This website was the first media outlet to highlight how Greenwich councillors allowed developers to reduce the amount of “affordable” housing in part of the Greenwich Peninsula to zero.
Councillors made the decision about Peninsula Quays on the basis of a “viability assessment” which had been kept from them – they had to trust Greenwich’s planning officers on what was effectively pre-emptive social cleansing.
Two years on and one court case later, it’s likely the issue may lead to changes in planning procedures across London. Shane Brownie, the residents’ rep who alerted me to the story, battled to force a reluctant Greenwich Council to release the document – a fight he finally won in February.
Now Greenwich has performed a startling about-turn on the issue, planning to make public the assessments that it wouldn’t even show its councillors.
Last week, the issue formed part of a documentary for Radio 4, The Affordable Housing Crisis, which you can still hear on the BBC’s website. Nick Mathiason and Christian Eriksson of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism have also looked at the issue, with their own investigation.
One aspect that shows just how much of a crock the assessment was, and how Greenwich planners failed local people, is in how the viability assessment was based on house prices across Greenwich borough rather than on the peninsula alone – even though demand for a flat on the river close to a Tube station in Zone 2 is not comparable with, say, a semi in New Eltham.
While Greenwich’s plan to publish viability assessments is welcome, it should not obscure the fact that the council’s planners failed on this high-profile scheme, trashing the principles of mixed development that local politicians espouse but often fail to actually achieve.
I’m a week late with this because I’ve been in Barcelona, a city whose residents are taking a harder line on housing. Wandering around in my first day, a scrum of media outside the city hall indicated the arrival of Ada Colau, Barcelona’s new mayor-elect.
She’s an activist who has led protests and occupations over the city’s housing crisis, and plans to radically increase the supply of social housing in the Catalan capital.
As I watched her field questions from the press – and the enthusiasm shown by passers-by – I couldn’t help thinking that her approach is desperately needed in London. Watching some of the discussion over our own mayoral election, though, I’m not convinced many of the possible candidates get it.
But perhaps there is some incremental change here in Greenwich. Last night, the council’s planning board deferred a decision on whether or not to allow a nine-storey block of flats on Woolwich Road in Charlton.
Local amenity groups had opposed the Valley House scheme on the basis of height – but what persuaded councillors to throw the scheme back at the developer was its inclusion of “poor doors”. Just 18.4% of the flats there were due to be “affordable” – another secret viability assessment – with these residents given a separate set of doors to access those homes.
This is the kind of development that would have sailed through under former leader Chris Roberts and his henchman Ray Walker, former planning board chair. Now under new chair Mark James, the developers have effectively been told to go away and bin the poor doors.
Like many issues in Greenwich, there’s a total lack of political leadership over housing – the council leads the local Labour party rather than the other way around. A wraparound ad for Berkeley Homes in this week’s propaganda rag Greenwich Time doesn’t inspire any confidence that its relationship with property developers is any healthier under Denise Hyland than it was under Roberts.
Contrast this with Lewisham, where the local party trumpets new council housing. In Greenwich, this kind of promotion is left to the council itself (via Greenwich Time), leaving an unhealthy political vacuum.
Decisions like last night’s indicate things are starting to change. However, it’s worth remembering that council officers – the same ones that kept Greenwich Peninsula’s viability assessment from councillors – recommended approval, poor doors and all. In Greenwich’s command-and-control political culture, criticising council officers is a crime comparable with robbing grandmothers – they’ve traditionally been used as cover for the council leadership’s cowardice.
But last night’s Valley House decision shows some Greenwich councillors are now starting to take some responsibility for their council’s actions instead of just taking the path of least resistance. Hopefully there will also be pressure to reveal the viability assessment for Valley House too. If the events of the last few months are to really mean anything in Greenwich, though, councillors are going to have to start asking some very awkward questions of their planning staff.
4.30pm update: Former councillor Alex Grant has also written about the issue.
Update, Friday 17 April: The consultation period has now been extended to Tuesday 28 April.
The general election’s well under way. But an arguably bigger decision for this part of south east London is also open for your thoughts – although you’ve only got until Friday to make your views known.
