BELLE MONT reports on how the new tenants of 80 pricy retirement flats in Hackbridge are likely to get very heated over their energy bills
A housing developer has been allowed to abandon an agreed scheme to build an old people’s home in Hackbridge, and instead is adding 80 much more lucrative “assisted living” flats to its £200million-plus development.
Despite opposition from existing residents, planning permission for these flats was granted by Sutton’s LibDem-run council, seemingly because developers Barratts agreed to have the properties’ heating supplied by the local authority’s own energy network.
Proposals for a development on the former Felnex trading estate have been kicked around for a decade. Over the past five years, it has become a key part in Sutton Council’s strategy to justify the building of the industrial-scale waste incinerator at Beddington, operated by Viridor. Burning waste would provide cheap heat, the council argued.
To date, the one and only commercial organisation to have signed up to SDEN, the council-funded decentralised heating network, is Barratts, for what they now call their New Mill Quarter. There, residents moving into the modern new homes are discovering that they have to pay around four times as much for their heating from SDEN than if they were supplied by conventional energy suppliers.
Since 2013, Sutton borough officials under the control of LibDem council leader Ruth Dombey have produced no fewer than 16 separate reports to justify the building of a polluting incinerator because it would generate cheap heat.
According to a confidential report presented by LibDem council leader Ruth Dombey, fuel poverty – the condition of being unable to afford to keep your home adequately heated, something which affects up to 2million Britons – is a very important issue in Sutton.
“Fuel poverty and Energy Security are two of the most daunting issues facing local residents,” the report for the Dombey-chaired strategy and resources committee stated. Sutton Council, the “Restricted” report, said, “… has ambitions to help residents cope with thes [sic] pressures and intends to deliver a decentralised energy network within the borough.”
Among the sites identified in Dombey’s report as likely recipients of this energy network were Carshalton College, BedZed, the Westcroft Leisure Centre, St Helier Hospital, and Felnex.
“Once a network is in place,” the report states, “it will be possible to address fuel poverty through a number of methods , ranging from the retrofit of existing properties to the provision of more affordable heat to the expansion of the network.”
Yet despite the promise of cheap heat, and all those carefully collated council reports, developers were strangely reluctant to buy in to Sutton’s heating network.
The developers had had access to the council’s confidential figures, costs and prices. They realised that SDEN’s heating was ludicrously expensive and might put off potential purchasers from buying their homes. Far from “eliminating fuel poverty”, as Dombey and chums had claimed in their secret reports, anyone unlucky enough to buy their heat through SDEN could be paying as much as 400 per cent more than that charged by British Gas.
If anything, at such prices, Dombey’s SDEN was likely to cause fuel poverty in Sutton.
In Sutton, social housing tenants are paying 3p per kilowatt hour for their heating. Anyone with heating provided by SDEN are doomed to paying 14p per kWh for the next 25 years.
In March 2017, three senior officials from Sutton Council set off to the south of France to take part in the “booze and hookerfest” that is MIPIM, the world’s biggest annual gathering of property speculators. Their mission was to sell SDEN.
The cost of the council’s £30,000 junket to Cannes was paid for by a number of firms who were either seeking planning permission for large and potentially lucrative projects in Sutton, or had been awarded contracts to build in Sutton, or were building in Sutton.
Sutton’s top trio of officials had been tasked with a south London version of Mission Impossible… somehow, find a way of getting developers on board with SDEN, even though it would consign their home-buyers or tenants to sky-high fuel bills on long-term contracts.
Sutton’s answer to Tom Cruise was Niall Bolger, then the council’s £150,000 per year chief executive, who after suffering a leg injury on a skiing holiday was forced to hobble around the MIPIM exhibition on crutches.
Bolger was accompanied in Cannes by colleague Amanda Cherrington, the managing director of SDEN, and Mary Morrissey, the council’s director of environment, housing and regeneration.
Firmly in their sights was Barratts, who through one of the house-builder’s subsidiaries already had their 725-home development under way only a stone’s throw from the Viridor incinerator.
Up to this point, Barratts had shown no interest in doing business with SDEN. Morrissey called it “a Mexican stand-off”.
Then came a breakthrough.
On a planning committee meeting not long after the Cannes trip, Barratts applied to build an additional 80 one- and two-bedroom flats at New Mill Quarter.
Barratt’s revised application increased the number of dwellings – and therefore the potential for profits – to 805, while one block was increased in size by so much that it would cast a shadow of the adjacent primary school.
Lysanne Horrox, a spokeswoman for the local residents’ group, had told councillors: “The changes made to the assisted living block are the most significant and extreme. Little thought has been given to the design of this block and the impact it will have on the neighbourhood. If the building is approved, it will further accentuate the already overbearing streetscape dominance of Saxon House and the proposed supermarket block and flats on the 12 two-storey Victorian houses opposite.”
To no one’s surprise, all the Liberal Democrats on the planning committee voted for this major alteration to the scheme.
Coincidentally, Barratts soon announced that they had decided to make a significant U-turn, and that they would after all connect New Mill Quarter to the council’s SDEN heat network…
Sutton’s planners have continued to make allowances for SDEN-related projects.
When the heat network’s piping connection to the incinerator came before the LibDem-majority planning committee, again it was passed – albeit retrospectively.
This despite the piping network seeing more than 200 trees being felled in March 2018 during the bird-nesting season in an environmentally protected area, just so that it could take the shortest route between the homes and the incinerator.
Of the additional 80 “assisted living” dwellings being built, not one of them is to be available at “affordable” rent or sale price. These exclusive new homes will only be available for rent to well-heeled retired over-60s, who will have exclusive use of an on-site gym and bistro.
It is to be hoped that they also have enough spare change in their pension funds to pay for their extra-expensive heating system…
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