Monday 14 March 2011

Green Light Given For Hammersmith Grove Building Schemes

Wednesday night’s planning committee was predictable enough. The Conservative block vote was deployed to authorise the NCP car park skyscrapers and the Notting Hill Housing Group's largely unaffordable block of flats - both in Hammersmith Grove. Here’s a summary.

Hammersmith Grove NCP car park skyscraper
I must admit to feeling a striking sense of déjà vu as I listened to the arguments H&F Council officials and Conservative councillors put forward in support of this scheme. Even the tactics were similar to the last time approval had been given for this site.

Officials had been asked to respond to residents’ concerns that the proposed building on the NCP site were wrong for the area as there was already too much un-let office space in Hammersmith. The developer couldn't raise finance for the last scheme granted for this site so why would this one work? The officials explained that this would be “grade A office space” which would be “much in demand” and “easily let”. But Cllr. PJ Murphy (Lab) had researched the subject and quoted directly from Development Securities Plc (the applicant) chairman’s report to investors. As you can read below, it paints a different picture. Officials struggled to explain why.

Chairman’s report to investors
“There are still clouds on the horizon, however. The austerity programme now being introduced in the UK will have an impact which is not easy to predict. Increased levels of taxation, both direct and indirect, together with significant reductions in Government expenditure are likely to reduce domestic consumption and encourage the restoration of savings levels as the consumer battles to survive the storm. Unsurprisingly, these current difficulties are also adversely affecting levels of business confidence and are likely to continue to do so until the way ahead has greater clarity. Rental growth in the occupational markets has reduced by some 15.1 per cent over the last three years and whilst that fall now appears to have levelled out, it will likely take many years before any significant rental growth reappears.”

Cllr. Mike Cartwright (Lab) has many years of experience on the planning committee and also worked as a chartered surveyor before retiring.  So when he said the Council’s approach to the Section 106 Agreement money was “twisting the law” council officers were nervous when they disagreed. Why?.. Because he was most likely correct. In fact officials admitted they had themselves considered this sufficiently doubtful which had caused them to seek legal advice from a Queen’s Counsel. They refused to tell the committee what those doubts were though.

I asked what had happened to the quarter of a million pounds that Development Securities had previously allocated to deal with the parking problems the 3000 daily visitors to the buildings would cause. Unbelievably, “parking problems were no longer a problem associated with these buildings” an official told us.

As the meeting rolled on it became increasingly obvious that all the interjections from Conservative councillors were designed to support the approval of this scheme. So Councillors Mike Cartwright and Colin Aherne (Lab) moved two separate amendments to protect Hammersmith residents’ TV receptions and the Emerald Community Centre - currently on the NCP site. After much angst from Conservative committee members - who were visibly worried to be diverting from the previously agreed plan - these straightforward amendments eventually went through.

248 Hammersmith Grove
The planning committee was presented with many photographic constructions of how this ugly building would look. They featured many different views but ominously all avoided the attractive four story Georgian houses just across the street or the line of Victorian mansion blocks running down Hammersmith Grove. Officials explained how this building would be better than much of what’s on Goldhawk Road and improve that junction. I asked why officials were avoiding any reference to the most beautiful buildings in the area and hadn’t encouraged the applicant to aspire to something that reflected that standard of design already on Hammersmith Grove? The bizarre explanation was officials thought these neighbouring properties were "too far away." The Tories agreed.

Meanwhile, the housing portfolio was represented by the Borough’s Tory cabinet member and the Tory select committee chair who are also both members of the planning committee. But the public in the audience were unimpressed when neither could explain why this once impressive housing association had removed it’s previously proposed 9 flats for affordable rent and been allowed to build an ugly scheme with a mere 29% of shared ownership properties – most of which will be unaffordable for local people on average incomes.

Ashlar Court
The drawings for this scheme were dire, the explanations were weak and lacked any of the disingenuous chutzpah that characterised the above. Cllr. Colin Aherne summed up the debacle when he said, “If we can’t get the answer to a simple question like what is the distance from that wall to those residents’ homes then we don’t have the information to make a decision.” He was right so he and Cllr. Lucy Ivimy (Con) moved that this item be deferred. This was eventually agreed but only after leading Tories had openly expressed worries that this “will cause a backlog” and “add new layers of bureaucracy to the planning process.” It took the residents heckling “What about us?” and “It’s our neighbourhood that will be damaged” for all the Conservatives to see sense and eventually and suddenly agree to the defer this decision until a later meeting.

I have long believed that the planning process is stitched up by this Conservative Administration well in advance. They have even put videos out giving strong hints that this was the case but I hadn’t realised what pressure Administration councillors on the committee were under to stick to the agreed plan until I saw how they reacted to even small amendments or suggested deferrals. That doesn’t bode well for the contentious Town Hall, Shepherds Bush Market and Hammersmith Embankment schemes all on the near horizon.

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