‘No one wants to lose their home’: London renters shocked at order to raze their flats

Renters at a cluster of new Thameside apartment complex expressed shock on Wednesday after the Royal Borough of Greenwich ordered the “unprecedented” demolition of 204 homes over what it said were a series of planning breaches.

Many residents at the Mast Quay Phase II development in Woolwich first learned the news from journalists after the local authority announced on Monday that the developer, Comer Homes Group, must raze the buildings because of 26 major deviations from the original planning consent. It only opened last year in a borough with a social housing waiting list of more than 20,000 households. The council says the renters may need to find new homes.

Anthony Okereke, the leader of Greenwich council, accused the developers of “lining their pockets” by letting the flats despite warnings about the planning breaches. The council called it a “mutant development that is a blight on the landscape”.

The 23-storey complex looks very different from the architectural drawings, with alleged breaches including one block being built on a footprint 6% larger than consented.

Comer Homes has hit back, announcing it would appeal against the planning enforcement decision and said it was “extremely disappointed” with the move. The developer, which lets the flats out via a subsidiary, accused the Labour-led council of “public statements which are inaccurate and misrepresent the position and our actions”.

It said it would correct these, insisted it had been willing to engage and accused the council of acting disproportionately. It said its approach would waste taxpayers’ money on litigation “when sensible solutions” were available.

Demolition and rebuilding could cost over £160m, an industry source estimated.

Isabelle White, 33, was on her way for a haircut when she heard about the enforcement notice.

“I only just found out my flat’s going to be pulled down,” she said. She had been surprised at the relative cheapness of the £1,200 a month one-bedroom flat.

“It seemed too good to be true and now obviously it is. Moving in I thought there were a lot of things that didn’t make sense – the layout.

“There had to be a catch and this is the catch. Hopefully, the residents are going to be put before everyone else. No one wants to lose their home.”

“I get no direct sun, because of the way they have positioned the building,” she said. “My flat is so dark.”

The flats are not fully occupied but dozens of families are likely to be affected by the uncertainty.

“It was shocking news to me,” said Chisom Onwusi, 33, a wine importer, who had only recently signed a 12-month contract. “It’s going to destabilise us trying to get a [new] place. I think they could make corrections if needs be. Trying to get a place here has not been easy.”

One of the government’s leading urbanism advisers, Nicholas Boys Smith, chair of the Office for Place, described the complex as a “loveless lump”.

The council has claimed windows were smaller than agreed, disabled access was inadequate, there was no playground or gardens, fewer shop units than planned and architectural details were significantly different.

On Wednesday vacant flats appeared to be being marketed as usual, with an agent showing one couple around two flats.

Several neighbouring residents questioned whether pulling the building down was necessary given the housing shortage. The Royal Borough of Greenwich has more than 20,000 households on its housing waiting list.

A man and a woman stand on a balcony overlooking a river.
Ann-Marie Cousins, cabinet member for community safety and Anthony Okereke, leader of Greenwich council. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

“They look good,” said Michael Udoji, 36, a financial adviser. “I was looking to apply to get one of these. It’s already up. It’s just a waste of money.”

“Are you serious?” said Jokee Obide, 37, a care worker, when she learned about the demolition plan. “It’s a total waste of time, energy and money. There are a lot of people waiting for homes.”

The development received planning permission in 2012. The council’s planning enforcement notice does not apply to phase I, completed in 2007.

The council conceded the planning enforcement notice meant it would be “an unsettling time” for the tenants of Mast Quay Phase II but said “all the existing tenants will need to find alternative accommodation”.

Greenwich’s decision has raised questions about why the borough’s planners are only now stepping in. Construction started in 2015 and lasted seven years.

“We don’t have a vast department,” said Ann-Marie Cousins, council member for community safety and enforcement. “There has to be some trust. There are lots of developers who do what they say they are going to do. If we are to do proactive checks we need to have more staff. We can’t cope with all the cuts.”

Woman with a child in a pushchair.
Local resident Karishma Patel. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

She said the developer used a private building control company rather than the council’s officers.

“We are desperate [for housing] as well as anyone else,” she said. “But this is about standards.”

Boys Smith said: “To stop this sort of nonsense happening in future, my advice to Greenwich and all councils would be to have really clear ‘quality asks’ visually embedded in their local plans via design codes so that buildings this carelessly designed and built don’t get near a planning process. Who can blame the public for falling out of love with new places when we inflict this on them?”

Comer Homes said: “We are justly proud of our track record of delivering high-quality developments across the UK. In our view the council’s concerns regarding Mast Quay Phase II can be addressed through following normal process and engaging with us on a retrospective planning application.”