Sunday 23 March 2014

Can the Mayor of London make the right decision?

Update: 24th March 2014: The GLA's 'Representation Hearing Report' is published and can be read and downloaded here.

The Mayor of London has announced that the representation hearing for the planning application to redevelop the former Deptford Royal Dockyard at Convoys Wharf will take place on 31st March at 4pm at City Hall. At the hearing there will be a 15 minute period for supporters and objectors to restate their case for and against the planning application in front of the mayor himself. Not long then!

The Mayor has five days from the 31st March to announce his decision if he does not pronounce at the end of this hearing.

Previous to this, Hutchison Whampoa have recently submitted some very minor revisions to its masterplan and the GLA invited comments on them, the deadline for which was 20th March (last Thursday). Only two working day later, on 24th March (this Monday), the GLA officers responsible for assessing the application will publish their report into the application, which will include a recommendation to the Mayor.

The consultation on the revisions was the first invitation from the GLA for those affected by the development to comment. They did not, in other words, invite comments on the application in general, since they are already taking into account the comments received by Lewisham Council back in May-July 2013 after the application was first submitted to them in April.

Perhaps the exceedingly short period between the GLA's deadline for receiving comments on the revisions and publishing their recommendations to the Mayor reflects the generally held opinion that ANY revisions to this application will be welcomed by all concerned.

It seems very unlikely that the Mayor will go against the GLA officers' advice unless he wants to make a particular political point (which he could and should do since almost everything about this application goes against the policies of the London Plan). Based on the correspondence we have read, and a couple of meetings that local projects Build The Lenox and Sayes Court Garden have been present at, we believe that the GLA intends to recommend that the mayor approve the scheme – despite the fact that English Heritage have still to publish a report on the applicant's limited archaeological findings.

Download this local objection that comprehensively reiterates all the reasons why this scheme cannot be allowed to proceed in its present form. It includes points raised by statutory bodies such as English Heritage and the Council for British Archaeology and is informed by Lewisham's planning team, and quotes specific references to the Mayor's own London Plan policies. It outlines just how much of his own vision the Mayor will be ignoring by passing this application. 

Read on below our response to the minor revisions and the Mayor's 'call-in' process.

The revisions

Of course we welcome the revisions, but they are exceedingly minor considering the size of the scheme. (Let's not forget the applicant, Li Ka Shing, is the 8th 20th richest billionaire in the world).

Lewisham Council, having rejected the application but also being a statutory consultant on it in the GLA's hands, seem to have been relatively successful in challenging the developer's notion of 'viability' that allows for a little bit more affordable housing. But it in no way represents a return to the 35% (or possibly more) that would have informed their agreement with the developer that goes back to 2006, to build "up to 3500" units which would have allowed for 1,000 new affordable homes in north Deptford.

The Sayes Court Garden project has managed to get the proposed school (known as 'Plot 17' that was planned to be built over the footprint of John Evelyn's gardens) incorporated into the adjacent residential block (Plot 16), but as yet there is no offer in writing for Sayes Court Garden CIC, and no agreement to let them build their Centre of Urban Horticulture that would make sense of their entire project. An offer of sorts has only just been made by the applicant to the Lenox Project (for a place on the site that is unworkable) just two days before the GLA report is to be published.

Building heights have been lowered by just one floor at the eastern border of the site that overlooks the Master Shipwright's House (which will become a public building in the future), but there is absolutely no concession to reducing heights elsewhere. In fact, this reduction in heights will mean an increase elsewhere.There are no changes to the heights of buildings in front of the Olympia. English Heritage are totally infuriated that the view of the Olympia building remains obscured from the river and overshadowed by tall buildings.

Lewisham have been successful in attempting at this stage of the application to build in some flexibility to the 'parameter plans' for the three tallest buildings on the site that would have otherwise have been set in stone. Lewisham wanted a lot more than this (read their report here). They were particularly concerned about the issues of over capacity on the road and public transport networks that are still to be addressed.

The fact is, hardly anything in this application can be improved unless the developer's insistence on 3,500 flats is sensibly and comprehensively reduced. Since the only reason for this development is as a financial vehicle to make money for investors (foreign or otherwise), there can be little hope of Coalition soundbites about Localism having any basis in reality.

The planning process

The Mayor called in the planning application before Lewisham had made a decision on it. His decision on Convoys will set a precedent for the other schemes he has called in since then, and will also have implications for other sensitive redevelopments in London. The London Assembly has recently questioned the Mayor about his stripping of London boroughs' right to make planning decisions by using his power to 'call-in' large planning applications. He has already called-in five schemes in the past year. In many cases, Johnson has been 'calling-in' applications before the local authority in question has even had a chance to examine them.

Darren Johnson, Chair of the London Assembly, said, "The recent acceleration in the number and speed with which the Mayor is taking over planning decisions from boroughs...puts developers and investors before local democracy". The Assembly's motion listed 11 applications – including Convoys Wharf – and said that on many decisions, the Mayor has ignored legitimate borough concerns about issues such as inappropriate density and very low targets for affordable housing.

