Southwark: The instructive case of the council, the Mayor and the Bermondsey biscuit factory

Southwark: The instructive case of the council, the Mayor and the Bermondsey biscuit factory

Last week, Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for planning, Jules Pipe, gave the go-ahead for 1,548 new residential properties and a new secondary school to be construction on a site just off Jamaica Street in Bermondsey, currently filled by a building that used to be the home of biscuit manufacturer Peek Frean. Pipe did this on the Mayor’s behalf despite the objections of Labour-run Southwark Council, which thinks the “affordable” homes component insufficient. What’s the background here?

The story of the Biscuit Factory, as the building is known, makes a good case study of how one of the larger powers possessed by London Mayors can be deployed. It is also a story that goes back a long way. A blue plaque on the Biscuit Factory’s wall tells us that Peek Frean’s was founded there in 1857 and “gave Bermondsey the name ‘Biscuit Town'”. The brand enjoyed world renown, but the factory closed in 1989. Most of the factory site was purchased from Workspace in 2013 for £51 million by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland Eight offices are still there.

Grosvenor already owned the adjacent smaller former Southwark College site, now know as Bermondsey Campus. Its plan is for a “hybrid” development of its two sites, involving some demolition and some retention of existing factory buildings and 15 new ones, ranging in height from three storeys to, in one case, 35. It will produce 1,548 homes for rent and a new building for the local Compass secondary school, which has had been based next door on a temporary basis since it opened seven years ago.

The school is delighted about the Mayor’s intervention. But Southwark has long been unhappy with the housing plans. Of the new homes, 35 per cent are judged “affordable”. This is a larger proportion than was originally offered, and now reaches the Mayor’s “threshold” requirement, following negotiations between Grosvenor and the City Hall. The figure comprises 342 homes at a discount from market rates and 140 with rents to be set at “social rent levels”, where previously there were none of the latter.

But although Leo Pollak, Southwark’s cabinet member of social regeneration, has told Southwark News he appreciates that change, he still says the affordable component “remains far below what Southwark would require” and cabinet member for growth, Johnson Situ, has told Inside Housing he believes “the amount of social housing on offer could be a lot higher”. Southwark rejected Grosvenor’s plans last February, despite Grosvenor having made some changes the Mayor required, including making the rent level discounts deeper. In May, the Mayor stepped in to take over the application himself.

In doing so he used the strongest power he has to, bluntly put, tell boroughs what to do in relation to large planning applications. London Mayors haven’t always had these powers. They were granted in 2008 under the Town And Country Planning Act (1990) and mean Mayors can tell a borough to refuse a planning application or take the job off the it completely and determine the application himself. That is what has happened with the Biscuit Factory.

The Biscuit Factory story and the debate about it has some distinctive and also some relatively novel ingredients – notably, a difference of view between a historically pro-development Labour borough that has, in the recent past, been accused of not driving a hard enough bargain over “affordable” homes, and a Labour Mayor. The central question though, is a familiar one. Will Bermondsey be better off thanks to City Hall stepping in and giving permission for the Grosvenor scheme than it might have been at a later date had the Mayor kept out of it and Southwark kept digging its heels in? Views differ. They always do.

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