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Bell Green Gasworks – a look back

The Public Inquiry decision has been handed down. The development proposals put forward by Castlemore Securities Ltd, on behalf of British Gas have been approved and the face of Bell Green will shortly start to change. This is not yet the end of the story – it is the middle – the end has yet to be written.

The history of this troubled 46-acre site goes back to 1969 when gas production ceased. By 1989 British Gas and Lewisham Council were discussing the redevelopment of Bell Green. Originally Lewisham’s hopes for the site were for a mix of shopping, industry, office, leisure and open space. In 1991 British Gas asked for permission to build a supermarket, a petrol filling station and facilities to attract non-food retail uses, alongside new offices for its own use.

In April 1992 British Gas published a leaflet stating that they wanted “to provide for an alternative to the non-food retail element…..Leisure uses are felt to be appropriate to complement the supermarket and the linear park, although it is not certain what sort of leisure operators might come to the site. A multi-screen cinema and a bowling alley are the possibilities.” The leaflet mentions “supermarket” four times! If these plans had got the go ahead imagine what type of destination Bell Green might have become.

Despite advice in 1991 from the London Planning Advisory Committee that Bell Green was not an acceptable site for major retail development, and that retail proposals were likely to cause ‘significant harm’ to established shopping centres, Lewisham Council granted outline planning permission in February 1993 for food, industry and warehousing. The leisure element was dropped from the plans.

It was only after the Outline Permission was granted in 1993 that the Sydenham Society became aware of the enormity of the plans; that a hypermarket foodstore (not the “supermarket” of the publicity leaflets) with 1100 free car parking spaces was what was planned.

The Society mounted a massive local protest against the effects of the Savacentre and armed with a large petition members of the Sydenham Society, local retailers and over 250 local residents crowded into the Town Hall on 3 November 1994 to try to persuade local councillors to refuse permission on the grounds of traffic impact and effect on local high street trade.
But it was not to be.
Permission was granted and Savacentre – the fourteenth and last of 21 planned by Sainsbury’s – opened on 15 August 1995. As expected, traffic did increase and statistics showed that vacancies in local high street shops rose from 6% in 1995 to 14% in 1996, and virtually all the shops in the parade at Bell Green closed for business shortly thereafter.

Since then the Sydenham Society has continued to object to plans for further warehouse sheds on the Phase 2 and Phase 3 sites. The argument remains the same as in 1994, increased traffic and damage to local trade by large-scale retailers.

In the intervening years there has been much evidence as to how the power of the supermarket giants and similar retailers has affected local high streets. Evidence by the New Economics Foundation in their report Ghost Town Britain pointed the finger at out-ofretail town retail parks and, more recently, MP Jim Dowd’s non-party parliamentary committee brought out a report, High Street 2015, showing that in the UK over 7,000 small retailers are closing annually as a result of unfair competition by the supermarket giants.

The Sydenham Society has participated in two public inquiries over the past 3½ years and the decision has been in favour of development on both occasions. We know from objections on the files in Lewisham’s planning office, from response to discussions at our Annual General Meetings and to the overwhelming generosity of our membership – over £7000 has been donated – that we have reflected community concerns at these inquiries.
Whether these concerns are justified will become clearer over the next couple of years as the Bell Green site is developed. Will the local roads be able to cope with increased traffic; will there be instances of rat- running in residential roads; will the high street traders be able to sustain their trade? Only time will tell and then, and only then, can the end of the Bell Green Gasworks story be written.

Special thanks should be extended to members of the current Bell Green team: Alistair Bryan, Vivien Day, Jimmy Dickens, John Hutchinson, Barbara Kern, Annabel McLaren and Pat Trembath. An acknowledgement is also due to the support of Sydenham Traders and its Chair, Geraldine Cox.

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