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 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 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.