Mayor of London puts Council’s Town Hall development plans on ice

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A controversial plan to redevelop the Hammersmith Town Hall that would have involved the eviction of blind residents from nearby social housing, and provoked the ire of actors Colin Firth and Dame Judi Dench, has been blocked by Boris Johnson.

The King Street Development plans also included the construction of luxury housing and a major new supermarket, and have been met with fierce protests over the last six months. Boris Johnson has now refused the application saying he is ‘glad that common sense has prevailed’. This followed a tense five-hour standoff last month between Conservative councillors and local residents ending in the waiving through of the controversial re-development of Hammersmith Town Hall.

Conservative councillors defended the planning application that would have provided the council with £35million offices at no cost to them, in return for two high rise blocks of flats that local campaign group Save Our Skyline claim would have blighted this picturesque area. Save Our Skyline greeted the mayor’s decision with cautious optimism and has vowed to fight on should the Council re-submit the application, citing the 1,000 letters of objection, support from 38 residents’ organisations, and 8,500 petition signatures as an incentive.

Celebrities who reside in the Hammersmith area added their voices to the dissenting ranks. These included Sheila Hancock, Dame Judi Dench, Dougray Scott, Jeremy Vine, David Threlfall, Colin Firth and Ralph Fiennes. David Threlfall said: “This Council has operated dual standards for too long. What is not permitted to residential properties seems to not apply to big business. Greed should not triumph over care.”

After blocking the plans, Mr Johnson said: ‘This proposal caused much anger in the community and I am glad that common sense has prevailed. We must protect historic buildings, green space and the views of our great city.’

The plans included a large supermarket and a footbridge that would run through part of Furnival Gardens. To make way for these the developers proposed demolishing social housing for the blind and an art deco cinema.

The art deco Cineworld that is under threat of demolition

The King Street Development is jointly managed by two property companies – Helical Bar plc and Grainger plc. Helical Bar was recently in the spotlight when the Daily Telegraph alleged that the company is a major donor to the Conservative party, with contributions that total £300,000 over 10 years. Chief Executive, Michael Slade, responded to this allegation saying: “You do run the thin line of someone saying: ‘You’re only doing this to have access and influence’, but that was what politics was always about.”

Stephen Greenhalgh, who was Council leader at the time when the plans were first submitted, praised the proposals. While publicly expressing his support, he claimed he did not wish to influence the decision of the planning committee. Speaking before Boris Johnson’s scrapping of the proposals he said: “I believe that this scheme does balance the need to regenerate the area around the Town Hall with the needs of local people and the borough’s hard-pressed taxpayers.”

There is a feeling among residents that the Council’s disregard for their wishes was entirely out-of-step with the government’s professed wider agenda on planning, detailed in the Localism Act, which recently passed into law. This Act claims to empower communities by giving them a greater input when considering planning applications. However, Hammersmith residents feel that their concerns have been ignored in favour of a scheme that would have only benefitted the Council. Nick Bastin from the Save Our Skyline group said: “There’s a conflict of interest when the Council are the ones who’ll principally benefit.”

Cromwell Mansions, which houses blind residents

Cromwell Mansions sits unobtrusively just to the right of the Town Hall. Dappled in sunlight, it is a picturesque location sheltered from the bustle of King Street just around the corner. Managed by the Pocklington Trust, these flats provide social housing for nine blind people and others on low incomes. For a number of years Pocklington Trust tried to house an increased number of blind people in these flats. However, these plans were blocked because this social housing, as well as the neighbouring car park, Cineworld and a Quaker Friends Meeting House are all owned by Tesco and have been under threat of redevelopment for the past 10 years.

Simon Curtis, Property Director at the Pocklington Trust said: “Of course we’d rather it [the development] didn’t happen. The developers have to legally compensate us for the capital value of the flats but they haven’t offered any alternative accommodation for the residents with sight loss who are going to be left without a home.”

Mr Curtis also stated that the Council’s claim that the tower blocks were necessary to offset the cost of new offices were misleading. He said: “Is that the right way of doing things? Shouldn’t they pay for their own offices, rather than demolishing perfectly respectable housing and severely disrupting the surrounding community?”

