All is forgiven, planners: you are now needed more than ever

Huntsman mapped

Good news from the Planning Inspectorate last week,  who turned down a proposal for 131 new homes on the Huntsman site, a disused playing field just off the Cator Estate.

Although everyone accepts the land will end up being developed as housing (its designation as Metropolitan Open Land was lifted some years ago as part of a land-swap to enable the Ferrier estate to be redeveloped as Kidbrooke Village), the proposed development was wrong in many respects. Above all it would have turned its back on the neighbouring Kidbrooke Vision development it was supposed to be part of. As this map shows, all the traffic would have gone onto the Cator Estate’s narrow (and privately-owned) roads to the west, via a dangerous new entry junction on the corner of Manor Way and Brooklands Park.

It is pleasing that for once a planning inspector has agreed with the council and local residents, and refused the scheme on traffic grounds. It was clear at the public enquiry earlier this year that residents across Blackheath, who organised an effective campaign called No to the Huntsman, felt that this was the wrong scheme both for them, and the borough as whole: although the site is about a half-mile south of Blackheath Westcombe ward (whose southern boundary is Blackheath Park) I was contacted by many concerned residents living north of Blackheath Park as well as south. The Planning Inspectorate’s judgement, issued on February 26th, can be read herePhotos July 2008 029

The Huntsman is not the only large planning application causing concern locally. In Kidbrooke Village itself, Berkeley Homes are beginning to consult on a proposal for a 30-storey tower by Kidbrooke station, with a public exhibition being held later this week. The new proposal is much higher than the building heights that Berkeley already have outline permission for. As most of the new development in Kidbrooke Village has so far been top-quality, let’s hope it won’t be ruined now: see here for a discussion on Skyscraper city, an online discussion forum about tall buildings, and here for SE9 magazine’s coverage (it’s on page 18). 

Over on the Greenwich Peninsula, earlier this week the council’s planning board granted outline planning approval for a new IKEA store on the site of the current Sainsbury’s and the former Comet (the report that went to the Planning Board on March 3rd can be found here, and my previous post on the proposal can be found here).

There are widespread concerns about the potential traffic impacts, given IKEA’s far-fetched forecast that only two-thirds of its customers will come by car: the site may be well-connected by bus, but is some way from North Greenwich and Westcombe Park stations. Will a third of the customers really carry heavy flat-pack furniture home on the bus, or else pay a delivery charge of up to £25 to have it delivered to them at home?

Another concern is the proposed loss of the iconic Sainsbury’s building (which the Twentieth Century Society wants English Heritage to list) so I fervently hope that the conditions that the planning board attached to the planning permission, including an independent review of IKEA’s travel plan, prevent gridlock if the development does go ahead. TFL are at long last reviewing pedestrian and cycle safety at the Woolwich Road roundabout en route between the site and Westcombe Park station, which may help.

At least a decision on all three of these applications has been , or will be, taken by elected councillors who are democratically  accountable here in Greenwich. Increasingly, the current Tory-led government wants to take planning decisions away from local people and their councils, either by removing planning controls entirely or putting decisions in the hands of the Secretary of State or a quango. A new presumption in favour of any “sustainable development” may sound fine, but in practice the definition is so vague that lawyers cash in whenever a local authority turns an unpopular development down.

At the same time, government funding for affordable housing has been savagely cut, meaning that new developments have a lower proportion of affordable housing. To make matters worse, the government and Tory mayor Boris Johnson have even changed the definition of affordable housing, so that homes whose rent is at 80% of market value now counts as affordable, while capping housing benefit for those in the most need.

These policies are having an impact on suburbs like Blackheath as well as large regeneration sites, as I have reported previously: indeed in some ways the problem is magnified here due to higher private-sector rents. For example, the government now has plans to relax planning restrictions to allow retail units to be turned into housing without planning permission having to be applied for, following an earlier relaxation of the rules to allow office blocks to be converted into flats.

This all sounds fine in principle, until you remember that in most places developers will make more money from homes (whose residents create more pressure on local services) than retail or office units (which can help provide services for those residents). Relaxing the rules may just send struggling town centres further into decline, or turn thriving shopping parades like the Royal Standard into lifeless residential ghettoes.

As Paula Ridley, Chair of Civic Voice has said: “We accept that the future of the high street has to be more than simply a retail experience. …. However, introducing this change will remove the right of the community to decide what is best for their area. We are not against the policy per se, but we are against the fact that the voice of the community will be removed”.

Local people are also finding that their neighbours are now able to put up unsightly extensions without the need to apply for planning permission. Planning changes which came into force on May 30th 2013 mean that householders can now build a single-storey extension without the need for a planning application, for a three year period that expires in May 2016. The only limit is that the extension has to be less than 8 metres in depth for a detached house, or 6 metres for any other dwelling, such as a semi or terraced house.

6 to 8 metres (about 20 to 25 feet) is quite a lot of garden to be lost, and potentially quite a lot of bother for next door neighbours whose daylight and privacy may be infringed. Under the new rules, all the applicant has had to do is give the council “prior notification” of their extension, and submit information on the proposed height and depth of the extension (they are no longer required to submit detailed plans).The council will consult neighbours, but under the new rules the council can only ask for more information  if there are objections from immediate neighbours. If there aren’t, the council will have to approve the proposals.

The problem with this approach is that it is not just current neighbours who are affected by such applications, but future neighbours as well, which under the old rules the planning system was there to watch out for. In some cases residents may have more of a right of veto because a party wall is involved, but if not, then hard luck. In one case, a 5 metre-deep extension to a semi-detached house in Blackheath was refused in March 2013, under the old rules, but has since had to be approved.

Some may welcome the changes as the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy. But the government’s planning policies are the worst of both worlds: they are failing to deliver the affordable homes that people desperately need, while also reducing the quality of life of those who are properly housed. As usual, the Conservatives assume that planners are bureaucratic meddlers who are the problem, not the solution.

But sensible planning policies – balancing the needs of existing communities against the need for new homes and jobs, delivery genuinely affordable new housing, making sure greedy developers pay a fair share towards public services that new residents will use, and fighting for high-quality design that lifts the heart and reduces carbon use – are now needed more than ever.

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One Response to All is forgiven, planners: you are now needed more than ever

  1. Pingback: After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

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