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.


  1. This is a loss for Deptford locals, and another resounding victory for profiteering developers.

    Out of 3,514 units only 14% are marked as affordable. A disgrace given that over 8,000 households are on the housing waiting list in Lewisham.

    Furthermore, the terms of the 'affordable' housing mean that up to 80% of the market rent can be charged and still classed as affordable! Even with a paltry 20% reduction these are way out of the league of Deptford locals.

    Let's look at this 14% more closely too - only 6% is ear-marked for social rents (at the ironically named 'affordable' rent) with the remaining 9% set aside as 'intermediate' housing; as 'Rent to Buy' or under some form of joint ownership. In a number of years, this 9% will soon be in private hands.

    So we have a 3,514 unit development with a hilarious definition of 'affordable homes', the majority of which will soon dry-up.

    With an average income in the borough of around £28,000 and a whopping 37% of children living in child poverty in Evelyn Ward (Convoys Wharf's home) it is clear - this development offers nothing to locals, and millions of pounds of profits for the developers and housing speculators.

  2. Way out of the league of Deptford locals? Hmm i am sorry but I think you need a bit of a wake up call. If we take that philosophy then what about the poor people in the rest of the UK? Then the poor people in the rest of the world. Please describe your perfect world in full as it seems a little unfinished. Its not a complete solution just thinking of the Deptford locals. I can assure you there are a lot worse. What about them?

  3. Whataboutery from anonymous... not a real argument, just a troll's tactic. What about people in Syria, what about people in Sudan... anywhere you care to mention. This is something affecting Deptford! The development need not be as ridiculous as it is at the moment if the billionaire developers and Boris would only compromise a little - that's not a lot to ask of one of the richest people on earth. This is about housing shortages in Deptford, not poor people internationally, and the lack of anything remotely affordable in a massive new local scheme that will only profit obscenely wealthy Far Eastern investors and Murdoch. What about considering the area that is being talked about? I much prefer M.F's inclusive, fair world view than your vision of lords and serfs.

    1. I was at the hearing yesterday but have to leave early. Cld someone please let me know what Boris decided? Am guessing he postponed it (for fear of rotten tomatoes being thrown) and will decide in writing in the next few days?