Friday, 3 January 2014

Over To You Now Boris After H&F Conservatives Force Through Unnecessary Riverside Studios/Queens Wharf Development

Will the Mayor call for a re-think on damaging
Riverside Studios/Queens Wharf Scheme?
Despite the public expectation that the Riverside Studios/Queens Wharf planning application had already been agreed by H&F’s Council leaders, there was still a palpable shock from the seventy or so strong audience, when all the Conservative councillors raised their hands in unison to formally give the go-ahead. The arguments for refusals and delay had been overwhelming. Now it falls to Mayor Boris Johnson (Con) to force a re-think. 

You can review the GLA's planning papers here. This is the team considering all aspects of the application.

GLA Planning Decisions Unit:
Colin Wilson, Senior Manager - Planning Decisions
020 7983 4783
colin.wilson@london.gov.uk

Justin Carr, Strategic Planning Manager (Development Decisions)
020 7983 4895

Lucy Bird, Case Officer
020 7983 5826

If you'd like to also raise your concerns directly with the Mayor you can email him here: mayor@london.gov.uk.

This was just one of two of the Borough’s most important development schemes that went before a hastily arranged Special Planning Applications Committee (S-PAC) meeting just six days before Christmas. By 11.00pm there was still the BBC Television Centre application to start. I don’t think anyone seated around the Council Chamber believed the Conservative Administration's denials that they had insisted the Riverside Studios/Queens Wharf scheme was rushed through before the New Year in the hope that time would dull the memories of such a controversial approval long before May's local elections.

Here’s some of what we have learnt:

Loss of a community arts centre
The theatre and community arts facilities essential to the current Riverside Studios appear downgraded in the design. Instead, the media business interests of Riverside Television which also occupies the current site, appears to have been prioritised. While last minute changes had been made, planning officers admitted that negotiations were still on-going to deal with concerns about this. It obviously would have been better to conclude those negotiations to secure the community arts centre first, before granting planning permission and thus weakening the hand of H&F Council to strike the best deal. But that hasn't happened and many leading theatre luminaries are still not convinced.

Putting the profits of the developer over the housing needs of residents
If H&F Council is not yet not confident it has protected Riverside Studios as a community arts centre, why allow Mount Anvil and A2 Dominion to duck out of their planning obligations to build homes “Londoners can afford”? In fact, the developers have been granted permission to build luxury investment units targeted at speculators in China, Russia and the Middle East. That contravenes both the London and Borough's own planning guidelines and is reason enough for the Mayor to now block this planning application.

Another questionable viability excuse
All but one of S-PAC’s Conservative councillors admitted they hadn’t read the “independent viability report”. I guess they felt they knew what it would say as its conclusions were much like every other such report produced for H&F Council, predictably saying it isn’t viable to build the homes they are obliged to do which “Londoners can afford”.
 
So let’s consider what we know about this scheme.
 
We know A2 Dominion had purchased Queens Wharf for the knock down price of just £12.8m. We know H&F Council owns the freehold for the Riverside Studios. A2 Dominion told me that it would cost them about £25m to build their original Queens Wharf scheme. So we have a good idea of what it will cost to build across the whole site. Consider that the previous owner of Queens Wharf had paid well over £30m for the site alone.  Now consider how this planning permission spectacularly changes the value of the land at a stroke. It’s easy to understand how lucrative this project is for the business interests behind it and how badly the administration has negotiated on behalf of residents.

Meanwhile, according to Nationwide, Hammersmith and Fulham has seen property price rises of 25% during the year ending 31st January 2013. That's the fastest rise in the UK but H&F Council's assessment was based on inadequate valuations carried out months ago, last summer.
 
It is clearly possible to strike a much better deal that protects the arts centre and the neighbourhood.

Damaging the immediate neighbourhood and local businesses
Officials admitted that the removal of the theatre entrance on Crisp Road and replacement with large garage doors including a delivery depot would damage that neighbourhood.
 
Officials also admitted that it was likely that the newsagents, cafĂ© and pub would lose business as footfall took alternative routes but said they hadn’t done any assessment of how badly those businesses would be affected.

The same officials indicated that the extra height, particularly viewed from Chancellors Street would be worse than what is there at present. To counter this they unconvincingly argued that there was a precedent for sticking a large ugly building at the end of roads containing residential housing near the river.

