The challenge of meeting housing targets while preserving London’s built environment is creating conflict in many parts of the capital. A particularly contentious case is being played out at historic Mortlake, in the south west. The location is probably best known to the general public as the point at which the annual Boat Race crosses the finishing line. It is dominated by the Stag Brewery, a large building that has occupied the site since the days of Thomas Cromwell, Henry the Eighth’s powerful though ill-fated advisor.
Like a lot of industry in London, the brewery has reached the end of its life, leaving a large brownfield site available for development. In a community where riverside homes sell for over a million pounds, it has the potential to become very profitable and also to provide a good number of affordable homes. But there are important arguments for constraining the scale of the scheme proposed by developers Reselton Properties, which bought the site in 2015 after brewing there ceased.
The site, which is subject to a Supplementary Planning Document adopted in 2011, includes historically important buildings and the surrounding area consists of low-rise properties. Local campaigners would like these things conserved. They also have concerns about the additional demands that would be placed on local transport infrastructure by the arrival of many new residents. There is a railway station close at hand, but the roads are thought inadequate for large volumes of traffic, and already experience congestion during busy periods.
Reselton submitted planning applications in 2016, accompanied by a Statement of Community Involvement setting out how local people had been engaged and consulted. But a final decision to grant permission for the plans was not made by Richmond’s planning committee until early last year, after a compromise was reached with the developer to restrict the new buildings to the same height as the brewery and preserve the historical structures on the site.
Richmond’s leader, Gareth Roberts, believed a good solution had been found. “If we want to protect the Green Belt but also deliver homes for Londoners, including much-needed affordable homes, we do need to push the boundaries a little, in the right places,” he says. “After negotiating with the developers, Richmond’s planning team arrived at a scheme which was broadly in keeping with our local policies and standards.”
Roberts stresses that the revised plans, which include a new secondary school, respected the main heritage asset, the Maltings Building: “We did that by having a planning brief which required the development to be lower in height than the Maltings, while still making efficient use of the site.”
That wasn’t the end of the story, however. The development is a large one, which meets the criteria for being referred upwards to the London Mayor for his consideration. Mayors have powers to intervene in proposed developments deemed to be of strategic importance to London, included taking them out of a borough’s hands completely and determining applications themselves.
After being “called in” by City Hall planners, driven by London-wide housing targets, the proposed development has suddenly become much larger and more intrusive. The number of residential units has increased by a whopping 40% and the height of the buildings has been raised by between 15 and 25 percent. Some at the edge of the site would loom ominously over the neighbouring houses.
Roberts isn’t very happy: “The Mayor’s intervention seems to be solely driven by housing targets rather than wider considerations, such as the built and historic environment. As a result, we now have a scheme that is too tall and excessive in scale.”
He does see some benefits, saying the secondary school, “which has always been part of the development”, will meet genuine need in the area. He also notes a reduction in onsite parking and thinks it possible that in a future London where there is more cycling and home-working, “it could be that any impact on road traffic gets balanced out by fewer car journeys being made overall.”
However, a more pessimistic view is that as well as adding to road congestion – already worsened by the much-publicised closure of Hammersmith Bridge – and pressure on the rail service, the population growth the revised plans would lead to would completely change the nature of Mortlake itself.
Local people believe a democratic deficit has been exposed. Some have been closely involved in the council’s decision-making process and they were pleased with the compromises that were originally agreed. But that revised plan is now in danger of being overridden by a decision handed down from City Hall.
The developer has had many meetings with Greater London Authority planning officials, but local residents have not been afforded the same opportunity. With a growing political motive for hitting housing targets in the run up to the delayed mayoral election, presently rescheduled for 6 May, residents fear that an unsympathetic development could be approved with few if any of the mitigating factors originally agreed by Richmond Council. A public hearing will eventually be held, though a date for it has not yet been set.
The Mortlake situation is not a new one. Previous Mayors have also found themselves approving dense developments in an effort to hit government-imposed housing targets.
Clare Delmar, a resident who has been involved in discussions around the site since the initial proposals, thinks things could be done better. She has been in touch with objectors to other major schemes around London, including the Bishopsgate Goodsyard. As a planner and public health practitioner, she believes it is time for a new approach.
“With the mounting evidence of health burdens that will come with uni-dimensional and high density planning in the post-Covid era and, perhaps more importantly, the renewed enthusiasm for new and innovative modes of urban design and placemaking, it is disheartening that the Mayor appears so single-minded on the short-term issues of housing numbers and his own re-election,” Delmar says.
She believes the Mortlake scheme could be “a model for London’s post-Covid recovery, embodied in innovative, visionary thinking about placemaking, public health and community engagement. Instead, we are looking at the imposition of soulless, balcony-less tower blocks, a reduction in public green space and a rejection of community input.”
After a year of pandemic-induced changes, London may never be the same again. Working from home was already gaining ground as an alternative to commuting, but the restrictions have given the technology a massive boost. Footfall has moved away from the centre of London and the large shopping centres, returning to local high streets or buying online. Many shops and entertainment venues in Zone One may not survive lockdown.
The cladding scandal that threatens to bankrupt many flat owners has highlighted the weaknesses of leasehold, and could discourage property ownership in the capital. Large blocks of flats might no longer attract the number of investors they have in the past.
There is no rule that says London has to keep growing indefinitely. Until the late 1980s, the capital was actually losing its population to new towns and other cities. Congestion, house prices, overcrowding and pollution are all unwanted consequences of London’s economic success and magnetism, but will people who have experienced the benefits of life outside the capital want to return?
Post-pandemic, the housing targets imposed on London will need to be reviewed. New ways of working and living must be supported by new ways of policymaking that take local factors into account. It is time to build our city Better, not Bigger.
Update, 14 February 2021: Guy Duckworth of Dartmouth Capital Advisers, who are development managers for Reselton has written to On London in response to this article. Given the strong feelings aroused by this development and the different considerations that have come into play during the lengthy planning process I’ve decided to published a substantial part of of his email below (Dave Hill, editor):
“The suggestion that there is a reduction in public green space is wholly untrue. The brewery has been shut off from public access for centuries whereas the Reselton scheme opens-up the whole site and provides 10.8 acres including public space, courtyard space and school open space allowing access to the wider public who can filter through the scheme down to the riverside.
It is interesting to note that the readers’ comments at the base of the article acknowledge the need for more affordable housing in London and that the London Borough of Richmond should play a part in that provision. The council’s supplementary planning document was created in 2011 and while Reselton sought to follow this closely the fact is it is out of date and not in line with GLA housing supply policy. The updated scheme seeks to meet that need.
As a result, the volume of units has increased with the larger number of private apartments being used to finance the much-needed social housing requiring a modest increase in the height of some of the buildings but these are not significantly higher than some of the existing brewery buildings that remain on site.
This has broken up the massing of the project providing an attractive riverside frontage unlike Ms Delmar’s ‘soulless tower blocks’ that are a monotonous feature of the recently developed schemes further down river.
The Stag Brewery scheme does change the nature of Mortlake but for the better in comparison to what is there now which is a featureless dual carriageway – described by one of your readers’ comments as an ‘eyesore’ – bounded on one side by an anonymous high brick wall more akin to the outside of Wandsworth or Pentonville Prisons.
Reselton has spent many years seeking to create a scheme that will fit into the urban landscape which Richmond Council acknowledged in granting it consent last year. Even with the revised scheme that seeks to meet the GLA’s 30% affordable housing supply needs we believe our project is of considerable architectural merit providing high quality homes for a broad demographic mix.”
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