Merton Council plans to develop eyesore in central Mitcham

This is the first of two blogs about the housing developments planned by Merton Council’s new development company, Merantun.

We blogged back in September about the opportunity for Merantun to “be a force for good, providing both inspiration for what new development can achieve and respect for what already exists.”

Merton Council has a special responsibility when bringing forward its own development to set the standard and to be able to look other developers in the eye and demand well-considered new buildings when making planning decisions.

It is with a heavy heart therefore that we we have reviewed Merantun’s first planning applications and found them falling woefully short of the mark.

Even before looking at the impact of the buildings it is clear that Merantun has skimped on community engagement, left it all to the last minute, and provided no information online. To make a bad situation worse the current crop of four applications (three in Mitcham) were all submitted at the same time, with an opportunity for public comment that coincided with the Christmas break, a decision which was either wilful or incompetent.

We are also dismayed at the limited approach to providing affordable homes. These are planned for only one of Merantun’s sites, at Elm Nursery car park. This is despite it being Merton Council planning policy to integrate affordable homes into all new development. The schemes also fall well short of providing the amount of affordable homes expected by Merton Council and the Mayor of London’s planning policies.

By far the largest of the four Merantun schemes now being considered is for Raleigh Gardens car park. It is earmarked for 36 flats in a development reaching 6 storeys that would set a damaging precedent for both the height and the quality of the new development we can expect to see in Mitcham’s centre over the next few years.

The quality of information commissioned by Merantun to support its plans is well below standard.

Even the Government’s own heritage advisors Historic England has said the archaeological assessment “does not provide enough information” and has told Merton Council’s planners that “if you do not receive more archaeological information before you take a planning decision, I recommend that you include the applicant’s failure to submit that as a reason for refusal.”

Remember, this is an application by Merton Council to itself which is being spotlighted for failing to provide even basic information.

We would support a well designed development on the Raleigh Gardens car park as part of wider plans for the future of Mitcham which also tackle other empty and poorly used sites. This could extend the shopping parade from London Road to Lidl and provide affordable homes.

Instead Merton Council has put forward plans on the boundary of the Conservation Area which overwhelm neighbouring buildings, including Glebe Court and the modest two storey homes along the remainder of Raleigh Gardens.

It will set the future of Mitcham’s centre off in a direction that will irreversibly harm the opportunities to retain and enhance its distinctive village character. The scheme appears more driven by a desire to maximise financial return than respond to and enhance Mitcham.

Our concerns are shared by Merton Council’s own Design Review Panel which concluded, in giving the scheme an Amber rating, that the “site was overdeveloped”.

The impact on Glebe Court is profound.

The Design Review Panel describes it as creating a “canyon effect” and the extent to which Glebe Court will be overwhelmed is clear from the architects own drawings.

The impacts won’t just be felt in how the area will look but also in the quality of life for Glebe Court residents. Merantun’s own Daylight and Sunlight Assessment concludes that after the flats are built only 45% of the windows facing the new development would meet official guidelines for daylight and a shocking 29% would be “subject to noticeable losses”. This level of impact is wholly unacceptable.

We remind you again that this is a development being proposed by Merton Council.

The scheme falls down on many other counts. The architectural quality lack any distinction and the analysis of other local developments from which it might take some cues is substandard.

The design singularly fails to break up the monolithic appearance from Raleigh Gardens and it is to be fringed by a wall and not hedgerows despite the high levels of local air pollution. The sustainability ambitions for the development are either unclear or too weak. The plans add to light pollution with no fewer than 17 uplighters in a way that makes no sense.

It is Government planning policy that “permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions”.

Merantun’s plans for Raleigh Gardens car park are of poor design and do not respond to the local area or improve it. They harm both the setting of Mitcham Cricket Green Conservation Area and Glebe Court and fall foul of at least seven Merton Council planning policies.

Merton Council simply has to do better. Merantun should withdraw the planning application for a rethink or face up the the fact that Merton Council will have to refuse planning permission for its own development.

Read our full comments on Merantun’s plans for Raleigh Gardens car park Development of Raleigh Gardens car park – January 2020.

Tree felling shock reverberates down the years

This is a sad tale of lost trees and bureaucratic inaction played out in a Cricket Green garden behind Preshaw Crescent.

