Anthony Okereke at Greenwich planning board
Anthony Okereke used printed slogans to make his point but to no avail

New Greenwich Council leader Anthony Okereke has been dealt an early setback after his own councillors threw out controversial plans for 70 flats close to Oxleas Woods – ignoring his Bob Dylan-style plea for them to back it.

Meridian Home Start, a company spun off from the council, planned a nine-storey block at Shepherds Leas, right on the borough border at Falconwood.

Rents would have been set at about 65 per cent of market value and the 70 flats would have been available to people on the council’s 28,000-strong housing waiting list. Residents would have to have lived in Greenwich borough for five years.

But hundreds of residents objected or signed petitions against the scheme, complaining that the tower would be visible above trees from Oxleas Wood, a protected view out towards Kent. They also said that light pollution would harm wildlife in the area.

Bexley Council also objected, as did neighbouring Conservative MP Louie French. In all, there were nearly 500 objections and over 5,000 names on petitions against the scheme, with just eight expressions of support.

The Shepherds Leas site, next to the wood of the same name, is currently occupied by 17 homes originally owned by the Crown Estates, but later sold to Greenwich Council, which has helped fund the Meridian development with £8.1 million.

Render of Shepherds Leas block
The block would be between the A2 and Rochester Way Credit: Meridian Home Start

Greenwich’s own officers conceded that the site, between the A2 and Rochester Way and midway between Eltham and Welling town centres, was not deemed suitable for tall buildings under the council’s own policies. But they said that the need for “affordable” housing and London-wide policies about creating landmark buildings could override this.

But an all-Labour panel of councillors – the first planning board to be chaired by Charlton Village councillor Gary Dillon – threw the scheme out by five votes to two, asking that Meridian come back with a scheme that could not be viewed from Oxleas Woods.

While Meridian is an independent company, the proposal was effectively a Greenwich Council scheme – and the town hall will now have to decide whether to rework the scheme, or challenge its own decision by appealing to a planning inspector.

Shepherds Leas render
The view from Lingfield Crescent, across the border into Bexley Credit: Meridian Home Start

But there will also be questions asked about how a proposal that affected the cherished woodland at the edge of the borough ever got so far in the first place – while others will question how Greenwich can make a meaningful dent in its waiting list without building high at sensitive locations.

Okereke, who became leader last month after usurping Danny Thorpe in an internal Labour vote, had facts about the scheme printed in large type to show his colleagues as he addressed the committee.

“£618 pcm for a 1-bedroom home” and “£975 pcm for a 3-bedroom home” – with an emoji in place of the word home – were among the messages on offer as he imitated Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video.

“These are private rents you can’t find anywhere in Greenwich,” he said. “These are rents that will house nurses, plumbers, police, doctors, and most importantly, children.

“Our vision in Greenwich is to ensure the quality of life for every single resident. How are we going to do that if we don’t have adequate housing?

“This is much more than just a planning application – this will be a new chapter for a Greenwich resident and a new chapter for a household.

“I’m passionate – I’m one of those people who have struggled to find housing. Some people in the audience today and on this committee will have children who will struggle to find housing too. This scheme seeks to deliver for them.”

Okereke asked for approval on behalf of the “24,000 people on band C” – people who are not being prioritised for housing. He later said someone on band C waiting for a three-bedroom property would have to wait 17 years.

The proposal was originally for an 11-storey block, but it was reduced following complaints from neighbours. Okereke got off to an awkward start by complaining about the reduction in height.

“That’s 13 homes that won’t be housing families from our housing waiting list,” he said.

But Masie Richards Cottell (East Greenwich) told him: “You are asking the planning board to break planning rules on tall buildings. Are you worried we are going to set precedent as a council where further policies can be broken?”

Okereke responded: “If you apply every single planning policy, you will have contradictions. I don’t believe this is a massively tall building, it is mid-rise.”

Asked by David Gardner (Greenwich Peninsula) if the scheme could be reworked to bring the level of the building below the tree line, he said: ““This scheme has gone through different iterations for two years with significant investment. This is the best that it’s been and the best that it will be. If it’s not supported today, I don’t know how we are going to house people.”

It is unusual for a council leader to address the planning board, but Okereke suggested this would now be a regular feature. “I hope to continue to speak at this committee in favour of good development,” he said.

The Shepherds Leas site now. It is currently occupied by property guardians

Meridian Home Start was criticised for not providing visuals of how the tower would look in winter, when trees would provide less cover, and for not consulting more widely on the environmental impact of the scheme.

While Greenwich’s urban design manager Francesco Bernabei insisted that the development would be a “local scale landmark” that would help people find the station – something that features in London planning policies – Dillon responded by pointing out the station had been in place “for 80 or 90 years and people have always found their way there”.

