An ill-starred venture

I was not surprised to learn recently that the former Premier Foods site in Oldfield Lane North is to be used for housing rather than for industrial purposes. It had been vacant for some time since the departure of the yellow Hovis HGVs that had carried goods baked on the site to shops and supermarkets. It did come as a surprise that the company that had acquired it, Greystar, now owned the former Glaxo Smith Kline site on the other side of the Grand Union canal as well. What came as a shock was the news that the combined site could be developed to house several thousand new residents. According to the figures provided by the 2011 census, the population of the ward of Greenford Green was 14,349. A single new housing development could take that to around twenty thousand.

Local residents have been consulted as to what might happen to the GSK site and it had reached the stage where we expected around six hundred homes and a cinema and/or a supermarket to be built on an area that had been used to develop and manufacture pharmaceutical products for decades, in fact plans for this were approved in 2014. There were already concerns about the impact that so many extra people would have on local health care and education services so how will an even greater number affect us?

Frank Kilduff, chairman of the North Greenford Residents’ Association, told me “I wrote in the NGRA April newsletter that the proposed 2,200 homes represent a 50% increase in the number of homes in Greenford Green ward and would have considerable implications for policing, schooling and medical care, as well as exacerbating the traffic congestion in Greenford Road and Oldfield Lane North. Taking these proposals together with proposed flats in Kellogg Tower and perhaps new homes on unused fields at David Lloyd sports centre (now not so likely as David Lloyd have changed their mind about handing the fields back to the council), we would need a new primary school,medical centre and additional police officers to cater for 7,500 to 10,000 new residents locally.”

It took years to get a much needed new school built, the William Perkin C of E High School in Oldfield Lane North which opened in 2013, but there is still a lack of places in the borough. In 2014 the Local Government Association issued a press release stating that “The London Borough of Ealing has added £129 million to its Government funding for school places. This includes £114 million from prudential borrowing, £11 million of funding from other capital budgets and £4 million from partnership, Section 106 and revenue funding.” How much “Section 106” funding will have to come from Greystar on this occasion? Will we have to pay more council tax to fund a new school?

It isn’t just a lack of funding that prevents new schools being built in the borough. Appropriate sites have to be found for them, and it can take years for the process of planning and approval to be completed. When it became clear that the size of the Oldfield Lane North development might cause a new school to be built one suggestion was that the site could be Berkeley Fields, close to Greenford Road, which is used by local sports clubs. The loss of playing fields has been a problem for years but it seems odd that the first choice for such a project in Greenford would be a green rather than a brownfield site. If Berkeley Fields was used for this purpose it would bring development even closer to Horsenden Hill, West London’s largest natural open space.

Local resident Caroline, who has lived in Greenford for over sixteen years, is worried about the strain on local medical services. “My main concern is that the nearest GP surgery to the Glaxo site, Elm Tree Surgery in Horsenden Lane North, will not be able to cope with or even accommodate hundreds of new people moving into the area across the road. As it stands the surgery is struggling as it only has 1.5 / 2 doctors covering because the head practitioner took retirement earlier this month. Even when she was there it was still bad getting appointments. When I spoke to the nurse at an appointment last week she pretty much told me that the nurses were doing the job of the doctors (for things like prescriptions). My impression is that this has been put in place because the doctors are too busy with more urgent patient conditions. The nurses have good knowledge and are really helpful I find. The thing is, with this practice, the nurse still has to physically go in and disturb the doctor with their patient to get them to sign and authorise the prescriptions while you sit and wait. I find this rather disturbing but I am not sure if this is common practice in other overloaded surgeries around London?”

“Another thing that is in place and due to lack of doctors available is the option to obtain an urgent appointment straight away but again this has become the norm around London. The receptionist will ask you to ring first thing in the morning (I assume for a cancellation). If none are available in the morning you have to ring again at 2 pm. I think they aim to get you an appointment within 24 – 48 hours but it’s frustrating to have to keep ringing. Because of this I now tend to go to Wembley Walk in Clinic straight away and wait the 2 – 3 hours to be seen but at least you get seen to the same day. The surgery closes half day Wednesday too so if you time it badly then it’s definitely a trip to Wembley. I get the impression that routine appointments are offered at least a week later if not longer but I tend to only go the doctor if it’s something that needs immediate attention. I do know that they do try and accommodate children on the same day; especially the under fives.”

