A lot of hypocrisy on Osiers Site

Author: Cyril Richert

While the chair of the Planning committee, Cllr Guy Humphries

  1. argue that the Osiers’ scheme was the last piece of the jigsaw envisioned to “reshape” the area,
  2. admits that local residents might not have been aware of the plan, and
  3. asserts that developers’ interest should take privilege over local residents amenities,

the members of the committee start having doubts over the Council strategy and turn down the proposal.

The process of filling Wandsworth Riverside started under the leadership of previous Council leader Ed Lister: Battersea Reach beside Wandsworth roundabout started to fill up with towers two decades about, then Osiers road sites and now York Road is changing fast. The previous size of 9 storeys above which buildings would be unlikely to be approved as long been ignored forgotten by the Council.

A decade ago, shortly after approving a scheme with a 36 storey tower for the Ram Brewery (later scrapped by the Secretary of States), Wandsworth Council approved a a scheme including a 21 storey-tower. It seems the norm nowadays, but it was a breach of policy at the time as the council documents stated that 18 storeys will generally be unacceptable. And while the planning officers conceded ten years ago (already!) that “the proposed density [was]in excess of both the urban and central setting” regarding transport, they praised the scheme. Although it was the tallest of the area, the developers of Osiers Estate have justified their high density because “a number of high density scheme ha[d] been permitted in the vicinity of the site” already!

Current view of Osiers area with the designated area highlighted

Therefore, ten years later, when another proposal to build a range of towers between 10 and 14 storeys comes to the Council (p.a. 2018/3709), surrounded by an existing 12-storey residential block to the north, a nine storey block to the west, and a 16 storey building to the east and with the 21 storey building above about 25m away, what do you think happened?

Propose construction in view of adjoining properties

Yes, the planning officers were consistent, although much more cautious than for other schemes.

The conclusion of their report could have been generated by our automatic planning report generator (we encourage you to have a try HERE). It is such exemplar of the use of “balance“, “benefits“, “impact on amenities but” that it is worth quoting it nearly in full:

On balance, the proposed development would maximise the sites development potential, bringing with it a number of benefits which would include the delivery of new residential units, including 57 affordable housing units, provision of modern commercial floorspace enhancing employment opportunities on the site, together with the delivery of new areas of public realm including opportunities for urban greening, play and social engagement. With the benefits of the proposed redevelopment there would, however, clearly be some consequences from the delivery of a development of such increased height, scale and mass when compared to the existing on site circumstances. These consequences would have some impact on the amenities of some existing neighbouring occupiers, and in some instances this impact would be readily noticeable. Having taken account of national, regional and local policy, the representations received in response to this planning application, and all other material planning considerations, it is concluded that after careful consideration the proposed development is, on balance, in an acceptable degree of compliance with relevant planning policies and guidance, and that planning permission should be granted.”

Therefore nothing different from the usual justification from Wandsworth planning officers… as we know we could have easily written the same justification with our automatic tool.

When the Council admits that developers are more important to them than residents

Cllr Humphreys, chair of the committee, said that “this site was the final piece of the jigsaw in the masterplan and that residents would have known this when moving into the area. Masterplans tended to evolve and that it would not be fair to punish the developer because residents had previously enjoyed certain levels of space and light.

In case you had any doubt before, it is a clear acknowledgement from the Council that developers have to take precedent over residents, and that local inhabitants opinion is negligible!

Therefore what happened to some Tory members of the planning application committee on April the 25th? It might be that this time the Council pushed too far (and that the Tory majority is thinner) but 6 out of 10 members of the committee voted against the scheme (which means that some Tory councillors voted with the 4 Labour councillors); the reasons for refusal were its scale, siting, mass, and layout.

When pressed, developers acknowledge that providing affordable housing is not even an issue

Years ago, planning officer Martin Howell (Group Planner – Policy & Information) said that developers couldn’t be forced to meet level set in the planning policies for affordable homes in new schemes [1] as it might stretch their viability and deter them to even build in the borough. [2] [3]

Indeed in most of the major schemes, developers have managed to forget this criteria, either because “on balance” their scheme was providing other “benefits” or because they preferred to pay a lump sum rather than providing any affordable units on-site. It was not too much of a problem for Wandsworth Council when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London (with Ed Lister, former Wandsworth leader, in charge of planning) but this is much more problematic with Sadiq Khan targets.

While Wandsworth is currently exceeding their overall target on housing (which is normal when you think about the Nine Elms opportunity area), they do not take advantage of that situation to increase the number of affordable/social housing. That is the view that the Mayor of London took 2 years ago when he granted permission for the scheme to replace Homebase in Swandon Lane (Wandsworth Town); however, the argument was later disputed by the Council who think that they meet the target.

The recent Authority Monitoring Report 2017/18 shows (download spreadsheet):

  • London plan target = 1724/year and they exceed every year: 2776 (2015/16), 2345 (2016/17), 2173 (2017/18)
  • Social/Affordable= 104/y (522 total) and they failed the last 2 years .

In addition, on the Core Strategy, p115 (4.183), it says: “there is a gross need for affordable housing of 1,600 units per annum, a net need of 634 units per annum;” which shows a total failure on those bases. They actually acknowledge that failure saying: “delivering affordable housing within the previous income cap of £38,000 p.a. across two thirds of properties for intermediate housing has become increasingly difficult due to rising house prices;

The Osiers’ scheme was already proposing 39% affordable rent units (increased from an initial 35%). The planning report (p32) said :

“[The applicants] state this means the proposed affordable housing is the maximum reasonable amount that can be supported by the proposals.”

And later the report says (p50):

“It is concluded that this is the best offer that the Council could reasonably expect given the outcome of the assessment of the viability appraisal.”

The Mayor of London has decided to call in the application. And abruptly, the applicant found that actually they were able to offer now 100% of units as affordable (with a tenure split of 45% London Affordable Rent and 55% London Shared Ownership). It shows once again that those viable assessment are completely fake and a distortion of the planning system!

It shows bluntly that the economic argument of not able to provide enough affordable accommodation is misconceived. It proves that the fact that Wandsworth is not meeting its target for affordable accommodation is due to its unwillingness to enforce it rather than the impossibility to do better. 

[1] Latest figures: Core Strategy oct 2014 – par.4.182:”the level of affordable housing which would be viable on individual sites of 10 plus units (gross) – at least 15% in Nine Elms, 33% in the remainder of the borough

[2] You can find that idea re-asserted in the Core Strategy oct 2014 – par.4.182: “given the scale of affordable need it is impossible for a borough such as Wandsworth to meet that need within its boundary based on affordable housing viability, with the borough forming part of a wider housing market area extending beyond London’s boundaries;”

[3] In CJAG previous article regarding the local plan examination hearing held by a government inspector, on the 8th and 9th of July 2015 : “According to the current policy, all schemes should propose 40% of affordable units (and 15% in Nine Elms). Although most of the developments do not even get close to those numbers, the Council argued that  if we do not have figures on affordable housing, then the land value is likely to increase. However later they said that if we put a higher figure that currently then the price of the land will not drop and it will deter developments.

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