Monstrous carbuncle?

There is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way,
if we will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty.

Having jumped, on several occasions, through the very, very many hoops that my local council requires me to before granting permission for things, I don’t  have much sympathy for anyone who thinks they can ride roughshod over the requirement for planning permission to be granted. Nor, it has to be said, for those who think that because they do have planning permission, the plans to which that permission refers are more of a guidance. An idea, if you like, of the sort of thing that might be acceptable, but not what you might call rules.

It’s not that often that a story like this actually comes across the desk of the day-job, but low, yesterday morning I received a press release from the Royal Borough of Greenwich. It pertains to a development of a tower block in Woolwich. I used to work in Woolwich so I know the amount of redevelopment and regeneration work it needs, though it has been much improved in the 25 years since I worked there.

The gist of the release is that the developers of the Mast Quay Phase ii project have so ignored the stipulations, not just of the permission granted by the Borough, but their own original ideas, that the built-to-rent development is deemed to not have planning permission at all.

Among the 26 – yes 26 – deviations from the plans are:

  • increasing the approved size of the footprint of both towers
  • not providing the roof gardens for residents and the public, children’s play areas, green roofs or landscaped gardens
  • non accessible ‘accessible’ apartments that have steps to the balconies so that wheelchair users cannot use their outdoor space.
  • failure to provide enough underground car parking so that car parking dominates at ground level replacing what should have been a landscaped garden area with trees and plants and less car parking overall that could place pressure on street parking
  • visible changes to the materials and windows – different cladding, less glazing, smaller balconies, smaller windows and no wraparound balconies resulting in a reduction of daylight and sunlight, and to a reduced outlook.

Of these, I think the stepped balcony access in supposedly accessible accommodation, the disregard of the requirement for green space and play areas, and the visible changes to the appearance are the most heinous.

Take a look at the images of what was passed as acceptable – the top two – , and compare them with what Woolwich got.

551088b1 73c5 416a b07b 349e8e399ab2   0fe81c9c a3c4 4cf9 a8be 992a982d42e9


060cdcb7 48a3 4174 9ba1 be1a73d71ca9   webversion 3

What was proposed wasn’t exactly pretty, to my parochial eye, anyway, but what was built is ghastly. And not what was ordered.

I know developments do sometimes have to alter as they progress due to changing material availability or whatever, but surely, if you have been given permission to build something that looks like X, why would you then proceed with building something that looks like Y? because you can? Because you don’t care? Because it’s cheaper, easier? Because what’s the worst that could happen? Because even  if the planners decide they want you to pull it all down – as the Royal Borough of Greenwich has said is its plan – you can fight it, tie it all up in red tape and court fees, and eventually win, possibly with retrospective permission granted? Probably a mix of all of these. Oh, plus the fact that some people simply can’t or won’t be bothered to do the jobs they are paid to do. Regular readers will know this is something of a bugbear of mine.

The Greenwich Cabinet Member for Regeneration, said: “The Mast Quay Phase II development had the potential to deliver hundreds of beautiful riverside apartments in an exciting area of London with a rich maritime past. Instead, what we have is a mutant development that is a blight on the landscape, local conservation zone and heritage assets and views. High quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places are fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve. Good design is a key aspect of sustainable development, creating better places in which to live and work. As a borough we work with many responsible property developers who deliver schemes that we can be proud of and we will always work with responsible developers to unlock sites and deliver the new homes that our borough needs.

“If a scheme matching what has been built at Mast Quay Phase II was submitted for planning permission today, it would be refused, and we cannot let what has been delivered at Mast Quay Phase II go unchallenged.”

Buildings need to be fit for purpose. The means that if you are marketing something as accessible for all, you need to make them accessible for all. Not assume that anyone in a wheelchair won’t want to use the balcony you’ve added to the property. Buildings aren’t just lived in, of course. They are also looked at. So fit-for-purpose in this case, also means nice – or even just OK – to look at, in the whole surroundings. Mast Quay Phase II is not.

It may seem as though, at a time when we really do need decent, affordable housing to rent for a growing population, tearing down something that is perfectly useable, just not what was ordered, is a waste. A waste of time, of money, of resources, and bad for the planet. But the Grenfell Tower refurbishment deviated from what was originally stipulated. And we all know what happened there.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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