The Ram Brewery verdict: analysis of the government’s refusal

>> Your chance to contribute: tell us what your think on Clapham Junction station redevelopment

Author: Cyril Richert

As I wrote on Thursday, the report of Colin Ball, the Inspector on the Ram Brewery Public Inquiry recommended that Application for erection of 2 towers at the northern end of the Ram Brewery site up to 32 and 42 storeys in height along with a number of additional middle size buildings in the site should be refused. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s conclusions, and agrees with his recommendation. It followed a month-long public inquiry last November, after the decision of Wandsworth Council was called-in on the request of the former local MP, Martin Linton.

I received the full report of the inspector: 214 pages. I will spare you comments on each single page, first because this article would become a novel size, and second because you should better enjoy the weather outside, the tennis/football this weekend and whatever other activity you might have chosen.

Supporting the analysis you will find here the reports:

I have decided to flip through the report of the Inspector to extract the considerations regarding the same points I raised in the CJAG evidence: tall buildings, transport, community benefits; beside I will also comment on the position on affordable housing and safety issue regarding the proximity of the gas holder that happened to be so controversial.

Tall buildings

Applicant images

A lot of time has been spent on the Applicant Visual Representations of the scheme. Criticisms have arisen on the quality of the images presented by the applicant. The Wandsworth Society has hired an independent expert and spent money on producing evidence on the real perception of the impact of the buildings. Despite the many attempt to discredit the work produced by the Wandsworth Society, the advocate representing Minerva (the applicant) lost the point as the inspector wrote clearly (p7):

Guidance on how to prepare AVRs consistently indicates that images should ideally be made within a 40° field of view (FOV); beyond that, the perceived shapes of surrounding buildings may be distorted […]  the use of a wide angle lens has the effect of distorting perspective and distance, and thus the spatial relationship between foreground and background. Existing buildings, and therefore the new ones, appear further away or smaller than they are or would be in reality, This was particularly apparent to me when I compared the AVRs to the actual views from the same viewpoints and is also demonstrated in the Wandsworth Society’s comparable 40º AVRs.

[…] the applicant’s AVRs cannot be taken as accurately representing what would be seen by the human eye.

You may recall that last year, along with the Wandsworth Society, the Putney Society and the Battersea Society we have submitted a joint statement on tall buildings where we specifically said:

“Appropriate publicity should be agreed with Council Members and officials at the pre-application stage and should use images which demonstrably reflect the true appearance, height and mass of the development measurable against neighbouring buildings.”

This was definitely not the case here for the Ram Brewery, as highlighted by the Inspector, and it was also a clear criticism of the twin towers proposal for Clapham Junction station where the same trick with wide angles was used by the developers.

Conservation area and the effect of tall buildings

Emerging policy provided by Wandsworth Council in its latest Site Specific Allocation Document indicates that Wandsworth town centre is appropriate for tall buildings. Indeed you have already the Sudbury House, a 23 storey residential tower block above the Southside shopping centre; 3 more recent tower blocks, of much the same height, have been built along the western edge of the shopping centre; another new tower block, of similar height, has recently been constructed at its southern end.

The SSAD says (p59):

Here, buildings of 12 storeys and above will be considered against the DMPD tall buildings policy and buildings or more than 30 storeys will generally be considered inappropriate, and only considered in exceptional circumstances. […] In December 2008, the Council resolved to grant planning permission for a development that includes 32 and 42-storey towers, which are considered exceptional in terms of design and their context and therefore acceptable.

In presenting its case, the developers explained that the view from Wandsworth Park would be significantly enhanced by the ability to see two quality towers which will allow the park user to know and understand the position of the park in its wider London setting (probably because park users are so dumped that they need big marks to visualise where they go from far away! – sorry, I’m just joking here).

They also tried to argue that the visual impact of the towers would be limited because they would be so slender. In fact the plan dimensions of each tower – width and breadth – would be substantially greater than those of Sudbury House, itself a large block of fairly squat proportions. This is a clear illustration that any perception of slenderness would be simply a reflection of the fact that the towers would be so much higher. The towers would be very large buildings.

