8 July 2024

Nimby Watch: Is Labour’s Housing Minister a Nimby?


For this week’s edition of ‘Nimby Watch’, we’re off to Greenwich, where a development was once objected to by Labour’s newly-appointed Housing Minister…

Where are we off to this week? The Greenwich Peninsula, in south east London.

South of the river? Will wonders never cease. What’s there now? Morden Wharf, a couple of crumbling industrial buildings from the heyday of London’s Docklands, pinned between the Thames and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. On the eastern side of that urban motorway is Greenwich Millennium Village, a mixed-use development built since the year 2000 to accompany what we once called the Millennium Dome. The western one, though – the side where Morden Wharf is – is largely derelict brownfield, exactly the sort of place pretty much everyone agrees we should redevelop.

So what wants to build what? Regeneration specialist U+I and Morden College, a charity which, despite its name, is confusingly neither an educational facility nor in Morden – it’s a residential care home in Blackheath – employed architects OMA to masterplan the site. It came up with a £770 million scheme of four towers ranging from 21 to 36 storeys in height, containing 1,500 new homes, 35% of them classed as affordable.

The development – still known as Morden Wharf – would also include 17,000sq m of commercial space (retail, restaurants, workspaces); a new riverside park open to the public; a new pier, for boat services; and improvements to the Thames Path, that stretch of which is currently, your correspondent can attest, hideous. 

This all sounds terrific – appalling that our planning system would block such a scheme. Oh, it didn’t. Last November U+I and Morden College sold the site on to City Developments Ltd and Galliard Homes, who promptly put out a statement promising ‘stunning 360° views that overlook iconic landmarks such as the River Thames, Canary Wharf, and The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich’. But that sale only happened a year after the scheme had been granted planning permission. It does seem to be going ahead.

So why on earth are you writing about it in a column called ‘Nimby Watch’? Because of the identity of one of the people who didn’t want it to go ahead: the local Labour MP, who in May 2021 wrote to the council’s planning board to complain that, ‘While I fully support the principle of a mixed-use development on what is unquestionably an underutilised site, it is imperative that any development authorised to be appropriate’.

Why wasn’t this one? Too tall, apparently: the ‘excessive’ heights of the towers was ‘wholly inappropriate’, and would have a ‘marked detrimental impact on the existing character of the area’, not least because it’d be visible from the nearby East Greenwich Conservation Area. 

It would also, the MP argued, affect the views of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site from Greenwich Park. This was an odd sort of objection: the new development would be behind that site and way off to one side, there already are dozens of high rises visible from Greenwich Park – you know them as ‘Canary Wharf’ – and anyway, the executive of the heritage site themselves had decided not to object to the application. 

At any rate, while the scheme was approved, its local MP’s belief that it was just too big was very firmly and very publicly on the record.

Okay, but all this sounds pretty standard. Sure. What makes it interesting is that, seven months later the MP in question – Labour’s Matthew Pennycook – was appointed Shadow Housing & Planning Minister.

Ah. And this weekend, he became the first Labour Housing Minister in 14 years.

Oh. Now, Pennycook has firmly and repeatedly pushed back on claims that he’s a Nimby: in 2021 he said that he simply opposed this development on this site. And perhaps he’s got a point! Sometimes opponents of schemes to build more homes do (although I can’t say his argument seems particularly compelling, and more to the point ‘I support homes, just not these homes’ isn’t a rejection of Nimbyism but something close to the definition of it). 

Nonetheless, there’s a delightful irony in the fact his party has been elected on an explicitly pro-building manifesto, that Chancellor Rachel Reeves used her first speech to identify planning reform as a key step to unlocking growth, and that he’s been appointed to a post in which a big part of his job will likely be pushing those reforms through. 

Perhaps Matthew Pennycook sincerely believes in housing development, just not in high rises. Perhaps! Or perhaps he’s changed his mind. Either way, though, his job is now to change the rules to make sure objections like his own from three years ago have less power to block housing development.

Over to you, Minister.

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.