Blackheath Hill render
The scheme is next to existing and planned blocks on the Heathside and Lethbridge estates on the Lewisham side of Blackheath Hill

A development on the Blackheath-Greenwich border that will see trees cut down and leave disabled residents in darkness was criticised in light of the conclusion of Ella Kissi-Debrah’s inquest.

The nine-year-old, who lived near the South Circular in Catford, became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on Wednesday. Assistant coroner Philip Barlow concluded that traffic fumes, which exceeded World Health Organisation guidelines, contributed to Ella’s death.

On the same day Lewisham’s strategic planning committee approved a planning application for Blackheath Business Estate, off Blackheath Hill. Members were tied four against and four in support, but the casting vote from the chair approved the plans. (Watch the meeting.)

Developers GS8 and Vabel plan to build 63 flats – including 14 for London Affordable Rent (about half market rent) and six for shared ownership – in two blocks of nine and seven storeys, along with a four-storey workspace building. To do this they will demolish the current commercial units, along with 36 mature trees.

The developer’s consultant ecologist – who did not attend the meeting – concluded the trees were of “low quality”. But this was at odds with the council’s own tree expert, who concluded: “The proposal will be detrimental to landscape amenity and landscape character in this part of Blackheath adjacent to a wooded escarpment site of importance for nature conservation and where the site contributes to the setting to the Blackheath Conservation Area.”

The site is also next to the A2, which one councillor said “never stops, it’s constant traffic”. It is also next to a rehabilitation centre for people who have suffered brain injuries.

Referring to the tree officer’s conclusion, committee member and Sydenham councillor Liam Curran said: “[The trees] contribute to the importance of the hospital setting for the brain injury recovery centre and reduce air pollution from the heavily trafficked A2. On the day [that the coroner rules] that one of Lewisham’s residents, who lived adjacent to the South Circular, died as a direct result of poor air quality. And here we are chopping down 36 trees that the tree officer says contribute to air quality on one of the major arterial routes through Lewisham.”

Blackheath Business Estate
How the site looks now

Ben Spencer, the co-founder of GS8, said: “We always look at retention as the first port of call but it was determined by our ecologist and our landscape gardeners that a lot of them have proved to be of a lower quality than could be retained. What we have done is retained portions of some of the dead log and some of the shrubbery which can be reused in the proposed development as new habitats.”

But Grove Park councillor Suzannah Clarke, who said she was “deeply troubled” about the trees, said she had great respect for the council’s tree officer. “When you say the trees are not of standard, that’s not what she reports,” she said.

Spencer said: “I would have hoped to have our ecologist here tonight but unfortunately he couldn’t make it. I can’t admit that I’m an expert in this field. I’m only going on the advice that I’ve been given and the advice is to the contrary of the tree officer.”

Blackheath Business Centre
The development will see these trees replaced with a wall

He added that the proposals include a 110 per cent increase in flexible workspace. “In terms of design, the commercial building has been developed to be zero waste and energy positive, where we will reuse non-contaminated materials from the existing site in the finished building and produce more energy from renewable sources than it requires. This will allow our tenants, many of whom we expect to be small businesses, to operate with greatly reduced overheads,” he said.

The current businesses have first right of refusal for the new build.

Local councillor Amanda De Ryk, whose Blackheath ward covers the area, spoke against the development, as well as a planning consultant, a resident, and the chair of the Blackheath Society. They were concerned about the impact the development would have on families with special medical needs who live beside the site, and now will be faced with a large wall instead of trees where the office building will be.

Planning consultant Peter Hadley, representing the Blackheath Hill Residents Group, said he knew the council had to meet housing targets.

“The harm that is identified heavily outweighs the benefits,” he said, adding that existing flats would lose daylight and sunlight, which the applicant and planning officers, who recommended the plans, admit.

“Ground floor apartments in Chalkhill House and Cardinal House are positioned much lower than the application site and serve those with impaired mobility. These residents would see 100 per cent of their light lost,” Mr Hadley, adding it was one of the worst applications he had ever seen.

Blackheath Business Estate
What the new flats will look like, according to the developers

A resident spoke on behalf of her neighbour, who lives in the homes reserved for families with complex medical conditions, including those in wheelchairs. “The proposed building would be so tall that a significant portion of us would be completely cut off from the very little natural light that we are getting now. Our bedrooms and kitchen would become unbearably dark, even in daytime,” she said.

The trees filter the air and support physical and mental health, she added. “This is significant, as many residents suffer from respiratory illnesses including my two small children.”

The developer is planning to make the wall green – covered in vegetation – but objectors say it will be no replacement.

De Ryk urged her fellow councillors to visit the site, saying: “These are not affluent residents who can afford to move elsewhere, these are some of the borough’s residents with the most need and these are their homes.”

The councillors went into private session to discuss legal advice on refusing the application. But four hours after the meeting began, Forest Hill councillor Leo Gibbons put forward a motion to approve the plans.

Curran, Clarke, Perry Vale councillor Sakina Sheikh, and Blackheath councillor Kevin Bonavia voted against the motion. But planning chair John Paschoud, Gibbons, Walsh, and Downham councillor Olurotimi Ogunbadewa supported the motion. As chair, Perry Vale councillor Paschoud’s casting vote ensured the scheme was approved.

London mayor Sadiq Khan must now agree the application before it can go ahead.

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Gráinne Cuffe is the Local Democracy Reporter for Lewisham. The Local Democracy Reporting Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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