An artist’s vision of the Heythrop site when the young students have been replaced by “ultra-high net worth members of the golden generation”, who live in a gated community and play croquet together. Picture from the application.

Controversial Heythrop College plan approved – unless Sadiq Khan stops it

On 27 November, the council’s planning committee approved the very controversial plans to turn the site of the former Heythrop College theology school on the south side of Kensington Square into a 142-flat luxury development for very wealthy pensioners. The committee did so even though the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, who has the right to ultimately decide, announced more than a month earlier that the development wouldn’t comply with London’s affordable housing policies.
It is now up to Sadiq Khan to decide whether to allow the council’s decision to stand, direct the council to refuse the application, or announce that he will take over the role as local planning authority in order to either negotiate a better solution with the developer or refuse the application. His decision should come before the end of December.

The Heythrop College plan is for a development which would not just cover the existing site, but also deck over the underground tracks south of High Street Kensington tube station. On that deck there would be five new buildings, up to eight storeys high. Besides the luxury homes, the development would provide a yoga studio, cinema, wine tasting room, a hair and beauty salon, a dog grooming room, a spa with special hydro pools, a swimming pool and a gym, a pilates room, a restaurant, a library, a café and a 1.6-acre landscaped garden – just about everything a super-luxury housing scheme should have. The flats would cost £3-6 million each to buy or would be let for between £83,000 and £156,000 per year (at the moment it is unclear whether the flats will be sold or let) plus large service charges, as well as any care charges.

Claims to be a nursing home

Normally, the development of a large luxury residential site would require a substantial contribution of affordable housing, and the former school area would anyway not be available for this kind of development, as the council’s local plan and SPD (supplementary planning document) for the site, adopted in May 2016, state that it should be reserved for “social and community” uses.

However, by adding “flexible and adaptable” extra care to their plans, the developers claim that the complex should be classified as use class C2 residential institutional (the same use class as care homes) and would thereby not only fulfil the SPD’s requirement of “social and community” use, but would also negate the need to provide affordable housing.

The plans for the development state that at least one person in each flat would have to be at least 55. If under 65, the person would require 15 hours per week of care services, but otherwise he/she would have to buy care services of at least 2.5 hours per week on top of the basic rent. The bespoke care service for each individual can take many forms – including eating a specified number of meals in the restaurant each week or signing up to exercise classes. Eligibility to live in this retirement village is not to be determined by a GP or a hospital, but by the private nursing company employed by the developer to provide the care.

This was the second application for this development. After fierce criticism from the council’s planners, the first application was withdrawn in late April 2018, shortly before the local elections. This new, revised application, was submitted to the RBKC planning department in early September. However, in essence, it’s much the same as the first, although number of extra care flats are 142 instead of 150, the underground resident parking has shrunk, the height of some of the new buildings has been reduced, and three large houses by Kensington Square, which were part of the purchase, will be turned into private single homes instead of being part of the “care home” development – which in turn has required the creation of five intermediately affordable flats (80% market rate) by the South End entrance to the site. These changes were apparently sufficient for the planning department to recommend approval, and the planning committee did just so, with only one councillor objecting.

Sadiq Khan to decide

Because of the size of the development, the ultimate decision now lies with the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, who will have to decide whether to “call in” the application, tell RBKC to refuse it, or to let RBKC’s decision stand. Already on 15 October, before the RBKC planning committee’s decision, he and the GLA planners informed the council, in a report with an accompanying letter that the development wouldn’t comply with the existing London Plan and the draft London Plan. More specifically, they regard the development’s “specialist older persons accommodation” (the 142 self-contained flats) to be use class C3 (self-contained single household homes) instead of C2, as C2 only applies to “proper” nursing homes where the accommodation isn’t self-contained. As Khan and his planners regard the development to be C3, the affordable housing policies for London apply, i.e. the development of the 142 flats must also provide affordable housing equivalent to 35% of the habitable space in those 142 flats – alternatively, about a third of the flats must be made affordable.

Why was it approved?

