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The weight and strength of opinion in the community and among Councillors against high-rise developments in Staines is overwhelming. Evidence of this has been very clear and piling up since the middle of last year when the implications of the draft ‘Staines Masterplan’ became more widely understood. The so-called Masterplan envisaged a massive increase in the population of Staines to help meet the borough’s housing target, with several tower blocks of flats up to 15-storeys high – five of the earmarked sites overlooking the riverfront.

No other market town on the Thames has the scale of buildings envisaged in the draft Staines Masterplan on or near the river. Nor has any serious attempt been made to explain why close to half the borough’s housing target should be dumped on Staines. The Masterplan has never come close to being approved. Indeed, no definitive work has ever been done to establish whether the infrastructure it would require is even practical let alone affordable!

While Spelthorne borough’s planning policies call for new developments to respect the characteristics of adjoining buildings and land, the existing out-of-date 2009 Spelthorne Local Plan does not itself specify height restrictions for new buildings. Developers have woken up to this and the opportunities they see in the so-called ‘Staines Masterplan’. Delays in developing the new Local Plan that would, among other things, limit the height of new buildings has created today’s crisis, with developers rushing to secure approval for tower blocks to beat the constraints of the new Local Plan now being worked on.

The game will be over one way or the other in the coming months.

Opposition to high-rise hell

The campaign against ‘high-rise hell for residents, high-rise heaven for developers’ was launched by the newly created Riverside Residents (Staines) Coalition in the summer of 2020 and quickly gathered a head of steam. Local Councillors and the Council’s then new Leadership backed the campaign right from the beginning. In the summer of this year the Council ran a public consultation to gather views on a wide range of issues relating to the future of Staines. Opposition to high-rise and protecting the riverfront dominated the survey’s findings … with 96% of residents calling for limits on the height of new buildings, especially near the river.

The most recent manifestation of opposition to tower-block developments was the debate at Spelthorne Borough Council’s meeting just last week on a petition organised by the Riverside Residents (Staines) Coalition calling on the Council to prevent high-rise developments in Staines close to the river and in the Conservation Area, and to spread Spelthorne’s housing target more equitably across the borough. The petition had been signed by more than 3,500 residents and every Councillor who spoke endorsed its message. While it can’t be given immediate effect, the petition will now be fed into the Task Group working on the new Local Plan for Spelthorne and Staines.

In the meantime …
… while the evidence of opposition to tower-block developments anywhere near the river piled ever higher, developers have been beavering away to produce proposals
for the very thing the town doesn’t want. At exactly the same time the Council’s public consultation was asking residents whether there should be high-rise in Staines, planning officers were recommending the approval of a twin-tower (13 and 15 storeys) development by Inland Homes for a site just back from the river next to the Debenhams building. This was rejected unanimously by the Council’s Planning Committee, but the developer announced they would appeal against the decision and an eight-day public inquiry begins at the end of next month. A decision is expected in January. Just last week, another developer, Future High Street Living, held a public exhibition of a scheme to replace the Debenhams building with a 14-storey twin-tower development, a proposal they said was the product of close consultation with Council planning officers. Community opposition to it too is fierce. Some residents left the exhibition in tears.

Dither and delay

At the heart of this problem is the dither and delay that has dogged the development of the new Local Plan for Spelthorne and Staines.

A Council Task Group was created in June 2020 to review and revise the demands of the draft Staines Masterplan, with opposition to high-rise high on the list of issues to be addressed. With focus and determination, this Task Group could have produced a new plan by the Spring of this year to a stage in the approval process that would enable the Council to limit the height of new developments. If it thought it might take a lot longer, it could have sought a simple amendment to the existing plan to achieve the same purpose in the same or less time. It did neither of these things.  

A new Task Group was created in June 2021, following the installation of new Council leadership in May, starting from scratch but determined to produce a plan for the town by the Spring of next year that will limit the height of new buildings. But time is not on our side now. The Inland Homes appeal will be decided before then, and other planning applications for high-rise developments are in the pipeline.

Not yet time to give up!

While the existing Local Plan for the borough doesn’t specify limits on the height of new developments, other planning policies can be deployed to achieve the same purpose. For example, Spelthorne has planning policies that require any new development to be “attractive within its own distinct identity and respect the environment of the area in which it is situated” … and for developments that “respect and make a positive contribution to the street scene and the character of the area in which they are situated, paying due regard to the scale, height, proportions, building lines, layout, materials and other characteristics of adjoining buildings and land”. These were among the reasons the Council’s Planning Committee rejected unanimously the proposed Inland Homes twin-towers development on the site next to the Debenhams building. The question that the Inland Homes appeal/inquiry will resolve is whether these policies can be over-ridden by other considerations and the lack of a specific policy on the height of new developments.

The Riverside Residents (Staines) Coalition has submitted a lengthy document to the Planning Inspectorate for consideration at the appeal/inquiry into the rejection of the proposed Inland Homes development, analysing the Inland Homes ‘Statement of Case’ and vigorously supporting the Planning Committee’s decision. It challenges many of the assumptions in the Inland Homes case and the degree of common ground it claims to have with Spelthorne planning officers.

Our document also urges the Inspector to take the view that the residents of Staines “should not be penalised and have the appearance, amenity and character of their town wrecked by the imposition of tower-blocks of tiny flats because of the delays created by the administrative complexities in the Council and the failure to seek an amendment to the extant Local Plan”.

As things stand, almost everything now depends on the outcome of the Inland Homes appeal/inquiry. If the Council fails to put up a sufficiently compelling case to support its Planning Committee’s unanimous rejection of the Inland Homes development, other sites overlooking the river will be in danger too.

Ends …..