Having been increasingly criticised for “waging war” on the suburbs in pursuit of City Hall’s housing targets, Sadiq Khan confounded observers yesterday by rejecting a 1,250-home scheme at the former Stag Brewery site in Mortlake, saying it would have an adverse effect on the “arcadian and open character of the area”.
Objectors who had tutted as the Mayor grilled Richmond Council planner Lucy Thatcher on the council’s need to “do better” on providing affordable housing broke into applause and cries of “thank you” as he rejected his own planners’ recommendations to approve the scheme and sent developers Reselton Properties Ltd back to the drawing board.
The company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Singapore-based City Developments Ltd, acquired the 22-acre Thameside site in 2015 for £158 million after the brewery, at that time producing Budweiser lager, closed down, ending some 250 years of brewing in Mortlake.
The site’s prominent landmark is the eight-storey Maltings building, dating from 1903, and locally listed as of “townscape merit”. It is also the point where the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race finishes.
Reselton initially proposed an 897-home development, plus a new secondary school requested by Richmond Council, together with hotel and commercial uses. Although the plan attracted criticism from community campaigners, for its density, height and impact on the “suburban” character of the area – there were more than 2,000 objections – it was approved by Richmond in January last year after agreement was reached that new buildings would not be higher than the brewery building.
But as a strategically significant development – one of the largest in south-west London – the scheme needed City Hall approval, and its offer of between 12 per cent and a maximum of 17 per cent affordable housing fell foul of Khan’s requirements, leading him to use his planning powers to take over the application to determine it himself.
New plans then put before the Mayor were significantly more ambitious – 1,250 homes, 30 per cent affordable, and residential blocks up to three storeys higher than previously proposed. This was a step too far for Richmond. Thatcher told yesterday’s mayoral hearing it represented “excessive density and urbanisation”, disregarding the setting of the site and subsuming the Maltings building, contrary to the guidelines set out in the borough’s local plan and its specific development brief for the site.
Local campaigner Peter Eaton told the hearing the scheme’s mansion blocks were “alien” to Mortlake’s “suburban village environment” and would loom over the “gateway to the arcadian Thames.” The local Labour party objected too, with representative Deborah Genders calling the plan “too dense, too high, and …not in keeping with the “suburban character of the area”, while Just Space housing campaigner Michael Edwards said the scheme was at “central London density”, as well as falling short on affordable homes.
Khan stressed the “the wider context” of London being in urgent need for more housing, particularly “genuinely affordable homes”, and criticising Richmond for delivering just 173 of them between 2016/17 and 2018/19. But in what he called a “finely-balanced decision”, he eventually sided with the objectors.
The scheme’s 30 per cent affordable housing offer, predominantly for shared or “intermediate” housing rather than London Affordable Rent homes, “does not meet my expectations”, he concluded, adding that its harmful impact on the “arcadian and open character of the area”, and on the site’s historic buildings, was not outweighed by its public benefit.
The decision was welcomed by Richmond. Julia Neden-Watts, chair of the council’s environment and sustainability committee, said she felt the revised scheme “crossed the line of acceptability. The amended design would have a detrimental physical impact on the local area.” She added that “providing affordable housing is as much a priority for the council as it is for the Mayor of London”.
The decision marks a departure for Khan, who has approved almost all previous housing applications he has “called in”, though these have generally been after borough planning committees have rejected them and been in line with City Hall planners’ recommendations.
Is this, then, a shift away from the “war on the suburbs”? That remains to be seen. The developers could appeal against Khan’s decision, and reaction from London Assembly Members suggests pressure will remain on Khan over Outer London development, with constituency AM Nicholas Rogers calling the decision a “massive win for local residents” and Green Party AM and Assembly housing committee chair Sian Berry describing it as “great news”. Meanwhile, local objector Una O’Brien stressed to the hearing that local people would support appropriate development. “There is no nimbyism about this,” she said.
Either way, the future of this large brownfield, former industrial site is likely to remain unresolved for some time.
On London is a small but influential website which strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.