Thursday, January 23, 2014

House of Commons: Convoys Wharf

 Dame Joan Ruddock MP made an excellent speech yesterday outlining the historic significance of Convoys Wharf. The wharf is currently the subject of an application for outline planning permission made by site owners Hutchison Whampoa, but if Joan had directly raised planning issues then she would have been curtly referred to the Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) who is due to decide whether planning permission should be granted. By concentrating on heritage matters she was able to elicit a response from the government. By putting forward a factual, unembellished, unexaggerated description of the site and its importance she was able to elicit what is, in the circumstances, a very positive response from the government.
Full text of the debate:
Convoys Wharf, Deptford

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Evennett.)
6:54 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford, Labour)

I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting me this Adjournment debate. My purpose in calling it is to share with the House one of London’s best kept secrets and one of its greatest opportunities.

Fifteen years ago, representatives of News International contacted me to announce the closure of Convoys Wharf. I met them on site, going down a narrow street in Deptford through an industrial gate set in high fences. I came upon a huge area of concrete peppered with massive sheds stretching to the waterfront. It was a vast, forlorn, windy expanse with a footprint similar to the whole of the south bank. My immediate fear was that the site was destined for millionaires’ housing, a gated community cut off from the rest of Deptford that would continue the hundreds of years of local people’s exclusion from their own Thames waterfront. Then I discovered that Convoys Wharf was the site of Henry VIII’s naval shipyard and the home of the great diarist John Evelyn. I sensed that this would be an historic battle, and so it has been, as I, with local people and Lewisham council planners led by John Miller, have sought recognition of the site’s supreme importance and of the imperative to secure a development appropriate to its unique heritage.

Let me outline the historical record, which I have taken—often verbatim—from the Museum of London archaeology report. The record goes back to the Domesday Book and the manor of Grenviz, the present-day Deptford. In the late 12th century, the manor passed to the de Says family, who named it Sayes court. The mediaeval manor house of Sayes court, which was constructed of wood, was certainly in existence in 1405.

Deptford increasingly felt the influence of Greenwich palace. It was given a great boost when Henry VIII decided to found a royal dockyard there. Lambarde wrote of Deptford:

“This towne was of none estimation at all until King Henrie the eighth advised (for the better preservation of the Royal fleete) to erect a storehouse, and to create certaine officers there”.

This Tudor storehouse was the nucleus of the shipyard. Erected in 1513, it survived in part until 1952. The great dock was probably built at this time, and the old pond at Deptford strand was adapted as a basin to accommodate ships in 1517. In 1581, Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind was lodged in a specially constructed brick dock, becoming one of London’s very first tourist attractions. For 400 years, Deptford was the powerhouse of England’s navy. Local boat builder Julian Kingston has recorded:

“Hundreds of warships and countless trading vessels were built or refitted here including ships for exploration, science and empire. It was the ‘Cape Canaveral’ of its day and is associated with the great mariners of the time, such as Drake, Rayleigh and Cook”.

In 1653, John Evelyn took up residence in Sayes court. He modernised the house and laid out its vast gardens. He began with an orchard of 300 mixed fruit trees, and went on to create groves of elm and of walnut trees, a huge holly hedge, plots for melons, pears and beans, as well as a moated island for raspberries and asparagus, beehives and a carp pond. It was here that Evelyn carried out his planting trials, which formed the basis of his famous treatise “Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees”.

That other illustrious diarist Samuel Pepys recorded two visits to John Evelyn’s gardens in 1665. He saw

“a hive of bees, so as being hived in glass you may see the bees making their honey and combs mighty pleasantly”,

and Evelyn

“showed me his gardens, which are for variety of evergreens, and hedge of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life.”

Samuel Pepys had major business at the dockyard, having been put in charge of Charles II’s great “thirty shipbuilding programme” in 1677. The Lenox, to which I will refer later, was the first of the ships to be built. In 1708, Master Shipwright Joseph Allin built a house on the site, and it remains intact today. It was bought in 1998 by William Richards and Chris Mazeika who are continuously restoring it. As shipbuilding developed, the slipways became vast structures of brick, concrete and timber and were then provided with cover buildings, an example of which is the Olympia.

The Olympia was constructed from 1844 to 1846 and remains on site today.

