Almost a year ago, and not for the first time, Tower Hamlets Council departed from the London local government script. Its strategic planning committee, responsible for approving or refusing large planning applications, resoundingly rebuffed proposals for the next stage of the regeneration of the Aberfeldy estate in Poplar, most of it social housing assembled before and after World War II and already undergoing a comprehensive transformation.
The committee took its decision in spite of the council’s planning officers – in-house experts whose recommendations are usually deferred to by elected politicians – saying they thought the scheme should go ahead, and in spite of an overwhelming majority of the estate’s residents – who, if it does proceed, will have their existing homes razed to the ground – voting in favour of it. A huge turnout of 91 per cent produced a 93 per cent “yes” vote.
The backdrop to this and what happened next reveals a lot about what inhibits the development of new and additional housing in the capital, both particular local factors and the vagaries of national policy. It also illustrates the powers of the Mayor of London. Last May, Sadiq Khan, whose financial support for the scheme was secured by the residents’ “yes” vote, took the application out of the hands of Tower Hamlets and placed it those of his deputy for planning, Jules Pipe. On Friday of this week, Pipe will consider the plans at a public hearing and make the decision about them on the Mayor’s behalf.
City Hall officers have recommended that he gives the application, submitted by the Aberfeldy New Village LLP, a joint venture between commercial developer EcoWorld London and local housing association Poplar HARCA, a green light. It has seemed likely that that would be the outcome from the moment the Tower Hamlets strategic development committee turned the application down. How have matters reached this stage? And what, if any, lessons can be learned?
The Aberfeldy estate – or Aberfeldy Village, as it is now being called – as a whole occupies a 13 hectare (32.1 acre) triangular site in Poplar, bounded on two sides by heavy duty London roads and lying just south of Bow Creek. It takes its name from a place in Scotland because an earlier developer of the land, David McIntosh, came from that country – the area also has a Culloden primary school, an Oban Street and a Dee Street.
The estate’s somewhat incremental evolution owed much to Blitz bomb damage to the adjacent Import Dock, an original part of the wider East India Docks complex. Completed in the 1970s, it became associated with the familiar array of social ills linked, often rather unfairly, with council estates of that era. Since the late 1980s, many such estates in Britain have been taken over by housing associations. The “stock transfer” of the Aberfeldy to Poplar HARCA began in the late 1990s and was completed in 2007.
Then came the regeneration programme. This began in 2012, with the Tower Hamlets of that time, backed by the then London Mayor Boris Johnson, giving the go-ahead for a masterplan that proposed the demolition of 297 of the Aberfeldy’s existing dwellings and filling the same space with nearly 1,200 new homes in blocks between two and ten storeys tall, plus new shops, food and drink outlets, new health facilities and new community space.
An “affordable” housing component of 26 per cent, though lower than what Sadiq Khan would want today, was acceptable to Tower Hamlets planning officers, who pointed out that it would represent no net loss of affordable homes and also provide more of family size.
Work proceeded in phases, starting in 2012 and ending last year. The result is a combination of homes for market sale, for market rent and for below market rent of various kinds that stacked up financially, with the more expensive dwellings subsidising the “affordable” resulting in more and better housing and amenities on the same footprint of land.
The regeneration so far seems to have been well-received, not least by Aberfeldy residents still living in the old properties, who have made clear through the ballot that they wish to experience their own make-over. And after Tower Hamlets officers had studied Poplar HARCA and EcoWorld London’s “hybrid application” seeking detailed permission for the first part of the next stage of the regeneration and outline approval for the rest – a 9.8 hectare (24.2 acre) section of the full Aberfeldy site – they recommended that it should be granted. Why, then, was it turned down?
Answers to that question vary. Some critics of the application took issue with the Tower Hamlets planning officers’ conclusions. They disliked the taller buildings – the very biggest of which would be 100 metres and 28 storeys high – being allowed in spite of being considered to be at odds with the borough’s tall buildings policy, and disagreed with the view that they should be exempt because the overall benefits of the scheme would outweigh the drawbacks.
They also expressed qualms about transport infrastructure changes. At present, the western end of Abbott Road, which runs east-west through the north of the estate, becomes an underpass beneath the A12 Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach Road – one of those two heavy duty carriageways.
Under the plans, this would become for pedestrians and cyclists instead, with a new junction on the A12 created close by. This is considered by those behind the scheme to be the long-needed solution to the estate being detrimentally cut off from its surrounding area, contributing to the Lansbury electoral ward in which the Aberfeldy stands being one of the poorest in the country.
However, an experienced former Conservative Tower Hamlets councillor thought committee members had legitimate concerns about this change and the application’s implications for road access to the “urban village” more generally, along with provision for car parking.
Tower Hamlets is a low car-ownership borough: the GLA officers’ report notes that two thirds of the borough’s residents don’t have access to a motor vehicle, with the least well-off the least likely to. However, restrictions on, and discouragement of, car-use are a hot topic in Tower Hamlets, a borough whose political leadership, long before Rishi Sunak declared his opposition to the so-called “war on motorists”, was in revolt against the introduction of a new wave of low traffic neighbourhoods.