Labour councillor Stephen Cowan argued that there are alternative plans the Council could have considered that would not have involved the construction of two high-rise blocks of flats. He believes that the Council determinedly stuck to their plan, despite widespread objection, because of the refurbishment savings – namely £35million worth of new council offices provided for free. He said: “A lot of people buy around here because it’s a beautiful area. Dickens wrote his plays here, Handel wrote a lot of his compositions here, and they’re now going to stick in ugly blocks of flats all so they can get £35million worth of offices.”

Local residents and the West London Architects Group proposed alternative plans that included refurbishing the current Town Hall, scrapping the proposed tower blocks of flats, and saving the cinema. However, Conservative councillors argued that the £35million that had been quoted for the cost of new offices would fall on the taxpayer unless they were provided for free by the developers in return for the two tower blocks of residential flats.

Residents believed the developers would be making a lucrative investment due to the desirable riverside location of the flats, alongside Hammersmith’s status as the third most expensive area in the country to buy property. King Street Development declined to comment on how much they would stand to gain financially from the two blocks of flats.

Councillor Harry Phibbs argued that new council offices were necessary, and that the King Street Development scheme provided a solution that benefitted both the Council and the taxpayer. He said: “It is a big financial consideration, and it’s fair enough if people say they’re prepared to pay a higher council tax to save the skyline but when I put it to people like that they don’t want to face up to it.”

However, when questioned about the perceived conflict between the aim of the Localism Act to empower communities and the residents’ feeling that their misgivings were falling on deaf ears he said: “Some of the time it’s easy to object to things in a very outspoken way and it’s harder to come up with alternatives that are viable.
“Amongst the critics of the proposal there’s a lack of consensus about what the alternative should be. The main objection is the height of the towers but if you then just say ‘Well let’s just leave things as they are and rebuild the town hall extension’ then that would mean a big bill for council tax payers whereas this alternative scheme would save about £4million a year.”

At a recent protest meeting against the Town Hall development, organised by the Save Our Skyline group, Labour councillor PJ Murphy said: “It makes my blood boil to see the Council canvas your views and then ignore them.” Councillor Phibbs admits that current consultation processes on planning are ineffective. He said: “A lot of the consultation exercises are a box-ticking exercise, because it’s a statutory requirement. People send in their comments and then feel frustrated when they don’t seem to make any difference. I think the Localism Act will make community engagement more genuine.”

The architect of the Localism Act, Conservative MP Greg Hands, wrote a foreword for the plain English version of the Act. In this he said: ‘For too long, government has hoarded and concentrated power… it leaves people feeling ‘done to’ and imposed upon – the very opposite of the sense of participation and involvement on which a healthy democracy thrives.’

This feeling of empowerment was absent from the planning committee meeting last month. In the end the vote was a hurried one, taken at midnight after hours of angry words had been exchanged. Councillors voted 8-3 in favour of the planning application. The only response from the crowd was a collective shout of “Shame!” Mr Johnson’s move to subsequently delay proceedings was seen by residents as further proof that their Council do not have their best interests at heart.

The Super Sewer

When the heavens open and the rain falls, the genius of London’s Victorian subterranean engineering saves its streets from being flooded with raw sewerage. The sewers, unable to cope with their aquatic burden, are assisted by Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s interceptors, which spring into action and divert the excess rainwater that floods the combined sewers and drains, into the river Thames.

The 13,000-mile network designed by Bazalgette helped to expel cholera and eliminate the stench London had become famous for. However, three times as many people live in London now and there is less vegetation to soak up rain; resulting in 39million cubic metres of sewage spilling into the Thames with the rainwater each year. In1860s London this was not a major issue as the interceptors were only used a few times a year, the Thames was biologically dead and the knowledge of pathogenic microorganisms was still in its infancy.

