Tuesday 8 February 2022

Launch of MoSaF map - 'a new way of thinking about Deptford'

A group campaigning for a Museum of Slavery and Freedom to be established in Deptford has announced the launch of its latest initiative, the MoSaF Map, this Saturday. 

MoSaF London has issued an invitation to local residents, businesses and community groups to attend the launch and book a place on one of the free walking tours that take place on Sunday. 

Local groups, schools, neighbours and friends are all invited to this event at which MoSaF will present its research and vision for a museum. Artists taking part in MōSaF’s 2022 commissioning programme also will present their ideas for community engagement.

"There is no memorial to the slave trade in the UK’s capital, an astounding gap in our country’s cultural landscape. Our railway system, cotton and coal industries, the City of London and the country house movement all owe a substantial economic debt to the trade in enslaved people," the invitation says.

"The MōSaF Map is unique because it goes local. Against the backdrop of such national amnesia, it provides a historical snapshot of how, and exactly where on our streets, Deptford and its citizens were involved in the trade. It marks out places where the fight for abolition took place."

The local community is invited to RSVP to attend the launch on Saturday 12th February where they can pick up a copy of the map, join the campaign for a museum, and sign up to participate in art workshops and collaborative projects. MoSaF guides are also planning free walking tours on Sunday which can be booked at the event. 

MoSaF deputy chair Judith Hibbert says: “We want to show the true light of what went on, but we don’t want to gravitate to just that. We want young people to get involved, we want to give them a focus. We learn so much about the Tudors at school but not much on slavery. This museum is about true history. Why should what we learn be one-sided?”

SATURDAY, 12 FEBRUARY 2022 from 3pm

Empathy & Risk Studio, 1 Borthwick Street, London SE8 3GH

RSVP: info@mosaf.org.uk

Sunday 6 February 2022

Bread & Butler's Deptford tenure cut short by redevelopment plans

As an avid fan and occasional purchaser of Bread & Butler's cardamom buns, the news that the Creekside bakery is not reopening was a big disappointment to me. 

Bread & Butler

Since Bread & Butler set up home in the old Medina Building at 3 Creekside it has become much loved for its great quality bread and waistband-busting morning goods.

It was also one of three tenants that Creekside developer Artworks proudly proffered in its ongoing consultation on development of the site opposite the baker's home as proof of how it is establishing a new 'creative' community. 

"Our plans for 2 Creekside build upon the emerging context that the Borough has for Creekside. The character along the Creekside is changing, and Artworks have already invested over the past 5 years in building up a creative business community in the immediate local area. We want to build upon the work we’ve already done, sustaining and growing our creative business community in line with Deptford’s changing market demands."

But while Artworks is keen to boast about the presence of well-loved tenants, claims about supporting them long-term are now ringing rather hollow.

Bread & Butler wanted to renew their lease with a term of at least five years, to make it viable to invest in the business and improve the facilities and space they were using. 

But the bakery's announcement of the permanent closure stated: "with only a short term lease on offer and a production space that is no longer fit for purpose, I’ve had to call our time at 3 Creekside to an end." 

Although no planning application has yet been submitted, the site is certainly in line for redevelopment, as the map above and renderings below show. Architect Maith Design, responsible for the outline plans for 2 Creekside has also been scoping out Artworks' other parcel of land - and the corner site where Artworks studios reside also figures in this 'masterplan'.

The 'masterplan' also shows development on 5-9 Creekside which currently houses studios and other businesses  

The architect states: Forming part of a masterplanned approach to repurposing two key sites within Deptford, Creekside 3 will be a striking development of residential apartments on the upper floors set above generously proportioned commercial units activating the ground floor.  The development looks to address the intricate issues of scale and massing relating to the local context whilst taking the opportunity of being the link building between the new developments of Creekside 1 and Creekside 5-9 which sit on either side.

View along Creekside with the Medina building on the right

According to the initial scope, Artworks want to build a 'mixed residential and commercial' development on the site of its 'creative community', including 60 apartments. 

Proposed development showing existing Medina building in the foreground

Friday 31 December 2021

Birds Nest pub threatened in Creekside redevelopment proposals

When plans for residential development at 1 Creekside (now at its final construction height) were going through the planning process a few years ago, there was great consternation among regulars of the Birds Nest pub and local musicians about whether future residents might object to disturbance from the gigs and all-day festivals that it is famous for. 

