Friday 1 November 2013

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 were 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 relating to 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, Lewisham's planners wanted 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 were to govern future design. Of particular concern was the positioning and heights of the blocks surrounding the Olympia Shed.

The planning department also suggested that some of the proposed blocks should be further subdivided, so that the resulting development would not exceed the maximum parameters of floorspace and land use already agreed. Other issues requiring discussion were road widening to accommodate a new bus route and other highway adaptations for the proposed cycle superhighway, 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 its toys out of the pram, as if its masterplan was incontrovertable and not subject to planning processes whereby different stakeholders could give their views on it (the application went in rather unexpectedly 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, Hutchison Whampoa wrote to the Mayor of London requesting he “call in” the application. Bypassing local processes, and citing “delays” and erosion of profits as a basis for his actions, Ho made a pre-emptive 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 derailed by local 2014 elections in May; mystifying, considering there is likely to be no overall change in the council as a result.

This move is almost unprecedented; the Mayor would not normally take over an application from a local authority until a decision had been made. Both inside and outside the council it was assumed Lewisham was not going to reject it. Surely Ho would have realised that the decision-making process the GLA must now go through is likely to take longer than Lewisham have been taking? Despite intimations in the report from his officers that it is not feasible, Boris is promising a decision by February.

By involving the Mayor of London, the process will 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, Ho has terminated the democratic planning process and made a mockery of the Localism Act.

He is also perhaps hoping to bypass the final Archaeology report that is yet to be submitted. The report is expected to acknowledge that some 75% of the infrastructure representing 500 years of dynamic development of the Royal Dockyard at Deptford is essentially intact and ready to reinstate 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 prompted further questions that the planners 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 its housing targets over and above requirements.

For Lewisham the task is 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 they could be resolved "if the applicant is willing". Quirk pointed out that the developer had submitted its plans at too early a stage, cutting short pre-application discussions, and had recently cancelled meetings at which outstanding issues could have been resolved.

Meanwhile Ho’s letter to the planning department also stated that HW had “fully considered points raised by English Heritage”. With a familiar arrogance, HW's response to English Heritage’s comments has been "to explain how the masterplan decisions were reached”. Of course, those decisions were made before EH’s report was submitted, and HW has subsequently refused to alter its plans in order to acknowledge EH’s unambiguous request to reduce the density of the development.

The letter went on to say that HW's 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 been unable 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?

Ho insists that making further changes to the 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 the responsibility of neither London’s Mayor nor 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.


  1. Great article, I may quote from this, especially the bit about 3000 of the 3500 units going to overseas speculators using London as a tax haven, the next time someone says "but we need the homes"!

    1. Well it's not a secret! And the units are usually marketed 'off-plan' overseas first. But of course it's not the only reason for London's housing shortage...

    2. Joe, see this:

  2. It may be no secret, but you might be surprised how many people still think this development or a number of others are all set to save London from the housing shortage, as if the developers were knights in shining armour and not just out to take as much as possible :)
    Sue, thanks for the link, very interesting and useful!

  3. Boris is on LBC Tuesday 9am for a phone-in.

  4. I can't understand why the owner is going on about the masterplan. The planning appliction which was in front of Lewisham Council was not asking for approval to be given to the masterplan - everything other than the location and height of the towers, and access to the site, was to be subject to reserved matters once outline consent had been granted. So, at this stage the developer seemed to be attaching no weight to the current masterplan as this would have been subject to later approval by Lewisham.

    If I were advising Lewisham I would have said that they should not accept the approach being proposed by the developer of considering all other matters at a later stage. How can anyone give meaningful consideration to such tall towers without knowing the context of the rest of the development (as well as how this affects its hinterland) and the approach to the masterplan which the developer will actually take - an approach which may be quite different from that it the current masterplan?

    There is also the risk that once they have outline planning consent the current developer/owner will sell the site to another developer who will have totally different ideas for the materplan, thus making the one currently being shown redundant.

    So, in all, I think that the masterplan is a red-herring unless it is subject the the planning approval which is being sought. I also think there should be no planning consent which does not include the masterplan.

  5. Can't say I'm surprised. This is prime London real estate, a fantastic spot, and its currently an eyesore and a waste of space. The developer is likely to up sticks and leave the place as it is, if this impass continues. As mentioned in previous posts, I (as a resident of Grove Street) and it appears others also in the IMMEDIATE vicinity are all in favour. The development will improve the neighbourhood immeasureably in my opinion. Even if it is high density. As long as they keep the river path continuous and have some amenities then it is better than nothing! In my view the Council has been slightly enthralled to heritage groups. The whole of London has history after all, not just this place. And its currently an empty horrid space. There are Roman ruins below most buildings in the City, but that doesnt stop buildings going up. London evolves over time, it doesn't stay static. And there is no point in trying to freeze it at one point in time to reflect the opinions and views of what one minority of people want this used for. Why should a heritage project take precedent over a shop or supermarket? Or even sports facilities for instance? (Yes, why not? A sailing club? Running track?) Especially since those advocating heritage probably dont even live there, but live a mile or so away. A more realistic lobbying campaign for some sort of heritage concept may have been more successful I think, as I agree with the article that Boris is likely to roll over and allow everything the developers want with minimum concessions. And the flats as you say will be marketed to Chinese/singaporeans/hong kong folks.

  6. Why should a heritage project take precedence over a shop or a supermarket, you ask? Because our heritage is priceless.

    There is no point trying to freeze London at one point in time to reflect the views of a minority, you say. The moneyed class who promote this scheme are a very small minority. The people who need genuinely affordable homes and a decent sustainable living environment - the two are inseparable - may currently live in Deptford, or like me, may already have been priced out of the area and be struggling to maintain community and workplace links.

    As for sports facilities how about a nice green football pitch? Why not?

  7. @anon have you been in the Dog & Bell recently? Many of the locals who drink there, as well as the owners, are opposed to the development as it is currently proposed. They are in the IMMEDIATE vicinity, as you put it, although I don't see why your immediacy to the site should give your views any greater credibility or weight than people living half a mile or more away, as they will also be impacted by the density of development. The impact of the heritage loss will be felt nationally and even internationally, as objections to the proposals have shown.

    Perhaps the planners should just knock on the doors of all those living around the boundary of the site and take a poll, rather than spending all that time and money assessing the proposals in a reasoned and appropriate fashion. Although I think your assertion that everyone agrees with you is misguided, to say the least!

    A sailing club is a great idea, it could be located in the reinstated basin which is being proposed by the Lenox Project. However there would be no way of incorporating it under Hutchison Whampoa's proposals, as there would be no safe moorings for the yachts, and no slipway for access to the river.

    I hate to put you down since you sound so enthusiastic, but I'm not convinced you've done your homework on this.


  9. I was there on the recent open house day and I'm afraid after that I'm pro-development - London must move on. I quite like the idea of my little bit of Deptford looking like Hong Kong. An MTR station would be nice though...

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