Developers and City Hall-A continuing record of Community Alienation It is happening now in Mortlake
Updated: May 13, 2021
photo: Clare Delmar, Mortlake
A community facing permanent harm
At this bend of the River at the Boat Race finish, there will be few who have now not heard about the proposed, and now much-expanded redevelopment plans for the old Stag Brewery. This historic Thames-side area, which has been a Brewery since the 15th century faces a turning point of its own. If we get it wrong, generations to come will have cause to regret the choices made. Responsibilities must lie with the community, as well as those elected to positions of power over the lives of Londoners. These plans are soon to be considered by the Mayor of London, who has called them in for consideration. Whilst these plans are what he is required to examine, an intelligent approach is to examine not only the multiple harms that will be caused to the community by such proposals, but to seek to measure them against a viable alternative.
Local residents here are genuinely community-minded, and have from Day 1 supported a development on the Brewery site, as the local authority has long known, and the Mayor ought to know well by now. If not he needs to read our Community Plan. More then that, the Mortlake Brewery Community Group (MBCG) have always promoted development of this site for genuine social housing. We understand the needs of the wider community, but also wish a place in the decisions that affect our own. We already have a fine record of stepping up to do our bit to raise London’s housing stock, which should exclude us from any accusation of ‘nimbyism’. Such an accusation, if ever made, could only become the shallow & convenient excuse of officialdom wishing to stifle the democratic voice of our community. Why aren't we being listened to as a community when we support development, we support social housing and we care deeply about our community'?
The developers, do not represent officialdom, but seek the highest commercial profit margin they can get in return for their undoubted investment. Instead of fearing challenge, they appear to have seen the Mayor’s intervention as a green light for even greater destruction to the quality of life in our community. A brief examination of the Mayor’s record on granting such applications will have undoubtedly encouraged them to do so. If you live in London you can see the result, and much of the housing is neither social, nor affordable. To say otherwise is to deny reality.
A community ignored – and not just here
So far as Mortlake is concerned, the GLA have continued to meet the developers on over 30 occasions, yet only once have they agreed, when pressed, to meet representatives of the community they are enjoined to protect. We fear they GLA may not even be listening. This should tell communities throughout London, that something is seriously wrong with way accountability sits at City Hall. Neither the Mayor, and the GLA nor developers appear to be listening. In Greater London at least, place-making and listening to the community appear to take to second place. We believe its time to shout.
The new proposal in Mortlake is now illustrative of what is happening elsewhere in London, and what we see is this. Developers plan to build a large village inside a suburb, which is already hemmed in by the River to the South, roads to the East and West and a railway line to the North. Worse still, traffic has only one way in, and the same route out - for goods, for residents and for those just trying to get to school.
The site already has very low accessibility rating (a PTAL of 1-2), but new proposals before the GLA the site will be developed to Central London densities without any coherent or effective proposals to improve its accessibility. A solution to this even proved a step too far for the local Planning Committee, which has some acquaintance with the area and the problems of this less advantaged end of the Borough. They rejected the only proposal that they had been offered, which was to widen the road at nearby Chalkers Corner next to the South Circular, which (as the people of Lewisham can testify) can be a nightmare in terms of air quality for those that have no choice but to live there. They were right, as it was no solution. The nearby rail crossing in Mortlake also happens to be recognised as one of the most dangerous in the country. It is already closed to traffic for 45 minutes in every hour, and happens to situated right next to a primary school. There is however an alternative to all of this, including providing for the relocation of the primary school.
Is City Hall to be blind to real solutions?
So how should the Mayor approach his task? First, should stop boasting of a London National Park City, whilst showing a propensity to trash existing green space. Next, he should take the message that the BREATHE LONDON network shows that poor air quality is not only a problem for people living and working in Central London.
Having taken that on board, he should pause to recognise that the Mortlake Brewery Community Group (MBCG) has worked for over 10 years to help shape this development, and it is as if no one is listening. Not only have constructive democratic, well researched, detailed, and numerically overwhelming, objections been ignored as if they were never made, but an expert design proposed by the MCBG, with its locally acceptable Community Plan to accommodate the need for social housing, has never even been seriously considered.
It is also worth letting the Mayor know that our own Community Plan does comply with the Local Plan, London Plan, as well as National Planning Guidance and the original master plan for the site. What the developers now propose does not. Their Jan 2020 scheme had circa 12-18% affordable housing (their own estimates varied the developer was slippery on numbers. They still sand at only 28%. Their proposals should not even be considered, yet, unsurprisingly they are. This lack of accountability to the community is happening elsewhere too in London.
Read on, and you will see the harmful degree of community alienation that this has already had, and will continue to be created, and how poor the process of democratic engagement has been. Frankly, you could not make it up - unless of course you already know what has been happening elsewhere in London.
Is nothing to be learned from the pandemic? Our plan does this, but is anyone listening?
