Wandsworth have just made an interesting planning decision – which is maybe the sign of a new approach to urban trees and greenery in Wandsworth. It’s on a site that a couple of years ago was very controversially converted from a small park, that had been laid out on a 1940s bombsite in memory of those who died – and there was a great deal of controversy about the project. It didn’t help that the developers were a firm had previously found local fame when they demolished The Castle pub, on Battersea High Street, and replaced it with a block of flats. The Street View image below shows the site as it was. This article from the Evening Standard gives a feel for the arguments at the time.
The large sycamore tree, three cotoneaster trees, and all the shrubs – which were on the corner of Taybridge Road and Gowrie Road, just off Lavender Hill – were destroyed to make way for the new flats. Fortunately not everything was lost, because the developer was required to offset some of the environmental and visual damage, by ensuring the new development included replacement trees and vegetation. The developer’s early attempts to get planning permission were rejected (as rather out of scale, with balconies overlooking neighbours) – but the first version that got approved (planning application number 2017/0631) included three replacement cherry trees and a somewhat optimistic ‘green wall’ facing Gowrie Road, shown below.
The plans were then revised (planning application 2017/5945), losing the green wall but including a cherry tree, a lime tree and an Acer tree, as well as a beech hedge along the sides of the development, and small areas of lawn (with paving only to enable access pathways and refuse storage areas). Planning officers agreed this would be a reasonable replacement for what was being lost, and the approved landscaping is shown in the layout diagram below. This – with a few further tweaks to the design in 2018 – is what was finally built.
To make sure that the promised landscaping was actually delivered, an explicit condition was attached to the planning permission – that “landscaping… shall be carried out in accordance with the details approved… unless approved otherwise in writing by the local planning authority. All planting, seeding or turfing included in the approved details shall be carried out prior to the occupation of any part of the development, or in accordance with a programme agreed in writing with the local planning authority.”
The reason for this was to ensure an adequate appearance for this rather prominent new-build corner site, in line with Council policy ‘DMS1’ which makes sure new developments carefully consider the layout and arrangement of new buildings, so they integrate with their surroundings. The policy requires development to be sympathetic to local landscape characteristics and “avoid, remedy or mitigate any impact on natural features, open spaces and identified views”. Obviously as this development was completely replacing an open space, the bar needed to be reasonably high.
That didn’t stop the developers from seeking to whittle away at the amount of greenery they would need to provide. In 2019 they applied for changes – keeping the three trees, but moving the beech hedges to planters hung along the front walls, and paving most of what would have bene the grassed areas. The Council wasn’t completely opposed to this, but asked for more details of how it would be implemented.
Surprisingly, the developers then proposed to go even further – arguing that the proposed trees would damage the basements so could not, after all, be planted. They proposed replacing the three trees with two serviceberry trees and six winged spindle bushes, all of which would be in large troughs and planters scattered around the paved areas, while keeping the planned beech hedges also in planters. Council planning officers, presumably a bit weary of endless applications with less greenery each time, gave this the nod despite all the vegetation now being in pots.
Sadly – but maybe predictably, given how determined the developers seemed to have bene to reduce the greenery – none of even these much reduced promises on greenery were kept! The building was built with no trees at all, no large planters, no beech hedge – and every part of the open space was paved over. This isn’t unusual for new property developments – the ‘landscaping’ usually looks great on the artists’ impressions, but when it’s actually built unless it’s a large and high-end development, the landscaping tends to mysteriously go missing along the way.
Before we go further, we need to pause just to make one thing really clear: this is not the fault of the people living in the flats! Our lovely new(ish) neighbours are very welcome; the fact that the developer of their block didn’t build what they were supposed to hasn’t lived up to their promises has nothing to do with the current residents. Indeed, the potted plants that are there are lovingly cared for.
Obviously a building that’s not in compliance with plans is a bit of a liability down the line. So a quiet planning application was then submitted, trying to get retrospective approval for not delivering what was promised. The firm drawing up the application clearly had a rather tricky task on their hands, but gamely tried to argue that the scattering of small pot plants on the paved areas were an adequate replacement for the missing trees & hedges! A couple of example photos from the application are shown above. It’s not unusual for this sort of application to get quietly approved.
Maybe we’re too cynical – but we were genuinely quite surprised when permission to essentially drop all of the promised landscaping was refused. The planning officers noted that what has been built is not at all consistent with the clear and agreed planning condition, and that what has been built is also inconsistent with Wandsworth’s housing planning guidance, which states that all residential developments should to be designed and built to create high quality homes and contribute to a good quality environment, and notes that soft landscaping can contribute to biodiversity, reduce the effects of urban heating, and can reduce the risk of flooding through run-off. The guidance notes that front gardens, no matter how small, provide an opportunity to soften or enhance the setting of the building, that hard surfacing should be kept to a minimum, be in a sympathetic material, and leave sufficient space for shrubs and other planting close by.
The planning officer was commendably thorough – in considering the proposal they got in touch with the Wandsworth trees team, who (unsurprisingly) said that four small potted Olive trees were not a reasonable substitute for the promised greenery! The trees team noted that while it was one thing to make small changes and compromises, in this case what had been delivered fell short. The planning officer noted that the proposed ‘substitutions’ were all small pot plants that could be removed at any point, and that it was “not considered to be appropriately sympathetic to the local landscape or provide comparable amenity value when compared to the previously existing or previously approved trees to be planted within the site.” They noted that the minimal scale of the planting does not adequately soften or enhance the setting of the building, and also that – given that all the potential permeable surfaces had been removed – the ‘as-built’ planting did not contribute to surface run-off and sustainable drainage practises which are key components of front/side garden areas.
Maybe this is just because this developer – possibly in pursuit of the cheapest and lowest-maintenance building possible – has pushed, pushed further, pushed some more on getting rid of garden maintenance, and then gone too far – taking the planning department for granted. But the thoroughness of the planning report suggests that what we’ve seen here is more fundamental – and that the Council is getting serious about the need to green our town, take climate and environmental impacts seriously, and minimise the environmental impact of new buildings. We’ve seen some decent moves on the transport front, and we suspect that wise words from a planning officer may have steered Asda away from chopping down all of their trees; could this be the start of a bigger push on buildings?
Either way – we salute the (anonymous) planning officer, for their commitment to getting green standards upheld. What happens next for the developer will be interesting to see – will they deliver the scheme they finally committed to? Will they try to trade greenery on the site for new trees on the pavement in front of the flats (at their cost)? Might they even revive the ‘green wall’ they abandoned in one of the earlier proposals? We’ll keep you posted.