SEPTEMBER 3rd UPDATE: The Woolwich Central development, which this blog post of June 25th covered, has now been declared the winner of Building Design’s 2014 Carbuncle Cup, as covered by the Guardian, the BBC’s One Show (3 minutes thirty seconds in), Radio Four’s Today Programme (3 hours, 43 minutes in) and many other national media.
When I am chatting with friends and the conversation turns to new development in Greenwich, I freeze. Between 2006 and 2010 I was chair of Greenwich Council’s Planning Board – the committee of councillors that makes decisions on all the big applications – so if we’re talking a new building in the borough there’s a fair chance I was somehow involved in granting it planning permission.
All big developments take several years to go from drawing board to construction, and the credit crunch often made the process even longer than usual. So several schemes that were going through the planning process during my time as chair have only recently been built.
Some of them – the new Thomas Tallis School, the Sammy Ofer wing at the National Maritime Museum, the exemplary new housing development at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, and the new homes and a health and leisure centre being built on the old hospital site in East Greenwich – I can look at with pride.
But there were a few more controversial developments, among them the Woolwich Central development of 960 homes and an 80,000 sq ft Tesco, which opened in November 2012 and which has just been nominated for Building Design magazine’s 2014 Carbuncle Cup. I chaired the Planning Board meeting at which the plans were approved in 2007.
This is the third time in four years that a Greenwich building has been nominated – the restoration of the Cutty Sark, with the controversial glass box around its hull, won the Carbuncle Cup in 2012. The Woolwich Centre, a council office block adjacent to Tesco (which I will come back to later) was nominated in 2011. This probably says more about the amount of development going on in Greenwich that it does about the council’s ability to assess planning applications (in a London borough where there’s been a lot built in the last few years, a few carbuncle nominations are bound to come up).
In Greenwich the Chair of the Planning Board has some influence behind the scenes and can get plans amended before they come to the Board for a decision. In this case I can plead some mitigation: the plans were already well-evolved by the time I became chair in May 2006, and it turned out there was little scope to change them before they came to a board meeting in January 2007 for decision. But as I was intimately involved in the evolution of the Woolwich Central development over those eight months, I hope I can cast some light on how and why it got planning permission, and what lessons we can learn.
Firstly, its worth remembering that Woolwich Central is not universally disliked – a well-respected local historian tells me that its “a powerful work, and Woolwich needs powerful buildings” and that “the strange angles and the multi-coloured sections… give contrast and excitement”. In the words of its architect, Martin Sagar of Sheppard Robson, the vertical stripes are designed to make it unclear where the Tesco store stops and the flats above start: “the ribbon device unites the composition rather than fragmenting it”, he says.
Boring the building is not, and when the plans were conceived back in the early noughties they ticked a lot of boxes. Government planning policy strongly encouraged (and still does) large supermarkets to be located in town centres. The development promised nearly 1,000 new homes above and alongside the new Tesco – most of them owner-occupied – whose spending power the council quietly welcomed, given that Woolwich town centre was dominated by downmarket buy-to-let renting and council housing.
As an added bonus Tesco promised to demolish Peggy Middleton House (“Peggy” for short), an unloved 1970s red-brick council office block that was like a greenhouse in summer and an igloo in winter (and, like most ugly council buildings, home to the planning department), and a similarly unloved concrete block next door, Crown Building. While other councils had opened “contact centres” with a single reception desk and a modern call centre, Greenwich still had an old-fashioned switchboard and umpteen reception desks dotted around a range of shabby buildings. As part of the deal Tesco built the council a new office block (the Woolwich Centre on Wellington Street) which replaced a number of grotty old offices dotted around Woolwich: not just Peggy but several storeys of Riverside House, 1930s and 1950s buildings on the south side of Wellington Street, poky offices in the Edwardian Co-op department store on Powis Street and the Victorian bakery building behind it. Overall the scheme would make the council money: Tesco would pay the council £28m (later negotiated up to £38m) to reinvest in other projects.
