Then you saw it, now you can’t. The now demolished Greenwich No 1 Gas Holder while still part of the industrial skyline of the Thames. [thePipeLine]
On 23 August  the Guardian newspaper revealed that energy giant Scotia Gas Networks (SGN) had paid almost £30,000 towards the cost of a controversial planning brief for the site of the historic Greenwich No 1 Gas Holder on Greenwich peninsula. Now Greenwich council has confirmed to thePipeLine that the total cost of the GP3 Planning Brief was £54,750. This means that the sum paid by SGN may well have represented more than half of the total cost of the production the brief.
Following the publication of the co-funded plan the gas holder was demolished controversially, in the face of significant local opposition, and the opposition of experts in the history of the gas industry who argued that the gas holder was a significant survival of the Victorian gas industry and was fully capable of being repurposed as the centrepiece of any new development on the site.
Ironically the planning brief appeared to offer the gas holder a lifeline as it stated any development should recognise the industrial heritage of the site and suggested,
“…the retention of all or part of the structure within a public open space or building, or reinterpretation of the structure and its industrial history through the design of building façade details, public realm/landscaping or the layout of the development.”
Later the council cabinet added to the impression that the council wished to acknowledge the importance of the structure by voting through a motion which stated,
“Proposals should respect and respond to the industrial character of the area as a means of relating new development to the local context. In particular, development should build on the heritage value of the gas holder to enhance the character and distinctiveness of the area.”
However, as thePipeLine revealed at the time, Greenwich planning officers appeared to ignore their own councillors policy when they authorised the demolition of the gas holder in April 2018.
Critics of the demolition claimed that that outcome was set in motion by Historic England which made a full, one hundred and eighty degree, reverse ferret on the previous recommendation, from one of the organisation’s experts, that the gas holder should be listed and instead granted SGN a Certificate of Immunity from Listing.
Although it could have done so, Greenwich council did not oppose the granting of the certificate.
While part of planning legislation, Certificates of Immunity from Listing are controversial because they place a five year moratorium on further attempts to give a building statutory protection.
The certificates continue to apply even if new evidence of importance emerges and the only immediate way to provide any protection in those circumstances is for the local authority to place the building concerned within a designated conservation area.
The granting of the certificate left SGN free to argue that demolition was acceptable because, in the words of the company’s planning document, the site had
“…little heritage value and removal of the holder should not be objectionable in heritage terms.”
Campaigners, including independent experts in the history of the gas industry from Britain and Germany, argued the claim was at best misleading, at worst demonstrably false.
They argued that the gas holder, which was described on completion as ‘a mountain of iron against the sky’. was a significant example of the development of an internationally important industrial technology.
Also alleged to be false was SGN’s claim that Government environmental policy forced them to demolish the structure.
While the decommissioning of redundant gas holders is a policy aim, in practice it has proven to be perfectly possible to preserve and even re-purpose, other locally or historically significant examples of the Victorian gas industry.
Indeed, such examples are found across London including the famous gas holder overlooking the Oval cricket ground, as well as examples at Kings Cross station, on the Old Kent Road and most recently in Bethnal Green where gasholders are to be repurposed as flats. Although the latter application was opposed by some heritage campaigners.
SGN were also accused of “gaming” the planning system by bringing forward critical planning applications and requests during holiday periods, when potential objectors might be distracted and the number of working days available to prepare and lodge objections would be limited.
The first application to demolish the gas holder was submitted a few days before Christmas 2017 and the final approval to demolish was made during the period of purdah ahead of the local council elections of May 2018.
Because so called “election purdah” prevents politicians from taking politically sensitive decisions for fear they are seen as an attempt at election campaigning, the latter move effectively removed councillors from the decision making process at its most critical point.
Responding to the Guardian’s original revelation Cllr Nigel Fletcher, the Leader of the Conservative opposition on the council, who played a leading role in the attempts to save the gasholder, commented on the Greenwich Conservatives website,
“This is an astonishing disclosure. We already know Greenwich Council dismally failed to prevent the destruction of the iconic Gasholder, despite their election promises. Now it seems they were paid thousands of pounds from the company that stood to gain most from the demolition.”
Councillor Fletcher added
“The whole thing is highly questionable, to say the least. We have lost a landmark heritage asset, and local people need assurances that our planning policies are not for sale.”
Speaking on behalf of SGN, spokesperson Dan Brown told the Guardian,
“We had no role in producing the planning brief and the brief does not necessarily reflect the most favourable possible outcome for us.”
However, at the time the planning brief was published one of the local campaigners, Peter Luck, told thePipeLine that he saw the document as a missed opportunity.
