It doesn’t happen very often, and it seems even less likely in a borough such as Richmond-upon-Thames, that planning committee members would overturn their own officer’s recommendation to refuse a planning application. However, that is what happened IN November, after a six-year run through the planning process, when London Square’s development proposals for the former Greggs Bakery site in Twickenham were finally given the green light.

I am firmly of the view that planning policy has enormous value. I am also of the view that, at times and in relation to specific areas or sites, it can unintentionally stifle progress. But decision making doesn’t need to be binary, dictated only by policy – in fact Government guidance actively allows for other planning issues to be taken into consideration in the decision-making process.

The policy challenge 

Greggs closed the site in 2017 as part of a nationwide review of their operations. At the time, this brownfield site was designated in the Local Plan as a ‘Locally Important Industrial Land and Business Park’ and, despite the residential nature of the surrounding Twickenham Green neighbourhood, it retained this status in the emerging draft Local Plan.

Although the smell of cooking doughnuts wafting over the area was something locals often reminisced about, there were many complaints about HGVs causing damage to pavements or parked cars, concerns around pedestrian safety, and issues with noise and air quality.

The power of public opinion 

To kick start the process for bringing forward a residential-led scheme, Cascade led an extensive public engagement exercise, which demonstrated over 70% support for housing delivery on the site. An application, submitted in February 2019, comprised of 116 homes with 40% on-site affordable, discounted workspace and public access to the River Crane. The officers’ report was incredibly positive, complimenting the design and wider benefits. But despite this, plus ward councillors speaking in support at committee and a demonstrable level of support from the community, policy won the day – the plans were refused in August 2020 on the grounds of a loss of industrial floorspace.

Fast-forward to 2022, the team came forward with two new options, one residential-led with 50% affordable homes and another industrial-led scheme – note it simply wasn’t viable to deliver a high percentage of affordable homes and industrial floorspace in single proposal.

With two options on the table, yet again the local community favoured the residential option – 63% in support, with many highlighting the unsuitability of the site for industrial use, while 17% supported the industrial-led plans and 17% preferred neither option came forward.

Regardless of public support, it was entirely expected that both applications would be recommended for refusal by officers. As the committee date approached, it was time to mobilise support. Having been London Square’s public face for six years, we had fostered excellent relationships with site neighbours, councillors and groups, who wanted to see something happen – but were aware that planning policy was the biggest hurdle.

Setting out the case for new homes

A key part our approach was ensuring that both local councillors and members of the Planning Committee understood the benefits of the proposals and that they had the power as elected members to challenge their officers’ recommendation. One of the key arguments was Richmond Council’s housing delivery in recent years. Figures released by the Mayor of London and Greater London Authority earlier this year highlighted them as one of five councils with the worst records in the Capital for affordable housing delivery, as well as being the Outer London borough with the highest median private rent for a two-bedroom home. These plans proposed 116 new homes, 50% affordable comprising 47 London affordable rent and 11 shared ownership, as well as family sized units up to 4 bedrooms.

Importantly, we galvanised local people who were supportive of the plans to speak up, meaning councillors deciding the application heard from residents living around the site in advance of committee, but also on the night – with several residents speaking in support alongside three local councillors.

We all know the reality is that London has a housing shortage. At committee, members saw past the policy constraints, and focused primarily on housing. One councillor referred to planning policy as a “snapshot in time” and emphasised the need for decision-making to be practical and grounded in the current day. The Vice-Chair was definitive in stating there were “good grounds” to support the application and address “a growing problem of people on the housing waiting list”.

The preferred residential option was approved by 7 votes to 2.

You could say the decision was common sense, but fundamentally I believe it was local decision-making and the power of public opinion at its best – informed, representative and addressing the needs of the borough’s community.