There was a charming swagger about the people from Tesco’s development arm Spenhill when they met with me and other councillors in 2006 and 2007: rather than dress down like most developers, Tesco’s then development director Patrick Stones once turned up in black tie on his way to a charity bash. Lots of reassurance was given about how the huge new Tesco would disguise its bulk, and help rather than hinder Woolwich’s small traders. Independent retailers were predicted to occupy small units by the Tesco entrance and around the corner on Woolwich New Road. A “green wall” of ivy and other creepers would climb the building directly above the car park entrance. We were told that the 258 flats directly above the supermarket, in four parallel blocks like a toast-rack and separated by winter gardens, would be a pioneering model of sustainable, high-density urban living.
Even the site’s name had an authentic pedigree: although Love Lane (as the Woolwich Central development was originally branded) sounded as if it has been lifted from a Beatles song lyric, an alleyway of that name that had passed through the site since the early nineteenth century, possibly earlier. The development had many features to help persuade sceptics that this would not just be a large Tesco but a whole new quarter for Woolwich. The site would be framed by two new landmark buildings: a seventeen storey building at one end by the South Circular Road and at the other end the 30-storey Ordnance Tower (later lowered to 26 storeys) facing General Gordon Square. This would be clad in brass “sails” resembling a shell case and which the original architectss Collado Collins said would make “abstract reference to the long seafaring and military tradition of Woolwich”.
Tesco’s proposals received a warm reaction in the London-wide press. The Evening Standard of January 25th 2007, on the eve of their approval by the council’s Planning Board, ran a generally favourable story called “Welcome to Tesco on Thames” which uncritically quoted the planning report’s prediction that the new Tesco would “support the vitality and viability of the borough’s strategic centre and be a catalyst for further regeneration of greater Woolwich”.
Such grandiose language – including a previously unheard-of term, “greater Woolwich” – was part of a consensus, shared by both Labour and Conservative councillors, that a big new supermarket was the shot in the arm that Woolwich’s ailing economy needed. Although I had major doubts about the huge size of the new Tesco I soon realised that others did not agree. I knew that the other councillors on the Planning Board I chaired would vote to approve the scheme and that it was pointless to vote against it myself.
As well as the demolition of “Peggy” – one of Woolwich’s worst buildings – the development also required the demolition of one of its better ones: the red-brick Victorian General Post Office on Thomas Street, known to older Woolwich residents as “The General”. As soon as I became chair I questioned this but was told that a tall building, overlooking General Gordon Square, was a key part of the development and the Post Office building had to go.
Woolwich’s General Post Office was a Queen Anne dolls’ house of a building, built in 1890-91 and probably designed by an Office of Works architect, Edward George Rivers, who did much work for the GPO. To the south an extension was built in 1914-16 by Albert Robert Myers, another prolific GPO architect who went on to design many post offices across southern England, including an extension to London’s main sorting office at Mount Pleasant in the 1930s .
Many post office buildings by Rivers and Myers survive, often now converted to new uses. Rivers’ West Central District Post Office of 1883-84 on Bedford Street in Covent Garden has recently been converted into flats behind a retained facade. In Oxford Rivers’ gothic Post Office on St Aldates still trades (with planning permission recently granted for a restaurant in its vaults), and in Bournemouth and Hereford post offices designed by Rivers are now Pizza Express outlets. In Isleworth, Myer’s neo-Georgian post office is now converted into flats and in Weybridge an estate agents. In Wembley, Tonbridge, Reading and Romford post offices designed by Myers have been successfully converted into pubs, while in Camden Town his former North Western District Post Office is now council offices. In Aldershot and Rochester buildings by Myers are still in use as sorting offices.
