Building new parts of the capital city is a long, slow process, especially when people’s homes are to be knocked down to make way for them and a global pandemic intrudes.
It is 18 months since On London began reporting the creation of Cundy Street Quarter, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland’s plan for transforming a triangle of prime Central London in south Belgravia, close to Victoria Station and Sloane Square. It took until last week for those plans to come before Westminster City Council’s major applications planning sub-committee. And there’s still a bit of even that part of the regeneration journey to complete.
The scheme envisages the demolition of 111 privately-rented flats in four blocks – slightly famous because the Duchess of Cornwall used to live in one of them – and one block of 40 flats for social rent, and their replacement by a new mixed-use development containing 70 market-priced homes, 49 “intermediate affordable” homes, 44 for social rent, purpose-built ones for perhaps as many as 300 older people, plus shops, pedestrian space, a small cinema and more.
The topline, as we annoyingly say in journalism, is that the six-councillor sub-committee – two Labour, four Conservative – was generally in favour of the Cundy Street Quarter scheme and of approving it. However, the members stopped short of doing so, by a majority of five to one, in order that further consideration can be given to the effects of the height of one of the new housing blocks proposed for the site.
That issue received advance publicity in the Evening Standard, thanks to some owners of houses in Mozart Terrace, where a certain musician lived for a while as a child, saying that one of the scheme’s new buildings would deprive them of sunlight. Influential local groups – the Belgravia Society, Belgravia Neighbourhood Forum and the Belgravia Residents Association – also objected, as did former council leader Nickie Aiken, now the MP for Cities of London & Westminster. Grosvenor beg to differ about the light issue: project director Fergus Evans told the Standard their analysis finds that the impact would be much smaller than claimed.
At the suggestion of the council officer presiding at the sub-committee meeting, the decision was deferred so that the planning department can look more closely at a paper put in by Grosvenor making the case that if the building in question was one storey shorter, yes, it would lessen such loss of light as they accept but also have unhappy implications for the amount of affordable housing in the scheme, because it would make it less profitable overall. (The fact that you are likely to get more “affordable” housing supplied by way of private developments if they contain more rather than fewer “luxury” flats is one that routinely escapes housing protesters of the Left).
The variety of “affordable” homes that could be lost from the scheme would be the “intermediate” low cost home ownership kinds, pencilled in as London Living Rent as defined by the London Mayor. There is more definite and, it seems, good news for the residents of Walden House, the Grosvenor-owned block on the current site which is leased to the council and let to council tenants. That’s where the 40 social housing dwellings are.
A widely-publicised campaign against the Grosvenor scheme during the run-up to the 2019 general election, backed by Labour councillors (including one who lives in Walden House), raised interesting questions about who speaks for the residents in these situations and what is best for the wider neighbourhood. These matters prompted sharp exchanges with the local Tory Churchill ward councillor, who has long supported the Cundy Street Quarter project.
All 40 Walden House flats are to be replaced, contributing to a 47% on-site “affordable” housing proportion under the submitted plans and all current residents can move into one if they wish. To quote from the officers’ report:
“The replacement accommodation for Walden House residents will be provided on the same terms as existing and built in the first phase of construction, which allows residents to move straight into their new home without moving into temporary accommodation. The affordable housing provision is welcomed by the housing department and is considered to be a significant public benefit.”
It is also welcomed by Churchill’s other two councillors, who are both Labour, along with a “right to return” provision secured from the council in September 2019. The “senior living” accommodation has yet to be worked out in detail, but is now expected to be for around 300 people. There is wide acceptance that more housing designed for older people is needed in the capital.
The initial emergence of the Cundy Street Quarter plans coincided with Grosvenor launching a campaign urging fellow property firms and local government leaders to take a new approach to housebuilding and development in the face of rock bottom public trust in the sector at a time when demand for new housing and amenities is London was very high. There was a recognition that the industry has an image problem and that local councils aren’t seen as reliable custodians of local interests.
Evidently, not all interested parties are pleased with the Grosvenor proposals despite the many consultations and negotiations that have informed their final form. The residents of the private flats will have to make other arrangements, though many of them are well-placed to do so. There will always be losers as well as winners when this type of change takes place.
And then there are those complaints about sunlight. The Westminster councillor who wanted to press ahead with approving the plans without delay did so on the grounds that once one element of a scheme like this is brought into doubt, others can follow and before you know it the entire complex weave of financial projections, community benefits, spatial strategies and housing tenure mix starts to unravel and the journey from planning to delivery becomes even longer. The next chapter of the Cundy Street Quarter story is awaited with interest.
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