Last month, Greenwich Council quietly started consulting on changes to the 11-year-old Greenwich Peninsula masterplan. Considering the size and location of the site, this is one of the most important pieces of planning in the 50-year history of the borough (with only Thamesmead and the Royal Arsenal as competition).
Yet, as ever, engagement with the public seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. You know how the council claimed Greenwich Time was essential for engaging with local people? Well, not a word of editorial copy has appeared in its weekly paper about this in the three weeks the consultation has been open.
By contrast, the issue has been covered in both the News Shopper and the Mercury.
If there’s a development that demands proper discussion and debate – especially at general election time – it’s this one. It touches on the two most vital issues addressing our capital city – housing and infrastructure. Yet there simply isn’t one – it’s being swept under the carpet.
To his credit, Labour candidate Matt Pennycook mused on the issues after a consultation event in January (followed up by the Guardian’s Dave Hill), but that’s been about it. The local Peninsula ward councillors aren’t even mentioning it on their new blog.
If you want to find out more, head to Greenwich Council’s planning search and look for application 15/0716/O.
There are 191 documents to read. One person is not realistically going to manage to take on board this information all alone – even in the summary planning statement – so if you read the documents and something strikes you that’s not mentioned here, please feel free to stick it in the comments.
The plans include 12,678 homes (up from 10,100 in 2004); towers of up to 40 storeys high; 220 serviced apartments; a 500-room hotel; education and healthcare facilities; a film studio and visitor attraction; a new bus station/ transport hub; and a 5k running track around the peninsula.
Update, 21 April. Philip Binns has emailed to say the planning statement points out “up to 15,700 units could be delivered in total on the Peninsula as a whole”, explaining that this is made up of the 12,678 units referred to in the application notice plus a further 200 serviced apartments and 2,822 units which are currently being constructed or are to be implemented (approvals already having been granted). This would represent a 57% increase on what was permitted in 2004.
Like I said, there’s a lot to take in. But here’s two very broad themes that I reckon should be addressed. You may have different views.
Housing – who’s going to live there?
One vital question is unanswered – how many of these homes will people be able to afford to live in? No figures are given for social or “affordable” housing.
We already know that neither you nor I will be able to afford to live in part of the Peninsula, as Greenwich Council allowed the pre-emptive social cleansing of Peninsula Quays back in 2013, reducing the amount of social/affordable housing to 0%.
This decision was based on a viability assessment – can the developer afford to build social housing? – which was kept secret by Greenwich Council. Earlier this year, local resident Shane Brownie won a Freedom of Information battle to get this information out there.
It’s a complex issue that affects other areas of London and elsewhere – the most notorious case affects Southwark Council and the Heygate estate – and one that’s barely being heard in the election campaign. The BBC’s Sunday Politics London spoke to Shane when it dealt with the issue a few weeks back. (Thanks to Alex Ingram for the recording.)
It’s entirely possible Knight Dragon has been spooked by Greenwich being forced to disclose this document, and is playing its cards even closer to its chest.
Indeed, this planning application going out to formal consultation during an election may even stifle debate – although the decision to run it now would have been the council’s call, rather than Knight Dragon’s.
But where else in London would a development of 12,000 new homes emerge without any discussion about who they are for?
The transport infrastructure – can North Greenwich cope?
The plans also include rebuilding and moving North Greenwich bus station. It’s approaching capacity and struggles to cope with demand as it is. But the increase is small – space for 17 bus stands rather than 15, and 11 bus stops rather than seven.
There’s pressure for North Greenwich to handle even more buses. Very few other tube stations in London are expected to handle demand from such an absurdly large area (Finsbury Park – which has to serve areas such as Crouch End and Muswell Hill – is probably the nearest equivalent).
Politicians keep demanding extra services from Kidbrooke and Eltham (as opposed to demanding improvements to rail services there), while existing routes from areas much closer to North Greenwich still struggle to cope. Route 108, in particular, is still overwhelmed each morning despite demands for a boost to services, which were met with the miserly addition of a single extra bus.
And this is before the next phase of homes open on the peninsula – adding more “one-stop” passengers on the buses and more demand for the tube station itself.
Yet TfL’s only significant transport boost in the area has ben to create a cable car which is aimed at tourists and charges premium fares. If it was a bus route, it’d be London’s 407th busiest.
