A major development of up 36 storeys at Morden Wharf on the Greenwich Peninsula was approved last night on the chair’s casting vote after councillors on the borough’s planning board were split on the issue.
Stephen Brain pushed through the development, which is in his ward, after Greenwich’s main planning committee voted 5-5 on the scheme for 1,500 homes on the former Tunnel Refineries site, next to the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel.
The Labour councillor shrugged off the concerns of the town hall’s own conservation officer about the development’s impact on views from the Greenwich world heritage site, quoting the Greek philosopher Heraclitus – “change is the only constant” – in supporting the project, which would see towers of 21, 25, 30 and 36 storeys built on the riverfront.
A host of residents’ groups lined up to oppose the proposals, and Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty, who represents Blackheath Westcombe, said approving the proposals would be “municipal vandalism”.
Local MP Matt Pennycook, who was not present, also submitted an objection. This morning, he said he was “incredulous” that the project had been approved.
“The legitimate concerns of residents about luxury towers ignored,” he tweeted.
One factor in the approval of the scheme was that a separate development of 24, 27 and 32-storey towers next door at Enderby Wharf was approved in 2015, as part of since-scrapped plans for a cruise liner terminal. The new owner of the site, Criterion Capital, has indicated that it wants to continue with towers on the land. Pennycook predicted “an entirely inappropriate scheme and an impending race for the skies on the adjacent Enderby Place site” in his tweet this morning.
Other buildings planned for the Delta Wharf area north of Morden Wharf – currently home to a golf centre and events venue – were also a factor in the approval of Morden Wharf.
The council’s own planning officers – who recommended councillors back the scheme – conceded that they were unhappy with the design of the towers, but only outline approval was given for the residential part of the scheme – the developer U+I will have to return with more detailed proposals at a later date.
However, work can start straight away on alterations to the site’s Southern Warehouse to accommodate retail and business uses; changing the site’s jetty so it can accommodate a boathouse for the Queen’s rowbarge Gloriana, and improvements to the river wall and Thames Path.
The scheme will also include a park, nursery, healthcare facility and £2.5 million for a bus route to be diverted into the site, which planning officers said would be likely to be the 108 as part of a wider revamp of routes serving the peninsula. There are also plans to split the cost of a Thames Clippers pier with Criterion.
Some 21 per cent of homes will be for London Affordable Rent, available to people on the council’s waiting list, and 10 per cent for shared ownership – slightly below the 35 per cent “affordable” housing target set by both Greenwich Council and City Hall; although it hits the percentage when counted by numbers of rooms.
While the scheme was one of the most complex to come before councillors for some time, concerns about the impact on views from the Greenwich world heritage site came up again and again – particularly in light of Liverpool losing its status earlier this year.
While Historic England had declined to make an observation on the scheme, it suggested the council listen to the views of its conservation officer, who raised concerns about the height. In addition, the council’s urban design officer said the proposal was “out of scale” with its surroundings.
Tony Butler, of the Friends of Greenwich Park, said the development would “dominate the skyline from almost every view in the park”.
For the Greenwich Society, Tim Barnes said: “There would be a clear visual impact throughout Greenwich. Morden Wharf is not part of the Canary Wharf cluster [of tall buildings], not part of the peninsula [cluster]. If these towers are built, they will loom over historic Greenwich.”
Barnes said that the society “took great exception” to the Greenwich World Heritage Site Partnership – which is made up of council officers and the area’s tourism businesses – backing the scheme. “I don’t think they’re the voice of the community,” he said.
Howard Shields of the Blackheath Society called on councillors to reject the scheme “on behalf of the total Greenwich community”, saying it was “totally unsuitable for a site one kilometre from a world heritage site”.
Local resident Roland Brass – who is also a town planner – said he believed Historic England had delegated its response to the council’s conservation officer, adding that the scheme was “not well-designed or beautiful” – two demands made in the Westminster government’s new planning guidance. He said it was “negligent” that the council had not gone out of its way to get a response from Historic England.
Andrew Thornley, the Greenwich planning officer who was dealing with the plan, said Historic England had merely submitted “a stock response” to the scheme. “Whether or not that’s negligent of them, I can’t respond to that,” he said.