The Covid-19 pandemic ought to have taught us all the importance of access to existing green and open spaces - for public health, physical and mental well-being as well a future social cohesion. Yet the new proposals for the Stag Brewery site do not begin to take into account the lessons we have learned over the last year. The proposed new and cramped units that now appear to be forced upon us here, deny the effect of such inconsiderate planning on the lives of many who will wish to work from home for part of the week in future. Our children who will seek space to safely play, and the new residents who will need much greater space to live their lives as each of us should be able to. The only remaining small “green lung” and leisure space at nearby Mortlake Green is now almost inevitably going to become little more than a thoroughfare from our overstretched Mortlake Station and Sheen Lane to this new development.
In contrast, our Community Plan was designed to integrate the site into the surrounding community, open up access to the Riverside, improve facilities and enhance the lives of those who live, work, play, and pass through Mortlake. It also seeks to avoids the consequence of what we now feel certain is the inaccurate historical information used by the local authority to assess schooling needs, and which seeks to protect existing local educational provision from potential irreversible harm. Neither the GLA, the responsible Minister nor the local authority appear to have grappled seriously with the detail of our report on educational needs.
MBCG’s own Community Plan provides 30% affordable housing (a key requirement of the Mayor) It also provides for a much lower population, lower height and mass, and retains more green space. It would also provide residents and the wider community with access to more generous light filled, public and open spaces and play areas. In short it does what the Mayor might claim to want, and is responsive to the community. So, why not look at it to test the viability and imagination of the plans now before the GLA. No-one can test anything unless there is a standard to test against. As the standards set by the National, local and London Plans have already been breached, what else might there be to act as a new standard for our Mayor?
Our Community Plan has accepted the idea of a respectable development with some buildings up to a max of 7 floors in the core part of the development - but not the excessive levels now proposed - so something worded to this effect. For comparison the Mayor needs to understand that Mortlake currently has an average density of 38 dwellings/Ha (over 58Ha in total). Even if one excludes the school site, the developer's density is now at 226 units/Ha. This is wholly unsustainable. But who is listening in City Hall? If only the community could interrupt the cosy conversation those concerned there are having with the developers something might shift. Community trust is at the lowest ebb we have experienced during this whole shape-shifting saga of developer’s tactics.
What we are faced with though is now a claustrophobic, dense and vertical development. A fresh consultation period felt like a sleight to the community, as resident and community association objections for the more modest scheme that preceded had been already been signally ignored. We have all now witnessed too clearly how the developers appear content to ignore to daily reality of clogged streets at the confluence of major London arteries. Perhaps the reality is too difficult to face, as there is no solution if this development goes forward. The local authority has now belatedly joined the community in objecting, but the noise they are making is hard to hear, as they confront the consequences of the pandemic.
The MBCG, as a part of out own exercise in testing our claims, have looked at the effect of these proposals using expert graphic images, which clearly demonstrate how the proposals before the GLA negatively impact key views and vistas upstream from Chiswick Bridge and downstream towards White Hart Lane. What these reveal are building blocks and gable-ends, which create a ‘continuous wall’ and the new raised elevations ‘looming’ over the towpath - a key pedestrian route, and a National Trail, at the gateway to Arcadian Thames at Kew.
Other Harms – health, nature, light, pollution, and then traffic paralysis
Poor air quality, tree removal, and the loss of valuable green space and light seem to be of scant concern. The respiratory health of all, already suffered by children in the flats at next door Chertsey Court, can be expected to deteriorate even further, jammed as the development site is between the A316, the South Circular and the Lower Mortlake Road. Those unavoidably hemmed in by the River and the railway line find getting in and out harder every day, by train, by bus, car or even by bicycle.
The closure of Hammersmith Bridge has seriously exacerbated this. Whilst this could one day become a problem solved, there are serious doubts now that this will come in time, and continued paralysis about who will have to meet the bill, and current proposals for repair, may leave communities on both sides of the river waiting possibly well over 6 years before we see a fully restored bridge able to relieve some of the traffic in this part of south west London. Quite apart from site development traffic, the intervening period will also see a measurable traffic expansion directly due to the Mayor’s recent approval of another new development nearby (also something that was opposed by the local Council), and more damagingly the enormous planned developments on the other side of Kew Bridge.
The South Circular in this area is the only real orbital transportation option. The return of a bridge will not however solve the problem. There will remain only one route out to the West, from Mortlake and Barnes, and it runs alongside this Brewery development with roads already close to a standstill even during the partial lockdown we have been experienced.
So traffic is a problem for which no solution has yet been found. The potential for electric or self-drive cars, cannot provide the solution, which is one of density of traffic, population increase, as well as present pollution. This irretrievable situation is exacerbated by the failure to listen to those of us who say the wrong decision has been made to build a new Academy School on the site. The Developer’s own advisors predicted that the secondary school would create 50% of the peak traffic. From the 1150 total of the new secondary school paces, 250 are to be sixth formers, and more likely to be coming from a distance. Our own detailed report has demonstrated clearly that 6th formers from the existing schools would have to be attracted, putting the viability of the existing 6th forms at risk, something that some of those schools have already made clear. Once again no one appears to be listening. The developers certainly do not wish to hear this news.
