Elephant & Castle: office block and health centre plans rejected

Plans by Lendlease to build an 18-storey office block - including a potential new health hub - at the Elephant & Castle have been vetoed by Southwark councillors.

Elephant & Castle: office block and health centre plans rejected

The scheme – which one councillor said "looks like Ayers Rock has landed on Elephant & Castle" – was unanimously rejected by Southwark Council's planning committee at the end of a five-hour hearing on Tuesday night.

The site – known as plot H1 of the Elephant Park masterplan for the redevelopment of the Heygate Estate – is at the corner of Elephant Road and Walworth Road, immediately to the east of the railway line.

Before the demolition of the Heygate Estate, the corner plot was a green open space. More recently it has been used for 'The Artworks' temporary shops, restaurants and library. Part of the site is currently used by the 'Crate to Plate' urban farm.

Office use of the site wasn't foreseen in Lendlease's outline planning permission for the Heygate Estate approved in 2013.

"The architects' concept for the facade has taken inspiration from railway and tram lines and Michael Faraday's studies on magnetic fields," explained planning officer Victoria Crosby, introducing the scheme by ACME architects.

Ms Crosby told councillors that the proposed health hub on the lower floors of the building "would bring together primary care, secondary care, community services, mental health trusts, voluntary sector and borough services".

Although documents forming part of the application show that the health hub would be able to accommodate the services currently provided by Nexus Health Group at Princess Street Group Practice and Manor Place Surgery, the planning committee was told that no firm plans for relocation of services had been agreed.

Ms Crosby described the height of the proposed tower as "proportionate to the significance of the site".

She added: "It is considered to be an exemplary architectural design and a fitting final piece of the masterplan."

The proposal includes a lobby area with free public toilets, free wifi and phone charging facilities, to be open to the public seven days a week.

Jerry Flynn of the 35% Campaign addressed the committee in objection to the planning application. He noted that Lendlease already has planning permission for housing on this site.

Mr Flynn also drew attention to the lack of certainty about the provision of the proposed health hub, noting that the intended 30-year lease to the NHS is "too short".

"The impact on local health provision extends beyond this site and demands a comprehensive consultation before – not after – the determination of this application," he said.

Mr Flynn was joined in making objections at the meeting by local resident Norma Lawrence, Jeremy Leach of the Walworth Society and Harps Aujla of the Southwark Law Centre.

Mr Leach described the proposed building as "a very dominant bulk" that is "so out of character with the rest of the [Elephant Park] development".

Angela Brennan of Lendlease told councillors: "We've been working in partnership with Southwark Council since 2010 to deliver a bold vision for regeneration at Elephant Park.

"Our proposals for H1 will complement the existing mix of homes, shops and public realm, by providing a brand new commercial building for Elephant & Castle, delivering more jobs, investment and sustainable growth to the area, whilst also providing new community spaces and contributing to one of Southwark's most loved high streets: Walworth Road."

Ms Brennan said that the tower will provide work space for about 3,500 people and "will set new standards for workplace in the post-pandemic world".

She highlighted the potential benefits of the new NHS health hub and noted that "a significant proportion of the ground floor of the building will be delivered as a publicly accessible space open to the community as a place to meet, chat, study, relax and socialise".

Asked about the wisdom of developing office space in a world of hybrid working, Ms Brennan told the committee that demand is "starting to return to pre COVID levels" with growing demand for high-quality spaces.

Tony Rackstraw of NHS South East London ICS told the meeting that "there's been a long term ambition for the last 25 years to find space for a health hub in the Elephant & Castle area".

Alluding to local GP premises, he added: "There are a number of outdated and inappropriate buildings that are not fit for the future.

"There are no decisions made and we do need to engage the public and stakeholders around redesigning those services."

Planning consultant Jonathan Smith of DP9, representing Lendlease, defended the decision to build offices rather than homes on the H1 plot.

"We think it adds something different," he said. "We think it responds to the very clear priority from the council to grow Southwark's economy, to attract jobs, to attract investment and to improve social mobility."

North Walworth ward councillor Darren Merrill said he was comfortable with the switch from residential to office use.

"We do need employment opportunities in the Elephant & Castle area and to make the high street more sustainable and drive daytime traffic," he said.

The scheme wasn't received warmly by the committee. Cllr Kath Whittam described it as "an enormous carbuncle of a building, which looks like Ayers Rock has landed on Elephant & Castle".

Cllr Sam Foster warned that the design seemed "completely out of place on the Walworth Road" and observed that many elements of the proposal seemed to be unresolved.

Cllr Ellie Cumbo welcomed the prospect of new work space at the Elephant & Castle, but shared her colleagues' reservations about the design: "It does look simply vast and dwarfs the surrounding buildings. and that is a concern for me."

Cllr Nick Johnson said: "I'm fairly confident if we asked 100 people on Walworth Road 'What does the area really want: a very large office block or more affordable homes?' they would say the latter."

Planning committee chair Cllr Richard Livingstone said he recognised the concerns raised but did not believe that there were sufficient grounds to sustain a decision to refuse permission.

However, after a 50-minute segment of the meeting from which the public and press were excluded, Cllr Livingstone joined his colleagues in resolving unanimously that planning permission be refused due to the tower's "excessive height, mass and bulk" and "unacceptable harm to neighbouring amenity" in terms of daylight and sunlight loss.

It remains to be seen whether Lendlease will lodge an appeal or return with a revised application.

It would also be open to the Mayor of London to 'take over' the planning application, hold his own hearing at City Hall and make a decision on the scheme.

Tags: Planning & Development, Elephant & Castle, Politics & local government, Southwark

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