Joshua Neicho: Towering tensions in Ealing

Joshua Neicho: Towering tensions in Ealing

Justine Sullivan says she realised there was a very close community in West Ealing soon after she moved in 15 years ago because of its strong response to the appearance of some graffiti. Even before the pandemic maxed out neighbourliness, her street was “like a 1950s street, we were in each other’s houses”. The Ugandan curate of the local church told her he had “never seen anything like this,” she says.

Without generalising too much about London’s third most populous and fourth most ethnically diverse local authority area, modern Ealing seems to live up well to its 1902 predecessor’s “Queen of the Suburbs” moniker. One of London’s greenest boroughs, it boasts more than 100 parks. “The forte of Ealing is the variety of good suburban building,” wrote Bridget Cherry in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series. Kay Garmeson of website Ealing Matters sums up the borough as “low-rise Victorian, Edwardian and early 20th century – people are here because they like that”.

At the same time, Ealing boasts copious main road, rail and Tube connections and will shortly have in addition five Crossrail stations plus the Old Oak Common HS2 hub just over the boundary with Brent – all prime sites for new development. Council leader Julian Bell publicises the borough on the basis it will soon be “an Inner London borough for travel times but an Outer London borough for quality of life”. And, as On London has reported, cabinet member for housing, planning and transformation Peter Mason has teasingly asked whether it should drop the Queen of the Suburbs tag in favour of a focus on boosting housing and jobs, and celebrating the identities of its constituent neighbourhoods.

For the past decade, Ealing’s leadership has embraced the challenge of housebuilding, with Bell and senior officers paying annual visits to MIPIM and courting developers through vehicles such as the SiteMatch365 networking programme. The borough has far exceeded the 14,000 homes it set out to build in its 15-year 2012 local plan, with 40,000 completed or in the pipeline. These include 181 buildings of 10 storeys or more and 35 of at least 20 storeys. Among recent proposals is the 55-storey 4 Portal Way in North Acton, which will become London’s third tallest tower if built.

This go-ahead approach wins Ealing fans in other councils and the development world. “I have huge admiration. They recognise there’s housing need out there, and they’re determined to build their homes,” says Merton Council’s Martin Whelton. But campaigners are alarmed and often angry, with talk of councillors “pimping out” their borough. Retired planner Will French, who chairs the Save Ealing Centre campaign, fears the 12,500 new units and counting in Southall – including on the former gasworks site, where nearby residents complain of pollution and health problems – will end up like Paris’s troubled banlieues. The council “haven’t issued reports on what’s happened since 2014, on how many new homes they’ve approved and how this fits in with housing demand,” French says. “They justify what they’re doing on the basis of new homes they’re steam-rollering through.”

There’s criticism of Sadiq Khan too, to whom all schemes more than 30 metres tall are referred, for example over a Freedom of Information response revealing developers being encouraged to go higher than their original proposals when in discussions with the GLA. But principally it’s the local authority in campaigners’ sights. In Ealing, where the Labour group has a majority of 45, the Conservatives are fellow skyscraper-sceptics and local Labour MPs Rupa Huq and James Murray (until last year, London’s deputy mayor for housing) have expressed sympathy for some of their concerns.

Associations have come together to publicise and contest their fights. Eric Leach, vice-chair of West Ealing Neighbours since 2005, describes the rise of “younger, more professional groups. They’re prepared to go to court. These people are organised, they know how to do leafleting, lobbying, Facebook, Twitter”.

In West Ealing, Justine Sullivan says she and her neighbours were shocked, after years when they had “always worked very hard with the council” on issues from residents’ parking to park amenities, by news of a 26-story block planned for Manor Road: she describes learning from developers Southern Grove that the council keenly supported the proposal, making them feel cut out of the loop. Further frustration, she adds, came over the lack of acknowledgement in publicity materials that a building of almost the same height by A2Dominion was proposed just 80 metres away, and then from the mysterious tit-for-tat attacks on their “Stop the Towers” campaign posters.

A mile away, Louise Simmonds is trying to save Gurnell Leisure Centre from demolition and replacement and to prevent the development of six tower blocks on the site. “They say we’ve had 11 consultation meetings now, but only in the later ones have we seen what they’re planning,” she says. Simmonds queries the council’s failure to demonstrate the very special circumstances that would justify building on Metropolitan Open Land and the scale of the 600-unit development at a place served only by bus routes. 

Ealing Matters acts as an information forum while, working anonymously, the Red Block Rebels campaign has produced striking montages and virtual aerial tour to criticise various tall building schemes. A protest outside the Town Hall in February, supported by two red double decker buses, drew a large crowd of campaigners from across the borough and the political spectrum. Councillors arriving for a planning meeting were barracked – one onlooker thought it unnecessarily confrontational. If it hadn’t been for lockdown, the campaigns could have gone further with creative protests, “like a Banksy situation,” says Simmonds. 

Objectors say Ealing’s statutory Local Plan has been persistently over-ridden by planning proposals and decisions, giving them the impression it “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on” says Stop the Towers co-chair Denise Colliver. Another bugbear among campaigners is the provision of new social housing in some of the schemes. Those for Manor Road and Hastings Road promise only 36 homes for social rent between them, representing 11% of the total, even though the whole of the Manor Road development will comprise homes from other parts of the affordable range. This is seen as inadequate in the context of a social housing waiting list of 12,000. There are also qualms about some of the new properties in Acton’s Friary Park estate, which is undergoing regeneration, being marketed early to foreign investors.

