Thursday, January 20, 2011

Greenwich Council destroys what the Blitz could not

Last night Greenwich Council gave approval for a housing development on the old Thames Water site in Plumstead. I am a member of the planning committee for the area, and was therefore involved in the decision. There were objections from neighbouring residents about the loss of light and privacy it would cause, the over-development of the site and other issues. These were properly considered by my colleagues and me, but on balance we felt they were not sufficient grounds for refusal.

My concern, however, was that the development involves demolishing a World War Two communal air raid shelter, which is shown circled on the plans below:

The planning department's response to objections about the demolition of this shelter was:
"Whilst it is not disputed that this structure has some historic value, this does not necessarily mean that it is worthy of listing in order to preserve it and protect it from demolition."
It then mentions that an archaeological survey will be carried out prior to work starting on site.

This, and the architect's attitude when we questioned him, concerned me. They seemed to suggest that if a structure is not listed, it has no value. This is certainly not the case, and new national planning guidance (PPS5) provides greater scope for planning authorities to consider local historic value in deciding applications, and to require applicants to demonstrate clearly they have considered alternative uses for heritage assets on a development site. I certainly wasn't convinced this had been done - the shelter was essentially seen as an obstacle to be removed. For that reason I voted to reject the application, but was outvoted on the committee.

If you compare the plan above to the proposed (and now approved) site plan of the development, you can perhaps see why I was so frustrated:

If you overlay the two plans, you can see that the steps down to the shelter on the south side are barely (if at all) covered by the building's footprint. I simply cannot see why, with a bit of imagination, the shelter could not be retained in situ as part of the development, allowing the site to be regenerated whilst preserving an important part of its history for future generations. It is not that it couldn't be done, but that it hasn't been deemed worthwhile. So instead, it will be demolished. This seems to me unnecessary and unjustified vandalism.

Particularly now, with the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, we should see the value of the human story of that period in our history. Surveying and recording the site is one thing, but if it is possible actually to preserve a direct reminder of what Londoners endured at that time, we should do so. I will not be leaving this matter to rest here, and (free from the legal restrictions on discussing applications with developers before the committee decision) will be making the case to them for preserving this small part of our local heritage.

(NB: Links to the full plans and drawings can be found here)

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