So why did the planning department and the planning committee ignore Sadiq Khan’s letter of 15 October, which clearly states that the 142 flats are to be classed as C3 instead of C2? Well, part of the explanation can perhaps be found both in the GLA report accompanying Khan’s letter and in a sales prospectus from 2015 for Thamesbrook, the former RBKC care home at 2 Dovehouse Street in Chelsea, which was sent out to property developers by Knight Frank on behalf of RBKC.

The GLA report notes that the RBKC has no clear definition of what constitutes C2, and the sales prospectus outlines very specifically what RBKC wanted 2 Dovehouse Street to become: It states that the long lease will include “a restrictive leasehold covenant for C2 (residential institution) use” and that RBKC wants the buyer to provide “an extra care development” where occupancy is “restricted to people 60 years and older”. The development should “offer self-contained accommodation which can be purchased and/or rented with security of tenure”, and should “enable residents to take advantage of personal care that is delivered flexibly, by staff based on the premises.

The developer who ended up winning the bidding for 2 Dovehouse Street in 2016 is the same developer who in 2017 bought Heythrop College from the Jesuits – and the plans for Heythrop College is largely identical to those for 2 Dovehouse Street. These received very positive pre-application advice in June 2016, were submitted to the planning department in January 2017 and were, much delayed, approved by the planning committee in September 2017.

So, as the council’s planning committee regarded the Dovehouse Street development to be C2 and fully acceptable in 2017, one can assume that the committee would be reluctant to refuse an almost identical plan (albeit much larger) from the same developer one year later.

However, three things are very different this time:

1) The Dovehouse Street project was in principal approved before the Grenfell disaster – which highlighted RBKC’s years of lax attitude to the provision of affordable housing and eagerness to attract luxury housing developments.

2) The Dovehouse Street project is much smaller than the Heythrop development (55 luxury flats compared to 142).

3) While the Dovehouse Street project was too small to fall under the London mayor’s jurisdiction, the size of the Heythrop development means that the GLA and the London mayor will look at it and judge if it meets the wider London rules.

Strong objections

The local objections against the proposed development have been fierce, both against the claim that such a large amount of luxury extra-care housing would in any way meet Kensington’s need to provide more care for its ageing population, and against the disturbance the construction traffic will cause local residents. All resident associations in the area (except Kensington Square Residents’ Association), as well as the Kensington Society, the three councillors representing the local ward (Max Chauhan, Matthew Palmer and Maxwell Woodger), the MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, and some 230 individuals, have objected to the plans.

The developer estimates that the building works (which include the decking of the rail tracks and an underground garage) would take 4.5 years, and all construction traffic would run along 600 metres of very narrow residential streets between Kensington High Street and South End. According to the developer’s construction traffic management plan (CTMP), up to 30 lorries per work day would be navigating back and forth along those narrow streets during the most intensive months. There would be more than 22,000 lorry movements through those streets before the development is finished. According to the CTMP, the lorries would enter central Kensington via Kensington High Street (from east or west), then drive south along Victoria Road, turn into St Albans Grove and finally navigate through South End. After having been loaded or unloaded, they would return the same way. During the peak months, there would be on average one large lorry moving along St Albans Grove every sixth minute between 9.30am and 3.00pm, Monday to Friday during term time.

As Sadiq Khan has already rejected the idea that Heythrop College would be a C2 use development, it is highly unlikely that he will accept the council’s approval. So will he be able to convince the developer to totally change the plans so they provide 30-35% affordable housing, or will he simply reject the application? Time will tell…

The Heythrop College grounds are vast, with big green areas and a tennis court. The area planned for development would also cover a large part of the underground tracks south of Kensington High Street station.

The plan is to retain but totally refurbish the Grade II listed college building and the three townhouses next to it by Kensington Square, to expand over the underground tracks and to replace all other buildings and open spaces. The five affordable flats would be located in the white building by the South End entrance to the site. Plan compiled from the application.

The main entrance to the site will be from South End, with an underground parking and a turning area for visiting cars. Please note the the uniformed doorman helping the lady out of the cab – not very typical for a nursing home… Picture from the application.

Published 19/12/2018