853 exclusive: Neighbours on a council estate in Blackheath are hoping that plans for new housing will be halted by the listing of a 1950s mural by the artist who designed the Egyptian Hall in Harrods.
Greenwich Council wants to build the homes in Richmount Gardens as part of its Greenwich Builds programme to build 1,750 new council properties to ease its 20,000-strong waiting list.
But neighbours on the Brooklands Park Estate – which lies between the private Blackheath Cator Estate and Berkeley Homes’ Kidbrooke Village development – object to losing green space, a children’s playground and a community hall which dates back to the estate’s opening in 1958.
They hope that Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, will approve an application to list a mural in the hall by the artist and sculptor William Mitchell. Historic England has opened a consultation into the issue.
Mitchell, who died in 2020 aged 94, was working for the London County Council when he designed the mural. Much of his work has been lost, but several of his pieces are now Grade II listed, including a ceramic and glass mural at the former Islington Green School in north London and the Stations of the Cross sculpture at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol.
Later in his career he worked for the Harrods owner Mohamed al-Fayed, designing its Egyptian Hall and escalator as well as Innocent Victims, a memorial to Princess Diana and Fayed’s son Dodi. The sculpture was removed eight years after the Knightsbridge store was sold in 2010.
An assessment prepared by Historic England said that Mitchell “gained an international reputation for his highly textured, abstract reliefs and murals”. A listing would complicate the process of getting planning approval and could increase the chances of it getting thrown out.
The building, which closed in 2018, is described as “dilapidated” and “disused” in documents submitted by the architects. Councillors are expected to make a decision on its fate soon.
But one local, Kirsten Bassett, said the hall was in regular use and hosted a day nursery until it closed.
“When I first saw the community hall mural, it took my breath away, as not only was it unexpected, but it is special,” she told 853.
The council has said that it plans to relocate the mural and put it on public display, and adds that community facilities including nurseries are now available in Kidbrooke Village. Locals are not impressed.
Another neighbour, Stephanie Cooke, said: “The hall is a historic building. This isn’t ancient history, or the history of aristocrats but the history of London and its residents.
“In the 1950s the LCC were trying to build an egalitarian society, and giving residents of council estates access to green space and public art were two of the ways they were trying to do it.
“The mural is a very rare example of his work, and was made just for this hall – in those times, social housing was given great thought and considered worthy of public art.”
Cooke’s husband, Jiyang Qiao, said the the hall had been “the heart of the local community” and had been closed “not because of lack of demand, but because of mismanagement”.
The development is the latest example of “estate infill”, where councils – who lack the funds and power to force landowners to sell large tracts of undeveloped land – end up building on small plots of land they already own to meet their housing targets.
Many of these sites are on estates built decades ago in an era when a far greater proportion of the population lived in council housing and waiting lists were far lower.
Recent examples in Greenwich have included the Brook Estate in Kidbrooke, where 80 homes are being built on former green spaces, and the nearby Woodville Close, where three homes were approved to replace garages and parking spaces in April.
Locals, who are supported by the Blackheath Society, said they were opposed to building any new homes on the green, but were more comfortable with a related plan to build on old garages near by.
Cooke said: “The estate was designed with green space as part of the layout, that space is part of our lives. It’s a venue for congregating, children, teenagers and adults alike.
“We all need access to green space, it’s part of the council’s declared aims, and here we’ve been on the edge of a massive building site for over a decade [Kidbrooke Village] and feel this is our only refuge.
“Great care was put into the design of the estate, including the green spaces, and the hall, and it has worked – people who live here love it and look after it.
“As a group, we’ve not opposed the development of the garage site in the corner of the cul-de-sac. But the centre of Richmount Gardens isn’t a brownfield site, nor would this development be ‘infill’ of disused land – it is all used, every day.”
Greenwich Council does not typically comment on live planning applications as, while its political leadership backs the homes, a committee of its own councillors is legally obliged to make a final decision with an open mind.
This awkward position came into the spotlight in the Woodville Close application, where a frustrated Labour councillor made the serious accusation that her colleagues had already made up their minds to approve the proposal.
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