Greenwich Council’s cabinet will have to look again at its plan to sell land on council estates to a private developer after residents and councillors lined up to criticise the scheme.
But the cabinet member in charge of the proposal said that the proposals would help residents and fund new council housing in the borough.
A scrutiny committee of three councillors voted unanimously to refer the decision back to the cabinet after a meeting at Woolwich Town Hall on Wednesday night.
While it is unlikely that the decision to go ahead with the sale process will be reversed, the vote is a call for a consultation into the scheme to be beefed up.
Charlton Labour councillor Gary Parker, one of the two who called in the decision to be reconsidered, criticised what he called a lack of transparency over the agreement, adding that “precious” public land should not be sold to private developers without “thorough evaluation”.
Pocket Living, which specialises in “affordable compact homes for first time buyers”, wants to build 151 one-bedroom flats across the three sites at The Heights, Charlton; Kidbrooke Park Close; and Quince Road in Lewisham.
Approval to sell the land was originally agreed by Greenwich Council’s cabinet last month, but councillors are angry that Pocket has been chosen ahead of Meridian Home Start, a company set up by the council to develop new homes available at 65% market rents.
Instead of the homes being available for rent, Pocket plans to sell the homes to Greenwich residents at a 20% discount, with a covenant in place to ensure they cannot be sold for a year after purchase.
Most of the proceeds from Pocket’s purchase of the sites would fund new council homes.
‘Out of reach’
Parker, who brought the “call-in” with fellow councillor Leo Fletcher (Labour, Blackheath Westcombe), citing parallels with a similar scheme in Lambeth, where local transparency campaigners People’s Audit had discovered the council there had sold land to Pocket a discount.
“Were other options considered, like using Meridian homes or a community land trust? Or allowing competing bids from other developers,” he asked.
“There is no housing at social rent as part of the proposed deal – what social value is inherent with regard to the Pocket sites? Could not best value have been achieved with a social provider?
“At 38 square metres, [Pocket] properties are 20% smaller than similar flats, although you get a 20% discount, the average cost of a one-bedroom flat in Charlton is £350,000 – so even with a 20% discount, this is out of reach of many young people in our area.”
The proposal has also caused upset among local residents, who were not consulted about the proposal before the cabinet made the decision, and among Labour Party members.
‘Alienating the community’
Majella Anning, who chairs the Labour party branch in Greenwich West – which covers the Quince Road site – said: “I’ve had representations from residents and members of the Labour party who are outraged that the council is going to sell off council land that is sued for car parking on the Orchard Estate to sell to a private developer for private housing. This goes against the needs of our area and also the whole of Greenwich.
“The social housing list is growing exponentially, and the anger that has been expressed to me by members of Greenwich West and residents is extraordinary. They say that if this will go ahead, the council will not hear the end of it for some time. I would like to know why the Meridian company has not been asked to take over.”
And Greenwich West councillor Mehboob Khan said ill-feeling about the Quince Road scheme could result in the Pocket schemes being rejected for planning permission.
“There’s no provision for alternative car parking – the loss of this site will cause severe problems and alienate the community against the council’s proposals, thereby increasing the risk of being rejected at planning – an aborted scheme and a long, wasteful process.”
But housing cabinet member Chris Kirby painted the decision as one to consult on a possible sale, rather than a decision to definitely sell the land.
“The decision we have taken is to consult with you about these possible developments,” he said, addressing residents who had packed out the committee room.
“We have not taken the decision to do anything other than talk to you. To have the consultation before this one would be to have a consultation about a consultation prior to a planning consultation.”
He said the land was not being sold at a discount and denied local people would not benefit from the Pocket development.
“I lived in the heart of Greenwich for tour years and had to live with three other people and paid sky-high rent – I paid more to live in Greenwich than I would do paying off a mortgage on one of these properties,” he said.
“The idea that these properties are not for the benefit of local people is just wrong – it is not accurate.
“We know there are more than 2,000 people in the borough who have registered an interest in taking up this kind of offer. We need to make sure those kind of voices are hard as well.”
Challenged by scrutiny chair Chris Lloyd (Labour, Peninsula) on consulting residents who live near the site, Kirby said: “Absolutely, residents who live on the estates need to be consulted properly and have their voices heard. But there are people surfing sofas and living in temporary accommodation – this has a knock-on effect for other developments, for example, where we’re developing council housing.”
Meridian ‘not developers of small sites’
But one of the three-strong scrutiny sub-committee, Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher (Eltham South), said because the final decision on the Pocket sale had been delegated to a council officer, it appeared a decision “in principle” had already been made to sell the land.
And questioned by Lloyd on whether Meridian Home Start has the capacity to build on the land, Kirby said the firm was “currently working on six sites and has not cut the ribbon on any of them yet”.
“To say there is an issue of capacity isn’t the way I’d phrase it as it has only just begun to build properties. It is a growing organisation, and will be doing a lot more house-building.
“They are not developers of small sites – that is not a skill they have. There are a range of reasons why they are not suitable for these sites.”
After a lengthy discussion, the sub-committee – Fletcher, Lloyd and Fahy – all voted to send the proposal back to cabinet suggesting that the council’s housing scrutiny panel should examine any consultation into the sale, “detailed and meaningful consultation” should be undertaken and and that “consideration [should] be given to the feasibility of all site options available in relation to future disposals”.
Video of the full two-hour meeting can be seen on this YouTube playlist.
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