I've been meaning to write about this development for some time now, ever since the front of the former Jobcentre was torn down and the builders began the painstaking task of slotting a whole lot of new steel girders into the shell of the structure.
Unfortunately the original planning documents, which go back to 2003, are no longer available online, so it's a case of piecing together information from a number of sources.
The original application was for:
The change of use, alteration and conversion of 124 Deptford High Street SE8, together with the construction of a two storey extension to the front of the building and two additional storeys, incorporating roof terrace/balconies to provide 2 commercial units for the sale of hot food and drink on the ground floor and 10 live/work units, 4 two bedroom self-contained flats and 10 two bedroom self-contained maisonettes with associated landscaping.
Planning permission came with a large number of conditions, which you can read here if you are interested. At least two of them related to the proposed use of the ground floor units, for example:
2) The premises shall not be used as a public house and shall only be used as a restaurant, restaurant/bar and/or cafe purposes and for no other purpose (including any other purpose in Class A3 of the Schedule to the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, or in any provision equivalent to that Class in any statutory instrument revoking and re-enacting that Order).
This rendering was published by the architects, and in my opinion looks quite acceptable with its neutral colouring, inoffensive proportions and unfussy detailing. I don't like the fact that it closes in on the High Street by bringing its raised roofline right up against the pavement, but it's difficult to argue against considering its two neighbours are in conflict over this. And again I'm unhappy with the stealthy increase in building height that the additional storeys confer onto the High Street.
As highlighted above, the two ground floor units were intended to be 'for the sale of hot food and drink' and the conditions were very clear that these should be for consumption on the premises, not as takeaway, so we were looking forward to some nice cafe or restaurant premises.
However last year developer MacDonald Egan pushed through an application for 'Lawful Development Certificate (Proposed) in respect of the creation of a single commercial unit at 124 Deptford High Street SE8 and change of use from Cafe (Use Class A3) to Use Classes A1 /A3 Shop/Cafe' which basically meant that the two ground floor units could be combined into a single retail unit specifically for Poundland, which was interested in opening a store in Deptford. As a 'Lawful Development Certificate' this change of use does not require planning permission and is dealt with by the planning department without any need to consult.
Planning applications for the shopfront have now been submitted; the documents from which the rendering above has been extracted are available online.
Why are cafe units being dumped in preference for a larger retail unit? According to MacDonald Egan its attempts to find cafe tenants had not been successful when it applied to change the usage class this time last year. With construction work having barely started at that time, and completion still being some time away it's unsurprising that no independent operators were able to commit at that time.
It's also worth noting how much has changed in Deptford since that time - work on the station redevelopment only started last April, the Deptford Lounge and Giffin Square were one unholy construction site with completion dates slipping, and the refurbishment of Douglas Way had not begun. With all these changes afoot it might have been possible to attract cafe tenants if the units had been marketed now.
MacDonald Egan argued that the conditions that were placed on usage at the time permission was granted were only intended to prevent a change to other class 3 uses, such as pubs or takeaways, and that change to a retail unit should be allowed. The planning department agreed.
Developer Cathedral Group has also included several restaurant units in its proposals for the redevelopment of St Paul's House and the carriage ramp/Octavius St site - will we perhaps see these changed to other usage classes once planning permission has been obtained?
This process of getting permission for a mixed use development of a certain type, and then submitting a future application to change the use of the buildings carries a strong whiff of deja vu from a similar, very recent local case in which a proposed office block is now going to be a four-star hotel, and an art gallery is being shunted from a spacious unit in a high-profile location to a pokey space on a side road.
It once again raises questions about how the planning system works, and whom such flexibilities favour. Developers may submit a proposal for a particular type of commercial use, only to apply to change it at some future time, claiming that no-one was interested in what they proposed (which would perhaps cast doubt on the adequacy of their initial research).
It's worth remembering that initial submissions for developments of this size would almost always have to come before a planning committee for consideration, where councillors would consider whether the number and mix of residential units and sizes was appropriate, and in the case of a high street site, what the proposed commercial use could offer in terms of improving vibrancy and sustainability of the shopping area.
However it's very unlikely - except in the case of a number of objections - that any subsequent application for change of use would be examined by a committee. This surely offers a nice little back-door route for developers to get what they want without actually having to undergo full scrutiny?
My question here is not the desirability or otherwise of Poundland as a tenant for the site - although I do suspect it will impact on the business of the numerous 'pound shops' we already have. On the other hand, if tenants could be found for the two cafe units they presumably might have competed with each other and with the area's existing cafes, some of which do struggle to survive.
I'm more interested in the ongoing implications of this type of flexibility, and in particular how this is supposed to tie in with the government's plans to revitalise our high streets and give local communities more say. In my opinion it can only lead to conflict and will undermine confidence in the planning process; local groups may be eager to get involved at the beginning, but once they come across this kind of anomaly they will understandably wonder whether they really have a role in defining the future of the high street.