U+I boss Richard Upton said the scheme was the result of nine years of planning and that it would “bring this part of Greenwich back to life”.
On the question of height, he said: “The harm has already been done – tall buildings on the peninsula are a given.
“I can see the emotion that goes with tall buildings, but the Greenwich Peninsula is a place for tall buildings. There is a housing crisis and we need to make the greatest productivity out of brownfield land.
“I would argue that all of those buildings – it would be preferable from a heritage point of view if none of them existed or had been consented. But that has happened, and within the context of what has been consented – all over the peninsula but particularly next door [at Enderby Wharf].”
Carol Patterson, of the architects OMA, said that building high allowed space for a park and avoided the scheme being full of “generic 20-storey blocks”, while Upton said it would provide relief from the “slab-like” development at Lovell’s Wharf and Enderby Wharf.
Upton also talked up the businesses already on the site, which include MDM Props and the Brew By Numbers brewery, saying they helped to build a community “from the ground up”.
The transport links for the scheme – which is designed to be car-free, despite the site currently having poor public transport links – were also challenged, with Charlton councillor Gary Dillon asking how a family of five with children at two different schools “would function”.
Upton countered that £4.8 million from the development would fund a new primary school near by.
Greenwich Council’s deputy leader and regeneration cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald – who is also a councillor for Peninsula ward – also spoke in favour of the scheme’s car-free credentials.
“A lot of development throughout Peninsula ward has been car-free development,” she said. When it was pointed out by Thamesmead Moorings councillor Averil Lekau that many residents would have cars anyway, she said: “It’s a journey, it’s about a cultural shift.”
A remark by Butler of the Friends of Greenwich Park about U+I’s sponsorship of the council’s business awards was ruled out of order by Brain.
When it came to a decision, Eltham South Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher said that while there was a lot that was positive about the scheme, “the height is a huge problem”.
Referring to images showing schemes that had already been approved as orange lines, he said: “This development pokes its head above the orange line – there was an expectation that development would build up towards the north [of the peninsula]. If we consent something that breaks that policy then others will come back and say, ‘now you’re granted that, we want to add a few stories on top – we’ve seen it in Kidbrooke.”
Fletcher said the view from the Queen’s House at the foot of Greenwich Park concerned him, adding that: “As Historic England deferred to our conservation officer, that is what I‘m going to do.”
His Conservative colleague Geoff Brighty said the blocks would cause an “unfortunate barrier effect”, while Labour’s Dillon and Clive Mardner also opposed the scheme.
Labour’s Olu Babatola backed the scheme, saying: “How many of our residents would be so happy to live in such an area?”
His Thamesmead Moorings colleague Lekau concurred, adding: “Something needs to happen to that area, it cannot continue to be left in that state.” Woolwich Riverside’s John Fahy also supported the scheme, saying that councillors had to “consider the prosperity and success of the borough as a whole”.
Brain said he had lived near the site since 1985 when “there were almost no buses and south-east London was isolated, quite forgotten and deprived”.
He said he welcomed the jobs that the development would bring, and likened concerns about the scheme to “bourgeois” objections to the Ikea store in east Greenwich, which opened in 2019 – although three years ago Brain told 853 that he was opposed to the store himself.
“When Ikea was planned to come, my middle class neighbours said ‘oh ~God it’s terrible’, but our residents on the Blackwall Lane estates said ‘great, somewhere where my kids will get a job’, and and they have.”
Referring to concerns about views from Greenwich, he said: “Henry VII’s palace isn’t there – it was knocked down by future generations. Queen Anne’s house was a new development. The Royal Naval College was new development. The Observatory was new development.
“The philosopher Heraclitus writing in 550BC said change is the only constant, and it was echoed by Disraeli, who said nothing endures but change, and that is why I will be supporting this application.”
After having been called upon to break a 5-5 tie – Labour’s Clare Burke-McDonald voted against and Sandra Bauer voted for – Brain said: “I can do nothing other than do what I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do after discussing it in my head all day, I am going to vote in favour of this.
“I’m sure there will be ramifications from this, I shall seek a bodyguard to get me home as I’ve got to go home on public transport tonight.”
Story updated at 11.35am to include Matt Pennycook’s reaction and details of the vote.