Monday 31 March 2014

New 'saloon bar' Job Centre due to open soon

It's been a long time coming (intially slated for opening in time for last christmas!) but there's finally some progress on our new high street pub.

The 'Job Centre' (those with relatively short memories will know it actually was a job centre only a few years back, before the authorities saw fit to force our local job-seekers to spend more money travelling to Catford to sign on) is now planned to open in early May.

For some reason it took Antic a long time to eject the squatters who moved in after Utrophia moved out, but work is now going on and I'm looking forward to checking out the new local in the very near future.

I have it on good authority that a former manager of the Royal Albert will be taking it on; great news as it's someone whose pub-managing abilities I rate highly.

I'll admit to being slightly perturbed by the description of it as a 'saloon bar' - not really because of the Wild West connotations (we're used to those in Deptford!) but maybe because I think the high street just needs a good solid boozer.

Not sure quite why they chose this terminology - anyone in the know, please feel free to add it in the comments, I'm sure many of you will be keen to make uneducated guesses too!

Friday 28 March 2014

GLA recommends approval of Convoys Wharf application

The GLA's officers have recommended that the Mayor of London approve Hutchison Whampoa's plans to redevelop Convoys Wharf in Deptford - the ultimate decision will be made by our city's esteemed (ahem) mayor either at the end of, or within five days of, next Monday's hearing.

The recommendation for approval is not really unexpected given that the GLA seems to be all about housing these days, and very little else, and of course it is only a recommendation; since the decision is to be made by a single individual he is free to ignore the recommendation if he wishes, although he would have to have very good reasons as the developer would be sure to challenge a refusal.

But there are plenty of reasons to refuse this application, many of them were previously pointed out by the GLA itself, and it's disappointing that GLA officers don't seem to have made much progress in resolving all the issues they highlighted when they reviewed the previous scheme in 2011. As far as I can see, little has changed since then and the latest report seems to confirm this no matter how much of a positive spin the planners seek to put on it.

The report into the application, which justifies the decision, is 120 pages long, so you'd better get started reading it if you want to have it all fully read and digested by next week's bunfight at City Hall.

Should you have a few minutes to spare after reading that tome, you may wish to read the report put together by Lewisham Council for the strategic planning committee earlier this week, which suggests that all is not as rosy as the GLA suggests in its recommendation for approval.

Anyone can go to the hearing - anyone who doesn't have to go to work, that is, since it's being held at 4pm on a weekday - and if you want to attend, you can find the full details on the website.

A number of objectors have asked for a slot in the schedule, including representatives of the two community projects - the Lenox Project and Sayes Court Garden - along with Malcolm Cadman from Pepys Community Forum and Ray Woolford from local political party People Before Profit (and local estate agent Housemartins). People Before Profit are asking for volunteers to dress up as pirates for a demo at the hearing, so it looks like being a colourful event.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Convoy's Wharf redevelopment; is the end nigh?

The mayoral call-in of the planning application for the redevelopment of Convoys Wharf is set to reach its climax - or some might say its nadir - at the end of this month, with news that the Mayor of London will hold his 'representation hearing' on 31st of March.

As you may remember, the scheme was called in by Boris Johnson at the behest of developer Hutchison Whampoa, after HW sent a moany letter complaining that Lewisham Council was being awkward and slow in making a decision about the site.

Shops in a shed?

With Lewisham Council originally claiming it would make its decision at the end of February, the mayoral call-in has certainly not made the process any quicker. In that case, the only assumption I can draw is that HW believes the application will get a more favourable decision from Boris.

Johnson has spent a lot of time in the last year spouting on about London's severe lack of housing, using this as his excuse for calling-in numerous contentious developments and saying that only foreign investment can solve this problem. It's true, there is a severe lack of housing in London, but it's mainly social housing that is required, properties that public sector workers and those on the minimum wage can rent in order to allow them to live nearer to their workplaces. What interest do foreign investors have in assisting us to meet these needs, when the financial return on such investment cannot match what they would make from private housing?

Despite the disapproval from multiple quarters that his decision to call in the Convoys Wharf application generated, the mayor seems to have no intention of reconsidering his meddlesome ways. In fact it seems to have spurred him on to even more widespread planning-application kleptomania. In December he called in the City Forum planning application for City Road which Islington Council had said it was minded to refuse, and in January he called in an application by the Royal Mail for its Mount Pleasant site, straddling Islington and Camden boroughs, before the two local authorities had chance to make a decision (sound familiar?).

The former (almost 1,000 apartments in buildings ranging from 7 to 42 storeys, a hotel, office space and retail) was refused by Islington because it didn't have enough 'affordable' housing, it would result in a loss of employment space on a site allocated for employment use (sound familiar?), too much car parking provision, too many studio flats of sub-standard quality, and too little attention to minimising carbon emissions.

The Mount Pleasant proposal - to build 683 flats along with shops, restaurants etc on part of the land of the mail sorting office - was called in at the behest of the landowner, Royal Mail. Sound familiar? This also met with strong criticism and the mayor's perceived abuse of power in this regard was criticised by the London Assembly earlier this month.