Let me return to Sayes court. When John Evelyn moved out in 1694, it was rented to, among others, Tsar Peter the Great, who came to Deptford to study shipbuilding. He is reported to have trashed the house and garden during his wild parties. Specifically, he drove a wheelbarrow through the famous hedge. Sayes court changed ownership a number of times and became absorbed into the dockyard expansion of 1830.

In 1869, William John Evelyn, who was a descendant of the original John Evelyn, bought back part of the site. His attempts to preserve the park and museum for the public led him to contact Octavia Hill. Realising that there was no existing legal form that could secure such protection, Hill set about establishing the organisation that was to become the National Trust. Seventeen years later, the gardens were given to the public, only to face their final demise in 1914, when they were leased as a horse transport reserve depot. The gardens were built over and the house was used by the War Office. The last elements of Sayes court manor house were demolished at some time around 1930. It was the Ministry of Defence that eventually sold the site now known as Convoys Wharf to News International in 1979.

In 1952 a debate ensued over the demolition of the Tudor storehouse. It was not listed, despite the existence of a Tudor arch that was 10 feet high and 6 feet wide and a foundation stone bearing the inscription,

“Henricus Rex annus Christi 1513”.

Twenty thousand Tudor bricks were disposed of—some, we believe, to help rebuild the buildings at Hampton Court—and the arch and stone were given to University College London, where they are housed today in the computing department. After a successful campaign by the community group, “Deptford Is”, UCL has agreed to return the artefacts. The campaign has now turned its attention to the clock that was part of the 18th-century storehouse, which currently resides in the car park of the Thamesmead shopping centre.

That is the extraordinary history of Convoys Wharf, which is now the subject of an outline planning application that has been handed to the Greater London authority by the current owners, Hutchison Whampoa. Over the past 13 years, we have struggled to persuade the various developers, architects and master planners to understand the huge responsibility that they have to honour the site’s heritage. Sadly, we have not been helped by the lack of interest from English Heritage.

In 1999, Alan Howarth conducted a ministerial review of royal dockyards to upgrade listing and scheduling. Deptford dockyard was omitted because it was believed at the time that the only structures of value were the Olympia and the Master Shipwright’s house. An application was submitted locally in 2002, which resulted in the scheduling of the undercroft of the 1513 Tudor storehouse a year later. In 2009, another application was submitted by local people to list the docks, slips, basin and mast ponds. English Heritage recommended not to list. There were many errors in the report and the decision was contested. English Heritage withdrew its recommendation. The Council for British Archaeology and the Naval Dockyards Society, supported by local historians, requested that the case be reopened in 2012. Again English Heritage recommended not to list. The Council for British Archaeology then initiated a freedom of information inquiry, which revealed errors and obfuscation resulting in further exchanges. Last year English Heritage recommended the statutory protection of the dockyard wharf wall and the upgrading of the Master Shipwright’s house. Many features remain without protection and await consideration of the final archaeological survey. I am, however, pleased to report that relations with English Heritage have much improved.

Given the GLA’s wish to determine next month, will the Minister activate an emergency listing and scheduling procedure based on the available archaeology? That would ensure that Hutchinson Whampoa and the GLA proceeded with the full knowledge of the heritage protections on the site and how they should influence design and construction decisions. That brings me to the most exciting part of this 21st-century saga. As developers’ plans have come forward, so too have local aspirations. We want to create a destination that both honours the past and creates a vision of the future that embraces the vibrant and dynamic community that is Deptford. Two projects would fulfil that ambition and demand incorporation at this stage of the planning process.

The Sayes Court Garden project, developed by Roo Angell and Bob Bagley and their architect David Kohn, seeks to create a new garden and a centre for urban horticulture. In their own words:

“The remarkable history of Sayes Court is filled with bold ideas which understood that contact with nature is an essential part of healthy urban life. Sayes Court Garden is a project inspired by this history of innovation. Combining stimulating design with a programme which brings together all stages of education, from primary schools and practical training to the latest research, Sayes Court is a garden for the 21st century.”

A comprehensive archaeological survey has revealed the traces of early walls found below an 18th-century building on the site of Sayes court, and nearby garden walls have been confidently reconciled with map evidence of Evelyn’s home. Hutchison Whampoa has recognised the value of these remains and plans to make them viewable. It has also embraced the Sayes court garden project, but in their plan the new buildings will obliterate much of the original garden site and isolate the proposed centre. English Heritage shares our view that the centre for urban horticulture should respond to the archaeology and be set within an open space. Does the Minister support this view?

