One of world’s biggest co-living schemes proposed for Woolwich’s Island Site

Thames Polytechnic
The Island Business Centre building – once part of Greenwich University – could be retained under the new plans

A giant co-living space – one of the world’s biggest – could come to Woolwich as part of a reworking of a controversial development in one of the town centre’s most prominent locations.

Developers have written to the town hall asking for an early opinion on the environmental impact on building 660 co-living rooms at the Island Site, much of which has been left in a poor condition since Greenwich University moved out in 2002. If approved, the development would be one of the biggest of its kind on the planet.

The site currently has permission for 310 flats, of which only 22 were for London Affordable Rent with a further 38 for shared ownership – a low level of “affordable” housing which drew anger from local representatives. With co-living schemes not known for “affordable” housing, let alone social housing, this scheme is likely to cause anger in Greenwich’s ruling Labour party.

Co-living, which blends elements of living in a bedsit and staying in a hotel, has become increasingly popular with property investors in recent years. Best compared with living in student halls of residence, they are aimed at young professionals who are happy to share kitchens and other facilities in return for being able to use social facilities on the site.

Woolwich Polytechnic
The scheme was always due to reuse the older Woolwich Polytechnic buildings

The best-known London provider is The Collective, which opened its 550-room tower at Old Oak Common, near Willesden Junction station, in 2016. It followed that up with 705 rooms on the Isle of Dogs, close to Crossharbour station, billed as the biggest in the world when it opened two years ago. Rents start at £1,200 a month. Elsewhere, the schemes have been banned in Dublin because of fears they would increase land prices.

It is not known who is behind the new Woolwich plan, but the site was put on the market last year. Land Registry documents indicate that it is still owned by Powis Street Estates, an investment company which has had interests in Woolwich for many years.

The original plans included demolishing the 1960s buildings constructed for the former Woolwich Polytechnic. But the application to Greenwich Council, first reported on From The Murky Depths, would include keeping more of the buildings, refurbishing them and adding new floors.

Refurbishing office buildings into residential blocks and adding extra floors is currently encouraged under planning law, but the letter does not go into detail about what is planned.

Wellington Street
This the scheme given permission in 2017 by Greenwich councillors, with new buildings on Wellington Street

Plans for a new dance school stay in the proposals as do new public spaces; shop frontages will stay on Thomas Street although it is not clear whether these would be new shops or in refurbished original buildings. A cinema is also included, although with Picturehouse signed up to the Woolwich Exchange development nearby, it is unclear whether this would be a private facility – which The Collective has on the Isle of Dogs – or one open to the public.

Greenwich Council officers will now have to respond with an opinion on the development’s impact on the environment.

But whether it would be acceptable on planning terms to officers or councillors is another matter – particularly with over 22,000 people on the waiting list for social housing. Greenwich planning policy demands 35 per cent “affordable” housing in every large development.

Co-living is a grey area in planning law – a recent application for a smaller scheme in Charlton treated it as a giant HMO. Sadiq Khan’s new London Plan has attempted to bring some order to this – saying that developers must pay local authorities a cash sum that can go towards “conventional affordable housing” elsewhere “that is equivalent to 35 per cent of the units”.

Whether this will be acceptable to councillors who recently threw out 595 rented homes at nearby Macbean Street because of the low levels of “affordable” housing remains to be seen – if the proposal ever reaches a planning committee in the first place.

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