Lewisham councillors back 110 social-rent homes five weeks after High Court defeat

Mais House render
The City Corporation plans 110 homes on the site of Mais House

Plans for 110 social-rent homes have been approved by a Lewisham planning committee just five weeks after the High Court overturned its original decision to back the project.

The City of London Corporation’s plans to redevelop part of the Sydenham Hill Estate were approved by five votes to one on Tuesday night.

Now Mais House, an empty four-storey block of 63 flats designed for the over-60s, will be replaced with 110 homes for social rent in buildings of up to seven storeys. Half of the homes would be let to people on Lewisham’s waiting list, the other half for the City’s own housing register. Sydenham Hill is one of 12 estates that the Square Mile’s local authority runs across London.

Lewisham had originally approved the scheme last August, but a local pressure group, the Friends of Mais House, campaigned for a judicial review, saying that the council failed to take into account the effect the development would have on the neighbourhood, which includes a conservation area.

Last month Mrs Justice Lang said the council had made “significant errors”, including not taking into account its own conservation officer’s advice, and quashed its original decision.

Mais House via Google Streetview
Mais House in 2014. The building is now empty and boarded up (Image: Google Streetview)

While campaigners had celebrated their court win, they said they were “disappointed” after Lewisham moved quickly to approve the scheme once again, with councillors and members of the public having to scrutinise 42 new documents posted online in the week before Tuesday’s meeting. Over 200 objections were received, with just one expression of support.
A new, longer report from planning officers included more information on heritage and significantly more input from the council’s senior conservation officer, tree officer, ecological regeneration manager  and sustainability manager. It also referenced the reasons for the council’s loss in court.  Several issues were raised by officers including the “insensitively high” proposed six-storey building in the development and the “detrimental” loss of trees and green space.  

A major issue of contention throughout has been the loss of 19 trees, some mature. The City plans to plant 45, but Lewisham’s principal planning officer acknowledged that it would take years to replace the benefits of the current trees. The committee agreed to strengthen a condition to the development that would mean the planted trees would be monitored in perpetuity. 
Kieran Rushe, the planning consultant representing the City, denied campaigners’ charges that they had not been listened to. He said: “This is reflected in over 40 separate consultation events, including a regular residents steering group. Over the course of the consultation period, there have been many changes to the scheme in response to feedback.

“The height was reduced and the number of homes went from 150 originally down to 110. We’ve also removed the previously proposed basement carpark and redevelopment of the ball court as a direct result of listening to residents.” 

Randall Anderson, for the City, said that if the scheme was reduced any more it would “not be viable”.  

“This is at the very edge of what we can afford,” he said.  

Sydenham Hill render
A view down Sydenham Hill with the new development in place

Helen Kinsey, a member of the Friends group, spoke about the felling of “much-loved” trees that she said children played in, adding that the pandemic had shown the importance of green space amid a mental health crisis. She also said there had not been enough time for residents to review the new planning documents.

She said: “Residents feel a grave injustice regarding the consultation process, which we feel has been a tick-box exercise. We urge you to review the scale and height.” 

Kinsey, who said she had twice been homeless herself, insisted that the community backed social housing but the estate could not support so many new homes.

Rushey Green Labour councillor James-J Walsh, who sits on the committee, pressed the objectors on what they expected from the City in terms of consultation.
He said: “My heart goes out tonight to the 10,000 people on our waiting list who are living in hostels. You mentioned the mental health crisis and one of the things that is objectively and extraordinarily adding to that is the amount of people that are living in hostel accommodation, cramped conditions, and have no security of tenure.” 

Mais House trees
These trees will be felled as part of the development

Kinsey said: “There needs to be a far more progressive, visionary way of thinking how we can build social housing in London, not simply cramming us all on top of each other.  

“I’m totally with you, I really think that we need social housing, but in this particular area five storeys would be more acceptable and [we should] keep those trees that the children play in. The application simply needs a bit of tweaking.” 

Bellingham councillor Alan Hall addressed the committee, saying that local MP Ellie Reeves had asked the committee to reject the application so planning officers could work with residents to come up with a solution. He said that Lewisham should remember Mrs Justice Lang’s judgment, and said: “When she did that, she said that basically the council had acted unlawfully.” 

“Who exactly is in favour of this application?” he asked.

Brockley councillor Stephen Penfold, who voted against the application, raised concerns about why so little time was given between the publication of the documents and the decision date.  

The council’s legal advisor told him: “It is the view of the council and it is my view that those documents have been made available in sufficient time, within what it required by legislation.” 

He added that it was a “matter to take up with national government”.

LDRS logoGráinne Cuffe is the Local Democracy Reporter for Lewisham. The Local Democracy Reporting Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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