Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streetsnot multi-storey buildings
In January 2014 the Mayor of London decided to act as the local planning authority for the planning application at the Royal Mail Mount Pleasant Sorting Office site. This is an almost unique site – a large 3.5 hectare empty site in central London.
The current proposal would provide 681 units and a total of 83,000 sq metres of development via a series of large blocks and towers. To put it as politely as possible, the scheme has not proved popular locally or with other professionals.
Both local councils have rejected it. Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the Olympic Torch and the new Routemaster Bus, described it as “empty, cynical and vacuous.” Many planning and development professionals have been incredibly rude about the proposals in private.
Residents describe its ring of blocks as a “fortress” and there is enormous discontent at the proposed tower block facing a primary school. In comments left in feedback forms at the public exhibition there were over eight times as many specific concerns expressed as there were expressions of support with the proposed scheme. The main specific concern expressed (on 66 per cent of responses) was the height and density of the proposal. The issue has also reached parliament with a question asked to the Prime Minister in January 2014, to which he responded that he ‘would be happy to look at the site’.
The Mount Pleasant Association has sprung up to fight the proposals. The whole situation might almost be seen as a case study for neighbourhood planning versus diktat from on high.
Speaking at the LBC State of London debate last week, the Mayor made it very clear that he has already made up his mind calling the proposals a “beautiful design” that would deliver “thousands of homes for Londoners” in contrast to the “thatched cottages” he claimed that local people wanted. Or put differently, the Mayor is justifying his approval of the scheme on the assertion that it is the way to maximise the provision of new housing with thousands of new homes.
But, I am sorry Mr Mayor. I support you. I voted for you. But this is just not correct. Putting to one side, the fact that the scheme provides 681 homes not “thousands”, the current scheme does not, in fact, maximise new homes, or even value to Royal Mail or the taxpayer. The current proposal has been designed to maximise the chances of making it easily through the UK’s labyrinthine planning system while being compliant with the huge corpus of national and London building and housing standards. But in being so carefully designed to tick boxes and jump through hoops, it fails to build sufficient homes or the types of homes that most people actually want.
The situation is Kafkaesque.
In response to widespread concerns that an opportunity was being wasted and working pro bono with the local community, Create Streets have developed, at a very high, level an indicative alternative scheme (Mount Pleasant Circus and Fleet Valley Gardens).
This week we have revealed these proposals which we have worked up with a highly experienced team including the urban designer Paul Murrain and Francis Terry, the well known architect whose drawings helped stop the proposed Chelsea Barracks tower blocks.
Our scheme is based on a grand new central circus, Mount Pleasant Circus, and a series of radiating streets. It actually increases the Royal Mail’s proposed housing density by around 7 per cent (from 681 units to an estimated 730).
It does so in a way that would generate better links to surrounding streets, homes & shops and more value. The influential public space analyst Space Syntax has examined the proposals and found that our designs create pedestrian routes that are 75 per cent more accessible than the Royal Mail’s scheme. This type of improved accessibility has been proven to be correlated with increased value.
Our scheme also puts green spaces at the heart of the community and takes account of key local features such as the presence of a primary school
The reaction to this scheme from the local community has been passionately positive. Comments made during a public meeting included; “it’s just great”; “It’s inspirational”; “wow”; “the whole of London could fight for Mount Pleasant circus”; “it’s great”; “I’m delighted to see the curves”; “it’s very British.” 100 per cent of local feedback received to date has been supportive and we will shortly be releasing the results of an opinion survey we are currently running.
Taking this scheme forward would be to the benefit of the community, of London, of the Royal Mail Group and of HM Government as a 30 per cent share holder of Royal Mail. We have shared these plans with the GLA. We have also offered to share them with the Royal Mail Group although they declined to meet us directly to discuss them.
But they should. This site can provide more homes, more value, a better place and supportive neighbours. The current scheme provides insufficient new homes, a poor urban form and strong and entrenched local opposition. It’s time to stop imposing unpopular housing forms from on high for short term returns. It’s time to start working with local communities for greater long term value and better development. That is neighbourhood planning. Come on Mr Mayor. You are one of the most impressive politicians of your generation, not the prisoner of a 1940s command and control planning system. You are big enough and wise enough to make the right decision.