square.
But he was challenged on the low levels of “affordable” housing by Bell: “Why do you think in a borough where there’s 10,000 people on the housing waiting list and there are 673 people tonight in nightly accommodation that we should accept this?”
Pearson said the viability assessment had been made after elements such as community infrastructure levy, river improvements and transport improvements had been taken into account.
“We then look at what your officers tell us is required in the borough. Our targets take into account what your officers tell us are the tenures most required in the borough.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Bell replied, before going onto refer to the “discounted market sale” element of the scheme which makes up a large proportion of the “affordable” homes.
“20% – it’s not even 20% – does sound very low to a borough of our need. Even if you talk about dicounted market sale – At £350,000 for a one-bedroom property, you still need to be earning £80,000 a year to get a mortgage with a £35,000 deposit. I don’t see many people in Lewisham – including myself – who have that kind of money.”
Pearson estimated a one-bedroom flat would be “late two-hundreds” and a 25% discount would make it affordable for Lewisham borough.
One neighbour, Paul Walsh, who lives in Silk Mills Path and would be next door to the proposed development, pointed out that not a single image of the scheme showed what it would look like from the path, which runs from Lewisham Road towards Tesco.
He said he had asked Meyer to supply an image. “We were strung along for over a month… I don’t understand how an application can get so far without a photo of how it’d look from the view of its nearest neighbours,” he said.
Meeting audio: Objectors make the case against the scheme
When Meyer finally did send images through, they were “from the skyscraper looking at our house, and included a random image of the [Tesco] car park with some rubbish and the caption ‘it’s probably worse now”.
While Meyer had clearly tried to make other blocks on the development fit in with their neighbours – which are also low-rise residential blocks – Walsh said the tower would be “17 times the height of its nearest neighbour”. Walsh also said construction of the Lewisham Gateway towers, on the other side of Lewisham station, had caused cracks to appear in his house.
Blackheath councillor Kevin Bonavia – another Lewisham cabinet member – also spoke up for objectors, talked about the pressure on Lewisham station and said Meyer’s transport plans were inadequate. “We are being asked to approve the highest building in our borough that will have an impact on places way beyond Lewisham… the impact of such a tall building must be mitigated by a serious public benefit,” he said.
“This council has agreed tall buildings in the past and with no affordable housing, but in return have had significant public benefit. I am not convinced that this application has a significant public benefit.
“Residents would only put up with the lage impact if there were homes that either they or their children could afford to liv in. To say there’s 20% ‘affordable’ housing is a travesty of the truth – far from it. [It’s] 12% – how can any of us justify that to the public?”
But committee member Alan Smith said: “It would be nice if we could make these decisions with our hearts, but we have the local plan, London Plan and material planning considerations to consider.” Planning officer Michael Forrester said: “We would suggest a refusal on viability grounds would be unreasonable,” adding that the viability assessment had been scrutinised to “an extreme level of detail”.
Planning chair John Paschoud backed the redevelopment, saying: “What has been legally squeezed out of the applicant until the pips squeaked is the maximum we can get away with.”
But Grove Park councillor Suzannah Clarke said: “I’ve tried to be open-minded about this, but I still feel uncomfortable with this height of building. And I’m still unconvinced of the commercial viability of the Skydeck. I’m concerned it might turn into a play area for the very expensive flats at the top of the building … and that has been the major public benefit put to this committee.”
However, votes from Paschoud, Smith, James-J Walsh (Labour, Rushey Green) and Councillor Olurotimi Ogunbadewa (Labour, Downham) were enough to see the scheme through. Bell, Clarke and Joani Reid voted against.
The tower will be the tallest of a number being constructed in Lewisham. Lewisham Gateway has 25 storeys, while a development approved for Lewisham Retail park has 24 storeys and the nearby Carpetright site 30 storeys. Meyer hopes to start work in late 2019, with construction complete at the end of 2021.
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