‘Pitiful’: Frustrated councillors rubber-stamp first Convoys Wharf blocks

Convoys Wharf
Plans for the rest of the scheme remain vague, and have only outline approval

The enormous Convoys Wharf development planned for the riverside at Deptford inched forward in the small hours of this morning after Lewisham councillors reluctantly approved detailed proposals for two out of 21 plots of land in a meeting that finished after midnight.

Plans for up to 3,500 homes – including towers of 26, 32 and 40 storeys – business space, a hotel, working wharf, restaurants, 1,840 car parking spaces and a river bus pier were first submitted seven years ago. But the decision to approve an outline of the scheme was made by Boris Johnson as mayor in 2015, after the developer, Hutchison Property Group, complained that Lewisham Council was taking too long to make a decision.

Little has happened in the five years since, but last night saw detailed proposals go before Lewisham’s strategic planning committee for three of the plots. However, it was Lewisham’s first planning meeting to be held virtually and suffered from frequent technical hitches, while councillors voiced frustration at how little they could change the development.

The council’s chair of planning, John Paschoud, called it a night at 12.15am with only two of the plots discussed. The meeting started at 7.30pm, and had another item of business to discuss before moving on to deal with one of south-east London’s biggest developments, on the site of Deptford’s old royal dockyard.

Detailed plans for 456 homes – Plot 8, all for private sale – with retail outlets in blocks of between two and 14 storeys at the centre of the site were approved, along with a scheme to convert the old jetty into a river bus pier with bar and restaurant.

A third application, Plot 15, for 124 “affordable” homes – half of which will actually be shared ownership, – to the south of the site, will be heard at another time. One councillor had already left the meeting so he could get up for work early in the morning.

Plot 8 render
All the homes in Plot 8 will be for private sale

Technical hitches meant councillors were not able to question objectors to the river bus pier, a situation the vice-chair of the Voice 4 Deptford group, Roger Green, called a “shambles”. At one point, a member of the public could be heard saying “oh bollocks”, before his contribution was replaced by white noise. Later on, there was a 20-minute hold-up when a planning officer’s computer crashed.

A minimum of 15 per cent of the homes across the development will be “affordable”: five per cent will be for London affordable rent (about half market rent), with 10 per cent for shared ownership.

Councillors criticised the low levels of “affordable” housing – Paul Bell, the cabinet member for housing, who also sits in Lewisham’s main planning committee, called it “truly pitiful” and got a dig in at the prime minister’s handling of the coronavirus too, adding: “It is a disgraceful legacy of Boris Johnson, although he’s attempting to see the population culled at the moment.”

“We might have all thought that Boris made some of his worst political decisions in 2015, but subsequent history proved us wrong, hasn’t it?”, Paschoud said.

Plot 15
Plot 15 – behind the housing estate on Dacca Street – will have to be decided on another day

Another cabinet member who sits on the committee, Kevin Bonavia, said it was “a shocking level of affordable housing … it was way below what we expected then” and far less than the 50 per cent that Lewisham would expect now.

Councillors were told, however, that because the application is coming through in separate phases, that council officers would be pushing to see more “affordable” homes included, and that rent levels had already been cut on the homes due to come forward last night as a result of their negotiations.

River bus pier render
The river bus pier will also include a bar and restaurant

There was also criticism of a lack of cultural strategy – which would include the developers’ response to proposals to ideas including The Lenox Project, a scheme to build a replica warship on the site. There were repeated questions asked as to why the developer had gone the whole of 2019 without meeting residents to formulate one. A cultural strategy has to be agreed before 250 homes are occupied.

“There is huge community interest in a cultural strategy,” senior Lewisham planning officer Viv Evans told councillors. It was a “pretty poor show” that so little work had been completed, Bonavia said, while another councillor, Liam Curran, said the director of the Lenox Project had not been contacted in two years.

Rushey Green councillor James-J Walsh said: “There have been no solid commitments to anything apart from ‘we will try our best’ – this has been such a problem during this entire development.”

Representing Hutchison Property Group, Barnaby Collins said: “We are trying our best to listen to the local community. We did not get off to a good start but we have a new team. We will continue to listen and learn.”

He shrugged off criticism that Plot 8 would have a private garden at the centre, open to all residents of the development but not to the public. “Each individual plot does have its own private space in the same way as I have a private garden, and it would be unusual to invite the public to my garden.” Questioned by Bell, he said he would go back to the developer to discuss wider public access to the garden, as well as an “unfortunate” lack of disabled access to it.

Voice 4 Deptford’s Green called the development “an anywhere estate, there’s nothing special about it”.

“We’ve got one person to thank for that, and one person alone, Boris Johnson,” Bonavia responded.

Local Evelyn ward councillor Silvana Kelleher reeled off a list of criticisms of the scheme and the developer. She said: “They want us to trust them, but the community feels their trust has been breached – I find all this really embarrassing.”

Convoys Wharf map
Plot 8 is close to the centre of the site. Plot 21 is due to remain a working wharf

As the clock passed midnight, Kelleher appealed to the developer to withdraw the proposal. Frustrated at the lack of immediate response from the developer during the evening, Bonavia, a solicitor, told Collins: “When you come to one of our meetings, you make sure you are able to accept instructions from your client – that’s what I have to do when I go to court.”

All nine councillors voted unanimously for the river bus pier. Plot 8 was backed by six councillors; one voted against, one abstained, another had gone to bed.

A new primary school and healthcare facility are planned, as well as a bus route through the site, with proposals to link the site to the SELCHP incinerator at New Cross to provide heating for the site. The scheme will also eventually see the Thames Path run through it – linking Deptford Green with the Pepys Estate – but not until the development is finished, which will not be for at least 15 years.

While the site is on the border with the borough of Greenwich – and was actually under Woolwich Town Hall’s control until boundaries changed in 1994 – there were no submissions from the neighbouring council.

The land was a royal dockyard from the 16th century until 1869 – its location is said to have influenced the choice of Greenwich for a royal palace. Surviving buildings include the Master Shipwright’s House and Olympia Warehouse. It was later a cattle market, then was used by Rupert Murdoch’s paper importer Convoys until 1999.

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