Almost anywhere else in south London – in Bromley, Eltham or Sidcup, and certainly in Blackheath or Greenwich – a redundant Victorian post office would be tastefully, if unimaginatively, converted into offices, flats, a Pizza Express or a Cafe Rouge. But in Woolwich River’s and Myers’ post office buildings were summarily demolished with hardly any protest at all. Given that the post office was only locally listed and was not located in a conservation area, it had no statutory protection and plans for its demolition were not opposed by the government’s design quango, CABE, when they were asked for their views in 2006. Woolwich’s post office was relocated to a meagre counter at the back of WH Smith on Powis Street in April 2008, again with hardly a whimper of protest (in Greenwich town centre a much more modest proposal to keep the main post office open but contract out its management, and insert a retail unit, provoked howls of outrage). At the same time Woolwich’s sorting office was relocated out of the town centre to a banal metal shed in the middle of the Pettman Crescent gyratory a mile to the east.
One concession was made: because the post office had only narrowly been turned down for listing in 2005, the terracotta Imperial seal on the side gable of the building (with the letters VR – Victoria Regina) was salvaged when the building was demolished in 2011. Its reinstallation on one of the buildings at the base of the 26-storey tower was proposed (in 2008 Collado Collins, the scheme’s original architects, had even said that the town’s Post Office would relocate there). But now that this tower has been abandoned, the seal remains in storage and its fate is unclear. Perhaps it should not be reinstalled at all: such a poignant reminder of a great building only draws attention to the folly of its demolition.
How the design was dumbed down
In practice, most members of the planning board were very relaxed about the demolition of the Post Office and the promise of an “iconic” tall building in its place, and outline planning consent was granted in January 2007 with no councillors voting against. I had tried to argue for its retention, but the prospect of a tall building in place of the Post Office was actively welcomed: “Build it high and build it quick” was the verdict of one of my Labour colleagues.
There were several changes as detailed applications rolled in over the following three years. Because of the recession from 2008 onwards Tesco said a “fundamental review of the scheme” was required before construction could start. Collado Collins were now off the job and in February 2009, and again in September 2010, new architects Sheppard Robson proposed “relatively modest changes” (all of which the council agreed to) which seemed innocuous but in practice dumbed the design down considerably.
Firstly, changes to the housing mix were made, some of them for the best: studio flats were omitted and the number of two and three-bed flats was increased, reducing the number of new homes above the store from 296 to 258. But Tesco also changed the tenure mix of these homes to segregate the private homes from the affordable ones. Two blocks which were originally mixed were now made completely affordable housing, with no private units, while another block had all its affordable housing removed and was made private housing only.
Further changes in 2010 meant that all of the private homes were accessed from Love Lane on the western corner of the site, with the affordable homes accessed separately from Grand Depot Road and Engineers Row. People in private housing would not now have to share their entrance lobbies, corridors or lifts with people renting their homes from a housing association, who were to be confined to the least attractive blocks, directly fronting on to the busy Grand Depot Road.
Secondly, the level of the car park was raised, firstly by 1.5m and then by a whole storey, to reduce the need for excavation (and cutting the number of lorry trips to the construction site by 5,000). Residents’ car parking was moved from an upper level into Tesco’s car park. Sadly this had a lot of knock-on effects. The Woolwich New Road frontage lost several ground floor windows because residents’ dustbins were moved to new “refuse store areas” accessed from the pavement. Where a row of small shops had originally been proposed a storage area for dustbins has been built instead, making a key frontage a lot less active. Because the car park was made higher the supermarket above it is also had to be raised, further complicating pedestrian routes through the site: a newly-opened alley, Royal Engineer’s Row relies on a high staircases and five flights of ramps at each end to surmount the mountainous hulk of Tesco’s car park. The ramps were deemed to be a waste of space so lifts were proposed in 2010 at either end of the path for those unable to use the stairs: an inelegant solution that may prove costly to maintain.
Thirdly, the coloured cladding for the building’s lower levels was changed from Fibre-cement panels to a flatter, cheaper material, Trespa. The proposed “green wall” of creepers directly above the car park entrance was dropped because its successful maintenance could not be guaranteed.