Back in 2015 a large number of mature trees were felled and a large garden cleared in anticipation of development plans for a block of flats being submitted.

All mature trees in the Conservation Area are automatically protected and Merton Council needs to permit their felling.

No permission was given for an act that the landowner later described as an “embarrassment”. The photo shows before and after images and the garden has now been cleared by a digger to bare earth.

We joined with local residents in asking Merton Council to take action against this blatant breach of planning safeguards.

The response was to deal with the issue as part of the decision on the planning applications subsequently submitted to develop the garden site. Merton’s Tree Officer emailed in December 2016 that “I have written to the owner about this matter, and he is now aware that the council expects new replacement trees to be planted.”

In the event two planning applications were submitted. These included the statement that “This occurrence is an embarrassment to the applicant and all involved with developing the proposals for this development and something that we all wish to put right as part of the development process.

One application was never progressed and the other was turned down in late 2019 after two years of consideration.

Imagine the dismay, therefore, when we asked Merton’s Tree Officer what action was being taken to put right the wrong done to the trees in 2015 and were told that “the power to enforce tree replacement is time limited to 4 years, and as this time has now expired no further action in the form of enforcement can be taken.”

We have asked our ward councillors to look into the issue. There is every impression of officers asleep on the job and allowing the wilful loss of mature trees just as Merton Council announces a climate and ecological emergency. A simple calendar reminder to take action if the situation had not been resolved would have served to ensure the enforcement deadline was not missed.

There is one potential silver lining. A new application has been submitted for the site. While the proposed flats are too large and develop too much of the site it does provide an opportunity for the owner to put right the wrong and for Merton Council to insist on trees being provided equivalent to those that were lost.

We ask you to join us in watching what happens next.

Read our full representations on the latest development for the garden of 8 Preshaw Crescent Land behind Preshaw Crescent – January 2020

Kwik Fit redevelopment unfit for Conservation Area

A new developer has put in plans to redevelop the former Kwik Fit site.

This has lain empty for years now and we are keen to see it developed in a way that respects its location at the gateway to the Conservation Area and in key views from the historic cricket ground and listed Burn Bullock.

Merton Council gave permission for 22 flats in 2016 for a shockingly poor development that led us to call for the site’s removal from the Conservation Area. With a new owner the site provides an opportunity for a flagship building of a standard which could be listed within 30 years.

The new application falls woefully short of this potential.

Its five storeys will overwhelm surrounding buildings and intrude on existing homes in Broadway Gardens and Highfield Court. The building will be a significant imposition on the key view from Mitcham cricket ground and damage its setting and that of the Grade II listed Burn Bullock by virtue of its scale and the poor quality elevation facing London Road.

In direct conflict with planning policy none of the 24 flats will be affordable. The developer backs this decision with reports claiming the scheme wouldn’t be viable. We have asked Merton Council to subject these to independent review.

The development includes over 400 sq m on the ground floor for retail or commercial use. This is welcome. The developer says it is in in talks with the Co-op. Similar talks with the same supermarket fell through over the road at Justin Plaza when this was converted from offices to flats. As a result we ended up with more flats on the ground floor. We have asked Merton Council to ensure the ground floor is put to good use before any flats are sold if the development does get permission.

The development has come forward at the same time as plans for 19 flats and around half the area of retail or office space on the ground floor on the car wash site across Broadway Gardens.  Taken together the plans will means Broadway Gardens residents being forced to pass through a canyon of new building to get to their homes and an excessively high wall of new development along a major stretch London Road just where it enters the Conservation Area.

These are both sites where development is needed and we are disappointed to find ourselves once again having to object to what is proposed. A high quality development of three to four storeys with shops on the ground floor to fill this gap in London Road would be very suitable.

Neither developer has engaged the local community before submitting their plans. We are asking for better for both sites and the opportunity for local people to shape what is going to happen to their neighbourhood.

Read our comments on plans for the former KwikFit site Development of KwikFit site – January 2020

Read our blog and comments on the car wash site 

Merton’s “Green Belt” at risk on Imperial Fields

2020 has barely begun, and is already looking like a watershed year for the local area with a record number of live planning applications for blocks of flats to be developed across the neighbourhood.

These include plans for 77 flats in a six storey development on Imperial Fields along Bishopsford Road. This is on the Sutton boundary and would involve the development of one of Merton’s most protected areas of green land.

