No.1  Collaborating with Sellar

Sellar bought three buildings and their accompanying land in Bermondsey Street and Snowsfields between September 2006 and July 2008.  See plan below.  These sites were bought for a total of £18m.  This figure greatly exceeds the market value of the buildings in their present use.  In December of 2008 Sellar unveiled (rather secretively) their audacious plan for a group of three Shard satellites on the sites they had bought plus the St Thomas Street car park (operated by Union Car Parks) and a site in Snowsfields currently occupied by a block of shops and flats owned by Southwark Council.

In circumstances that Southwark have declined to divulge, between Sellar’s purchase of the sites and the present, the planners have concocted not one but two versions of a ‘Tall building Study’ for the area.  (more on this bizarre twist in a successor issue).  The first version appears below and does not include the curious finger sprouting from it up to and including the Sellar sites in Bermondsey St (version 2 – below).

Clearly, the only logical explanation for Sellar’s overpayment for the sites, and Southwark Council’s rather accommodating decision to zone them for high-rise, is that they were in collusion.

So who talked to who, when and what was agreed?  It would be easy to think that a local authority collaborating with a developer to hugely increase the value of his property was a matter of legitimate public interest.  No surprises, not according to Southwark’s planners.

We asked for an explanation of their collaboration with Sellar and Southwark’s Head of Planning, Simon Bevan and came up with the following responses:

29 December 2008 – letter from Russell Gray to Gary Rice, Head of Development Management at Southwark Council.

“I was naturally astonished to find Sellar proposing a quite astonishingly incongruous ultra-high-rise development almost next door and overshadowing both our sites.  The proposal has clearly already seen considerable investment and it seems inconceivable that this was made without any prior consultation with the planners.  I therefore assume that the planning department has somehow given the green light to the developers to proceed to this point.  For this to be the case there has to have been an extreme change of planning policy in relation to the Bermondsey Street area whereby conventional conservation principles have been entirely abandoned.

Please will you direct me to the records of this stark change of policy in the planning department and provide under the Freedom of Information Act all relevant documentation relating to the Sellar proposal and the green light shown by your planners to get it this far”.

12 January 2009 – response from Gary Rice

“You are right to believe that we are aware of these proposals but I can assure you that nobody has given them ‘the green light’ or any other encouragement on these plans.  To date, this authority has given no opinion on the proposals.   Indeed as far as I am aware, Council planning officers have only attended two briefing meetings by this developer and their architects on proposals for this site, once in 2007 when the ideas were at a much earlier stage and secondly in December 2008 when there was a presentation of the proposals that you will have seen.  No response has been given yet, neither positive or negative, as we requested further information about the proposals before giving our response….

…Finally, I can also assure you that there has been no change of planning policy.  These proposals will be considered against the planning policies set out in the Southwark Plan and the London Plan (as amended 2008).  I hope this has answered your concerns on this matter”.

12 January 2009 – response to Freedom of Information request from Southwark Council.

Q. “Please provide all records and documentation relating to the Sellar proposal and the green light shown by your planners to get it this far”.

A. “In relation to the Sellar proposal, the strategic director of regeneration and neighbourhoods attended a meeting with the Sellar Group on Monday 8 December 2008 at 3pm.  This was the first time a proposal was formally mentioned to the department.  On returning to the department, the director advised development control of the outline of proposals that were likely to be submitted.

Sellar Group have only recently contacted the department to discuss plans for development in the area.  It is important to note that no ‘green light’ has been given by this council for this or any development at this point in time”.

(Note the reference to a proposal ‘formally mentioned to the department’.

By this time Sellar had already spent more than £20million on the plan and it needed Southwark to donate a block of shops and flats, demolish a historic building and re-draw a conservation area. It must have been possible to do a lot informally!)

6 April 2010 – letter from Russell Gray to Simon Bevan, Head of Planning and Transport at Southwark Council.

“The extraordinary protuberance on your proposed Tall Building Zone reaching into the Bermondsey Street conservation area defies all planning logic – and indeed stands in blunt contradiction to much of the narrative content of the document.  There is of course one logical explanation for this protuberance: that you have somehow been induced to indulge the most exaggerated and ostentatious fantasies of the Sellar property business.

Q1. Do you acknowledge that the projection of the high building zone down St Thomas Street and up to Bermondsey Street is entirely in deference to Sellar who bought the sites recently and have tentatively advanced economically and architecturally fanciful (and correspondingly chameleon) and massively incongruous proposals for buildings of quite alien heights on the sites?

Q2. Kindly provide me with details of all contacts between your Department and Sellar or their representatives or agents at which these matters were discussed”.

14 April 2010 – letter from Simon Bevan, Head of Planning and Transport, Southwark Council.

We have developed the draft SPD in consultation with the Greater London Authority and we have had regular discussions with major landowners and developers including Guy’s Hospital, Network Rail and Sellar.

(Well, we were making some progress but then it went backwards)

21 April 2010 – letter from Russell Gray to Simon Bevan.

Q3. Provide an honest account of the collaboration with Sellar whereby you agreed to contribute Council land to their scheme and they paid in excess of market value for the sites in Bermondsey Street and Snowsfields.

14 May 2010 – further letter from Simon Bevan, now treating Q1. and Q2. as Freedom of Information Act requests.

Q1. No reply.

Q2. This request has now been considered and we require more time to process it.

Unfortunately, we cannot fully identify the information you have requested from the details you have provided.  Therefore, please could you clarify exactly what you mean when using the word “contacts”.  This will take approximately an extra 10 business days to respond to you.

Q3. The Council has not disposed of any land to Sellar in the Snowsfields/St Thomas Street or Bermondsey Street Area.

20 May 2010 letter from Russell Gray to Simon Bevan, Head of Planning and Transport at Southwark Council.

Nobody is going to believe that Sellar spent over £20m on pursuing a scheme that requires Southwark Council’s approval, donation of land and a block of shops and flats owned by the Council and the re-drawing of a conservation area by the Council, without talking to them.

Claiming you don’t know what ‘contacts’ means is indicative of the contempt with which you regard your obligations to openness in your dealings.

To humour you: ‘Contacts’ with Sellar or their representatives or agents means all communications, written or verbal.

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