Report by Michael Parkes, Member of The Chelsea Society’s Planning Committee for Stanley Ward. Parkes Report – Sutton Estate 29.1.20
The owners of the Estate, Clarion Housing, have now decided to refurbish many of the flats to modern standards and bring them back into use. The Chelsea Society welcomes this decision, and requests that flats are made available for letting to key workers, and for affordable housing, as well as social housing.
“Clarion Housing Group, the UK’s largest affordable housing provider, has today committed to a £37 million investment package to improve the entire Sutton Estate and deliver at least 80 new social rented homes to Kensington and Chelsea. The plans, which will be developed with residents, will see the 106 year-old homes in blocks A-D (currently empty as they do not meet decency standards for accommodation) undergo a full refurbishment. All of the new homes will be for social rent and priority will be given to residents currently living on the estate. Residents in the remaining 303 flats on the estate, blocks E-K & N-O, will benefit from new kitchens and bathrooms and other upgrades. Clarion has also committed to improving the outdoor spaces. The new scheme has no homes for private sale.
Clare Miller, Chief Executive of Clarion Housing Group said: “The Sutton Estate is an integral part of the community in Kensington and Chelsea and securing the future of social housing on the estate has always been the priority for us. Our new plans will modernise the existing homes and the estate as a whole, benefitting not just today’s residents but future generations. By delivering at least 80 new social rented homes, we are also able to play a key role in helping to address the borough’s acute shortage of genuinely affordable housing.”
Kensington and Chelsea’s Deputy Leader and Lead Member for Housing, Cllr Kim Taylor Smith, said: “As a Council we have already committed to building hundreds of new homes, but there is a housing crisis in London and we can’t fix it alone. That’s why Clarion’s announcement is so heartening. A home on an exceptional estate which has a real sense of community will make a huge difference to many families’ lives.
“I hope Clarion’s commitment will encourage other housing associations and developers to work with us to provide more social housing in the borough.”
THE PLANNING APPEAL
The Sutton Estate is a large estate bounded by Cale St., Elystan St., Marlborough St. and Ixworth Place. It was built in the early 20th century to provide housing for people with very limited incomes. The owners of the estate, Clarion Housing, applied for planning permission for redevelopment, which was refused by RBKC. The owners appealed, and the appeal was heard by a government-appointed Inspector at a Public Enquiry in Kensington Town Hall from 9th – 18th May 2018. The Chelsea Society appeared at the appeal as a Rule 6 Party, and in September 2018 the Inspector reported his findings to the Secretary of State, for Housing & Local Government, who decided on 18th December 2018 to dismiss the Appeal. SoS Decision 18.12.18
The Planning Inquiry
The Chelsea Society was represented at the Inquiry by Michael Stephen, Chairman of the Planning Committee and James Thompson, Chairman of the Society.
The Society’s Closing Submission to the Inspector on 18th May 2018 was as follows:
1. The Chelsea Society has been represented on every day of this Inquiry so that we could listen to all the evidence and hear it tested in cross-examination before arriving at a fully informed opinion as to how we think the Secretary of State should deal with this appeal.
2. We have been impressed with the great care taken by all the witnesses and advocates to present the facts and arguments to the Inspector in considerable detail so that the Secretary of State may have the best possible evidential base on which to make his decision. We have also been impressed by the courage and tenacity with which the “Save our Sutton” campaigners have conducted their campaign and have presented their case to this Enquiry.
3. As we said in our opening statement, an important amenity of Chelsea has, for the past 100 years or more, been social housing for those who cannot afford market rents and who in recent years have qualified for housing by the local authority. Associated with this has been the provision of estates and buildings which have become part of the fabric of Chelsea.
4. The Society has met with campaigners and tenants and also with a Director of Affinity Sutton and its project manager. The Society’s Planning Committee has met specifically to consider this important Application.
5. The role of the Chelsea Society is to draw upon our local knowledge, and to represent as best we can the interests of all the people of Chelsea, not limited to those who live on or near the Sutton Estate.
6. The Inspector has heard evidence on both the refused application and the revised scheme, and it will of course be for the Secretary of State to decide whether to consider the revised scheme or not. It would perhaps be unrealistic of him to ignore it, but if he takes it into account he must in our view be satisfied that local people and their elected representatives have had an adequate opportunity to consider it and make representations. If he is not so satisfied this could mean that the owners would have to submit a new application, which would be very costly and would lead to more years of uncertainty for the residents. We would prefer to see the money spent on providing better housing for the residents.
7. It is quite clear that the current situation on the estate is not satisfactory for anyone. Improvement is urgently necessary, but should it be done by refurbishment or redevelopment?
8. The buildings on the estate are good solid examples of Edwardian architecture, by a distinguished architect of the period, and although they are not listed buildings we heard evidence about their value as undesignated heritage assets. In recent years however, their character has been much diminished by the installation of plastic window frames.
9. We are pleased that blocks L and M fronting Chelsea Green and Elystan Street will remain in use as examples of this type of architecture, but there is no consensus of opinion within the Chelsea Society as to what should be done with the remaining buildings. Some think they should be preserved and others do not.