And Greenwich’s own planning officer, Joe Higgins, was ticked off for referring to “Falconwood town” to describe the handful of side streets that are next to the station. “It’s not a high street,” objector Karen Powell told councillors.

Bexley councillor Andrew Curtois, who represents Falconwood & Welling ward, complained that Meridian simply planned to build the “maximum number of units and zero parking” to build high because it was close to a station, ignoring the context of the local area.

Complaining that his residents hadn’t been properly consulted, and claiming that Meridian Home Start was selling the scheme on the basis of the health services, parking and schools available on the Bexley side of the border, he said: “It’s like an unscrupulous estate agent offering the use of next door’s garage, gardening tools and barbecue, all without consulting the neighbour.”

While Curtois also complained about the effect on parking in his ward, the Conservative objected to being asked about Bexley’s own policies on the issue. “This back-and-forth is rather at the eleventh-hour,” he said.

Shepherds Leas render of courtyard
Greenwich councillors said that the scheme could be less high but have the same number of homes Credit: Meridian Home Start

Border disputes aside, the impact on Shepherdleas Wood and Oxleas Woods – and the wildlife inside them – came back again and again.

Tom Wareham, from the Friends of Oxleas Woodland, complained about Higgins’ depiction of the site as being isolated from the woods. “The railway cutting forms a continuum with the adjacent woodland,” he said.

Alan Ring, from the Eltham Society, said: “I think the key factor is the protection of the tree line.

“It depends on how high it is. If you look at the view from Eltham Park cafe, there isn’t a building in sight [at the moment]. Once the tree line is breached, it’s breached, and others will follow.”

Another local resident, Anthony Clarkstone, said he had asked another company to review the visual impact of the scheme, and that they had pointed out errors. “The images are taken with a wide angle so they look smaller than they would in real life,” he said.

Proper surveys for wildlife had not been carried out, according to another objector, Ken Hobday, but Higgins insisted that the project would help biodiversity.

Things even got briefly heated between Victoria Geoghegan, the council’s senior planning officer, and Dillon when she said the chair of planning should not be assuming that the tree line would be six storeys. Cutting him short, she told him: “You need to be very careful about making assumptions about the tree line.”

Others raised the fact that local buses were just single-decker routes. Pat Greenwell, the Conservative councillor for Eltham Town & Avery Hill, who left the committee to speak against the proposal, said the scheme “gave me the shivers”.

“A lot of these properties will be given to people who do night shifts and they won’t be able to take the bus,” she said. Quizzed by Chris Lloyd (Thamesmead West) on what her evidence was, she reminded him that the scheme was being promoted for key workers. Nick Ferguson, a transport consultant, said the scheme would have little impact on buses and trains.

Asked if a scheme with more three-bedroom homes would do more to reduce Greenwich’s waiting list, Meridian Home Start’s Andrew Coots said that it would not be viable, while architect Charles Dymond, of Cartwright Pickard, said that a lower-rise scheme would threaten trees alongside Rochester Way.

Lloyd, one of two councillors to vote for the scheme, recalled Valley House, a scheme in Charlton first thrown out in 2015 when it peaked at nine storeys. It was approved seven months later as a flatter, seven-storey building, and has since been built.

“The panel at the time felt it should be shorter and bulkier because of objections,” he said. “What we’ve ended up with is a more monolithic, bulky structure. If I could redo that decision, I would have gone for a taller building with lower shoulders.”

He said that he had lived in the borough for nearly 18 years and the fact that “I would only have got a house last year really sticks with me”.

Lloyd also claimed that many objectors were not local because flyers were being handed out at Eltham station, the next stop along the line, to anger from the audience.

Valley House before and after
Chris Lloyd referred to Valley House in Charlton, where councillors rejected a nine-storey peak and a seven-storey block was built instead

But Richards Cottell , one of three new councillors on the committee, said that she could not back the scheme because of the planning rules on tall buildings: “Once you break the skyline you’ll never get it back. That’s it, it’s done. End of story.”

“I am a 31-year-old who is living with their parents because I cannot afford to live in this borough – however, we have over 5,000 residents who have raised objections.

“I have a vivid memory of learning to ride a bike outside Oxleas Wood cafe – it was the first time my stabilisers came off – and I think many local residents will have those kind of memories.”

Majella Anning (Creekside) said it was a mistake not to start with a the policy against tall buildings as a defining principle for the project, while both her and Gardner appealed for the developer to come back with a lower-rise scheme.

Jit Ranabhat (Plumstead & Glyndon), said: “I am always in favour of these constructions but I strongly believe that we can achieve the same number of homes without reaching that height.”

After a hearing that lasted more than three hours, the committee voted against the scheme by five votes to two, with Lloyd and Sandra Bauer (Kidbrooke Park) voting for the scheme.