Balfron Tower to be turned into luxury flats after council grants planning permission

Balfron Tower Photograph: Joe Roberts
Permission granted: Flats in Poplar’s Balfron Tower are to be refurbished and sold on the private market. Photograph: Joe Roberts

The controversial refurbishment of social housing landmark the Balfron Tower is to go ahead following a unanimous vote by Tower Hamlets Council’s planning committee on Wednesday evening.

The vote means work can finally begin on converting the Grade II–listed block’s flats into luxury apartments for sale on the private market. The majority of the flats were socially rented until residents began to be ‘decanted’ five years ago.

Poplar HARCA, the housing association behind the scheme, will carry out the refurbishment and sale as part of a joint venture with developers LondonNewcastle and Telford Homes.

“We’ve worked very hard, it’s an iconic building and we want to preserve it,” said Neil Hunt, development director at Poplar HARCA.

Planning Committee chair Cllr Mark Francis said the loss of social housing was regrettable, but that tenure – the question of whether homes in the block would be socially rented or privately owned – could not influence the committee’s decision.

Cllr Francis said the Housing and Communities Agency (HCA) had decided to allow Poplar HARCA to transfer the Tower into private ownership.

‘Kangaroo committee’

However, housing activist Glenn McMahon, who made a formal representation to the committee opposing the plans, insists tenure should have been a factor in the deciding the fate of the iconic tower.

“It seems like a kangaroo committee in my opinion,” he said.

“The 2015 London Plan states that tenure is a consideration for planning on London estates. The Housing and Communities Agency can give permission, but they can’t go beyond the law. Tenure is still a consideration, the committee has not cited any law to say it’s not a consideration.”

Mr McMahon also criticised the HCA’s lack of transparency. “The Agency gave permission in December 2014, and the first we hear about it is in the planning document – so how are you supposed to challenge that?”

Dr Vanessa Crawford, one of the remaining leaseholders who owns a flat in the Balfron Tower and who also made a representation opposing the scheme, suggested campaigners may now seek a judicial review. “We’ll take it forward, carry on,” she said.

She added: “I don’t need to, that’s the ironic thing. I don’t need this, I could make a fortune by selling my flat. I don’t live this life for financial gain.”

The unhappiness of a lot of residents is understandable
Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs: ‘The unhappiness of a lot of residents is understandable’. Photograph: Benjamin Mortimer

Residents of Balfron Tower and surrounding estates voted to transfer their homes from council management to Poplar HARCA in 2006, following promises from the HARCA that their homes would be refurbished and that they could continue to live in them if they chose.

The Tower contained 102 social rent flats and 44 leaseholder-owned flats at the time of transfer. Residents began to be ‘decanted’ following a health and safety report in 2010 and it was confirmed in February this year that the block would become 100 per cent private housing.

Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: “The unhappiness by a lot of residents with disposal [the transfer of Balfron into private hands] is understandable and I have a lot of sympathy with that.

“I certainly wasn’t here at the time, which doesn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t have been persuaded it was a good thing, but I can see there’s a lot of emotional attachment to the history of the block as a piece of public housing, and I support that.

“But we are where we are. The decision was made in the past, and it’s a decision that’s been inherited by my mayoral team. And overall the HARCA in the area has invested a lot and spent a lot of time and energy improving the housing condition in the area.”

The Balfron Tower was built in 1965-7 and designed by Hungarian-British architect Ernő Goldfinger. It is designed in the Brutalist mood and made principally from concrete.

Christophe Egret, architect for the refurbishment plans, said: “We can give the building a second life and hopefully make sure it will have people living in it for the next 100 years in good condition.

“There is already a mix of private and social housing on the site and I think actually that’s quite healthy – that there isn’t a concentration of social housing in one single area and to have a bit of diversity.”

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