With Johnson's megalomaniac tendencies no longer even thinly disguised, I suspect we cannot really expect the floppy-haired one to make a considered and level-headed decision, even on a matter that has implications of national and international significance.

So what can we expect in the redevelopment of the site? When Sir Terry Farrell (a member of the London Mayor's 'design advisory group') came to Deptford two years ago to speak at the much-touted 'open day' - shortly after site owner Hutchison Whampoa withdrew its appalling Aedas-designed proposals for the dockyard - he gave a commitment to develop a new masterplan 'from the ground up'.

He promised to take inspiration from the rich heritage of the site; the ships that were built and launched there, the technology that was tested and developed there, the historic significance of the site in the development of the British Navy, not to mention the many stories great and small, the personal histories and the grand gestures that give the site its incredible past.

Putting the Olympia Building 'at the heart' of the development
Fine words, and an inspiring vision; sadly not one that was ever fulfilled.

Heart and lungs - a much more sustainable vision

The architects had a fine time researching the history of the site and coming up with storyboards galore tracing every nook and cranny of the Olympia Building, every lump of mud excavated from the docks and every seed scattered in John Evelyn's gardens. But from the storyboards to the planning documents, the spirit of adventure and the 'ground-up' masterplan got lost - or in my more charitable moments I like to think that the architects did a fine job but their creativity was crushed by the mighty and unforgiving hand of the master.

I won't go through all my objections again - you can read them in some detail here, alternatively you can ask an obvious question in the comments and risk ridicule - but suffice it to say that in my opinion, very little has changed.

An article in Building Design magazine last month had developer Hutchison Whampoa claiming to have made 'significant concessions' following a meeting with the GLA

“We have made further revisions to our masterplan to address issues raised by local groups,” a spokesman for the developer said. 

"By moving the school, creating new space for a John Evelyn horticultural centre, lowering the height of a building on the boundary adjacent to the listed Shipwright’s House and offering the wharf site for the Lenox project, we have made significant concessions.” He added: “We believe the way is now clear for the mayor of London to determine our application, hopefully by the end of March.”

These claims are at odds with the experiences of the local groups. Yes, the school has been moved and a space made for the horticultural centre, but the developer is unwilling to consider a further amendment that those promoting Sayes Court Garden claim will realistically make the centre viable. This could be done without losing floorspace in the building, but the developer has shut down any further discussion on the matter.

The Lenox Project has fared even less well - the only 'offer' of a presence on the site being a verbal suggestion that the GLA might contribute to the cost of building a dry dock on the protected wharf at the west end of the site. I laughed so hard when I heard this I did actually spit my tea out. HW and the GLA consider it a better use of money to spend several million digging a NEW dock in which to build a ship, rather than using one of the OLD ones that already exist below ground, or the slipways in the Olympia Building! Classic!

What shall we do with the Olympia Building?
Don't be confused by the motives here. The land at the west end of the site - the 'wharf site' - cannot currently be used by the developer for building flats. Its 'protected' status is supposed to mean that it can only be used for certain wharf-related purposes such as trans-shipment of materials or goods, and this protection is supposed to ensure continued use of the Thames. Happily for HW, there is a clause in the contract such that if the business on the protected wharf fails or ceases to operate after five years, its protected status will lapse and the developer can build flats on the land! Trebles all round!

Naturally in these circumstances, offering some (useless) land on which to build the ship, and subsequently requiring it to sail off into the sunset, leaving the last bit of land vacant for more riverside apartments would dovetail nicely with the developer's intentions of wringing every last drop of profit from the site.

The 'protected' wharf is the empty bit at the top of the site - and sadly only 'protected' for a few years.
So HW's claim of 'significant concessions' is spurious at best, and any suggestion that they have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into negotiations with local stakeholders is met with derision. Trying to get any kind of face to face meeting with the developer has been nigh-on impossible, according to representatives of the Lenox Project, even with the stalwart support of local MP Joan Ruddock. On several occasions dates have been pencilled in at HW's behest, awaiting confirmation which never came.

And a meeting with culture minister Ed Vaizey, which was intended to bring the two sides together, was scuppered by the developer pulling out the same day. Vaizey did actually give the campaigners a hearing, under pressure, but without both sides present, it was impossible to actually make any progress.

Whether or not the tireless work by local campaigners at Deptford Is.. and its associated projects will cut any ice with the Mayor remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain; if Hutchison Whampoa's proposals for the site are approved as they stand, we can wave goodbye to any meaningful legacy of the former Royal Dockyard, its state-of-the-art shipbuilding technology, maritime heritage and links to the River Thames. And attempts to resurrect the spirit of John Evelyn's Sayes Court Gardens and establish a modern centre for urban horticulture will wither away.

Meanwhile I leave the last words to Samuel Pepys, speaking at the Master Shipwrights House on behalf of The Lenox Project during Open House weekend last September.