By reverting to the original brief, and now justified in our own report on educational needs to have a primary, rather than a secondary school, with the vast majority of pupils walking to school, we argue this additional traffic would be removed. Moving Thompson House Primary from its dangerous position close to the Mortlake rail crossing would be a solution the whole community would applaud. At present, the school has a second site is on the other side of the railway with no outside space whatsoever. In order for the children there to take any exercise, they have to be escorted across the line onto Mortlake Green, which should of course be fully available for the community.
Our community were the first to welcome the idea of housing here before even the developers bought the land. What is now proposed is so bad that the Council too opposes the redesign – and the affordable homes we all want are frankly quite unaffordable. There is no genuine social housing planned, which might be so much better. Our own Community Plan incorporates a larger quantum of genuinely low-cost rent homes to meet pressing local needs. Conversely, our own plan provides residents and community with access to more generous light filled, public and open spaces and play areas.
What happens if they do not listen?
If we are not heard, up the planned floors will go, decreasing light, increasing downdraft, ignoring the democratic voice, and ultimately hemming the residents between rail and river with a single entry point.
What about those buildings? Building heights are now increased by up to 10 storeys creating an intimidating and divisive space for the community. Worse still, the buildings surrounding the small public spaces within the scheme are now 1-3 floors higher than the scheme before it was sent to the GLA for consideration. This increased height will unarguably reduce the already planned depletions of sunlight capable of reaching those spaces, and increase the dynamic downdraft. These ill-considered proposals will diminish the quality of apartment’s internal accommodation in these blocks – particularly on the lower floors. To any informed observer, this might seem all to have been done to maximise profit at the expense of those who might live there, and create a design from which there will be no going back.
How might we restore a soul to the developer’s plans, and help the Mayor decide?
Our Community Plan seeks to keep all buildings within the height levels specified in LBRUT’s original planning brief with a crucial gradation at the edges of the site so that is does not dominate Mortlake Green, neighbouring houses, existing heritage assets and our treasured Riverside. For the 1250 building units in the plans before the GLA, there is still no solution as to how the delivery and trade vehicles will be able to come and go, without bringing already slow moving traffic to an inevitable and complete standstill. This will further clog the roads from West Barnes to Mortlake north and south along the South Circular and westwards to the borders of Richmond. This will have an effect on London’s economy, as well as well as the damaging effect on quality of life for those who have no choice but to pass through this area. The buses serving the new school, and the rest of the community cannot be moved faster as the ability to redesign the roads has been stretched to it’s limit.
What is the consequence of the developer’s plans to increase units from 893 to 1250 in order to accommodate a greater degree of affordable housing (which our own community plan has matched in percentage terms)? The population will be increased by 50% - 2800 to 4200. The original plan for a primary school, which was always justifiable, and the community it still supports, has been replaced with a proposed 1150 place secondary school crammed on top of the existing green space, and sports field. The fact that the case for a secondary school has been disproved by a recent, and very detailed report is something that the GLA has little interest in. It cannot be ignored as if we are right then the whole design must change.
The sports field on the old Brewery site has long been a treasured amenity, and the only space that is genuinely to be regarded as such. The developers seek its obliteration. The developer’s poorly reasoned argument to justify the retention of some green space, by attempting to add up all the gaps between buildings, and by emphasising the provision of a new, hard, enclosed pitch within the school boundary, and then to claim that this provides a respectable total where buildings do not intrude, scarcely impresses as an alternative. The designed obliteration of the brewery sports field is wholly unnecessary, and can be solved by a modest redesign. Our Community Plan provides this too.
So, we, who live in London try not to be cynical. We do look to London’s Mayor. Our community accepts our responsibility to provide housing for those that need it. But any community has a right to be heard. All across London we see that City Hall does not appear to be listening. We make no party political point, as this has been going on since before Mayor Sadiq Khan took office.
Now, in a post pandemic world there is a chance to reassess our priorities and reclaim our communities. This Stag Brewery project risks standing as an example of bad planning dogma, and imprisoning an increasingly stifled community in the less advantaged end of the Borough. Worse still, blinded by their unwillingness to see, hear, or even learn, the GLA is showing a staggering inability to confront the real facts. We wonder if anyone at City Hall has ever clicked on https://www.mbcg.org.uk or https://www.listentolocals.co.uk/ to find out some home truths, and what really matters.
A statistic some like to dispute, without enquiring as to the MBCG’s reference point, is that the population of this area will actually increase by 90% if the developer’s proposals go through. Yes, this calculation, taken from the census, concerns the area bounded by the River, the busy A316, the railway and in part to the Mortlake Cemetery area, and White Hart Lane. The current Mortlake census-based population is circa 4650, but our calculation of the population for the new scheme will be another 4200.
If the ambitions for this historic site cannot be scaled back, then the already ragged future of local democracy will have finally disintegrated in favour of a developer’s profit, a political centre that has lost its connection with the London community it is elected to serve, and finally to reason. All of this should shock, and we hope it does.
BRUCE HOULDER CB QC
29 JAN 2021