30 April 2015
The Greenwich Peninsula, according to a recent write-up in a Daily Telegraph supplement dedicated to extreme wealth, is:
'London’s latest luxury enclave in the making'.
'Across the river from Canary Wharf and handily close to City Airport,'
the paper enthused:
'it is a natural home for the international
jet-set of tomorrow'
Haven’t we come a long way from the days when the O2 was known as the Millennium Dome and it was going to host the greatest futuristic display since the Great Exhibition of 1851? Back then, the Labour government justified the huge amount of public money it was spending on the construction project – nearly £800 million – by saying it was also decontaminating previously unusable land in order to build a progressive eco-village that would be a beacon for 21st century development.
Sixteen years on, two phases of the Greenwich Millennium Village are complete, with three more in the pipeline. The completed elements do indeed consist of good architecture, with 20 percent of the nearly 1,100 homes classed as affordable, and while the GMV is short on shops and geographically isolated, its location around a wetland nature reserve does at least make it look like the kind of ecologically visionary place we were promised.
The rest of the area is a very different matter. Two new developments are rapidly rising at Lovells Wharf and Enderby Wharf, which when complete will contain 1,600 homes. There’s an affordable element there too but in the marketing, the emphasis is on luxury – the private swimming pool, the high-end retail outlets that will supposedly occupy the lower floor. Residents of the Victorian cottages in the adjacent East Greenwich conservation area have had to fight hard to stop the broad mid-rise blocks getting any taller.
Those projects are tiny in scale compared to the main 147-acre Peninsula site – including 1.6 miles of premium riverfront – where development has been stalled for much of the past decade. But since this vast brownfield plot was solely acquired by Hong Kong developer Knight Dragon in November 2013, and Boris Johnson intervened to speed up planning process, the project is now back in business.
If you take the view that any development is better than none – and that seems to have been the opinion of Nick Raynsford, the departing Labour MP who was paid more than twice as much from his construction industry consultancies and directorships last year as he was to represent the people of Greenwich & Woolwich – you may see that as a good thing. This huge regeneration scheme will certainly provide construction jobs until around 2040, which seems to be the rationale for the current reorganisation at Greenwich Community College, laying off teachers in other disciplines so they can train new generations of builders.
But the reality of the revised project that Knight Dragon has now submitted for approval to Labour-controlled Greenwich Council is pretty chilling. The original masterplan, drawn up in 2004, allowed for 10,010 homes on the Peninsula site, 38 percent of which would have been affordable. Knight Dragon lobbied hard to have that quota reduced – essentially because they paid so much to acquire the land, they wanted to wring as much cash from home sales as they can. That means taller towers, greater housing density, and the highest possible number of expensive properties on the most desirable sites. The Council didn’t want to tell us what they had agreed to, but they were eventually ordered to do so by the courts. The new plan is to remove any affordable elements from four of Knight Dragon’s six zones, and to confine the social housing to the two zones at the southeast end of the Peninsula – as far from Canary Wharf and the best upstream views as possible.
But they’re still not satisfied. It now turns out the developer has applied for another revision of the masterplan. They now want to increase the number of homes to around 12,500 – and perhaps as many as 15,500, according to a blog earlier this year by Labour candidate Matthew Pennycook, who was at that stage still a councillor for Greenwich West. As ever it’s all about maximising the profit yield of the site – which won’t do anything to address the capital’s urgent housing needs. As the Daily Telegraph’s gushing prose makes clear, the priority is to create a new enclave for the very rich. Some of the new owners may live in the properties they buy for at least part of the time. For others, it will be yet another opportunity to sink investment capital into London’s casino housing market.
Dr Robin Stott, the Green Party’s candidate in the Greenwich West local by-election, has identified the widening gap between rich and poor as one of the three great problems threatening both human and planetary wellbeing. Part of the attraction of this corner of the city is the relative absence of that grotesque wealth gap: there are of course pockets of great affluence, but on nothing like the scale of some of other parts of London. This new mega-development will change all that. The Daily Telegraph may salivate over glass-and-stone towers which will contain the capital’s highest residential swimming pool and a landscaped river roof terrace with sunbathing, seating and dining. But if you believe the growing body of research that says inequality breeds unhappiness, our part of London is about to become a much less contented place.
In these early stages it’s not clear how many buildings there will be. Former Green Party council candidate Darryl Chamberlain admits in his authoritative 853 blog that the planning applications are so complicated it’s impossible for a lone outsider, however well versed in the procedures, to keep on top of them. But one computer graphic shows at least 17 towers taller than the highest stansions of the O2. Some of these skyscrapers will be up to 40 storeys high, so this new cluster of tall buildings will make Canary Wharf look like Brooklyn to the Peninsula’s Manhattan. If you currently enjoy looking at the view of the Dome from the Cutty Sark or Ballast Quay, you should make the most of it while you can. In a few years’ time it will be blotted out.
