Thursday 24 September 2009

Hammersmith Residents' Hopes Quashed As Goldhawk Scheme Pushed Through By Tory Block Vote

There are two rumours currently going around Hammersmith Town Hall about the Goldhawk Industrial Estate proposal - which was heard by the Planning Applications Committee (PAC) last night. The first is that senior Conservative Administration councillors had given officers a very hard time for not recommending that the development became 100% housing. The second is that some Conservative committee members “wobbled” yesterday morning and, having seen the overwhelming evidence against the plans, were going to vote the application down. They apparently had to be “toughened up” to pass the controversial scheme.

Whatever turns out to be the case, I am sorry to tell you that the property speculator’s plan was backed by a majority of all seven Conservative councillors on the PAC. They gave it their unanimous support. The minority three Labour committee members all voted against.

Around two hundred residents turned up to protest. Hammersmith Broadway Councillors Lisa Nandy (Lab), Mike Cartwright (Lab) and I questioned officers and spoke against the proposal. Councillors Colin Aherne (Lab) and Wesley Harcourt (Lab) did the same. We were glad to be joined by Ravenscourt Park Councillor Eugenie White (Con) who also pressed her colleagues on the PAC (which included fellow ward Councillor Lucy Ivimy (Con)) not to vote it through.

As the meeting progressed it became obvious that the evidence presented in the planning report was particularly flimsy. Take the comment listed in 3.3 on page 27. H&F Council asserted that Innocent Ltd, who employ 160 of these people have indicated that they require larger, more suitable business premises” implying that they were keen to move anyway. This turned out to be absolute nonsense with officers forced to make the incredible admission that they had got this information direct from the property speculator and not Innocent Drinks. In fact, it turned out that Innocent and the Soundhouse Studios had actually tried to buy the site when they found out they would be evicted but the new owner apparently quoted a price that was in the realm of “telephone numbers”.

Similarly, planning officers told those assembled that they believed the quality of office space would be better if this development went through. But, it turned out that they were not aware of the £2million investment the Soundhouse Studios had put in to create an acoustic environment of exceptional quality. A raft of high profile celebrities have benefited from these facilities over the years. John Humphrys sent in a letter of support. Because of the planning vote those facilities are currently set to be destroyed and replaced with standard business units incapable of facilitating that type of work.

The advice listed in 4.1 on page 40 about the Section 106 fund was particularly odd. The property speculator is obliged pay to H&F a sum to contribute to the extra cost the borough will have to bear because of the development. The report surprised all present by recommending that this should be fixed at the unusually low figure of £300,000. Under questioning officers admitted that this figure was primarily based on the property speculator’s own analysis of the site’s viability. It then became clear that this assessment was undertaken at today’s market values and not at what the site would be worth built and ready for sale - when the economic circumstances will be very different. This was also the reason given for cutting the standard allocation of affordable rented housing to zero. Both of these points indicated that H&F Council had failed to negotiate a satisfactory deal on behalf of residents.

Indeed, the report was full of information presented as an objective overview but proved to have either directly originated from the property speculator (who clearly has a vested interest) or was completely inaccurate – such as wrongly informing committee members that Brackenbury Primary School planned to lay on extra places for the increased number of eligible school children in the locality.

Any legitimate concerns raised were simply brushed aside, making many residents openly question whether the planning process had been nobbled. We were told the area is a "brown field site" when it isn’t; that the change of land use was “not significant” despite it changing to a largely residential development and that the added parking problems would not happen to any “large degree”. We were even informed that the extra traffic "would not cause an increased danger to the children" at neighbouring Brackenbury Primary School because of analysis which came from (you’ve guessed it) the property speculator.

Residents had gone to the expense of paying for a report from an eminent QC – who specialises in planning law. I’ll email a copy to anyone who wants it. Understandably, residents wanted to find out if there was any truth to the expressed view put by the Conservative Administration that this had to be voted through because of planning law. The QC completely demolished the Administration’s case but his opinion was quickly discarded - along with all the other reasoned arguments.

Residents left the meeting feeling let down, angry and disenchanted. Many told me they had been Conservative voters and had been shocked to see the representatives they elected use their block vote in such a way.

Last night reflected the Administration’s unhappy approach to working with large property speculators. There's been many other similar examples.

It’s just three years since senior Conservative councillors first flew to the French Riviera, at public expense, for secret meetings about “contentious sites” across the borough. We are only just beginning to see the results of those meetings and other such plotting. One thing is clear so far: it’s not residents that this Administration is putting first.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Brown Wins World Statesman Of The Year Award For "Vision And Dedication" In Handling World Economic Crisis

I picked this Press Association story up below. It's also been published in the Guardian.

"Gordon Brown may be trailing in the polls at home, but in the US last night he was hailed as a hero for "stabilising" the world economy and showing "compassionate leadership".

