Ealing: Why a 22-storey building got a planning inspector’s go-ahead

Ealing: Why a 22-storey building got a planning inspector’s go-ahead

The long quarrel about a 22-storey, 144-home, 100 per cent affordable housing development proposed for a site near the West Ealing Crossrail station came to an end last week when a planning inspector overruled Labour-controlled Ealing Council’s original decision last October to reject the scheme, put forward by developer Southern Grove West Ealing and its partner the Metropolitan Thames Valley housing association, by a narrow margin.

Now, with the project, called 55 West, cleared to go ahead, the pre-borough election political dust-up about the tower is underway. Ealing’s Conservatives, hopeful of making gains at next May’s borough elections, are earnestly claiming that the inspector’s decision is “due to Ealing Labour’s incompetence” and that the homes “will NOT be affordable to Ealing residents”. What did inspector himself say?

His 26-page adjudication, informed by a visit to the site, lists the “main issues” he considered, principally whether the affordable housing envisaged for the scheme was acceptable and the effect of the tower “on the character and appearance of the area”. Underlying these, he wrote, was “the council’s acceptance that it cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites”.

The Tory complaint about affordability is a bit of an echo of one of the council’s Labour-majority planning committee’s objections that, even though, very unusually, all of the prospective homes meet the London Plan definition of affordable, none are of the cheapest form of affordable that might have been secured, namely Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent. The Mayor’s former housing deputy James Murray, now MP for Ealing North, also objected partly on those grounds.

The inspector, though, observed: “Be that as it may, the evidence shows that there are tens of thousands of Ealing households in need of intermediate tenure affordable housing”, such as as London Shared Ownership homes (65 per cent of the scheme) or London Living Rent (the other 35 per cent), the scheme offers. He added that there is no planning policy provision to justify “ranking one form of affordable housing over another”.

The “character and appearance” part of the inspector’s decision is particularly interesting in light of the government’s wish to promote “beauty” in new housing and another planning inspector’s recent rather different conclusions about a contested scheme in Barnet. The inspector in the Ealing case said “the concept of ‘beauty’ warrants attention” due to the stress given to it by energetic local campaign group Stop The Towers.

“There is,” he wrote, “something of a tension between identifying a building as an exemplary piece of design”, which he considered an “objective” measure, and “adorning a building with the epithet ‘beautiful’, which is a subjective one”. To the inspector’s mind, the design is of the building in question is of a “very high” standard, meaning it does not fall foul of national government guidance.

He accepted that it would “bring a significant change to the area”, and that concerns expressed by local residents were “understandable”. But he also said the site in question “appears chronically under-used”, containing an assortment of mostly single-storey buildings of poor quality, and that the new building would form part of “an evolving spine of taller development” near the new station and along the path of Crossrail.

Overall, he took the view that the 22-storey tower “would not look out of place” and that in the light of the council’s “failing performance” in relation to the Mayor’s housing targets, “best use really does have to be made of this site”. He described the council’s suggestion to him that development on the site should be limited to ten storeys as “simply untenable”.

It may be that this decision runs counter to a growing trend for objections to tall buildings in London on grounds of height and lack of “beauty”, whatever that word is taken to mean. Even so, it has elegantly highlighted the unavoidable clash between the capital’s huge demand for more homes, especially affordable ones of every variety, and conservationist campaigners sensing a threat to local character. At the same time, as so often, those demanding more affordability and those calling for less height, find themselves aligned, including across party lines.

Image from Southern Grove.

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Categories: Analysis

5 Comments

  1. Martin Hughes says:

    There may be a superficial ‘alignment’ between those demanding more affordable housing and those demanding less height/scale/massing/density, but this is a non-achievable alignment in many regards. If, as is the case largely in our country, we are reliant on the private sector to deliver affordable homes, then it is commercial viability that looms large and a trade-off between height/scale/massing/density and quantum/tenure of affordable homes. This trade-off even applies to not for profit housing associations who need to sell private housing alongside affordable housing to make the numbers work. It also applies to local authorities who have set up development vehicles to bring forward new homes on sites they control. Unless and until there is a paradigm shift towards state investment in housing, then that is the reality we face.

    As for ‘beauty’, there is in my view an age-old conflict going on between Neo-classicists and Modernists, with the former apparently having the upper hand in the highest echelons of government. This is actually another facet of the ‘culture war’ but pursuing the agenda of ‘gentle density’, restricted heights and building forms results in two consequences. The first is the ability to deliver affordable homes, the second is increased demand on greenfield sites as the capacity of sustainable brownfield sites are compromised. I’ve seen arguments recently put forward by some campaigners that tall buildings are disproportionately eco-damaging but they do not seem to mention the corollary of development transfer to less sustainable greenfield land.

  2. Kyle Harrison says:

    If you want to know what is beautiful versus ugly it isn’t very hard to tell what the people think. Look at the price of a 1970s former council house versus an Edwardian or Victorian property in London. They could be on the opposite side of the street and the period property would be a damn sight more expensive.

    The problem with these towers is that they will end up being lived in by the people that have no choice while the people with a bit more money will live somewhere else so you just end up encouraging more social division.

  3. Miles Thomas says:

    I have seen commentary elsewhere that criticises overly tall residential buildings creating disproportionately large long term maintenance liabilities (or potentially short operational life before major refurbishment or replacement, with CO2 impacts).

    I wonder if that is a better (or possible) justification for refusal.

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