I can understand why she’s so concerned. The London Borough of Ealing is already falling behind in the provision of GPs. Last year a Health Appreciation report was issued by Conservative London Assembly members, who suggested that money from major developers should be used to increase the number of GP practices. In the case of the Greystar project in Greenford this seems only fair given that around five GPs would be the recommended number required to meet the needs of so many people.

Frank Kilduff believes this development could lead to more if approved. “I am concerned that the GSK/Hovis proposals, which appear to include huge tower blocks, constitute over-development and loss of manufacturing/employment land, especially on the former Hovis site. The Wincanton site further to the south could go the same way as the Hovis site, i.e. abandoned, sold to a developer like Greystar, buildings demolished and negotiations with the council for more high density, high rise housing.” Situated between Central Line and Piccadilly Line stations, the location would be a magnet for developers hoping to attract buyers or tenants working in central London. Oldfield Lane North is served by the 92 bus route and is a short walk away from others. An increase in the number of passengers would certainly mean a need for more buses at busy times but could it also lead to a new bus route, especially one that would take residents from North Greenford to the centre of Ealing, something that residents have called for?

I asked John Beeston, the chairman of Ealing Passenger Transport Users’ Group, what impact he thought the development might have on public transport in Greenford. He had just attended a GWR conference and said he had found much activity planned, especially where local councils are working closely with the transport providers. He told me “Transport for London largely takes transport matters away from the local borough councils but I am convinced we need to hold a transport seminar in Ealing, supported by the London Borough of Ealing and the three MPs. The Elizabeth Line, the winding down of the Greenford Branch and the Hounslow proposals for the Brentford Branch all need input from LBE and its elected reps.”

“I mentioned the development to my contact at LBE and yes they are aware and they have advised London Buses. Under the present Mayor no new routes have been launched anywhere in London. They may adapt an existing route when the contract falls due for renewal. Thus around two years before a contract expires we are asked to comment. Then silence reigns until they announce who has won the new contract and advise any changes, if any. Time is then given for the operator to procure drivers and vehicles and the revised service starts. Two options might present themselves. One is to extend the 92 beyond the scaled down Ealing Hospital to Ealing (unlikely since there are already too many buses beyond Hanwell) or to extend one of the terminating Greenford Broadway services. A third, and perhaps cheaper option, would be to extend the 105. We are trying to set up a mini transport conference to look at all the changes coming to LBE such as the Elizabeth Line, the Brentford Branch and the Greenford shuttle.”

Some residents are upset at the prospect of high rise buildings. The GSK site includes a number of office buildings, including the Grade II listed Glaxo House, designed in 1935 by Wallis Gilbert and Partners. In 2012, during a consultation organised by Iceni Projects for the site’s previous owners (Stolin Greenford Ltd.), I was told that the building would be converted to accommodation. Other buildings on the site are now home to Ferrero UK and the Greenford Campus of the Greenwich School of Management. All these structures are several stories high so it would have been difficult to argue against other buildings being built up to that height on the same site. It’s a different matter across the canal, on what was the Premier Foods site. Most of the homes near it are two storey semi-detached houses and the buildings at Wincanton are at about the same height. The Greystar literature I’ve seen about the Greenford project suggests they will submit plans for high rise towers.

I got some idea of what this might look like when I walked around 243 Ealing Road, a canalside development in Alperton that was completed last year. Dark blue towers, one of them fourteen storeys high, with decorative details in other colours, rise above the towpath along the Grand Union canal between the bridge that carries the Piccadilly Line and the Ealing Road bridge. Two “piazzas” between these structures do little to reduce the “canyon” effect and I was almost blown off my feet by the wind funneled through these gaps. Part of the site is gated off, probably the privately owned flats, while other parts can be accessed by the public. The height of these blocks may seem less when the site is viewed from Ealing Road, as the ground drops to a lower level by the towpath alongside the ramp to the road bridge. It’s different when you are by the canal. The tower blocks really do tower over you and are very close to the towpath.

