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

Saturday 22 February 2020

Albany revives redevelopment plans

The Albany Theatre will this week revive proposals to redevelop its outdated facilities - with funds for the work likely to come from construction of housing on the same site.

The existing building has remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1982, and there's no question it needs updating and improving in order to make the most of its prime location. I've always thought its gloomy, dark entrance hall could put off potential visitors quite easily - and I suspect a large proportion of Deptford's regular shoppers only go through the doors when they need to use the loo. It has a beautiful garden too - with many mature trees - which is a lovely place for lunch or a coffee on a sunny day.

Previous plans to team up with the developer of the carriage ramp (Cathedral, now U+I) and build housing over the garden were put forward in 2012, but never reached fruition - which I was quite relieved about as it seemed to involve total obliteration of this green lung.

Unsurprisingly, given the need to raise funds for improvements to the building, redevelopment of the site is again in discussion. First consultation takes place on Monday 24th February from 4.30pm-7.30pm at the Albany and is open to the public 

Although the blurb on the Albany's website states that 'outside space will be maintained', initial renderings suggest that it won't be maintained to the same extent that the site currently enjoys.