Brokenshire cans retailer’s east London housing scheme

Housing secretary James Brokenshire has used his ministerial powers to refuse planning permission for a 471-home redevelopment of a supermarket site in east London – against the advice of his planning inspector.

The findings of a planning inquiry into Sainsbury’s proposals for its 3.1ha site at Whitechapel recommended Brokenshire to approve the scheme, drawn up by Unit Architects and carried forward by Ross Hutchinson’s successor practice Hutchinson & Partners.

But the housing secretary, in his just-published decision, said the scheme – which in addition to the homes would also have delivered a replacement supermarket, an energy centre and an educational facility – would have an unacceptable impact on light to existing homes and on neighbouring heritage buildings.

Unit Architects’ original proposals for the Sainsbury’s Whitechapel site included a 33-storey tower and would have delivered 559 new homes. The tower was subsequently reduced to 28 storeys but Tower Hamlets council rejected the scheme in 2017 for reasons that included the “substantial harm” it was expected to cause to the setting of the nearby Trinity Green Almshouses, which are grade I-listed.

A subsequent version of the eight-block scheme reduced the height of the tallest element to 14 storeys, and trimmed the number of homes. Sainsbury’s appealed Tower Hamlets’ non-determination of this application and planning inspector David Nicholson took evidence on it at an inquiry last October.

Whitechapel proposals from Unit Architects

Lower-rise elements of Unit Architects’ Whitechapel proposals

In his report to Brokenshire, Nicholson said the public benefits of the scheme outweighed impacts on local heritage assets, but accepted that the scheme would result in an “appreciable reduction in daylight and some significant loss of sunlight” for neighbouring homes.

But Brokenshire, who established the Building Beautiful Commission, said the fact that many existing neighbours would experience “a gloomier outlook than they do at present”, and that a large number of windows would be affected, was a harmful impact that carried “substantial weight” against the application.

He said that while the scheme’s design and public-realm improvements tipped the balance in favour of approval, the heritage impacts and daylight issues put the proposals at odds with Tower Hamlets’ development plan and the government’s National Planning Policy Framework.

Sainsbury’s has the option of appealing Brokenshire’s decision at the High Court if it lodges papers within the next six weeks.

A spokesperson said the firm was “disappointed” with the secretary of state’s decision. “We are currently considering our options,” she added.

Sainsbury's Whitechapel, before the start of Crossrail works

Sainsbury’s Whitechapel branch before the start of Crossrail works