My Views on The Old Post Office
Why it should be rejected
I have made the difficult decision to ask the Development Control committee that the current TOPO scheme should be refused planning permission.
In June 2014 Kingston held the Kingston Futures launch conference in which we invited developers to come and hear about our ambitions around growth. Growth is the single most important issue facing Kingston and London over the next few decades. We have simply failed to build enough homes (especially affordable homes) for there not to be soaring demand, leading to rising prices.
At that conference I gave a closing speech in which I shared with the assembled audience some of the history of this great town. I focused on two aspects. The first was the Viking invasion of 1009 AD which saw the pillage and destruction of All Hallows Church, the predecessor of the current Market Place church, All Saint’s. I also told them of Kingston as the birthplace of England where Athelstan was crowned the first King of all England. The point of this was to clearly say to them that we welcomed development and regeneration but that whoever came to Kingston they needed to be Kings, creating a new Kingston and not Vikings destroying what we love.
The current scheme for the development of the Old Post Office is the first of many schemes we are going to see right across the Borough. Everybody seems to agree that we need more homes, although there seems to be some debate about how many. On this the London Plan is clear. Due to our lack of building in the past ten years we now need to deliver at least 700 new built homes every year and that figure will likely rise to over 1,000 by the time of the new London Plan in two years. Because of the drawn out nature of construction the TOPO scheme will probably only contribute 70 of those homes every year. We need ten TOPO’s to meet our target as it is now. Thankfully, that is a Borough wide figure and something just for the town centre. This means we will have to see density that is aligned with the London Plan, something this scheme broadly is’
Affordable housing is a dark art. I am leading a campaign across London for the current viability system to be changed as it does not work in the favour of any of us that live here. It is frankly amazing that I, as Leader of the Council, am not able to even read any viability appraisal from the developer for commercial reasons. Only this week I spoke to the Deputy Mayor of Housing in London to discuss this very point. However, for now, the viability on TOPO indicates that the 15% offered is appropriate. Council officers are recommending that to ensure we continue to get the right value from this site that a viability review is undertaken during the construction period so that if the development delivers more profit then Kingston will get its fair share. I am therefore comfortable we are doing the best we can. Incidentally, we are reviewing our affordable homes policy to make it more fit for purpose.
In respect of height you will know, if you read my previous document on this subject a few months back, that I believe height to be an element of design. In itself I do not have a problem with an excellent and spectacular design with height. Height aids design quality but it also gives value that releases money for affordable homes and other elements such as contributions to schools and, in the case of TOPO, the millions required to restore the two listed buildings.
It is also the case that whilst this is a single application it needs to be looked at in the bigger vision of the Eden Quarter and the new regenerated Kingston that will continue to honour its historic parts, but equally create a new future where it can.
When it comes to the historic context of the town I am afraid that I have enough knowledge of that context to know when a new building is appropriate and when it is not. What is a proposed is a new building and where it is appropriate we should never try to preserve some idealised view of a town that never really existed. Every generation of Kingstonians has seen new buildings that honoured the past but also those that created a new vernacular. This time will be no different. In fact I remember this site when it was still a Post Office and our only theatre of the time was in Ashdown Road - it never looked great.
I have had many meetings and discussions with St. George, because it is my role to get as good a deal as we can for Kingston. Some criticise me because I part own a business that works in communications that deal in the property sector. I am not employed by that company and have always said, to those that want to listen, that this is precisely why I am the best person to undertake this work. I understand what developers do and understand also what we can come to expect from them, when to push for more and when to accept that it is the best we can get.
So, the issues I have been considering in the past few weeks is not whether it is too dense, too high or not enough affordable but quite simply whether it is a spectacular building worthy of this town and of this setting.
The first scheme submitted by St.George in December 2014 was, in my view, not a well designed nor appropriate building for either Kingston or this site. Blocky and imposing I said to St.George that we needed a redesign and this they have duly undertaken.
The redesign has been an improvement, no one can doubt that. It has moved away from solid form to more glass, a different scale and the finishes have improved considerably. They have adjusted the setting of the listed buildings and provided more space in the public realm.
Since the redesign I have kept my views quiet and listened very hard to what others had to say - something I promised I would. I have heard all the arguments put by those who support the scheme and I do not want to lose the very many benefits this scheme will bring Kingston - of which there are many. I have listened to those who live close to the site and clearly are concerned about a development where there was previously none. I have even listened to the conspiracy theorists who always think the worst of people such as me who are merely trying to bring change, growth and homes to a town I love dearly and want to see change. There are 165,000 people in this Borough and every development is about all of them and not any individual or single community.
The conclusion I have come to is that in policy terms it is very difficult to turn this building down because on balance it conforms to so many things that we want locally or London expects of us regionally. But I do not want any building in Kingston that merely conforms to policy. I want great buildings that even when some believe it is too tall we can at least say the design was exceptional. Despite its changes, this development is not exceptional. It has a lack of permeability, still too many balconies, a glass block on top that seems to add nothing to the design and whilst I accept it would not be a lighthouse beacon, as some would claim, I simply do not see the need for it. I also dislike its setting and public realm to the interface with Wheatfield Way and the mini-Hollands scheme. It lacks proper interaction with the public realm on this important corner and needs to do a lot more to create an active frontage rather than merely a corner on a dual carriageway, a corner that will become dirty and tired very quickly. Of all aspects of the building it is the Wheatfield Way area that causes the most difficulty, particularly if we continue with the absurdity of a a building St George do not own nestled in the midst of a new scheme.
For fear I might upset another part of London, it is the sort of thing they are building in Vauxhall where derelict brownfield sites give way to new communities. We have a community, we are not derelict and we need a gateway from the South that stirs the heart and makes us feel proud as we walk towards it.
This building does not stir my heart and as a proud Kingstonian and Leader of this great Borough, this is why I believe the application should be rejected on the grounds of design quality, finishes and materials. This will send the clear signal to others who will build here that we want homes, we want you to build for us, but we want buildings fit for Kings, not be destroyed by Vikings.