Is Forest Hill becoming a target for developers with grand designs? Recent experience suggests so. And the planning system is seemingly weighted in favour of the developer once planning permission is granted.
Last year one owner obtained planning permission for the redevelopment of half of a semi-detached house that is sharply out of character with the remainder of a modest 1930s street. The many objectors assumed that as this was similar to his earlier application, which had been rejected due to size and inappropriate design, that this would meet the same fate. Indeed, half of the Planning Committee agreed that this should be the case. Despite the development being three times the size of the original scheme and an over-dominant feature on the skyline, including an external staircase turret, this time Lewisham considered it to be aesthetically pleasing and respecting the local character of the neighbourhood. Worse still the developer has planning permission to demolish his half of the semi-detached, and rebuild. A nightmare for the adjoining neighbours, who fear their house, as well as their sanity, will be damaged.
Unlike the developer who has a right to appeal a Council decision to refuse an application, residents cannot appeal a decision to approve. And like Robert the Bruce determined developers can try and try again until the Council, who may be fearful of mounting costs, concedes. We continued to question Lewisham on their about turn. How much did the ‘greening-up’ of the application affect this? And what about the applicant’s expectations that this would feature on Channel 4’s Grand Designs? Naturally we could not suggest that these were the reasons, but with no satisfactory answer to many other issues, we took legal advice, and applied to the Courts to overturn the Council’s decision. Judicial Review is not for the faint hearted, and ultimately we had to withdraw from the chase as the financial risks became too great and we could not match the coffers of Lewisham. So this is no David and Goliath ending.
We asked central government why the system was so unfair. They replied that it was up to the local authority to act in general public interest and that our elected councillors must take into account the local view and justify these decisions to their electorate. With our three ward councillors and local residents association behind us at the planning committee meeting, and many others objectors, local democracy seems to have failed us.