Morden Wharf towers could ruin views from historic Greenwich, council conservation officer warns

Morden Wharf render
The development would include the first tall buildings on the west side of the Greenwich Peninsula

Update: The development was approved on 7 September. Read on for the story as it was the week before…

Plans for towers of up to 36 storeys at Morden Wharf could dominate views from Greenwich’s world heritage site, the town hall’s conservation officer has warned as councillors prepare to approve or reject plans for 1,500 new homes.

Greenwich Council’s planning board is due to make the long-awaited decision on the former Tunnel Refineries site, close to the Blackwall Tunnel entrance, next Tuesday. Developer U+I plans new housing, business and retail space, a nursery, healthcare facility and a possible new home for the Queen’s rowbarge Gloriana.

The hugely contentious plans for Greenwich Peninsula include 21 per cent of homes for London Affordable Rent, available to people on the council’s waiting list, and 10 per cent for shared ownership – slightly below the 35 per cent “affordable” housing target set by both Greenwich Council and City Hall; although it hits the mark when counted by numbers of rooms.

It includes blocks of 21, 25, 30 and 36 storeys – the first tall buildings on the west side of the peninsula – in part justified by Greenwich Council having given permission for towers of 24, 27 and 32 next door at Enderby Wharf in 2015, as part of since-scrapped plans for a cruise liner terminal. This site, Enderby Place, is awaiting new plans from its new owners, Criterion Capital which has indicated that it still wants to build towers on the site.

Plans for a Thames Clippers riverbus pier – costs to be split between U+I and Criterion – are included while U+I says it will pay £2.5 million for a bus to be diverted into the site, which council officers say is likely to be the cross-river 108 route. A park is also in the plans along with an upgraded Thames Path.

U+I also would pay £4.8m for a new primary school in the area.

Greenwich Park views
Views such as this would be dominated by the development, objectors argue

A host of residents’ groups – both local to the site and beyond – have lined up to oppose the plans, and local MP Matt Pennycook has also urged councillors to refuse the scheme, saying that it is out of scale with its surroundings, too close to industrial uses and that local infrastructure will struggle to cope with a development hemmed in between the river and the Blackwall Tunnel approach. However, its backers say that it will regenerate derelict land and bring jobs and much-needed new housing.

While Greenwich Council planning officers are recommending councillors approve the plan, the town hall’s conservation officer – left unnamed in the report – objected, voicing worries that development would form a “barrier block” and intrude on views from places such as the Old Royal Naval College.

The officer noted that while the Isle of Dogs has been built up considerably in the past three decades, the towers there form an “indistinctive background band” or are part of the “well-defined and composed cluster of tall buildings” that form the Canary Wharf estate.

“The proposal site is within the middle-distance from the world heritage site and, because of the proposed building heights and their position, do not sit comfortably within either group,” the officer adds.

Criterion Capital says it still wants to build towers at Enderby Wharf. U+I’s Morden Wharf towers are faded out in this drawing

“They are not sufficiently far away to form part of the blurred background, nor do they contribute to the overall composition of Canary Wharf. In consequence, the proposed buildings take on greater prominence not only on views out and across the WHS but also on views into it.”

A second council officer – also unnamed – has also raised concerns, according to the report: “They advised that the proposal is out of scale, with no clear justification for the heights proposed and should be significantly reduced in height to be acceptable in townscape terms.

“They further advised that whilst there were no specific issues with the proposed layout, the illustrative scheme presents an unappealing picture, with the blocks coalescing into one monolithic structure, which exacerbates the incongruous scale with the immediate and wider context.”

There have been concerns raised that Greenwich risks following Liverpool in losing its world heritage site status because of overdevelopment. Unesco stripped the north-west city of its status in July following the approval of a new stadium for Everton football club on a Mersey dock and years of development along the riverfront.

However, while Historic England had warned Liverpool’s councillors about the risk to the city’s status, the heritage watchdog declined to offer an opinion on Morden Wharf, instead suggesting that Greenwich consult its own conservation officer.

The World Heritage Site Partnership, which is made up of council officers and representatives from Greenwich’s major tourist attractions, also did not object, saying: “We consider that the development is not in any way more detrimental (and in some ways less) on the views to and from the World Heritage Site than other existing and consented developments along the riverfront and as such will not impact on its outstanding universal value.”

Across the Thames, Tower Hamlets Council did not submit any comments.

Morden Wharf
U+I will pay £2.5m to divert a bus into Morden Wharf if the scheme is approved

Among the objectors, the East Greenwich Residents’ Association said: “Local residents are incredulous that the developers believe that towers rising to 36 storeys are appropriate for the riverside section of the site.

“We think that the use of two unbuilt developments as precedents is unreasonable. The towers of up to 32 storeys at Enderby Wharf were based on the alleged need to fund the controversial cruise terminal.

“The ‘affordable’ element is going to be wedged between the riverside towers and the new road link into Blackwall and Silvertown Tunnels. Is this really appropriate?”

With the development to be built in stages, it added: “The photomontages produced by U+I showing the Morden Wharf towers surrounded by other high rise developments are fanciful. These new property units are going to have a large hinterland of heavy industry sites for the foreseeable future.

“New residents will need to be aware of the amount of noise, dust, vibration and HGV traffic that these businesses generate.”

Morden Wharf
Councillors will decide on the plans on Tuesday

Planning officers themselves conceded that the development would be out of scale, but said that London planning policies, which are under the control of mayor Sadiq Khan, called for sites like Morden Wharf to be used for dense housing development.

“It is considered that the proposal would be out of scale with its existing surroundings and is likely to result in some harm to the local townscape by reason of its overall scale and massing,”.

“However, the London Plan and Greenwich Local Plan require applications to be considered as a whole, and, in this instance, a balance has to be struck between optimising a site’s potential in line with Policies D2 and D3 of the London Plan, taking into account existing and planned levels of infrastructure, and the need to encourage sustainable development on brownfield sites, especially noting that the site falls within an Opportunity Area and a Strategic Development Location.”

Recommending that councillors accept the scheme, officers call it “an efficient use of a brownfield site in a sustainable location”.

As well as the riverbus terminal and bus diversion, U+I would also pay £250,000 towards public realm improvements – although the area outside the site is to undergo huge change with the coming of the Silvertown Tunnel.

Councillors are likely to face a backlash whichever way the decision goes – either from neighbours worried about overdevelopment in an area with poor infrastructure, or political pressure to kickstart redevelopment and find ways of housing at least some of the 23,000 people on the borough’s waiting list. A decision may well not just follow political lines, but also fault lines within the bitterly divided Greenwich Labour group.

The planning board is due to discuss the plan at Woolwich Town Hall on Tuesday evening.

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