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Campaigners in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in south east London are mounting a petition asking the Greenwich Council to re-purpose the historic East Greenwich No 1 gas holder on the Greenwich peninsula close to the Millennium Dome [O2 Arena].  The petition is in response to a controversial decision made by Greenwich planning officers in April [2018] to allow the owners of the gas holder, energy distribution company SGN, to demolish the structure as a permitted development without the decision having to undergo scrutiny by elected councilors.   The campaigners are concerned especially that the checks and balances within the planning system which are meant to ensure that the value of historic buildings is recognised and where possible such buildings are conserved or re-purposed, have not worked.  At the core of the concerns expressed in the petition is the accusation that the Greenwich planners gave permission for the demolition in spite of the cabinet of the council voting to include the gas holder in plans for the redevelopment of the western side of the Greenwich peninsula.

In the case of East Greenwich Number 1 it is argued that heritage regulator, Historic England, left the historic structure fatally exposed and without statutory protection by underestimating the historic importance of the gas holder as a relic of the UK energy industry when refusing listing.  It is said that the heritage body then compounded the negative impact of that decision by allowing a certificate of immunity from listing to be issued preventing further attempts to give the gas holder statutory protection.  This double whammy left SGN free to argue that demolition was acceptable because the site had “little heritage value and removal of the holder should not be objectionable in heritage terms.”  In fact, the campaigners argue, the view taken by Historic England was mistaken and that the key planning statement setting out the case to allow demolition as a permitted development, authored by SGN’s consultant FirstPlan, was also fatally flawed.

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The Council policy, which the planners were supposed to use as the a material consideration of their decision regarding East Greenwich Number 1, states that,

“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, the campaigners assert that the Greenwich planners not only let an untrue statement that the removal of the gas holder was a necessary requirement” for the future development of the Greenwich Peninsula pass without comment or censure, but that crucially the planners then compounded this error by failing to question SGN/FirstPlan’s assertion that the structure had little heritage value and then failing to implement their Council’s own policy recognising the heritage value of the gas holder.  Something they were fully entitled to do, and indeed, might have been expected to do, in spite of Historic England’s refusal to list the structure.

It is argued that either one of these failures, the apparent failure to question SGN/FirstPlan’s errors and allegedly untrue statements and the failure to implement the councils policy as voted by the elected cabinet members, would, on its own, invalidate the decision to allow the demolition as a permitted development.  Indeed, these errors could render the decision liable to judicial review on the grounds that the council officers failed to follow the council’s own stated policy.

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However, for now, the campaigners seems to hope that a cooperative approach, asking the Council to work with SGN to develop a plan to re-purpose the East Greenwich site along the lines of the many other gas holders which have been reused, including examples at Kings Cross and in Dublin, offers the best prospect for saving the historic structure.  Such an approach, if successful, would also head off the potential for protracted and costly legal moves against the council.

The campaign also acknowledges that, in common with other similar departments across the UK,  the planning department in Greenwich is under resourced and overworked.  In March the National Audit Office reported that local authority planning and development had suffered cuts of 52.8% since the election of the coalition government in 2010.

While the background of cuts, nationally and locally,  explains, if not excuses, how such decisions can be made, Gas Holder campaigner Peter Luck told thePipeLine that the planning system, as operated in Greenwich, had still failed to recognise the heritage and development potential of the gas holder from the outset, although it should have done,

“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. It is pretty obvious that they didn’t do this and the Planning Brief, when it was produced simply ignored the holder.”

Mr Luck added,

“To be fair, the paragraph in that document which does offer some encouragement to re-use, or partial preservation in an integrated design, was added in acknowledgement of the strength of feeling for the holder which was made very evident in responses to the public consultation. However, preservation was plainly an afterthought.”

Mr Luck continued stating that the Greenwich planners missed further opportunities to take issue with perceived faults in the application and to involve elected members of the council as SGN submitted and then resubmitted the application, through late 2017 and into early 2018.

“This first version of the method statement was refused but the second, little different, still regarded as generic and implying a faulty understanding of the construction of the holder, was accepted by planners, probably without reference to members.”  

However, Mr Luck added that he was sympathetic to the legal constraints on the decision which dictated the timing,

 “Again planners will have been under the legal constraint of  having to give their response within 28 days, which for an under-resourced department with, apparently, no emergency procedure for calling a planning committee meeting, is quite tough. “

Others see the timing in a less neutral way.

It is pointed out that the first application to demolish East Greenwich No 1 was submitted a few days before Christmas [2017] when individuals and organisations who might wish to make representations opposing the demolition would have been at their most distracted and least responsive, while the final re-submission was timed to require a decision during the period of council purdah, ahead of the May local elections.  This leads to accusations that SGN/FirstPlan may have effectively, although perfectly legally, gamed the planning system to their advantage, by minimising the time and opportunities available for wider scrutiny of what they knew would be a controversial application.

The increasingly bitter row over East Greenwich Number 1 is just one of the contentious planning decisions which will face the incoming Council which takes office after the Local Elections on Thursday [3 May 2018].  Alongside a controversial plan for a cruise liner terminal at the Enderby Wharf, just upstream of the Greenwich Peninsula, the Greenwich planning In-box also contains proposals for the redevelopment of the so called ”Spray Street Quarter” in Woolwich opposite the historic Woolwich Arsenal.

In addition to new homes, the plan is designed to deliver 6,000sq m of retail space, and 3,500sq m of leisure space which the developer, Spray Street Quarter LLP [property company St Modwen and affordable housing provider Notting Hill Housing], claim will,

“…deliver new homes, including much needed affordable housing, as well as cultural and leisure facilities within a well-designed development that will provide wide-ranging benefits to local people.”

However, the scheme, which includes six high-rise buildings of up to 21 stories, would entail the demolition of the Woolwich Covered Market,, built in 1936 and currently the home of a popular pop up weekend food market, along with locally listed Victorian and Edwardian shops and a neo-Georgian employment exchange.  The 20th Century Society has proposed the covered market for listing.

The fresh controversy over the Spray Street development comes as council already faces criticism over the number of high-rise buildings on the Royal Arsenal site and elsewhere along the river front at Woolwich.

Critics argue that these developments are turning Woolwich town center from a characterful, if somewhat rundown, collection of 19th and 20th century buildings which only needed some imaginative investment, and sympathetic redevelopment, driven by the Council, not developers, into characterless canyons of almost identical towers and gated communities, all forming a rampart which cuts off the wider  community off from the reason the Woolwich came to exist in the first place, the River Thames.

The campaigners who are trying to save East Greenwich Number 1 point out that the gas holder is the only historic building left preventing the Thames frontage at the Greenwich Peninsula going the same way.

Of course, if the Royal Borough of Greenwich genuinely wants to acknowledge and make the most of the heritage value of the many historic buildings the borough contains and to ensure future developments are distinctive and appropriate to their setting, campaigners suggest that the Councillors who are elected today [Thursday 3 May]  might want to start by getting a grip on the planning department, to make sure that planning officers actually carry out the policies elected councilors vote to put in place.

At the time of writing the petition asking the Royal Borough of Greenwich to save the gas holder has attracted over six hundred and fifty signatures.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich has been asked for comment.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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