PLANNING REPORT FOR AGM 26th APRIL 2018
The Planning committee continues to meet monthly on the first Monday of the month. We received 452 applications in the calendar year 2017 an increase on the previous year in part caused by repeated applications for new telephone boxes (in reality just big advertising hoardings) across the area.
Major continuing issues
Office to residential
The Article 4 changes to Westminster’s City Development Plan which came into effect on 1st September 2015 allow the Council to refuse conversion from office use to residential. This has resulted in bringing such applications to an end.
Changes in planning law and regulations
The Government 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 but Westminster appear to have no powers to refuse such applications as they just need ‘prior approval’ under telecoms legislation.
In addition, some development companies and land owners use the flexibility within planning law 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.
Retail and Restaurant Use
The massive increase in internet shopping continues to undermine retail shopping and man landlords have sought to replace retail with restaurant and café use. However, there are signs that the supply of restaurants and café’s may be reaching their peak with increasing evidence that a number of chains are struggling and some high profile closures.
Tables and chairs
We continue to see many applications 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 2 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. If members are concerned about that tables and chairs are taking up too much of the pavement space in any particular location, they should complain to the Council. If they do so and also make sure their complaint is given a reference number, we will log these complaints and oppose further renewal of their street trading licence unless the space taken up is correctly reduced.
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 same space and this also has the effect of reducing traffic speeds.
We were very heartened to see the announcement by the new council leader, Cllr Nickie Aiken, that the Council will now expect affordable housing required as part of large developments to be provided on site or in the vicinity if a scheme is to get the go ahead. It is too early to tell how this will work in the long term but we have noticed that across the borough more schemes are being refused or deferred for reconsideration if they do not provide suitable levels of affordable housing. We were laos pleased to see that a couple of applications for the conversion of buildings into very small hotels with no facilities were refused. This would have allowed such buildings effectively to become perpetual short term lettings spaces.
Although this is not specifically a planning matter our very polluted air is worrying everyone. Whilst much of this is caused by traffic, roughly 40% is emitted from buildings so we increasingly focusing on how buildings are heated and cooled to ensure the systems used are the least polluting possible. 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.
Together with other amenity societies coming together as the West End Community Network (WECN) we have been participating in monthly discussions with WCC and TfL officers on the Mayor’s plan to pedestrianise Oxford Street starting at the western end. During most of that time we felt that our concerns were not really being listened to. In the recent consultation that finished on 3rd January it became clear that a large majority of local businesses and residents did not support the scheme despite wider support across London and elsewhere. It was also clear the consultation process itself was flawed and had to be withdrawn as a number of responses were omitted and others sent to a wrong email address supplied by TfL. On 20th March WCC confirmed in writing that ‘no decision has been taken, or will be taken, on whether to proceed with any scheme, until the council and TfL has looked in detail at every issue raised’.
Whilst the pace of development and change continues across Soho there were only four major schemes to mention during 2017.
At 57 Broadwick Street Shaftesbury took over the first to fourth floors previously occupied by Jaeger to enlarge the space for retail and office use plus a repositioned A3 restaurant. It was an application opposed by the Society because it removed street trees and also absorbed a large amount of forecourt which for many years had been used as a wider pavement. It was granted by the committee and is currently being implemented.
At 52/53 Poland Street the Z hotel received consent for a ground to eighth floor hotel regrettably replacing former B1 office use. Unfortunately, in the Society’s view the London Plan and Westminster’s plans support hotel use in Soho as part of the Central Activities Zone (CAZ). We feel that whilst hotels do provide employment and cater for London’s increasing number of tourists they tend to be located in former commercial buildings which provided permanent employment for those working in a wide range of industries often involving the creative industries, they tend to want increased height, open roof terraces and their servicing requirements increase congestion. They also erode the very diversity of character that makes Soho a place that visitors are keen to visit.
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 new restaurant and bar terraces at 6th and 7th floors. The scheme was recommended for refusal by WCC 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 bad precedent with the potential noise impacts at high level on residents and neighbours from a roof top bar and a restaurant.
In Meard Street an application has been made and since granted to transform the old film laboratory space into new retail and gym facilities with a new office building on the back. The Society supported one aspect of the scheme which allowed the Soho Housing Association to obtain an 999 year lease on the upper parts known as Royalty mansions but we opposed the new ground floor uses because of the way they will change the character of one of Soho’s most conic residential streets.
Soho Estates are proceeding with the Walkers Court and Boulevard theatre development which should be externally complete by the end of this year while on Charing Cross Road Soho Estates also continue their new development called Ilona Rose House based on the site of the old Foyles building.
PMB are continuing the development scheme at kemp house which has been presold to Shaftesbury plc.
Matthew Bennett April 2018
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