Like many, I am utterly appalled by the Grenfell Tower fire that claimed the lives of so many last week. The life lost is deeply saddening, but what makes this so infuriating is that the tragedy was entirely preventable. Fire did not kill these people, neglect and exploitation of their vulnerability did.
Since the fire, the nation has been screaming for justice. In response, Theresa May has committed to a full public inquiry into the matter, although it is worth noting that many are demanding an inquest instead, as such an approach would be independent from the state (take a look at this article to get a grasp of the significant differences between an inquiry vs. inquest). While I of course want justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower, it doesn’t take a formal investigation nor hearing to realise that the events that led to this tragedy being possible in the first place, were criminal.
The cladding used to make the tower less of an eye sore amongst an otherwise insanely wealthy borough was illegal for use in the UK. Despite policy and national recommendations, sprinklers were not installed throughout the building, fire alarms were non-functional, and emergency vehicle access routes were restricted. The Grenfell Action Group had been trying to have their voices heard over these very issues for years. They specifically flagged their concerns over fire safety to their local Kensington and Chelsea Council, councillors, and MP, as well as raised complaints against their Tenant Management Organisation. Quickly realising their lack of power, they chronicled their entire experience through blogging – you can read it for yourself here. The evidence of neglect this vulnerable population faced is substantial and infuriating to bare witness to, especially considering most residents were living in social housing and lacked the ability to move despite fear over their safety.
It is clear to see that the very structures of government put in place to represent constituents, are seriously flawed. And sadly, this utter disregard for communities and lack of adherence to protective planning policy is rife across the country and all levels of government. Given this stark reality, to me, the only real potential path to justice is to mobilise as a city in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. We must highlight our individual stories in order to reveal the true systemic nature of the problem. Only then will we have the power to demand reform of the planning process and reclaim our voices in community consultations. Because I believe that this is the only path to justice, I feel that it is my duty to once again tell my community story engaging with local planning – this time explicitly calling attention to similar experiences of neglect and exploitation of vulnerable populations.
The Woolwich Royal Arsenal Story: Exclusion and Collusion?
I have chronicled the Woolwich Royal Arsenal community experience engaging with an atrocious planning application submitted by Berkeley Homes to Greenwich Council for over a year now (see my blogs from November 2016, February 2017, March 2017 & May 2017). The now approved plan includes building an 11 storey tower block on top of an existing listed heritage building within a conservation area. The construction of this building will negatively impact hundreds of residents, in many cases significantly compromising their quality of life.
The existing buildings that will be most impacted are Bentham House, 7 floors high, and East Carriage House (ECH), 6 floors high. Both are predominantly social housing, and represent the two buildings that will be on either side of the forthcoming tower block. Bentham House is exclusively for people aged 55 or older, meaning this is a particularly vulnerable population. It is worth noting that some of the elderly residents of Bentham House are in poor health, and will be significantly impacted by dust and air pollution caused by construction right outside of their homes. Both buildings, and particularly ECH, will be significantly affected in terms of lack of access to daylight/sunlight and privacy. The proposed tower block will be less than 15m away from ECH, and less than 26m away from Bentham House.
Over the course of the past year, I have repeatedly pointed out that the community felt excluded throughout this planning process. Let me explain why.
First and foremost, the entire process of community consultation is inherently inaccessible. When consulting the community, the council sends residents notification of the application via the post, and requests a response within a rather short turn around period of 21 days. Below is an image of the front page of the notice of this planning application from Greenwich Council. I mean, is that even legible?
Once the open consultation period with the community closes, all residents that make a submission, either in support or objection to the application, are to be invited by the council to attend the related planning board meeting where the application will be reviewed.
In our case, the council had to do two rounds of consultation ahead of the application being presented to the planning board, as Berkeley Homes was subsequently required to make their viability assessment publicly available. The community consultation was set to formally close on November 16th, yet invitations to the planning board meeting scheduled for November 22nd, were sent to residents via email on November 15th. A planning board meeting agenda pack was provided with the invitation, within which, the council planning officers recommended the application be granted full planning permission. This means that planning officers made a decision to recommend planning permission before the community consultation came to a close. This calls into question whether or not the community voice was considered in their recommendation. Sending invitations to the planning board meeting on November 15th, also means that some members of the community intending to make a submission to the council before the close of the consultation period on November 16th, would not have received an invitation to the meeting.