Here the Inspector starts by acknowledging that regrading the existing there is a justification for taller buildings in the area:

It is therefore likely, and perhaps inevitable, that new buildings on sites within traditionally built areas of modest scale will be higher and more closely built-up. What matters is not so much the size and scale of new development but how well integrated it is into its surroundings in both functional and visual terms.

However he cut sharp any hopes for the applicants, writing also:

Here I consider that the huge differences in character, size, mass, scale and appearance are such that the contrast between the stable block and the towers would be particularly jarring. There seems to be no account taken of the specific character of the stable block or how that might influence the layout, and no designed relationship with the towers to successfully integrate it into the scheme, within an appropriate setting. […] There would be a similarly jarring contrast as with the stable block between the tower blocks and the locally listed houses in Barchard Street to the east and the public houses and houses, including the listed Wentworth House, centred on Dormay Street to the west. There has been little consideration given to the impact of the development on these small-scale buildings, and there would be clear harm to the character and heritage of the area, in conflict with UDP Policy GEN6. […] I consider that, at this northern end of the site, the development would have a poor relationship with the surrounding area.

He added:

It is vital the new buildings should fully respect the character and setting of the old, especially when they are of such outstanding interest. Here, as the AVRs show, not only would the characteristic skyline be lost but the new buildings, and particularly the towers, would utterly dominate the scene, changing the townscape character and undermining the quality of the setting of All Saints Church and Church Row.

In addition the Inspector criticised the design itself, talking about the prominence in longer views, the rhythm on the façades which will confuse the perception of scale and the top of the towers which appears to be arbitrarily “sliced off”. Therefore he concluded:

For these reasons I find the quality of design of the towers to be somewhat lacking.

It is clearly demonstrated that most of the problem is created with the two huge towers. On the rest of the development, the Inspector considers that they would be appropriate to the town centre location and would be well integrated into their surroundings.

It is clearly demonstrated that most of the problem is created with the two huge towers. On the rest of the development, the Inspector considers that they would be appropriate to the town centre location and would be well integrated into their surroundings.

Public Transport

The CJAG, along with other opponents, was defending the case that Wandsworth station is already running over capacity, that trains are so crowded that passengers sometime prefer to catch a train in the opposite direction to get a chance to board on their train, and that alternative routes using Clapham Junction couldn’t be seriously envisaged as this station is already branded the second worst in the country.

However here the Inspector does not join our views as he wrote:

At Wandsworth Town station, the existing and more critical am peak train loadings are high and, from the Assistant Inspector’s site visits, the data presented to the Inquiry is reflected in conditions at the station. The travelling conditions are however not unusual for inner London, and the trains only appear to be uncomfortably full for a relatively short period over the am peak and only for the early part of the journey into central London. […] The increase would be sufficiently small to not be noticeable, and I consider that there would generally be sufficient capacity over the peak period to accommodate such an increase.

Of course this is disappointing. In its visits, during a short period of time, the Inspectors have not seen what many people have complained about, and that was even recognised by the government when it named Clapham Junction (suggested as alternative use by the applicants) as one of the station in urgent need for investment. The explanation for this mis-perception might be read with the Inspector saying:

Furthermore, there was no objection to these figures from the Council or the Mayor at the Inquiry. I therefore accept the figures put forward.” In its case, the developer actually said: “at Clapham Junction, most of the 40 trains to London in the am peak hour have passenger loadings below 80% and these are below 70% leaving Vauxhall to Waterloo“.

Maybe we should appoint our own study, but how and with which money? There is undoubted facts that the Council has however acknowledge the need for improving the rail stations in the area, with £300k allocated to CJ station Brighton Yard entrance and the announcement of £250k allocated to contribute to Wandsworth Town station refurbishment (but that was before the budget cut!).

