Sunday, 17 November 2013

Convoys Wharf - localism inaction?

Barely two years after the Localism Act came into being, recent events in Deptford mean you'd be forgiven for wondering what the hell is the point of this particular piece of legislation.

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 my considered opinion, you'd be right to ask what the point of the Localism Act is, particularly in the light of recent, local events, the implications of which are still unfolding.

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) 
And indeed the GLA report notes that Lewisham is not generally lax when it comes to meeting deadlines for planning decisions, which is another point in its favour - indeed we have been practically ushering acceptance of housing schemes straight in through the door. Over the last two years, Lewisham has approved 135% of its target for new housing, and it is 'almost exactly on the three year average' of 'affordable' housing in the capital (although as other bloggers point out, 'affordable' is little more than a meaningless label these days).

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 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.


Anonymous said...

London's housing crisis is being used by developers such as Hutchison Whampoa to push through schemes such as Convoys Wharf. Already broad sheet journalists are asking the vital question whether these developments are actually providing the type of housing London needs. Off-Plan sales of London riverside apartments in the Far-East suggests that far from responding to London's housing crisis such schemes will exacerbate the crisis by taking away land that could be developed in the manner London needs.

Anonymous said...

Boris 4 ever :)

Anonymous said...

900 people out of 60 millions isnt a lot is it!!! You need to think what the majority want and need. IE the UK economy. We NEED the investment.

Anonymous said...

"900 people out of 60 millions isnt a lot is it!!! You need to think what the majority want and need. IE the UK economy. We NEED the investment."

Anonymous - so local people's views don't matter to you? What's the magic number signing a petition before you think it's worth considering? And how exactly do you come to the conclusion that the majority want this scheme??? Are 60 million people all desperate to have Convoys Wharf turned into Dubai? No. No one NEEDS this, except perhaps News International. Do we have to sell our souls and our country for overseas investors toget even richer rather than house local people and keep our heritage?

In fact it is a tiny and aggressive minority - the developers and their multi-millionaire owners, plus Boris - who want this. Very few other people want to provide luxury houses to overpaid overseas buyers at the expense of the local community. You only speak for a minority.

Anonymous said...

Dame, don't be too quick to assume Anon 17 November 2013 15:51 is the minority. I too am for it and so are others I know who live here. Just because we don't set up an action group (Develop Convoys - now that has a ring!) doesn't mean we are not wholly supportive of the proposals.

Deptford Dame said...

@anon 19.25 don't be so quick to assume that I'm anon 17.24 arguing with anon 15.51.

I've said my piece, I'm leaving the rest of you to play among yourselves for a while. Just try and make it interesting, provocative and well-informed comment please, it's much more interesting that way.

definitely not anonymous said...

7 gyMeginThe idea (espoused by various characters using the pseudonym 'anonymous') that we NEED the development as proposed is simply ridiculous.

Massive tower blocks sold to rich investors who will not live in them or contribute to the local economy in any way are not what we NEED.

Gated ghettos blocking what should be a public riverside path are not what we NEED.

Years of disruption with construction lorries using residential streets are not what we NEED.

Proper consultation, proper account of locals' views, and a sensitive redevelopment of a historic site - these are the things we NEED.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Dame - I read the posting a bit too quickly and thought I saw your name attributed! Apologies, Anon 19:25

Julian said...

Great to see lively discussion going on at a local level...wait a minute, could that be the spirit that engendered the Localism Act ?
I ,for one, think that this developer cares nothing for Lewisham, Deptford or anywhere else in its vast portfolio and certainly does not give a hoot for London's housing needs. For him the bottom line is all that matters. And London will see very little of that.
This has been made worse by the overage clause that he signed when he purchased the site off Murdoch's company which gives a profit share on every residential unit on the site to a company whose only shareholders are the Murdoch family.
What's the old Chinese proverb ? If you lay with dogs you will get fleas ?
Problem is, as things stand now it will be Deptford that suffers for years to come unless this madness is curtailed.
Their application is not the answer for this site but that does not mean that there should be no housing on it but there should be park/garden space, water space, activity, employment culture a leisure and links to Deptford's amazing heritage.

A heritage that's in the hands of some lamentable caretakers.

Oh, and it's sad none of you have the guts to put your name to your opinions !

Ed said...

I believe those who are in favour of the development far outweigh those who aren’t. Personally, I’m for development of site. I do agree that the plans lack imagination, however the local area will benefit from a MUCH needed uplift.

Anonymous said...

Boris is a legend in the making. Deptford needs a major makeover and Convoys will be a great place to start. Enough nostalgia and more progress. More input from developers and professionals who know what they're talking about and less objections from people who want to live in the dark ages.

Deptford Dame said...

@ed everyone is entitled to their beliefs but if you are putting them forward as fact it would be helpful to have a bit of evidence too.

Deptford Dame said...

@ed sorry I meant to add that you might perhaps also try raising your expectations. Why doesn't Deptford deserve plans with imagination? We aren't even asking the developer to provide any, our local projects have it in spades! That way we get a real uplift for the area AND its residents.

Joe Beale said...

Ed, I don't think anyone is disagreeing with you when you say" Personally, I’m for development of site. I do agree that the plans lack imagination". As The Dame points out, "Why doesn't Deptford deserve plans with imagination?

Plenty of good ideas and suggestions have been put forward but the developers arrogantly insist they don't want to listen to anybody else. It's the details of the plans that are the problem, not whether it should be developed or not. A more enlightened discussion might result in plans for development that everyone is happy with.

All these anonymous people claiming they have majority support for this scheme - well, prove it then. Over 1000 against it so far, where's the counter-petition? Do most people honestly want this particular scheme? It is more likely that most people want SOME development or other, but this is the only scheme that is planned for now. If given a choice of something more sensible than the current HW plans, most people would go for that.

Anonymous, Boris is far from "a legend in the making". He's an astute, amoral and dangerous politician who's an expert at manipulating the media and public into seeing him as a likeably roguish buffoon.

"Deptford needs a major makeover and Convoys will be a great place to start."
Yes, but why these plans for a gated forest of massive luxury tower blocks for Hong Kong businessmen to play in, which benefit few people except Rupert Murdoch and the billionaire property tycoon owner? Don't they have enough money already? Why give the land away for private profit when we could get a decent and constructive scheme built here to help far more people for a long time.

"Enough nostalgia and more progress." Sure, if you think progress means a widening of the wealth gap and carving up our land for a tiny minority to get even richer.

"More input from developers and professionals who know what they're talking about and less objections from people who want to live in the dark ages."
Haha, yeah right, because these "developers and professionals" don't just want to make maximum profits at all costs and really do care about the local community's long term needs. Why does asking for a sensible, imaginative development that considers the community's needs and not just those of a few wealthy businessmen mean people want to live in the dark ages?
The dark ages would be looking up at our new overlords' giant luxury towers, like serfs looking at the lord's castle, while we are kept safely away from the unreachable golden city.

Anonymous said...

Come on Joe. These Hong Kong Play Boys and the likes of Rupert Murdoch need their stimulation. It benefits the countries economy as a whole. The amount of taxes, fees, employment and global publicity this little playground will generate far outweighs all the negative, inward, backwards, selfish attitudes of a few.
If people want history, visit a museum.

Ed said...

Whether Boris decides to approve the development or not, it doesn’t really affect me directly so I find it difficult to form a strong opinion either way. I hope however that the final plans are more inspired that the ones I’ve seen online.

I believe the investment in the area is a positive for Deptford. The high street in particular is in desperate need of attention. I live on the Greenwich / Deptford border and I would never go to Deptford unless it was to catch a train….