It’s a crude measure – especially as these figures cover all passengers, not just ones heading to North Greenwich – but a cursory glance at passenger numbers on the eight services would suggest they’ve pretty much hit their rush-hour capacity.
Add to this the continuing huge developments planned for Canary Wharf and the Royal Docks, together with predictions that Crossrail will hit capacity within months of opening, and you’ve got a big problem in depending so heavily on the Jubilee Line. The queues for Stratford-bound trains at Canary Wharf show just how big demand is here.
Move the peninsula closer to Canary Wharf
One answer would be to give Canary Wharf workers an alternative to the Jubilee Line. At this point, up will pop Transport for London, claiming the Silvertown Tunnel would provide that for buses.
But it’s very likely that before long, any buses routed this way would get stuck in the same snarl-ups as the 108 through Blackwall, or new ones north of the Thames.
Building new roads won’t bring the high-density regeneration Greenwich Peninsula needs – this isn’t a suburban business park or a collection of warehouses. You get better results when you build workplaces within walking distance of shops, restaurants, other workplaces and railway stations.
The mostly-empty office block at 6 Mitre Passage, whose lights have stayed dim on winter evenings, shows how the Greenwich Peninsula has failed to attract businesses – one stop from Canary Wharf might as well be the other side of London.
So why not a pedestrian and cycle link to Canary Wharf? Proposals for a bridge from Rotherhithe to the Wharf have recently been dusted off – but one to the east would bring the Greenwich Peninsula within walking distance of shops, offices and the new Crossrail station.
It’d transform the area, tying it into Canary Wharf and freeing up space on both Tube and buses, and making it more attractive for businesses to set up shop.
In 2009, the cost of a bridge was put at £90m, not including maintenance and operating costs, and a TfL assessment as part of the cable car business case said it would be an “iconic” scheme, “likely to attract investment” in the area.
It added that “the walking routes on both sides of the Thames would need substantial improvement associated with developments for the environment to be of a high quality”. Well, those improvements are coming now. And without a fixed connection to Canary Wharf, those improvements on the Greenwich Peninsula may never fully reach their potential.
It’s election time – why isn’t this an issue?
London is growing at a bewildering rate. Property developers are ruling over local people like feudal landlords, while local councils are treated like mug punters who fall for three card tricks.
Yet this simply isn’t an issue in a general election where it’s become fashionable to bash London. Planning desperately needs reform to give councils more clout – but this isn’t being addressed in manifestos.
The lack of serious discussion about how to manage London’s growth reflects poorly on our city’s politicians and media. And we’ve one of the worst examples of it here in Greenwich, a borough run by councillors that have too often lacked curiosity in what’s presented to them.
In the same way that Greenwich councillors fell for poor road-building schemes because the area lacks river crossings, they may well fall for an unsustainable plan for the peninsula simply because they’re desperate to see all that brownfield land built on with the first thing that comes along.
That said, the recent ousting of Chris Roberts acolyte Ray Walker from his role as planning board chair can give us hope – his replacement, Mark James, has a background in transport, so actually has an understanding of the issues at stake. With Matt Pennycook taking a more sceptical view of big developments than his predecessor, some of the mood music around Greenwich and regeneration could be about to see a welcome change.
If you’ve a couple of hours free this week, give the plans a read and send your views (try the planning statement and design and access statements for summaries) to the council. At least then, they can’t say they weren’t warned.
Greenwich Council is quietly doing some very good things on cycling – like boosting cycle lanes, and experimenting with new on-street parking facilities.
But it’s still capable of doing some very dumb things – such as closing a cycle lane on the Greenwich Peninsula so it can be used for trials of driverless cars.
The council won a bid last year to test out the technology, getting an £8 million grant to carry out the tests.
In December, the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time claimed the trials would not take place on public roads.
But a stretch of dedicated cycle path next to the Thames Cable Car has been commandeered for the tests, with riders told to share an adjacent footpath with pedestrians.
There was no consultation about the decision, instead there’s just a tiny notice on a lamp post and cycle markings scrubbed out and replaced with the word “SHUTTLE”.
The notice cites “danger to the public” for the decision. But if the trial’s organisers think they can avoid danger by closing off a length of cycle path, they’ve chosen the wrong place.
