Major continuing issues
Office to residential
The changes to Westminster’s City Development Plan came into effect on 1st September 2015 to allow the Council to refuse office to residential conversions in suitable cases. This has resulted in a real decline in such applications.
Changes in planning law and regulations
The Government elected in May 2015 has continued to liberalise planning law and many things that WCC were previously able to control no longer require their consent. One recent example is a spate of application for new telephone ‘boxes’ for landlines in many of our already busy streets. In reality they will be nothing more than large advertising boards. Westminster appear to have no powers to refuse such applications.
In addition, some development companies and land owners use this flexibility to have a number of simultaneous planning use consents for their buildings. Whilst this allows them to respond flexibly to the needs of tenants it does make any sort of control difficult for the Council.
The repeated attempts by the freeholder of the Yard bar at 57 Rupert Street to get possession and redevelop it have been objected to by the Society and was supported by all our ward councillors. I am pleased to report that the planning inspector refused the freeholder’s appeal which is a positive outcome for this well supported bar situated in the last relatively intact horse stables in Soho and should allow it to continue to trade well into the future.
Tables and chairs
We continue to see many application for tables and chairs and/or benches outside cafes, bars, and restaurants and where they are well run and do not cause obstruction we support them. Westminster’s policy is that at least two metres of pavement space should be left free for pedestrians and we agree as Soho’s increasing popularity means that the number of people walking through Soho is so great on many evenings that people are forced onto the road. In some of the really narrow streets the lack of pavement space is a real problem and we may need to see much greater use of shared surfaces where pedestrians and vehicles share the space and this also has the effect of reducing traffic speeds.
For too long developers have been able to argue successfully that they cannot viably provide affordable housing on site or in the vicinity as part of their development and pay a financial sum in lieu to the Council’s affordable housing fund. This has been very frustrating as the viability assessments on which this is all based have not been transparent. It has left members feeling that Soho is losing out in getting almost no new affordable housing and with the money that does go into the AHF being spent in other parts of the borough. We were very heartened to see the recent announcement by Cllr Nickie Aiken that things will change and that she and the Council will now expect the affordable housing to be provided if a scheme is to get the go ahead. It is too early to tell how this will work but we welcome this commitment.
Although this is not specifically a planning matter, our polluted air is worrying everyone and whilst much of this is caused by traffic roughly 40% is emitted from buildings so we will be increasingly focusing on how buildings are heated and cooled. In addition, the deliveries and collections needed by buildings can increase pollution so we will be looking at delivery service plans to encourage developers to put in place systems which consolidate freight and reduce the number of vehicle trips to and from their buildings. We can all help by thinking how we use the delivery services when using internet shopping. All these white vans in Soho are delivering our purchases and taking away the items we return and that comes at a cost to our air quality.
Whilst the pace of development continues across Soho there were only four really major schemes to mention. At 57 Broadwick Street the former Jaeger building is to enlarge the ground to fourth floors principally for large ground and first floor retail uses plus an A3 use. It was controversial in that it removed street trees and also absorbed a large amount of forecourt which for many years had been used as a wider pavement.
At 52/53 Poland Street the Z hotel received consent for a ground to eighth floor hotel regrettably replacing former B1 office use.
At 18-24 Broadwick Street and 83 Berwick Street we were hugely disappointed to see consent given for demolition to construct a new hotel with potentially noisy terraces at 6th and 7th floors. The scheme was recommended for refusal by the officers but the councillors led by its then Chair Cllr Robert Davis overruled them and gave consent. We are worried that this scheme sets a very bad precedent with the potential noise impacts at high level on residents and neighbours from a roof top bar and a restaurant.
On Charing Cross Road, Soho Estates have started their new development Ilona Rose House based on the site of the old Foyles building. It is taller than we would have liked but now it has started we wish the scheme well with its ground and eight office floors, space for an art gallery, art education and basement office space at affordable rents for start up businesses coupled with a new pedestrian walkway through the site to Greek Street to help distribute the increased pedestrian flows once the Elizabeth line opens.