The second project, led by Julian Kingston, proposes to build a replica of the great 17th-century wooden ship, the Lenox. The Lenox would be built using modern techniques and enable apprentices to be trained in modern transferable skills. The project also intends to encompass research and training in heritage crafts. Once again, Hutchison Whampoa has recognised the groundswell of support for the Lenox project, but failed to place it appropriately in its plans.

The massive Grade II listed Olympia building, which is 75 metres by 62 metres and 17 metres high, sits at the heart of Convoys Wharf and covers the recently excavated slips on which 19th-century ships were built. Internally, the building boasts wrought iron tied-arch roofs, two of the only seven remaining structures to survive nationally. It is the perfect location for the Lenox project and a host of supporting cultural activities.

In front of the Olympia building is the site of the great basin. Restored or rebuilt, this would provide a means of launching a completed replica ship into the Thames and could replace the water body that the owners currently plan to site elsewhere. Will the Minister confirm that English Heritage has no objection to these plans for the Olympia building and great basin? Will he also acknowledge that the experts believe that proper consideration of the heritage assets will necessitate changes to the master plan?

Finally, let me try to describe the overall development. Yes, it will provide hundreds of luxury waterfront dwellings in very high towers to which many have objections, and many issues will have to be debated and determined at later stages of the planning application about the massing and transport, but the site could also offer an amazing place for locals, new residents and visitors alike. The development would be approached through the extensive Sayes court garden, leading to the horticultural centre and the Olympia building with its myriad activities, and on to the water basin leading to the Thames. It would be a place of which everyone in Deptford could be proud, a place that would sit alongside the world heritage sites that are Greenwich, the Cutty Sark and the National Maritime Museum, a place offering green lungs and riverside walks in the heart of the inner city, a place giving new hope to young people of training and jobs and to enterprising local artists and entrepreneurs. It would be not just for the people of Deptford and Lewisham, but for London and those way beyond this great city. Once again, Deptford and its dockyards could become a jewel in London’s crown.

7:12 pm

Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), whom I congratulate on calling this important debate. I have listened with interest to her remarks on the historic importance of Convoys Wharf, and I certainly echo everything she said.

Convoys Wharf has been one of London’s best-kept secrets. I am not sure how far I should go in revealing my ignorance, but I am pleased that I am now in the position, thanks to her, of being full apprised of this heritage jewel sitting at the heart of our great capital city. At a time when London is once again one of the pre-eminent cities in the world, it is worth our recalling that one of the reasons it is so successful is its rich history and heritage. It says in my brief that Convoys Wharf is of historic interest—well, that has to be the understatement of the century. It is incredibly important. Henry VIII founded his dockyard there, Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake there and John Evelyn’s house is there—Mr Speaker, you and I will recall the importance that John Evelyn played in our university life, as the diarist of the Cherwell newspaper.

The Master Shipwright’s house and the former dockyard office buildings are grade II* listed, which means that they are more than of special interest, and the Olympia building is grade II listed. We have scheduled as an ancient monument the remains of the Tudor naval storehouse, and more recently, in November, I was privileged to have the opportunity to list the dockyard river wall. And of course there might be further archaeological interest on the site, which is why English Heritage, my statutory adviser on the historic environment, is considering an interim archaeological report to see if anything substantial remains of the original Tudor dockyard.

On a wider point, it is important to say that heritage sits at the heart of many regeneration schemes. The most recent success is King’s Cross station and St Pancras, which is a great example of a Victorian station brought back to life. I was amazed and heartened to hear the other day that the French transport Minister had described St Pancras as the most beautiful railway station in Europe. It is important to put that on the record in the British Parliament.

Focusing on heritage is, as the right hon. Lady points out, not only important for our history—I am passionate, as she is, about heritage—but creates significant benefits for local economies and communities. It breathes new life into areas; it is essential to the economic and social revival of our towns and cities.