Merton is one of the greenest boroughs in London due in large part to the designation of large areas of green space as Metropolitan Open Land. This has the same level of protection as Green Belt. It cannot be developed unless “very special circumstances” can be demonstrated and it receives the “strongest protection” in the London Plan. Metropolitan Open Land is also protected in Merton’s Local Plan.

The Imperial Fields scheme is promoted by the owner of The Hub on the grounds that it will support investment in sports and community facilities on the site.

We welcome the community offer provided by The Hub but on closer inspection the plans fall well short of meeting the test of “very special circumstances”.

Contrary to claims that “we are not a commercial company” the applicant, Tooting and Mitcham Leisure Ltd is a private company limited by shares controlled by and dependent on a £1m + loan from a property developer. It is not a charity and the planning application lacks legal guarantees that investment on The Hub’s facilities will follow.

It is also apparent that the new development could generate funds for only a small part of the investment needed at The Hub. Given their community emphasis we are also disappointed that the applicant did not engage local people in the plans before they were submitted.

The development itself will be very intrusive for the surrounding open land which forms part of the important green corridor along the Wandle Valley and includes Poulter Park. The design lacks distinction and ignores the character of other buildings in the local area. The plans also introduce a large area of surface car parking on what is currently green space.

We are pleased that Sutton Council has registered objections and have alerted Mayor Khan to the plans.

Read our views in full Imperial Fields – January 2020

Our call for Merton Council to up its game on community engagement

Merton Council is reviewing its official “Statement of Community Involvement”.

This is an important document which sets out the approach Merton Council takes to involving local people and organisations in development and planning issues.

We’ve welcomed the long overdue review which will replace a 13 year old document that does not meet today’s expectations for deeper and earlier community engagement in planning decisions. 

We are calling for a step change in Merton Council’s approach which, in our experience, rarely exceeds legal compliance and sometimes even falls short of this. This discourages community engagement, frustrates those who do engage, and ultimately results in less well informed and poorer planning outcomes.

We have identified an array of current problems and inconsistencies in Merton Council practice.

These range from squeezing the time available for the public to speak at Planning Committee to a quality of online public access to planning documents that falls well short of other local authorities. 

Merton Council allows significant changes to planning applications to be made without publicity, blocks resident representations on planning applications appearing online and often provides inadequate summaries of public views in reports presented to councillors.

It also fails to make good use of design tools which can involve people in setting local expectations, such as masterplanning and design codes. We are clear in our reponse that we expect prospective developers to be put in touch with local community groups before they submit planning applications.

Merton Council’s draft Statement of Community Involvement states that “Merton’s local communities are those that are most likely affected by development in their local area and more importantly, know the most about their neighbourhood and how they would like it to grow and be shaped for the future.

These are fine words. We are asking for changes to make the effective engagement of Merton’s local communities a reality.

Read our submission to Merton Council’s draft Statement of Community Involvement –Statement of Community Involvement – Dec 19

Merton’s Climate Action Plan – our submission

Merton Council is one of hundreds of public bodies that have now declared a Climate Emergency.

We commend its cross party declaration back in July 2019 and the commitment to producing a Climate Action Plan.

Cricket Green’s role in helping tackle the Climate Emergency was an issue raised during our own local discussions in producing the Cricket Green Charter. We have now developed this thinking into a submission to Merton Council.

We believe there is much that can be done that is already in the gift of Merton Council to deliver.

This includes much stronger planning policies, action to tackle excess parking and idling traffic, better walking routes and a major programme for planting new trees, hedges and shrubs throughout the area. Cricket Green’s rich network of green spaces provide important carbon sinks that could perform even better if they were managed properly in ways that reduce mowing and encourage wild areas. Merton Council and its contractors should also be using zero emission vehicles and equipment. Zero emission buses should also be the norm, starting with all routes running through Fair Green.

In addressing the Climate Emergency we urge Merton Council also to ensure any measures respect the historic environment of Mitcham Cricket Green Conservation Area and its environs. We see a close alignment between measures for tackling the Climate Emergency and those that protect the historic and natural environment. It is imperative to securing continuing wide public support for climate action that this is not seen to cause harm to other aspects of the environment which local people care about.

Read our submission on Merton’s Climate Action Plan Tackling the Climate Emergency – Dec 19