'SUPPORTIVE' HOMES LACK SUPPORT
The team behind the proposed Mildmay Urban Village (MUV) doesn't really know what to do next. A decision by Tower Hamlets' planning committee to turn down its potentially groundbreaking social housing project in Shoreditch came as a shock, not least to the scheme's architect Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCB) - the practice rarely has anything rejected.
So to find its £55 million 'supportive housing' development in London's notoriously needy East End being sent back to the drawing board could not have been easy to stomach.
Given that both CABE and the borough's own planning officers had welcomed the proposals for homeless charity Crisis, the unanimous eight-nil rejection at committee is yet more surprising.
Crisis and its partner, housing association Genesis, wanted to build a mixed private and social development, providing 370 permanent dwellings for formerly homeless people and those on low incomes.
The scheme would have been the first of its kind in the UK and was inspired by the pioneering and successful Common Ground model, which has been running in New York for the past 16 years.
Unlike the high-profile Foyer hostel projects - such as Ian Simpson's competitionwinning design in Birmingham - the pioneering programme in east London is viewed as a 'next step' for people living in temporary accommodation and effectively offers homes to tenants for as long as they want them.
Around 270 of these homes were to be provided in a 23storey tower at the eastern end of the Mildmay site. Although the rest of the plot was to be given over to a new church - designed by Matthew Lloyd Architects - an HIV/Aids hospital, and new offices, there is no doubt one of the key reasons the scheme opped at committee was the scale of the main, residential tower.
According to the official refusal document from Tower Hamlets, the skyscraper would have had an 'adverse impact on the residential amenity, particularly in terms of daylight and sunlight.'
There were also fears that the tower, which was to be clad in copper, would be 'insensitive to the surrounding area.'
It is rumoured the neighbouring authority, Hackney Council, also thought the tower was 'too Brutalist'.
Understandably, FCB co-founder Keith Bradley feels these comments do not bear close scrutiny.
He says: 'The scheme has been carefully mapped in terms of daylight and sunlight, demonstrating that there is no significant impact on the surrounding properties - this was independently checked by Tower Hamlets as part of the case officer's report recommending approval.
'We think this is a fantastic project which really tries to deal with the heart of homelessness problems in London. We're all working together to find a way forward.'
However, Liberal Democrat councillor Louise Alexander, who helped run a wellorganised campaign against the development, believes that the height and scale issues were just the tip of the iceberg.
She says: 'It seemed because the development was billed as a unique and innovative project, a lot of the planning guidelines were being breached.
'The Urban Village building itself was made up of mainly bedsits, built to the minimum specification in terms of size. Is it right to reintegrate people into society by stuffing them into tower blocks?'
She adds: 'There were to be only 11 three-bedroom ats on the whole site - the rest was designed for single people.
'Crisis may have got letters of support, but people didn't realise it would mean building a 23-storey tower.'
But Beth Sandor, the project manager seconded from Common Ground to head the scheme, paints a completely different picture.
Her vision, which is as compelling as it is brave, is for a development which combines high-quality architecture with integrated 'amenities' such as IT suites, arts rooms, a concierge service and rooftop gardens.
Brought together, she believes it can change lives, as it has for thousands in New York.
She says: 'To get here we have been on a long journey - we didn't just come up with this out of the blue. We earned the backing of CABE by working hard on this over many months.'
She adds: 'Perhaps people thought it was too good to be true. I can understand people's scepticism because there is nothing like it.
'But people need to trust us. We are not going anywhere and we are going to deliver this.'
In respect of the design, and the objections over its scale, Sandor is adamant that the proposed scheme was a 'robust solution'.
'There has to be a certain economy of scale, ' she says.
'The scheme can't just be halved in size. If it was as simple as taking two storeys off the top I'd do it tomorrow.'
She adds: 'But if you skimp on high-quality architecture then it won't work. The aim is to make it beautiful and not look like a social housing block.
'We want the wow factor and we want to change opinions about what social housing should be.'
The problem is that, unchanged, the scheme will never get built. It remains to be seen how much of this 'wow factor' will have to go to get the project past the planners.