Camden: Planning pains of the O2 Centre scheme

Camden: Planning pains of the O2 Centre scheme

Last Thursday Camden Council’s planning committee gave consent for the redevelopment by Land Securities (LandSec) of a long bit of land covering 5.7 hectares (14 acres) between Finchley Road and West End Road. It currently contains the O2 shopping and entertainment centre, a Homebase, a builders’ merchant’s yard and a 520-space car park. Under the LandSec masterplan, all of them are to be knocked down.

Councillors voted seven-three in favour of the mostly residential mixed-use scheme which promises 1,800 new homes, of which 35 per cent will be affordable, plus a public square, shops, restaurants and a gym and a cinema to replace the ones there at the moment. Cries of “shame” came from the public gallery when the decision was announced. These annoyed committee chair Heather Johnson and a local On London supporter, who described objectors present as “lots of old white men in bad jumpers”.

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What was it about the scheme that some objected to? Were their arguments worthless? Were all of them old white men? Were their jumpers so very bad? I cannot comment on the jumpers – you had to be there, didn’t you? – but the summary of consultation responses in the council planning officer’s report provides good insights into objections and concerns about demolition and redevelopment found in many parts of London, some of them very old and others much newer.

City Hall, which has powers to block large schemes, is happy. So is the London Wildlife Trust, which is pleased the car park is going and that more trees and biodiversity will come. What’s more, better ground permeability will reduce the flood risk, they believe.

Historic England was a bit unhappy but offered “no objection in principle” and although described as having “concerns on heritage grounds” concluded that the harm to surrounding conservation areas will be “less than substantial”.

Local residents’ groups were, however, less sanguine. The Belsize Conservation Area Advisory Committee said the new LandSec buildings will be similar to new buildings elsewhere and “not respond to context”. In its view the area is already overcrowded and no buildings there should be higher than eight storeys – some of nearly 30 new ones planned will be much taller. The Combined Residents’ Associations of South Hampstead (CRASH) complained of “grotesque Soviet-era towers” (one view of buildings envisaged taken from the officer’s report is shown below).

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The Redington Frognal Association and Redington Frognal Neighbourhood Forum said the nearly 30 towers of various sizes in the plans betray a failure to understand the context, history and character of the area. The St John’s Wood Society thought the towers “excessively high and close together”. The West Hampstead Gardens and Residents’ Association was similarly unimpressed.

There were other criticisms too, such as the quantity and affordability of the affordable homes and the claimed penalisation of elderly and disabled people through the loss of the car park. But height and density were the most prominent themes: the council officers’ report says complaints about them featured in 86 per cent of responses opposing the scheme.

And not all objections were made by white men accused of offending against good jumper taste. Along with reporting such displeasure among her constituents, the London Assembly member for Barnet & Camden, Labour’s Anne Clarke, welcomed LandSec’s £10 million towards upgrading the Tube stations, the family-sized affordable homes in the plans and around half of the site being green. But she felt retrofitting the O2 Centre, which would obviate the need to replace the the cinema and gym, would be preferable to levelling it and that doing so “would still allow the car park and Homebase to be developed into housing”.

That suggestion is, however, addressed elsewhere in the officer’s report. At paragraph 25.17 it describes the O2 as “a relatively new building” – it opened in 1998 – and its coming demolition as “regrettable in sustainability terms”. But it adds that, as with the Homebase and two car showrooms on the site, it “could not suitably be repurposed for residential use, which is the main land use coming forward on the site”. The report also says the building is “considered low quality in design terms”.

There is much, much more to read in the report, which runs to 381 pages, but you’ll have picked up some of its defining themes. From Camden Council’s point of view, the LandSec scheme passes the tests and the aspirations of its planning policies, notably the provision of more housing, just as it does City Hall’s, whose final approval, required because the scheme is big, looks a formality. LandSec, celebrating its success after four years of preparation, describes the O2 site as it is as “a car dominated shopping centre at risk of decline,” and its ambitions for it, which include a new health centre, as much superior.

The decision, then, is a victory for development over conservation, for more housing over dislike for “Soviet” character and scale, and for green and pedestrian space over private motor vehicles. It is an example of a type of planning policy contest taking place in many parts of the city between equivalent protagonists with a variety of results, with sustainability and Net Zero priorities increasingly part of the development equation.

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Categories: Analysis


  1. Alexandra Rook says:

    About time such a vast wasteful
    surface level car park was repurposed for much needed housing. It would be a real benefit if the site was more ‘permeable’ in urban design speak, & penetrable by pedestrians; linking W H’stead & F Rd would be a real benefit. Having more people locally might reinvigorate the dated failing shopping centre; preferable to re-use than rebuild, especially as it creates a buffer to the busy F Rd. Opportunity to create a new neighbourhood & sense of place. Scale of site could take some height but street level urban realm must be attractive for people to linger & use or it will be another desert. It should be able to knit into existing edges with appropriate typologies & scale altho’ the railway ready defines one major edge.