I cycle along this stretch regularly, and most days there are pedestrians wandering into the cycle track – often glued to tablets with headphones plugged in.
In fact, when I first saw the closure yesterday, there was a small child crawling over the “SHUTTLE” marking. Returning home in the evening rush hour, there were plenty of people wandering down the cycle path.
Nobody walking in the path this time, but sooner or later somebody’s going to get a shock when they look up from their phone. As driverless technology evolves, it’s going to have the potential to clash with other road users – four-wheeled, two-wheeled, or two-footed.
Greenwich’s decision to prioritise driverless cars over cyclists and pedestrians without consultation, while on a parochial level is pretty much typical of the way it does things, isn’t a good omen for the future.
In the meantime, if you’re walking along the Thames Path any time soon, keep an eye – and ear – out for a little driverless car…
Update, 17 February: The path has now reopened. So what was all that about, and was it really worth burning off road markings, putting on new ones, burning them off again and reinstating old markings? A weird episode.
Residents on Greenwich Peninsula have won an 18-month battle to force Greenwich Council to release a document that influenced its decision to scrap all ‘affordable’ housing on a key development there.
A tribunal has told the council it should release “viability assessments” which prompted it to cut a requirement for developer Knight Dragon to include affordable housing on Peninsula Quays, on the west side of the peninsula facing Canary Wharf, in exchange for building more on the east side.
Greenwich said its decision – backed by seven councillors, including current leader Denise Hyland – was taken after an independent assessment showed the scheme wouldn’t be viable if Knight Dragon had to build social housing, and that it needed to be approved quickly so Knight Dragon could get £50m in grants.
The plans include a private school, “high-end private residential” units at Drawdock Road, and a four/five star hotel at Ordnance Crescent.
But all affordable properties will now be pushed to the south, towards City Peninsula and Greenwich Millennium Village, rather than being spread evenly across the peninsula, which had been council policy since 2004.
To make up for this effective social cleansing of Peninsula Quays, new developments to the far south of the Dome – around where the City Peninsula tower now sits – will see levels of affordable housing shoot up to between 54% and 58%, mostly for social rent rather than shared ownership.
Residents of City Peninsula and Greenwich Millennium Village asked Greenwich Council to release the viability assessment under the Environmental Information Regulations – similar to the Freedom of Information Act.
But Greenwich refused, and appealed against an Information Commissioner decision that it should release the assessment.
Greenwich’s appeal meant the case ended up at a tribunal, which sat over three days last October and November. The council hired an external lawyer, Christopher Knight from 11 KBW, at a cost quoted in October at £2,200.
The council could appeal and take the case to a further tribunal – at further cost – but it may face an uphill battle considering the comprehensive nature of the judgment against it. You can read the full judgment here.
Key passages include:
First, the number of affordable homes to be provided on this enormous development, as well as their location, is an important local issue on which reasonable views are held strongly on both sides.
Second, this is a case where a company, robust enough to take on the development of a huge site over a period of 20 years… immediately asks to be relieved of a planning obligation freely negotiated by its predecessor. It justifies this change on the basis of a downturn in house prices it knew about at the time of purchase, using a valuation model that looks at current values only and does not allow for change in the many factors that may affect a valuation over time. It seems to us that in those circumstances the public interest in openness about the figures is very strong.
One argument against disclosure of the redacted information was that those receiving it would be unlikely to understand it. In our experience this is never a useful objection to disclosure under FOIA or EIR. It is increasingly open to question whether the public should be expected to accept the “expert view” without opportunity to see the supporting factual evidence.
Indeed, the final paragraph of the judgment is one that should ring alarm bells as to how Greenwich’s planning system works.
It points out that the eight-strong planning board – which included three cabinet members and was chaired by the Labour group’s chief whip – that approved the decision to cut affordable housing at Peninsula Quays had no more information than the general public.
Effectively, they were taking the decision on trust, and hadn’t been shown the viability assessment in question. Should they have asked for more details?
“It is not for us to say what depth of information Councillors should have expected or asked for, although we note that at least one Councillor would have preferred more detail about the appraisal,” the judgment says. That councillor, who is not named, was Hayley Fletcher, who voted against the proposal and later left the council citing problems with bullying in the ruling Labour group.