The Mayor's call-in essentially puts the decision-making power in the hands of one person, which we feel is incredibly undemocratic and inappropriate for a project of such magnitude and significance. It undermines the government's argument for Localism, and takes the decision-making away from local people.

Not only that, one of the things that has become clear to us during the last few months is that the GLA planning department is not equipped to handle this sort of decision-making. Usually the mayor's planners simply comment on planning applications which are being handled by local authorities. They are rarely called upon to make decisions, particular on schemes of such magnitude, and as a result they appear to be under-resourced and unclear about the process.

We also question whether the procedure is fit for purpose. Since the call-in, only minor revisions have been made (which the developer claimed as 'significant concessions') for which there were only three weeks to comment on. The planners cannot possibly have read and digested any additional submissions, let alone incorporate them into the report they intend to publish within two days of that deadline closing, and the hearing will be held (and the decision made) a week after the report is published. Objectors will have just seven days in which to read the report, digest its implications, and formulate responses before the hearing. This seems to be indecently hasty.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Top John Evelyn scholar backs Sayes Court Garden project

Mark Laird is Senior Lecturer in the History of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University and the foremost authority on John Evelyn. He has recently written to the Mayor of London from Harvard Design School with respect to the Convoys Wharf application and in support of the proposals from Sayes Court Garden CIC:

"It is impossible to overstate the significance of Sayes Court and the history of John Evelyn's life and work at the site that is under threat of irreversible development. Over the past twenty years, I have written three scholarly articles on Evelyn at Sayes Court. My forthcoming book, A Natural History of English Gardening (Yales University Press, Spring 2015) will open with a chapter on his significance as horticultural and technological innovator and as environmental policy maker. His Fumifugium (1661), Sylva (1664) and Acetaria (1699) laid the groundwork for a sustainable London of the 21st century – clear air, tree canopy, and food in the city.

"The Greater London Authority has shown leadership through policy documents (from London Biodiversity Action Plan and East London Green Grid Plan to the March 2012 report, London World Heritage Sites – Guidance on Settings). These documents are in line with the  new UNESCO Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscape (HUL, November 2011), which seeks to integrate 'policies and practices of conservation in the built environment into the wider goals of urban development'. In the Foreword to the March 2012 GLA document, Boris Johnson reiterates the importance of London's built and natural heritage in benefiting 'our economy, culture and quality of life'. Sayes Court is the test case for his claim: 'How we manage this dynamic juxtaposition in ways that respect the past, while welcoming the future, will be a mark of our success in maintaining London as a really world class city'.

"The arguments in the 'Sayes Court Garden Programme and Analysis' report (February 2014) – and especially the modifications to P16 proposed in the 26 February 2014 statement – are built on very solid foundations. As you are aware, the Sayes Court Garden website features my own reconstructions of Evelyns's parterre and grove, which, until the better winter of 1683/4, lay immediately adjacent to his manor house. The archeaological site plan of Stuart Structures may look insignificant, yet the trace of the garden wall on the west side of the important vestiges of the manor house and the trace of the dockyard perimeter wall on the east side are absolutely critical to what I have reconstructed. The proposed P16 block would forever destroy and cover over these traces and vestiges and obliterate the core of Sayes Court – the manor house that was the intellectual home of Evelyn's environmental vision.

"Creating, by the modifications to P16, a new Centre for Urban Horticulture on the archaeological site of the manor house is precisely the accommodation of the old within the new that the Mayor sees as a measure of success and that UNESCO would deem a model for Historic Urban Landscape. The Centre would join other models of 'best practice' from around the world. Using the Evelyn cabinet of curiosity as a starting point for a modular and flexible layout of the garden spaces would unify the geometries of the blocks with the geometries of urban horticulture and forestry, mediciinal gardening, beekeeping and fruit growning, and greening technologies. The opportunity for local communities to benefit from learning about health and nutrition with environmental education at the primary school level makes Evelyn's teachings relevant now and for the future.

"The Royal Horticultural Society and the National Trust have both identified an acute skills shortage in areas that Evelyn would have understood when writing his Directions for the Gardiner at Says-Court in the mid-1680s. A Centre for Urban Horticulture, while training a new generation of local youth as skilled gardeners, could also become a centre of excellence in the fields of landscape urbanism and ecosystems performance. It could advance natural and cultural heritage studies in cooperation with the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, National Trust, the Council for British Archaeology and the Garden History Society. In this vision for the Centre, the four pillars of sustainable development identified in the UNESCO statements on HUL – economy, ecology, community and cultural resources – are integrated in an appropriately holistic way: [HUL] seeks to increase the sustainability of planning and design interventions by taking into account the existing built [and natural] environment, intangible heritage, cultural diversity, socio-economic and environmental factors along with local community values'.

"The international community of scholars and practitioners is watching the debate over Convoys Wharf and Sayes Court with great interest and some anxiety. Will the GLA's guidance in the debate feature positively in textbooks to come as it has in the past in books devoted to biodiversity and climate-change planning? I, for one, am putting my faith in the Mayor and the GLA to reach the only right decision."