I was talking specifically about Convoys Wharf and I mentioned the archaeological report that English Heritage is carrying out for me. In a sense, that answers the first question put to me. The right hon. Lady asked whether I would activate an emergency listing or scheduling procedure. I expect English Heritage to report very soon on whether other parts of the site should be scheduled. I can give her an undertaking this evening that I will consider the report the minute it arrives, and take a decision based on its recommendations in short order.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford, Labour)

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his remarks so far. I was told, however, that the report and relevant information and advice would not be finalised until the end of this year. That was, of
course, a great concern because we are in a period in which the outline planning application could be determined as quickly as next month.

Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

That is interesting. I was unaware that the right hon. Lady had been told that. My understanding is that I can expect to receive the report in February. If that is wrong, I will write to the right hon. Lady, but judging from certain nods I am being given, I am pretty certain that that is the case. I will let the right hon. Lady know as soon as possible if that is incorrect.

Having set out the importance of heritage, it is also obviously important that London has redevelopment. Convoys Wharf is the largest redevelopment area in inner London. I cannot really comment on the specific proposals, particularly when I might be asked to consider further elements of the site for scheduling or listing. Echoing what the right hon. Lady said, I can say that English Heritage has been involved in discussions about the site for more than 10 years and is now fully engaged in the process. It has identified potential heritage significance and it will, in its statutory planning role, provide expert advice to the authorities on aspects of the proposals.

It is important to remember that, in preparing development plans and determining requests for planning permission, planning authorities, including the Mayor, need to have regard to the national planning policy framework, including its policies on conserving and enhancing the historic environment. Those policies look to control potentially harmful changes, seeking instead to deliver positive improvements in quality. The NPPF promotes quality in our built environment and balances conservation of the best of our past with support for innovative new design. With that in mind, schedule areas and listed buildings can be given the adequate protection they deserve from both the developer and planners. It is worth pointing out that listing does not amount to a preservation order. The listed building consent regime is built on the philosophy that the best way of securing the upkeep of historic buildings is to keep them in active use.

That brings me back to the proposals that the right hon. Lady has told us about today. Let me comment on some of the specific questions she put to me. She asked about the centre for urban horticulture and whether it should respond to the archaeology and be set within an open space. My understanding is that English Heritage considers that the proposed orientation of the blocks does not best reflect the archaeology in respect of the relationship of Sayes court to its garden landscape. It believes that the remains of Sayes court and its garden landscape would be better reflected by making the relationship more legible. The concept of a centre for urban horticulture, incorporating and presenting the remains of Sayes court, is a potentially attractive one—one that better reflects the historic relationship. I believe it is important to note the views of English Heritage in that regard.

The right hon. Lady talked about the exciting Lenox proposal to rebuild one of Charles II’s ships within the Olympia—according to its plans, but obviously not to rebuild it with the original material—and to restore or rebuild the great basin in front of it. Because it has not seen the plans for the scheme, English Heritage cannot comment on it specifically. Obviously, if the scheme is viable and it is possible to secure a long-term reuse of the listed building, and if the impact on the archaeology and the historic fabric is likely to be minimal, English Heritage could, in principle, support it, but I understand that the developer thinks that it would be impossible to rebuild the basin without destroying the archaeology.

The right hon. Lady asked me whether I would acknowledge that the experts believe that proper consideration of the heritage assets should lead to changes in the master plan. I fear that, technically, I must duck that question, as it is clearly for the developers to take into account any listings and scheduling.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford, Labour)

There is an issue about whether the basin might be renovated, or whether a new basin might be built within it. There is confusion over whether English Heritage thinks one thing or the other, but we understand that it would be able to approve some treatment of the basin that would not be harmful in any way and would meet our purposes. I wonder whether I might invite the Minister to examine that issue further, and then write to me.

Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I will certainly seek clarification from English Heritage in regard to its understanding of what is proposed and of what may be possible, and also in regard to its attitude in principle. However, the overriding principle, which I think we all understand, is that the archaeology must not be damaged in any way.

I recognise the commitment that the right hon. Lady has shown to this project over many years in order to ensure that the architectural heritage was preserved and that we could work towards a better solution. I should also acknowledge the work of the volunteers and members of the local community who have brought their imagination and passion to bear in supporting the project. We should bear it in mind that they are supporting it not just for the benefit of their own community, but for the benefit for the whole of London and the whole nation.

Finally, let me put myself at the right hon. Lady’s disposal. If she needs me to convene a meeting with the developers, with the Greater London Association, or with anyone else whose views she believes are relevant, I stand ready to assist her in any way that she considers suitable.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

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