Councillors approve new Elephant leisure centre and 37-storey tower

Southwark councillors have approved plans for a new public leisure centre and swimming pool at Elephant & Castle and a 37-storey tower of luxury homes alongside the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Councillors approve new Elephant leisure centre and 37-storey tower
The tower will be surrounded by a four-storey 'podium' building of a similar height to the adjacent Metropolitan Tabernacle
Councillors approve new Elephant leisure centre and 37-storey tower
The new leisure centre will sit behind the residential tower

In 2011 the council sold the eastern half of the Elephant & Castle Leisure Centre site to Lend Lease to help fund the construction of new sports and recreation facilities.

The old leisure centre finally closed its doors in June, although the swimming pool had been out of use for many years.

On Tuesday night Southwark's planning committee considered two planning applications: one from Lend Lease for a 37-storey tower of 284 private homes ('St Mary's Residential') next to the Metropolitan Tabernacle and another application by the council itself for a new leisure centre and pool on the western half of the site.

Lend Lease's tower scheme was approved by four votes to three whilst the new leisure centre won the unanimous backing of committee members.

Edward Mayes, development manager at Lend Lease, said that the firm's proposed tower was essential to achieve other aims of the Elephant & Castle regeneration scheme. "Fundamentally, the new public leisure centre would not happen without St Mary's," he said.

He said that together the St Mary's Residential scheme and the new leisure centre will "create a new public heart for the Elephant & Castle".

Mr Mayes said that the tower would set the tone for Lend Lease's future schemes across the Heygate Estate site: "It will be the first manifestation of the quality we intend to deliver across that development," he said.

Architect Michael Squire told committee members that his "garden tower" would "create a very valuable new place on the skyline".

He added that the use of "stone, glass and patinated copper" would lead to a building that is "quite unusual and special".

Some councillors were particularly concerned about the complete absence of affordable housing from the scheme. Cllr Adele Morris described as "mind-boggling" the insistence by council officers and developers that no affordable homes could viably be provided in connection with this scheme.

Her Lib Dem colleague James Barber was similarly unimpressed. He announced that he would vote against the proposal: "It doesn't get much more of a sweeter spot for developers than the Elephant & Castle.

"I don't believe the community is getting enough value despite all of the very passionate desire that something is built there as soon as possible."

However, Cllr Robin Crookshank Hilton said she was convinced by the evidence given by Lend Lease.

"In Elephant & Castle we need to regenerate, we need to go forward and we need to start building. I am very happy that the quality of materials is high. I don't want to see a rubbish crumbling concrete building. I want to see something we can be proud of. I think the leisure centre is important and the community needs this."

Although Elephant & Castle is one of the best-connected transport interchanges in the capital where planning policy would normally rule out the provision of parking spaces, the tower will have 46 spaces with half reserved for disabled residents.

"We have sought a car-free development ... at the end of the day we haven't succeeded [and] the developer is insistent," said planning officer Bridin O'Connor.

Jerry Flynn of the Elephant Amenity Network asked the committee to reject the scheme because of the absence of affordable housing.

"It seems pretty unlikely that a building of this kind can't provide a provision towards affordable housing," he said.

He added: "I have no objection at all to a new leisure centre. The local community has been put in an invidious situation where it has to choose between one or another ... I can't see why money couldn't be found for both – everyone would welcome both I'm sure."

The leisure centre has been designed by John McAslan and Partners in partnership with sports architects S&P. It will include a 25-metree swimming pool, learner pool, four badminton courts, gym, two fitness studios, creche, cafe and indoor cycle studio.

Jon Abbott, the council's Elephant & Castle project director, told the committee: "We think this is going to be an extremely strong civic building. The architects have successfully reconciled the internal requirements of a leisure centre – traditionally these are very large boxes – with the need to respond to the existing context around the site.

"The building does that by having different finishes for each elevation which are sympathetic to the context."

He added that the entrance to the leisure centre will be "highly visible" from the Elephant & Castle southern junction.

Mr Abbott said: "We think it's going to be a great building – one that the council and the community can be justly proud of. It's going to increase participation in sports activity; the head of leisure believes it will increase usage from 15,000 visits per month to 40,000 per month, helping the council to meet its health and sports participation objectives.

"It's going to provide a key community facility which will underpin the successful regeneration of the area."

Recent archaeological discoveries have delayed the demolition of the existing building and the new leisure centre is now scheduled to open in autumn 2014.

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