Plans to build homes for adults with learning difficulties on the site of a former railway line moved a step forward last night after Greenwich councillors approved plans to deal with pollution on the site.
Neighbours of the site in Royal Hill have contested Greenwich Council’s plans to build a house for four adults and four one-bedroom flats since they were first approved in June 2020. They say that residents and children at the nearby James Wolfe primary school would be put at risk by contaminated soil.
Asbestos, metals and other pollutants have been found on the site, which was once part of a railway line from Greenwich Park to Nunhead, with a station on Stockwell Street. The last trains ran in 1917 and the cutting was filled in during the 1920s – but with no record of what was in the landfill.
The sensitivity of the proposals – plus a threat of legal action from the neighbours – led to councillors having to make a decision on approving plans to deal with the contamination, rather than council officers. The wrangle has already held up construction on a project that was originally due to be completed this spring.
While the Greenwich area planning committee approved the plans, they amended them so a deeper cover of clean soil – 600mm rather than 450mm – would be put in place on top of a geotextile membrane.
After the land was filled in it was used as a car park for the old Greenwich police station, while more recently it was unofficially used as a community garden, despite council disapproval.
One neighbour, Jeremy Button, said the council had “mishandled” concerns from the start – pointing out that the planning report even gave the wrong description of where the site was. He said that work that ha already taken place was not meeting safety standards for dealing with contaminated land.
Another neighbour, Janice Tilling, said that the councillors who approved the scheme 18 months ago had not been able to see the pollution report.
“The word ‘mitigate’ appears a lot,” she said of the planners’ report. “The dictionary definition of ‘mitigate’ means to lessen or make something less severe, not to eradicate.”
Tilling said the ground should be sealed and modular construction used to avoid the need to dig deep foundations. “We are not NIMBYs – this is your land, but please develop it safely.”
Asked by Stephen Brain, the chair of planning, if vegetables were grown on the land, she said: “They had boy scouts getting their badges growing carrots – nobody knew! Ideally, ground investigations would have gone on before. Here we have this [pollution] report, which is very scary.”
When Pat Slattery, a Labour councillor for Greenwich West ward, said that the council’s own experts had found the measures acceptable, Tilling responded that she had sent councillors a story from Ends Report, an environmental law news website, about the issue.
“I don’t know if you had time to read it, they list and say this is really bad – it’s been 90 years and people have been dumping stuff back from then and it’ll make people sick,” she said.
Tilling’s solicitor, Alice Goodenough, said the strategy to deal with the contaminated land was “fatally flawed”, and it was unclear how the depth of 450mm had been decided.
However, Anthony Murphy, Greenwich’s contaminated land officer, said that 450mm was a standard depth used by local authorities.
He was backed up by James Warth, a technical director at Sweco, the company behind the pollution report, who said that 450mm was used for communal landscaping areas, while 600mm was used in private gardens.
The Royal Hill site was “very typical”, he said. “I’ve had 20 years’ working with these contaminants. I’m used to it and understand it is scary for some people, but these aren’t unusual contaminants to find on a site, it’s quite normal.”
The 450mm depth, he said, was decided because “you wouldn’t expect vegetables and plants to be grown” on communal land, while “a two-spade depth” was considered good for back gardens.
Increasing the depth to 600mm would “just mean more material would be used”, he said – adding that the majority of the site would be concreted over anyway.
When it came to the vote, Aidan Smith, another Greenwich West councillor, proposed that the depth be increased to 600mm “so it would be suitable for future use as a garden”. The proposal was passed unanimously.
Two previous attempts to build homes on the site had been thrown out by councillors, and the current plans were scaled back from an original proposal for up to 12 bedrooms.
The former railway line, which also had a station at Blackheath Hill, was built to compete with the route from London Bridge to Greenwich and was completed in 1888. However, the two competing companies merged just a decade later and it was badly affected by the introduction of trams.
A section was later reused to provide a route from Lewisham to Nunhead, but most of the rest of the line has been filled in or demolished. The former Lewisham Road station, on Loampit Vale, survives as the Aladdins Cave junk shop, while part of an old embankment survives in Brookmill Park in Deptford.
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