Monday, 4 November 2013

Convoy Wharf November 2013; Is this the worst sort of planning abuse?

Mayor of London takes over planning control of Convoys

Deptford Is… responds to the news that Boris Johnson has “called-in” Hutchison Whampoa’s outline application...

Recent background

Negotiations between Hutchison Whampoa and Lewisham Planners had been ongoing with a view to Planning recommending the application to the Strategic Planning Committee for a decision in February 2014. Before this, they were hoping to resolve important issues around Transport, Design & Heritage, Sayes Court Garden & the Lenox Project, and Sustainability.

In July, English Heritage responded to the application and told Lewisham “We remain concerned that the overall scale of development is such that the opportunity to create a distinctive sense of place which responds to the outstanding historic legacy of the site has not been realized.” The link between the Olympia Shed and the river was a crucial one, they said, and the “narrow glimpsed view” that is included in Farrell’s masterplan “fails to make the best opportunity of this prominent and centrally-located heritage asset.”

Consequently, the Planners were seeking a more sensitive approach to the heritage aspects of the site, and were asking for a “heritage response” to be part of the application’s design principles that would govern future design. Of particular concern was the positioning and heights of the blocks surrounding the Olympia Shed.

They also suggested that in order for the plan to not exceed the maximum development parameters of floorspace and land use already agreed, some of the proposed blocks should be further subdivided. They hoped for a constructive discussion on this and other points, such as road widening to accommodate a new bus route, amendments to accommodate the GLA’s Cycle Super Highway, as well as more thorough Design Guidelines to show how different buildings will emerge and how land uses might evolve.

They were also asking for an update on the local heritage projects, and wished to discuss the possibility of extending the area of Sayes Court Garden and re-siting the Lenox Project to the Double Dry Dock (the developer has failed to talk to either project in recent months).

At this point, Hutchison Whampoa threw their toys out of the pram, as if their masterplan was incontravertable and not subject to planning processes whereby different stakeholders could give their views on it (the application went in rather unexpectledly in April, without any preliminary discussions). Indeed English Heritage did not respond till July, but well within the consultation period that extended till September. The timetable Lewisham gave this application was ample considering the various stakeholders, and time had to be given for Planners to discuss the various detailed objections with the applicant.

Director of European operations, Dr Edmond Ho, told Planners “we believe the approach you are taking, in not only requesting further changes to the masterplan but even introducing new constraints and unrealistic demands (eg reference to the Lenox being located on the Double Dry Dock, Sayes Court Garden and the New King Street widening becoming a pre-requisite to outline consent), is both unreasonable and unwarranted, given the already tough viability constraints.”

The call-in 

Shortly afterwards they requested the Mayor of London to “call in” the application. Bypassing local processes, and citing “delays” and erosion of profits as a basis for his actions, Mr Ho has made a preemptive request for a premature decision. The Mayor duly called in the planning application on the grounds that the relationship between the developer and Lewisham had irrevocably broken down. And also that, for some strange reason, the planning process would be upset by local 2014 elections in May. This is most mystifying, since there is likely to be no change there.

This move is almost unprecedented, since the Mayor would not normally take over an application from a local authority until it has been turned down. Both inside and outside the council it was assumed Lewisham were not going to turn it down. Surely Mr Ho would have realised that the processes the GLA must now go through to arrive at a decision may take longer than Lewisham have been taking. However, Boris has promised a decision by February.

But by involving the Mayor of London, the process will also now take place on a much larger stage. The developer’s refusal to engage with stakeholders and accommodate the worldwide importance of the site's heritage will become ever more visible (it is this non-negotiable stance which has held back the development, not the Planners). Meanwhile, by approaching London’s Mayor directly, Mr Ho has terminated the democratic planning process and made a mockery of the Localism Act.

He is also possibly hoping to bypass the final Archaeology Report that is yet to be submitted. The report is expected to acknowledge that some 75% of 500 years of the dynamic development of The Royal Dock at Deptford is essentially intact and ready to reinstate and reuse for maritime purposes. Or perhaps the final straw for the developer was The World Monuments Fund putting the site on its Watch List.

Lies, damned lies and conflicts of interest

In his letter to Lewisham – which will also have been seen by the Mayor of London and the GLA – Edmond Ho claimed the GLA and Lewisham's Design Panel have endorsed the masterplan and overall development. It is likely, however, that comments from Lewisham's own design panel has led to further questions for the Planners to put to the developer. Meanwhile, the GLA have responded favourably in so far as the application fulfills the priorities of the London Plan in terms of housing and employment. In fact the GLA has noted that Lewisham has met their housing targets over and above requirements.

For Lewisham the task was far more complex than simply fulfilling the demands of the London Plan. London Assembly Member for Greenwich and Lewisham Len Duvall said: "While the Mayor could have worked with the borough to progress development, as they have done for years, he cannot ignore the real concerns Lewisham was working through in the run up to a decision."  

Lewisham's CEO, Barry Quirk, told Building Design magazine that Lewisham had a realistic and deliverable timescale for determining the application. Lewisham has "significant concerns" about the proposals but believed they could be resolved "if the applicant is willing". He pointed out that the developer had submitted its plans at too early a stage, cutting short pre-application discussions, and had recentlycancelled meetings at which outstanding issues could have been resolved.

Meanwhile Mr Ho’s letter to Planning continued with the statement that his company had “fully considered points raised by English Heritage”. With their usual arrogance, their response to English Heritage’s report has been to explain “how the masterplan decisions were reached”. Of course, those decisions were made before EH’s report was submitted, and they have subsequently refused to further alter their plans to accommodate EH’s unambiguous request to reduce the density of the development.

