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If we’re to have an IKEA in Greenwich let’s make sure it’s the right one

Few local issues have been as controversial as IKEA’s plans for a new Greenwich store on the Bugsby’s Way site currently occupied by Sainsbury’s “eco-friendly” low energy supermarket and the former Comet building. I recall vividly the large number of local residents that took the time last year to attend the meeting of the Council’s Planning Board at which IKEA’s outline planning application was considered. They did so not only to express their sorrow at the loss of Sainsbury’s Stirling-prize nominated landmark store (sadly hamstrung by a highly restrictive covenant) but also to raise concerns about what a new IKEA store on the site would mean for an already congested local road network and the noxious air pollution that is its corollary.

I shared many of the concerns raised that evening and, alongside residents and fellow (some, sadly, now former) councillors, voiced my fears about what a new IKEA store on the Greenwich Peninsula would mean for congestion and air pollution in the local area, particularly at weekends. As I said at the time, I’m not intrinsically opposed to the arrival of an IKEA store in the Borough and I’m mindful of just how important hundreds of new jobs will be to the local people that were not represented at the Town Hall that evening. I’m also conscious that many local residents actually welcome the arrival of an IKEA store and that those that are implacably opposed to one represent only one viewpoint among many. However, I believed then and I still do now, that there is a very real risk that an IKEA store on the Peninsula will aggravate the congestion and poor air quality that we suffer from locally on an almost daily basis.

My main criticism at the time related to IKEA’s assumptions about the likely “modal split” between public transport and vehicle journeys to the proposed Greenwich store. Even accounting for the well-established public transport network that serves the Retail Park on Bugsby’s Way (the site has a Public Transport Accessibility Level rating of 5 as opposed to other London IKEA stores that have far lower PTAL ratings of 2 or 3) the modelling that IKEA submitted with their application, suggesting that 35 per cent of all customers would travel to the store by public transport, struck me as unduly optimistic. Moreover, the assumptions upon which the transport assessments rested were also heavily reliant on future behavioral change on the part of customers (i.e. the assumption that over time an increasing number of them will opt for home delivery on products ordered online despite the cost). I hope I’m ultimately proved wrong and that 35 per cent or more of all Greenwich IKEA customers do arrive at the store by public transport but the experience of other IKEA stores in London – including those also well-served by public transport – such as Croydon, which sees around 25 per cent non-car footfall, suggest that the Greenwich store may struggle to meet its target.

However, despite the concerns raised by local residents and councillors the Council’s Planning Board determined to give outline planning authorisation for the store, a decision later backed by London Mayor Boris Johnson and left in force after Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, having put the scheme on hold, decided not to intervene in the local planning process. Despite recent appeals from local campaigners urging the council to rescind its decision (a course of action that would have undoubtedly exposed the authority to legal challenge) the decision notice has now been issued. So we are where we are – IKEA, in some form, is coming to Greenwich.

Following detailed submissions from local ward councillors and months of negotiation the council managed to secure a satisfactory Section 106 agreement. And while it doesn’t go as far as I would like in some areas (I would have liked to have seen some movement from IKEA on reduced charges for home-delivery in order to promote public transport use) it did secure developer contributions for a number of measurers that should mitigate some of the potential negative impact of an IKEA store in the area while also providing wider benefits for the community. These include:

  • £750,000 to fund travel plan improvements that will be reviewed on an annual basis over five years by an independent assessor;
  • £500,000 for improvements to public transport namely the provision of extra buses to serve the development, and the upgrade of two bus stops adjacent to it;
  • £115,000 for enhancements to the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park including the improvement of the range of water bodies and linked habitats within the Park, enhancement of ponds and ditches and the provision of classroom facilities;
  • £243,000 for measures associated with the Borough’s Air Quality Action Plan;
  • £486,000 for the provision of local skills and training which will include contributions towards training as part of the Greenwich Local Labour and Construction (GLLaB) project;
  • Local highway and junction improvements including new and improved signage;
  • The promotion of travel by sustainable modes of travel for staff and customers of IKEA travelling to and from the development;
  • £24,000 for the provision of public art on and around the development;
  • The development of a car park management plan to tighten up what has been, until now, pretty much a free-for-all for commuters and visitors to the O2 arena.

However, as beneficial as the above measures may be they will not in themselves guarantee that a new IKEA store will not have a detrimental impact on the local area. What does have the potential to make a significant difference in that regard is the design of the store itself and, crucially, that is something that can still be shaped by the local community. In an effort to influence IKEA’s thinking on the store design Nick Raynsford and I arranged a meeting with representatives from IKEA UK and Ireland, including their Head of Sustainability and the Greenwich store project manager, in mid-January at which we made clear that IKEA Greenwich must not be a standard out-of-town blue shed but instead needs to be a sustainable, public-transport friendly building that is appropriate to its unique setting. We made clear to IKEA that the local community will want to see a store design that:

  1. Is a worthy replacement, both aesthetically and in terms of sustainability, for Paul Hinkin’s Sainsbury’s eco store;
  2. Is designed in such a way and with the relevant accompanying features (for example cargo bikes and bike trailers for locals that purchase bulky goods) to actively promote the levels of public transport use that we will need to see if IKEA’s optimistic transport assessments are to be realised;
  3. Sets extremely high sustainability standards (i.e. it cannot simply be an Ecobling powered box) and;
  4. Can be adapted to changing circumstances.

Something, in short, that is more akin to IKEA Hamburg Altona than IKEA Croydon.

My initial discussions with the IKEA representatives that are engaged with the design of the Greenwich store have left me cautiously optimistic about the chances of securing something that is both inconic and truly sustainable. Importantly, IKEA not yet tasked their architects to begin work on a design and they do not plan to do so until they have engaged actively with the local community on the issue by means of a series of community engagement events, held over the coming weeks and designed to solicit the views of residents’ groups, amenity societies and the wider community.

Whether this community engagement strategy is a genuine attempt to take stock of local opinion and draw on local knowledge and expertise or whether it is simply a PR exercise prior to the submission of a preferred store design (presumably, the cynics among you might say, already lurking in a BEKANT desk unit somewhere) remains to be seen. However, from the dealings I’ve had with IKEA’s new representatives in recent months (some of the individuals involved in the original outline submission appear to have moved on) I don’t get the sense that this is a box-ticking exercise.

In any case, whatever IKEA’s intentions might be, it’s crucial that local residents, amenity society representatives and councillors engage with IKEA about the store design so that the company are left in no doubt about the kind of store we want to see built here. If IKEA fall short and don’t come forward with an iconic, sustainable store that actively promotes the necessary public transport usage I’ll be the first person to criticise them but we may just have a chance here to secure a store that will benefit the area. If we have to have an IKEA in Greenwich, let’s do all we can to make sure it’s the right one.

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