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Secretary of State Refuses Permission for the ‘Camberwell Union’ - a Major Mixed Use Scheme in Central London

Charles Streeten
Esther Drabkin-Reiter
Jonathan Welch

Planning permission has been refused for the ‘Camberwell Union’, which was intended as a “new cultural quarter” for London. As proposed, it consisted of 13 blocks, with a number of tall buildings, providing 505 residential units on the upper stories and 4,404m2 of commercial, retail and leisure space at ground level.

Following discussions with LB Southwark, the proposal was amended, reducing the number of residential units to 499, of which a policy compliant 35% were proposed as affordable housing. On this basis, officers recommended that planning permission should be granted for the scheme, designed by HTA. Members overturned that recommendation, however, and refused permission on the grounds that the development did not represent an exemplary standard of design and that it would result in a significant loss of employment floorspace.

The appeal was recovered by the Secretary of State and determined following a three-week inquiry. 

In addition to the Council’s reasons for refusal, a number of local interest groups coordinated by the Southwark Law Centre were made a Rule 6 party under the banner of ‘The Local Group’, and presented evidence on urban design, employment land, heritage, amenity, and transport impacts.

The Inspector appointed to hold the inquiry, Christina Downes, recommended that the appeal should be dismissed. In her report to the Secretary of State, she explained that the redevelopment of a brownfield site, unlikely to be capable of viable refurbishment, to provide new good quality employment space was a benefit carrying significant weight. Similarly, she attributed significant weight to the provision of a vibrant public realm that residents and visitors could enjoy. She regarded the provision of 35% affordable housing as a significant benefit, but reduced the weight given to the delivery of market housing to moderate due to the quality of the accommodation provided.

Notwithstanding these benefits, Ms Downes found that the harm resulting from the proposed development weighed against the grant of permission. In particular, she expressed significant concerns about the quality of accommodation that the proposed scheme would offer, and its relationship with the townscape context. She agreed with the Council and The Local Group that the proposal did not represent exemplary design and was thus in conflict with Strategic Policies 5 and 12 of the Core Strategy (which concerned design), as well as Strategic Policy 10 on employment land use.

Overall, the Inspector found that the proposed development conflicted with the development plan, the relevant policies of which were up to date, and that other material considerations did not justify departure from that plan.

The Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector and dismissed the appeal. 

Of some preliminary interest is his approach to the emerging New London Plan. Whilst accepting that the NLP is at an advanced stage, and attributing significant weight to the policies where no modifications have been directed, such as policies D9 on Tall Buildings and H1 on increasing housing supply, the Secretary of State attributed only moderate weight to policies such as D3 (on density) where he has directed changes.

Turning to the specific proposal in question, the Secretary of State held that, looked at in the round, there had been too many compromises in the development’s design. He pointed in particular to the size of many of the residential units, including wheelchair housing, and the quantity of amenity space. In the Secretary of State’s view, those compromises were at the expense of the overall quality of the living environment and caused “great concerns about the quality of accommodation” such that the development’s design, even if acceptable, did not justify a density 40% above the accepted range in local and strategic planning policy. 

In addition, he agreed with The Local Group that the development would cause harm to the character and appearance of the area, failed to relate successfully to the existing townscape, and would cause unacceptable harm to the amenity of some of the existing local residents.

Overall, the Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector’s conclusion that the development sought to maximise rather than optimise the use of the land resource which had resulted in “a quality of development that at several levels would not be satisfactory” and that material considerations indicated a decision in line with the development plan, with which the development did not accord.

Of the 6 housing schemes determined by the Secretary of State this month, this is the only one for which he has refused permission. It is a salutary reminder of the importance of ensuring that development proposals are of the highest quality. The Secretary of State’s decision should encourage developers to produce genuinely exemplary schemes, and should give confidence to local authorities that where a proposal falls below the standard expected, that is a sound reason for refusing permission. 

In addition, this case draws into sharp focus the importance of properly understanding the planning context, and in particular the relevant policies in the adopted development plan, when designing and promoting a scheme. The Appellant throughout presented the development as if it accorded with the development plan. That was ultimately an untenable argument, rejected by both the Inspector and Secretary of State. It was exacerbated by a lack of policy awareness by the scheme’s architect, who conceded at the inquiry that the development’s design had not been driven by its policy context. The Secretary of State’s decision in relation to the Camberwell Union brings home the catastrophic consequences of failing to give the development plan its statutory primacy, and properly to justify departures from it.

A copy of the combined decision letter and inspector’s report can be found here. 

Charles Streeten appeared for the London Borough of Southwark, instructed by Margaret Foley of Southwark Council Legal Services.

Esther Drabkin-Reiter appeared for The Local Group, instructed by the Southwark Law Centre and assisted by Jonathan Welch.