A view from Macbean Street of the proposed development

Greenwich councillors unanimously threw out plans for 595 flats on a derelict site in Woolwich town centre last night – condemning it as too high, too dense, and with not enough “affordable” housing.

All seven members of Greenwich’s planning board rejected Legal & General’s proposals to build build five blocks of up to 22 storeys on the old Woolwich Polytechnic School site at Macbean Street, along with new shops and a pound for the nearby Beresford Street market. Much of the site has been derelict for up to 20 years, and council officers had recommended approving the scheme.

Now Legal & General has to decide whether to work with the council to change the scheme, or to challenge the decision by appealing to planning inspectors. Alternatively, the mayor of London – overwhelmingly likely to remain Sadiq Khan after tomorrow’s election – can call the decision in to decide himself.

Legal & General’s plans only included 20 per cent “affordable” housing, while Greenwich’s planning policies demand 35 per cent. All 595 flats would have been for private rent – a first for Woolwich, but similar schemes have been approved in west Greenwich and built in Deptford. The development would have included 164 studio flats and 199 one-bedroom flats.

No social housing was included in the scheme, although the developer said it would accept nominees from the council’s waiting list for some of the “affordable” homes, which would have rent comparable to some housing association homes. Stephen Murden, L&G’s head of residential development, said that homes would be marketed to key workers such as staff at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and that the company had been in talks with the hospital about its needs.

‘Neglected for too long’

The six blocks would be on the site of the old Woolwich Polytechnic School. They grey blocks represent Berkeley Homes blocks that have permission to be built

At the start of the hearing, councillors spent nearly 50 minutes in talks with a council officer discussing design issues along with the viability assessment – a document that determines how much “affordable” housing a developer can provide. Shortly before the meeting, the figures had been revised downwards to start that Legal & General would make a loss of up to £4.6m on the scheme – although it would generate a regular income in rent after that.

Murden said the scheme was a “huge opportunity to revitalise a part of Woolwich that has been neglected for too long”, emphasising that all residents would have the same access to the same facilities, including free broadband and a swimming pool, and that those on discounted rent deals would not all be grouped together in one block.

He compared the company’s aims to Greenwich Builds, the council’s in-house programme to begin work on 750 council homes by next year. “We prioritise good design, we build homes for local people and they can stay for as long as they wish, we’re sustainable, committed to zero-carbon and inclusive, and just like you, we’re here for the long terms, owning homes and creating communities for long into the future.”

Murden also said Legal & General had a record of working with local authorities, helping small businesses at its Blackhorse Mills development on the outskirts of Walthamstow and sponsoring Waltham Forest Council’s borough of culture celebrations in 2019.

But councillors were sceptical from the start – with former council leader Denise Hyland, usually a reliable supporter of large building projects – questioning the lack of “affordable” housing if Legal & General could expect to earn £10 million a year in rents.

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

Asked by Thamesmead Moorings councillor Olu Babatola if he thought 20 per cent “affordable” housing was acceptable in a borough that demanded 35 per cent, Murden said there were “big infrastructure costs” associated with the site, part of which used to be an electricity depot.

Clive Mardner, an Abbey Wood councillor, said that local people would not be able to afford the homes. Legal & General’s Chris Wheaton replied: “If you had a prison officer on £29,000, living with a care worker earning £22,000, that’s a total of £51,000 and as a household they would be able to afford a 3-bedroom home in the [London Living Rent] element and a 2-bedroom in the [discount market rent] element. Healthcare, security and police staff will be able to afford these dwellings.” He added that people on benefits would not be turned away.

‘They have been waiting for Crossrail’

Macbean Street
Much of the site has been derelict for 20 years

Murden insisted that an advantage of the scheme not using the social housing model – where a housing association would manage some of the homes – was that the discounted homes would be “pepperpotted” around the developments.
“Unfortunately the pepperpotted nature blind dictates it is all intermediate tenure, but the council can still nominate people from the housing list and it is accessible,” he said.

Charlton councillor Gary Dillon also questioned why the site had been empty for so long. Dillion claimed the site had been “owned by financial institutions for some time”, although Land Registry and Companies House records indicate that the school site was sold by Greenwich Council to a private company, Macbean Developments, in 2008 for £11 million.

“They have possibly been landbanking and waiting for Crossrail and land becoming extremely valuable,” he said. “Is it reasonable for the council and the people of Greenwich to forgo 15 per cent ‘affordable’ housing because of a company that was aware of our [policies] way before they brought in the architects?”

Murden said that Legal & General only had a deal to buy the land if it got planning permission. “In terms of landbanking – we came on board three years ago,” he said. “The council did sell it to the current vendor.”

An image shown to councillors of the view from Plumstead Road (with council officer’s cursor)

The design of the scheme also came in for criticism, with both Historic England the council’s own heritage officer calling for the blocks to be reduced by four storeys to lessen their impact on views from the Royal Arsenal and General Gordon Square.

Kevin Veness from Speak Out Woolwich, said he thought the heights of the towers were a response to similar tall buildings from Berkeley Homes across Beresford Street which have already been given approval by councillors. “The road would become one long wind tunnel, fine for cars, not for pedestrians or cyclists,” he said.

“Woolwich is full of history and these developments go right up against those buildings. A lot of the buildings are overshadowed. It seems we’re trying to build as many tower blocks as possible next to historic sites – it’s beginning to feel like Lewisham, to give a bad example.”

‘It doesn’t cut it’

Royal Brass Foundry view
View from the Royal Brass Foundry, with the unbuilt Berkeley blocks in grey

Veness was the only person to speak against, which surprised Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher, saying that he thought that the tower blocks breached London planning policy on having an excessive number of tall buildings in one area.

The harm done by the towers could be outweighed by having a greater number of “affordable” homes, he said, but added “if anything, we’ve the reverse, not enough affordable housing”.

“To my mind, the design in terms of height and massing is excessive – I think in design terms that is a concern. That’s not outweighed by the public benefit of affordable housing.”

Former council leader Hyland said that she would have been prepared to accept a scheme with 20 per cent affordable housing if half had been social housing, but said the scheme as it stood “doesn’t cut it”.

“I would not be doing my public duty if I did not vote against,” she said.

All six councillors – Hyland, Fletcher, Dillon, Babatola, Mardner, Conservative Geoff Brighty and Labour chair Stephen Brain – voted against the scheme on the grounds of design, height, massing and “affordable” housing.

“We’ve really given this due consideration and I hope the applicant recognises that,” Brain said.

Councillors’ gamble

Blackhorse Mills
A Google Streetview image of Blackhorse Mills, which has more “affordable” housing but at higher rents

Legal & General will now have to work out its next move – and councillors will be gambling on them coming back to the table to negotiate a scheme with more “affordable” housing.

But what was on offer in Woolwich was arguably more generous than its other major build-to-rent scheme in London, Blackhorse Mills in Walthamstow, approved by Waltham Forest in October 2016.

The scheme, overlooking the Walthamstow wetlands and ipart of a cluster of towers that has emerged close to Blackhorse Lane station, has been endorsed by that council’s Labour leadership, and offers 25 per cent “affordable” housing with no social housing. But in this case, these homes were all offered at 80 per cent of market rent. By contrast, the Woolwich scheme, while only offering 20 per cent “affordable”, offered homes at between 46 and 80 per cent of market rent.

Note: We put “affordable” in inverted commas to indicate that this is an official term which does not necessarily meet the dictionary definition of the word.

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