Greenwich’s Labour-dominated planning committee threw out plans for 67 flats that would be available for affordable-rent levels last night – further delaying the redevelopment of the Charlton riverside.
The Optivo housing association had planned to build the flats in blocks of up to seven storeys on the site of a bed warehouse in Eastmoor Street, close to the Thames Barrier.
One councillor complained that the rents would be too expensive – even though Greenwich Council’s own new-builds, which he had helped give permission for, are to be offered at the same rates.
While residents’ groups criticised the proposals, some called for the scheme to be approved with conditions to reduce its density and improve its design.
Of the six councillors present last night, only two voted for the scheme, with two opposing and two abstaining, meaning the proposal was rejected. Because of the restricted nature of the webcast, it was not clear to online viewers which councillors voted for the scheme, or even who was present. Only two of the nine councillors on the planning board are Conservatives, and one of those was absent.
Last summer a plan for 771 homes at Anchor and Hope Lane was rejected by a planning inspector for being too dense – meaning the Optivo scheme could have been the first major project on Charlton Riverside to be approved.
Charlton Riverside has long been earmarked for redevelopment by City Hall, with thousands of new homes planned for the area – but with a tightly-defined masterplan which suggests developers should keep most buildings to 10 storeys or less, to differentiate the area from Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich.
Planning for the area is complicated by the fact that the land ownership is fragmented – despite Greenwich Council quietly buying up plots over the years – making it harder to co-ordinate an approach to the area. Other major development schemes usually have one or a handful of dominant landowners.
The guidance for the Eastmoor Street area is for heights of three to six storeys – just smaller than Optivo’s plans. Local objectors fear that allowing higher would give the green light for developers to propose even higher buildings, making the masterplan worthless.
However, there are worries that an unwillingness to compromise will simply take vital planning decisions out of the hands of the town hall and into the hands of City Hall or planning inspectors – again, risking the integrity of the masterplan.
Last night’s rejection of the Optivo scheme – against the advice of their officers – could put the Labour council in the awkward position of having to explain to a planning inspector why it did not want homes that would be available to the 23,000 households on its waiting list.
While Optivo had cut their original proposals down from nine storeys to seven, residents’ groups criticised the proposals – even though some called for it to be approved subject to a reduction in density.
Roden Richardson, from the Charlton Society, said that while Optivo’s scheme was the nearest to the masterplan heights he had seen, he still wanted to see the proposals cut down to six storeys with a “far less monolithic design”.
Richardson also said he was concerned about Environment Agency flood risk guidance which he said was being used by developers to justify taller buildings.
Brenda Taggart, a member of Charlton Central Residents Association and Charlton Together, a group representing a number of local organisations, said the land ownership issues on the riverside meant that companies were “squeezing as much development in as they can to minimum standards” and this applied to Optivo’s scheme.
“The consequence is over-development and this supports the community recommendation to try to reduce the height and further reduce the density,” she said, adding that she backed the scheme being allowed.
Jane Bland, speaking for Charlton Together, said the group supported the scheme but also raised concerns about heights.
Another resident, David Gayther, said the masterplan had been endorsed by City Hall and national planning authorities as “an exemplar of its kind” and should be foremost in councillors’ minds.
“The plan [from Optivo] does not reasonably adhere to a human scale of development – it’s close – we’re aware of the pressures on this site but we want to see something less commonplace,” he said.
“This is going to be the precedent, this will be the plan for the next 40 to 50 years.”
Gayther urged that the scheme be approved subject to revisions to its design, but said: “The council spent a million pounds on this masterplan – support it.”
Pete Woodford, of the architecture firm behind the scheme, BPTW, said the development would be a “modern, warehouse-inspired building”, designed to fit in with an emerging residential neighbourhood and surrounding industrial buildings.
Abbey Wood councillor Clive Mardner, who is also the chair of the housing scrutiny panel, questioned the use of London Affordable Rent, a level endorsed by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan which is about 50 per cent of market rent – higher than most Greenwich Council rents. However, the council’s new Greenwich Builds homes – which Mardner has voted for in the past – are being let at these higher levels, on the grounds that they still qualify for benefit payments.
When it came to the determination, Charlton ward councillor Gary Dillon – who is listed as a committee member of the Charlton Society, but told the meeting that he had not taken part in discussions about the scheme – complained about the increasing numbers of homes planned for the Charlton Riverside area.
“The [masterplan] has taken a lot of time from the council and the community to come together. But in the short time I have been on this planning board, I have watched the number of mooted dwellings increase from 3,500 to 8,000,” he said.
Dillon said that if the rest of the riverside area was built out to a similar density as the Optivo scheme, then it would be expected to take between 12,000 and 16,000 homes.
Thamesmead Moorings councillor Olu Babatola backed the scheme: “I can understand the concerns, but I believe the benefits outweigh all of those things. The number of people we have on the waiting lisyt – the building will relieve us in some way but it is a way forward.
But Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy said he would be voting against, saying: “We either have policies or we don’t. If we don’t defend the masterplan now, we will have a root and branch problem across the area.”
Voting for the scheme would be “doing an injustice to the community we serve”, he said.
After the vote, when councillors formalised their reasons for voting against, Fahy referred to the masterplan and said: “Let’s test it.”
The Optivo scheme had been due to be decided alongside a neighbouring plan for 188 homes in blocks of up to nine storeys. The meeting was cut short due to Covid-19 concerns – the government has banned councils from hosting most meetings online – and this is now due to go before the committee next week.
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