The Riverside Residents Association (RRA) wish to register our strongly held objections to the planning applications 20/02495/FUL and 20/02499/OUT
The RRA represents residents in the area bounded by: South and East Lane to the north, Portsmouth Road to the west, Milner Road to the East, Woodbines Avenue to the south and east, including The Bittoms, Oaklea Passage, Kensington Gardens and Avante Court.
In summary our objections are:
- The proposals are contrary to policy, which states tall buildings should only be pursued through a plan-led approach;
- The pre-application public consultation was deficient and the concerns expressed were ignored in the submitted scheme.
- The outline proposal runs counter to Historic England advice;
- The impact on our heritage assets would be so significant that the scheme is totally unacceptable no matter what benefits the proposal might provide. These material considerations are in no way sufficient to tip the balance in favour of wrecking our, and future generations’ heritage;
- The Council’s pre-application advice to the developer is so wide of the policy mark that the Council is open to accusation of failing to set the appropriate policy tests, and this could on the one hand lead to challenges, and on the other could lead to costs applications, problems all of the Council’s own making.
The policy position
Policy D9 of the London Plan (intend to publish version) addresses tall buildings, and makes it clear (in part B) that it is for Boroughs to identify locations where tall buildings may be appropriate, and that these locations should be identified on maps in Development Plans (D9C(2)).
Part B concludes (B 3) Tall buildings should only be developed in locations that are identified in Development Plans.
The approach required by the London Plan is clear; tall buildings must form part of a plan-led approach (ie not come forward in the manner these applications have been promoted).
The adopted Kingston Development Plan documents are in general conformity with the London Plan on the matter of tall buildings. Core Strategy Policy CS8 identifies that some areas in the Borough will be appropriate for tall buildings, but other areas will be inappropriate or too sensitive for tall buildings, and further guidance will be provided in SPDs, but also “that the Council will determine applications for such development on the basis of the criteria in the English Heritage/CABE Guidance on Tall Buildings (July 2007) and the London Plan.”
This is the adopted planning policy of the Royal Borough of Kingston. Indeed in accordance with its own policy the Council dutifully prepared an SPD to do exactly what was required – prepare further guidance on where tall buildings would/would not be appropriate. In 2015 the Council undertook public consultation on the Eden Quarter Development Brief, which we accepted, and the Council then published in late 2015. That document identifies on Figure 8 what the Council and Borough residents consider to be appropriate building heights; this is clearly depicted on the map for all to see, just as required by London Plan policy. We understand that the promoter considers the EQDB not to be policy, and of course in its own right that is correct, BUT it is a document required by policy – both London Plan and Kingston policy, that was prepared and publicly consulted upon, and so is material to policy and to the determination of applications in that area for development (tall buildings or otherwise).
All four tall buildings proposed in these applications are substantially taller than the heights prescribed by the Council in its Development Plan documents (6-8 storeys). The proposals therefore clearly fail the policy tests. If the promoter wants buildings taller than 6-8 storey, they should have engaged in the preparation of the EQDB, or if their interest is more recently acquired, they should know that the correct way to do this is by engaging in the on-going work on the next Local Plan.
Pre-application public consultation
The promoter’s pre-application public consultation was deficient in its process and in any meaningful design response to the observations given. In terms of process, it was rushed with just 4 weeks between the two consultations, there were insufficient coverage of key views, the technology was poor with no webinar / zoom arrangements to allow for fuller consideration. We are aware that the public raised widespread concerns with the original scheme, specifically about the height, scale and mass of the buildings. However, on comparing the original with that presented in the second consultation (and that submitted in the applications), we see no design changes at all to address these legitimate concerns, as the schemes are virtually identical. These public concerns were totally ignored, with no explanation as to why. We can only conclude that the ‘public consultation’ was no more than ‘paying lip service’ to the requirement as set out in the National Planning Framework to engage in meaningful design debate with the public. Moving forward, we urge the Council to ensure that the promoter is encouraged to consider the design options being worked up by the Kingston upon Thames Society.
Historic England advice
Historic England (formerly English Heritage) advice has moved on since the document referenced in the Council’s Core Strategy Policy CS8. The current advice note 4 (Dec 2015) very much accords with the London Plan and the approach taken by the Council “In a successful plan-led system, the location and design of tall buildings will reflect the local vision for an area, and a positive, managed approach to development, rather than a reaction to speculative development applications.” This sound advice was heeded by the Council when it prepared the Core Strategy and EQDB SPD.
The Historic England advice also states “outline applications for tall buildings are only likely to be justified in exceptional cases where the impact on the character and distinctiveness of local areas and on heritage assets can be assessed without knowing the detailed form and finishes of the building. This is likely to be rare.”