Directly elected Mayor Lutfur Rahman of the local Aspire party had come back from the political dead in May 2022 promising to do away with LTNs – called Liveable Streets in Tower Hamlets – brought in by his Labour predecessor. A majority of the councillors on the strategic development committee were Aspire representatives.
The Aberfeldy application also fell victim to a wider political climate that had assisted Rahman and Aspire in the 2022 elections. Although opposing more regulation of motorists is mostly a right-wing cause, Rahman characterises himself, and is hailed by admirers, as a political progressive to the left of the Labour party he was once a member of and which disowned him. As such, on planning issues he and his party tend to align with left-populist causes, as manifested in Rahman’s stance on the Truman Brewery’s plans to build on its car park on Brick Lane.
The new plans for Aberfeldy attracted the ire of that school of activism. In stark contrast to the residents of the estate and the great majority of respondents to the public consultation about the application, 939 of whom were in favour of it compared with 97 opposed, a petition against it had, by October 2022, been signed by 728 people. And at the committee meeting itself, fiery speeches were made by members of the public against it. These, as tends to be the case, excited media interest. The website My London began its coverage as follows:
A huge housing development that was set to change the East London skyline forever was slapped down by the council last week after hundreds of residents slammed it as “gentrification” and claimed poorer residents would be pushed out and replaced with “richer middle-class people”.
One activist claimed the plans were an example of what he termed Poplar HARCA’s “managed decline” of the estate – a term also given prominence in a previously-published Guardian article about the Brick Lane situation sympathetic to the oppositional position.
Tower Hamlets in general, with its large population of Bangladeshi Londoners who form Rahman’s voter base, is a frequent focus of adherents to the view that property development in general and estate regeneration in particular can only ever lead to the “social cleansing” of poorer and ethnic minority residents.
Champions of the scheme would, of course, resile from such an interpretation. Along with noting the landslide outcome of the residents’ ballot, they would point to the latest Aberfeldy plans themselves. These propose the demolition of 330 existing dwellings and their replacement with 1,582 of various tenures. Of those, nearly 39 per cent would be “affordable” of one kind or another, of which 89 per cent would for rent at social or similar rent levels.
They would include replacements for the 252 social rent homes to be knocked down. Although most of the new housing will be flats with just one or two bedrooms, well over half (56 per cent) of the new social rent homes will have three or more bedrooms, so that tenants currently in overcrowded conditions will have more space in future.
Another strand of the Aberfeldy New Village story is formed by new building safety regulations being introduced in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The progress of the plans has coincided with the government’s slow and fitful work on them.
The key element has been a requirement for new tall residential buildings to have two internal staircases, not just one. Michael Gove announced in December 2022 – as the Aberfeldy application was about to go to the committee – that the second staircase rule would apply to all buildings higher than 30 metres (roughly eight storeys) and launched a public consultation.
Sadiq Khan soon made it known that he wanted the rule enforced immediately in London, announcing this in February 2023, shortly before the Aberfeldy application was due to go before the Tower Hamlets committee.
The Aberfeldy plan included 15 development plots of which eight would rise to a maximum height of 30 metres or more. Knowing Khan’s intervention was coming, those working on the Aberfeldy plan made changes to two of those, which were among the blocks to be built in the development’s first phase with a commitment to change the others that are in outline.
Put very simply, this boiled down to reducing the overall floor space in the taller blocks to accommodate the additional staircases, though without reducing the number of affordable homes. According to one of those involved, this might have slowed things down by a month – rather less than it might have been, thanks to the speed with which this work was done.
Then, in July 2023, two months after the City Hall call-in, Gove said he wanted his second staircase rule to be stricter and apply to all buildings above 18 metres in height instead. This affected the plans for all but two of the 15 plots. So, even as City Hall’s planning officers were getting to grips with the application, the Aberfeldy team had to add more staircases to the designs and do all their maths again. The need for additional space within the building structures to fit in second staircases was met by paring back the size of some of the rooms within the flats and losing some of the market homes.
Such is the nature of the planning process. But it all ate up more time. And that helps to explain why almost a whole year has passed since the Tower Hamlets committee turned down an application they surely knew City Hall would appropriate and eventually pass. A net gain of 1,252 new homes – including bigger and better ones for Aberfeldy social tenants who would very much like to have them – in a city falling short on new housing supply has been severely delayed.
In mid-October of last year, I was taken on a tour of the next parts of the Aberfeldy lined up for regeneration. I met representatives of Poplar HARCA and EcoWorld London at the new community centre, The Feldy, which stands within a new public square.
Together we walked down Aberfeldy Street, which has been put to imaginative “meanwhile use”. Flats and shops earmarked for near-future destruction provide temporary homes for a variety of ventures, including a popular boxing club which will, like the estate’s residents, be rehoused if the next steps in the regeneration go ahead, and a charming community air quality project which tracks rises and falls in local pollution levels in colour-coded knitting squares.
A temporary pub has been named the Tommy Flowers, complete with street mural, in honour of the Abbott Road-born bricklayer’s son who built the world’s first programmable electronic computer which helped break German code during the war. The entire street has been furnished in colourful designs inspired by successive renewals of the East End’s textile trade. Will the renewal of the Aberfeldy itself get the go ahead on Friday?