The development as seen from Beresford Street

Greenwich Council planning officers are recommending councillors back a giant 595-home scheme which could change the face of part of Woolwich town centre – even though it contains no social housing.

Legal & General wants to build five blocks of up to 22 storeys with new shops, a market pound for Beresford Square and a pub on the site of the old Woolwich Polytechnic boys’ school. The development would include 164 studio flats and 199 one-bedroom flats and would transform a long-derelict site. Only 18 car parking spaces would be provided, for disabled residents.

While the application consists of 20 per cent “affordable housing”, all 595 flats will be for private rent. While best-known to the public as an insurance company, Legal & General has become one of the country’s leading “build-to-rent” developers in recent years, and recently completed a 479-flat development in Walthamstow, Blackhorse Mills – the Woolwich scheme is its largest yet.

The six blocks would be on the site of the old Woolwich Polytechnic Schoool. They grey blocks represent Berkeley Homes blocks that have permission but are not yet built

Six per cent will be for London living rent, which is designed to enable Londoners earning under £60,000 a year to save for a deposit. These rents would be mostly set at just over half market rent – slightly below those on offer through Greenwich Council’s Meridian Home Start spin-off.

Another 14 per cent will be at discount market rent, which will be set at a range of levels rising to 80 per cent of market rent for studio flats. Discount market rents enable build-to-rent developers to brand their homes as “affordable housing” without having to recruit a housing association.

Levels of “affordable” rent, from the council officers’ report

Local NHS bosses have raised concerns that the development will add further pressure to health service, a report to councillors ahead of the planning board meeting on 4 May says. £200,000 has been allocated towards health services – the highest the council says the developer can afford. A further £250,000 will go to primary school provision.

While over 900 cycle spaces are included, just £32,000 is going to cycling and pedestrian improvements on nearby Beresford Street. The council’s employment agency, GLLaB, gets £615,000.

A view from Macbean Street

With Greenwich Council’s own planning rules demanding 35 per cent “affordable” housing, councillors will now have to decide whether or not making an exception is worth it to see the abandoned site regenerated. The meeting will come 36 hours ahead of a mayoral election being partly fought on housing policy.

Council officers say a viability assessment shows that the 20 per cent “affordable” housing on offer is the most the developer can afford. The assessment claims the developer would lose money on the scheme, which has been cut back from a 621-home proposal submitted two years ago.

If councillors reject the scheme, the developer could appeal – as happened at the notorious Meyer Homes Tesco block, which was thrown out by an inspector – or City Hall could intervene and decide the fate of the project itself.

Four years ago, councillors approved a development on the Island Site formerly occupied by Thames Polytechnic with just six per cent social housing, although some more were added later. The site was put up for sale last year.

The Woolwich Exchange development on Spray Street – which is officially supported by the town hall but is yet to be decided on – only offers 14 per cent for London Affordable Rent, which is about half market rent.

“Whilst the lack of social housing is disappointing, it is recognised that the financial viability position of the scheme means that the most desirable outcome in this instance is for intermediate units,” the council’s own housing department says.

Across the borough, five years ago, councillors approved a similar build-to-rent scheme at Union Wharf in Deptford, which offers 249 flats, including some at various levels of discount market rent. A second rented scheme on the other side of Deptford Creek was approved in January 2020.

The Macbean Street site as it is now

This would be the first such development in Woolwich, and council officers say that “the evidence submitted demonstrates that the affordable housing offer would contribute to addressing an identified housing need”.

Historic England and the council’s own conservation officer both wanted to see four storeys taken off each block to reduce the development’s impact on views from the Royal Arsenal, Equitable House and the wider area.

“The proposed development would make a significant contribution to the borough’s supply of housing,” council officers say.

“Whilst the objection from Historic England is noted, and notwithstanding the substantial massing, it is considered that the proposed development as whole responds well to the surrounding character in terms of its overall form and massing, and would make a positive contribution to the emerging skyline of Woolwich.”

A decision will be made by Greenwich councillors on May 4 – see the full report on the council’s website. The developer’s plans can be read in its design and access statement.

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