Orchard Estate Lewisham
Pocket had hoped to buy land on the Orchard Estate in Lewisham, to develop garages into flats

Greenwich Council is poised to drop a controversial scheme to sell land on two housing estates in Lewisham and Kidbrooke to “compact home” developer Pocket Living after residents objected to the plans.

It had wanted to sell garages at Quince Road, off Lewisham Road – on the borough border – and two car park plots at Kidbrooke Park Close to raise funds to build new council housing.

But the proposal led to huge protests – not least from Labour councillors – and a consultation with residents found “a range of concerns about the scheme”, according to housing cabinet member Chris Kirby.

A third scheme, at The Heights, Charlton, is due to proceed. The land, above The Valley, is contaminated and the council would be unable to develop it itself.

Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook called it “the right decision”. He said: “In my view, there is only a case for selling publicly-owned land on which there is no realistic prospect of the council building its own genuinely affordable public housing for those on low incomes.”

His predecessor, Nick Raynsford, sits on the board of Pocket, which says it builds “affordable compact homes for first-time buyers”.

Quince Road
Pocket would have developed these garages at Quince Road, facing onto Lewisham Road (top)

Results from the consultation will be discussed by a housing scrutiny panel on Thursday 31 January, which will make recommendations to go to a cabinet meeting on 20 February.

The scheme, first announced at a cabinet meeting in July where just one member of the public attended, mushroomed into an extraordinary row which saw Pocket launch a PR campaign, through its consultants Lexington Communications, to encourage residents to take part in the consultation. The firm aims itself at young professionals aiming to get onto the housing ladder.

On the other side, Labour-branded leaflets were sent to Quince Road residents alerting them to the Labour council’s scheme, and pressure group Greenwich Housing Rights even conducted its own canvassing on the estate.

Orchard Estate letter
Residents on the Orchard Estate were sent notes bearing the Labour logo asking them to take part in the consultation

While Greenwich Council’s leadership saw the sale as a cash transaction to enable building elsewhere, many Labour members saw the principle of selling public land as too much to stomach.

Councillors were angry that Pocket – which is financially supported by Sadiq Khan’s administration at City Hall – was chosen above the developer the council itself had set up, Meridian Home Start, and a scrutiny panel told the cabinet to think again. 12 out of 41 Labour councillors attended a protest meeting in Charlton in September.

Instead of the homes being available for rent, Pocket plans to sell the homes to Greenwich borough residents at a 20% discount, with a covenant in place to ensure they cannot be sold for a year after purchase.

Pocket Living, Lewisham
Pocket Living completed this development of 25 one-bedroom flats and 1 two-bedroom flat across the borough border at Marischal Road, Lewisham, in late 2016

“I can confirm that we will be advising the scrutiny panel that we are minded not to proceed with the sale of land at Kidbrooke Park Close or at Quince Road. Residents on both estates expressed a range of concerns about the scheme and we have listened to their feedback,” Kirby said on Twitter.

“I can also confirm that we will be advising the panel that we are minded to proceed with the proposed sale of land at The Heights in Charlton. This development would be on contaminated land that we would otherwise be unable to develop.

“I want to stress that at this stage these are recommendations and not the final decision. The scrutiny panel will look at this report, scrutinise the consultation responses and then provide a further recommendation.”

The consultation was marked by blunders in the council’s communications team – residents were sent the wrong maps of the sites, while people who used Pocket’s PR drive to oppose the scheme were sent responses from Greenwich indicating they had supported it.

Kidbrooke Park Close
This car parking space at Kidbrooke Park Close (top) was another site earmarked for sale

And even the local Conservatives got in on the act, exploiting the close links between formerly prominent Labour figures and the Pocket scheme. As well as Raynsford, former Greenwich borough Labour organiser Michael Stanworth – who has worked on Kidbrooke Village and Essential Living’s build-to-rent tower in Deptford – is Lexington Communications’ head of property.

When Blackheath Westcombe councillor Geoff Brighty raised residents’ worries that Raynsford may have influenced Greenwich’s decision to go with Pocket, Kirby told a council meeting in December that his question was “appalling”. “To allude that there might be members of this council that would take part in an underhand deal where the inference is that officers would turn a blind eye is staggering,” he said.

“We have pre-decision scrutiny, our consultation is going to be an exemplar and we are going out of our way to make sure residents will be listened to.”

The Heights
This space at The Heights remains set for sale to Pocket

Pocket had hoped to build 60 one-bedroom flats at Quince Road, on the Orchard Estate; and 46 in two three-storey blocks at Kidbrooke Park Close.

While the loss of Quince Road – close to Lewisham town centre and its transport links – will be a blow to Pocket, 853 understands the company remains keen on the scheme at The Heights, where it plans to build 45 flats in a five storey block. Current plans show it will have to pick up the costs of decontamination itself.

In July, the council’s head of regeneration, Pippa Hack, told the council’s cabinet: “All the homes will be for sale to people who live or work in the borough, and 70% of buyers who buy through Pocket have incomes of up to £40,000. They will be sold at 20% discount compared to the local market, there will be a restrictive covenant that secures the properties in perpetuity, so there will be no sub-letting or no sales in year one,” she added.

Asked by deputy leader David Gardner what the council would do if the consultation revealed significant opposition to the scheme, Hack said officers would need to judge if the concerns outweighed the benefits of the scheme.

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