Greenwich councillors swallow doubts to back 1,750 homes on former Arsenal football ground

Plumstead-West Thamesmead
The scheme is inspired by Peabody’s traditional “mansion blocks”

A major development of 1,750 new homes on land which was once home to Arsenal Football Club has been given the go-ahead by Greenwich councillors – despite strong reservations about the lack of local schools and healthcare facilities.

The former industrial site at Griffin Manor Way, close to Plumstead bus garage, was the venue for the Gunners’ first Football League match – and the first in the south of England – in 1893. The side, then called Woolwich Arsenal, then played at the Manor Ground for 20 years before moving to Highbury because of low attendances.

The land, on the edge of Thamesmead, has been in industrial use for decades. Councillors last night backed plans by Berkeley Homes and the housing association Peabody to build new homes there – and on an adjacent site directly behind the bus garage – in blocks of up to 17 storeys next to Thameside, Isis and Belmarsh prisons.

Detailed permission for 915 homes on the Plumstead-West Thamesmead development was given last night, along with outline permission for a further 835 more – meaning the developers will have to come back in future with a detailed proposal.

Across the whole development, 24.5 per cent of the homes will be for London Affordable Rent (about half market rents) with 15.4 per cent for shared ownership. All the “affordable” housing will be built in the project’s first phase – an aspect one councillor compared to emotional blackmail as he criticised the scheme.

Plumstead West Thamesmead render
Councillors praised the amount of green space in the plans

Councillors praised the design of the scheme – based around the mansion blocks that Peabody is known for – and the generous amounts of green space, comparing it to Berkeley’s Kidbrooke Village development. But they were unhappy about the lack of direct funding for local infrastructure – in particular just £1 million for local healthcare facilities, which would be provided over two miles away at the Gallions Reach health centre, rather than the £2.6 million asked for by the local clinical commissioning group.

Last week it emerged that Transport for London had forced the developers to pay £1 million towards new bus services – twice what Greenwich Council had been prepared to settle for – after initially asking for £1.8 million. The two sides had disagreed on demand for buses, particularly from people wishing to use Crossrail at Woolwich. TfL had also wanted the development, close to Plumstead station, to be car-free – instead it offers 497 car parking spaces.

Instead £5 million will go towards investing in new industrial facilities for Thamesmead, while £2.4 million will be spent on a Greenwich Council scheme to turn the former Plumstead Power Station into a business centre – a move that will fuel concerns that the council prioritises pet projects over everyday infrastructure.

Councillors were told that money for local facilities would eventually come from the community infrastructure levy (CIL) placed on the private homes to be built. A portion of CIL is used for neighbourhood projects – 15 per cent in Greenwich, it is higher in other boroughs – while some is kept for larger-scale schemes, such as fitting out the Woolwich Crossrail station.

Planning officers had recommended approving the scheme, but with the report to councillors containing a list of misgivings, such as the number of single-aspect homes, Conservative Nigel Fletcher observed that the recommendation appeared to come “if not through gritted teeth, then more finely balanced than normal”. But Victoria Geoghegan, the council’s senior officer in charge of planning, said that while there were issues with the proposal, “ not every scheme ticks every box” and the plans represented “a catalyst for change”. “Hand on heart, we think this is a scheme that can be recommended favourably,” she said.

Plumstead-West Thamesmead render
A senior planning officer said the scheme would be a catalyst for wider redevelopment

Neighbours in Plumstead were not convinced. Stewart Christie, speaking for the Positive Plumstead Project, said it felt like a “squandered opportunity” to improve facilities in the area such as public realm, schools and nurseries. Questioning the £5 million for replacement industrial uses, he said: “The other options are also owned by Peabody, whose units have remained vacant for nearly two decades. Are we really demanding £5 million for an applicant to build on their own land?”

Pointing out that the power station project had already had funding from City Hall and that it was unclear how much more cash would be needed, he added: “The money could be spent on radical and beneficial changes for Plumstead, now. £7.4 million with nothing going to the wider area is not the best use of developer funds.”

Fellow resident Maria Freeman said access to Plumstead railway station had not even been considered: “There’s a very narrow entrance to the station, there’s going to be potentially several hundred [new passengers] using that station and there’s not going to be the access to it. It feels as if facilities for current residents may be at risk.”

Google Streetview image from the Ridgeway
A Google Streetview image of the site as it is now, looking over Nathan Way (Image: Google)

Speaking in favour of the scheme, the cabinet member for regeneration, Sarah Merrill, told councillors that “there was no magic answer” to issues such as access to the station, but there “is pressure on us to develop a large number of [housing] units”. Creating local employment opportunities could reduce demand on Plumstead station, she said.

