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.

Slashed budgets will deny vulnerable youngsters support

Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andy Slaughter, feels the cuts will have huge implications on frontline policing. Photo: Pete J

Hammersmith and Fulham Council will slash the budget of its young offending team by 63 per cent over the next three years.

Critics fear that the cuts, full details of which were buried in official statistics, will leave vulnerable youngsters without desperately needed support and lead to an increase in youth crime, with more youngsters in detention centres and out of school. Police in the borough fear a fall in incidents involving young offenders could be reversed.

Spending on young offenders in 2010 was £689,306. By 2013 it will be 63 per cent lower at £255,173. Figures published in November gave details only of a 26 per cent cut over the next two years to £510,346. But calculations show that the third year projections reveal an even larger cut of 37 per cent for 2012-13. The council says that only administrative tasks will be affected.

In the past seven months incidents involving the under 18s, have fallen by 33 per cent in Hammersmith and Fulham, against a London average of an 8 per cent drop.

Professor Bill Whyte, director of the Criminal Justice Social Work Development Centre for Scotland, said that the severity of the cuts would leave young people who are “prolific” offenders without vital support.

“The consequences could be catastrophic – more young people in detention centres or in care or excluded from school – which is already too high and is very costly. Unless some of the work is picked up by social services these offenders will be even less likely to receive the support they so crucially need, and that is horrifying.”

Inspector John Ballard, who is in charge of integrated offender management at Hammersmith police station and works with the youth offending service, fear that his team’s work will be undermined by the cuts.  “At the moment we are the second best borough in the capital when it comes to preventing youngsters from committing crime. In the last four weeks we’ve convicted six young offenders.

“But with these cuts we’re going to have to fill gaps. We’re constantly looking of ways to change the behaviour of these offenders. With a lot less people we have to be realistic – crime will increase.”

Youth offending teams were set up under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to cut the risk of young people offending or reoffending, and to support offenders and the cuts come only five years after an official inspection of the council’s service found that it only met bare minimum requirements.

The report said: “Despite the quality assurance system in place in the young offending service, the inspection found that a number of cases that had been reviewed by managers had not met basic requirements.

“The young offending service had an underdeveloped approach to evaluating the impact of its work with children and young people.”

Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister, said: “Cuts of this scale will inevitably lead to reduced frontline staff and a reduction in service quality.

“If judges in youth courts don’t have confidence in youth offending programmes, they’ll be forcing offenders in to custodial sentences where a community sentence might usually be appropriate. Cutting prevention teams, which helped to drive cuts in the number of young people first committing a crime by 43 per cent over the last Parliament, is simply counterproductive.”

The council is cutting spending in an attempt to reduce its £122 million debt, which means that it has to pay more than £4 million a year in interest payments. Councillor Greg Smith, the Conservative cabinet member for residents’ services, denied that crime will increase because of the cuts: “It would be overly simplistic to argue that spending less results in a worse service or an increase in crime. There are many examples where this council has cut wasteful spending while delivering a much better service through innovation and modernisation.”

But Inspector Ballard, a police officer for 28 years, said that it was illogical to suggest that cutting the young offending team budgets would not have an adverse effect on crime rates.

He said: “We will be doing everything we can to fill those gaps but we are going to be doing a lot more with less people. We have to be realistic, there will be more administration done by staff. A logical person would argue that point when you are trying to reduce the budget by such a large amount.”

 

Planning committee is ducking scrutiny say Labour councillors

Hammersmith and Fulham have appeared in Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs" section a record 13 times in the past year

Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservative administration has been accused of denying elected councillors access to important planning information to cover up its reluctance to build affordable homes.

The council’s housing policy has attracted caustic censure. In October Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate for London Mayor, accused the Tories of “cleansing working class people out of the borough” to improve their fortunes at the ballot box.

The latest controversy concerns a “Disclosure of Confidential Information Protocol” which restricts access to “commercially confidential information” which include justifications for not including affordable housing in planning proposals.

Urgent Planning Committee Protocol on Confidential Information (1)

Under it, members of the Planning Application Committee (PAC) have to show a “need to know” to obtain such information and, even if it is disclosed they cannot discuss it in public.