Community Benefits

As the CJAG highlighted in its evidence, there was not much detail on the £41 million contribution that the developers were giving at the time the application was approved by the Council, except a vague consideration on the fact that most will be allocated to sort out the gyratory system. Actually, the Borough policy says that “buildings or more than 30 storeys will generally be considered inappropriate, and only considered in exceptional circumstances” (SSAD p59) ; the example of such circumstances is given of a significant infrastructure investment to solve current traffic issues. The Public Inquiry showed that the application was submitted in its current form without any such investment in mind – it was incorporated later – but no other exceptional circumstances were put forward with the application to justify such tall buildings.

Affordable Housing

As the CJAG also wrote in its evidence, for all new development (although depending on site circumstances) the expectation is a provision of between 33% and 50% affordable housing. In this scheme, the 11% total provision of affordable housing falls far short of even the lowest level of policy aim. The Inspector cannot do anything but say that it is therefore clear that the affordable housing provision that is proposed does not comply with the aims of LDF Policy IS5 or those of the London Plan.

But even more, he noticed that the level of affordable housing is concentrated exclusively in the Cockpen House site (on a different application), with none in the two huge towers. Therefore he commented that:

There would be a complete lack of affordable housing on one site and an over-concentration at the other. […] This would undermine national objectives to promote development that creates cohesive communities.

And this is is main concern for the Inspector on this aspect. Although the Wandsworth borough is only 24% affordable housing (!), the town centre has a level of 42% (mainly due to the group of tower blocks in the estate behind Southside) and the proposal would change that proportion to 31%, still above the borough average (that will lower down too). We could argue noticing that that fact that Wandsworth is already a poor performer on affordable housing is not an excuse but we will keep his argument on mix communities and we agree with his conclusion saying:

However, the concentration of all the affordable dwellings at the Cockpen House site, where they would form the majority of the development, could be socially divisive. What is more, the proportion of affordable dwellings, at just 11% of the total, is unacceptably low. I consider that there would not be an acceptable provision for affordable housing. […] However, the applicant contends that this harm is outweighed by the benefits of the proposals, and is supported in this view by the Council and the Mayor. I consider the overall planning balance below but, in the terms of PPS3, […] the proposal would not meet either London Plan or emerging local targets for the proportion of affordable housing to be provided. To that extent, I consider that the proposed development would not fully accord with national planning policy guidance in PPS3 Housing.

Gasholder

The Inspector is a little bit bemused that the Stage 2 Urban Study makes no mention of this possible restriction in setting out the Opportunities and Constraints for Tall Buildings at the Ram Brewery/Capital Studios site and gives a strong indication that tall buildings should be located at the northern end of the site (also SSAD p59). Everything is displayed as there is no gasholder in the area or that no restriction has to be taken into account. He wrote:

The proposed towers would be situated in the most sensitive part of the site in relation to the gasholder. […] There is no evidence that safety has been a significant consideration which was taken into account in the design of the proposed development, and it therefore would conflict with paragraph 4.96 of the draft Core Strategy, to which I give significant weight” (but as shown above, to which the Council itself did not)

I will pass through the several pages talking about the probable risk (10 out of 1 million per year), the confidence level (90%), Scaled Risk Integral (which exceed the threshold by a factor of 18), HSE’s frequency analyses using the Poisson and the n+1 approach, the decision made for the development at Oval (the Inspector found this is of limited relevance). The Inspector concluded:

The proposal would have a harmful effect on public safety with regard to the proximity of the Wandsworth gas holder, and that it would thus conflict with national policy on hazardous installations as set out in DETR Circular 4/2000 Planning Controls for Hazardous Substances.

Overall the Inspector recommended only refusal of the Ram Brewery scheme including the towers, but allowed the demolition of other buildings in the area, and the application for the Cockpen House site (five buildings from 5 storeys stepping up to 10/16 storeys), although upon a series of conditions.

Secretary of State refuses planning permission for the Ram Brewery site

To summarize the Secretary of State decision:

  1. He considers that the proposed development would have an unacceptably harmful effect on the character and appearance of its surroundings, including important historic assets.
  2. He considers that the 11% affordable housing provision which is offered is unacceptably low.
  3. He considers that the public transport system would be able to cope with the extra demand placed on it by the proposed developments.
  4. He considers that the proposal would also conflict with national policy on hazardous installations.
  5. He does not want to comment on the gyratory system contribution as he finds it irrelevant in the context of the refusal.

