Plans to build a new leisure centre in the heart of Woolwich were finally approved last night – but with councillors voicing concerns about its cost and the lack of new council housing in new residential towers that will come with it.
The new centre, on General Gordon Square, has been planned for at least a decade and will replace the worn-out Waterfront Leisure Centre, which is nearly 40 years old. It will come with five residential blocks of up to 19 storeys with a total of 482 new homes.
Councillors swallowed their doubts about the new blocks because most of the new homes will be sold privately to help fund the leisure centre, which is set to cost £82 million. Greenwich Council has teamed up with the developer Hill Residential and work could start early next year.
Buildings being demolished include shops on Vincent Road and 24 council homes at Troy Court. These will be replaced with 51 new council homes – a figure councillors said was too low. Another 117 homes will be for shared ownership.
The frontage of the Bull pub will be kept, and planning chair Gary Dillon got his colleagues to approve a condition to make sure ground-floor features on the pub’s exterior will remain.
One councillor, David Gardner (Labour, Greenwich Peninsula) said he feared that Woolwich was “becoming rather like Lewisham” with a proliferation of towers recently approved.
Earlier this month a 15-storey block was approved for the green outside Tesco on General Gordon Square, while in another council-backed scheme, Woolwich Exchange, five towers of up to 23 storeys are due to be built around the old covered market between Spray Street and Plumstead Road.
Conservative councillor Pat Greenwell said the new towers “could be Lego blocks – we’re going to have Lego blocks everywhere”.
But the planning board unanimously lined up behind the scheme after being warned by Aidan Smith, the cabinet member for regeneration, that rising costs mean the council might not be able to afford a revised scheme at a later date.
“Voting against will condemn the residents of Woolwich to having to use the Waterfront for many years,” he said.
There were 38 objections to the scheme, with concerns about its effects on the nearby Ramgarhia Sikh temple. Jeet Channa, of the gurdwara, said that the access road to the site threatened to disturb quiet prayers and could also disrupt weddings and funerals. Councillors imposed a condition to ensure a traffic and construction management plan would be thrashed out.
Majella Anning (Labour, Creekside) was the most vociferous critic of the amount of social housing, saying that just 5 per cent would be new council homes, once the flats to replace Troy Court had been taken into account.
“This is a piece of land that should be leveraged by the council for a much greater number of social-rent units,” she said. “It is very difficult for local people to understand the level of social-rent homes in this development.”
Jeremy Smalley, Greenwich’s deputy director of regeneration and property, told the councillors that if the scheme was entirely made up of council homes, it would set the town hall’s housing budget back £350 million.
Instead, he said, the new leisure centre was being funded by a combination of the private housing, some land sales and borrowing. Planning documents indicate that the sale of the Waterfront site could be part of this.
David Gardner (Labour, Greenwich Peninsula) questioned the cost of the leisure centre, saying that Hackney Council’s new flagship facility – the Britannia centre in Hoxton – had cost £52m. At £82m, the Woolwich centre “does seem to be the highest price of any non-Olympic venue in the country”, Gardner said.
Smalley said that it was impossible to compare individual schemes but conceded: “It’s an expensive leisure centre.” He added that rising inflation meant the cost was already going “the wrong way”.
Gardner said the scheme was “an overdevelopment of Woolwich town centre” but “it is still an improvement on the current site, which is a large car park”.
“I happen to think the estimate for the leisure centre is very high at £82 million but the current centre is shot through and we can’t keep patching and repairing it,” he said. The new, bigger centre would be “a significant improvement albeit it must have gold taps in to get to £82 million,” he added.
Anning said the scheme had been “misconceived from the beginning”. She said she would only vote for it if there was a “cast-iron guarantee” that if Hill was found to be making a bigger profit on the scheme, then there would be a commitment to build more social housing.
Victoria Geoghegan, the council’s assistant director of planning, said any extra money would go to “the type of housing that will get people off the waiting list” – not shared ownership homes – and Anning agreed to back it.
Maisie Richards Cottell (Labour, East Greenwich), said that the leisure centre was the most important element. “If I could change the housing offer I would, but it’s not what we’re here for – it’s like the cake with the cherry on top, you’ve got to vote for the cake.”
While the inclusion of so many shared ownership homes under the “affordable” label – something enshrined in national planning rules – came in for criticism, Clare Burke-McDonald (Labour, Charlton Hornfair), spoke up for them.
“We are in a housing crisis that not only impacts those on our housing waiting list but thousands of people in vulnerable positions in the private rented sector,” she said.
“As a young person who lives in insecure hosting in the private rented sector, I think developments like this are not only a good thing but essential.”
Labour’s Denise Hyland said the scheme would provide a “state of the art leisure centre” compared with the “state of the Ark centre at the Waterfront”. All seven councillors voted to support the scheme.
There was little questioning on the leisure centre itself, which will have a training pool, a leisure pool and 25m main pool on its ground floor. Burke-McDonald sought assurances that the glazing would protect customers’ privacy, and was told this would be written into the planning agreement.
Because the private housing is being used to fund the leisure centre, requests for money for local infrastructure -including £1m from Network Rail to help revamp Woolwich Arsenal station – were turned down by planning officers.
A total of £75,000 – less than 10 per cent of the £766,000 wanted by Transport for London – will help fund work on Cycleway 4 to Woolwich, with planning officer Beth Lancaster saying that Transport for London wanted to extend the route to Abbey Wood and Thamesmead.
However, £492,000 will go to Greenwich Local Labour and Business, the council’s job agency, while £1.1 million will go to carbon offsetting schemes.
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