Southwark council moves to save historic arches:strict planning consent to be enforced for residential conversions of railway arches

A London council is stepping in to save its historic railway arches, after a rush of applications to convert them into homes. 

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Southwark will impose new rules requiring planning permission before an arch can be converted from commercial to residential use.

Turning an arch into a home is currently allowed under “permitted development rights” without the need to seek planning approval. However, Southwark fears such conversions endanger the special character that arches add to an area.

London’s thousands of railway arches appeal to architects, who are attracted by their romantic settings, and to developers, who like to include arches in schemes aimed at regenerating derelict railway land.

Southwark council says it has doubts about the suitability of its 800 railway arches as living spaces, with trains rattling overhead, but it is also concerned about their fate, and the fate of the many small businesses — from microbreweries to mini theatres to yoga studios – that currently operate out of them.

Character: bars and restaurants in Isabella Street railway arches near Waterloo and Southwark Tube (Alamy Stock Photo)

The council says: “Railway arches have become a focal point for local businesses across the creative, manufacturing, culinary and service industries, and contribute a huge amount to the character of the area.”

This week the council’s planning committee is expected to agree to withdraw permitted development rights, recently introduced by the Government, allowing railway arches to be used for residential purposes without the need for specific planning consent.

Simon Bevan, Southwark’s director of planning, also has concerns about the suitability of arches for housing, as they have limited opportunity of outside space, restricted access to natural light and fresh air, and exposure to excessive noise and vibration from the railway.

He is also concerned about safety. “In many areas in Southwark, multiple lines pass over the arches, particularly on the north-south routes to London Bridge station,” he said. “Occupiers would be subject to regular train movements overhead, posing potential significant noise and vibration issues.”

However, not everybody would agree with the council’s stance. Undercurrent Architects won New London Architecture’s prestigious House of the Year award in 2013 for a two-bedroom, 1,600sq ft live-work unit built within a 19th-century railway arch beneath a live train line in Southwark.

All systems go: award-winning Undercurrent Architects is a leader in creating living and working spaces below London’s busy railway tracks

And developer Cyntra Properties won planning consent this year to convert two arches in Sutherland Square, Kennington, into a pair of two-bedroom homes to a design by Undercurrent director, Didier Ryan.

The obvious challenges of creating a home in a noisy, wet, dark, and poorly ventilated arch are surmountable, says Ryan, who believes arches could provide thousands of new homes for the capital. He has objected to Southwark’s new strategy, describing it as a “reactive policy decision to thwart private initiatives”.

Speaking about his award-winning arch house, he said: “It’s possible to do something very exceptional with very difficult conditions. We had a tough site but problems can create very positive results.”

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