View along Reginald Road SE8, existing Birds Nest pub to right

Many were worried that complaints from neighbours might undermine the viability of the pub as a night-time music venue - a petition signed by 2,300 people objecting to the plans was submitted along with a number of personal objections. In response Lewisham's planning department used the 'agent of change' principle to try and pre-empt such threats - this policy places the onus on the developer of a new building to incorporate sufficient sound insulation to protect new residents from noise nuisance and to make them aware that they are moving in/buying a property next to a music venue. 

Unfortunately this won't offer any protection to the building from the most obvious threat - the aspirations of its current owners. They have published outline plans of what they intend to do to the building and its adjacent land - as part of the requisite community consultation process - and are inviting feedback from the public. 

The plans cover not just the pub, but the 'beer garden' out front, the land alongside which is currently home to The Deptford Bus and the plot behind the pub at 2 Creekside where a collection of converted shipping container units huddle behind the brick wall in the shadow of the DLR viaduct.  

Fantasy view along tree-lined Reginald Road SE8; redeveloped Birds Nest pub to the right

They propose to almost entirely demolish the Birds Nest, retaining only its facade, behind which a new building will be constructed, which will have a pub at ground level and residential units above; new construction to the south overlooking the creek, and a long block to the east, facing onto Creekside. 

Naturally the consultation site is light on factual info (plans, sections, specifications etc) and is more about marketing than genuine communication; as such it's difficult to extract reliable information even from the exhibition boards which you are tucked away here. And while the website states that this 'mixed use' development will incorporate 31 residential units, the project listing on the architect's website suggests it could be significantly more. 

At ground level the building at number 2 Creekside will have 'flexible' commercial spaces which the developer claims will attract new creative industries to the area - similar perhaps to those that came and went rapidly from the repurposed shipping containers, only a couple of which continue to be occupied. 

The area behind the block is earmarked for communal gardens, to be shared between the residents and the boating community - being within the exclusion zone of the DLR viaduct there is not much else that the land could be used for. On the plus side, it seems the landowner has grudgingly acknowledged the boat dwellers as a relevant factor in the planning process; I understand that discussions are under way between the two parties to seek a permanent solution to retain their residential amenity and right to occupy the wharf.

Leaving aside my opinions about the conversion of low-quality 'creative' space to 'flexible commercial space' and land allocated to employment use being built over with mixed-use developments, there are two key issues which I find deeply problematic with these proposals. The first is the loss of the building itself, and the second is the potential impact on the viability of the pub and its contribution to the local live music scene.

The pub was formerly known as the Oxford Arms and the site also had a theatre, hence the name Theatre Wharf

In the Creekside Conservation Area Appraisal, published by Lewisham Council in 2012, the Birds Nest was described as 'a key building within the area' - in a list that also features APT studios, the railway lifting bridge, the listed railway viaduct, Mumford's Mill, the pumping station and St Paul's Church.  

"It is an elegant Victorian building with a canted bay turning the corner. The pub frontage on the ground floor is rendered and has large modern timber windows subdivided into small panes. The upper floors have timber sash windows and red brick dressings and pediments.

A pub existed in this location by the early 19th century, known as the ‘Oxford Arms’. Next to it was the old Deptford Theatre which run successfully from the mid 18th century to 1840. After a period of decline, it closed in 1860 and became a coal depot. It was demolished in the early 20th century and in its place Theatre Wharf created. Today’s pub keeps up the tradition by having a small theatre space."

The developer's claims that the retention of nothing but the facade, pasted onto the front of a larger modern building, shows 'respect' for the conservation area cannot surely be given any credence? It is nothing but vandalism, pure and simple. 

The building may be run down (no obvious maintenance for the whole two years since its purchase by Trac Properties, which has the same directors as developer Artworks Creekside) but surely it is not beyond renovation? A skilled architect could certainly devise a solution that truly respects the existing building and develops the adjoining land with appropriate sensitivity.

My second concern is impact this proposal will have on the pub itself, not to mention the live music and cultural scene both in Deptford and beyond. The Birds Nest is one of the few pubs in the area that still hosts regular gigs and even day-long festivals, with free entry. Both established and up-and-coming bands feature, and the venue provides a valuable focus for musicians and fans alike. The pub is also loved as a meeting place for Deptford life in all its glory - young and old, from all walks of life and backgrounds. Its unpretentious nature may not conform to the modern gastropub mould, for that's the key to its appeal for many of its customers. And there are plenty modern gastropubs around for those who prefer them. 

