In a knife-edge vote last night councillors approved plans for the 20-storey Hondo Tower in the heart of Brixton despite a sustained campaign of local opposition.
Lambeth Council Planning Applications Committee voted 4–3 to approve the Pope’s Road Development, which proponents claim will bring jobs and money to the local economy.
Detractors say that the tower will be an eyesore and exacerbate gentrification and question the demand for new office space in the foreseeable future.
Committee chair Clair Wilcox joined Councillors Mohammed Seedat, Timothy Windle, and Jessica Leigh in accepting officer recommendations to approve the building, with Councillors Joanne Simpson, Ben Kind, and Rebecca Thackray opposing.
Taylor McWilliams, managing partner of Hondo Enterprises, said: “We fully appreciate this has been seen as divisive by some so we commit today to redoubling our efforts to work in partnership with the local community.
“As we move forward, and as agreed with the committee, we will work with all elements of the local community to ensure that our scheme delivers benefits for them.
“In addition to the affordable workspace and £1.875m funding for skills and employment, over the next few months we will set up a Community Liaison Group. This group will look to identify and map how the local community can engage with this project.”
Responding to the decision, a No Hondo Tower spokesperson said: “The Planning Applications Committee’s approval of this application means that the Lambeth Local Plan counts for nothing, setting a precedent for all planning applications to now be openly negotiable”.
Developers Hondo Enterprises, which owns the nearby Brixton Market, claims that the development will deliver 2,000 jobs for Brixton and £2.8m a year for the local economy, as well as a new public square and community space.
But the plans have met a cold reception locally, with a sustained online opposition campaign culminating in a socially-distanced protest outside Lambeth Town Hall on Monday.
Last night they held a small live-streaming event for locals on Station Road, where anti-gentrification campaigners made speeches.
The council’s neighbourhood consultation received 1838 comments against the plans, roughly 87% of all comments, and a range of local stakeholders, including The Brixton Society, the Brixton Market Traders Federation, and the Brixton Recreation Centre, have also come out against the proposals.
An opposition petition on change.org received more than 7,000 signatures, however the planning committee rejected it out of hand at the beginning of the meeting on the basis that its contents could not be verified.
Joseph Thomas, a barrister addressing the committee on behalf of the Stop Hondo Tower Campaign, said that the proposals were a repudiation of Lambeth’s Local Plan and that it breaches policies on building height, design excellence, and heritage harm.
Sarah Brown, a Brixton resident and user of the nearby Recreational Centre, said: “We don’t need an enormous tower with security guards intimidating local people if we dare to approach.
“As with Brixton Village, we will be excluded and the new arrivals are likely to displace us from the community that is established and thriving at the Rec and its surroundings.”
Project architect Sir David Adjaye stressed his commitment to developing ‘a new civic realm’ for Brixton.
He added: “What better than having a place where young kids can see and aspire to jobs that are more than what is in the current market in their environment.”
Karl Lokko, a Brixton resident and musician, said: “The best way to improve the fortunes of Brixton is economic investment.”
Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich & West Norwood, which covers the site of the proposals, told councillors that Hondo ‘have not provided a convincing response to the question of demand, not for office space in general, but for expensive new-build office space in Brixton’.
She said that redundancies and rises in home-working mean a surplus of London office space is likely in the coming year, and added: “Any commitment the applicant makes in relation to the use of this building is unfortunately unlikely to be worth the paper it is written on”.
She also noted that constituents had contacted her who were distressed at having been persuaded to sign a model letter in favour of the scheme.
Hondo representatives have been seen in the streets of Brixton soliciting signatures in support of the mega-tower.
Planning officials admitted that national surveys suggest declining demand for office space, with 74% of company directors reporting a move towards increased home-working.
However they claimed that Lambeth-focused surveys suggest there may be interest in office space locally.
A number of speakers raised concerns about permitted development rights, which can allow developers to convert approved office space into residential units without council planning permission.
While planning officials emphasised that they had done as much as they could to foreclose such an eventuality, Cllr Joanne Simpson said in her closing statement that she had not been reassured on the point.
In their presentations to the committee planning officials outlined a range of cosmetic design amendments since the last meeting, with the aim to “soften the appearance of the building”.
They said that it was ‘quite clear that there would be harm caused’ to the area’s heritage, and that the amendments did not change this fact.
Officials stated that committee members should weigh this fact against the public benefits of the scheme, which include economic development and new community space.
In his closing statement Cllr Mohammed Seedat said that the benefits did indeed outweigh the costs, noting that ‘Brixton is not a museum’ and that the development “could be life-changing for an area that’s been starved of investment in the past”.
Cllr Ben Kind, however, called the tower ‘shockingly brutal’ in his closing statement, and Cllr Rebecca Thackray raised concerns about its environmental footprint.
It remains to be seen whether the decision will be appealed.