Sunday 29 October 2017

The scandal of Deptford's empty homes and abandoned public realm

When Lewisham Council spends £4 million annually on providing temporary accommodation, and the borough has one of the highest levels of rough sleepers in London, why are newly-built apartments allowed to stand empty?

And why is the council allowing the same developers to wriggle out of their commitments to improve public realm, plant trees and provide disabled parking spaces?

This development on the corner of New Cross Road and Watson's Street has been finished for more than a year now.

The red brick building which faces onto New Cross Road and the smaller, grey/brown bricked block are part of the same development by Kitewood Estates which created a total of 44 new homes; 35 for private ownership and 9 for social rent. The flats for social rent are located in the lower block on Watson's Street, at the end of the development furthest from New Cross Road - the entrance, or 'poor door', to the social housing is in the extreme left of the picture below.

Not a single one of the private flats, which have separate entrances closer to New Cross Road, is occupied; they have lain empty since the block was finished. 

The entrance to the low-rise flats has a sign propped in the window warning that the properties are protected by a security firm; the corridor leading from the street to the flats on the main road still has protective covering on the floor and several notices in the door warning that entry is forbidden and giving a phone number for deliveries.

The casual passer-by might be forgiven for thinking that the blocks are still under construction - the large retail units at street level have been boarded up since being built, and the patchwork of footpath and public realm on Watson's Street is clearly nowhere near finished.

But the social housing is already occupied and the pavement has been like this for months. Surely this is not how it is supposed to be?

Indeed not - the planning application for the block (which was initially refused by Lewisham Council but which was passed at appeal) gives details of the soft landscaping and public realm improvements that the developer was promising.

You can get a clue from the rendering below, although for the full details it's necessary to go to the drawings.

The plans promise six semi-mature trees (five London Plane trees, and one Tulip Tree) and six Witch Hazel shrubs next to the block, to soften its hard edges no doubt. Three mature trees were removed so that the block could be built.

The soft landscaping was even made one of the conditions when the application was given permission at appeal. 

The inspector's report said:
All planting, seeding or turfing comprised in the landscaping scheme hereby approved shall be carried out in the first planting and seeding seasons following the occupation of the buildings, or the completion of the development, whichever is the sooner. Any trees or plants which within a period of 5 years from the completion of the development die, are removed or become seriously damaged or diseased, shall be replaced in the next planting season with others of similar size and species.

As well as soft landscaping, the plans included the creation of four disabled parking bays (the ground floor flats are designed to be accessible for wheelchairs) and a delivery bay, presumably to service the retail units and/or allow parking for refuse collections.

Instead there is a mish-mash of asphalt, a wave of shabby paving stones that hug the edge of the block for dear life, and remnants of the concrete pavement that dates back long before the building work started. If you're walking down here watch your step, especially if you are old or unsteady on your feet - pity the few new residents who have to negotiate it on a daily basis.

When developers fail to deliver on this kind of commitment, and bugger off leaving the job unfinished, it's down to the council's planning enforcement team to sort it out. Officers have the power to investigate breaches and ensure that developers don't get away with cutting corners.

But Lewisham Council's planning enforcement team had other ideas. After the Deptford Society brought it to their attention last year, an 'investigation' was launched.

A copy of the officer's report, which was issued to the Deptford Society last week when they chased the issue up, came into my possession.

The report makes interesting, if jaw-dropping, reading.

Responsibility for enforcing the construction of disabled parking bays was dismissed with the excuse that "if parking is required to make the scheme acceptable then it would have been specified by the planning inspector as a condition for the development".

As for the public realm the comments confirm they couldn't even be arsed to visit the site:
"The aerial photos shows that the soft landscaping scheme has been substantially implemented; to the extent that the aerial photos only show a minor difference to what was approved as part of the appeal decision. The information gathered as part of the desktop study demonstrates that the conditions have been substantially met, and that any breaches of the planning conditions are only minor in nature."

Allowing a public pavement to be left in this state can only be described as negligent - not to mention a personal injury claim waiting to happen. 

And who are the villains in the piece? Which money-grabbing developer is responsible for leaving newly-built flats empty while housing is in such short supply?

Ironically, while the original development was the work of Kitewood Estates and they are most likely responsible for the unfinished state of the public realm, since July 2016 the entire block has been owned by London & Quadrant Housing Trust, bought at a cost of nearly £15 million. 


Anonymous said...

Great post. Leaving the development in that state and treeless is rotten. It's a shame the council needs to be pulled up on this as for not much effort, it would leave the area considerably better off.

discoaddict said...

Really great article, has left me feeling a little bit helpless, shame, hope something happens sooner or later

John said...

I will try to find out if Lewisham's Planners can do more.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

They should be ashamed.
Those flats are 'affordable rent' which in other words still means about £248 a week.
Pricing homelesslike me out.

dianski27 said...

If it's owned by a housing trust it should be finished and turned over to social housing that's what trust are decor aren't they!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for investigating and pushing the Council. Damien Egan is going for Lewisham mayor and he's minister for housing. I suggest going to him publicly via Facebook and Twitter attaching this article.

Anonymous said...

Maybe a stupid question but is there something wrong with the building? Seems bizarre the properties are empty. I'd understand if they were luxury penthouses on Hyde Park. Fairly ordinary flats on New Cross left empty is really odd, especially by a housing provider. I once worked on a project where a new build didn't pass a H&S check and had to be rewired.

Anonymous said...

The footpath is a mess, and Lewisham planning are being way too passive or not giving a crap - Lewisham has one of the worst records of cutting down trees and not replacing them - here they could have done something positive with a wasted and empty space, and added more trees, something this area with its illegal levels of carbon monoxide could benefit from.

I agree it seems strange the New X Road building is empty one year later, the flats were advertised as sold to passer bys, so something must be up with the building

Anonymous said...

Developers are way way way above the council.

How do you think they make all their money.

Don't take it personally.

Don't bother spending time trying to change it. It won't happen.

Paul T said...

It's all fine. It's now being used as an informal car-park. Lovely.

Anonymous said...

I wrote to Councillor Paul Maslin about this, but never got a reply. He was probbaly busy trying to evict Millwall FC.

Anonymous said...

There is activity!