As noted above, the site's history also featured a theatre; a performance space was part of the existing pub until 2000 and there is no reason this could not be considered as part of a redevelopment.

The website includes lots of reassuring words about how the developers are working to ensure that the redeveloped pub retains 'its much beloved character, and that its rich music heritage is preserved for current and future residents to enjoy', but in the next breath suggests that the adjoining bus could serve as a replacement pub (and music venue?) during the reconstruction work. 

This certainly raises a whole load of questions about continuity and viability - it seems unlikely that what is essentially an outdoor venue could host the same programme of gigs without causing problems for neighbours, and it also begs the question as to how a much smaller and awkwardly-laid-out floor space can be viable even in the short-term when the existing one is not. In 2020 the Deptford Society applied successfully for the pub to be listed as an Asset of Community Value, to ensure that its importance to the area was officially acknowledged. However this only gives the community the option to intervene if an asset is put up for sale. 

It's worth pointing out that the information on the consultation site is what they call 'indicative' (i.e. you can't rely on it), and the consultation process is only being conducted as it enables the developer to notch up a few Brownie points ahead of the actual planning application. 

Feel free to submit comments but if you want them to count in the planning process you'll have to replicate them once the application is live; also it's probably a good idea to send comments by direct email, rather than using the website form, just so you have a record of what you've submitted. These things have a habit of getting lost and it is always interesting to see how your own comments have been interpreted (or are even present) in the subsequent report. 

View along Creekside towards APT with new mixed use building on the right

Monday 1 March 2021

Albany Theatre garden earmarked for construction in new local plan

Deptford's Albany Theatre and its back garden are earmarked for construction of more than a hundred new flats in the new Lewisham local plan, the document which sets out the council's planning strategy for the next two decades and which is out for consultation at the moment.

The Albany is being put forward for 'comprehensive mixed use development' which would see the theatre retained, but with residential accommodation built above and behind it, including on the rear garden which includes more than half a dozen mature trees.

In happier times, when the cafe at the Albany is open, this garden is probably Deptford's best kept secret for a quiet coffee/beer and sandwich in the sun. It's a little overgrown and has never really been used to best advantage by the facility, but it is a delightful oasis of calm especially on the busy market days we hope to see return again soon.  

If the draft plan is adopted, it will formalise the plans that the Albany has been talking about for more than a decade now - most recently in February last year. 

While there is no planning application yet submitted for the Albany, having the land included as a 'site allocation' in the local plan essentially enshrines the case its development and sets out the density and type of development that the council would support within the boundaries.

According to the document, the Albany site on Douglas Way is suitable for up to 102 residential units on an area of land measuring just over 0.6 hectares. 

You can get an idea of the kind of density this represents by taking a look at the development that is just nearing completion on Amersham Vale opposite the police station. This has 120 residential units on around 0.7 hectares, which doesn't include the small park adjacent to it and also doesn't have to accommodate a theatre and 'town centre' uses at ground level. 

In consultation up to now, the Albany has said it will retain 'outside space' in the development, but it seems unlikely there will be room for anything like the size of what's there now.

The Albany land is just one of 18 'site allocations' being proposed for the North Lewisham area, which covers Evelyn and New Cross wards. The majority of those listed have been in the pipeline for at least a decade but the Albany is one of a number of new sites, alongside several which have been planned for redevelopment but which the revised document proposes can accommodate increased density of development. 

I'll be writing more about the draft local plan in the coming days, but if you want to comment on it I suggest you start reading now - the full consultation document is 870 pages long, it's one of a number of documents, and you only have until 11th April to comment. 

You can either submit your comments via the Commonplace platform that the council uses for a lot of its consultation, or you can just download the documents from the council website or Commonplace, and send your comments in by email or post. 

The council is also holding a series of 'information sessions' on Zoom for which registration is necessary - those focussing on the borough-wide issues have already taken place although the recordings are being uploaded to a YouTube channel here and the slides are available on the Commonplace website here.

Sessions focussing on the five 'character areas' of the borough, which include the specific site allocations, run over the next few weeks and require advance registration. Just in case you fancy a bit more screen time in between work and home schooling. 