The tribunal’s decision comes as Knight Dragon consults on plans to increase housing on the peninsula from 10,000 to 15,000 – with big question marks over whether anyone will actually be able to afford the new properties. (Labour candidate Matt Pennycook and The Guardian’s Dave Hill have written about this.)
More broadly speaking, it’s also a significant decision in terms of councils’ relationships with developers as they struggle to cope with the demands of an overheated and little-regulated property market.
Last year, Southwark Council was told to release parts of a similar viability assessment for redeveloping the Heygate Estate near Elephant & Castle. The Greenwich decision may now give confidence to others who want to find out more about the relationship between their local councils and developers.
The members of the planning board who supported the decision: Denise Hyland (Labour, then cabinet member for regeneration, now council leader); Ray Walker (Labour, then chief whip, remains planning chair); Steve Offord (then cabinet member for housing), Sajid Jawaid (then cabinet member for community services, no longer a councillor), Clive Mardner (Labour), Geoff Brighty (Conservative), Dermot Poston (Conservative, no longer a councillor).
Hayley Fletcher (Labour, no longer a councillor) voted against, then-leader Chris Roberts (Labour, no longer a councillor) was absent.
853 exclusive: It had just four regular commuters last year – now the Emirates Air Line cable car appears to have NO regular users at all between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, according to figures issued by Transport for London.
No Oyster card holders used the £60m crossing more than five times during one week in October, which would trigger a regular users’ discount.
In the equivalent week last year, four people qualified for the commuters’ discount, while 16 used it regularly enough to get cut-price tickets in the same week in 2012.
Last year’s figures, published at Snipe, were widely covered in London’s media, with an LBC radio reporter even travelling to Greenwich to track down the four commuters. But now, it appears there are no commuters to speak of.
|Sun 12th||Mon 13th||Tue 14th||Wed 15th||Thu 16th||Fri 17th||Sat 18th|
Total Emirates Air Line journeys, starting at north and south terminals, 12-18 October 2014. Source: TfL
For the third year running, I used the Freedom of Information Act to get the figures from TfL, asking for hourly usage figures between Sunday 12th and Saturday 18th October.
Mayor Boris Johnson has called the link, which he opened in 2012, a “howling success” and insists it is a vital tool for regenerating the area. But critics have pilloried the cable car, which charges premium fares and does not accept travelcards, as a vanity project.
But while the cable car has clearly failed to attract regular customers – and ticket sales remain well down on its first year of operation – its overall usage figures are slightly up on last year, suggesting it has achieved some level of success with tourists and occasional travellers. 25,271 journeys were made during the week, compared with 23,029 the previous year and 42,463 in 2012.
Since last October, Transport for London has instigated a number of promotions to try to boost tourist usage of the cable car, including giving an audio commentary on routes; opening a promotional booth at North Greenwich station; and spending £1,200 on an electronic ad board at the station’s gateline. This month, the Greenwich Peninsula terminal has been turned into a “magical Christmas experience” as part of a tie-in with The Snowman and The Snowdog film.
One scheme, which offers discounted tickets to Newham and Greenwich borough residents, accounted for 106 ticket sales across the week, while 5,292 “full experience” tickets – offering a souvenir guide and admission to the neighbouring Emirates Aviation Experience – were sold.
28 multi-journey passes – a ticket valid for a year which offers 10 trips at a discount – were sold during the week, compared with 18 last year. (See update at foot of story for more on these, as regular travellers could be using these and not Oyster.) 354 children travelled for £1 each with a schools’ scheme, with 47 adults accompanying them for free – down slightly on on 2013’s figures.
Two parties booked private cabins for themselves, at a cost of £88.
Emirates Air Line passengers, hour by hour, between Sunday 12 and Saturday 18 October. Source: TfL.
See equivalent data for Tube journeys from North Greenwich to nearby DLR stations.
Closer analysis of the figures over three years show that already-weak weekday usage of the Emirates Air Line is down slightly on 2013. But passenger numbers continue to show relatively high numbers in the evening – suggesting the cable car could benefit from opening later than 8pm.
Saturday figures are slightly up on 2013…
…but the real growth has come on Sundays.
With figures in the Labour and Conservative parties now starting to talk about who will succeed Boris Johnson in the 2016 mayoral election, the future of the cable car – arguably the most visible legacy to the capital so far from Johnson’s two terms at City Hall – is likely to come under the spotlight.