The combined sewer overflow spills out on average once a week, breaching EU rules. From 2000 to 2005 the Thames Tideway Strategic Study Steering Group studied how best to resolve this problem and proposed a full-length tunnel from Hammersmith to Beckton. In 2006 the European Commission initiated environmental violation proceedings against the UK. In 2007 the government instructed Thames Water to construct a full-length tunnel from Hammersmith to Beckton at an estimated cost of about £2bn, to solve the problem. Since then the total estimated cost has increased to about £4.1bn.

Thames Tunnel Film (2011) from Thames Tunnel on Vimeo.

The project, officially called the Thames Tideway Tunnel, but widely known as the Super Sewer is controversial.

For residents of Fulham the recent naming of Carnwath road as the preferred site for the main drill shaft for the Super Sewer has left them wondering ‘why us, why here’? If the project goes ahead, Carnworth road, the size of six football pitches will be home to a drill wider than three London buses operating 24 hours per day for at least 7 years.

The site, whilst designated by Thames Water Brownfield is home to many residents in flats and houses who overlook the wharf where construction will take place. There is also a small business park that employs 130 people, a gym, a pub and river walk. There are two nursery schools, five primary schools and one secondary school within 500 metres and a further 15,000 residents and 2,200 businesses all within 1,500 metres of the site. Clearly for them, the project is not welcome news.

Vibration, noise, pollution, foul odours and traffic problems are the major concerns that has led to a staunch campaign against Thames Water’s plans by residents and local politicians since the announcement.

Cllr Ali de Lisle, from Sands End Ward in Fulham expressed concern that “a tunnel bigger than the Channel Tunnel [will have] its entrance off a small side road in a highly residential area of South Fulham.”

Carnwath road was not Thames Water’s first choice for the site for the drive shaft. In December last year a report was published by Thames Water titled; “Barn Elms Sports Ground – How We Chose the Preferred Site”. The report states on page 3 that “the sites identified at Carnwarth Road even if used together, were considered to be too small to be used as a main tunnel drive site” it goes onto say on page 4 “we chose Barn Elms because there were no suitable sites in Wandsworth Bridge from which to drive the tunnel.” In March this year Thames Water did a huge U-turn. Carnwarth Road was reconsidered to be big enough to be the ‘main drive site’ for the Super Sewer.

The move from barn Elms to Carnwath road will add £500 million to the estimated cost of the project.

“Barn Elms was the only place that could fit us in until we changed our tunneling strategy,” said Phil Stride, Head of London Tideway Tunnels. The Carnwath road site will enable Thames Water to move significantly more of the soil away by boat – which will be better for health and safety,” Mr Stride explained further.

Hammersmith and Fulham Council are opposed to the project and have been heavily lobbying Thames Water against the use of Carnworth road. Along with 4 other London boroughs they commissioned a report by Lord Selbourne. The report concluded that the river could be made cleaner and obligations to meet EU directives on water quality without building the super sewer.

“Our forensic analysis shows there is a substantial body of evidence pointing to the fact that there is a smarter way to make the River Thames cleaner. A shorter tunnel, combined with green infrastructure solutions that are built up incrementally in the medium to long term, would be both compliant with EU directives and less costly and disruptive to Londoners. These alternatives require further study.” Said Lord Selbourne in his report.

Mr Stride disagrees with the “feasibility” of the conclusions drawn by the Selbourne Report, adding, “it’s not realistic and there’s nothing new in it.”

The project is estimated to cost Thames water customers £70-80 per year extra on top of their normal bills, “for the foreseeable future,” Thames Water have said.

A report out on Tuesday called ‘Why does London need the Thames Tunnel?’ claims the major new sewer will be a huge boost for the capital’s economy.

The report, which is backed by business organisation ‘London First’ and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was listed in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement as one of the country’s top 40 most important infrastructure projects According to Thames Water tthe proposed tunnel is expected to directly create over 4,000 jobs at the peak of its planned seven-year construction phase.

It has not yet been decided who will finance and deliver the project, the Thames Water-led team developing the project has said that it’s “clear on the need to set contractors a minimum 20% threshold for the use of local labour.”