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Plans to build on Charlotte Turner Gardens dismissed at appeal

Another case I reported on last year - the application to build a three-storey block of flats on the former Blusher's pub site on McMillan Street - has just been dismissed by the Planning Inspectorate after the applicant took Greenwich Council's decision to reject it to appeal. 

Proposed block of flats on McMillan St

According to the inspector, the main issues were the effect of the proposed development on: 'the character and appearance of its surroundings, and on the living conditions of neighbouring and proposed occupants with particular reference to light, visual impact, privacy and space standards.'

He added: 'The proposed block, in view of its scale, location and visual context, would be crammed onto its site and would appear over-dominant, impinging harmfully on openness and obliterating the pleasant views into the park enjoyed by passers-by, whether on foot, cycle or in cars. To my mind, the development’s intrusive nature would represent the antithesis of good quality urban planning and would case unacceptable harm to the well-balanced townscape that such planning has achieved.'

Although the internal floor area of the flats did meet current requirements, the inspector also noted that within the layout, too much of the space was dedicated to circulation rather than living area, so it would not create a 'high quality' living environment.

This will no doubt be a huge relief to those who would have been directly impacted by it, and from a planning and green space point of view, I think it was the right decision. It's unfortunate that, for reasons I set out in my blog post last year, it is likely to have implications for the work and funding of local charity Midi Music Company.

Sunday 24 January 2021

Proposal for Noah's Ark reconstruction

Draft proposals for the reconstruction of number 229 Deptford High street (the former Noah's Ark pub) have been made public this month for public consultation.  

The move comes more than a year after I initially reported that an attempt to demolish the structure while full-height hoardings were in place was halted when a local resident reported unauthorised activity to the council. 

Since then the building has stood as a semi-derelict and unsightly reminder of the fragile status of Deptford High Street's conservation area designation. 

The site, at the northern junction of the high street with Creek Road, is adjacent to the Grade II listed building 227 Deptford High Street and the former pub building that occupied it - the Noah's Ark - was considered a key 'gateway building' to the conservation area. 

Listed building number 227

After the pub closed, the ground floor was converted to office space and it was used by a firm of solicitors for some years. But subsequently an application was made to divide the existing building up into 11 single-person bedsits/studios with very poor quality accommodation - under permitted development rights as I understand it - and a further application to stick a two-bed apartment on the top in an extension was approved in 2019. 

To say the site has a chequered planning history is an understatement. 

The latest proposals - and it's worth noting they are only proposals, essentially a series of renderings with minimal detail - see an attempt to replicate the structure that was originally torn down, albeit with the addition of a mansard roof. 

View from the high street looking north

According to the website, the ground floor will be brought back into use as two commercial units (not a pub sadly) and the upper floors will provide five residential units of one and two bedroom size. One floor plan is shown on the website but there is no detail of the other four although the website does state that the basement will be retained for use by the commercial units.

The website also notes that the ground floor facade will 'retain and repair any remaining historic fabric' - there's not much of it left by any account, but it seems right that this is the least that the developer could do. 

It's interesting to see on the website that they are sticking with their original story that the building 'became unsafe' during the renovation works and had to be demolished 'for the safety of the public' on the advice of 'structural engineers'. 

Notably the latest version of the story is rather at odds with what actually happened. According to the website the full height hoarding had to be put up 'as part of this emergency work' - locals will recall that the building had been wrapped up for some time and demolition work had been ongoing before the scale of it became apparent. The planners had not been notified of this 'public safety' issue, nor the extent of what was going on behind the hoardings, and once they were aware, issued immediate instructions for it to stop. 

The general public is being invited to comment on the plans via the website - feel free to do so but don't forget that what actually matters is what's in the detail of the planning application. It may or may not align with what you see online. It's all very well to be wooed by some renderings, the developer's statement and one floor plan, but none of it is legally binding till it's on that planning portal - and even then it may be subsequently revised.

One important question remains - what legal action is being taken against those responsible for the destruction of Deptford's heritage?

I'll hazard a guess that there won't be any. It seems to me that the council has traded off the threat of legal action in exchange for cooperation from the developer/owner of the site. I assume they have no appetite for legal action which could be costly and be unlikely to resolve the loss of the building for years. Whether the outcome would have been different had the site been elsewhere in the borough - Blackheath for example - is difficult to say. 

Sunday 11 October 2020

Barclays' branch closure set to make Deptford a banking desert

Plans announced by Barclays to close a slew of branches next January - including their branch in Deptford, the only bank remaining on the high street - will leave residents in Evelyn and New Cross wards without any local in-person access to banking services. 