More shockingly, within the planning board meeting agenda pack put together by the planning officers, a critical voice for residents living within ECH was omitted. Southern Housing, the housing association that manages affordable housing within the building, submitted the below comment. Interestingly, the comment is tagged as “Neutral”. However, reading the comment they are clearly concerned about the “level of harm” the proposed tower block would have on their tenants (note ADF = average daylight factor).
At the November 22nd planning board meeting, the application wasn’t granted planning permission due to issues concerning safety and vehicle traffic flow in the area. As such, the application had to be amended, and the council had to do another round of community consultation (which I note they did over the December holiday season while many people were away).
At this point, many residents were confused as to whether or not they needed to re-submit their original letters of objection for consideration at the next relevant planning board meeting. As such, one resident sought clarification from a planning officer on the case. The officer told this resident that no, they did not have to re-submit their original letter for it to be considered. While this was technically true, it became apparent at the planning board meeting held on January 16th, that it would have been in the community’s interest to resubmit original letters of objection. Planning officers presented the total number of notices of open consultation sent to residents over the three rounds of consultation + the total number of letters of objection received over the same period, thereby diluting the perceived level of community objection to the application.
Ahead of the January 16th planning board meeting where the application ended up being approved, the council also did not release meeting minutes from the November 22nd board meeting until the day of the meeting (Jan. 16). Many members of the community, myself included, made inquiries into gaining access to these minutes, as we strongly felt they were required in order for all parties to prepare for the meeting and for the planning board to make an informed decision on the application. Finally, after countless efforts to raise concerns over these minutes not being shared, I received a response from someone at Greenwich Council that at least understood our frustrations (see partial response below).
Lastly, it should be noted that elderly residents of Bentham House whom did not have access to email faced further exclusions in the consultation process. While I received invitations to planning board meetings via email one week in advance of the date, residents corresponding with the council without an email address received invitations via post only two days ahead of scheduled meetings.
Berkeley Homes submitted their own commissioned report on daylight/sunlight to the council. However, recognising the report to be biased and flawed, the community had three separate daylight/sunlight experts review its contents. Their respective responses – parts of which are quoted below – highlight concern over the methodological approaches used within the report, as well as demonstrate the scale of the impact of the tower block on existing residents. A few key flaws to highlight include the report using a larger sample size of flats than relevant to the analysis in order to downplay the proportion of flats that will be below national daylight/sunlight standards, it inflating daylight values by allowing for internal reflectance and lighting, and it applying a method called “mirror massing” which assumes the proposed tower matches the height and proportions of existing buildings in the area (not the case here).
“The mirror-massing principle assumes that the Heritage Asset could be entirely removed. If it is retained and a mirror massing development placed solely on the Building 10 building area, this would result in a very different set of daylight results [than what is present in the report]. The use of mirror image analysis and analysis removing balconies is permitted in the BRE Guidelines. It is unusual, however, to use both methods [as done within the report]. The BRE Guidelines state that alternative target values may be set and so it is likely planning officers have been persuaded on this matter.”
“The Daylight Distribution results show reductions of up to 50% to Bentham House and of up to 92% in ECH, leaving many rooms unable to see the sky from over half their area. Such reductions will clearly leave these rooms significantly gloomier than previously, and arguably not appropriate for habitation… Internally to the propo[sed tower], the report states 60% of habitable rooms meet the BRE Guidelines for their room use. Usually, planning officers look for at least 80% compliance across a scheme this size.”
Given these responses, it was concerning to the community that the planning officers with the Greenwich Council on this case failed to critically review commissioned reports submitted by Berkeley Homes. Perhaps even more concerning, despite this being the most contested issue raised in letters of objection from residents, planning officers failed to present the impact of the proposed tower block on existing residents access to daylight/sunlight at the November 22nd planning board meeting (you can access the ppt. slides they presented here).
