Storm in a flowerpot as Greenwich Council tells residents to clear front gardens

Isobel and Jim Kimberley
Musicians Isobel and Jim Kimberley are among the residents affected

Greenwich Council is doubling down on its order to residents of an estate to remove flowerpots and benches in their front gardens – despite hundreds signing a petition against the decision.

Over 1,200 people have called on the council to allow residents of the Vanbrugh Park Estate, Blackheath, to keep their front gardens intact after the town hall sent a team round to remove residents’ plants and seating.

They say the council’s own fire safety inspection found nothing wrong with their front gardens, and an independent expert has backed them up. Local MP Matt Pennycook has also called for a review of the council’s approach.

But Pat Slattery, the cabinet member for housing, claimed the Grenfell Tower disaster meant the council had a legal duty to clear the spaces.

Gardens on Vanbrugh Park Estate
The gardens are a much-loved feature of the 1960s estate

The Vanbrugh Park Estate, which was built in 1963, was designed by the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who would go on to design the Barbican. Each flat has paved areas in front that are large enough for residents to create gardens without obstructing access.

Residents include the musicians Isobel and Jim Kimberley, who in 2020 streamed a series of lockdown concerts from their plant-filled garden on the estate.

Building regulations state that passageways should have a width of at least 90cm, but the residents say that the council is demanding that residents clear 360cm.

The residents also say that as well as looking attractive, their plants create shade and help stop overheating during heatwaves in an estate with large windows that are vulnerable during extremely hot weather. They say window in one unshaded flat recently shattered in direct sunlight with a baby in the living room.

Greenwich Council has been accused of refusing to meet residents to find a compromise, although it says that staff will attend a meeting tonight to try to find a way forward.

The fire assessment for the estate, which was carried out in 2020, states that issues with rubbish, fire doors and lighting rather than the residents’ pot plants. Greenwich referred itself to the social housing regulator last year because of similar failings across its estates.

Vanbrugh Park Estate
Residents say the planting helps cool the estate during heatwaves

Alex Wheeler, the chair of the estate’s residents’ association, said: “Officers are waging an unnecessary war on garden gnomes and pot plants while leaving genuine health and safety issues across the estate unactioned.

“The flats in question were specifically designed to allow residents plenty of room for plants and outdoor seating while maintaining good, safe access. The wholesale destruction of these small gardens would be extremely harmful to the health and wellbeing of residents, would increase the chance of chronic overheating, deplete local biodiversity, reduce residents’ privacy and distract from a historic conservation area. The council must think again.”

Richard Tacagni, an independent assessor who looked into the issue for residents, said: “I confirm there was no serious category 1 or high level category 2 fire hazard caused by the presence of pot plants.

“Considerate planting outside the flat entrances has various benefits. Any shading to the extensive south facing glass will help to mitigate a hazard of excess heat. Planting supports mental health and wellbeing and also contributes to the natural environment and sustainability.”

Vanbrugh Park Estate in the 1960s
Photos of the estate from 1965 show front gardens with plants

Slattery, the cabinet member for housing, told 853: “The safety of residents living in our council homes is our top priority and we have an absolute duty of care to them all.

“We fully understand residents’ wishes to make their outdoor areas attractive, but we need to ensure that there is a safe means of escape from fire, at all times. In the horrible event of a fire, we need to ensure that fire fighters are not impeded in their work. We also need to make sure that escape routes are clear and free from flammable materials.

“Since the terrible Grenfell fire, current fire safety legislation means that we have a legal duty and we take this very seriously.

“The council is attending a meeting with residents of the Vanbrugh Park Estate where we will listen to concerns and answer questions, and work with residents to ensure that their estate meets all fire safety requirements.”

Vanbrugh Park Estate
Phineas Harper has been taking photos of residents’ gardens

However, the architecture critic Phineas Harper, who lives on the estate and has posting photos of residents in their gardens on social media, responded: “The Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy caused by the authorities refusing to listen to the concerns of residents and imposing ill-conceived top-down changes that ultimately put residents at risk.

“It is deeply worrying that Greenwich Council are making the same mistakes that led to that disastrous fire in refusing to listen to residents or take their concerns seriously. If the council really cares about residents’ safety, health and wellbeing, they should take action on the litany of genuine issues residents and their own risk assessment have raised rather than prioritising this absurd war on garden gnomes and pot plants.”

The residents’ petition is at

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