Given the above advice and the fact that the outline in this case is for a residential block, which both the pre-app advice and design review panel heavily criticise in design terms, it is hard to see how this proposal could conceivably be said to be an exceptional case. It is therefore totally incomprehensible for us to understand why the Council even validated the outline application. The correct approach that the Council should have taken was not to accept or validate the application.
The Council have blatantly disregarded Historic England’s advice, and we are extremely disappointed by this, because our firmly held objective is to ensure Kingston’s heritage is protected from developers who clearly have no interest nor concern about destroying Kingston’s heritage assets.
While planning applications should be determined on their individual merits, planning history, particularly very recent history on the same site is very relevant, and in this case the 2019 Surrey House appeal dismissal cannot be ignored. It is noteworthy that the Council were minded to refuse that application, prior to the Inspectorate’s comprehensive refusal of permission. This is the same site as the full application and adjacent to the outline; very recent and therefore very relevant.
The Inspector (Mr Hayden) in weighing up the planning balance found compelling reasons to dismiss the appeal and refuse consent. He cites harm to the setting and significance of multiple heritage assets, and concluded that the height, massing, bulk and form of the proposals would also cause significant harm to the immediate surroundings. Mr Hayden’s refusal to grant consent was comprehensive, and it seems incomprehensible to us that this new proposal, which is bigger in all respects compared with that 2018 scheme, could possibly be viewed in a positive light when revisiting all the heritage asset issues.
It is very relevant that Mr Hayden concluded indisputably that tall buildings on this site (in excess of the 6-8 storey threshold) would fail to meet the expectations of the EQDB and would therefore be contrary to both Kingston’s adopted policy and the London Plan (as discussed above). It is also relevant that he found that the proposal was in conflict with additional policies of the Core Strategy (DM10 and DM11) and Policy 7.4 (now HC1) of the London Plan in respect of its failure to “respect local character and distinctiveness of the adjacent Old Townscape in terms of height massing and form”.
We are quite frankly amazed and disheartened that the promoter has come back so soon with a scheme that in terms of height, scale and massing is even more damaging than that so recently and so comprehensively refused by the Planning Inspectorate, and indeed by the Council.
On the matter of material considerations and the weighing of the balance, we can assure the reader and the Council that whilst we would welcome the jobs, in no way is the desecration of Kingston’s heritage a price worth paying. We would add to this that for Unilever, this is not a zero-sum game, there are options; the promoter just hasn’t got around to considering these. There is an urgent need to explore the options so we can have the jobs and avoid the destruction of our heritage.
Impact on our heritage assets
The aim of the London Plan and Kingston’s adopted statutory policy approach is to ensure that development is managed in a way that allows change to happen, but does not generate unacceptably harmful impact on our heritage assets and in other respects. We can assure the Council that the residents in the RRA area are extremely proud of, and cherish the townscape heritage we have inherited. The thought of what the promoters wish to do to the setting of these heritage assets is quite deplorable, and we are troubled by what we may be about to pass on to future generations.
We are firmly of the view that what is proposed would be extremely harmful to many of the heritage assets, and we refer the Council to the promoters’ own images as being evidence enough to demonstrate unacceptable harm. Not only do we reference these images, but we also draw on the recent Surrey House Planning Inspector’s decision to further illustrate the total unacceptability of what is now proposed.
Thatched House Lodge
This view is identified in the Council’s Views study as a Very Highly Important View, and so it is. It is unacceptable to break the skyline in the manner proposed; totally unacceptable. The only building that breaks the skyline just in this wider panorama, is the tall building at Canbury Gardens that the Council refused, only for the Secretary of State to over-rule. That development does not set a precedent for buildings to dominate this view.
The promoter’s view that the significance would be moderate and the effect beneficial is not acceptable.
Barge Walk towards the Guildhall
This view is another Very Highly Important View as identified in the Council’s Views study. It is a critical view because it picks out the Guildhall, the Borough’s civic centre, and the proposals will completely destroy the view. Given the significance of the Guildhall (best described by Mr Hayden in the Surrey House appeal) it is unacceptable to break the skyline in this way especially when the Council’s own view study says the Guildhall’s setting and open backdrop should be retained (VSR page 111); again totally unacceptable.
The promoter’s view is minor to moderate significance, but at least this time they are honest enough to say the impact will be adverse. We residents enjoy this view, crafted through the Charter Quay development, and what is now proposed is completely unacceptable.
We agreed with the Surrey House Inspector’s independent view on the unacceptable harm that scheme would have done to views to the Guildhall, and can only begin to consider what the Inspectorate will make of this latest proposal. We don’t repeat the Inspector’s findings on all views here, they are set out in the decision letter, but for the record Mr Hayden reached very similar conclusions on the impact on so many of Kingston’s heritage assets, and RRA residents share his view.
