Councillors ride roughshod over community, defying local MPs’ pleas
Lewisham’s Strategic Planning Committee, defying pleas from local MPs and the community for postponement and meaningful consultation, by a 5-1 vote went ahead this week [29.06.2021] with the plan for a monster development on Sydenham Hill.
The controversial Mais House planning application, recently quashed by the High Court, is on one of the highest points in South London. It will tower over neighbouring Grade II Listed Lammas Green and, breaking the treeline, will be visible across London.
Residents were shocked when, despite the High Court ruling, Lewisham Planners announced on 17 June that the existing proposal would be presented unchanged for determination by its Strategic Planning Committee on 29 June.
Lewisham and the City of London Corporation have been resolute in not discussing amending the scheme with residents and instead rushed the unaltered proposal back to the Planning Committee at such short notice that the community reeled at the prospect of having to wade through an additional 40 complex documents and a 250 page Case Officer report released just a few days before the Committee met, only to be faced with yet another Addendum Report published on the very day the Committee met.
Nevertheless, despite the extreme short notice, more than 240 people objected to the proposal and there was only one letter of support. Local MPs Helen Hayes and Shadow Attorney General Ellie Reeves both sent strong letters urging Lewisham to refuse the application and work with residents on a less damaging design.
In her letter Ms Reeves asked Lewisham to: “...reject any decision in relation to Mais House until planning Officers have worked with the local community to find a solution that addresses their concerns.”
Lewisham Council’s own consultees also objected to the scheme. The Conservation and Tree Officers established the level of harm to the natural and built environment. Its independent Design Review Panel, a group of professional design experts recruited by Lewisham to serve as an advisory body, are not happy with the scheme and have made a number of recommendations. They have all been ignored.
Despite the Mais House campaign’s support for new social housing in a more acceptable design on the site, the Committee has now ruled that housing need outweighs multiple harms to the environment which the council’s own conservation officer and design panel had objected to.
Social housing campaigners the Friends of Mais House had hoped their successful High Court challenge would have encouraged Lewisham Borough Council and the City of London Corporation to work with the community on a more sensitive scheme for one of the most prominent and fragile areas in the Borough.
On Tuesday night in the Civic Suite in Catford, Estate tenant Helen Kinsey and Richard Harwood QC made impassioned and well informed pleas to the Planning Committee to listen to the Council’s own advisors. Speaking to the Committee under Standing Orders, Councillor Alan Hall made a strong case for rejecting the plans on the grounds of lack of safe disabled access. Councillor Hall asked: “Have the Council complied with the Public Sector Equality Duties here?”
Planning Committee member, Brockley Ward Councillor Stephen Penfold, asked why there had been such short notice of the hearing. There was a rush to get the documents published, but why couldn’t the meeting have been 14 days later? His question went unanswered.
Councillor Kevin Bonavia then swiftly moved a vote in favour of accepting Officers’ recommendation of approval. Speaking for the first time at the meeting, Councillor Olurotimi Ogunbadewa seconded the motion.
Councillor Stephen Penfold tried to explain why he was going to vote against the proposal, but Committee Chair John Paschoud refused him permission to speak. Committee members then voted 5 to 1 in favour of approving the application.
Those in favour: Cllr John Paschoud (Committee Chair – Perry Vale Ward Councillor) Cllr Kevin Bonavia (Blackheath Ward) Cllr Suzannah Clarke (Grove Park) Cllr Olurotimi Ogunbadewa (Downham) Cllr James J Walsh (Rushey Green)
Against: Cllr Stephen Penfold (Brockley)
NB James J Walsh had been Chair of Planning Committee A, which approved the original grant of planning permission and John Paschoud had been a member of that Committee.
Campaigners had sincerely hoped that the City of London Corporation would work collaboratively with them to produce a sustainable co- design scheme for the Estate that respects the existing community, the environment and the heritage, as well as providing high quality, sustainable homes for new residents that will last well into the future. We are very sad that Lewisham would not act on the specialist advice they sought and were given and we feel that Council Officers and our elected representatives treated this process as a mere seen to be done, “tick box” exercise.
Following a Judicial Review into how Lewisham handled its earlier attempt to drive the scheme through, Mrs Justice Lang had on 18 May 2021 quashed the Council’s first grant of planning permission, stating that: “Given the number of significant errors made by the Council, and the possibility that, absent such errors, a different conclusion could have been reached by the Planning Committee, I consider that the decision to grant planning permission ought to be quashed.”