Neither do we know how large the new population will be. The average national household consists of 2.3 people, but it may be lower than that on the Peninsula if the units are penthouse pied-à-terres for super-rich bankers or just sit empty. On any estimation, however, there will be more pressure on the roads on and off the Peninsula, adding to the air pollution which already plays a major role in one in 12 deaths in the Royal Borough. And there will be much more pressure on public transport, especially the Jubilee Line, which is already full to capacity at peak hours. It’s very bad news for anyone who currently travels to North Greenwich tube station by bus from its large catchment area in Charlton, East Greenwich and Blackheath.
There may be good elements of all this, including the new Peninsula Garden, opening later this spring, which has been designed by Knight Dragon’s well regarded masterplanner Tom Dixon in collaboration with gardeners Alys Fowler and Thomas Hoblyn. The ambition of Knight Dragon director Sammy Lee, who runs the company for billionaire owner Dr Henry Cheng Kar-Shun, to turn the Peninsula into London’s new film production hub may also provide some of the fulfilling jobs of the future for new generations. And businesses in both East and West Greenwich might welcome cruise passengers arriving at a new terminal at Enderby Wharf, whose promise of 500 full-time jobs would also have obvious benefits.
But it’s equally clear that this kind of proposal is crying out for proper scrutiny. This month we learned that the cruise terminal is now going to be nearly twice as large as the one originally planned, and it will be a turnaround point for passengers joining and leaving the cruise rather than just a sight-seeing stop. That will involve a larger transit areas for coaches and taxis, as well as an increase in freight traffic to supply 50 to 60 ships a season. Much of it would add to the congestion in Greenwich, and all of it would increase the already woeful level of air pollution on and around the Peninsula. Has anyone thought about this properly?
As far as the housing is concerned, the council has indeed come under pressure from the Mayor of London, who has ripped up his own affordability and density targets in his quest to build ever grander and higher. To their credit, Matthew Pennycook and Greenwich councillor Matt Hartley, the Tory candidate at the General Election, have expressed vocal reservations and called for a much bigger quota of affordable housing. Their noises have been much better than anything made by Nick Raynsford, who when last heard was still singing the praises of the laughing-stock Emirates cable car, which received £16 million in public money and is now running close to empty.
But neither has the council been falling over itself to keep residents informed. An announcement about a public consultation on the new masterplan (which has now closed) was buried in the paid notices of Royal Greenwich Time, the council’s own newspaper, but there hasn’t been a word about it on the news pages. And the three Labour councillors for Peninsula ward don’t mention anything about the upheavals in store on their new blog, which is instead full of smiling pictures of themselves canvassing for Matthew Pennycook. It’s as if they don’t want anyone to know the kind of decisions being taken on their watch until it’s too late.
What we need is good people who can look at all this from the inside, stopping the worst excesses of greedy developers when they need stopping, and having a positive impact on those aspects of the development which either cannot or need not be halted. Green councillors in Woolwich Town Hall could push for the tall towers to be more efficiently designed so they consume less energy and are green enough to offset their carbon costs of construction within two or three decades. They could lobby for better public transport links from Central London to Greenwich and Charlton, and for a new pedestrian walkway from the Peninsula to Canary Wharf that would provide access to the new Crossrail station, ease pressure on the existing Jubilee Line and make life pleasanter and healthier for the new residents. They could ensure that local businesses benefit from the cruise terminal, and that passengers aren’t funnelled past towards ‘official’ partners only. And above all they could push for this massive new housing development to include a high proportion of decent homes for people on ordinary or low incomes, not just ghettoised social housing blocks in the worst locations, where residents have to enter by a different door and are barred from using the best facilities.
These are massive changes afoot on Greenwich Peninsula, and so far few people beyond sycophantic luxury property writers have grasped the half of them. It’s in the nature of this kind of construction that local people don’t fully comprehend what the whole thing is going to look like until the deals are signed and sealed and it’s too late to do anything about them. That’s why we need Greens in Greenwich who can stand up against the developers and do a better job of scrutiny than the current councilors for the area and the last member of Parliament. Vote Abbey Akinoshun as your new MP for Greenwich and Woolwich on May 7 and, if you live in the Greenwich West ward, vote Robin Stott as the Royal Borough's first-ever Green Party councilor.
Readable PDF version: here
Article: 'Stuck at North Greenwich: Can the peninsula cope with its new masterplan?': 853 Blog
East Greenwich Residents Association: egra.london
Planning Application: here