Red Kensington?

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is not generally known as a hotbed of radical and progressive thinking. Yet its decision to reject plans to demolish the handsome William Sutton Estate sets an example that other, supposedly more progressive councils, would be well advised to follow.

To recap, the Sutton Estate, owned by Affinity Sutton, provided 462 flats for social rent in 15 blocks on a 1.5 hectare site. They were built in 1913 by William Sutton, a businessman turned philanthropist who had developed Britain’s first parcel delivery business. The blocks are in red brick with stone dressings in the Queen Anne style with mansard roofs and Georgian windows. There are shop units along the base of the blocks on Cale Street and Elystan Street. There are similarities to the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch or the nearby Millbank Estate. The estate represents an enclave of genuinely affordable housing within the multi-million pound neighbourhoods of Chelsea, something that is valued by its wealthy residents as you can see from the 354 objections to the plans. 

The owner wanted to demolish 383 of the flats and re-provide 343 homes with 237 for affordable rent and 106 for market sale. You can read the full planning report here. I visited the estate last year and wrote an article for another housing magazine, here. One of my principal objections to the proposals is the wanton destruction of over a century of stored carbon in these handsome and solid blocks, when they are perfectly capable of conversion and modificiation by any decent architect.

Whilst accepting the principle of redevelopment, the council rejected the application because of a net loss of affordable housing floorspace and it is not accepted that the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing would be provided.” The report also concluded that, “as a whole, the buildings are not of a sufficient high design quality and would not positively contribute to the surrounding townscape.” The report noted that the total social rented floorspace of 18,708 square metres, would be replaced by 16,142 sq m of “affordable rent” (237 homes) and 13,825 sq m of market sale (106 homes) – so an increase in floorspace but a net reduction in homes. The planning report notes that London Plan policy 3.14 states that there should be no loss of affordable housing provision in regeneration schemes. The report also notes that “the estate has been in use for social housing for over 100 years, which is a material planning consideration of significant weight.”

More damningly, the applicant is accused of under-estimating the out-turn revenues from sales and over-stating their costs, a device that has been used across London by developers to argue for the non-viability of affordable housing provision (see current and past campaigns at places like the HeygateEstate and the Aylesbury estate) or the saga at Rustat Road in Cambridge, which I have covered here and here.

The planners at the Royal Borough are clearly of a different calibre and can see through these tricks and wheezes, albeit with the help of an expert and genuinely independent consultant.

I made a tongue in cheeck mention above that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had displayed a radical and progressive approach in their brave decision to reject this scheme. In fact they have just done their job, and done it well. They have followed planning policy and carried out a full and proper analysis of the financial data provided by the applicant. Other councils should follow suit.

This is a great victory for the Save our Sutton campaign and for all those local residents who objected to this scheme, as well as celbrities like Eddie Izzard and Tom Watson who joined the campaign. Affinity Sutton will need to return to the drawing board and re-think their approach. No doubt they will appeal, but it does call into question the commercial approach that growing numbers of housing associations are pursuing, and the negative impact that this is having upon the provision of genuinely affordable homes.

(This blog first appeared on the Inside Housing site on 18th November 2016)

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