The prime minister, in New York for the UN general assembly, was honoured as world statesman of the year at a VIP-packed gala dinner. The award was presented on behalf of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith organisation which campaigns for religious freedom and human rights, by the veteran US former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Rock star Bono, Queen Rania of Jordan, and the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak were among the audience as Kissinger praised Brown for his "vision and dedication" in handling the world economic crisis. "His leadership has been essential to our ability to overcome the moment of danger," said Kissinger." Full story here.

Contrast Henry Kissinger's comments about Gordon Brown's handling of the world-wide economic crisis to what the Economist said of David Cameron's Conservatives' confused response - pointing out that Cameron and his team "seemed self-interested and querulous over Northern Rock, the first British bank to wobble. They mistakenly opposed part of the government’s fiscal stimulus."

Wednesday 16 September 2009

H&F’s Conservative Administration Waste £700,000 On Council Employees Who Fail To Attend Training

Last night at the scrutiny meeting (see page 65), an official explained that H&F Council’s budget for training is £1.1million. But, here's the thing: a third of people booked onto the courses don’t turn up.

I asked about this waste. It was pointed out that the £1.1million cost could be doubled to £2.2million if you add in the associated charges of getting extra cover and lost work. That would mean that our council is throwing away £726,000 of Hammersmith and Fulham tax payers’ money on people who don’t turn up to training courses - a sum getting on for almost 1.5% of council tax.

It turns out that there’s been virtually no objective assessment of why that happens; there’s little to no pre and post training course work to ensure the training will deliver productivity benefits and there has been a widespread culture of acceptance at all levels of the organisation that this frivolous approach is a professional way to behave.

Cllr. Rory Vaughan (Lab) asked if departments are charged for none attendance – as happens in many well run organisations. The officials looked uncomfortable by this question and said “we looked at this and decided not to do it… It all comes out of the same pot anyway” - indicating that this had probably been discussed and scuppered by the borough’s senior management and almost certainly for all the wrong reasons.

Consider the Council's £186million total budget; H&F Conservative’s failure in invest in extra police; the £547 increase in meals on wheels charges to save £150,000; or any of the other cuts in key public services and stealth taxes then it puts their £726,000 waste in this area into a different perspective.

UPDATE: The Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle have also featured this story in this week's edition. Click on the photo (opposite) to read Aidan Jones' exposé.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Residents Fear Planning “Stitch-Up” As Goldhawk Industrial Estate Scheme Goes To Committee Next Week

Yesterday, H&F Council released the latest papers for the Planning Applications Committee (PAC) due to meet on Wednesday 23rd September 2009. Nobody I spoke to is surprised by the view expressed in the report. One resident told me that it is widely believed that the Administration’s decision to back the property speculator’s proposal had been made long ago. But, given the evidence, I am still astonished to see the words written on page 10 urging committee members to “resolve” to go ahead and “grant permission” for the highly controversial over sized buildings when they meet next week.

H&F Council proposes to allow London & Newcastle to pack fifty-seven houses and eight business units into an area that currently only accommodates a fraction of that. The Brackenbury Residents Association and Providence Villas Plus arranged a well attended public meeting back in January - which I chaired. Many people also attended a planning forum in June. Over that period, residents have gained an expert knowledge of the Council’s planning guidelines and point out that the scheme recommended by H&F Council officers should not go ahead for many reasons - some being:

  • The development (especially the big block) is too dense for the site and fails to meet H&F Council’s own guidelines about amenity space.
  • The proposed buildings will overlook many of the surrounding homes and gardens breaching H&F Council’s own Unitary Development Plan.
  • One hundred and eighty two local jobs will be lost as businesses such as Innocent Drinks, The Soundhouse Studios and others are forced to move out.
  • There will be extra traffic and noise as the site is opened up to 24/7 usage.
  • The development fails to provide parking for visitors, thus further adding to parking stress for neighbouring residents.
  • Brackenbury School, adjacent to the site, is already over-subscribed and will be unable to accommodate the extra children.

Many local people have expressed concern about the Conservative Administration's lack of even-handedness pointing out that it has been in private discussions with the developer for almost two years. Our council then accepted payment from London & Newcastle for an advertisement in its widely circulated propaganda sheet and had the Council’s press office publish a positive story about the scheme while refusing to publish any residents’ letters that offered an alternative view. Add in our Conservative councillors publicly funded trips to the French Riviera - which the Council explained was so they could meet property speculators to discuss "contentious" sites across the borough; then take a look at this video to witness the shifty uneasiness the Tories obviously felt while responding to residents’ questions on a different scheme and it's understandable why residents feel their legitimate concerns are not a priority for H&F's Tory run Council.

In fact, the Tories had actually sought to send the application to the PAC on 5th August – knowing that hundreds of local people had objected to the scheme but that many would be away on holiday and unable to attend. They almost certainly did this to limit any public demonstration. That plot was only scuppered when the Environment Agency called in the application because of concerns about flooding.

So, next week’s PAC promises to be interesting. Residents wanting to turn up to protest against this blot on the Hammersmith landscape should turn up to the Town Hall in King Street. The meeting will begin at 7.00pm and the Goldhawk Industrial Estate is the first item on the agenda. I shall see you there.