Greenwich councillors approved plans for a 15-storey tower outside Woolwich’s Tesco store last night – with the chair of planning refusing to either endorse or oppose the scheme.
The town hall’s planning board backed the scheme by Meyer Homes, which will replace the green space outside the 10-year-old supermarket, by four votes to three. It will contain 134 flats as well as retail and office space.
Planning chair Gary Dillon and fellow councillor David Gardner, who represented the area until the last council election, both abstained.
Historic England had raised concerns about the scheme’s impact on historic buildings such as the Royal Artillery Barracks, while one local resident, Andrew Blundy, said the tower would act as “a giant sundial” on General Gordon Square.
Another local, Gaye Rose, said: “I want you to know how pig-ugly that building is. It’s as if they’ve come from a Soviet bloc country. I know we’re a poor working-class area but I don’t see why this should be inflicted on us.”
Dillon and Gardner could have overturned the scheme, which replaced plans for a 27-storey tower that were thrown out by a planning inspector two years ago. But councillors on Greenwich’s planning board were placed under pressure after being warned that the borough was not meeting nationally-set homebuilding targets – about 2,800 new homes are supposed to be built in the borough each year.
Under planning law, this shortfall means the town hall has to prove serious harm would be caused by the development and Gardner said he was doubtful that the council would be able to sustain an appeal.
As well as the tower, another seven blocks of between nine and 16 storeys between the store and John Wilson Street, which will contain 590 flats, were also approved.
Last night’s decision marks the beginning of the end of a saga which began in 2007 when Tesco won approval for its store, hundreds of new homes as well as a new HQ for the council, the Woolwich Centre. This included outline plans for a 27-storey block in front of the store, to be built on the temporary green space.
Tesco withdrew from residential development and sold part of the unfinished Woolwich Central scheme to Meyer Homes in 2015, along with other sites in Lewisham and Dartford. But Meyer’s detailed plans for the 27-storey block were rejected by councillors three years later. A planning inspector upheld their decision, while also criticising the Tesco store as a “terrible mistake” that should be hidden from view.
Just 113 of the homes will be for London Affordable Rent – about half market rent and available to those on waiting lists. Another 50 will be for shared ownership, making 23 per cent “affordable” housing.
It took more than three hours for the planning board to hear the evidence and come to a decision. Sam Littlewood, a Labour councillor for Woolwich Arsenal, pleaded with his colleagues to reject the scheme.
“The proposal will irreversibly damage General Gordon Square as a central meeting point,” he said, adding that neighbours in the blocks already built would lose their access to daylight.
Recalling the criticism of the Tesco store, which won the Carbuncle Cup for bad architecture, he said: “My fear is we are making the same mistake again on a development that will impact Woolwich for many years ahead.”
Kevin Veness, of the local lobby group Speak Out Woolwich, said that the planning inspector who rejected the 27-storey scheme had called the neighbouring Maritime House tower, built in the early 1960s, as “not a happy precedent”. He said: “We need to do something to hide the Tesco, but this isn’t it.”
He criticised the quality of the housing saying that 201 flats would be single-aspect – with windows only on one side – with another 146 “very sweetly termed ‘enhanced single aspect’”.
Veness added: “We’re down at 23 per cent affordable housing, your policy is 35 per cent, you might as well have not bothered printing that – all that happens is that good old financial viability comes rising to the rescue.”
Another objector, Andy Brockman, said “a triangular 15 storey building plonked down does not work with the grain of the landscape”, adding: “The carbuncle of the year might be obscured by the Tesco Toblerone.”
But Tim Quick, representing Formation, the architects behind the scheme, said that “open public space” was the principle behind the new tower. “Large areas on that plan are no-build zones,” he said of the space outside Tesco. “We are very constrained about which parts you can actually build on.”
Quick said the shape of the building would “create public space” to replace the green space outside Tesco.
“I suggest that the public space that we are proposing is generous and is about two-thirds of the area of General Gordon Square. It’s in a very, very important location with floods of people coming through so it’s a marvellous place to open up a piece of public realm.”
Simon Fowler, of Meyer’s agent Avison Young, said that the green outside Tesco had become “a well-used public space. That will become used by something else which over time will become equally valued.”
But one councillor, Maisie Richards Cottell, suggested the public space would be left without daylight much of the time while Dillon said “a large part of the proposed landscaping is the footpath from General Gordon Square to Tesco which already exists”.
When it came to a decision, divisions in the ruling Labour group were exposed, with West Thamesmead councillor Chris Lloyd making a dig at his colleagues’ refusal in June of the Shepherd Leas development close to Falconwood station.
“We could spend the next four to eight years waiting for a perfect application – there was a pretty good one a few months ago – but it’s not going to come,” he said.
Former council leader Denise Hyland declared that the Tesco green was “a dog toilet, a bomb-site piece of land and we need to do something with it”.
She added: “We have roughly 26,000 families on the housing list. This will take 113 families who will be paying London Affordable Rent if this is passed tonight.”
But Richards Cottell said: “There is limited land to build on in this borough so we do need to leverage the land we have left to its maximum capability. 23 per cent affordable housing is not enough. There are not enough three-bedroom homes. General Gordon Square is a civic space, we should think about what buildings are framing that space.”
And Creekside councillor Majella Anning said: “I dont think that the housing waiting list is going to be much affected by this particular building.”
However, when it looked as if the scheme would be thrown out, Gardner announced that he found the decision “extremely difficult”. He said: “We need to be mindful that the application has been willing to go to appeal and there would be a different inspector. The degree of latitude is quite small. We agreed to the 23 per cent [‘affordable’ housing] previously so it’s difficult to object right now.
“I don’t think I can support it but I can’t object so I will abstain.”
Unusually for a major scheme, Dillon did not give a verdict from the chair, and he also abstained in the vote. Asked afterwards why, he said that he believed issues with the landscaping could be addressed and that “I echo the concerns about going to appeal considering the number of changes that have been made.”
Lloyd, Hyland, Kidbrooke Park councillor Sandra Bauer and Charlton Hornfair’s Clare Burke-McDonald voted for the scheme, while Richards Cottell, Anning and Pat Greenwell, the Conservative councillor for Eltham Town, voted against.
The councillors added a condition that Meyer would have to incorporate the imperial “VR” seal from the old post office that stood on the corner of Thomas Street until 2011, intended as a nod towards the Royal Artillery’s Grand Depot which occupied much of the site until the early 1960s.
Transport for London had asked for £944,000 towards the proposed Cycleway 4 through Woolwich, but the council only secured £150,000 from the developer. Littlewood said the sum “does not support our net zero aims”. Another £479,467 will go towards offsetting carbon emissions as the development will not be carbon neutral, an aspect criticised by some of the councillors.
But £1,926,000 will go towards new healthcare facilities; another £726,100 will go to the council’s Greenwich Local Labour and Business job brokerage, a common feature of planning approvals in the borough. The scheme will create 357 construction jobs and 102 jobs in the future, council officers said.
The scheme will now have to go before the London mayor Sadiq Khan for final approval.
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