Planning dilemma: Biodiversity versus housing?

Marlowe Russell

The South London Botanical Institute (SLBI) is an educational charity that lies just a few hundred yards from the noisy South Circular at Tulse Hil

Established in 1910 to enable the working people of south London to study botany, its botanic garden provides a unique community amenity. With a wildlife pond and over five hundred plant species, some rare or endangered, the botanic garden is designated by Lambeth as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC). Nevertheless, by early 2012, the garden faced its most serious threat in a generation. Since then, SLBI has been involved in a planning dispute.

In late 2011, a housing association proposed to replace the Victorian villa at the rear of the garden with an 11 unit balconied block built virtually up to the boundary fence . It would loom like a cliff over the garden. With its remit, SLBI is clearly sympathetic to social housing, but these plans threaten the privacy of the garden and its botanical integrity. A series of meetings with the developers’ representatives offered no negotiation or compromise. Lambeth planning officers supported the scheme, whereby the developers received all the benefit and the Institute all the detriment.

Along with local residents, SLBI spoke against the proposals at Lambeth’s Planning Committee in March 2012, arguing that reports underestimated the loss of sunlight and the impact on plant and pond life, trivialised its educational and heritage importance, as well as disregarding Lambeth’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

Councillors agreed with these arguments and permission was refused. The developers appealed to the Planning Inspectorate in September 2012. A fortuitously-timed and unexpected legacy meant SLBI trustees were able to engage a consultant to make planning arguments on the SLBI’s behalf. Trustees also submitted a lengthy letter of objection of their own, detailing the likely detrimental impact of increased shade and cooler temperatures on the living plants, their pollinators and other wild-life. A decision is expected by mid-February 2013.

In the meanwhile, in November 2012, the developers took the highly unusual step of resubmitting their original application to Lambeth, with no changes. They argued that as officers had supported the plans, councillors were unreasonable in turning them down. The developers offered to withdraw the appeal if permission was granted, and thus spare Lambeth the expense of an appeal. The Planning Committee will not consider the new (old) application until the appeal decision is known, but SLBI trustees again prepared objections and asked the consultant to revise his objections for submission.

The whole matter raises several questions of principle and practice. The inequality of resources and experience between developers and objectors is often cited. Certainly, without the legacy, trustees would have struggled to employ a consultant, thus losing access to professional knowledge and experience. Refusals can be appealed by developers, but objectors cannot appeal permissions that are granted.

This matter also raises conflicts between Lambeth’s biodiversity and housing policies, pitching long-term environmental and community amenities against immediate social needs. Compromises on the part of the developer would enable additional good quality housing to be provided without damaging the long-term community benefits provided by the SLBI. Sadly, it appears this is not an option the developers are willing to consider. The plans as they stand jeopardise what the SLBI has inherited and safeguarded for a century, its present achievements and what it intends to hand on to future generations.

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