'History guy' Dan Snow defends Deptford Royal Dockyard

At the beginning of February, historian and Lenox Project patron Dan Snow issued a bleak warning that redevelopment plans for Convoys Wharf could wipe out the birthplace of the Royal Navy if approved in their current form.

“There are world famous naval dockyards right across Britain. Some of the finest museums in Europe can be visited in Portsmouth, Chatham and elsewhere, yet the place where it all began, where our maritime destiny took shape, is forgotten, and tragically ignored by the very city it did so much to shape. Deptford is where the Tudors decided to build naval ships to protect their ill-gotten kingdom from other invaders like themselves, and then to exploit the explosion in maritime activity that came with the discovery of sea routes to Asia and the Americas. Deptford is ground zero for the Royal Navy.

"The Lenox Project reconnects Londoners and all of us with a vitally important piece of our heritage. London grew rich because it was a port. Ships built at Deptford protected the trade on which London depended, and forged links between the growing city and the rest of the world. Today London is one of the earth’s most dynamic, outward looking, multi-cultural cities. That story starts at Deptford.

"This project is not just about preserving heritage. It is about creating the kind of international profile and draw that is impossible to replicate anywhere else. A block of flats, a nice looking office block is anonymous. They can be built from Shanghai to Seattle. Building a 17th century warship, on the site of one of the world’s greatest dockyards, a short distance from the beating heart of an international city, that is unique. The multiplier effect of interested people, scholars and tourists would be a major boon to the area, the city and the country.

"People travel across the world to see the Vasa in Stockholm, the Victory, Mary Rose and others in Portsmouth, the Intrepid in New York. This would compete with any of them. The Lenox Project illuminates not just the past but the future too.”

Samuel Pepys speaks to the nation

Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Royal Navy, held a press conference on 21st September 2013 at the Master Shipwright's House at Deptford Royal Dockyard. He implored the developer to consider more fully the history of the dockyard in the light of their plans to build 3500 luxury homes on the site now known as Convoys Wharf and bury all of the surviving heritage assets under concrete.

The event was chaired by star of BBC TV's Horrible Histories Ben Willbond. The former secretary to the navy and celebrated diarist Pepys vented his anger at the total neglect of one of the most important sites in British history and called on the powers-that-be to permit the restoration of the Kings Yard, Deptford, to allow the building of a full-size, sailing, working replica of The Lenox.

Mr Pepys said: "I wept as a parent at the loss of a child when I returned to Deptford to see what had become of one England's greatest assets. I say to our authorities, 'What terrible loss of memory has afflicted you so?'

"This year is the 500th anniversary of the Royal Dockyard commissioned by Henry Vlll that itself heralded the beginning of England's navy and her pre-eminence as a world sea-power.

"I can think of no more fitting restoration than the building of a warship His Majesty King Charles commissioned me to build as the first of a great fleet. To see the Royal Dockyard buried forever under concrete would be to the everlasting shame of the nation!"

Samuel Pepys is played by Deptford actor Jim Conway. Supporting cast as themselves: Ben Willbond (Horrible Histories), Helena Russell (Secretary, The Lenox Project CIC), Julian Kingston (Director, The Lenox Project CIC) as master shipwright John Shish, and Richard Endsor, author of The Restoration Warship, on which the Lenox project is based.

The press conference was held on the first morning of the London Open House weekend, and was also filmed by BBC News who covered the day but did not air Mr Pepys' erudite speech.

Friday 7 March 2014

'Deptford's Dockyard' shanty by the Deptford Shanty Crew

The Deptford Shanty Crew, which was formed last year, has written and performed a shanty about our campaign and made a video of it. We've included the words below, if you want to sing along.

We'd love to see this shared widely, to get our message out and make more people aware of the campaign and the projects, so please feel free to use the 'share' buttons on You Tube to send to your contacts, post on Facebook, tweet and so on.

And if you want to join the shanty crew (no singing experience necessary, whooping and foot stamping welcome!) find out more on the Lenox website.

And it's [stamp] sell her off to a big business man
There goes Deptford's dockyard
There goes our history and our land
Way off in the hands of the London mayor

They dug up the anchor and took it away
There goes Deptford's dockyard
Would not listen to what the people say
Now it's way off in the hands of the London mayor

Locals wanna build the Lenox again
Right there in Deptford's dockyard
Could pass on their history to the next gen
But it's way off in the hands of the London mayor

Apprentices could learn the trade
Right there in Deptford's dockyard
Our maritime history could be saved
But it's way off in the hands of the London mayor

Open up the gardens for all to see
Right there in Deptford's dockyard
We want Evelyn's vision to be free
But it's way off in the hands of the London mayor

The developers just don't get the plan
There goes Deptford's dockyard
They're gonna flush our project down the pan
They put it in the hands of the London mayor

No jobs and homes for us in their plan
Right there in Deptford's dockyard
Just lots more cash in the developers bank
Now it's way off in the hands of the London mayor

They want to sell more expensive flats
Right there in Deptford's dockyard
But people come first and that is that
And Deptford's history's worth more than cash!

So listen to us and not their dough
It's our Deptford dockyard
Boris give our project a chance to grow
Release it from the hands of the London mayor