Going further than the Inspector’s recommendation, the Secretary of State decided also that it “would be premature to grant conservation area consent for the demolition of the modern buildings on the site in the absence of any information about what shape future proposals might take” and therefore refused also planning application. However he agreed on the planning application for Cockpen House. Considering the fact that this application was deeply linked with the tower scheme (especially in term of affordable housing) he decided to grant permission subject to conditions and to submission to a new s106 agreement. He has given 6 weeks for the applicants to do so (followed by a 2 weeks consultation period). He will issue a final decision by the end of September on this latest application.

And now?

Despite his refusal of the proposal, the inspector encouraged the Council to pursue its effort to redevelop this part of the Wandsworth, saying (p6 of the conclusions):

Both sites can be fairly described as under-used, town centre brownfield land. As such they should be a priority for redevelopment. They are effectively the only available sites within the town centre which can provide a significant opportunity for regeneration. The inquiry showed widespread public support in principle for the proposed mixed-use redevelopment of the sites, with universal approval of the retention and re-use of the brewery buildings.

The Inspector gave also his views in the development of the town centre, saying:

In my view, the density of residential use is not the only, or necessarily the best, indication as to whether a development maximises the potential of a site, especially in a mixed use scheme. The contribution of the retail, leisure and commercial elements of the scheme to the vitality and viability of the town centre, including the reuse of important historic buildings, is equally important. This is crucially a matter of balance, with the aim of achieving the maximum intensity of use compatible with local context. […]

I consider that in principle the Ram Brewery site would be a suitable location for tall buildings in general accordance with the locational criteria of Policy 4B.9. [But overall] the proposals would not meet the pivotal criteria requiring high quality design and respect for local context.

In presenting its case to the Inquiry, the Council considered that the benefits of the proposed schemes were overwhelming, and far outweigh any negative aspects relied upon by the opponents of the scheme.

After one of the biggest public inquiry organised for a planning application in London, the Secretary of State has joined the Inspector who agrees on most of the claims raised by the Wandsworth Society along with other interested parties. It’s time to go back to the “drawing board” and pay better attention to the local resident views, as it shows here that contrary to the Council they were right to oppose this application.

According to the article published by Wandsworth Guardian, Minerva’s chief executive, Salmaan Hasan, said:

We are naturally disappointed by the Secretary of State’s decision and remain committed to our Ram Brewery and Buckhold Road sites, which represent a rare opportunity to regenerate Wandsworth town centre. However, the Secretary of State has given a positive response to many aspects of the scheme and given guidance as to what is likely to be acceptable. We will now consider the information and guidance in the Secretary of State’s response and review our options as we look to move the scheme forward.

Indeed any new plan will be scrutinised in view of the report produced by this Inquiry.

It is always dangerous to use radical slogans, as it could backfire. The Council presented the redevelopment of the site as a “once in a lifetime opportunity“. It has now to work to prove its statement wrong and deliver a better plan for the regeneration of the town centre within the next… 80 years? Even if the people who fought this plan have the right to crow, I have no doubt that their priority will be to work with the Council to make Wandsworth Town a better place for everyone.

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9 thoughts on “The Ram Brewery verdict: analysis of the government’s refusal

  1. Nobody has the right to crow. This is not a crowing matter. On another forum, a critic has expressed views that the time spent by the developer and the Council over the five or six years it has taken to bring this application to a close has been ‘wasted’. The cost of the Public Inquiry was estimated by someone at Wandsworth Planning as £2m. Or, to put it another way, five years of the cost of running the Wandsworth Museum.
    The question no-one seems to have asked, and which must now be asked and answered by the powers at Wandsworth, both in the Planning department and our elected representatives on the Planning Committee is ‘how was this ridiculous scheme allowed to get so far?’

