Plans for 48 “micro flats” on a council car park on The Heights were approved by Greenwich councillors last night, two-and-a-half years after the proposal to sell the land to a private developer caused a political storm.
Developer Pocket Living plans to build 45 one-bedroom flats and 3 two-bedroom flats on the contaminated plot overlooking The Valley. It plans to sell them all for 80 per cent of market value to people earning under £71,000 within the borough of Greenwich – meaning they tick the official definition of “affordable”, if not the dictionary definition.
The company specialises in building small flats on awkward sites, with one-bedroom flats typically little bigger than a studio. It has been funded by City Hall under both the Johnson and Khan mayoralties, and has former Greenwich & Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford on its board.
When Greenwich first outlined proposals to sell land on its housing estates to Pocket, it caused an outcry within the local Labour party, with 12 out of the party’s 41 councillors in post at the time attending a protest meeting at Charlton House.
Plans to offload sites off Lewisham Road and Kidbrooke Park Road were later scrapped, but the council pursued proposals to sell the land at The Heights after just two local residents attended a consultation meeting in 2019.
Two linked blocks of four and five storeys will be built, with two car parking spaces for disabled residents – 21 spaces for existing residents will be retained and relocated, with Pocket’s homebuyers banned from buying residents’ permits. A viability assessment supplied with the planning application suggests a one-bedroom flat could sell for £260,000 with the discount applied.
A decision on the scheme had been due to be taken in December, but councillors voted to visit the site. The lockdown meant they had to watch a video tour instead.
Only four objections were received – including from the Charlton Society and the nearby Charlton Central Residents’ Association – but 18 supporters got in touch to back the plan; 14 of those had contacted the council in the wake of the original meeting being announced.
Possibly reflecting the internal Labour tensions around the scheme, Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe spoke in support of the application. “This site is one I and the council have been involved in for a number of years,” he said. “This piece of land is not one that was suitable for the council to deliver [as housing],” he said. “We were new to council house-building, we simply didn’t have the skills and experience to deal with a highly contaminated piece of land.”
Referring to those who already live on the low-rise Heights estate, he said: “When you’re looking out on a gated-off hill that has ‘hazardous – beware’ signs on, any improvement has got to be better than none.” He promised the public realm in The Heights would be “substantially improved” with funding from the sale. The estate has recently undergone a refurbishment with upgraded pathways, suggesting it would be the entrance to the Pocket site that is in line for improvements.
“It’s not often that you get to decide on a scheme that more residents support than oppose, but that is a fact,” he said. “There are 235 of our younger Greenwich residents who are registered for the chance to buy a Pocket home, which is indicative of the substantial interest that we know there will be.”
Thorpe said he had visited a similar Pocket scheme in Lewisham and all the residents had previously lived in the borough. “There were teachers, public sector workers, firemen, that shows the kind of offer Pocket can make to younger residents who are desperate to stuck in their own home, who are likely to be stuck in an HMO, and the discount means they can take that first step into home ownership.”
Conservative councillor Spencer Drury also spoke in support, telling the committee that Greenwich’s housing cabinet member, Anthony Okereke, had suggested he visit a Pocket development at Sail Street in Kennington. “What a high-quality build we would be seeing – the communal spaces are genuinely well-designed and form a good basis for a community. This is a really useful, valuable addition to the affordable homes in the borough,” he said.
The only objector to speak was local councillor Gary Parker. He told the committee: “This site has been unused since the Second World War, even in the heyday of council house building this wasn’t built on. What information has Pocket got that previous generations of [council] officers didn’t?”
Parker also raised questions about the developers’ consultation, citing The Charlton Champion’s report that residents’ groups in Greenwich appeared to have been contacted rather than ones in Charlton.
Pocket’s chief development officer, Nick Williams, described the company’s work as a “public-private partnership”, and said a typical Pocket buyer would be earning about £40,000.
“Many of our residents come from private rented HMOs – moving into a single person’s flat makes a big difference to their life chances,” he said.
Williams said the homes would be affordable for 42,000 households in Greenwich borough, including 10,000 key workers; he cited a hospital doctor who had moved 11 times in 10 years before moving into a Pocket home in Walthamstow. “Typically people live for five, six, seven years in a Pocket property,” he said. “Some people from our first scheme in 2008 are first there 13 years later.”
He added that 700 residents as well as groups and amenity societies had been contacted by Pocket about its plans.
Councillors were also told by an engineer working for Pocket that the technology to deal with the contaminated land had improved since the Heights estate was developed, and that controlled modulus columns would be used to stabilise the land, on the edge of a former chalk pit.
All nine councillors voted for the scheme, but two said they were doing so reluctantly – Kidbrooke with Hornfair councillor Norman Adams raised concerns about the contamination, while Abbey Wood councillor Clive Mardner said that homes available to people earning £71,000 were “not helping to resolve our housing crisis in Greenwich, because local people are not going to be able to afford that”.
Charlton councillor Linda Perks backed the scheme, saying while there had been worries about the proposal at first, “I feel that the concerns that have been answered. I can’t speak completely for the community but a lot of people will have been reassured by the effort that has been put in.”
Fellow Labour councillors Denise Hyland, Stephen Brain, Ian Hawking and Mehboob Khan joined her in supporting the scheme, along with Conservatives Nigel Fletcher and Geoff Brighty.
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