Shall I give you a quick reminder of its main aims? (I lifted this straight off the Local Government Association website if you need more information):
The aim of the act was to devolve more decision making powers from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils. The act covers a wide range of issues related to local public services, with a particularly focus on the general power of competence, community rights, neighbourhood planning and housing.
The key measures of the act were grouped under four main headings;
- new freedoms and flexibilities for local government
- new rights and powers for communities and individuals
- reform to make the planning system more democratic
- more effective reform to ensure decisions about housing are taken locally
In October, Convoys Wharf developer Hutchison Whampoa wrote to the Mayor of London to (somewhat petulantly to be honest, you can read his letter via the Deptford is.. website) demand that the decision on its outline planning application be 'called in' - ie be taken away from the local council and made by the Mayor's office.
Head of Hutchison Whampoa Properties (Europe), Edmond Ho, complained to Boris that his company had been subjected to 'a long pattern of delay and indecision' from Lewisham planners over the last five years, and warned that unless the Mayor took it over, the 'delivery of much needed housing for London' was at risk of further, substantial delay.
The Mayor's planners decided that it was a good idea too, mainly due to the fact that the relationship between the developers and the council's planning department had broken down irrevocably - although they did not elaborate on the reasons for this in their report (available here), and it is a matter of opinion whether this came about because of the 'delay and indecision' that Ho moans about, or whether HW's arrogance and general failure to address any fundamental issues might have played a part.
Let's be clear, this breakdown of the relationship has not come about through a clash of personalities or anything so straightforward - having come into contact with many of the players involved in this process over recent months and years, it is obvious that Hutchison Whampoa's stance is not a welcoming one. People from all sides of the process have remarked on their seeming indifference to any criticism - constructive or otherwise - while some of those working directly for HW have described them as being one of the most difficult clients they have ever had.
HW's arrogance is ably demonstrated by the fact that in his letter in which he demanded that the Mayor call in the application, Edmond Ho claimed that issues raised by English Heritage 'were understood' to have been resolved, and that both the GLA and the Design Review Panel had 'endorsed' the current masterplan. As the details posted on Deptford Is.. make clear, these claims are largely unsubstantiated. In fact I would say Deptford Is.. has been very charitable in its suggestion that Ho was misinformed, or that information was misinterpreted.
Even while writing this post, news reaches me that HW's project manager who has been present at all the public meetings and events for as long as I can remember, is no longer working on the Convoys Wharf development. He may simply have got another job, or been promoted elsewhere, but it's always interesting to speculate on whether other factors are at play, in particular because of the timing of the move.
But to get back the story: the Mayor agreed to call it in and has taken over responsibility for making the final decision on this outline planning application. It is a very unusual step to take before the local authority has made any decision - usually the call-in happens after the decision has been made, and takes place because the Mayor (or the applicant) is not happy with the outcome. To take responsibility away from a local authority which was still trying to work towards acceptance of an application could be seen as premature and inappropriate.
Whether or not Lewisham planners could have reached a position at which they were happy to recommend acceptance of the application is not known, but head of planning John Miller's letter makes it clear that his team had identified the outstanding issues and suggests possible solutions. Personally I don't see anything unreasonable in his assessment of the situation, and while Ho is annoyed that the process has taken so long, to blame the delay entirely on the planners is disingenuous when feedback suggests the slow progress has been compounded by obstructive and unresponsive behaviour on the applicant's part. I'm reminded of the last few minutes of a football match where one team tries to keep the ball out of play just to deny its opponents the chance of any more goals.
|'Affordable' housing (pink bits)|
There are several ways this could go for HW (and indeed for Deptford), not all of them necessarily bad, since the higher profile of the case should now mean greater scrutiny by a wider audience. On the whole though, it is worrying that the mayor of London saw fit to bow to such pressure from a developer - one which owns some huge areas of Thames waterfront and is involved with some major developments in the capital. These include the old Lots Road power station in Chelsea, also being designed by Farrell's office although with piddling small towers of max just 37 storeys and seen here being marketed via HW's Hong Kong estate agency.
Removing the powers from the local planning authority before any decision had even been taken - and when the borough was working hard to reach a situation where approval could be recommended - strikes me as setting a very dangerous precedent for future schemes, and it creates confusion, particularly with the supposed 'localism' policy of the current government. What's more, while the applicant complained that the process was taking too long, moving the decision making process to a new authority will not speed it up any, most likely the opposite.
In the meantime, some perhaps unintended implications of the call-in have already been seen, with the nationals finally sitting up and taking interest in the story - particularly since it follows hard on the heels of the 'at risk' listing of Deptford Dockyard and Sayes Court Garden by the World Monuments Fund which was quite widely reported, and must have royally pissed off HW.
Private Eye's Piloti has written a large article for the current issue which gives a good, if brief explanation of what is a very complex history.
You can read it via the Deptford Is.. post which announces the launch of the campaign's petition via Change.org. The petition, which sends emails to the mayor, his planners, the developer and the architects every time someone signs it, has reached more than 900 signatures in just a week.
I'll try to keep the blog updated as the story develops, although for regular information and the inside goss on the story, I recommend following the Deptford Is.. blog and newsletter which has a lot more information.
Sign the petition
Read the Deptford Is.. post about the call-in.
Read what Private Eye had to say - via Deptford Is..
Blogger Andy Worthington's article kicks off by assessing the claim of 'affordable' housing.