Written for the Forest Hill Society Newsletter by Cllr John Russell and Cllr Philip Peake
It doesn’t often happen so when the community comes together and wins a significant victory against overdevelopment, we should all take note and learn lessons for the future. When Loromah Estates put forward a planning application to build nine blocks of flats on a backland site behind the Christian Fellowship Centre on Honor Oak Road and to the rear of Tyson Road, local residents refused to accept the odds stacked against them and came out fighting. The Forest Hill Society supported them all the way as did their local councilors, John Russell and Philip Peake. We asked the councillors to explain why this victory matters.
In our short number of years as councillors, we have frequently come up against that bane of local campaigners’ lives: the English planning system. Particularly at Lewisham Council, it is very difficult and rare to be able to defeat a developer’s proposal once it has the support of the Council Planning Officers.
Yet on 31st of March, that’s exactly what we all did at Planning Committee ‘B’ – not just marginally, but entirely: members of the committee voted unanimously to turn down officer advice and reject Loromah Estates’ application to build 74 flats on predominantly ex-garden land between Tyson Road and the Christian Fellowship Centre on Honor Oak Road.
The community, Forest Hill Society, and we councillors can all be proud of ourselves. But celebration should be tempered by caution. Draft documents in the council’s new planning policy – the ‘rules’ committee members have to consider – still allocate the site for 80-odd flats. Loromah may not appeal but instead present another plan: it remains to be seen whether any new ideas will genuinely address local people’s concerns.
Now is a useful time to look and see what happened: just why did the residents, the Forest Hill Society and ourselves working together manage to win this one? We can all learn lessons and apply them to future planning applications.
In this case, the developer was his own worst enemy. In an attempt to maximise profit, his team had introduced a fundamental design flaw. All car movements would have had to go underneath the blocks as there was no space for roads elsewhere. And despite extensive use of public relations consultants, it was clear that the development would not feel like a “woodland glade” after most of the trees had been removed and bat-boxes and green/brown roofs had been used as eco-sticking-plaster.
The obvious flaws created a vigorous residents’ campaign. Three-hundred-and-thirty-five objections must be a record for this borough. Led by Andrew Wood, residents did their homework and fought a very informed and highly effective campaign. The secret to their success was not to object saying “we do not like this,” but in properly studying and understanding the Lewisham Council planning policies and the London and national planning frameworks.
Campaigners were then able to argue from a postion of knowledge, putting together a coherent argument, based in planning law. This is a position which has to be taken seriously. Backed up by the strength of local feeling, residents, FHS and councillors were able to pull this together into an argument that ultimately won over the committee.
It is a powerful example of what local residents can do when working in partnership with the FHS and ourselves in a common cause. We should be proud of what we have done and ready to start again at a moment’s notice when necessary.