Cllr Stephen Cowan - Leader of the Opposition

“This is happening to disguise why Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservatives don’t grant permission for any genuinely affordable social housing. It is a disgraceful undermining of the role of the committee,” according to the council’s Labour opposition Cllr Stephen Cowan.

Roy Darke, a former lecturer in town planning and urban management at Oxford Brookes University, described the protocol as “provocative” and “heavy handed”.

“To say ‘this information is off limits’ and ‘we don’t trust [opposition members]’ is a very bad way to be putting a protocol in place,” he said. “If there is commercial sensitivity around an issue typically what will happen is it won’t be taken in the public part of the committee and the meeting will go into private session … One way around the ‘need to know’ approach would be simply to give councillors information if they wish it, but to do so under the confidentiality rule until it is no longer commercially sensitive.

Roy Darke - Former Lecturer in Town and Country Planning at Oxford Brookes University

“This all revolves around trust, and I suppose Hammersmith and Fulham is saying it doesn’t trust some of its opposition councillors.”

But Rob Mansfield, a council spokesman claimed that the protocol simply clarifies existing law. “It’s an absolute bog-standard reminder to councillors of what their duties are,” he said. “Our council operates in exactly the same way as the vast majority of councils across the UK.”

At the heart of this controversy is the so-called Three Dragons financial model, which calculates how much a company can expect to make from a development. Estimated costs are subtracted from the estimated sale price to project a profit. If affordable housing is included in a scheme, it reduces the profit margin. But the figures are deemed commercially confidential, in effect allowing the council to push through developments with negligible affordable housing in them without explaining why.

Based on Three Dragons calculations, the developer of the recently approved luxury development at Fulham Reach, St George, could claim that it was viable to provide only 25 per cent affordable housing – lower than the 40 per cent stipulated in the council’s  local development framework (LDF). No affordable rented housing was included in the proposal, again in breach of the LDF and London Mayor Boris Johnson’s London Plan.

The affordable housing at Fulham Reach is mainly studio apartments priced from £175,000 to £224,000, which have been advertised in Hong Kong. One local resident dubbed them “rabbit hutches for the rich”.

“The Conservative administration keeps using Three Dragons financial modelling to explain why it is able to ignore the Mayor’s London Plan and avoid forcing developers to include affordable social housing,” said Cllr Cowan. “The Conservatives haven’t granted permission for a single affordable social home to rent since coming to power five and a half years ago.”

Planning officers refused to disclose details of the Three Dragons appraisal to opposition members. Eventually the council ceded that they had a right to see the figures, but opposition members say this has been delayed and with the new protocol in place, planning officers argue that they no longer have to release the information.

The council says that St George only supplied the information on condition that it was kept confidential but opposition councillor Mike Cartwright, who is a chartered surveyor, claims that this is not standard practice: “There’s nothing in the Three Dragons [remit] that says it has to be confidential,” he said. “You can find recent examples of Three Dragons calculations on Croydon [council’s] website and on Tower Hamlets’ website … it is public information.”

Cllr Michael Cartwright - Chartered Surveyor

“The one Three Dragons test in Hammersmith and Fulham that’s been publicly scrutinised was the Goldhawk Industrial Estate, which was subject to a public inquiry. At the inquiry the inspector asked to see the Three Dragons figures and they were proven to be incorrect. Now that makes me suspicious,” he added. “Three Dragons is very easy to manipulate. If for instance you were ‘pessimistic’ about how much your houses are going to sell for, that depresses the projected profit. If you say ‘I think we’re going to hit all sorts of problems when we start building this – we’d better put the building costs up’, then that again depresses it. So it’s a question of judgment. There’s a very large room for interpretation.”

Mr Mansfield rejected suggestions that financial appraisals might be manipulated and denied  that the Goldhawk Industrial Estate figures had been incorrect.

Asked why members of the planning committee could not be trusted with commercially sensitive information, he said: “you should go back to some of your councillors and ask whether or not they have ever released confidential information.”

Cllr Cartwright’s responded by saying: “I’ve never leaked anything. And it’s a complete irrelevance. If we leak confidential information they can report us to the standards board. The only people to get into to trouble would be us.”
“The [council] director [Nigel Pallace] said in one of his letters is that they are protecting us. He says if we accidentally release the information to the public St George could sue. I have never heard such a load of baloney. You can’t help but think that they’re not going to let us have [the figures] because they fear what we may do with [them].”