The developer didn’t want to waste a centimetre of valuable ground here and I was able to see into ground floor flats that are about three metres from the path. The gates are low enough to climb over and it occurred to me that two thousand more homes in Greenford means two thousand more opportunities for burglars. Frank Kilduff is right to raise concerns about policing. Even now it can seem as though the local force can barely cope, despite the best efforts of officers and PCSOs.

Across the canal and on the other side of the Piccadilly Line bridge is Alperton Village, completed in 2011. The colours of the materials used here are more conventional and there is only one tower block. The rest of the development seems to be made up of four to eight storey blocks. They are closer in height to that of neighbouring houses and the street created as part of it connects with the surrounding area, unlike 243 Ealing Road. A footbridge was built as part of the project to connect Alperton Village with the community on the other side of the canal and the towpath. There also seems to have been more of an effort put into the landscaping and planting. There are smaller seating areas and I missed any signs telling me to keep off the grass, as at 243 Ealing Road.

Unfortunately we will lose the “green corridor” that exists at present along the banks of the canal between the bridges across Greenford Road and Oldfield Lane North. The landscaping I’ve seen at the Alperton developments does not provide the same kind of habitat. Low allergen planting may spare residents who are affected by hay fever but it’s a desert for bees and butterflies. Landscape architects are bound to select low maintenance plants that will survive a degree of neglect, even so, how long will it be before the cost of maintaining lawns, shrubs and trees rises to the point where it will be cheaper to remove them altogether?  Little more than a few metres separates the open space of Horsenden Hill from the proposed development but the contrast will be a stark one if what I have seen in Alperton is replicated in Greenford. The untidy strip between the towpath and the fence that encloses the Premier Foods site, which includes trees as well as smaller plants, supports insects, birds and small mammals, and a similar habitat has developed across the canal alongside the former GSK site.

Architects are full of good intentions when they design canalside public spaces but from what I’ve seen they do as little to attract people as they do wildlife. The page describing Alperton Village on the Dexter Moren Associates website mentions “the creation of a vibrant waterfront precinct.” I’ve been there at different times of year when this vibrancy should have been evident and all I could see were a few street drinkers and their litter at the other end of the footbridge. Whatever the artist’s impressions of the Greystar development may suggest I don’t expect to find anyone discussing the work of Truffaut as they sip Merlot at a table on the shiny new piazza by the Grand Union. You could argue that anything is an improvement on a neglected industrial environment but you can’t turn Greenford, or its residents, into something they aren’t. We’re not looking for glamour. Most of us just want to live somewhere decent.

Standing in the public piazza at 243 Ealing Road, looking through the gap between two very tall buildings at another very tall building across the road, I was reminded of what went up in the City of London during the 1960s, impersonal corporate structures surrounded by bleak pedestrianised areas, and of housing estates dating from the same period that have since been demolished. If high rise flats were a mistake in the past why are we still building them?

The organisation Create Streets was set up, in part, to prevent a repetition of the errors of the 1960s, advising communities who want terraced housing and streets rather than high rise buildings. I asked Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets what the residents of Greenford could do to improve planning outcomes in the area:
“1. Form a Neighbourhood Forum and start drafting a neighbourhood plan so that you can have as much influence as possible on what is done in your area.
2. Be ambitious for your neighbourhood plan. Designate areas for development and not for development. Set a form-based design code for the sort of developments that you do and do not want to see.
3. Even if you don’t yet have a neighbourhood plan, get on the front foot with developments / developers. Don’t wait to be ‘consulted’ which is sometimes (though not always) a rather ersatz and faked process. Instead get in touch and make clear that you’ll support some types of development but fight them all the way on others.
4. In that context have clear lists of non-negotiables / negotiables / aspirations for developers / landowners.
5. Don’t be afraid to argue for what you like and don’t be ‘scared off’ by developers saying that is ‘not viable’. It is only ‘not viable’ if they have overpaid for the land compared to what you as a community want. In the long term the types of development that most people prefer are also (our research is consistently showing) the type of development best correlated with wellbeing and with very long term value for the landowner.”