After January, Barclays customers will have to travel to London Bridge to visit their nearest branch - and there will be little to be gained by changing banks, as nearby branches of other banks such as HSBC in Greenwich are also closing. 

Barclays has been the only bank on Deptford High Street for the last decade, since the closure of the Halifax in 2010. At that time many Halifax customers changed to Barclays because they still wanted to be able to do their banking in person. 

Of course in the last ten years things have changed and there's been a huge rise in the number of people using online and telephone banking to manage their money. But if you've ever had to visit the bank, or walked past it during opening hours, then you'll know that it inevitably involves queueing. Clearly there are still a lot of people who either need or want to do their banking face to face.

There's also still a high demand for cash in Deptford, especially with a market that is a long way from going digital. Hence the loss of three cash machines that don't charge to withdraw money will be sorely felt. 

Deptford High Street is awash with cashpoints but the vast majority are the type that get installed as free-to-use facilities and then revert to charging after six months or so. Almost all of them charge a fee of 99p upwards for withdrawals - for those on low incomes whose balance is such that they are only able to take ten or twenty quid out at a time this is a premium that they can't afford.

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Got a planning objection? If you live in Lewisham you can SoD off!

Changes to the way Lewisham Council makes decisions on its planning applications, which favour reducing the council's backlog of cases at the cost of transparency and public scrutiny, are now proposed to be retained until at least February 2021 - nearly a year since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

The special measures were brought in three months ago when councillors agreed to temporary changes to the 'scheme of delegation' for planning applications; the reason being to clear a bottleneck of applications caused by the lockdown. 

Under these changes to the appropriately-acronymed SoD, 75% of applications that would previously have been scrutinised by councillors are now decided by officers under what is called 'delegated powers'.

Without being brought to committee there is no opportunity for objectors to argue their case; no scrutiny from elected councillors or the general public; no debate or questioning of applicant or objectors; decisions on permanent and long-lasting changes to the borough's estates, streetscapes and public realm all made behind closed doors by council officers.

The council's formal constitution states that any planning application with three or more objections - or just one if it comes from a recognised amenity society such as the Deptford Society or the Brockley Society - has to be scrutinised by a committee if officers are recommending it for approval. 

Under the new powers, five objections are needed just to get your foot in the door, and even with as many as nine objections, applications only get a 'case review' by the committee chair. The chair will decide - in discussion with the very officers who will be landed with the increased workload associated with a committee hearing (#justsaying) - whether an application should go before a committee or not. 

When the changes were first discussed in June, strategic planning committee members were reassured that they would be able to review these changes after three months, and the review 'would provide an opportunity for [them] to assess success in terms of the quality of the decisions that would be taken, and the transparent and fair processes that would be applied.'

Officers now want to extend it for another six months, but the report they are putting before the committee on Thursday that claims to assess the success of the measures only states the number of cases resolved as a measure of success; it neither offers any insight into the quality of the decisions, nor does it list the cases that have been decided in this way, to enable interested parties to make their own assessment. 

Reading between the lines, officers are clearly delighted to have binned all the tiresome parts of the job like writing committee reports, negotiating with applicants, and spending evenings in meetings (even online ones) and they want to ensure that this joyous situations persists as long as possible. 

Recently heavyweights such as RIBA and the Town & Country Planning Association have been raising merry hell about the impact Tory planning reforms could have on our built environment; but  Lewisham has proved we don't need the tories to fuck up planning scrutiny - the ruling Labour group can do just as efficient a job, and get it under the wire without anyone batting an eyelid! 

We have lost scrutiny in one fell swoop and it's now at risk of being extended from a three month temporary measure to almost a year. An open invite to bang in that application for a badly-detailed conversion that you sketched out on the back of an envelope when you were in the pub the other week.

Saturday 15 August 2020

Developer appeals over McMillan Street plans

Campaigners are asking local residents and community groups in Deptford to write to the Planning Inspectorate to reiterate their objections against an application to build on land on the south edge of Charlotte Turner Gardens.

The application for a new three-storey block of flats on McMillan Street was refused by Greenwich Council earlier this year on the grounds of being an 'unsympathetic and over-dominant addition to the existing street scene and park'; for 'failing to provide an acceptable internal and external living environment for prospective residents' and for having 'an adverse impact on the amenity of adjoining occupiers as a result of a loss of outlook, increased sense of enclosure and a loss of light/overshadowing'.