10. There is however the human dimension to consider as well. The Inspector has heard evidence from some of the residents of the estate, some of whom were elderly and had lived on the estate for a very long time. They were fond of their estate and had happy memories of life on the estate before redevelopment became a serious possibility about ten years ago. We have been impressed with the evidence from these witnesses, and also from Cllr. Henderson who lives on the estate, from Lady Denman who lives nearby, and has known residents of the estate for many years, from Mr. Robertson of the Dovehouse Street Residents Association, and from Mr. Burgess who is Planning Secretary of the Kings Road Association of Chelsea Residents.
11. These witnesses told the Enquiry that they did not want the buildings to be demolished, and the Inspector has heard evidence as to how they might be refurbished, but as we understand the law the Secretary of State has no power to direct the owners to refurbish the estate – all he can do is to dismiss the appeal, or to allow it subject to such conditions as he sees fit. If he allows the appeal there will be no refurbishment (except for blocks L and M), but if he dismisses it there will be many more years of uncertainty for the residents which may or may not result in a decision by the owners to refurbish.
12. Whether the estate is refurbished or rebuilt there would inevitably be a huge amount of disruption to the lives of the residents, as building works on this scale cannot be done without creating noise, dust, and obstruction, and without placing heavy burdens of traffic on the already inadequate street system in Chelsea.
13. We note the Appellant’s commitment that all the existing tenants would be able to remain on the estate, and we would expect to see that the tenants are properly housed and cared for throughout the process. If permission for works is ever granted we would expect to see a robust Construction Management Plan and Construction Traffic Management Plan which protects the interests of local people and is strictly enforced by the local authority.
14. Much of the evidence from residents of the Sutton Estate showed how badly the estate has deteriorated over the past ten years, and how the owner’s performance as a landlord leaves much to be desired. It seems from this evidence, which was substantially unchallenged, that over the past ten years the owner has been neglecting the estate and proceeding effectively on the basis that permission to develop was a foregone conclusion. In our opinion this shows disrespect not only to their tenants but to the planning laws themselves. It has also resulted in lost revenue which could have been put to good use.
15. If this has been done so that the owners can argue in this Appeal that that some of the flats should not be counted as existing social rented housing we would not be surprised if their conduct were to count against them. Likewise, although the owners may have the legal right to let flats on the estate at open market rents, this would be contrary to the purposes for which William Sutton gave the land, and the Local Authority are right when they say that this distorts the assessment of benchmark land value.
16. Policy CH3 of the Consolidated Local Plan provides that “the Council will resist the loss of social rented floorspace throughout the Borough” and the Chelsea Society expects the Council to do so.
17. Policy CH4 provides that in the case of estate renewal “the Council will require the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing, with the minimum being no net loss of existing social rented provision.” The Chelsea Society agrees with this, and with para. 3.14 of The London Plan 2016 to the same effect.
18. The Secretary of State must therefore consider whether the proposals put forward by the Appellant would provide the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing, and we note that the Local Authority in their opening statement have expressed the view that the revised scheme, which would benefit from a financial grant from the Mayor, would do so, provided that an appropriate review mechanism were in place for each phase of the development. The Local Authority have given this matter careful thought, and having listened to the evidence on viability we are not in a position to disagree with them.
19. There is one point in this connection which we would make, and that is that most of us who live in Chelsea have to live in much less spacious accommodation than could be had elsewhere for the same price or rent. This is what we have to accept if we want to live in Chelsea, and this should apply in considering what amount of floorspace is appropriate for new or refurbished dwellings on the Sutton Estate.
20. During the evidence on viability there was some discussion of what would be a reasonable profit for the Appellants to make. However, this is not a normal property development in which the developer could reasonably expect to make a profit. In this case the owners have not paid a penny for the land. It was given to their predecessors in title for nothing on the basis that it would be used for housing those whose incomes would not otherwise allow them to live in Chelsea. The owners must of course cover their costs, but they are a charity and should not expect to make a profit out of this land.
21. Turning now to the new buildings which are proposed, if redevelopment is permitted we would expect the Secretary of State to require a much higher standard of architecture than is presently proposed, and we would be willing to assist the architect to understand Chelsea.
22. We have to say that the proposed buildings are disappointing in their external appearance, and the Local Authority has pointed to some specific design issues. The appreciation of architecture is of course a subjective matter but the Chelsea Society has for ninety years encouraged new buildings which respect the style, the character and the charm of Chelsea, and we are sorry to say that these buildings do not. We do not agree with the views of the Greater London Authority on this matter. These are in our opinion the kind of designs that have poured out of architects’ offices all over the country since the 1980s and have no relation to the character of Chelsea. If buildings like this are allowed in Chelsea we will soon have nothing left.
23. In conclusion, The Chelsea Society believes that Chelsea should continue to be a place where people in all income groups can live, and is very conscious of the pressures on housing generated by the influx of foreign money and the consequent increases in the capital and rental values of properties of all kinds. This pressure is being felt not only by people whose incomes are very limited, but also by the middle-income groups whose parents and grandparents have lived in Chelsea but can no longer afford to live here themselves. The Society is concerned for the future of both of these groups, and believes that accommodation should be provided on the Sutton Estate not just for those with the lowest incomes, but for the middle-income groups as well.
If there is to be any redevelopment of this estate it must be in accordance with permission granted by RBKC or the Secretary of State. We do not want to see the demolition of any building on the estate except pursuant to planning permission, and we have therefore urged RBKC to include the estate in the adjacent Conservation Area or to make an Article 4 Direction to disapply any demolition rights conferred by The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.