Another Very Highly Important View as identified in the Council’s Views study, and another cherished viewpoint that stands to be irreparably damaged by totally insensitive proposals. This view shows the huge massing of the office blocks as well as the residential tower. The promoter undoubtedly with tongue in cheek refers to the proposals as being partially visible above the riverside buildings! This is not true. And how does the promoter think that shrouding the Guildhall and looming over the riverside will be beneficial? We want our townscape to pick out buildings of civic or cultural meaning not run of the mill commercial or private residential buildings.
A Highly Important View as identified in the Council’s Views study, The Ancient Market Place is the jewel in Kingston’s crown and it has managed for hundreds of years to avoid development that would loom over it. What is proposed as illustrated in this image, would totally destroy the special feeling in the Ancient Market Place. The promoter thinks the significance moderateand the impact neutral. We who use this space regularly disagree. The unique significance – is in the name itself “the Ancient Market Place”. The Council identifies it as “vulnerable” and the impact from both office and residential buildings would be totally unacceptable. This would destroy what is Kingston’s unique and irreplaceable tourist and shopping attraction, and what is so special to residents. In a post Covid world Kingston must establish itself as an interesting and exceptional heritage destination.
This promoter image is quite terrifying. Does the promoter really think that this mega-monolith is ‘building better’ to coin the Government’s phrase?! It is quite shocking that such a monolithic slab has been promoted in Kingston. Additionally, that the Council could issue pre-app advice actively encouraging such development is more than shocking.
The Council’s own Views Study Report states that the mediation between two strong character areas being the old town and the low lying residential areas is an important consideration for development here. This proposal is the antithesis of “mediation”.
The Council’s pre-app advice
We have seen the pre-app advice provided by the Council because the promoter has understandably submitted this as supporting material to the applications. We take issue with that advice and find it wholly deficient.
The statutory planning system is plan-led. The planning policy context in the adopted Local Plan, and the soon to be adopted London Pan (as referred to above) sets out the policies in this plan-led system. Clearly these policies do not support proposals such as those before us, and given that a Planning Inspector so comprehensively refused a scheme that was smaller than those proposed in terms of height, scale and massing, we local residents of the Borough are absolutely at a loss as to how the pre-app advice provided to the promoter made almost no reference at all to the policy tests that are there to guide the promoter. Indeed rather than alerting the promoter to the policy tests within the development plan and to national guidance, which would have encouraged them to think again, the pre-app advice ignored the statutory plan, ignored the guidance of the statutory heritage authority and did precisely the opposite of what it should have done, offering support and encouragement to the promoter for a scheme that runs counter to adopted policy.
Specifically the pre-application advice states:
“Office building heights of up to 12 storeys are acceptable subject to the detailed consideration of matters including layout, design development, heritage assessment, views, daylight/ sunlight/ overshadowing amenity and climatic comfort levels;
In principle, a building of 22 storeys on the southern edge of the site could be acceptable subject to the detailed consideration of all other matters including layout, design development, heritage assessment, views, daylight/sunlight/overshadowing amenity and climatic comfort levels;”
In response to this we ask how can the pre-application advice possibly have concluded that 12 and 22 storeys are or could be acceptable in a location that the Council’s very own policy and detailed site specific guidance (which was consulted upon and adopted by the Council in 2015), states 6-8 storeys will be the limit – thereby what has been proposed is at the very least 50% higher than the height identified in the adopted statutory Plan, and in the case of the residential tower three times the height. Added to which, a Planning Inspector has so recently supported the adopted Plan, considered the impact on our heritage assets and comprehensively and resoundingly refused to grant permission in 2019.
These are omissions of staggering proportion, and we do not understand how this could possibly have come about, and in our opinion it is plain to see that the advice given is materially flawed. This is of the utmost concern to us, the failure to refer to these tests frankly defies belief. It will have both encouraged the promoter down an inappropriate path, and may have fettered the Council’s ability in future decision-making to stop what would be deeply damaging proposals.
The Council’s approach, in this case ignoring its statutory Plan, also concerns us in the context of future decision-making, and we wish to remind the Council that it should uphold its own adopted Local Plan in all planning decision-making, because as we note, the Borough Plan is in general conformity with both the London Plan and national guidance.
We look forward in due course to viewing the Council’s explanation of the reasoning behind the approach taken in the pre-app advice, as it clearly does not reflect the requirements of a plan-led approach, nor does it meet with the support of our group of residents; indeed we are hugely disappointed to see the advice provided.
For now we wish to register our objection to these planning applications for the reasons outlined in this letter, and we urge the Council Development Control Committee to refuse these proposals that would irreparably damage Kingston’s cherished heritage assets. We urge the Council to work with the promoter to consider other options that would deliver the Unilever jobs without harming Kingston’s heritage. However, we remind the Council that there is no certainty that Unilever will consolidate in Kingston. Residents in the RRA are firmly of the view that in considering the balance, gaining jobs at the expense of destroying the town’s heritage is absolutely NOT a price worth paying.
We look forward to your comments.