His final point was that the most popular and successful developments combine particular elements, such as frequent green spaces and homes with private gardens, although at a greater density. Most of the buildings are at what he calls a “human scale height” and where they include blocks, these are not too big and don’t have long blank walls. Successful developments have a “well-connected, highly walkable, traditional street pattern of differing types and sizes with multiple junctions and route choices.” He feels it is important to have a mix of residential, commercial and retail use and to use space carefully. “Beauty really matters – any development that most people don’t aesthetically like is missing a key trick.” When it comes to density he says it should be “Somewhere in the ‘middle.’ Dense enough to be walkable and to provide walkable shops and offices. But not so dense as to be overwhelming, to undermine wellbeing or to create problems of long-term maintenance costs. Probably from 50 to about 220 homes per hectare is perfect.”

Unfortunately past experience has shown that, while local residents can be very vocal in expressing opinions about such matters, they are often reluctant to do any of the work involved with organising or campaigning. I’ve had many a tumbleweed moment when asking for help on these occasions. If the three Greenford Green ward councillors genuinely do want the best for their constituents they need to take the lead and begin raising awareness of Greystar’s plans. They may feel the effect at the next council election if they don’t.

I asked four Greater London Assembly 2016 candidates for Ealing and Hillingdon for their thoughts on the proposed development. I had no response at all from the Liberal Democrat candidate, Francesco Fruzza, or the Labour candidate, Onkhar Sahota, but given Dr. Sahota’s unfortunate history where planning is concerned this is no surprise.

Meena Hans, Green Party: “We understand that there is a need for housing and each party has pledged to provide a certain number of new homes over the next few years. However, Green Party policy is to find ways of creating housing by using existing buildings that need refurbishing rather than building on green spaces as a first option. There are currently in the region of 700,000 empty houses in London alone. These should first be brought back into use before any more are built. It doesn’t help that there is no VAT on new builds but 20% VAT on refurbishing properties. This needs to change.

Property developers also need to shoulder more of the responsibility than they currently do, to provide not only houses but the infrastructure to go with them. With each block of high rise flats the population in that area increases by the size of a small village. Therefore, developers should also have to provide the equivalent number of schools and health centres needed for the increased population. There is no mention of Greystar providing either schools or health centres.”

Dominic Gilham, Conservative: “I am pleased to see that something positive will replace the industrial area but I have concerns over the density of build, the local community needs and the transport links that will have increased pressures. The planned 100% rental development is a new type of area which reflects the direction of traffic in the housing market. More and more homes are available to rent in London and the local authority will have a strong part to play in making sure a sense of community is nurtured and it doesn’t become too sterile and lacking a sense of identity.

The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and how it’s used is vital to get the local services to support such a development. The developer must using the CIL to improve transport links, with bus stops, traffic lights ( if needed) road improvements, fund school places, doctors and dental practices. They should work with local people to build something welcomed by all and to the benefit of all. The developer must using the CIL improve transport links, with bus stops, traffic lights ( if needed) road improvements, fund school places, doctors and dental practices. They should work with local people to build something all can be proud of and all can benefit from.

So in short I would recommend a brownfield development that must have the correct ancillary services improvements with sympathetic and not overpowering design and be nothing like the monstrous blocks approved in Ealing Broadway recently by the socialist councillors who a week after approving a developer’s plan then sun themselves in the South of France at the expense of the very same developer.”

Dominic Gilham’s comment reflects what several residents have said to me about development in the borough. There is a sense that deals are being done out of sight and the current Labour administration will have its work cut out for it if local people are to be convinced that everything is above board when it comes to the Greystar application. Its approval or rejection, when it is put forward, could be a watershed moment for Greenford. If it goes ahead unchallenged by those who already live in the area even more developments of the same kind will soon follow, without adequate services being put in place before they become someone’s home. It could mean a drastic change to the way Greenford looks and the quality of life residents have enjoyed until now. At present the Greystar development is being described as 100% rental which would at least eliminate the problem of these flats becoming unused foreign investments. It could, however have a hidden cost. Greenford’s population, thanks to buy-to-let landlords, is increasingly transient. This development could mean even more tenants who have no emotional investment in Greenford, its people, its heritage, its environment, and who are unlikely to vote on local issues, if they vote at all. Box ticking, in the race to provide housing, may leave Greenford full of people who can’t be bothered to tick boxes.

Greystar Greenford consultation event

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