A fourth change was even more fundamental: the 26-storey tower at the northern end of the site remains unbuilt. This had always been the scheme’s weak spot: although the original tower proposed by Collado Collins would have resembled a shell casing from some angles, it would look very bulky from others because its plan form would be rectangular, not cylindrical. In 2006 CABE said that this tower “would not meet these tests of CABE/English Heritage guidance” and that the council should not give it planning consent without more detail: in other words it was simply not good enough. CABE added that the “local authority cannot afford to consent a tall building that is not of the highest quality. It would be better not to have a tall building on the this site than one that does not represent the renewal of Woolwich”: advice that the council did not follow when it approved outline plans for the tower in January 2007.
In January 2009 the council was shown more detailed plans for a slimmer, chevron-shaped tower designed by Wilkinson Eyre, still 26 storeys high and with a public viewing platform on the top floor, but no detailed application followed. In 2010 Tesco proposed “temporary landscaping” of the northern end of the site until the tower could be built. But four years later these Tellytubby-style triangular “sculpted grass mounds” look pretty permanent, and in late 2013 the council admitted that a tower might never be built at all.
Nearly two years after Tesco opened it’s easy to see the development’s shortcomings. The buildings are clearly distinctive and the zinc cladding on the residential blocks does not look cheap: they have an unusual profile with glazing on their south and north sides and striped cladding to the others, a bit like smartphones laid on their side. Those with an architectural eye may see echoes of the window surrounds at the Danish embassy, a brown metal block on Sloane Street designed by Arne Jacobsen. But they are extremely high and cry out for a better focal point than their Tesco Extra signage.
The real problems, as so often with tall buildings, arise when they meet the ground and on a sloping site like this the problems are multiplied. The Woolwich New Road frontage makes elementary howlers: mostly it is just blank walls facing Pugin’s St Peter’s Church across the road. Apart from a few front doors to maisonettes towards the top of the hill furthest away from General Gordon Square, there is hardly any activity facing the pavement here. The frontage on Woolwich New Road and Grand Depot Road, which the Planning Board had been promised in 2007 would be “wrapped with active usage” is now mostly taken up with doors to bin stores, electricity substations, or the entrance to Tesco’s car park. A promised neighbourhood police office, promised to open as long ago as 2007, is still not open in 2014, even though the police station around the corner on Market Street has now shut its doors. Of the five shop units by Tesco’s entrance which had been earmarked for “independent retailers” three are still vacant and the others are both fast-food joints: a Subway and a Domino’s Pizza.
Despite the cost-cutting the materials are generally quite hi-spec, and the design can’t be criticised as being of-the-shelf. There are many recent resi-over-retail developments in London, but none of the others looks like Woolwich’s Tesco. Woolwich Central’s problems did not arise from a shortage of good architects. Sheppard Robson are a good firm and the development was overseen by a high-calibre design panel chaired by Paul Finch (then chair of CABE and a former editor of all three of the UK’s top architectural magazines: Building Design, The Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review). As well as the architects working directly on the scheme the panel also included Tobias Goevert of Design for London, Paolo Testolini of BDP and Mark Fitch, a transport planner at Colin Buchanan and Partners: all people who know what they are talking about. Although a Chinese wall prevented me from attending the design panel meetings their minutes from 2007-08 show that the panel members were pushing for high design quality, careful thought about how such a large supermarket could be shoehorned into the site, and if possible, the retention of the locally listed Post Office buildings on the site. But they were trying to close a stable door after the horse had bolted.
The real problem was that the consequences of such a huge supermarket on the site had never really been thought through. The supermarket is not quite as big as first proposed – in 2005 Tesco originally proposed a huge 11,892 sq m (128,000 sq ft) store, reported in the media to be “Europe’s largest supermarket”, but an upstairs mezzanine floor was scrapped and the council argued them down to 7,400 sq m (80,000 sq ft). But it’s still a very large supermarket, with as much floorspace for clothes and electronics as for groceries.