But the developer has now taken the case to appeal, which means that a final decision will be made by the Planning Inspectorate whose inspector will decide whether to uphold the council's decision, or overturn it.


The real story here lies in the fact that the site has a complex history, having previously been occupied by a pub that was most recently known as Blushers. 

The land has been owned by Deptford-based charity Midi Music Company since the 1990s, when it was donated with a covenant that it be used for the benefit of the community. MMC is a music education and talent development charity that has been working in the local community for more than two decades.  

The initial intention, as MMC director Wozzy Brewster has pointed out was to build a new home for the charity with a flat above for use in its youth cultural exchange programme. But having raised funds and demolished the building, the charity was offered the opportunity to bid for the building it already occupied, and so the plans for the relocation were shelved. Planning permission to build three flats on the site was granted in 2004, but this permission has long since expired.

And in the interim a lot has changed. 

As well as a new block of flats being built on the land opposite, with residents enjoying direct views from their balconies across to the park, the pressure on green space in the local area continues to increase, while  the residential population rises. Any loss of green space and natural habitat is potentially detrimental, whether that land is publicly accessible or not. 

On the flip side, charities are under increasing pressure with grant aid cut and increased demand on their services. Generally trustees must ensure that the charity uses its assets to deliver its aims as efficiently as it can, hence MMC would have had to find a way to gain direct financial benefit from the land that they could use to support their valuable work. 

Demolition of the original building reportedly took place due to concern over the state of the cellars, and between 2005 and 2011, Midi Music Company granted licensed use of the site to Twinkle Park Trust, who agreed to landscape and maintain the land as they already do with Charlotte Turner Gardens and Twinkle Park on behalf of Greenwich Council. When the licence ran out, TPT continued to maintain it on an informal basis. 

The land was intended to look as if it was part of Charlotte Turner Gardens, but was not to be accessed by the public because of the unknown condition of the cellars below.

When the park was remodelled in 2014 I wrote about the changes, and at the time remember noting the  rather odd feature at the south end that was fenced in as if it was part of the park, but not planted or landscaped at all.

It would seem to have made sense for this slip of land to be incorporated into the existing park to safeguard it as a green space and community facility, but for the reasons set out above, ownership by one charity does not necessarily align with the aims of another.  

Hence MMC say that when the decision was made to sell the land, they offered TPT first refusal, but the trust was not able to raise sufficient funds to meet the asking price. The trustees of MMC sought to have the community covenant removed from the land, and sold it in 2018 to the current owner and developer.

I've not been able to clarify the full details of the situation to my satisfaction, other than picking up reports from individuals on an anecdotal basis that can't be confirmed or dismissed. But it's hardly surprising since charities of this size tend to be run by a handful of people and the paperwork that's legally required is minimal; efforts are often focussed on delivering the charitable works as a priority.

It's worth noting that Wozzy Brewster was also a director of Twinkle Park Trust between 1999 and 2002, overlapping with at least two of the current directors, so to suggest that the two charities have been operating in separate vacuums seems unlikely. 

Meanwhile I've read some comments on social media platforms that seek to pit one charity against another in a way that really isn't helpful. Suggestions that MMC's actions to sell off the land were underhand, or done with anything other than the best intentions, don't lend anything to the argument, and only obscure debate of the facts. 

The latest newsletter from another parks group, Deptford Folk, suggests that the flats will be built 'on a children's play area', which simply isn't true. The impact the new building will have on the adjacent nursery playground and the park itself is clearly part of the case for objectors, and are covered in the council's refusal, but the land has never been formally allocated or used as a playground. 

Whatever the ins and outs of the back story, there is a concerted campaign to encourage objectors to register their views with the Planning Inspectorate before the deadline of 21 August. Local MP Matthew Pennycook (also a former TPT director) has lent his support to the objectors and there is a Facebook and Twitter account as well as a petition for anyone who wants more details on how to object. 

Monday 8 June 2020

Convoys Wharf development plans - a cultural desert?

This week sees the first three detailed planning applications for the huge Convoys Wharf site on Lewisham's main river frontage come before the strategic planning committee. These applications were intended to be considered by the committee in March, but the meeting was postponed when lockdown conditions were imposed.