  2. David Turvey says:

    Please we do not put up the new flat & do pull down the 02 centre I like the centre for shopping cinema shop restaurant and the gym also the car park , homebase, Sainsbury’s superstore

  3. MilesT says:

    I have been involved in the process and have read the available materials provided to date. There are significant issues with the proposal and process: governance, technical/financial, and trust apparent from the materials and wider local discussion to date covering an development of interest to a wider local region (beyond West Hampstead/Camden into a catchment which extends to adjacent boroughs).

    Firstly, reporting your correspondent’s (false) stereotyping of those providing legitimate objections to the proposal is an “othering” that should not have a place in a serious opinion article.

    Governance issues: There is in place a Neighbourhood development forum and local development plan (per the Localism act). This identified the site as a candidate for rezoning as housing and implicitly had the support of the local community. That rezoning suggested a density of around 900 properties (on the core of the site). However, pre-development planning discussions between Landsec and Camden did not further involve the NDF until after a reshaping of the scheme to 1800 properties and restructuring (reducing) the amenity provision. And the social tenure within the scheme barely meets policy minimums, and the social tenure will be grouped in specific buildings which will have less amenity provision (private green space and roof gardens) and smaller sizes. In short, poor doors (to maximise value of properties for commercial sale/rent) rather than mixed community living.

    Furthermore, the plans extend to a section of privately owned commercial property if local utility and value (Builder Depot) especially with the exit of Homebase. And, as such, the proposed scheme extinguishes approved plans for redevelopment of that site to expand the current commercial use by the current owners. Other nearby commercial property is likely to need to be compulsorily purchased by Camden to allow the scheme to progress as designed/approved.

    These governance issues have created distrust and ill will in the wider community organisations.

    Technical issues: Thames Water and Metropolitan Police have raised concerns which were not fully addressed in planning, and have been deferred as post approval matters (which may be challenging without significant changes). The plans have insufficient provision for vehicle borne servicing of the 1800 properties (only one parking space per building for moving/servicing, no delivery bays) and also do not make provision (onsite or nearby) for visitors who may need to come by car (for reasons of distance/practicality or disability), and the lack of parking also discriminates against the letting of social tenure properties to tradespeople who need a work vehicle. Bus provision is also not replaced like for like, let alone improved.

    And more worryingly, the plans do not detail how the maintenance of the green open space (which is in fact partly restricted to residents) and other amenities will be funded long term. I think this could default to Camden Council and will cost more to maintain than the available share of council taxes from new residents. This, combined with the initial S106 payments and Open space policy deficit payments is a tantamount to an urbanist “Ponzi” scheme with money taken now results in unfunded liabilities later (the US-based “Strong Towns” movement has highlighted this sort of outcome of the built environment of large housing schemes)

    Trust: The scheme promises much at this planning stage in terms of social tenure and new/replacement amenities, and open space/transport improvements. However there is local form in these promises not being delivered (the nearby 100 Avenue Road is a case in point, creating a long term blight on the area), and the community is distrustful that Camden will be able to maintain/enforce the promises made by Landsec (there is also local form in Camden not collecting financial entitlements agreed in housing development schemes). Landsec have also not been “honest actors” in the way they are managing the current retail element, both in terms of ending existing leases and voiding some of the retail space, but also subsidising a competing supermarket of the size/shape similar to that promised as a replacement amenity (Aldi) to the existing supermarket (Sainsbury’s, who operate a full size store about 5 times bigger, and have some years yet to run on their lease).

    I invite the author, Dave Hill, to look more deeply into this ongoing situation, including meeting local groups to understand their concerns in more detail.

  4. Johannes Bols says:

    It was always so convenient to shop at Sainsbury’s. The new development is a hideosity. Is NW3 really suffering a paucity of affordable housing?
    The idea of tearing down a structure that’s a magnet for the local community with the now puerile excuse of COVID (my goldfish died from COVID) is a transparent money grab for everybody who’ll make bank off of this new project.
    The locals will suffer years of construction delays and destruction. Can you get anything right?

  5. MilesT says:

    on 14 Dec 2023 the Deputy Mayor of London signed the GLA-level decision to send the plans back to LB Camden for finalisation and issue with no significant extra requirements.

    The detailed report issued 4 Dec (on the GLA website) shows a great number of specific concerns (from locals, local politicians including GLA AM’s, and other official consultees like police, heritage) “considered” and balanced against a much smaller number of benefits (without justification by way of hard evidence.

    GLA likely swayed by significant promise of funding to make West Hampstead underground “step free”, funding for additional works at Finchley Road to help deal with increasing volumes and other underground related improvements (including improvement of “Granny Dripping Stairs”).

    A sad day for local engagement and democracy. Bad, extractive, abusive plans permitted when a much better development was possible for the site.

    Next step: court cases around the compulsory purchases needed to assemble all the land (Builder Depot site including squashing their own approved commercial and residential plans, and Car dealiership)

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