Rather than futuristic this Tesco seems oddly dated: such large supermarkets were already falling out of fashion by the time of its opening. Instead of doing one big weekly shop in a hypermarket, customers nowadays tend to shop more locally and frequently, or online. Just as the Tesco in Woolwich was being built, Tesco was abandoning similar large supermarket projects elsewhere in London: its plans to expand an existing Tesco Extra shop in Purley, near Croydon to 12,913sq m were dropped in 2008. After a 14.3% fall in pre-tax profits, Tesco’s 2013 annual report promised “an end to the big store space race” and did not contain a roll-call of hypermarket openings. Tesco’s growth is now in smaller convenience stores and online shopping and the Woolwich store seems an anachronistic white elephant. Anecdotal evidence suggests that sales are much lower than expected – crucially, even on a Saturday morning the Tesco is very uncrowded with many checkout lanes closed and only short queues at the open ones. The cavernous Woolwich Tesco is like an underused church: Londoners may still like to shop but they now prefer to do so in smaller places of worship.
Even if it is busier than it looks it is far from clear how a huge supermarket can be the solution to Woolwich’s long-term economic problems. No proper analysis was undertaken of what the impact would be on retailers elsewhere in the town centre, or whether the 400 new jobs at Tesco would be offset by job losses at other retailers. A new 13,000 sq m Sainsbury’s and 7,500 sq m Marks’s & Spencer side by side in Charlton, due to open in 2015, will not help, and the Marks and Spencer in Woolwich itself recently announced it was closing. Woolwich needs to accept that its days as a major retail centre may be over: the post-Portas Grimsey Review recently argued that there is already too much retail space in the UK and that struggling town centres need to convert existing retail space to leisure and residential uses, not build more. According to Grimsey, new retail developments often only hasten the decline of town centres, and I fear Woolwich’s Tesco is a good example.
The development did not arise from a longstanding preference for Woolwich New Road as the location for a big new supermarket. Although the 2006 Unitary Development Plan (the council’s planning blueprint; UDP for short): had said the Peggy Middleton House site was suitable for “a mix of residential, retail and/or business/employment uses”, no mention was made of a large supermarket. It had long been assumed that new retail development in Woolwich would take place on or near Powis Street, not half a mile away on Woolwich New Road: a 2004 “Woolwich Strategy and Framework Plan” had envisaged a new mall to “anchor Powis Street with the DLR at the eastern end and Department Stores at the western”, and made no mention of Woolwich New Road as a suitable location for a new supermarket. To add to the confusion the council’s 2006 UDP said that the Post Office was locally listed and “its retention is encouraged,” but identified the Peggy Middleton House site as suitable for mixed use development, adding that “large scale retailing proposals would need frontage on General Gordon Square.”
Once Tesco approached the council its preference for retail development on or near Powis Street was suddenly dropped: a 2005 council presentation entitled “A Future Vision for Woolwich” hailed the Peggy site as a “major site in heart of Woolwich for mixed-use development” including a large supermarket, which would “reinvigorate the site which is presently severely under-utilised”. To “connect the site with the town centre” and “ensure that retail development could be secured”, the presentation said that “A comprehensive approach to the site, including Crown House [sic] & Post Office is required,” a circular argument that did not explain why retail development on the site was necessary or welcome in the first place. The site was suddenly deemed to be suitable for a supermarket largely because of a housekeeping problem at Greenwich Council: the pressing need to rationalise the council’s office provision in Woolwich and create new civic offices. The tail was already wagging the dog.
Woolwich Central is still work in progress: a new masterplan for the Thomas Street end of the site (where a charming row of unlisted 1860s buildings survive – let’s hope they don’t suffer the same fate as the Post Office) is in preparation. Despite warm words about “putting the public sector in the driving seat and steering economic growth and regeneration,” and “achieving the vision set out in the Masterplan” it seems few lessons have been learnt from the mixed success of the Tesco development. Thomas Street actually worked very well before Tesco arrived. The juxtaposition of the Victorian Post Office building and the 1860s terraces alongside was charming and together they were by far the oldest frontage on General Gordon Square, and arguably of greater architectural quality than any of the square’s other sides. In the name of “regeneration” a key heritage asset was unnecessarily knocked down to make way for an iconic tower that will probably never be built, and today the cleared site seems to serve no clear purpose other than to attract shoppers into a vast Tesco store.
