A hospital charity can reduce the number of social rented homes on the site of the former Middlesex Hospital Annex in Fitzrovia, a planning inspector has ruled.
In a verdict published on 1 December, Gareth Hughes approved UCLH Charity’s appeal and quashed the decision of Camden Council’s planning committee which had refused the application.
It is the latest chapter in the long-running — and yet to be concluded — dispute over the number of social rented homes in the redevelopment of the historic site at 44 Cleveland Street, which was originally a burial ground and a workhouse for St Paul Covent Garden and the Strand Union.
The land is in the same street as a former home of Charles Dickens, whose novel Oliver Twist is partly set in a workhouse.
UCLH Charity bought the development site from UCLH NHS Trust in 2017 and won planning permission in 2019 to build 53 homes — 36 at social rent, four at intermediate rent, and 13 to sell at market rate — as well as commercial and healthcare accommodation.
Thirty of the social rented homes are the legacy units from a historic section 106 agreement to redevelop a number of hospital sites in south Camden.
In 2004 Camden Council agreed that the then owners UCLH NHS Foundation Trust should build 30 affordable homes as part of its plans to redevelop the site. If this did not happen by 2010 the land would pass to the council for £1 so it could build the social homes instead.
But in 2021 UCLH Charity asked Camden to approve a new scheme of 57 homes — with 17 at social and intermediate rent and 40 at market value.
The inspector’s ruling now means UCLH Charity can push ahead with its revised plans and only 13 homes for social rent will be built.
UCLH Charity said the original plan was not viable.
“The charity is facing a significant financial loss,” its viability expert Andy Smith told the planning inquiry.
Camden Council had not tried to trigger the £1 clause because it was reluctant to pit one publicly funded organisation against another.
However the Charity disputed whether the “legacy agreement” is still valid, and the High Court is set to rule if it does next year.
Thomas in his ruling stated that the “main thrust of the Council’s continued opposition to the appeal development relates to the failure by successive owners of the land to deliver on its commitments set out in the 2004 s106 Agreement and subsequent iterations”.
While he noted there had been “lengthy and genuine negotiations” over the matter of the social rented homes he framed his deliberation around what he considered to be the main issues of the appeal.
“[W]hat is now before me is essentially a new proposal that needs to be considered on its own merits,” he said.
He also commented on the fact that a lot of time had passed without the Council taking any legal action to secure the building of those 30 social rented homes.
“I am also conscious that the Council has had many years to enforce the s106 covenant but has chosen not to do so; this separate matter will be considered by the High Court shortly,” he wrote.
Thomas therefore confined himself to weighing up whether the development would provide “a suitable housing mix”, including affordable homes; whether it would have a harmful effect on the Grade II listed workhouse building; and if the scheme was energy efficient in the light of the climate emergency.
“The uplift in housing provision on a previously neglected brownfield site that has laid empty for fifteen years and at a point in time when the Council is failing on its housing targets despite housing being identified as one of its highest priorities, carries with it significant weight in the balance,” he said.
He also said plans for some affordable homes “despite acknowledged viability concerns” was significant.
“The development will bring about economic benefits both in the short term as development proceeds and longer term when residents will contribute towards this growing vibrant community through spending.”
He added that the reopening of the historic Bedford Passage to allow a pedestrian route between Cleveland Street, Charlotte Street and Tottenham Mews also offered benefits to the community.
Thomas said that whilst the height of a proposed block to the rear of the site “would have a harmful” impact on the workhouse it would be “at the lowest level” of harm.
He ruled that overall “the adverse impacts do not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits when assessed against the policies in the framework taken as a whole.”
Camden Council said it is “extremely disappointed” by the ruling which allows a “substantially reduced affordable housing offer and less family homes”.
“We expected the developer to honour its original commitments and provide the full amount of affordable housing, and we rejected attempts to weaken and reduce this offer after starting the development,” said a spokesperson.
“Whilst we understand the challenges that many developers are facing with viability, this is a natural part of the risk that the development industry takes on when embarking on a project.”
The council pledged to continue its fight for the 30 affordable “housing legacy units.”
“The High Court will soon consider the enforceability of the original obligation for the 30 legacy units and the associated £1 clause, and the council will seek to defend our position robustly,” it said.
A court date has not yet been confirmed but Fitzrovia News understands that it is likely to be sometime in March 2023.
Additional reporting by Linus Rees.