It was not until the second planning board meeting on January 16th that planning officers presented information showing impact on daylight/sunlight. The below images presented that evening illustrate the gravity of the impact, with almost all units in ECH directly facing the tower block set to loose access to daylight/sunlight below national standards (blue represents units not compliant with BRE standards). It should be noted that because these are single aspect flats (meaning they only have windows / access to natural light from one side of the flat) higher standards should apply. London Housing Design Standard 5.2.1 states “where single aspect dwellings are proposed, the designer should demonstrate how good levels of ventilation, daylight and privacy will be provided to each habitable room and the kitchen.”
With introduction of tower:
Planning officers were similarly uncritical of the applicant in multiple other instances and consistently presented misleading illustrations and misinformation to the planning board. For example, the image below presented to the board was riddled with errors. Bentham House has 7 floors, not 8; the tower block will have 11 floors, not 10; in reality, the heights between Bentham House and the tower will be by no means comparable; and the distance between ECH and the tower is actually 14.4m and for those on the 1st floor of ECH a mere 11.3m.
Royal Borough of Greenwich’s Policy DH(b) Protection of Amenity for Adjacent Occupiers states that “when determining applications for new developments, extensions or renovations of buildings, the Royal Borough will only permit an application where it can be demonstrated that the proposed development does not cause an unacceptable loss of amenity to adjacent occupiers by reducing the amount of daylight, sunlight or privacy they enjoy or result in an unneighbourly sense of enclosure.” It is interesting that the new tower block that will include zero affordable homes will not have flats facing towards ECH. Clearly that would be an unacceptable loss of amenity and privacy for its residents, yet they seem to be okay with breaking this policy in respect to ECH residents. Curious…
Failed Keepers of the Gate
You might be asking yourself how the heck Greenwich Council, like Kensington and Chelsea Council, get away with this type of conduct. To be honest, the reasons are deeply complex and worth an entirely separate blog. That being said, part of the answer lies with the Greater London Authority (GLA). After a planning application is approved by a local council, it goes up to the Mayor of London’s office. Essentially, they are supposed to act as gate keepers and protectors of the London Plan.
As a community, we sat down with the GLA planning team and pointed out the multiple breaches of policy associated with this planning application. We also pointed to multiple examples of where Berkeley Homes’ various reports were inaccurate, misleading, and methodological invalid, and questioned why Greenwich Council planning officers were not being critical of the applicant. Despite telling us that our concerns were legitimate and that they would need to take a least six months to thoroughly review the case, planning officers with the GLA quickly went on to recommend planning permission inline with Greenwich Council planning officers – literally no questions asked (you can read their report for yourself here – note they do not provide justifications for why they take the view of Greenwich planning officers over the community in multiple instances).
This whole experience has been extremely infuriating and demoralising. In addition to all I have told you here, just before the GLA released their report, on March 15th I stumbled across all key stakeholders with significant influence over the outcome of this planning application catching up for a pint at our local (this included the lead Greenwich Council planning officer, lead GLA planning officer, and Berkeley Homes Regional Chairman). As usual, I chronicled the experience, and as what has come to be expected, our attempts at having our concerns heard over lack of impartiality of all parties involved were silenced (see Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to eat where you shit? and All roads lead to the swamp).
Clearly this is a systemic problem that requires substantial reform to how planning applications are developed, reviewed, and approved in London. I for one refuse to sit back while the norm includes communities having little voice, planning officers failing to be adequately critical of applicants, and arguable unprofessional relationships between key stakeholders accepted. On its own, this account is unlikely to result in any change. However, there always has been, and always will be, power in collective story telling. The victims of Grenfell Tower need us to share our accounts of similar neglect and exploitation with planning processes and authorities. Together we can collate a flurry of case studies and unite in our cause. Clearly working within the system to fight individual planning battles only as and when they directly impact us, isn’t working. It’s time to fight the system!
*Robyn Waite (June 23, 2017)
NOTE: If you have a story to tell please notify me when you share it publicly. This way we can compile all our accounts and hopefully present them to an interested journalist or use them in future advocacy efforts. If you have a story to share but want to do so anonymously, or do not have a platform for publishing, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me as I would be happy to post your account as a guest blog. You can find my various contact details here.