The project has strong political support. London mayor Boris Johnson said in an article in the Daily Telegraph, “this new super-sewer is the right thing to do for the environment – and it is above all the right kind of thing to do for a country still struggling to get back to growth.” Chancellor George Osborne has also shown his support by including the project on a list of infrastructure projects that will be underwritten by the government.

“There’s no point spending £5 billion and pushing many Londoners into water poverty if there’s a smarter and a cheaper way,” said Fulham and Hammersmith Council Leader Stephen Greenhalgh.

Thames Water has a vested interest in pushing through the “gold-plated” scheme, as Cllr Greenhalgh has called it.

“They have chosen to ignore the water industry experts who say there are alternative ways to improve the cleanliness of the river without the huge environmental, social and economic costs,” a spokesperson for Hammersmith and Fulham Council claimed.

Chris Binnie, who worked for Thames Water as head of the original steering committee and created the original sewer plans, presented evidence to the Selbourne Commission. He argued that the whole basis for the project was out of date and needed to be revisited. He also appointed to the way in which the water industry is financed through international borrowing, incentivises Thames Water to build infrastructure whether it is needed or not, because the more they borrow the more money they will make.

Mr Stride refuted this claim and emphasised that no decisions on funding had been made and this assertion that Thames Water was only interested in money is incorrect.

Since the consultation period ended in February residents fighting the super sewer, in Fulham as well as other proposed sites across London where construction will take place, suffered two serious set backs. Firstly Government officials banned Hammersmith and Fulham Council from giving planning permission to housing projects in and around Carnwath Road, the site of one of three main shafts needed to construct the tunnel. Secondly, in March, a new bill had a second unopposed reading in the House of Commons that allows the Government to underwrite major water projects such as the Super Sewer.

Empowered by the Big Society, tenants try to block £8bn redevelopment scheme

Empowered by the Big Society, tenants try to block £8bn redevelopment scheme

Fred and Joyce Podmore have lived on the West Kensington Estate in Fulham for thirty-nine years. To them, their home is not just bricks and mortar; it is where have they raised their three children, where they have grown old together, and where they had expected to live for the rest of their lives. However, at almost eighty-years old, the couple have lost their fight to stay in their home, along with hundreds of other tenants. Mr Podmore said he feels as if they are “lambs to the slaughter.”

EC Properties Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Capital and Counties Properties PLC (Capco) have submitted planning permission to Hammersmith and Fulham Council for an £8billion Earls Court Masterplan. On the 77-acre site, they are proposing to build 7,500 new homes, offices, 41 acres of open space and a new high street and ‘four villages’, modelled on cultural hubs in London. The project is thought to be the largest project of its type outside China and will take up to twenty-years to complete.

However the Masterplan entails the demolition the both the Earls Court exhibition and conference centres, and the West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates. The West Kensington Estate has 604 properties and was built in 1972, is comprised of five tower blocks, low-rise flats, maisonettes and terraced houses. The nearby Gibbs Green estate, built in 1961, has 110 properties and is made up of 7-medium rise blocks. Despite CapCo having pledged to re-house the tenants of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates with alternative, modern housing, which will “meet the needs of those residents moving into them”, two-thirds of the residents say that they will not be forced out of their homes without a fight.

Encouraged by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society, the residents want to take control of their estates, in order to prevent them from being demolished as part of the Earls Court redevelopment scheme. They face fierce opposition from their existing landowner, Hammersmith and Fulham Council, who see their land as a ideal opportunity for redevelopment, in the form of CapCo’s Masterplan.

Cameron’s Big Society envisages a social order in which power is taken away from politicians and given to the people. Housing Minister Grant Shapps announced plans last week, which will make it easier for tenants to take control of their local neighbourhood. The proposal includes a ‘Right to Transfer’, which would allow tenants to request the ownership of their neighbourhood to be transferred from a the council to a local housing association. Shapps has said, “it will no longer be acceptable for councils to dismiss tenant’s proposals for improvement out of hand.” If the plans are approved, the tenants of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates will have a significantly greater chance of controlling their homes.

