Controversial plans to build a 27-storey tower block in front of Woolwich’s Tesco store have been thrown out by the communities secretary Robert Jenrick, 18 months after Greenwich Council rejected a proposal for an 804-home scheme.
Jenrick’s decision follows a planning inspector’s report which heavily criticised the eight-year-old Tesco store and the council’s Woolwich Centre HQ. Paul Griffiths said that the supermarket, which won the Carbuncle Cup for poor architecture in 2014, had resulted in a “profoundly negative impact” on the area.
The 2007 decision by Greenwich Council to approve the development, which also included housing behind the store, was “a terrible mistake”, he added.
Meyer Homes, which bought the land from Tesco in 2015, had hoped to build the tower – of entirely private homes – and three other blocks of between nine and 16 storeys behind the store. It sought to complete the Woolwich Central development by building the tower and homes behind the store – but the inspector said it would “compound the error” of the Tesco store and Woolwich Centre.
Councillors unanimously blocked the scheme in November 2018, while the town hall’s own planning officers said the proposal was “unacceptably dominating and overbearing to General Gordon Square and the surrounding townscape”. London mayor Sadiq Khan chose not to intervene, and Meyer took the decision to a planning inspector, who held a public inquiry last October.
Jenrick said he agreed with the inspector’s damning report that the planned tower would be “unacceptably dominating and overbearing to General Gordon Square and the surrounding townscape, it would dominate General Gordon Square and its overbearing presence would cause harm to its setting and significance”. He added that it would “dwarf the Grade II listed Equitable House, undermining its status, which would be harmful to its setting and its significance”, while the effect on locally-listed buildings was also a factor in his decision.
Wednesday’s news came on the same day that Jenrick rejected plans for 771 homes in Charlton, upholding Greenwich Council’s masterplan for the new Charlton Riverside development area, which is due to see up to 8,000 new homes.
The two victories for the council will come as a hefty vindication for Sarah Merrill, the councillor who chaired the planning committee which rejected both schemes, and who is now the council’s cabinet member for regeneration.
In its evidence, the council had said “the harm to Woolwich town centre in this important location would be severe and permanent”.
However, the report poses questions over the council’s outline approval of a 27-storey tower in 2007, along with what became the Woolwich Centre, the Tesco store and the Woolwich Central housing development.
In his conclusions, Paul Griffiths, the planning inspector, wrote: “I find it very surprising that the impact of the tall building … on the setting of the Grade I listed Royal Brass Foundry [in the Royal Arsenal] was seemingly of little importance to anyone, including English Heritage (as it was), when the impact on the Royal Artillery Barracks was obviously an issue.”
He said the buildings that were completed – including the council HQ and Tesco – had a “profoundly negative impact” on the area.
“Phase 1 (the civic centre and the library) is from what I saw grossly out of scale with its surroundings, dwarfing the Grade II* listed town hall on the opposite side of Wellington Street. It is difficult to understand what, if anything, the design took from its context,” he wrote.
“Phase 2 (the Tesco store and associated housing) is of a similar (wholly inappropriate) scale to Phase 1 but the massive bulk and incongruous design of the building is all the more strident because it figures prominently in views from and around General Gordon Square, across the vacant Phase 3 site.
“Moreover, it has a most unsatisfactory relationship with the Church of St Peter and its associated Presbytery, both Grade II listed buildings, which sit on the opposite side of Woolwich New Road from its flank.”
In its submission, the council said that “circumstances have changed significantly since then”, including changes to government planning policy, the arrival of the DLR and imminent arrival of Crossrail, and the revamp of General Gordon Square in 2011.
The inspector said the site of the tower – currently green space – “needed to be developed” to “mask the heinous impact” of the Tesco store.
However, he added the proposed tower would “be of a height that would dwarf anything around it, existing or proposed. In particular, it would loom somewhat oppressively over General Gordon Square … the incongruity of its height would continue along the unfortunate path set by the Phase 1 and Phase 2 developments”.
The inspector said the development would harm locally-listed buildings, intrude on its neighbours and a phase of the scheme behind the Tesco store would “fail to provide adequate living conditions for its occupiers”.
But he ruled that the development was legally acceptable in “affordable” housing terms – despite only 186 of the 804 homes (23.1 per cent) being classed as “affordable” housing, a definition which includes both London Affordable Rent (about half market rents) and shared ownership. 134 homes (16.6 per cent) would have been for London Affordable Rent, 52 (6.4 per cent) would have been shared ownership. “Of the former category, 34 would be three-bedroom units, suitable for families. In view of the pressing need for this type of affordable housing in the borough, this would be a substantial and important public benefit,” he said.
A similar Meyer scheme next to the Tesco store in Lewisham – this time including a 34-storey tower – was approved by Jenrick in January after a public inquiry, despite it only consisting of 20% “affordable” housing.
Meyer Homes can seek a judicial review of Jenrick’s ruling on Woolwich, or it can now submit a new application
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