Sunday, 3 September 2017

Creekside community under threat from 'box park' plans

On the face of it, a planning application to create a pop-up community of shipping containers on 'derelict' land behind the Bird's Nest pub in Deptford might seem a sensible use of an awkward parcel of land.

And if you read the planning documents, you could easily be lulled into thinking that this development offers nothing but benefits to the area.

Unfortunately the entire planning submission goes out of its way to gloss over the fact that this parcel of land is not just derelict industrial waste ground; in fact it is home to a small but long-established community of boat dwellers whose presence is one of the few positive elements highlighted in the conservation area assessment of this part of Creekside.

It's easy for the general public to forget that this community exists - with the yard at 2 Creekside no longer in regular use and most of the land around the waterside either inaccessible or fenced in, it's difficult to get a view of Theatre Arm, as this offshoot of the creek is known.

But it would be a bit remiss of the landowners to forget that they are there, considering that they collect rent on most of the moorings; in terms of the planning documents, the only real acknowledgement of their presence is these couple of renderings, along with a few boat outlines on some of the drawings.




There's a marked absence of any human aspect to the plans that have been submitted, not least in the fact that the impact the development will have on the residents of the creek has been utterly ignored.

The boating community is a diverse and varied one, with residents of all ages living on a wide range of vessels moored along the creek, some of which also directly support businesses. The residents assist each other in practical ways and have a strong and well-established community group, the Friends of Deptford Creek, which supports, represents and protects the human, natural and built environment of the creek. 

On the FODC website you can read Jeannie Seymour's story - her husband Julian Kingston is the longest-established resident on this site, having arrived here 30 years ago, well before the Docklands Light Railway was built. As well as running his welding business from the boat, Julian keeps his restored Saker cannon and Lenox Project trailer on the land next to it, along with half a dozen beehives which provide him with enough local honey to last the year.

And while tarpaulins may not give the best first impression, they can be a sign of good things to come. You can read Mat's story about restoring his broads cruiser Suffolk, his comments giving testimony to the strength of the community that exists.

The way of life these people have chosen may seem unconventional to some, but as Jeannie points out, the main difference is that they are afloat. They have all the same gadgets and facilities as 'normal' households - even a bath! - and they pay council tax and utility charges like everyone else.

Six of them moor on the riverside at 2 Creekside, and over the last 16 years have had to suffer the vagaries and poor management of the site by owner John Cierach (of murky goings-on fame). As this detailed post on Crosswhatfields explains, the murkiness that led to the demise of the Big Red pizza bus (and most likely also the demise of the subsequent tenant Wanderlust) has for years also been inflicted on those who call Theatre Arm home.


So what is the detail of the planning application proposal? 

Essentially the new owners of the land, Artworks Creekside 2 (a consortium between the former owner John Cierach and another company (Stow Projects) whose directors Charlie and William Fulford have history, among other things with box-park pop-ups such as 'Artworks Elephant' on the former Heygate estate in Elephant & Castle) want to stack a load of converted shipping containers up to create Deptford's very own box park. 

The plans include bringing the 'big red' bus behind the Bird's Nest back into use as a restaurant, and are also linked to proposals for number 3 Creekside across the road, now owned by another new company whose directors are the same as 2 Creekside. Make what you will of the fact that two different companies have been created for the purposes of what's being proposed and promoted in all other ways as a single, unified development.


The presence of the DLR restricts what can be built on the land at 2 Creekside, as there is an exclusion zone around the structure, so the plans include mobile 'shepherd's huts' under the viaduct with views across the creek. 

Or to be more precise, with views directly into the living quarters of the boat dwellers. The relative privacy that they currently enjoy will be gone in one fell swoop, with the vista for new tenants valued above any protection for those who already live there. So keen are the developers to boast how they will open up pedestrian access to the creek and provide new views across the water (or the mud for half the day, considering it's still tidal here) that they conveniently gloss over the fact these are people's homes.


The renderings show how active the river frontage is intended to be - in good weather the occupants of the mobile units will be able to spill out onto the creekside and enjoy the sunshine; the ground-floor units in the main stacks of shipping containers are intended as cafes or restaurants, so these are likely to have customers coming and going throughout the evening. 

The planning application disingenuously states that this development is 'not intended to be positioned as a late night venue', while simultaneously applying for opening hours extending to 11pm every weekday and till 1am on the weekends. With the site open from 8am, there will be no respite for those living on the water.

The boats which are shown on the other side of the creek wall seem to be mere afterthoughts, just there as decoration or in the spirit of accurate representation. It's almost as if Artworks Creekside is keen to be rid of these inconvenient incumbents.


This image from the planning application is probably the clearest indication of the attitude of Artworks Creekside towards its existing tenants. It clearly shows the impact the new units will have on the existing boats - this rendering being created from a photograph taken from the boat Julian uses as his workshop, the edge of which can be seen next to the creek wall. 

The renderings in the application give no indication that the rights of the existing residents (to privacy, to light, to quiet enjoyment and so on) have even been given even the most fleeting consideration.

There's no explanation of how they will get on and off their homes, take delivery of fuel, or continue to securely access utilities such as water, electricity, telephone lines and so on. 

There is no space for any residents to store equipment or park the vehicles by which they make their livings, and nowhere for Julian to relocate his beehives.

In short there is no consideration of how the proposed development could be successfully delivered without severely impacting on the existing residents.

The fact that the boat dwellers did not even receive official notification of the planning application from the council is also worrying - as registered council tax payers with their own letterboxes in the gate, why did they have to find out about the planning application from official notices on lamp-posts on the public highway? As direct 'neighbours' to the development, they should be statutory consultees  if the planning process is correctly followed.

While failures in official planning procedure are of concern, more worrying is the ongoing bullying and intimidation that the new site owners are inflicting on the existing residents, presumably in an attempt to drive them away so that they can progress their plans unhindered. 

Huge proposed hikes in rent, unreasonable demands (such as allowing other boats to moor alongside and giving people access across your own home), repeated threats of expensive court cases, and getting the Port of London Authority involved as a means of further increasing the costs to residents - all these tactics are being employed by Artworks Creekside in their unsavoury efforts to socially cleanse Theatre Arm. 

Without such murky goings on I might have been in favour of a slimmed-down version of this proposal, which if done properly could offer useful space for small businesses. With fewer shipping containers, proper, private moorings with secure access and facilities for existing residents, and restricted hours to provide the boaters with quiet enjoyment of their homes it might work - but with its current backers the whole idea leaves nothing but a nasty taste in my mouth.