Peter Dobbie- Polemic


Peter Dobbie debates why this particular historic green space should be preserved.

It was the very sod on which the victorious England World Cup team of 1966 – led by legendary Bobby Moore – prepared. In another time, Thomas Cromwell in his pomp was Lord of the Manor, before being dragged to the Tower of London and beheaded by his murderous mentor, Henry VIII.

Now though, the brewery site at Mortlake, where football glory was rehearsed and the political hero of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall held sway, is set for an altogether different future.

The brewery has been sold and with it a playing field, to be turned into one of the most significant community housing developments that west London will witness for decades. What is planned for the site will change Mortlake irrevocably and will either stand as a monument to the sensitivities of the local population or a footnote in the rush to build at any cost to our environment or heritage.

How it is achieved will affect many local lives and livelihoods and is already a matter of passionate debate. Plans for the site reveal an ambitious project. But it is not the one Richmond Borough Council first drew up and published in 2011 after two years consulting with the local community.

Then it showed a new Mortlake Village rising from the stark, utilitarian building that was the old Stag Brewery. It would see mixed tenure high quality housing, small businesses and amenities, with the existing playing field remaining as an invaluable open space bordered by buildings ‘sensitive to the local vernacular’.

There would be sports’ facilities, a museum and the preservation of a bottling plant and two other buildings that were deemed of historic interest. Thankfully the concept of gated communities, so evident further along the Thames towpath, was firmly rejected and there was talk of affordable housing.

The problems of access and the heavy traffic that already plague the road between Chalker’s Corner and Mortlake High Street seemed uppermost in the minds of the council. An ice rink was briefly mooted, but quickly side-lined through fears that an area bordered by already difficult traffic links would not cope as a destination for thousands of visitors to an entertainment complex.

It all seemed well thought out, a veritable Nirvana of community life, linking the river with Mortlake High Street. A pleasant place to live and work with the playing fields central to a definable green heart to match the pond and its common lands at Barnes.

There was a realisation that this would not be easy. There was little point in creating a new community hub that would be effectively cut off by traffic gridlock. To that end, and while it was recognised that schooling was needed for the children of Mortlake’s new families, it was decided to restrict this to a primary school.

That original plan was peppered with good intentions making much of concerns for ‘sustainability’ and the preservation of its historical significance. The council wanted to ‘reconnect Mortlake with the Riverside’. This would be achieved by ‘integrating its significant historical and cultural present and past within the private brewery walls’, with the playing field providing a green boulevard and recreational area linked to the river.

The council seemed to have listened to the real concerns of local people and indeed their plan of six years ago received huge support locally. But when it was amended and republished in October 2015 there was a significant change. The planned primary school had been dropped and replaced by one for a large secondary school, housing between 900 and 1,150 pupils.

The background to this change by the council is unclear. The original proposal was published after much consultation. But the change from primary to secondary school emerged from a single Council Cabinet meeting in October 2015 without apparent consultation. Just a month later the site was sold to the Singaporean developer, Reselton Properties.

All this has infuriated many who originally supported the original plan. They believe that the council has not fully evaluated the need for a larger school. Such expansion, say critics, would create a school squashed into a potentially crowded site with consequential pollution and traffic congestion.

There have been mutterings that the council has acted in patronising haste; believing that the good folk of Mortlake would not find a voice in perhaps the same way that the organised and highly vocal residents of Barnes do. If this was the case, then they have seriously underestimated their opposition.

There are concerns that the revised plan is not only a bad one for the community but one that is not necessary. There is no doubt that the population of the borough is expanding, but there are real fears that a new secondary school would end up being underused. The demand for schooling is increasing, as seen in local primary schools in the borough. But while there is clearly a gap between secondary school places and future likely demand, other factors have not been fully considered.

The Mortlake Brewery Community Group points to the provision of new schools both in and bordering the borough that will alleviate the pressure for places. Children are educated out of the borough and Richmond residents are higher than average users of private secondary education. Brexit adds to the mix, an unknown that could impact London’s population.

All three of these features could lead to flattening or downward fluctuations in demand,’ says the Group, which fears the loss of one of the only two open spaces of any size in Mortlake.

The Council stands accused of not doing its homework, ignoring alternatives and the residents of Mortlake. In short slipping through a plan that will turn an invaluable green space and its historic past over to the diggers without good reason.

For its part the council denies all this and insists that their decision was not taken in haste and is based on need. Without the larger school, and if Richmond Park Academy was to suddenly and rapidly fill its remaining empty places, Mortlake children will have to be bused out of the area to find secondary education.

The developers say that the school row is one not of their making. Reselton bought the site believing they had to provide a primary school only to find that plans had changed. Thousands have attended an on-site exhibition with graphics and transport management plans. Reselton points out that the 22 acres is interwoven with 5 acres of landscaped open space and the new school will have sports facilities that will be available for public use.

Whether this will assuage local concern is unclear. Critics insist they will play to the whistle in their opposition to a secondary school, saying it will be detrimental to the new Mortlake. What is clear is that the council now has a fight on its hands over its plans. One the arch political animal of Henry’s court and son of Mortlake would surely have relished.

©RiverTribe Magazine 2017