The Conservative Government is encouraging people to take more power of their communities, and thus assume greater responsibility in society. In a speech unveiling the Big Society Mr Cameron said:

“We know that when you give people and communities more power over their lives, more power to come together and work together to make life better, great things happen.”

The proposed Earls Court project is likely to be the biggest test, to date, to Mr Cameron’s vision for Big Society. Jonathan Rosenberg, a housing activist, states that “local people are best at dealing with local problems, which shouldn’t involve knocking down places that people like to live in.” The Earls Court Masterplan presents a contradiction between the aims of the Tory-led Council and the vision of the Government’s Big Society. The former is supporting the redevelopment of the area, while the latter is fighting to save and take over their community. The West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates exemplify the spirit of localism put forward by the Government, but the residents feel that their aspirations are being quashed by the Council’s development agenda.

West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes, chaired by Shirley Wiggins, is the resident-controlled association that plans to take over the running and ownership of the estates. Determined to stop the demolition, they plan to use the so-far unused, Section 34a of the Housing Act 1985, which requires a local authority to co-operate with a formal notice from a tenant-led group to transfer stock ownership of council home. They hope to become their own landlords, as they believe the Council is solely driven by their desire to develop the area.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Sally Taylor and Diana Belshaw, the Chairs of the West Kensington Estate and Gibbs Green Estate, respectively, argue that despite the Government promising to devolve power to communities, their aims are “being crushed by the heel of the local state.” Stephen Greenhalgh, the leader of the Conservative Council in Hammersmith and Fulham, asserts that when considering a transfer of stock to the residents, “regeneration schemes for the wider area” must be considered in the context of the proposed transfer.” The council has claimed that the regeneration is needed to bring forward substantial private investment, where there are “bigger costs and economic benefits to the community and local authority area as a whole.” However, Mrs Taylor deems the Masterplan as merely an “opportunity for the Council to make money.

“I think the Big Society is a great idea, but when money is involved, values disappear quickly”, she adds.

Furthermore, a response to a Freedom of Information request by Inside Housing, disclosed a letter from Councillor Greenhalgh to the Decentralisation Minister, Greg Clark. Mr Greenhalgh asked that tests be applied before tenant-led transfers are approved in regeneration areas, arguing that “it is wrong to allow regulations on stock transfer to apply without wider benefit tests in these “Opportunity Areas.”

The Conservative Council, lead by Stephen Greenhalgh, have labelled the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates as an Opportunity Area, which refers to “the capital’s major reservoir of brownfield land with significant capacity to accommodate new housing, commercial and other developments.” The Council also states that the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates suffers from a high number of long-term unemployment residents, has low levels of educational attainment and has higher crime and mortality rates in comparison to the rest of the borough.

The Council also asserts that the quality of housing on the estates is below standard; despite the millions of pounds of funding it has received through the New Deals for Communities. On the ConservativeHome blog, Greenhalgh describes the West Kensington Estate as “pretty shabby”, not “fit for purpose” and ascertains that its builders did “an appalling job” in the 1970s. In its Core Strategy Document, the Council argues:

“The area doesn’t fulfil our expectations of a decent neighbourhood; we think that redevelopment should be considered to establish mixed and balanced communities.”

Greenhalgh also insists that due to of a lack of Government resources, the demolition of the estates would be more cost effective because of the total costs of improvements and maintaining the stock would be too expensive, asking, “how can the Council afford to maintain and do all the work that is required?”

However, despite claims from the Council that re-housing the tenants will improve both their lives, and immensely benefit the wider community, the residents do not echo their judgements. Mrs Taylor describes the estate as “lovely”, and explains how the people who live there have invested their lives in their homes. She laments that the council does not value a community, in which she has lived within for twenty-five years, as a mixed and diverse neighbourhood. In fact, she argues, “they should be celebrating it as an ideal council estate.”

The West Kensington and Gibbs Green have lost their bid to block the proposed redevelopment, fighting for their futures and their homes. The Council are currently carrying out their second consultation period so it could be months before they make their final decision. As the first significant test of the Big Society, the Council and the residents should be prepared for long and bitter struggle.