Damaging “the Borough’s most sensitive site”
On 3rd August 2011 a senior planning official told the PAC that the Queens Wharf site viewed from Hammersmith Mall and the west of Hammersmith Bridge was “the Borough’s most sensitive site”. It was therefore very odd that two years later none of the photo reconstructions that were shown to the S-PAC contained any image from Hammersmith Mall.
 
It also became apparent that there had been insufficient consideration of the heritage of the conservation area and the damage this scheme does to it particularly the aspects around Crisp Road and Chancellors Street. Residents alleged they had been told this had purposefully been left out to avoid spotlighting planning concerns. Officials denied this.

A remarkably cynical consultation
The developers’ consultation and approach to residents appeared cynical and uninterested. They refused to come to meetings or answer the most fundamental questions and even consistently refused to respond to allegations that the Remarkable Group, their consultation advisor, had been investigating local residents who had objected to their scheme.

Height, massing, density, affordable homes, un-neighbourliness
After nearly four hours it was clear that there were many reasons for this scheme to be blocked. In fact, H&F Council could have used these reasons below which are the exact same reasons they used to block the original Queens Wharf scheme in 2011:

“Inappropriate height and massing”
“Failure to provide a suitable affordable housing provision”
“Excessive density”
Lack of “residential amenity”
“Un-neighbourliness”
Harm to “the character and appearance of the conservation area.”

More time to fix the inadequate and rushed design
Lord Richard Rogers, one of Britain’s world famous starchitects, joined critics of the design. Along with film director Sir Richard Eyre, actress Francesca Annis, architect Will Alsop and others, Lord Rogers wrote to The Times on the day of the S-PAC to say: “We believe that there has been insufficient consultation for such an important site, next to the Grade II listed Hammersmith Bridge, and on this rare riverside location, in a development in which arts facilities look likely to play a secondary role to privately-run TV studios.” They called for a “more informed and constructive discussion about the future of this important arts centre”.

These views should have been taken on board but were bushed aside, with one Conservative councillor attacking Lord Rogers' views as being those of just another "Labour Party member.”

What needs to happen now?

I think everybody wants a good scheme to be developed across the two sites. One that protects the Riverside Studios as a community arts facility, adds to rather than damages the immediate neighbourhood and is good value for residents.
 
The only real deadline for planning permission is that Mount Anvil have a contract with A2 Dominion that says they need to have gained planning approval for their joint scheme otherwise A2 Dominion can go ahead and build the Queens Wharf scheme they already have  permission for.
 
The Queens Wharf scheme does not have any affordable housing in it. Instead, A2 Dominion have chosen to build luxury flats targeted at overseas investors. That is very peculiar because A2 Dominion are a housing association who are obliged to build and manage affordable homes. I believe we can get a better scheme agreed within any contracted deadline between A2 Dominion and Mount Anvil. But even if there are difficulties contracts an be re-negotiated and I find it hard to believe that any reputable housing association would push ahead with a its own project that not only ignores its responsibilities to tackle London's Housing Crisis but would kill any chance of maintaining a much loved community arts centre.
 
Mayor Boris Johnson needs to block this scheme and force the developers and H&F Council to think again.

2 comments:

jenny mack said...

A clear exposition of where the Tory Council stands. Thank you. A question: what would the situation be with regard to all these developments if the Tories are voted out in May? To what extent have they financially committed us, the Council tax payers to replacing long term residents with real estate speculators and the very well off? Would an incoming Labour council be able to redress the gross housing inequalities being approved by the Tories?

Stephen Cowan said...

Thanks for this Jenny. Here's the answers to your questions:

1. We will use all the means necessary to re-negotiate on current schemes. On new schemes we intend to give residents greater information and influence via new ward panels and new planning rights.

2. The Conservatives haven't committed us at all on any new schemes and have been, what is at best considered, incompetent in negotiating the schemes they've approved. Consider that £500k equals about 1% of council tax then look at this incompetent deal or the Town Hall deal where they gifted what's now valued at £150m worth of public land for £35m of Town Hall offices and it's evident that better deals can be negotiated if the political will is there to do that.

3. An incoming Labour administration will make it a priority to build homes “Londoners can afford” to buy or rent - which is what is meant to happen now according to the London Plan and the Borough's own development plan. Reversing the situation so affordable homes for UK residents are built (rather than the current administration’s investment units for overseas speculators) will be a key priority for us.

You might find this article interesting below from Time Magazine as it gives an overview of the London Housing Crisis:

http://world.time.com/2014/01/03/inside-londons-priciest-apartment-block-how-the-superrich-are-changing-world-cities

Best wishes and thanks again for the comment.
Stephen