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Nine year planning row over derelict pub site puts new homes on hold

PUBLISHED: 17:00 02 May 2019

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The "tri-site" area in Plaistow has been the subject of a costly back-and-forth since 2010. Picture: Google Maps

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Two businesses' hopes of building up to 78 new homes in Plaistow have been on hold for nine years after Newham Council clung onto a set of garages and a now-derelict pub.

Harsha Dharmawardene has spent up to £200,000 on plans for his own site since 2012. Picture: Harsha DharmawardeneHarsha Dharmawardene has spent up to £200,000 on plans for his own site since 2012. Picture: Harsha Dharmawardene

Harsha Dharmawardene, who has owned the Gold Seal breakers' yard in New Barn Street since 1989, first approached the council about re-developing his site in 2010.

In 2012, on officers' advice, he spent £160,000 to £200,000 on plans for a 78-unit development, including affordable and key worker flats, which would take in the council-owned garages at Stubbs Point and the Army & Navy Pub next door.

Since then he says the council has changed its mind several times over what it wants to see happen at the site.

After a series of costly about-turns and a death at the pub in 2016, officers rubber-stamped two rival planning applications for 33 and 25 homes on the same premises – then wrested the pub off the open market the week it was due to be sold.

The Gold Seal Garage and neighbouring  pub were once set to be developed together: Picture: Polly HancockThe Gold Seal Garage and neighbouring pub were once set to be developed together: Picture: Polly Hancock

Mr Dharmawardene told the Recorder: “It's unbelievably frustrating. We worked on their advice and spent the money and there's a total lack of transparency.

“If the borough is crying out for housing, why are they putting up so many barriers to such a worrying degree, and why keep stringing us along?”

In October 2012 Mr Dharmawardene submitted a feasibility study and pre-application report to Newham, paying £1,800 for a single meeting with officers.

He was told a larger “urban block” could be created using the council-owned garages and later, in February 2013, that this might feature the pub too.

The Army & Navy pub in New Barn Street has been closed since a death in 2016. Picture: Polly HancockThe Army & Navy pub in New Barn Street has been closed since a death in 2016. Picture: Polly Hancock

In October 2013 he made a formal pre-application for the area to the council. The following April he was advised to row back and apply just to develop Gold Seal and the garages instead.

Months later, a valuation officer for the council's back-office service OneSource told him there was an “alternative proposal in hand” that would “deliver a greater capital receipt” to the council.

Over the course of 2015 a lengthy back-and-forth with the same officer took place over the cost of the garages. Emails seen by the Recorder show delays to responses lasting months on end, while at the same time, the pub's landlady was being told by the same OneSource officer that a property developer was interested in her site.

Mr Dharmawardene's solicitors threatened to make a formal complaint on November 4, 2015. But 15 minutes after the threat, they were told he could buy the garages for £595,000.

The council-owned garages behind Stubbs Point in Plaistow. Picture: Polly HancockThe council-owned garages behind Stubbs Point in Plaistow. Picture: Polly Hancock

But by December, the council rowed back on the offer again, leading to Mr Dharmawardene writing to his MP, Lyn Brown, in January 2016.

In March 2016 Mr Dharmawardene submitted a planning application to the council to build 33 homes on his own yard and the garage, which was delayed and eventually approved in 2017.

At the same time, another application to demolish the pub and garages and build 25 flats was submitted on behalf of the landlady, and was also approved in 2018.

A source close to the pub told the Recorder the management had spent around £100,000 on the plans and were now similarly stuck.

She said: “We paid serious fees to the council and they pulled out at the last minute.

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“They kept going on and on about social housing. We got full-blown planning permission, and now there's no plan, nothing. I am absolutely livid.”

In March 2016 a deadly brawl at the Army & Navy led to a local man, Reece Hussain-Lester, then 22, being jailed for 20 years for manslaughter and wounding with intent.

Harsha Dharmawardene at Gold Seal, which he has been trying to re-develop for almost 10 years. Picture: Harsha DharmawardeneHarsha Dharmawardene at Gold Seal, which he has been trying to re-develop for almost 10 years. Picture: Harsha Dharmawardene

Newham revoked the pub's license and it has lain empty ever since, with the bar area stripped out and squatters moving in.

A receiver was appointed on behalf of NatWest bank to recover as much value from the site as possible and at the same time, Mr Dharmawardene was informed by the OneSource officer the council still wanted the site developed.

The pub went up for auction at Strettons in October 2018 and a sale was finalised in advance, with Mr Dharmawardene set to buy the remaining 49-year lease on the site for £650,000: £150,000 above the asking price.

But then, seven days before the auction date, the pub was slapped with a Section 146 notice.

The Gold Seal Garage has been in operation since 1989. Picture: Polly HancockThe Gold Seal Garage has been in operation since 1989. Picture: Polly Hancock

This legal notice warns a tenant in breach of their lease that they may lose it, and under the law should be accompanied by a schedule of works required to meet the conditions of the lease.

Solicitors for the receiver asked to see the schedule of works, but received no response from Newham.

Mr Dharmawardene told the Recorder: “The notice was a portcullis, a blocking manoeuvre all the way through. The pub was derelict for about two years with nothing done internally or to the outside and squatters.”

At 6am on April 1 Newham lodged a search on the Land Registry: an official means of temporarily freezing, checking or updating the details of the register, in this case “to protect a pending purchase”.

The boarded-up pub frontage in New Barn Street. Picture: Polly HancockThe boarded-up pub frontage in New Barn Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

Then on April 11, in a message to the devastated would-be buyer, the bank's receiver admitted the council had bought back the lease in return for “a substantial premium”.

They added: “I would ask that you understand the vulnerable position which the receivers and the bank were in and why the receivers decided it necessary to surrender the lease to the local authority.”

It is unclear what the council will do next. As it now holds the lease to the pub, it must obey the terms of its own legal notice.

Mr Dharmawardene said: “The pub is boarded up and security people are looking after it. The council could have saved on this. What a hypocrisy to stick up a dereliction order on a property they're set to demolish.”

A notice issued before the Army & Navy had its licence revoked in 2016. Picture: Harsha DharmawardeneA notice issued before the Army & Navy had its licence revoked in 2016. Picture: Harsha Dharmawardene

He added in recent months, “dozens” of developers had come to his personal and business addresses under the impression that his own yard was for sale, which it is not.

He said: “OneSource are in charge and there's no means of redress or a route for a hearing. I have written to the head of housing and cabinet members and nobody seems to get back to me. It's a cul-de-sac that leads nowhere.

“If they had been honest from the beginning I would have done my development five years ago; that would have provided some key worker housing with uplift to the area.

“We haven't given up the fight. We will be taking it further, perhaps to the secretary of state.”

A police report submitted to Newham Council ahead of the licensing committee hearing.A police report submitted to Newham Council ahead of the licensing committee hearing.

Newham Council has been approached for comment.

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