Council ‘extremely disappointed’ as planning inspector sides with charity in long-running dispute over affordable homes

The Cleveland Street workhouse. Photograph: Julia Gregory

A hospital charity can reduce the number of affordable homes on the site of the former Middlesex hospital and workhouse, a planning inspector has ruled.

Gareth Hughes approved the UCLH Charity’s appeal after Camden Council turned down its request to cut the number of affordable homes on the Cleveland Street site.

The charity raises funds for University College London Hospital.

It is the latest step in a long-running dispute over the number of social homes in the development.

In 2017, a scheme including 30 social homes was approved by Camden’s planning committee, and in 2019, plans to build 53 homes, including 36 at social rent, got the green light.

The current scheme keeps the 18th-century Strand Union Workhouse building and creates a new block up to eight storeys high for homes, healthcare facilities, and public open space on the site of the now-demolished 19th-century hospital wings.

The listed workhouse is one of three surviving in London. It is just down the road from a former home of  Charles Dickens, whose novel Oliver Twist is partly set in a workhouse.

The building’s 1880s medical director Dr Joseph Rogers improved medical standards for the poor.

Last December, Camden Council’s planning department turned down plans to cut the number of affordable homes.

The charity appealed the decision and the inspector heard from both sides and visited the Cleveland Road site.

The inspector’s ruling means UCLH Charity can increase the number of flats from 53 to 57 whilst dropping the number of affordable properties from 40 down to 17.

He said they could also increase the number of homes for sale on the open market from 13 to 40.

Camden Council has a housing policy that states half the homes on a development should be affordable. However, the number of new homes has fallen short of the government’s target for the inner London borough.

The UCLH Charity said the original plan simply was not viable.

“The charity is facing a significant financial loss,” its viability expert Andy Smith told the inquiry.

It has offered to build the 17 affordable homes and accept a lower return on the site.

In 2004, Camden Council agreed that the charity could 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.

The charity disputes that this so-called “legacy agreement” still stands and the High Court is set to rule on it.

Camden Council has not tried to trigger the agreement.

The planning inspector said that while the height of a proposed block “would have a harmful” impact on the workhouse, it would be “at the lowest level”.

He ruled that “the overall quality of the scheme in townscape terms and the positive contribution towards enlivening the visual amenity of the local area carries with it significant weight”.

Overall, he found that “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.

A spokesman added: “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.

“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.”

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