Greenwich councillors have turned down an application for 595 homes from Legal and General at the former site of Woolwich Poly school tonight against the advice of planning officers.
A two hour meeting concluded with rejection. One major factor was a “canyonisation” along Beresford Street.
This was an issue raised on this site in a post looking at plans last week. There’s a fair bit to like with the plan, though pushing buildings right up against the edge of the plot along Beresford Street left little space for pedestrians and none for cyclists – despite cycling being a major element of the car-free development.
There’s also an issue of just about every tall building in Woolwich topping at out nearly the exact same height – 20 to 22 floors. Skylines work with variation. Ten towers across the town all around the same height creates a wall-like effect.
The issue of a canyon is partly in respect to approved plans over the road which are yet to be built on the Catholic Club site:
That will face L&Gs plans:
Both buildings offer little pedestrian space and no option for a segregated cycle lane along the road.
One of the best aspects is a new link between Beresford Street and Powis Street, improving connections from Premier Inn hotel and the Royal Arsenal site into Woolwich shops. However as we’ll see later, even that raised some dubious claims from developer Legal and General.
Much of the meeting was taken up with discussing viability assessments used to justify 20 per cent “affordable” housing. A one-bed affordable flat under the Discount Market Rent banner requires a salary of £50,000 a year.
Cllr Nigel Fletcher (Conservative – Eltham) asked why the report did not include an element explaining why it was recommended for approval despite not being policy compliant.
One element used to justify low levels of affordable housing is the location, which would seem to overlook the forthcoming opening of Crossrail and subsequent accessibility to Canary Wharf and central London. Nine and 14 minutes respectively.
Cllr Denise Hyland (Labour – Abbey Wood) begun by talking of rental income and expected revenue to Legal and General from tenants. The development is build to rent and rather than outright sales, Legal and General will gain revenue from tenants. L&G state it will cost £168 million to construct, and after revenue from renters expect a profit margin above 10 per cent.
Build to rent model
This development does however again highlight how build to rent – which can and should be a sustainable element of housing – is currently priced extremely highly and is not suitable for many. When a 1 bed “affordable” flat in Woolwich requires a salary of £50,000 a year to rent, something is wrong. It’s no mass-market solution. Long terms rented units owned by institutional investors is normal in many countries such as Germany, but in the UK prices need to reduce.
As expensive as this seems, 80 per cent are not at this “affordable” level and priced even higher. Legal and General are also hoping to increase rents by inflation plus three per cent each year for 15 years to come (see 1 hour 15 mins into the video). A mere six per cent overall is below the level seen above but still above social rent levels.
Viability officer Andrew Jones explained it was a costly site to develop hence low levels of affordable housing but did not explain why. It’s pretty much already flattened. The former school building has been long demolished. With other developments in the area offering policy compliant levels of 35 per cent, why this one is 20 per cent was not clearly explained to councillors during the meeting.
He explained the profit margin is 10.5 per cent – which is lower than build for sale at 15-20+ per cent.
One key element was the viability officer stating the price paid for land is not taken into account when it comes to viability and thus affordable housing levels.
Cllr Gary Dillon then asked about land but no definitive answer on contamination was given.
Should a viability assessment be made before this is known?
Cllr Dillon then asked why a development two miles down the road meets policy at 35 per cent affordable while this one doesn’t if building costs are based off a standard measure. The Viability Officer stated there is inconsistency among developers. He stated it ultimately it came down to profit levels sought.
He then stated an interesting point in that build to rent was relatively new for “this location” but not London. Given Crossrail’s proximity, it’s unlikely Legal & General are taking a huge risk which necessitates low affordable levels here compared to other areas of London, thus the low level of affordable housing seems questionable.
Planning chair Stephen Brain asked about the impact of reducing heights. The viability officer replied to say it hadn’t been modelled but would likely have a sizable impact.
Speak Up Woolwich then asked questions after stating they were in support of some elements. They did raise building design and a lack of social housing. They also highlighted demolition of existing buildings such as the MacBean Centre which was formerly the Electricity Department Depot:
The building is in poor shape. No attempt has been made to renovate and incorporate into plans, thus it cannot be used as a factor for little affordable housing:
Buildings in the foreground and background in this shot would be demolished:
Speak Out Woolwich then raised concern over the viability of commercial and retail units and housing located above street floor level, stating some in the Royal Arsenal are still empty.
Legal and General arrive
Next it was onto Legal and General’s representative. He rattled through some of the benefits. One thing that always makes me smile is when free broadband is mentioned. High Speed fibre is cheap these days. It’s hardly a reason to pay such high asking prices.
He stated there was no up-front fees. I’d hope so given they are now banned by law. That would have been a selling point in 2019. Not now. He stated tenants would be able to decorate their flat.
