Opposition to the redevelopment of the Bishopsgate goodsyard site, one of the last major redevelopment sites on the edge of the City of London, is hardening.
This month has seen a rally, a public debate and a public exhibition organised by opponents to the proposals, who have assembled under the banner More Light, More Power.
The project, which proposes a series of towers up to 46 storeys high, is currently being considered by mayor Boris Johnson, taking decision powers away from Hackney and Tower Hamlets, across whose border the site sits.
Opposition groups are hoping to exert further pressure on Johnson and his team, as they deliberate over the proposals. A final decision, following last minute representations, is expected at the end of January.
Developer Hammerson has teamed up with London residential specialist Ballymore to propose the redevelopment of the site, which runs off Shoreditch High Street off the north east corner of the City of London. Proposals submitted in 2014 were for a mixed residential and commercial scheme, and included major tower blocks, up to 55 storeys high. The argument advanced for building tall was that large parts of the site cannot be built on, due to underground trains running beneath.
In the face of opposition, the blocks were scaled back, to a maximum 46 storeys. The modified proposals are for up to 1,356 homes, 66,000 sq m of offices, 17,500 sq m of retail. Much of the accommodation would be in 12 blocks, ranging in height from 236m to 177.6m high. While the revisions increase employment floorspace and reduce the originally proposed tower heights, there remain issues of concern, not least affordable housing provision.
It was in September that the mayor exercised his rarely-used powers to call in the proposals for review. His reasoning was that the development will “have a significant impact on the implementation of the London”.
In his letter to the local authorities, mayor Johnson noted that: “Hackney has performed well in recent years in terms of housing and affordable housing delivery and has a healthy pipeline of permissions, whereas Tower Hamlets has fallen short of its housing delivery target although does have a healthy pipeline of permissions.” He added that South Shoreditch is also behind target for employment floorspace, while Tower Hamlets has actually seen a net loss in office floorspace between 2008 and 2015.
Both councils had also failed to provide the developer with any response, within their required 16 week determination period, which ended in December 2014. In September, a letter from the applicants’ planning consultants DP9 proposed Johnson take over.
The latest attempt to develop the site, which has stood empty for 50 years, started in 2007, when Hammerson first made approaches to the local authorities. An Interim Planning Guidance for the site was prepared and adopted by the boroughs in late 2009. The mayor notes the complications of the site, which has trains running across and under it, as well as being across the borough boundaries.
Meanwhile local people continue to shout for a more modest development, with larger quantities of affordable housing. A mid November debate at Shoreditch church, saw more than 200 people in attendance including the mayors of the two affected boroughs.
Hackney mayor Jules Pipe levelled several complaints against the proposals. “Most importantly we would like the towers scrapped,” he told the local paper. “So instead of 47 storeys high, they will be no taller than nine storeys. Those two tower blocks are going to be full of luxury housing – there won’t be a flat in the tower for less than £1 million and that is not useful to anybody – not in my borough, not in John Biggs’ borough and certainly not for anyone in temporary accommodation that needs to be housed.”
One local resident opined: “We’ve had huge developments happen here and the community has got nothing. We must fight back and not just accept what they give us. I’d like to see more affordable housing and a school or community centre. And the buildings cannot have a ‘rich door’ and a ‘poor door’.”
Biggs, mayor of Tower Hamlets, also criticised the mayor’s decision to exercise his powers and call the scheme in. “There is a complete lack of accountability. Boris does not have a planning committee, he doesn’t have to make site visits. We need a far greater transparency if we are going to have democracy when it comes to planning. The problem is a precedent will be set once we have a development that’s that high (over nine storeys) – all the developers will say they want to go that high too.”
There were also complaints over the lack of affordable housing, and of barely any space suitable to help the expansion of the area’s Tech City aspirations.
The developers said they opted to avoid the debate, as there would evidently be little chance of debating, saying in a statement: “It originally appeared that the organisers were genuine in wanting to create a debate where all parties could present their points of view.
“However, subsequent media and social media coverage promoting the event has indicated that it had become an anti-Goodsyard rally, to follow on from the demonstration that took place on Sunday.
“We remain very happy to meet with individual community groups as we have been doing over the last two years to explain the details of the scheme and answer any questions. But we will on this occasion decline to take part in the event.”
Affordable housing remains a contentious point, with both boroughs having a 50% affordable housing target in their core strategies. The original 2014 planning application proposed just 10% of the 1,464 units be affordable housing, a proposal labelled “disappointing” by the mayor’s office. Moreover, 25% of the total proposed were to be studio apartments, and a further 29% were one bed units.
More recently, the developers complained that the boroughs’ consultants had still to review their affordability arguments, around which the volume of affordable homes will be negotiated.
LPA Perspective: Boris will have the last word on this one – unless we are then treated to a round of judicial reviews and challenges from disaffected parties.
But how did it come to this? A site that has stood empty for years, with an agreed planning brief, has seen developers play hard ball and come in with a proposal that appears designed to put noses out of joint.
It is hardly as if Hammerson paid over the odds for the site, as they bought it so long ago. Yet an argument suggesting somehow that a scheme will only be viable with 10% affordable housing beggars belief. We look forward to hearing more of the argument, in due course.
The other issue is one of governance. Part of mayor Johnson’s reasoning for taking over the decision process, is his assertion that the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets are falling short in their provision of new space for living and working. Perhaps the wishlists they present to developers are simply too long and idealistic, and that is driving away economic regneration activity. It could also account for why, after such a long time in gestation, the Goodsyard proposals from Hammerson appear to have hit bumps in the road – a case of damned, whichever way you turn.