In central Croydon, where some think it is “easy” to build houses, it’s back to square one for the building of homes on the site of Taberner House, the council’s former office block. Work on the £150 million project is unlikely now to start before Spring 2017.That will be three years since the demolition of Taberner House was completed and the site cleared, with planning permission granted for five residential blocks and more than 400 much-needed new homes.
Croydon Council has yet to make a formal announcement, although Alison Butler, Labour’s deputy leader, did mention at last Monday’s Town Hall meeting that an agreement had been reached with Hub Residential, the latest partners for the scheme, which is now supposed to be a 500-unit development of council homes, shared ownership properties and flats for private sale, sited next to the Croydon Flyover.
It remains unexplained why the project is not being taken on by Brick by Brick, the council’s own private house-building company. As recently as 12 months ago, Croydon Council even issued a press release to confirm that the (as yet unnamed) development company would undertake the project.
Not any longer. But then, plans for the Taberner House site, and how it is to be financed, have been ever-changing since Labour took charge of the council in May 2014.
A new planning application for the Taberner House site will now be made, according to Hub, in about six months’ time. In the meantime, the valuable town centre site opposite the Town Hall and next to Queen’s Gardens, continues to sit vacant, home for nothing more than a few thousand bees and a lot of graffiti.The Labour-run council has overseen the building of fewer than 40 new homes in its first two years in office. It seems unlikely that any homes on the Taberner House site will be ready for occupation before the Labour council’s term ends in May 2018. Although according to Croydon’s erstwhile planning chief, recently appointed by Labour as the council’s “stunning” (copyright Tony Newman) CEO, Jo Negrini, “It’s quite easy to build a lot of houses.”
Plans for housing on the Taberner House site were first submitted under the previous Conservative-run council. The original scheme of five blocks, including a 32-storey tower, was widely decried as appearing like something out of Honecker’s East Germany, failing to fit in alongside the Victorian Town Hall, while also greedily eating into a large chunk of Queen’s Gardens.
It was to have been built under the CCURV urban regeneration joint venture with John Laing – the same “partnership” which determined that modernisation work on Taberner House was too expensive, and so instead charged Croydon £140 million of tax-payers’ money on building the luxury glass palace that is the council’s offices in Fisher’s Folly. No one -neither Tory or Labour councillors, never mind the senior council executives who oversaw the deal – have ever explained why a block in Croydon should cost £100million more than comparable offices.
“Property deals, especially in London, are notoriously profitable for developers and land-owners,” one sceptical Katharine Street source said. “But that appears to be especially the case where public property and public money is concerned in Croydon. The lack of transparency over any of the council’s development projects, under the Tories and now Labour, is very worrying, and can only lead to suspicion.
“Not everyone is as convinced of the ‘genius’ or the ‘brilliance’ of our local authority’s senior employees, as they seem to be of themselves. The developers have been running rings round them for years, at huge cost to the borough.”
The wheels started to come off the initial plans for the Taberner House site soon after Labour took control of the council, when they ordered a halt to any development work which would have required building on the neighbouring town centre park.
The new council’s manifesto pledge to ensure all housing schemes should include at least 30 per cent “affordable” housing had to be strictly applied to its own flagship scheme, and clearly it put the squeeze on the potential profits of their commercial partners.
The relationship with Places for People, the agency which was to have managed the properties, became strained. The financing of the project was also under question.
The deal with Places for People was canned in April 2014, and with it went their bankers, Santander. Colm Lacey, Negrini’s chosen deputy for development at the council, called it “a great day for us” and promised that they would “make best use of the land”, while confirming that Laings would still be managing the construction work.
Laings were duly dropped from the council scheme in July 2015, when revised plans for 418 homes, with 120 of them to be “affordable”, built in four blocks (not the originally proposed five) were released.
The new deal will see Hub financed by venture capitalists Bridges Ventures.According to Hub’s announcement, it appears that we are to be presented with Taberner House site plans Mk III: “The development is expected to include a mixture of housing for sale and for rent, together with a significant amount of affordable housing, sat above 13,000 sq ft of employment and commercial space.”
The PR bullshit flows freely: “It promises to continue Croydon’s journey of regeneration, attracting families and young professionals into the area.” Well, if this is supposed to be a “journey”, it resembles one delivered by Southern Rail.
Hub has appointed architects AHMM “to draw up new plans for the scheme, and, subject to planning approval, construction will begin next year”.
As mentioned in Butler’s detail-lite announcement on Monday, Hub are also promising to “deliver a revamp” of what they describe as the “much-liked” Queen’s Gardens. Though again, what form this is likely to take is not explained.
Indeed, so lacking in detail are Hub’s plans at present that the best that they could manage to illustrate the announcement was cropped map of the site from an A to Z, demonstrating how close the new homes will be to Croydon’s two six-lane urban motorways.
Butler has yet to provide any in-depth commentary for benefit of the residents of Croydon, the people she was elected to serve. But she did take time out of her doubtless busy schedule to be available to provide a couple of quotes for the Hub’s press release: “We’re delighted to be welcoming Hub to Croydon. They come with an impressive reputation for great design, sustainability and working with local communities.
“As well as bringing a fresh and exciting approach to residential building in the town centre, and providing much-needed quality homes that are within reach of local people, they’ll be revitalising Queen’s Gardens.”
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Post Brexit, many Developers are pausing on new developments other than easily saleable executive homes. Architects are the first casualties of the new uncertainty, as they always are.
I personally am very happy that Labour decided not to build on the huge chunk of Queen’s Gardens that was going to be taken for development, as -once lost-, open space on sites like this never returns. It can be called “squeezed landscape”. However, this demolished site is now a big hole in the urban landscape, which needs to be filled with decent buildings that do not blot out the lunchtime and afternoon sun from Queen’s Gardens. Far too many developments nowadays create narrow, dark, unwelcoming, freezing and canyon-like “green spaces” where grass finds it hard to grow, and which people find no joy in sitting in. We humans are very like flowers–we need sun with some shade, not perma-winter.
Another really wrong example of squeezed landscape is where buildings, particularly big residential blocks are built right up to main roads with no trees in between. Alongside the nearby flyover, there are two such new housing developments built over the last 10 years. One is on the South West side of the Old Town roundabout, and the more prominent one is the creamy-yellow brick block built right up to the flyover on the Scarbrook Hill area . I think that blocks like these, with no dust-catching trees between block and busy road, are planning obscenities, which should not be permitted. They are also “town cramming”. South American style, but inhumane.
I support town centre housing, if it is well designed and reasonably green in character. The Taberner House site is suitable in my view for well-designed blocks, with private housing, and maybe for social housing as part of the mix, but I hope that the final design avoids squeezing the park, or cramming housing up to the road, with no tree screen to catch the dust, and cool the hot fume-laden air from the flyover.
I hope, I hope.
It’s housing, it London, it’s environmental. Could this be a job for Croydon Central’s very own Minister of London, environment, housing. Super Gav this is your moment in history. Gav, Gav. Croydon needs a hero mate…