He followed by saying they were to be marketed to key workers – though councillors had already pointed out many do not earn £50,000 for even a one bed flat. He stated 1,200 staff begin working at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS trust each year and hoped to appeal to them.
How many of those earn £50,000 a year? There would be a three month period where key workers get first choice. Does that mean anything when unaffordable to many? It brought to mind shared ownership homes at the former Connaught Estate which I recently covered. They were exclusively marketed locally, yet given high costs havn’t sold. The developer now seeks to expand the geographical range of those eligible as well as making them available to those on higher incomes.
He explicitly mentioned newly qualified nurses. In April 2020, the average starting salary for a Band 5 Nurse was £24,907. London weighting will top that up but these flats are still beyond the reach of many. People would require a partner on good wages and hope that partner doesn’t fall ill or lose their job. Single people or single parents need not apply.
Many teachers, firefighters, police officers or prison officers could afford the required rent for a 1-bed flat, or even a studio.
Legal and General’s representative then moved onto £9.5 million in spending made by new residents – which with the town centre location should ensure much is local. In addition 45 trees would be on site.
He then made a comedic connection between Greenwich’s program of new council housing and the development. A bit brass neck given those “affordable” rates.
After another question on affordable levels this time from Cllr Olu Babatola (Labour – Thamesmead Moorings) the Legal and General representative begun talking about infrastructure costs, including a right of way.
Any look at these plans can see paths through the site is of minimal impact. It’s doubtful that it detracts at all from overall levels of massing and homes possible. That appeared an extremely weak argument.
If we look at other sites like Spray Street there are paths and squares within the plot. Most new plots of substantial size – as MacBean Street is – include similar. This is Spray Street:
Or Lewisham Central now rising:
Or Lee Gate plans:
You get the idea. Pretty much all similar developments are permeable for the public.
A right of way makes little impact in Woolwich. In fact if anything it permits commercial usage around a small public space:
Given how they have wedged up buildings against Beresford Street elsewhere on the plot that argument strikes me as nonsensical.
The L&G representative then stated it was a risky proposition to build in the area thus explaining low levels of affordable homes. This doesn’t appear to stack up given public transport changes coming nearby.
So now the low level of affordability had been attributed to high build costs, the need for a path on site, an untested market in the area and the type of location (just ignore the new Elizabeth Line?). It didn’t stack up. If it’s untested why were rents so high? But given Crossrail will increase demand, why couldn’t that then enable greater affordable housing?
Cllr Clive Mardner kept on the questioning over affordable housing and just how accessible these are to many local people. He also stated the need for larger units. I’m not necessarily in agreement with that. Build to rent can offer an alternative to flat shares which has seen many family homes converted and limited availability to families. The more smaller flats that are built, the less family homes are then converted. However, they do need to be affordable. Many in flat or house shares could not afford a home here so it’s unlikely to impact that area.
Chris Wheaton (QUON, Housing) did then refer to larger units and half market rates, but this is just six per cent of overall homes. Most “affordable” housing is at the high levels mentioned above, with market rates above even those levels.
Cllr Hyland asked for exact numbers on build costs. Upon hearing the result noted the build cost was not actually that high as earlier claimed, and if anything lower than average for a high rise.
Cllr Dillon then raised the issue of whether there has been landbanking for the past decade waiting for Crossrail. There has been no applications since the land was vacant in 2011 when the Victorian school building was demolished. Greenwich Council sold the land 10 years ago.
As things moved along it was notable that this meeting saw far better questioning and scrutiny from councillors than some previous meetings. Many cllrs asked good questions and came equipped with facts to counter developer claims.
Legal and General continued to state it had been vacant for over 20 years – which is wrong. They made this mistake more than once. It’s less than that. As the meeting progressed tough questions continued and L&Gs arguments seemed to crumble. No satisfactory answers appeared evident on low levels of affordable housing.
Cllr Nigel Fletcher stated they had to weigh up the pros and cons. Tall buildings beside a conservation areas wasn’t ideal but could be weighed up against sufficient affordable housing, but “we don’t have that”. He stated it failed to meet local policy and the London Plan.
Cllr Denise Hyland followed to say she agreed with everything Cllr Fletcher had stated. The level of affordable housing “doesn’t cut it”. She stated if it met the 35 per cent level of had 10 per cent social housing she may have voted for.
All councillors voted against. A rare clean sweep. Seven members against and none for.
Now we see whether Legal and General appeal or revise the scheme. It’s funny, I approached these plans open minded. Tall buildings in town centres near excellent transport links can be justified. New residents will boost local business. The trouble here is affordable housing is both pitiful in level and extremely high in cost. L&Gs arguments were so very weak – and at times insulting. Tall isn’t bad, but getting greedy and placing so many blocks so close to Beresford Street is poor. Very poor. Little thought for pedestrian space or cycling provision.
Hopefully they come back with better design, better massing and some more affordable housing that is more, well, affordable. Plenty of other sites do better than this.