Now they are back - and this Tuesday will be the subject of the first strategic planning committee to be held using the online meetings platform.

One big question will be how the council plans to address ongoing concerns over the lack of any cultural strategy for the site and the failure of the applicant's efforts to establish a cultural steering group for what is arguably one of the most historically-significant pieces of land in the borough.

With the new online platform, the public are able to 'attend' meetings by watching them online; while it takes away the fun of the unscripted public heckling that often forms part of the rich tapestry of council planning meetings, it does mean that if you live in Deptford, there's no longer any need to travel all the way to Catford to experience that sinking feeling when another council officer refers to Griffin Square or a committee member reveals their ignorance of Deptford's rich heritage and cultural background.

I've held off from much analysis of the detailed planning applications for several reasons - mostly that the larger-scale aspects of these schemes have already been approved, and the only aspects up for debate ('reserved matters') are the layout and scale, within the parameters of the outline planning permission; the appearance; the landscaping, and the access. Also because life has a habit of getting in the way at times.

But I couldn't let the moment pass without some comments on what is being put before our elected members this week - and to highlight the lacklustre efforts to reflect the heritage of the site, a failure that will come as no surprise to those of us who have followed the progress of the development.

For those new to Deptford, Convoys Wharf is name latterly given to the huge empty swathe of land down on the river front; formerly the site of Henry VIII's royal dockyard, established in 1513, and which became England's premier dockyard and a focus of wooden ship building in the 17th century. It has many other important historic links - Samuel Pepys was a regular visitor in his role as Admiralty of the Navy, and fellow diarist and contemporary John Evelyn lived in Sayes Court manor house on the site where he established his garden. Russian tsar Peter the Great rented Evelyn's house for three months, when he came to Deptford dockyard to study shipbuilding, and notoriously trashed his holly hedge in a drunken rampage.

The site has had outline planning permission for construction of up to 3500 residential units, in a range of high-rise buildings including three 'landmark' towers up to 40 storeys tall, since 2014. 

Having had to look up that date and check it was right has brought into sharp focus just how long the site owner Hutchison Whampoa has been dragging its feet. Six years so far.

In 2013 HW insisted they were in such a rush to build on the site that they couldn't wait for Lewisham Council to dither about, and they demanded that Mayor of London Boris Johnson (yes, that one) call it in. I expect they insisted that he 'get it done' - a skill he has amply demonstrated his expertise in ever since.

To eliminate any risk of being sidetracked into the long history of this site, I will simply suggest that if you want to know more, you can read previous posts on this blog, or just have a look through part 4.0 of the committee document. 

But while we're speaking about heritage and culture, it's notable that in the council officers' executive summary there's a great deal of discussion (and scant resolution) of the lack of progress with the establishment of a 'cultural steering group' for the development.

The Section 106 agreement stated that the applicant should establish a Cultural Steering Group no later than three months after planning permission was granted. This role of the steering group - which was required to meet at least four times a year - would be to:

(a) assist in advising on the formulation, development and delivery of the Initial Cultural Strategy and the Updated Cultural Strategies and other cultural commitments of the Development as required; and

(b) monitor and review implementation of the approved Initial Cultural Strategy and approved Updated Cultural Strategies and to consider and advise upon any steps it considers could be taken to make the approved Initial Cultural Strategy and/or (as the case may be) the approved Updated Cultural Strategies more effective in achieving their objectives.

The first meeting of the steering group was held on 8 January 2017 - almost three years after planning permission was granted.

The second meeting took place in December 2018.

Since that time there have been no further meetings.

Similarly with the Cultural Strategy for the site - the S106 agreement set out a huge list of items that it required the developer to consider and submit in its cultural strategy, ahead of the first detailed planning application.

A cultural strategy was submitted - and promptly refused by the council on the following grounds:
  • Lack of understanding how the core intentions of the Strategy will be delivered in practice and how much opportunity for genuine local engagement there will be.
  • Lack of concrete commitment to action or principles that would help facilitate community engagement
  • Lack of detail of how the voice of local people or the arts sector will be heard.
  • Programme of available spaces for meanwhile uses needed to be provided and
  • officers wanted to understand how this would be advertised/publicised.
  • No information as to how the local arts sector would be engaged
  • No indication of affordability so spaces offered to the community
  • No programme for activation of the ‘Jetty Park’ 
Oh dear, that's quite damning. You might have thought 'cultural desert' was a harsh comment when you read the headline. Maybe not now.