In her Judgment, Mrs Justice Lang also pointed out that: “156. In my view, the submissions of the IP [Interested Party: that is the applicant, the City of London Corporation] lost sight of the fact that, in the main, the objectors were not opposed to the redevelopment of the Site in order to upgrade the existing social housing and increase the number of residential units. The Claimant’s objection related to the inappropriate height and scale of the new buildings, which would harm the setting of the Grade II Listed buildings and the Conservation Area. 157. In my judgment, if the legal errors which I have identified above had not occurred, it is possible that the Members would have concluded that the IP ought to re-consider the height and scale of the proposed development, and submit a more acceptable proposal.”
Friends of Mais House is a community group, formed by residents and neighbours of the City of London Corporation’s Sydenham Hill Estate as a result of their frustration at the failure of the City and Lewisham to listen to concerns about plans for a massive redevelopment of the Estate.
In November 2020, Lewisham Council granted planning permission for the development of 110 units on the Corporation of the City of London’s Sydenham Hill Estate, with the resulting loss of 63 sheltered homes at Mais House.
On 11 February Mrs Justice Lang gave the go ahead for a Judicial Review into the way Lewisham Council handled the planning application.
In her Order of 11 February, Mrs Justice Lang said: ‘In my view, the Claimant’s grounds are arguable and merit consideration at a full hearing’.
Lawyers[Susan Ring of Harrison Grant Solicitors & Richard Harwood QC] are acting on behalf of a member of the Friends of Mais House.
The High Court Judicial Review hearing took place before Mrs Justice Lang on 27-28 April and estate residents and neighbours worked together to raise funds for the legal challenge.
Mrs Justice Lang handed down her Judgment on 18 May 2021. She quashed the grant of planning permission on four Grounds:
Failure to give great weight to harm to heritage assets and failure consider extent of less than substantial harm as required by the Planning Policy Guidance.
Failure to take into account the Conservation Officer’s advice
Failure to make background papers available
Failure to ask the Design Review Panel to consider the planning application in breach of legitimate expectation.
On Thursday 17 June, the community learnt that Lewishamwere returning the very same planning application to a Planning Committee on Tuesday 29 June.
Residents said:“We fully support a redevelopment providing 100% social housing. However, the density of this proposal is disproportionate. It is set to hugely compromise the lives of both tenants and the environment.”
In exchange for the grant of planning permission, Lewisham Council will be allocated 50% of the new units. Yet the much needed sheltered housing will not be replaced and communal green space and amenity areas will be lost, along with many much loved trees.
The loss of 63 sheltered housing flats means that the net gain from this development is 47 residential units. Tenancies will be allocated 50:50 between Lewisham and the City of London housing waiting lists.
There is no safe disabled access route to the 11 family houses, making them unsuitable for wheelchair users.
10% of the flats will be wheel chair accessible, although Lewisham’s Design Review Panel challenged the ground floor apartments which open directly onto the public open space which have no apparent defensible zone. All have bedrooms facing directly onto it which raises concerns of privacy. Campaigners find this worrying if these flats are the ones to be allocated to disabled residents who may potentially be especially vulnerable.
Standing at the top of Sydenham Hill Ridge, one of the highest points in South London, low rise Mais House will be replaced with a group of blocks up to eight storeys in height, breaking the tree line for the first time and visible across London.
The proposed development looms over existing housing The development will tower over idyllic neighbouring Grade II Listed Lammas Green, one of the most important and successful of London’s far-sighted and socially inclusive post-war developments.
There is a strong sense of injustice about how the development consultation was carried out. Some of the issues consistently raised were:
Unprecedented density in a suburban location with poor infrastructure and transport links at the top of a hill
Incongruous design - overbearing and intrusive
Disregard for the Area of Special Character along Sydenham Ridge and impact on setting of Heritage assets
Negative impact on biodiversity in a nature corridor, loss of 19 mature trees and severe damage to several more excellent specimens.
Loss of play space for children
Displacement of Mais House residents, lack of assisted living and limited accessible homes
Sydenham Woods wouldn't be there if local residents hadn't campaigned for it back in the 1980s - Southwark council wanted to build on it