Peter Mason points out that Ealing is beholden to both the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the Mayor’s London Plan: if he and his colleagues turn down a scheme developers can appeal to the planning inspectorate, which can then overrule the council on the basis that it has failed to meet its targets. “We can virtue signal, we can say we don’t like a development,” Mason says. “But if we lose that appeal we have gone through the process of spending hundreds of thousands of pounds defending a position that’s not defendable within national and regional planning policy”.

Campaigners, stung by the “Nimby” tag, say there is growing anger across the borough. But local councillors maintain that it’s important to consider all residents, not just the ones that shout loudest. And Peter Murray of New London Architecture (NLA) believes the coalition of groups and their punchy campaign techniques may in a sense have a counterproductive effect. With isolated tall buildings in low-rise residential areas, “one can understand that you would think, ‘I wouldn’t that looming over my house’”, he says. But the “stop the towers” message, he argues, risks killing off a nuanced debate over which schemes are appropriate and which aren’t. Murray regards the red blocks superimposed on the skyline as giving an inaccurate impression and simply “rabble-rousing people who don’t like tall buildings”. However, campaigners such as Eric Leach would probably be unapologetic. “Didn’t we learn in the ’60s that towers were not good places for people to live?”, he asks.

Last year, Ealing saw the greatest increase among London’s outer boroughs in the number of tall buildings in the pipeline, according to NLA’s annual survey (although Newham led in overall numbers built or in process). Murray predicts that the new London Plan and the White Paper proposals will between them create a gap in tower-building between east and the more development-averse west, which he calls “the Nimby capital of the world”. 

Peter Eversden, chair of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, says closed superstore sites have given Ealing the opportunity to approve high and large schemes and to argue that they don’t do much harm because they are beside main roads. But he doubts the council can provide the residents of these new dwellings ready access to services such as libraries, leisure centres and supermarkets, and he questions whether Ealing’s hope of securing generous helpings of the government’s proposed new infrastructure levy at such locations will be fulfilled. He believes the government will only apply the levy after schemes are built out and that ministers intend councils to borrow to build infrastructure and social housing, however precarious their finances are. 

Meanwhile, the effects of the pandemic on tall building schemes is uncertain. London’s residential market has been insulated so far because of furloughs, mortgage holidays and the ban on repossessions, shortly to end. We don’t know what’s been happening with migration away from London or whether international students will return in their usual numbers. The LSE’s Tony Travers suggested in a recent online lecture that as businesses move away from big city centre offices, it could represent a huge opportunity for the outer boroughs. On the other hand, if more people than usual move out of the capital altogether and a proportion of Central London commercial space is converted to residential, the pressure on housing in boroughs like Ealing may lessen.

Campaigners question the suitability of small flats overlooking railway lines for a future of more home-working and raise the issues such blocks present around hygiene and mental health in the event of future pandemics. They observe how crowded Ealing’s parks have been over the summer, and describe how the suspension of site visits has made it more difficult for planning committee members to understand locals’ concerns. Realistically, says Neal Hudson of Resi Associates, it will be the market, working on a scale bigger than London, that will outweigh any policy attempts to stimulate or restrain post-Covid development.

Then there are the possible effects of the government’s planning White Paper proposals as a whole, in which London is the only region where the regional statutory development authority, the Greater London Authority, goes unmentioned. In principle, the White Paper envisages residents’ groups having more of a say over the look of their areas, though how this will work in practice is unclear.

The White Paper proposals as they stand are “awful,” says Ealing Matters’ Libby Kemp, since there is “no accommodation for social housing,” which she believes is what local authorities really need more of. Will French says it is “full of fine words about building attractive new homes,” but sets up a tension between developers’ need for profit and the perceived needs for community, with everything depending on national government’s relationship with developers.

Peter Eversden points out anomalies such as the intention for the National Policy Planning Framework to contain all policies for local planning authorities. “It would have to be modified so frequently it would be impossible,” he says. He also regards the White Paper’s formula for calculating the number of new homes needed is unworkable in London. Eversden suggests using the whole GLA area exclusively for building low-cost rental homes, and growth corridors in the South-East for market housing. Hudson disputes the idea that a big increase in house-building is needed, and thinks the focus should be on improving conditions for private renters, while Peter Murray wants a new and simpler system for delivering affordable housing, believing the current one is driving up house prices. 

Meanwhile, Ealing campaigners await the next set of applications. There are cautious hopes about finding more common ground with the council if it curbs hyperdense developments. Kay Garmeson says all but one respondent to a 2017 Ealing Matters survey agreed that “the council doesn’t listen” to members’ concerns, but has been encouraged recently by Peter Mason’s recognition of the need for engagement. And Will French, so critical of the council’s approach to planning, acknowledges that “they published a paper looking at local character. They seem to be trying to be more sensitive. I hope to see a [new] local plan where elements are fairly and squarely discussed, with more sense that the public are involved in decisions than in the past”.

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Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Amanda Kent says:

    Strictly speaking, none of the Gurnell development is on Metropolitan open land, contrary to what campaigners are saying; it is just that it will cast a large shadow over it.

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