    My reaction on seeing the proposal at the so-called public consultation exercise in Garrett Lane in 2008 was laughter (‘they cannot be serious’). I didn’t, for a second, believe the planning department would recommend such a scheme, or the Planning Committee consent it.
    Well, I was wrong then and no doubt will be wrong again, but thankfully Martin Linton did the right thing and gave the Secretary of State the opportunity to put right what Wandsworth got so signally wrong.
    What grieves me is that six years in the life of an incredibly important collection of historic buildings has been wasted on this planning circus which could so easily have been spent devising a scheme appropriate to the historic context. And I’m afraid the blame for that lies squarely at Wandsworth Council’s door. They employ some of the most experienced and knowledgeable planning people anywhere and yet this scheme was allowed to get off the ground when it should nevr have got any further than a Costa Coffee napkin.
    There are plenty of really good conservation architects around with the skill and experience to imagine a great scheme which celebrates our brewing heritage rather than overwhelming it with inappropriate development.
    Make it a competition that only AABC (Architects Accredited in Building Conservation) can enter, and let a panel which includes local historic environment specialists help to decide which is most appropriate and would get local support.
    Then we will have the kind of place-making such a site deserves, and which Wandsworth is ready for.

    • Dale Ingram> When I wrote “crow” I thought that it would be hypocritical to say that the opponents of the scheme, the volunteers who defended the position of the local residents at the public inquiry, were sad to hear about the final decision to refuse the application. However I did not write that they should jump for joy because – as for CJ station – the failure of the scheme is before-all a failure, and not a new proposal that everyone can welcome to revamp the area.

      I agree with you on the wasting. Network Rail told us that about £2m were spent (wasted) by the developers while working for 5 years with the Council for CJ twin towers. Now you say that the cost of the Ram Brewery plan equal this sum. Do you suggest that this is the fault of the opponents who opposed projects that here the Inspector and SoS declare ill-conceived? Or do you think – as I feel in reading you – this is the fault of the Council which should be in charge of giving proper orientations for town planning?

      But we feel also that a lot of things have changed for the past 2 years. While at the end of 2008 big-towers-everywhere were still fancied by our Council, the twin tower scheme for CJ station has been dropped, a 16 tower hotel replaced by a much reasonable 8 storey scheme, CJ has been removed from the preferred locations for tall buildings, and now the Ram Brewery towers are scrapped by the government.

      Talking about consultation, you should take the occasion to tell us your views on CJ station. It’s here:
      https://cjag.org/2010/04/24/your-chance-to-contribute-tell-us-what-your-think-on-cj-station-redevelopment/

  2. If the developers decide to look at a different scheme, and when (given the economic situation) then a new initiative must be given to the Wandsworth Town Centre Partnership to develop a model that can work for the developer and the local community, from the outset. The Partnership membership needs to be widely based to give it authority, and it needs to be seen as part of the planning process. Developers have traditionally been resistant to involvement in local movements but the signs are clear that they must immerse themselves from the outset. The whole structure needs to be well organised and disciplined.

    • David Rosemont> I fully agree… but don’t forget also other bodies such as the Wandsworth Society. The outcome of the Inquiry shows here that they were right to dispute the proposal.

  3. David and Cyril. Gosh, an outbreak of consensus on a community forum- it will never do! You are both right. The Town Centre Partnership should be looking to create a community forum ‘of all the talents’ to help the developer and his advising team create a scheme worthy of Wandsworth and Young’s legacy.

    There may be effective community-led initiatives in other boroughs. We might put out feelers and see where it takes us.

    Cyril: those of us who opposed the scheme did so right from the beginning. Clearly Wandsworth and the developers did not accord enough weight to the nay-sayers amongst us, and are now counting the cost. Unfortunately, the costs, as such, are borne in two ways. The financial costs on Wandsworth’s side come out of the council-taxpayers pockets, so as a community we have lost out financially over something we didn’t want in the first place.

    Secondly, unused historic buildings, even those carefully maintained which I am assured this one is, deteriorate faster than those in use. The next scheme may need to fund more repair work to rehabilitate the buildings, with the consequent knock-on effect of increased development around the brewery buildings. The most significant example of this is the Battersea Power Station farrago.

