The story so far
St George, the KRA and Kingston's Old Post Office site A précis - updated 5th November 2015
Following his failed bid to become MP for Yeovil, the ambitious Kevin Davis and fellow conservatives won control over Kingston Council in 2014. As Council leader, Kevin is pushing for greater independence and devolved powers from Whitehall.
“We must build up, not out”. The under-used south and east parts of the town cente, the “Eden Quarter” (EQ), were earmarked for redevelopment. The landowner Hammerson sold a right to buy to St George for the Post office Site, the first of several pieces of land in the EQ.
Public consultation on the EQ Development brief SPD drew a lot of community participation. Residents wanted assurance that the existing character of Kingston would be protected and enhanced. It is a historic riverside market town with a range of new and old buildings, generally low-rise, architecturally diverse. It is a vibrant and attractive place to live.
Meanwhile St George made their shock planning submission just before Christmas, revealing for the first time the proposal was to include a 21 storey tower, the tallest in Kingston. The development was to have 21 storey and 13 storey high-rises with 380 residential units and 17% Affordable Housing.
Concerned residents started a grassroots movement establishing itself as the Kingston Residents’ Alliance
(KRA). The movement grew with more petitioning, leaflets and meetings. A crowd swarm event #KingstonSwarm was arranged in Kingston’s Ancient Market Square, to which 100+ came, including local Dame Jacqueline Wilson and then Secretary of State for Climate and Local MP Ed Davey. The KRA met with Kevin Davis several times, with St George at a members home twice, and they started to speak up at council meetings.
Kingston's two-party political landscape may not have served it well over the years. We are told that whichever party in opposition has blocked whatever the party in power tried to achieve - and if true it could explain why progress has been difficult. The animosity between the two parties runs deep. Despite being strongly non-partisan, KRA struggled with being discredited as an opposition party stunt. ‘’Don’t upset the people in power,” Kevin Davis tweeted after the #KingstonSwarm.
Just prior to the General Election, St George, in response to feedback, submitted revised plans that triggered a re-consultation. But the revisions were only minor: the tower lowered by 2 floors, glass top floors and 20 fewer homes.
At the first meeting, KRA presented 9 points in opposition, and at the 2nd council meeting 250 people over-filled the Guildhall, although KRA and Kingston Society had just 30 minutes to deliver their opposition across 8 speakers.
The Officer’s Report' on 19 Storey Tower blocks was published in 22 June 2015 and recommended the Plans. This decision forced KRA to kickstart a borough-wide crowd-funding exercise. Local residents responded to this appeal very generously and paid towards hiring a QC to advise on the legality of Officer’s Report.
The decision was earmarked for the council meeting on the 23rd June, but following a bizzare blog entry by the Leader of the Council, St George withdrew consideration of their application from the agenda.
Everyone waited for St George to resurface. With the help of Create Streets - a social enterprise specialising in mid-rise, high density urban solutions - KRA conducted a snap survey and asked what Kingston's residents really would like to see in their town. Residents distributed the outcome of this survey to the full council meeting on 15th of September.
Around the same time, true to form, St George came back with another bulky, high-density impenetrable design. This time it was not 19 storeys anymore and the ‘fag packet’ (the nickname given by a resident to the tall tower) was replaced by16 storey caged apartment blocks. But they failed to address any of the original issues KRA raised, such as heritage, density, affordability, connectivity.
On 14th October, at the Council pre-decision meeting, KRA successfully argued that the changes that the new architect brought to the table were simply artifical and also failed to provide any meaningful response to the concerns residents have raised. So we maintained our opposition.
As the politics of high rise started to change, and the grim reality of unaffordable housing started to hit the headlines daily, politicians decided to notice KRA campaign. First they received support in a letter from Zac Goldsmith MP (and Mayoral Candidate) and then at the 11th hour, James Berry, Kingston's MP sent an open letter to Councillors.
On 5th November, at the final decision meeting, KRA repeated their argument that the plans are unsustainable, harmful to heritage and with too few unaffordable houses. They substantiated their argument with a QC OPinion obtained at the time of the previous aborthed application.
To the surprise of the public gallery, Royal Borough of Kingston Councillors agreed with the residents and unanimously voted to reject St George's planning application!
It is important to note that, a week prior to the final meeting, Kingston Council's planning officer - again - recommended St George's plans be permitted. It is now apparent that an appeal by St George is very likely.
So this saga is not over yet, but in the name of democracy it is a great achievement for those who managed successfully to upset the 'people in power'!
November 5th, 2015
The Kingston Residents’ Alliance is made up of various local residents associations and social groups in and around the Royal Borough of Kingston.
They campaign for sustainable, balanced growth on a human scale.