Greenwich councillors reluctantly approved a five-storey block of 20 flats on Greenwich High Road in the borough’s first ever virtual meeting – with the outgoing planning chair branding the building “bland and uninspiring”.
Councillors and officers gathered around their webcams to discuss the proposal on Tuesday afternoon, approving plans to knock down a three-storey office building to replace it with commercial space and homes above.
Five of the flats will be for social rent and two will be offered for shared ownership, with the remaining 13 sold privately, meeting the council’s demand for 35% “affordable” ownership.
Greenwich High Road, once full of industrial buildings, has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Before the meeting, there were 41 objections, which included worries about the impact on the nearby Grade II-listed Mumfords grain silo, the former Miller General Hospital – which saw its last patients in 1974 and is now housing – and a listed house in Burgos Grove.
There were also concerns about traffic, a lack of play space and about it blocking daylight and sunlight to a neighbouring block, Hope Wharf.
But councillors passed it by seven votes to two, following their officers’ recommendation, with one abstention. One councillor, Conservative Geoff Brighty, was unable to vote because connection problems meant he had missed much of the meeting.
In a first for Greenwich, the meeting was streamed on its YouTube channel, placing the planning meeting in competition with Judge Rinder and Countdown for daytime viewers. More virtual meetings will be held over the coming weeks and they will also be streamed, opening up some aspects of councillors’ work for the first time.
Councillors and officers also got to hear live from the scene of the planned development, with neighbour Philip Rowe speaking from next door to the site. With traffic passing behind him, Rowe told councillors that he could not see how the development would only attract three deliveries each day. “Every day I see near misses from vehicles having to divert out into Greenwich High Road during deliveries,” he said. “It’s a constant problem.”
The loss of a mature tree outside the site – which could be seen behind Rowe – was also lamented. “It’s heartbreaking, really, we are being given £25,000 to plant others but it is a beautiful and mature tree,” planning chair Sarah Merrill said.
It was Merrill’s last planning meeting as chair – she is to become cabinet member for regeneration, putting her in charge of policy rather than scrutiny, after next week’s council annual general meeting. She sharply criticised the contribution of the developers’ agent, Mark Westcott, when he said how the developers had originally proposed a six storey block. “We don’t really warm to people telling us how the scheme was,” she said. “My personal view is that I wouldn’t say it enhances the wider area, but there you go.”
Eltham North Labour councillor Linda Bird raised worries about the lack of play space. “I wouldn’t take children on the roof to play,” she said. But Westcott said that play areas on roofs were “not uncommon in London, considering the number of high-density developments”.
He said parks in walking distance included Broadway Fields and Brookmill Park – across Deptford Bridge and inside Lewisham borough, and councillors voiced worries about a lack of road crossings. “Children by and large will be accompanied by adults when crossing the road, I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” Westcott said.
Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher said work needed to be done on stopping new developments from overshadowing one another. The issue with Hope Wharf was put down to the design of that development, which was built on the site of a cash and carry warehouse and approved in 2017. “Clearly in this case, the finger of blame is being place at the other development,” he said, but added he would support the scheme. “I don’t feel there is enough to override an officer recommendation but that doesn’t mean I’m entirely happy with it.”
Labour’s Clive Mardner voted against the scheme, saying: “The lighting is the most important thing to me here – this is a big enough issue to get this tested in some way. A lot of the flats will suffer as a result. We need to take a stand on this particular point.”
However, his colleagues feared a planning inspector would simply approve it anyway, and so either reluctantly supported the scheme or opposed it. Charlton Labour councillor Linda Perks said she thought council officers had “done a great deal to ameliorate the situation”.
Bird abstained, saying she disapproved of the lack of light and added: “The lack of consideration of people who will not be walking, and this lack of space for families, for me is crucial.”
Merrill said: “I think the building is bland and uninspring, it crams as many units as it can onto that piece of land for financial reasons. But at the same time I agree that it would be difficult to sustain our position for a refusal. So I will be voting in favour, but I think the borough has been put in a position, partly because of national planning policy and government policy, to approve a development that it doesn’t like.”
Most of the meeting went smoothly, although totting up votes at the end proved challenging as that was when connection problems struck. “I think he’s dead!,” Thamesmead Moorings councillor Peter Brooks could be heard blurting out when it was noticed that Conservative Geoff Brighty’s connection had dropped. Brighty had to communicate with Merrill by text, but the problems meant he was unable to vote – a fact confirmed by a council legal officer coming onto the line.
The public and press could watch on YouTube after a short delay – about 80 people tuned in at its peak, three times as many as would normally attend a physical meeting. However, people using the YouTube chat facility were unable to take part.
The meeting also enabled councillors to show off a range of backgrounds – from Bird framing her shot with flowers and a suffragette sash to Fletcher using a backdrop of Woolwich Town Hall’s committee rooms as they all were in 1906. It may well be some months before councillors can return to those rooms.
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