Yesterday evening Bexley Council’s Planning Committee approved the Broadway tower blocks
which will dominate the skyline for miles around after not a single word was
spoken in their favour. Why was that? Because under the authoritarian Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan
Planning Committees no longer have real power over major housing developments.
Firstly I should perhaps declare an interest, I think the Eastside Quarter designs for 518 dwellings are quite attractive but only in the same way that I think The Shard is quite attractive, it doesn’t mean I would like to see one built at the end of my garden. Thirteen storeys sets a dangerous precedent aimed at turning Bexley into the new Lewisham; what hope is there now for preventing Lesnes Abbey being placed in the shadow of the 14 story tower proposed for Knee Hill where it will severely damage the views of a distant City skyline?
While various Council Officers provided an illustrated description of the plans I took the opportunity to read the Agenda and found it littered with figures that conflicted with Bexley Council’s requirements or Sadiq Khan’s diktats.
Bexley aims for 35% affordable homes and Bellway claims that it will not be able to make a profit if the figure goes above 22%. (81 rented units, 29 shared ownership.)
Bexley Council is acutely aware that its transport infrastructure is poor by London standards generally and for many residents a car is essential. Khan aims to force us all on to bikes and buses. He wants to see no parking provision whatsoever in the Eastside Quarter but because his Zone 1 plan for the whole of London is not yet in operation Bexley’s Planning Officers have been able to compromise at 208 spaces.
The Council sets standards for amenity space and the distance between overlooking windows. Bellway Homes has failed on both scores, albeit by only around 10%.
Nevertheless Planning Officers accept and support all of these shortcomings probably because they know the rules and regulation and the vindictive ways of the GLA under Khan better than most but their unwavering support frequently suggests that working hand in glove with major developers may influence their impartiality.
But enough of my thoughts, what did the speakers at the Planning Committee have to say?
Two members of the public were allowed three minutes each to object to the proposals but their case came across as more emotion than fact and unlikely to carry much weight. For that Cabinet Member Brad Smith (Bexleyheath ward) stepped into the breach and made an excellent job of it. He said the current situation was that Committee decisions “had been taken over by the Mayor and this is not right”.
“High rise, high density, no parking is not right for Bexley. We are not the same as Inner London Boroughs with strong and varied transport options and setting this as a precedent will encourage it to spread and become normal in Bexley. The Mayor of London is out of touch with Bexley residents. It is an early warning sign of what the Mayor plans for Bexley and we only have to look at Lewisham to see what that is.”
The plans are “oppressive and completely out of character with anything in the surrounding area. Bexley’s Growth Strategy says that tall towers are not appropriate for this area”. (It mandates no more than eight floors.)
Councillor Smith went on to criticise the lack of parking provision and politely ridiculed the developer’s sales pitch which refers to the proximity of the A2, the South Circular Road and the M25 and Bluewater being less than 15 minutes away - by car.
Bad though he believed Bellway’s proposals were he was aware of Khan’s ambition to make them even worse and later this proved to be the crucial factor.
Every following speaker was critical of the proposals along very similar lines. Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup.) said the parking provision was “woefully inadequate” and Councillor John Davey (Conservative, West Heath) said he was “totally opposed to the eyesore sticking up.”
Labour Councillors were particularly critical of the lack of affordable housing but they won support from Tories too. New man Howard Jackson (Barnehurst) simply didn’t believe that Bellway couldn’t make a decent profit out of 518 dwellings to support more than 22% affordable homes. It was “ridiculous”. He doubted the Planning Officer’s assurances that 208 parking spaces would be more than enough either.
A whole hour of such criticism went by before Councillor Andy Dourmoush (Conservative, Longlands) returned to what had been worrying me. The danger represented by the real villain of the piece, Sadiq Khan. “If this is refused and it goes to the Mayor he can in effect rule zero parking. That is the reality we have got to think about.” He too doubted that “a scheme of this size could not support more than 22% affordable housing”.
Councillor Dourmoush’s dire warnings about what havoc Mayor Khan could wreak on Bexley struck a chord with Councillor Linda Bailey and when Chairman Val Clark called for a vote it was she who proposed approval but not before Clark reminded the Committee of how “someone in another place” could interfere with their decision. Councillor Bailey was seconded by Councillor Dourmoush, both protesting that they did so very reluctantly because “the alternative could be even worse”.
Councillor June Slaughter said that what the Chairman alluded to was “absolutely appalling. If we don’t make a stand we won’t achieve anything. We might as well not bother to hear this application and just accept Officers’ recommendations. If we don’t make a stand we will never make a difference locally.”
She is right of course but that is the reality of electing a Mayor more interested in political correctness than the wellbeing of citizens. The Chairman ignored Councillor Slaughter. I suspect the decision had been pre-determined.
Three hands went up to approve the application and presumably the Chairman processed the mental arithmetic quickly so she stuck her hand up too to create a four all draw, she then voted in favour again as Chairman.
When Councillor Val Clark successfully aspired to be Bexley’s worst Mayor ever she constantly harangued members of the public with her claimed forensic knowledge of the words of wisdom in Sir Walter Citrine’s ‘ABC of Chairmanship’. So much so that I bought my own copy.
This is what it has to say about Chairmen abusing their power to vote and change Committee decision.
The Chairman would be well advised to think twice before he votes at all.
When the Eastside Quarter appears to dwarf the Civic Centre when viewed from the A2
on the approach to Bexleyheath and its retail space proves as difficult to fill
as some Councillors believe it might be, the one person to be blamed will not be Sadiq
Khan as it should be but two votes Clark.
Note: The regular Planning Chairman, Councillor Peter Reader, was absent due to a pre-booked family holiday.