Green and Liberal Democrat politicians have called for the cable car to be incorporated into the Travelcard scheme to boost its standing as a public transport link – but City Hall currently seems content with operating it as a tourist attraction with premium fares.
Since the opening of the cable car, TfL cash has also gone into other tourist-focused projects. The Garden Bridge between the South Bank and Victoria Embankment is likely to be given the go-ahead from the mayor this week along with £30m of TfL cash.
Also this week, TfL has changed the way its cycle hire scheme charges users, cutting the cost of lengthy hires taken by tourists while doubling charges for some shorter rides.
Wednesday 7.40am update: Thanks to Rob, who tweeted me to say he was commuting on the cable car that week – using the paper multi-journey tickets rather than Oyster, which is says is fiddly to use for regular commuters as it involves obtaining a refund after travelling a certain number of times.
28 of these paper tickets, which are valid for a year, were sold between 12-18 October. So it’s entirely possible there are a handful of people using these tickets rather than Oyster – again, making TfL’s claim that this is a public transport link rather shaky. However, their usage is impossible to track.
Thanks to Clare Griffiths for putting together the graphs in this story.
Media using this story, please credit Darryl Chamberlain or 853blog.com – thank you.
It’s been a long-running moan on this site – the sad waste of space between North Greenwich station and the Dome. Well, it’s being wasted no more.
Joining Meantime Brewing’s temporary Beer Box (due for a three-year stay) is a full-time bar/restaurant, Greenwich Kitchen, that’s billing itself as a “New York-style coffee shop”. It’s even open for breakfast, should you fancy a bacon sarnie on the way into work. There’s another unit being fitted out behind it too – we’ll have to wait and see what that turns out to be.
Next door is the Now Gallery and the new, plush marketing suite for Greenwich Peninsula owner Knight Dragon containing a champagne bar on the roof – which would explain the three bouncers who seem to be on permanent duty outside the building.
Of course, Knight Dragon has twigged that you’re not going to shift luxury pads if the surrounding area’s as empty and miserable as it has been for the past seven years. It’s a shame that it’s all come too late for the summer – but finally Peninsula Square looks like becoming a decent spot for delaying your journey home. Hooray.
In addition to all this action on the square, the old power station coaling jetty’s been taken over by immersive theatre company Shunt, whose show The Boy Who Climed Out Of His Face has another week left to run. It’s been poorly-promoted locally, but you can also pop onto The Jetty Greenwich for a drink in its bar. £4.50 for a pint of Tuborg in a plastic cup ain’t great, but it’s a lovely space and one with potential. Again, it’s all about making the place a but more lively than it was under the previous developers.
It doesn’t end there, though – there are plans to build a golf driving range at Delta Wharf, which long-suffering readers will remember was once due to be turned into an urban beach. There’s more about the Greenwich Peninsula golf range plan here, and on Greenwich’s planning website, reference 14/2161F. Again, this would be temporary, in place for 10 years before Knight Dragon gets around to developing the site.
Meanwhile, the actual business of selling property has begun, with queues of potential buyers outside the new marketing suite on Saturday. Of course, the property developers’ best friend, Greenwich Council, has chipped in this week with a handy plug in its propaganda weekly, Greenwich Time:
What Greenwich Time isn’t telling you is what “affordable” actually means, or that the phase after that – where the golf course is set to occupy for now – won’t contain any “affordable” housing at all…
10.30am update: See also today’s Evening Standard on the housing issue.
Seven years after the O2 opened, finally, finally, the miserable open space outside, Peninsula Square, has started to look like the “new leisure destination for Londoners and tourists alike” promised back then.
New York band We Are Scientists opened up Meantime Brewery’s Beer Box with a blistering free live show last night. It looks like the Beer Box, on empty land above the Jubilee Line tunnels, is only around for a little while – it was only erected over the last 10 days – but hopefully the shot of life it’s brought to this long-wasted space will last for a while longer.
Fingers crossed, it’ll stay and there’ll be more live events here. Keep the bar, sort out the big screen showing inane promos, and perhaps Peninsula Square will be something Greenwich can be proud of, instead of an embarrassment that’s walked through as quickly as possible.