NIMBYs near Canary Wharf just blocked 2,000 homes to protect a petrol station

At least nothing will spoil this view. Image: Getty.

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.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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