The multi-purpose Newcombe House buildings on Notting Hill Gate, close to Notting Hill Tube station, were erected in the 1960s and have been railed against ever since for being “an eyesore”, “Soviet”, too big (12 storeys at one point), out of character with the surrounding neighbourhood and so on.
Two years ago, the site’s owner, Brockton Capital, sought permission from Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC) to redevelop it, but the council’s planning committee turned them down, saying the proposed new buildings would be much too tall (up to 18 storeys), too ugly (not their exact word) and mean the loss of 20 social rent studio flats owned by Notting Hill Trust. These had been used for housing rough sleepers and later fallen vacant when their occupants were rehoused. At that stage, Brockton did not intend to replace them.
Brockton appealed to the planning inspectorate to overturn RBKC’s decision without success and then presented fresh plans to the borough. These included nine new homes for social rent, which between them contained more rooms than the 20 empty studio flats that would go. But in January of this year, those plans too were knocked back by RBKC.
Soon after, in March, Sadiq Khan stepped in. What happened next is an enlightening case study of how the Mayor makes use of his substantial planning powers, of conflicts between the preferences of London neighbourhood groups and the priorities of its strategic layer of government, and of the common ground that conservationists and the Hard Left often end up occupying when it comes to London’s built environment.
Khan “called in” the planning application in March, meaning that he, rather than RBKC, would now decide its fate. RBKC’s own planning officers had recommended that permission be granted, but, quite unusually, planning councillors still insisted that the plans lacked sufficient merit.
After the Mayor became involved, the plans evolved further. The heights of two of the shorter of the proposed six new buildings were increased (from five storeys to seven and from four storeys to five) and the total number of homes of all tenures in the plans was increased from 46 to 55, of which 23 would be “affordable”, meeting the Mayor’s 35% minimum requirement “threshold”.
Of these 23 affordable homes, 15 were designated for “London Affordable Rent” – usually more expensive than existing social rent levels, though in line with those for new social rented homes. In this case one-bed flats will cost £144.26 per week, which is 35% of local market levels, and two-beds will cost £152.73 per week, which is 25% of local market levels. Another eight units are termed “intermediate rent”, which means they will be let at a discount of £323.07 per week for a one-bed (compared with a typical market rent of £424 per week) and the same for a three-bed (compared with £1100 per week).
The plans also include provision of a doctor’s surgery and a lift to serve one platform of the District and Circle Lines, along with offices and shops, landscaping, cycle parking and a public square in the middle. The finances of the scheme were interrogated by viability experts for City Hall, who concluded that the amount of affordable housing that would be supplied was the maximum it could bear – though a “late stage review” will be required to see if can be increased in the future – noting that a GP surgery and the Tube lift were also included in the deal’s community benefits.
Significantly, Historic England had raised no objection even to the original plans, though a number of local amenity and other groups did, including Hillgate Village Residents’ Association (too big, tall, ugly and not enough affordable housing), the Skyline Campaign (ditto), Bayswater Residents’ Association (too big, too tall), Westbourne Park Villas Residents’ Association (not enough affordable). Consultation responses also included objections from two local Tory councillors and Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon.
Other community organisations supported the plans in their earliest version, including Campden Hill Residents’ Association, the Kensington Society, the Pembridge Association and the Ladbroke Association, with the last three speaking highly of its “public benefits”, though Pembridge and Campden Hill changed their view when faced with the latest version.
The Mayor received 440 separate objections to the plans after he took it over and just 41 in support. A consultation response from Emma Dent Coad, the strongly pro-Jeremy Corbyn Labour MP for Kensington, complained that there wasn’t enough affordable housing or step-free access, and claimed that the plans were contrary to both London Plan and RBKC local plan policies. The nearby Saudi Arabia embassy and Indian high commission, worrying about the implications for privacy and security of the increased building heights. An eclectic opposition.
The Mayor visited the site on Monday and presided at a well-attended public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday. Quentin Marshall, chairman of the RBKC planning committee, called the plans drawn up since the Mayor’s intervention an improvement on the previous two that he and colleagues had turned down, but “still inadequate”. He said that if everyone worked together, they could put that right, including by increasing the amount affordable housing.
Marshall described the loss of existing social housing as “completely unacceptable to us” and as setting an “appalling precedent”. (It should be noted that RBKC, contrary to post-Grenfell assumptions, has a long history of prizing its social housing). Marshall also argued that, by doing the maths a different way, the Mayor’s 35% target was not really being met at all. “It is not good enough,” he said, and also questioned whether some of the affordable homes would be “genuinely affordable” for people on lower incomes in the borough. He added that the 32 market homes for sale might be priced at £15m and never be occupied. “Do we really want to reduce the size of our social housing stock to build empty palaces in the sky?” the Tory councillor inquired of the Labour Mayor. “The Conservative council is at one with our Labour MP,” he remarked, referring to Dent Coad. He asked the Mayor to refuse the application and received a good round of applause.
But later, Khan the lawyer took centre stage. He asked Marshall how many affordable homes RBKC had given permission for the last year. Marshall didn’t know. “It was a big part of your evidence,” Khan remarked. An RBKC officer sitting next to Marshall did have the answer, though: it was 57. Did Marshall know how many people were on his borough’s housing waiting list, wondered Khan? The answer was 3,369 people. Khan reminded the officer that Marshall and his fellow councillors had ignored she and her colleagues’ advice, was that correct. Marshall thought it right that he should respond that rather discomfiting question: “Yes, that’s correct.”
Khan then got Marshall to talk through the planning inspectors’ misgivings about the first version of the plans, which were about the absence of replacements for the social housing studios rather than the development’s scale and appearance, and the subsequent efforts to address them. He pressed him on what more, precisely, he thought could and should be done to address his concerns about the affordable housing levels, given that everyone else seemed to think that everything possible had already been done. And he asked Marshall how long the 20 existing social homes had been empty for. Marshall thought three years, but someone else called out that it was only one. “I’m not aware,” Marshall said. “You’re not aware?” said the Mayor, by now giving the man from RBKC a decidedly judicial stare.
A press release announcing that Khan had given permission for the Newcombe House scheme had been released by tea time. You can watch the whole proceedings on the GLA webcast, via here (Khan’s cross examination of Marshall begins at about one hour, 40 minutes). As planning dramas go, it’s got much to recommend it: complexities, trade-offs, differing opinions among residents’ groups, tensions between aesthetics and regeneration needs, not to mention the steely exercise of mayoral power.