Greenwich’s chair of planning was ticked off by a former council leader on Tuesday night after he clashed with residents over what new buildings on the Charlton Riverside should look like.
Labour councillor Stephen Brain challenged members of local lobby groups who are insisting that a masterplan drawn up to redevelop the area, involving building thousands of homes but keeping tall buildings to a minimum, should be followed closely.
But Dave Picton, who led Greenwich Council for two years in the late 1980s, said he was “surprised” that Brain was not following a ruling made last year which defined 10 storeys as “high rise” for the area.
The exchanges took place as councillors on the planning board met to decide whether 188 homes in blocks of up to nine storeys should be built by the developer Aitch on land behind the derelict Victoria pub, close to the Thames Barrier.
Last week, the same planning board rejected a housing association’s plans to build 67 affordable-rent homes after local lobby groups complained about the development’s seven-storey height.
Those same residents returned to the town hall last night to object to Aitch’s plans, which only include 40 affordable-rent homes and 10 for shared ownership – five percentage points short of the council’s target of 35 per cent “affordable” homes.
But in a meeting disrupted by Covid restrictions – the government has banned councils from holding their most important meetings online, despite the continuing pandemic – Brain and the residents started to fall out.
The masterplan suggests a maximum height of 10 storeys in the area to differentiate it from the Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal, and to complement the low-rise nature of the wider Charlton area. But in the area where Aitch wants to build the new homes, the guidelines suggests three to six storeys. A further complication is that ground-floor housing is not allowed because of the risk of flooding around the Thames Barrier.
Roden Richardson, speaking for the Charlton Society, said that allowing a nine-storey block would be a “major departure” from the masterplan.
The “unacceptable heights” would set an “extremely worrying precedent” for the rest of the riverside area, he said, resulting in even denser development and the need for additional infrastructure.
But Brain said: “What special character does the area have currently? From the Woolwich Road down to the river – in terms of scrapyards and people who will take your wheels off your car if you stand still for more than five minutes.
“I don’t think this development, in my experience, is high rise. Any definition in any architecture book would define high rise as being above 11 storeys.”
Richardson responded: “The character is Charlton as a whole, not just the riverside.”
“But the application is for the riverside,” Brain said.
An irritated-sounding Richardson said: “We’re going back a long way with the creation of the masterplan – one of the key points of the masterplan was the riverside’s integration with Charlton as a whole.”
Brain replied: “I don’t want to be argumentative, but I’m going to be because I’m the chair, but in that case you should be building three-bedroom Victorian houses. Or from what I was hearing last week, perhaps it should be an estate of bungalows? Or bungalows on stilts because they wouldn’t comply with the environmental safety regulation.”
He then cut Richardson off to move on to the next speaker.
David Gayther, from the Charlton Central Residents’ Association – which covers streets about half a mile from the proposed development – said he found Brain’s comments “disturbing”.
Denying that local lobby groups were looking for “three storey Victorian housing”, he said that the masterplan called for “reasonably high-density, mixed use, medium height development that promotes quite a different community … a blank canvas on which to build a new Charlton that avoids some of the mistakes of Woolwich”.
“I do understand masterplans,” Brain shot back at the end of Gayther’s contribution.
Picton referred to a planning inspector’s findings when plans for 10-storey blocks off Anchor and Hope Lane were thrown out last year. “The inspector differentiated between Greenwich [Peninsula] and Woolwich, and Charlton riverside.
“He said explicitly that Charlton riverside was urban, it wasn’t metropolitan. In terms of height, he said very clearly that 10 storeys on Charlton riverside is high rise. That view was endorsed by the secretary of state and I’m surprised that you don’t seem to have picked that up.”
Contradicting his earlier remark, Brain said: “I thought mid-rise were defined as being between five and 12 storeys, and high-rises were 13 floors and above, and that’s my definition that I tend to work to.”
The levels of “affordable” housing also came under scrutiny, although one member of the planning board, Abbey Wood Labour councillor Clive Mardner, had to have London Affordable Rent levels explained to him – even though one of his other roles on the council is chairing the housing scrutiny panel.
London Affordable Rent is a policy of London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. It sets levels at about half of market rent – higher than council or social rents offered to existing tenants, which are about 40 per cent of market rent – but are available to people on universal credit. The housing charity Shelter has questioned whether London Affordable Rent is set at a fair level, but it is usually the cheapest rent available.
When questioned why the development did not offer social rents, Greenwich’s principal planner Jillian Halford said that London Affordable Rent was “certainly affordable to borough residents”.
“We may disagree on that,” Mardner said. Greenwich Council itself uses London Affordable Rent for its new Greenwich Builds properties – schemes which Mardner has voted in favour of.
Asked by Glyndon councllor Sandra Bauer why “affordable” housing levels had dropped from 35 to 30 percent, Halford said that the cut had been made to keep the development viable after original plans for 10 storeys were dropped.
Brenda Taggart from Charlton Together, another lobby group, questioned the developer’s attitude to “affordable” housing after a series of upward and downward revisions, saying it “has more elasticity than my old grandma’s knickers”.
The planning meeting had to end after two hours because of Covid restrictions – the cramped 115-year-old Woolwich Town Hall chamber is he only meeting room fitted with cameras so meetings can be viewed remotely, and councillors can only meet for two hours with a 15-minute break to air the chamber.
The restrictions have played havoc with Greenwich’s planning meetings, which had been held online with only a few hitches until communities secretary Robert Jenrick and a court ruling stopped the practice for councils’ decision-making meetings.
Councillors will hear from the developer and resume their deliberations on 20 July.
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