One good by-product is the new civic building next door. Although it was nominated for the Carbuncle Cup in 2011, HLM architects’ Woolwich Centre works well, even if the white render of the upper floors looks dull and lifeless under a skin of glass. Above all, the open atrium at the front and the brick and stone of its lower floors show that a council can produce decent civic architecture, where visitors do not feel stigmatised or undignified. It is easy to forgive the silly top-floor viewing gallery set at an angle of 30 degrees (the council’s then Leader Chris Roberts had admired a similar angled feature on the facade of Michael Wilford’s British Embassy in Berlin and asked for it to be replicated in Woolwich). Though its angle is pointless the Survey of London hails the gallery for “saving the main block from too monolithic an appearance”. Because the building was finished in 2011 just as the new coalition government was inflicting heavy cuts on local government, it opened without much fanfare, and emphasis firmly placed on the ground floor library – judged to be London’s busiest in 2012-13 – not the six storeys of offices for 3,000 council staff upstairs.
But the demolition of Woolwich’s Post Office for an “iconic” tower that may never be built will be remembered for decades to come as a major blunder, and I still regret not kicking up more of a fuss at the time. I’m reminded of the fate of Northampton’s Emporium Arcade of 1901, which was knocked down in November 1972 to make way for the Grosvenor Shopping centre, a loss mourned by Ian Nairn in a documentary made just before the wrecking ball arrived – ‘if they do pull this place down it’ll be a diabolical shame,’ said Nairn on camera. “The success of the scheme depends on a new service road – my answer to that is change the scheme ,” said Nairn, scorning Northampton council for having judged the arcade to be “of no architectural value”. In Woolwich, a similar Victorian building was knocked down and replaced not with a new shopping centre, but a pointless void in front of one.
Let’s hope that whatever does happen on the Post Office site will repair some of the damage. At the other end of the site near the barracks, an exhibition of the next residential phase was held on May 23rd and May 24th – when councillors and other political types were busy at an election count. The plans (which unhelpfully can no longer be viewed on the Woolwich Central website) showed a sequence of blocks even higher than those already been built above Tesco, and higher than what was given outline planning permission back in 2007. Another feature of the original plans – a diagonal gap between the blocks to preserve views of Woolwich Town Hall’s clocktower from Woolwich Common – has disappeared.
The council became so fixated on the opportunities that Tesco offered to deliver new civic offices that crucial details were overlooked. The design watchdog CABE had harboured doubts all along: in 2006 their first comment was that the scheme was “wanting in terms of urban design”. Although CABE later became happier, they prophetically warned that “many aspects of the scheme could be problematic to the quality of the public realm and as a place to live if it is implemented in a slightly different way”. In other words, details matter and seemingly minor design changes can have devastating consequences.
When the developers presented a second round of change to the scheme’s design in 2010 they argued the opposite, saying that the bigger picture was more important than design details: “It is easy to become focused on small scale changes, rather than recall the bigger picture issues arising from this significant mixed-use proposal.” But by focussing too much on the “bigger picture” all sorts of problems crept into the development. Planning policies that encourage large supermarkets to go in town centres – the so-called “sequential test” – are well-intentioned, but in practice can mean that town centres receive large, inflexible boxes to which its street patterns are not suited.
The regeneration of Woolwich over the last decade has relied on two huge projects: Tesco and the new Crossrail Station due to open in 2018. But regenerating places like Woolwich isn’t achieved just by big supermarkets or railway stations. Making a place somewhere you want to live, work or hang out in is down to lots of little things – thoughtful public spaces like the new General Gordon Square, new pubs and restaurants, community projects like the Woolwich Ideas Exchange that local councillor John Fahy has helped set up – not just big-ticket projects.
No matter how you dress it up, Woolwich Central is a huge two-storey car park with a supermarket above and some flats on top: a type of development completely alien to London town centres like Woolwich and one which struggles to integrate well. Woolwich Central is at best a red herring and at worst an obstacle on Woolwich’s road to recovery. It may not be a carbuncle but it is a flawed project and I regret my role as its midwife.