The Conservative candidate for Eltham in next month’s general election has backed controversial plans to build private housing on a public park in his role as a senior Bexley councillor.
Louie French, who is taking on Labour’s Clive Efford in the seat, supported the plans to build on West Street Small Park in Erith in his role as cabinet member for growth in Bexley, where he is the council’s deputy leader.
West Street is one of a number of sites the council has sold to its development company, BexleyCo, whose activities are part of French’s cabinet portfolio. It is charged with building 400 homes and employment space to help drive the borough’s economy and bring in new income for the council.
BexleyCo plans to build 30 homes on West Street Small Park, all for private sale, with the company offering to pay £100,000 towards “affordable” housing elsewhere. Part of the green space will be concreted over for a car park. A planning application was recently submitted to the council.
The plan to build on the green space has infuriated residents in Erith, who are holding an event on Saturday to highlight the issue. From The Murky Depths, which first highlighted the scheme, called it “one of the worst planning applications I’ve seen in a long, long time”.
The furore over West Street Small Park follows a campaign against BexleyCo building on part of Old Farm Park in Sidcup, which attracted a 2,000-signature petition in 2015. There, BexleyCo plans to build 28 houses along with 30 flats, of which 12 will be for “affordable rent” and nine will be for shared ownership. That scheme was given planning approval in May.
The West Street development is for private homes only. Jonathan Batten of Erith Think Tank, a residents’ group created to engage with future plans for the area, told 853 that the park had originally been created to improve an area that was formerly industrial land.
“Either it needs to be stopped – it’s a park, you can’t build on parks – or if we do lose a park, what does Erith get in return?” Batten said the proceeds from the development were merely going into a “council black hole”. “There is no tangible benefit coming to Erith – that’s not good enough.
“We’re not a reactionary group, but regeneration has to be managed and things need to be balanced. It’s not good enough for the council to profit from Erith’s assets.”
Batten and the Erith Think Tank are pushing French and the council to think again about their plans and have launched a petition. “It was a political decision to transfer the park to BexleyCo – it could be a political decision to transfer it back,” he said.
The Erith Think Tank and Extinction Rebellion have joined forces to hold an event in the park from 11.30am on Saturday, which will include the planting of a tree at midday and the unveiling of an exhibition of alternative ideas for the site.
Bexley Council’s cabinet signed off the sale of the land in January 2019. Asked at that meeting why there were so few “affordable” homes in BexleyCo’s wider plans, French said that it was down to “hard economics”.
“Obviously the company is dual-purpose. Yes, it is about housing but it is also about delivering a financial return for the council to help with some of the other budget pressures,” he told Labour councillor Joe Ferreria.
“We have to be quite careful – yes, we must be pushing for as much affordability that will work, but we have to be realistic like any developer would and some sites just would not work unless it is built to sell. It is always going to be a challenge.”
However, asked by 853 about West Street, French struck a more defensive tone, with his campaign team pointing out that he was not in the council cabinet in July 2015, when Bexley first decided to consult on plans to sell West Street and Old Farm Park for development.
His campaign team said: “Louie is extremely busy with the General Election campaign, as you would expect, and this story has no links to Eltham whatsoever or his campaign.
“This story is a clear attempt to smear him before an election. This is extremely disappointing as Louie is a good person that is trying to help people locally and the article also ignores that there are two sites in Greenwich Council’s local plan that are similar and do directly impact Eltham and Kidbrooke residents. As a local reporter for Greenwich, we are confident that you will also highlight these two sites to your readers.”
The campaign team did not elaborate any further; however, Greenwich Council’s site allocations map shows the disused Huntsman sports ground on the Blackheath/Kidbrooke border as being suitable for a residential development, while French has also campaigned on the possibility of the Mecca Bingo hall in Eltham Hill being turned into housing.
Eltham’s Labour candidate, Clive Efford, told 853: “Open spaces are part of our local heritage and I have always felt it was my duty to protect them to ensure that they are there for future generations. That is why I worked hard with the local council to secure funding for the Winter Garden – preventing the need to sell metropolitan open land for luxury housing. Eltham needs an MP that is willing to be independent on issues as important as protecting the environment – not just blindly following their party whip no matter what.”
Candidates for the Eltham constituency: Clive Efford (Labour), Louie French (Conservative), Charley Hasted (Liberal Democrat), Steve Kelleher (Brexit), Matt Stratford (Green).
Quotes from the January 2019 cabinet meeting from Tom Bull, who was the Local Democracy Reporter for Bexley.
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