“If the Greenwich planners had been properly forward looking and adequately resourced they would have undertaken a study of the potential for adaptive re-use as an informative before commissioning the Planning Brief for the immediate area of the holder.”
Mr Luck said, adding,
“It is pretty obvious that they didn’t do this and the Planning Brief, when it was produced simply ignored the holder.”
Critics of the planning department at the Royal Borough of Greenwich also allege there is an apparent reluctance to embrace the opportunities for reuse and creating distinctive places offered by heritage buildings and structures like the gas holder on the part of planning officers.
In October 2018, at the same time as the fate of the Greenwich No 1 gas holder was being decided, Woolwich covered market was listed Grade 2 by Historic England because of its unique roof structure, recognising the market as one of the most important examples of industrial heritage in England.
However, the listing came just in time as the market had been slated for demolition as part of the major “Spray Street development”.
Responding to the listing of the covered market a spokesperson for the developer Spray Street Quarter LLP, stated:
“We are very disappointed by the decision to list the former covered market, which forms an integral part of the Spray Street Quarter regeneration site.”
Critics of the council’s attitude to industrial heritage argue it is telling that, instead of celebrating the recognition of a nationally important building, a council spokesperson used similar language to the developer stating:
“The listing of the former covered market by Historic England presents a challenge for the current proposals.”
Without offering any evidence the spokesperson then added the suggestion that recognising a heritage building was in the way of developments offering jobs and new homes stating,
“This decision will delay the redevelopment currently being proposed that could potentially deliver approximately 700 new homes, a new cinema, retail and business space, as well as new public spaces. The Council will continue to work with Spray Street Quarter LLP to see if the scheme can still deliver the much needed homes and jobs for Woolwich.”
However, the developer subsequently revised the plans for Spray Street to include the market and Cllr Sizwe James, the then Cabinet Member for Growth and Strategic Development, told thePipeLine,
“We do our best to protect the borough’s historic sites in line with the National Planning Policy Framework – our regeneration, planning policy and development teams work together to preserve the heritage of the borough whilst ensuring we can provide the housing and employment space that our residents need.”
thePipeLine asked Greenwich council to address the possible perception that the Royal Borough’s officers and councillors would have been less inclined to treat planning applications and requests under Permitted Development Rights from SGN, such as the demolition of the gasholder, objectively and critically because of the beneficial owner of the land, SGN, funding at least half of the planning brief?
A spokesperson for the council replied,
“There are plenty of checks and balances to ensure that developers can’t pay to have local policies shaped for their benefit, nor when decisions are taken that they are influenced by anything other than the planning merits.”
The spokesperson emphasised that;
“Under no circumstances was the decision making for the demolition of the gasholder influenced by the fact that the developer contributed to the development brief.”
However, rightly or wrongly, among critics of the council’s approach to its heritage buildings, especially those which are located in area subject to significant redevelopment, the perception may now be that the council planners were never interested in adaptive re-use of Greenwich No 1, regardless of what the development plan said, or council cabinet voted.
This may have been partly because of a culture of planning in Greenwich where heritage constraints are seen by some as inconvenient, as exemplified by the reaction to the covered market listing.
However, from the available evidence, it cannot be ruled out that planning officers were also aware that their joint paymaster, SGN, had made clear from its actions, such as seeking the certificate of immunity, that it was never interested in any plan which included the gas holder, so why rock the boat by questioning that stance, even if that contradicted policy voted by cabinet?
Their political masters, who had voted to throw the gas holder a lifeline, with what may appear a profound lack of curiosity about the plan, or interest in seeing their own policy actually enacted, then went along with the destruction of an irreplaceable and reusable part of the industrial heritage of their borough.
Just as this article was being completed the Royal Borough of Greenwich was awarded £1.8 million as part of Historic England’s, High Streets Heritage Action Zone scheme, which is funded jointly by the Department for Digital, Culture Media and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Future High Street Fund.
The award is targeted at the historic town centre of Woolwich, including Spray Street.
Welcoming the award the current Leader of the Council, Councillor Danny Thorpe, commented,
“We’re extremely proud of Woolwich’s rich cultural and historical heritage, and this funding will enable the rejuvenation of our landmark buildings, and expansion of local businesses and green spaces. People are at the heart of our diverse community and improving our town centre and providing more community space will benefit everyone.”
At the same time the council also withdrew the proposal to dispose of a public open space known as The Rose Garden which is close to the site of the former gas holder. The site had been slated for sale as development land.
Campaigners will hope Councillor Thorpe’s words and actions may herald a more imaginative relationship with the Borough’s heritage buildings on the part of the councillors and perhaps a change of culture in the Borough’s planning department.