    The third loss is the economic ‘opportunity cost’ which arises from a further delay to the rehabilitation of the site which will create jobs, homes and other economic benefits.

    This is not the scheme opposition’s fault although the developer may choose to see it that way. It is squarely the fault of the Council in allowing or worse, encouraging the developer and his agents to think that such a preposterous proposal would ever be delivered.

    Speaking personally, five weeks of my life (pro bono) were given over to the planning inquiry, but I felt the cause was sufficiently just to make it worthwhile.

    Finally, several Wandsworth senior figures have voiced concerns to me that Wandsworth is seen as a ‘soft touch’ in Planning terms and as ‘a developers’ paradise’. Hmm. Thanks to some concerted local resistance, -and not just on the Ram Brewery site either- perhaps they won’t think so any more.

    The right development (by definition) will deliver all of the benefits we and the Council most desire, but not at the cost of damaging the things that make Wandsworth the singular and fascinating place it is. And with thanks to Colin Ball and Stephen Roscoe (and Mr Pickles) it can continue to be distinctive and unique.

  4. The idea that “Wandsworth is a soft touch” is not accurate and to my mind (and personal experience) I have had major schemes go against the (initial) advice by officers and in one case against their recommendation to approve. On one or possibly two occasions their recommendation was changed at the last moment for political reasons. Result the architects and applicants lost a bundle. Further in one case something got built in Putney with the connivance of the Council that was nominated one of the ugliest buildings in Britain by no less that HRH Prince Charles! These are things that get noticed by nervous investors.

    I have often been asked to advise on schemes in the Borough whether I was the architect or not. My current advice is that you cannot necessarily expect any planning consultation or negotiation to go to plan and that one is in fact at risk of wasting a great deal of time and money because of the uncertainties. It’s not just me either and I hear the same from other architects and clients. Even when one bends over backwards to get support) and in one case got it from everybody except the planning officers who changed their minds you can’t assume that public support will get a scheme through.

    The Council and the public need to recognise that there are large deficiencies in the system and until it becomes more responsive and efficient it is in many ways hindering investment and improvement in the towns and cities of the UK.

    There are difficulties too in the Council between different departments which does not help.

    Youngs and their successors barked up the wrong tree and to a large extent ignored much of the advice given, as they didn’t want to hear, and wanted to sell for as much as possible. Their successors really had not got their ears to the ground as much as the Young family and they got caught by the swing against tall buildings generally. I must admit when I first saw it I thought no way those towers within a few short metres of the stables. However by that stage I was no longer chairing the old Challenge Partnership and was living miles away.

    Only with a redefinition of the system will things get better, and EVERYBODY needs to be involved. In the case of Wandsworth TCP they need to do something URGENTLY!

    I don’t mind getting involved within my capacity of travel and visits to London, but I would not want to WASTE time talking to people who don’t want to hear and deal with things behind closed doors, being frightened of debate! In my experience ther are many such at SW18.

    • David: “one of the ugliest buildings in Britain”> Are you talking about the Sudbury House above Southside? 😉

      Anyway, if you ever happened to be in Wandsworth, to get in touch, I will no doubt enjoy a coffee and a good conversation with you.

  5. Thank God, and very well done to the Wandsworth Society, the Tonsley Residents Association and indeed to the former local MP, Martin Linton. A shining and brilliant example of debate and action that is unequivocally open (and which put a stop to the prior dealings that had resulted in local planning permission being granted). SW18 retains its charm, efficiency and desirability – instead of becoming the architectural monstrosity with transport chaos under the now defunct plans!

  6. The building I had in mind was in fact an especially hideous confection of bright red and blue sheet metal in Burston Road SW15 which was approved by the Council in preference to a row of neighbourly three storey houses. It appeared in HRH’s book “A Vision of Britain”.

    Another recent aberration was a building on the corner of Heathfield Road and Windmill Road designed by no other than a member of the Wandsworth Conservation Area Advisory Committee (sitting apparently on behalf of the RIBA) and featuring on a hideous building website!

    Equally nasty a building opposite the Granada St John’s Hill.

    The list goes on………..

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