Whenever I’ve suggested – sometimes gently, sometimes not – that London might soon need to build housing on its green belt, someone has almost instantly replied, “What about brownfield?”
Brownfield, you see, is the label for any site which has already been built on: its redevelopment is thus seen as the cost free option, which won’t necessitate any hard choices about which fields we’re going to brick over. Never mind that no one seriously thinks there’s enough of this stuff to meet housing need: so long as there’s a square inch of brownfield left, the NIMBY lobby will say, we shouldn’t even think about looking at reviewing the green belt.
Which is a problem. Because now it turns out that the NIMBYs don’t want to build on brownfield either.
The Isle of Dogs is a peninsula in east London, surrounded by a loop of the River Thames. At its northern edge sits Canary Wharf, a rapidly growing forest of commercial and residential skyscrapers. To its south is the island proper, a mixture of Victorian terraces and new residential developments, surrounding a grid of docks and a city farm.
This is not an area filled with listed buildings, or where sites of great historic interest require protection from the ravages of greedy developers: over the last 40 years, indeed, Docklands as a whole has been London’s biggest re-development zone, radically transformed from a collection of bomb sites and derelict low rises to a second financial centre.
Nor is it a place where concerns about transport links should slow us up too much. As well as half a dozen stops on the DLR, the Isle of Dogs has a tube station, and will soon be getting a Crossrail one, too. When people say we should build on brownfield – when they suggest we should densify the city around its existing transport links – this is exactly the sort of place they’re talking about.
Unfortunately, however, nobody has told the residents group which has been campaigning against plans to build 2,000 homes on what is currently a car park; ultimately, the developer, Ashbourne Beech, withdrew the application. (In an earlier version of this article I said the plan had been “blocked”, which was a slightly misleading way of putting it.)
From the East London Advertiser yesterday:
Second Tower Hamlets ‘people victory’ as Asda scraps Isle of Dogs development
“It’s down to ‘people’ power through sheer weight of objections,” a delighted councillor Peter Golds told the East London Advertiser.
“We fought this for years and have managed to engage the community—so the developers can’t claim they’re representing anybody with this crass example of over-development.”
What, you are wondering, have those campaigners managed to save? A children’s play area, perhaps? A lovely park? A site of outsanding natural beauty? An over-crowded and under-funded orphanage?
Nope: a branch of Asda and its massive car park.
An aerial view of the site. Image: developers Ashbourne Beech.
Among many objections was condemnation of the Asda petrol station closing without being replaced—leaving no fill-up for car-owners anywhere on ‘the island’.
This is a serious concern: without that petrol station, after all, residents would have to drive a whole 1.7km up the road to fill up their tanks, meaning that there is a very real risk of civilisation breaking down entirely like at the end of JG Ballard’s High Rise.
Image: Google Maps.
Alternatively – just a thought – they could take the DLR. In fact that might be a better idea because, while London has a housing crisis, it does not, to my knowledge, have a petrol station crisis.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps there genuinely are concerns about the danger of adding another 2,000 homes to the Isle of Dogs. Extra residents, after all, need extra services: schools, doctors, shops (no, not petrol stations, sod off). And the mess of the British planning system means it’s all too possible to build homes without ensuring the facilities that should go along side them.
But nonetheless, this story gives the lie to the idea that everything would be fine if we just focused our effort on brownfield – because it’s hard to think of anywhere more ripe for development than a supermarket car park on the Isle of Dogs. As things stand, it’s ugly, it’s well-connected, it’s an area that’s already used to high-density housing... it’s as appropriate a site as you’re likely to find to build significant new numbers of homes as anywhere in this city.
And yet, the NIMBYs have beaten it back, on the grounds that it might overshadow the local city farm. And when they did, the local paper described it as a victory for “people power”.
For the people who already have homes, perhaps. Those who are priced out, by contrast, are losing, as they always do.
We can’t build skyscrapers. We can’t extend the footprint of the city. And now, it turns out, we can’t build on car parks either, in case it upsets a pony.
I'm just saying, I think we seriously need to consider the possibility of prison sentences for NIMBYs, that’s all I’m saying.