The Brixton Society, a registered charity of many years standing, dedicated to “Understanding the Past, Looking to the Future”, is one of the foremost opponents of plans for the tower on Pope’s Road. Not only does the society strongly oppose the plans, it also question their alleged economic benefits
As the local amenity society, we have been following Brixton planning issues since the 1970s and try to provide both a community viewpoint and some professional expertise.
Through 50 years of failure, Lambeth planners have persisted in their belief that one big development will somehow make the sun shine again.
The reality is that Brixton’s revival has not come from big corporations, but from smaller creative firms and maverick innovators, giving the place a buzz that official plans never thought of.
Even Lambeth’s planning officers admit that the proposed Hondo tower conflicts with the council’s planning policies, which say that central Brixton is not suitable for tall buildings because of the harm it would do to Brixton’s historic centre.
They state this clearly in their report to the planning applications committee. So why are they recommending the scheme for approval?
The argument that the planners and the owners are putting to the committee is that the harm would be only minor, and outweighed by the economic benefits that the new office space would deliver to Brixton.
In other words, the economic argument outweighs other considerations – sounds familiar?
We don’t agree that the harm caused would be only minor. Nor do Historic England, who know about these things as the government’s advisers on heritage matters.
Nor do 1170 other objectors – though their concerns are not only that it would be big and ugly, but also about overshadowing, privacy and poor sustainability.
But let’s take a look at the claimed economic benefit.
The key claim is that a large office block on Popes Road will attract a major employer to Brixton, as well as providing affordable space for smaller firms, who between them would deliver hundreds of new jobs.
The Brixton Society agrees that there is a need for affordable workspace in Brixton, but only 10% of the office space in the Hondo Tower will be offered at affordable rents.
As Helen Hayes MP pointed out to the planning applications committee in August, tower blocks are expensive to build and maintain, so the rent and service charges for the other 90% of the office space will need to be at the high end of the London commercial property market.
What evidence is there of demand for this space? This was the question asked by councillors on the planning applications committee at their meeting in August.
The only “new” evidence provided in the report for this week’s committee meeting is a letter from Savill’s commercial lettings department, apparently written in January.
It mainly refers to London-wide demand for office accommodation and has little to say about the office market in Brixton, other than that the demand is mostly from small firms looking for affordable space.
It does not acknowledge the council’s own Brixton Economic Action Plan of 2017, in particular the rising demand for maker-space and co-working space.
Indeed, the layout of the Hondo tower, with its conventional office floors, will inhibit contact and collaboration between different firms in the building.
Crucially, since Savill’s letter predates the Covid crisis, no information is provided about the accelerating trend towards working from home.
Our concern is that, with falling demand for office space across London, the 19 storeys of new office space will prove to be a white elephant.
Worse than that, the government has expressed its intention to further relax the rules on permitted development rights.
These allow owners to convert office accommodation into flats without the need to ask for planning permission. Unlike purpose-built flats, there is no obligation to provide a percentage of affordable housing.
The most likely scenario then is that most of the office space will not attract tenants, so that, in due course, the empty Hondo Tower would be converted into poor quality private rented flats.
By then, the council would be unable to refuse permission, or even to enforce the housing quality standards that it would normally expect.