Abbey Wood councillor Denise Hyland, who led the council for four years until 2018, said: “People in the east of the borough will want to see health and education facilities and will want to see money spent on Plumstead High Street, and it’s really important that politicians and officers get that message about the disquiet there. It does feel there is a mismatch in the understanding of the public about what we can and can’t do with that money.”

Alex Lifschutz, of the architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, said the 17-storey tower, behind the bus garage, would mark a “gateway” that would mark the transformation of Western Way – part of the Spine Road dual carriageway that runs through Thamesmead – into a “handsome street” with cycle lanes, tree planting and room for a long-planned bus rapid transit system.

He said the homes closest to the prisons would have screening in place to prevent residents from looking into the institutions, but to keep light coming in.

Plumstead West Thamesmead render
Councillors criticised the lack of provision for schools and healthcare facilities

Karl Whiteman, an executive director of Berkeley Group, said the project was the result of three years of collaboration with Peabody and council officers. “Kidbrooke Village and the Royal Arsenal are both schemes we’re very proud of, where we’ve transformed difficult locations and this is a great opportunity to do that,” he said. Appealing to councillors, he said: “Your decision will secure very significant investment and benefits for the borough and the local community.”

Greenwich West councillor Maureen O’Mara was less taken with the scheme. “Obviously more housing is needed in the borough, but a successful new development needs facilities around it, like a primary school, a nursery, and health facilities. Yet when we’ve asked abou them, those things are coming, but not yet. Mention is made of new transport – but Crossrail is maybe not going to arrive for two years.

“And there is a prison here – three prisons. The architect has mentioned there would be screening – but it’s a prison. One is a top security UK prison. Is this a place that can sustain a community like this?”

When it came to the vote, councillors praised the design but O’Mara joined Fletcher in voting against. “Housing blocks don’t produce thriving communities on their own if they’ve not got the infrastructure built around it. You’ve done that in the Royal Arsenal and Kidbrooke, so let’s see it here tonight.”

Eltham South councillor Fletcher said he had “gone in three directions” on “a very complex and difficult” application. “I do feel there is a degree of whatever the planning equivalent of emotional blackmail is; we all want to see more affordable housing and we want to see more developers putting these levels of affordable housing in their developments,” he said, calling Peabody “one of the good guys”.

“That doesn’t mean that we can set aside the concerns about it, I think this is too much on the side of overdevelopment,” he added. “We can’t be sure it is supported with sufficient infrastructure. With some degree of regret, I can’t support this. There’s a lot that developers can learn from here but I do feel it falls short.”

But the scheme passed by five votes to three. Charlton councillor Linda Perks said she was disappointed with the number of homes for London Affordable Rent and the number of three-bedroom homes, but having seen the viability assessment – which states how much money the developer would make – she said she had been convinced there was “no other option”. The assessment states the developers would make just over 3 per cent profit – some £19 million – rather than the 15-20 per cent typically demanded.

“I am concerned that we do take steps as a council that we look at a plan to ensure that infrastructure for healthcare and schools, and access to Plumstead station, are brought forward as soon as possible. There are quite a lot of drawbacks but on balance it’s better for the council and the people of Greenwich that we approve it.”

But Hyland said Greenwich would lose any appeal against a refusal, and defended the lack of healthcare facilities, saying that surgeries were now concentrated in hubs that serve larger populations. “I can understand why they want to put money into Gallions rather than build another health centre locally,” she said.

Planning chair Stephen Brain said councillors voting against must have firm grounds, but admitted to “mixed feelings”. “I’m not convinced by the idea that you can ship the kids out to a school because there isn’t the space to build one,” he said. Adding that Kidbrooke Village was an “outstanding” development, he said he was “just about voting in favour”.

  • Councillors also voted unanimously in favour of 32 council homes on the site of sheltered accommodation in east Greenwich, after deferring a decision four weeks ago for a site visit. The project, which replaces the former Sam Manners House, had been opposed by neighbours as being overbearing.

    Andrew Blundy, a trustee of the next-door Hatcliffe almshouses, told the committee that he was concerned about the development blocking sunlight and daylight into the garden, and that he had not had a response to questions about it.

    Denise Hyland, the council’s former Labour leader, told him that while she was sorry he had not had a response, “if you can afford to get a planning consultant in to do your case, you would be wise to do so”. She added: I think this is a perfectly acceptable development, I congratulate the architects and welcome 100 per cent affordable social housing.”

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