But don't worry, the S106 did give a bit of wriggle room - the developer only has to have an approved cultural strategy in place by the time 250 of its units are occupied, so still plenty of time to cobble something else together. And cobble they did, with a recent submission in January, just ahead of the planned committee hearing.

The executive summary reports that the applicant has since appointed 'specialist consultant' Forty Shillings to engage with the local community and that: 'The Council is working with the applicant to agree how this process can be recommenced and inform the production of an acceptable Initial Cultural Strategy.'

I'm looking forward to hearing what the strategic planning committee members think about this aspect of the plans.

Aside from overarching cultural considerations, the planning committee will consider three applications - the romantically-monikered plot 8 (the red bit on the map above), plot 15, which is just to the left of plot 8, and plot 22, the 'jetty', which is the decrepit concrete structure sticking out into the river on the front of the site.

Plot 8 - shown on the model above, in its setting right next to the listed Olympia Building (the white, ghostly structure in the middle) - is a somewhat pedestrian u-shaped block of flats of varying heights and designs with retail and cafe units at ground level. I'm struggling to say much about it - faceless, bland and designed to shoehorn as many units as possible (456) into the plot while still giving residents some kind of view and enough room to get a double bed into the main bedroom. The blocks range from 11 to 15 storeys high and all of the units will be for private sale.

There are private gardens in the centre of the block at upper ground level, which are raised up to create space underneath for the car park. The image below shows the view into the gardens - one that will only be seen by people in the residential blocks opposite.

People at ground level will just see the steps leading up to it from a locked gate.

Meanwhile across the way is plot 15, shown in green on the plan below. Here you will find the 'affordable' housing - 65 units being 'London affordable rent' and 59 being 'intermediate' (a shared ownership model) and more office and retail space at ground level.

Within the 'affordable' block the tenure types are proposed to be segregated with separate entrances, demonstrating that the spectre of the 'poor door' is still alive and well in Lewisham.

Plot 15 hugs the corner of the main road into the site; it rises up to nine storeys and has a pocket-sized garden behind it (accessible to all residents) next to a handful of parking spaces. If you're in the 'affordable rent' section your bike store is only accessible from outside the building, and while this may be via the gated garden, notably less secure and convenient than facilities for other residents. 

The images below show the extent of the garden provided for plot 15. With all that brown space on the aerial image above, you would have thought they could have provided a roof garden too. Or is such a facility now out of fashion?

However the use of what I refer to as 'sticky things' for cheap and nasty landscaping is clearly still A Thing, going by the images below. After years of seeing them dotted around the uninspiring neighbourhoods of London I am still no clearer as to what their benefit is, either for play, habitat, or anything that you might want in your garden. You can't even rest your can of Special Brew or your falafel wrap on their silly slopey tops FFS. I find the landscape depressingly uninviting.

The third application that is being considered this week is for plot 22, or the 'jetty' - ultimately destined to become one of the major landscaping features of the whole site, a 'riverside garden' with a new building which is eventually intended to house a restaurant and bar. The jetty will lead to a pontoon which is designed to be served at some time in the future by a riverbus service. It's worth noting that although the site owner is required to provide the means to enable a riverbus to call at the site, there's no guarantee that this will actually materialise, in the short term at least.

The rendering in the document, with its blank, as-yet undesigned riverfront buildings overlooking the top-heavy structure has distinctly dystopian overtones. Somehow it seems very apt.

Don't get too excited at the prospect of riverside dining; it will be at least five years until you are able to sip an overpriced cocktail on the roof garden of the new building. 

To start with, the intention (to be the subject of a subsequent planning application) is that the building will be taken over by the developer as its marketing suite for Convoys Wharf; accessible only by invitation and bringing little value to the local community in terms of opening up the riverfront or providing additional transport options. There won't be any wider landscaping or Jetty Park for some years.

Most people will arrive at the marketing suite by car, the application states. Initial plans were to create a temporary site access by knocking down part of the Grade II listed perimeter wall on Watergate Street - a grossly unnecessary procedure. Happily that seems to have been prevented and access will now be via the existing main gates. 

The strategic planning meeting takes place on Tuesday 9th June, starting at 7.30pm. Links below:

Strategic planning meeting details with papers.
Watch the meeting online.
Plot 8 planning application
Plot 15 planning application
Plot 22 planning application