City Hall acts: Woolwich Island Site to gain just four more flats for social rent

Island Site scheme
The site, as seen from General Gordon Square, wraps around the former bank and Earl of Chatham pub, which are not part of the scheme

A major development in Woolwich which was criticised by the local MP for a lack of social housing is to gain just four more units for social rent after City Hall intervened in the scheme.

The project at the Island Site – the cluster of former Thames Polytechnic buildings on Wellington Street and Thomas Street – was given planning approval by Greenwich councillors in October 2017. It promises to transform a block which has deteriorated markedly since Greenwich University moved out of the site in 2002, providing 298 flats and space for leisure and entertainment, a dance school, shops, restaurants and offices. Historic buildings dating back to the original Woolwich Polytechnic will be retained, while the 1964 poly building – now the Island Business Centre – will be demolished.

After the scheme was approved, Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook criticised the scheme for having just 18 flats available for social rent, calling it “simply not good enough”. A further 22 flats were to be made available for “intermediate” rent – a proportion of market rent – or shared ownership, leaving the proportion of “affordable” housing at just 13.5%.

Documents to go before Greenwich’s planning board – the committee of councillors which decides on major developments – next Tuesday state that the mayor’s office has secured an increase in “affordable” housing to 20%. However, the number of social rented homes has gone up by just four to 22. There are now 16 more shared ownership homes, putting that figure up to 38.

The development has returned to the planning board because of this change, and to reflect the fact that part of the development is included in a new Woolwich conservation area, meaning some of the original application has had to be resubmitted.

In their report, council officers say: “The increase in affordable housing is welcomed and has been demonstrated as the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing that could be provided on-site.” As with 2017’s scheme, the number of “affordable” homes will be reviewed when three quarters of the flats are sold or let.

Wellington Street
The proposed development as viewed from Wellington Street (note the render includes the old Woolwich Grand Theatre, now replaced by flats)

One other major difference between 2017 and now is the councillors who will decide on the revised proposal – in 2017, the borough’s main planning committee still featured the council leader. Today, it has no cabinet members and has taken a tougher line on developers, resulting in two schemes being called in by City Hall and two more of its decisions being taken to planning appeals. The committee has also noticeably cooled on the idea of shared ownership, which often requires buyers to be earning a hefty income.

Back in 2017, the relief at having a half-decent scheme to transform a rotting, high-profile chunk of Woolwich meant that the glaring lack of social housing was glossed over. While this tweaked scheme is highly unlikely to be thrown out, next week’s planning board may not be so kind to the developer.

Haunted by by old decisions

Another old planning decision will come back to haunt councillors at the same meeting, when detailed plans for a new, 135-flat block at Greenwich Millennium Village finally come forward, seven years after the scheme was first submitted and nearly five years after developers were given outline approval to provide just 15% “affordable” housing in the block, with only 14 flats for social rent and six for shared ownership. The site, on West Parkside, is on the site of the old Meantime Plant Nursery, which closed three years ago.

Overall plans for GMV – which is not due to be completed until 2029, more than thirty years after the diggers moved in – say there should be 20% “affordable” housing. In reality, this means 14% social rent and 6% shared ownership, across the whole area, and figures are allowed to vary across the different blocks. This plot would see 10.3% for social rent, and 4.4% for shared ownership.

But Greenwich’s overall planning policy, adopted in 2015, demands 24.5% of housing in new developments is for “social/affordable” rent, with a further 10.5% for “intermediate” (shared ownership or higher rents) tenures. Given the GMV site already has outline approval, it is hard to see the application being rejected – although a neighbouring block was rejected on grounds of height and has now gone to appeal – but councillors are unlikely to be backing the project with any great enthusiasm.

A demonstration of how Greenwich councillors are starting to define “affordable” will come in another item at next Tuesday’s meeting. It will see the return of a 59-flat development on the site of Greenwich police station in Royal Hill, which was due to be decided last month but was deferred to see if more rented housing could be provided. Of the 59 flats, nine were due to be offered under London Affordable Rent, a form of social rent, with eight for shared ownership. This has now been revised to provide 11 rented flats – including one three-bedroom flat – and just two for shared ownership.

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