Sunday, 14 July 2013
New footbridge for Deptford Creek - at what cost?
This week Greenwich Council's planning board approved a planning application for a new swing bridge over the mouth of Deptford Creek. This is great news for pedestrians and cyclists using the Thames path, and once access along the front of New Capital Quay is fully open, will make the journey from Deptford to Greenwich so much more pleasant.
The original proposal put forward by NCQ developer Galliard was pretty gruesome, and thankfully died a fairly rapid death under the derision heaped upon it. It's fair to say that the new design, a cable-stayed swing bridge, is a vast improvement from an aesthetic point of view and also in terms of accessibility.
But while the bridge will offer improved amenity to pedestrians and cyclists, if its operation is not properly managed it could well become a serious obstacle for those who live on boats on the creek itself, or who use its waters for pleasure or business.
Being entirely cynical it's easy to suggest that this is not a concern that Greenwich Council loses much sleep over - as boaters have pointed out, the Greenwich banks of Deptford Creek are noted for their long line of signs proclaiming 'No Mooring'. While they don't have any signs saying 'Keep orf my land!' you can kind of read that between the lines.
As recently as five or ten years ago there was a thriving community of houseboats on the Creek, now there are only a handful left. Many of those moored on the Greenwich side were evicted when the creekside sites were redeveloped; no provisions to support the continued presence of these boats were considered and they were moved on as if they were illegal squatters. A more enlightened local authority might have seen the benefit in opening up the banks of the creek and encouraging houseboats to moor there, adding colour, interest and vibrancy to the creek side.
The river is also used by James Prior boats to deliver aggregates to the site right next to the Creek Road lifting bridge; here the aggregate is mixed into concrete and supplied to construction sites locally. This system keeps a large number of lorries off our local roads.
During the consultancy phase for the Thames Tunnel project, it was suggested that the traffic impact of construction work at the Greenwich pumping station might be reduced greatly by the use of the creek for deliveries of shaft lining units and removal of spoil. The developer at Faircharm has also given a (somewhat vague) commitment to exploring the use of the creek for deliveries, but at least the idea is there. All this could come to naught, however, if it proves impossible to synchronise the operation of two movable bridges within the limited tidal window to enable boats to get upstream and service the sites.
Practicalities aside, what really gets my goat about this particular planning decision is the fact that New Capital Quay developer Galliard has demanded permission for extra storeys on two riverside buildings in order to 'pay' for the bridge. At the same planning meeting, permission was given for an additional 22 residential units to be built on top of two blocks on the riverside. The two applications were inextricably linked.
If this pedestrian bridge had been a last minute demand from the council, dreamed up recently and imposed on the developer without any thought, I would have considered such a request reasonable. But the bridge was part of the S106 agreement drafted when planning permission was granted for the initial development, and as such I believe it should have been honoured by the developer (or indeed demanded by the local authority). In fact Galliards has said it can't afford to build the bridge because of the change in the housing market since it bought the land.
I was staggered to read the following statement in the planning department's report on the application:
"The applicants have been in discussions with the Council about the requirement to provide the footbridge stating that the Greenwich Reach site was purchased at the top of the market at the end of 2007 for a premium just prior to the financial crisis in 2008 and subsequently the reduction in house prices and value of this site means that the site is only now marginally viable. The obligation to provide the footbridge without providing the additional residential proposed by this application would make the scheme unviable. The scheme has been assessed by the Council’s Independent Viability Assessor who has agreed with the finding of the viability appraisal."
So: "We speculated on the purchase of a piece of land and we got burned. We can't make enough profit because house prices crashed."
Anyone who's taken a peek behind the new Waitrose will be aware of the density of this development. The handkerchief-size square of open land outside the store is probably the biggest bit of public space between buildings on the peninsula. The road through the middle is a soulless chasm of sheer-sided apartment blocks which, given its east-west orientation is unlikely to see sunshine for much of the year. Aside from building taller blocks, the developer couldn't have fitted many more units on this site.
So 'in return' for fulfilling an obligation made five years ago in specific circumstances, the devcloper has now been given permission to increase the density further by adding more units to two waterfront buildings. Galliard shareholders can rest easy now, their annual dividend assured by the local authority.