Penthouse floor for Purley ‘skyscraper’ was a poor design

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Coulsdon resident LEWIS WHITE, pictured right, gave evidence at the planning inspector’s inquiry held earlier this year. Here is his take on this week’s controversial ruling on the Purley ‘skyscraper’

The decision of the Secretary of State for Communities and Housing, James Brokenshire, to block the planning permission granted to the Purley Baptist Church’s development is a massive surprise. It was clear that residents did not like the height of the proposed tower. The minister has taken this on board, in the face of the council and, it seems, the Inspector.

I was allowed to speak to the public inquiry as a local resident who is also a landscape architect and without any involvement in the project of any kind. I had supported the project overall, as I felt that the architectural design quality of the low rise and the tower, with use of good quality brickwork, and other materials of quality, designed sensitively, justified the redevelopment of this too-long derelict site.

However, I spoke out against the negative impact of the dominant and cage-like architectural design feature on the top of the tower, a large concrete portal structure, containing and framing a penthouse suite surrounded by pine trees (planted in a narrow trough along the perimeter), which would look rather like animals seen in the now (thankfully gone) cages on wheels of the old circus days.

The Purley tower, at 17 storeys, was deemed too tall

The portal feature was probably intended to make the top floor section look less dominant, but weirdly, its proportions actually emphasised the verticality, hence making the tower look much higher.

In my view, the proposed trees were a kind of “green” design statement that was entirely negated by the concrete portal.

The trees, shown as large, bright green elliptical shapes in the original artist impressions, were finally proposed as pine trees, no doubt due to designers realising that pines are about the only trees tough enough to stand any chance of surviving in the high winds that would be experienced at that altitude.

They might have grown like wind-sculpted pines you sometimes find on the coast, like large bonsai subjects. My guess is that they would have looked rather dark and grim.

Lewis White feels that the concrete pillars and trees proposed in the architects’ drawings of the Purley tower were a design error

My hope is that the developers get rid of the penthouse and the portal entirely, as they made the building look over-high, and get rid of the misguided green statement.

Ideally, two more floors should also be removed, leaving a simple, lower rectangular outline. If they do, I personally consider that the bulk and the visual and daylighting adverse impacts of the scheme will be reduced, and its design quality will actually be improved.

The tower is at the south end of the shopping area of the Brighton Road section of Purley.
It would block out sunlight for part of the middle of the day to some of this street, but I was unable to find a drawing that showed the extent of overshadowing. The light-toned brickwork proposed would have avoided a dark effect, in my considered view.

I feel really sorry for the Baptist Church that he project has stalled again, and hope that their developer will bite the bullet and reduce the height of the tower. Can this be done, and avoid turning the project into a loss-maker?

Everyone knows that this site has blighted Purley for decades. I do hope that they avoid making a financial loss on the project. That would rub salt in the wound, and be cruel


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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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8 Responses to Penthouse floor for Purley ‘skyscraper’ was a poor design

  1. derekthrower says:

    Mealy mouthed claptrap.

    The objections here are purely an attempt to obscure nimbyism.

    The Church and its developers will now be incurring severe financial penalties for increasing delays and having to redesign a major scheme which will probably force them in the long run to return with an even more overdeveloped scheme to make a profit when circumstances will be more favourable.

    This dumpsite will now blight Purley for many more decades and has dragged down the appearance of Purley to the extent of having to ask does it really have a separate identity from the rest of the London Borough anymore?

    What makes such designs unacceptable for Purley, but architecture of even higher heights and poorer design merit completely acceptable for central Croydon?

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  2. Lewis White says:

    Some people will object to anything (Nimbies).
    Some look at what is being proposed and object anyway (nimbies, with a small “n”).
    Some look then decide, but don’t like anything that doesn’t follow the local context, how ever bad the local architecture (blend in at any costers).
    Some don’t like anything designed since 1914 (shock of the new phobics).
    Some don’t like anything unless it has stick-on tudor beams and heavy textured artex (if asbestos free) (I love old Englanders).

    Some oddballs even go so far as to look at the drawings and consider what the proposal will look like and what impacts it will have in the context, and might conclude that they should object, support without qualification, or support, but with certain caveats.

    The latter is what I did, and was given good time (10 minutes) by the inspector to present my concerns about the ugly top floor design of the tower.

    Incidentally, I objected last year to the over-development of the Taberner House site (Queens Gardens towers) while commenting that the quality of the design and materials was excellent. My objection was based on the number of blocks which would have a greater overshadowing during the key lunchtime period of Queens Gardens than was caused by the old Taberner House.

    My impression is that the residents who attended the Purley inquiry represented every shade of mindset and opinion, varying from the “object to anything as a matter of principle” to “It’s far too high” group, with even some expressing full support. I think that most are aware that the site has long been a the equivalent of a bomb site, blighting Purley.