The letter went on to say that their architect “Sir Terry Farrell himself also took the time to meet with English Heritage to satisfy the concerns being raised – we understand English Heritage have largely accepted the overall approach being taken”. English Heritage have denied such a meeting took place, whilst Farrells have so far failed to comment. 

It is also interesting to note that Sir Terry is part of the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group, which plays “a significant role in shaping future developments which fall under the Mayor’s responsibility through his regeneration, planning, housing and land powers.” Sir Terry advises the Mayor on “how to secure the best results on new developments through procurement.” Could this not be viewed as a conflict of interests?

Mr Ho is insistent that making further changes to their masterplan pushes “the viability of the project to its limits”. The owner of Hutchison Whampoa Properties is Li Ka Shing, the eighth richest billionaire in the world. He made a speculative purchase of the land and as such, assumed the risk for his speculation and, with it, any losses resulting from any and all legal decisions made about the site, its use, or future. It is neither the responsibility of London’s Mayor or of Lewisham Council to mitigate the owner’s risk.

However, Boris’s recent trade visits to China suggest a sympathetic hearing for the Chinese conglomerate, and Boris is also very pally with Rupert Murdoch, as is Li Ka Shing. News International, who sold the site to Hutchison Whampoa, retain a profit share in the sale of the residential units. Murdoch’s blatant disregard for the heritage of the site became apparent when he demolished the 18th century Storehouse (older than the Olympia Shed) in 1984.

We can expect to hear a lot of propaganda about this development’s contribution to solving the London housing crisis, even though 3000 of the 3500 units will be sold off-plan to the many foreign investors who are currently parking their cash, tax free, in London property and earning enough on their investment to not even need to bother renting it out.

A heritage jewel in London’s crown

Whilst the present owner may hold the freehold, the history, heritage, use and future of this significant Thames site belongs to London, Londoners, the UK and the nations around the world that benefited from the naval and maritime advances that emanated from this site. 

Henry VIII’s Royal Dock at Deptford is now designated as one of the country’s heritage assets at risk – in this case, from insensitive redevelopment. It is the Mayor of London’s role to safeguard London’s heritage – including its value in attracting finance for Lewisham Council. London urgently needs economic growth beyond the financial sector, and a restored heritage site alongside a dynamic, regenerated dock will widen the Thames economy. This is a distinctive and rare opportunity for London’s Mayor to herald London’s world-changing maritime achievements over some 500 years.

Deptford’s MP, Joan Ruddock, has already written to the Mayor to request a meeting, calling the site “an archaeological and heritage jewel in London’s crown.” She said, “I will be trying to persuade the Mayor to recognise the immense heritage value of this site both to local people and the people of London. The development needs to reflect Deptford’s extraordinary past while meeting local needs and fitting into the local environment.”

Meanwhile, in June this year, Boris pledged his support for the Lenox project in answer to a written question from London Assembly member Darren Johnson. He actually agreed that the ship be built at the Double Dry Dock – one of the ideas the developer refuses to agree on. Perhaps Boris will suffer a bout of amnesia when he is reminded of this fact.

So what will Boris do?

The decision to call in the planning decision offers Boris the chance to do two things, which have so far been impossible to reach agreement on.

Firstly, he can use his power and influence to assist the owners to appreciate that they own a very valuable piece of England’s story. The shaping of their development – working with the uniqueness of the site and creating a strong sense of place – can raise the value of the completed development. The highest capital property value in London is at its peak when there is a strong sense of place and history rather than the bland ubiquity of the current Farrell masterplan.

High capital value can still encompass affordable housing in the mix. Boris' relations with the Chinese will have taught him that in China the respect for tradition is as strong as their search for modernity. He has the personal power to broker this change of perspective and to bring the developer into a positive relationship with the inherent values of the site and its story.

Secondly, Boris has the opportunity to create a stunning local success. He is working with a passionate, informed and vocal local community who have shown vision and relentless commitment to participate in shaping the place they live in. He can choose to demand that the owners, together with architects and specialists, including English Heritage, the World Monument Fund and the London Borough of Lewisham, start with a clean slate and remove all the assumptions about this being just any old brownfield site. Boris can then represent his London electorate and instigate a genuine re-masterplanning of the site as an example of how he and the GLA can ensure Deptford and London can be resolutely connected to its past and vibrantly engaged in its future.

Or, Boris can choose to accept the application (and the cash) wholly on the investors’ terms and ignore the decades of public investment in developing a sophisticated planning process.

Come on Boris, help us all to get back on track! Dismiss this masterplan and start again. This site is a benchmark of how we all shape the city of the future. The process will be complex but the result has the potential be a truly multicultural international success.
People Before Profit position on this is clear from earlier postings, we will be calling a public meeting to work with all groups &  residents to insure the 15 years of community action and work on this project are not lost. Residents will also be able to vote for Community activists in all local ward seats in the 2014 Local elections, standing as Lewisham People Before profit. Barbara Raymond life long Deptford activist at this years local by election secured more votes than Tory, Lib Dem, and UKIP combined coming a clear second to Labour. This should insure come 2014 the huge amount of work by PB4P will take all these seats. 
The Developer does state his concern about Local elections in May 2014 when People before Profit are expected to win all the Deptford Council seats with possibility of winning the Mayor, however PBP supports the development potential of the site, subject to all the positive ideas and feed back from London voters and Lewisham residents.

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