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.