    If local residents think that a proposed tower block is too high, surely they are entitled to say so, rather than remain silent and just accept what someone wants to impose on Purley? Good on MP Chris Philp for taking their concerns forward.

    My own view is that the actual height was just OK, at the upper limit, but (as is clearly seen in Inside Croydon’s images of the tower and context), the design of the top was overbearing, stark, excessively high, grim, cage-like, and made the tower look far taller than it really is.

    Croydon residents from across Croydon, but naturally, those living living near the East Croydon redevelopment areas, made their views known about the proposed “Menta” tower.
    It is natural that most people are engaged in caring about their local area, as Purley residents did in this case. Their many written objections and statements at the inquiry reflected the view that the tower was too high, and in a democracy, their concerns should be heeded by those in authority.

    What I (and I am sure hundreds of Inside Croydon loyal readers, too) [The Ed writes: thousands, Lewis, thousands] am wondering about is whether the project wil be resubmitted for planning approval missing a few storeys, or whether Derek’s void at the heart of Purley will remain for decades yet to come. The latter would be a horrendous outcome. Let’s hope that everyone will be sensible about stopping that nightmare scenario.

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  3. I still cannot find any explanation anywhere for why the site is only viable if significantly overdeveloped? There must have been a fundamental miscalculation along the way, probably by Purley Baptist Church, and even more probably on the advice of its ‘partners’. Is it the delays that have caused the problem, has it been stacking up losses from not being able to develop the land? Has the development strategy to push overdevelopment ironically made serious overdevelopment the only economically viable option?

    A lot of big developments feature a (game theory) contest where developers ‘sweat the asset’ by pushing heavy overdevelopment in expectation the planning authority will eventually compromise and allow lesser overdevelopment. This ‘game’ encourages the developer to open with a silly application to frame a ‘worst case’ scenario, in expectation the locals will get a sense of relief or victory from accepting a lesser degree of inappropriate development. Usually the developer also has the greater resources to grind down the planning authority, but in this case it looks like the Secretary of State’s decision to block overdevelopment has killed this particular ‘game’ dead.

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    • You make a presumption that this is “over-development”. I cannot find anywhere an explanation or justification for such an assertion.

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      • I was a councilor in a neighbouring authority where basic planning training is compulsory so councillors understand concepts like national planning policy and what is and isn’t valid grounds for opposition. I was never a member of planning committee, so didn’t do advanced training, but I attended meetings and spoke against several developments.

        In planning law over development generally refers to problems with the relationship to local environment e.g. inadequate amenity space, overshadowing, density exceeding local guidelines, inadequate parking facilities, highway issues, size and scale out of keeping with surroundings etc… Many of these were validly used to oppose the ‘skyscraper’, and nobody, including the developer, seems to deny they are legitimate problems. However, national planning policy has a ‘presumption in favour’ of development, so if the planning department is in favour and more importantly the ruling administration is in favour, such objections are easy to crush (whipping is technically illegal in planning, but unoffical pressure may be applied). This same ‘presumption’ is used to push development without social provision where developer claims provision would make it unviable.

        If this scheme wasn’t over development there would have been no grounds for the Secretary of State to block it, as it is, Croydon Council and the Mayor of London, could also have legitimately blocked on same grounds. They didn’t block because over development suited local objectives and to a lesser extent party political considerations were weak. But my original question reamins, why go this route? A more sympathetic development should have been nailed on, remove the valid objections of over development add in ‘presumption in favour’ and it’s an open goal.

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        • The scheme is providing significant local amenity, in terms of the church’s community hall.
          The tower is one storey higher than that permitted under the recently adopted Local Plan (which was coompleted after the scheme’s plans were drafted).
          Why wasn’t that issue dealt with in the pre-planning process?

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          • Things become a little clearer. Local plans take years to develop, some think they protect against inappropriate development, but not really true under current government planning strategy. To pass a local plan authorities generally have to give some ground on inappropriate/over development to developers. The underlying message being they can accept some inappropriate development and retain a level of control, or basically lose control entirely. Put crudely someone IS going to poo in your garden, but if you play along you can direct away from the doorstep.

            That a tower out of proportion to Purley environment, with clear over development characteristics, made it into local plan is unlikely to be coincidence. It almost certainly got in specifically to ease passage of over development on this scheme. The problems of over development are very real and they don’t go away, but locals just have to suck it up! It could be the Croydon administration was banking on over development to hit housing numbers, which are very important to funding, making viability as much about the council’s needs as any desire on part of developer to sweat the asset.

            Over development doesn’t mean the design is necessarily poor quality in all aspects, in this case it’s just not in tune with local conditions. Seems to me there is sufficient support for something more sympathetic, but sympathetic may not be Croydon Council’s ideal outcome.

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  4. derekthrower says:

    Funny how the conceit of this being a poor design has morphed into an issue of “over-development” in this particular area. Does it mean the same thing?
    Why are designs like this acceptable for Croydon but not Purley?

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