Thursday 15 September 2011

Comedy Of Errors Sees Planning Committee Delay St. George’s Carbuncle

St. George’s controversial multi-storey, Tokyo style, Hammersmith housing project was first on the agenda at last night’s Planning Applications Committee (PAC). The meeting was scheduled to begin at 7.00 pm sharp. An audience of about 140 people turned up to witness the explanations and vent their anger at H&F’s Conservative Administration for recommending "approval". But, the evening turned out to be characterised by high farce concluding with the Committee adjourning without a single decision being made. St. George’s application will now be considered next week at a special PAC. That is scheduled for 7.00 pm on Friday, 23rd September. Here’s what happened last night:

Act One
At about 5.50 pm I stepped out of Hammersmith Town Hall and bumped into the superb Una Hodgkins and a couple of other local residents at the main entrance. They were diligently lobbying Conservative Councillors with placards emblazoned with the words “Say No!” as they were on their way to a secret pre-planning committee call-over - where they hoped to agree what they would say and do at the public meeting.

Within ten minutes or so, the assembled numbers had grown significantly – many arriving with their own posters and placards. A cheerful buzz resonated around the scene. That caused four burly, uniformed council security guards to come out and form a line at the front entrance to the Town Hall. “No one is allowed into the Town Hall until we authorise it” said one.

I was surprised to see a large contingent of representatives from St. George also turn up. Their MD told me they’d read of the planned protest on Save Our Riverfront’s (SOR) website. They had come early and in force as a consequence.

By around 6.30 pm there were about 100 people waiting outside the front door. A council official stepped out to say he’d been instructed to only allow 80 people in – the others would be turned away. The St. George contingent quickly rushed to the front of the queue. Residents were taken aback and rightly upset.

I popped back into the Town Hall and found an official in a side corridor. I asked him to interrupt the Conservatives’ pre-meeting and to get them to sort this out.

There had been over 150 people at Save Our Riverfront’s (SOR) meeting last week. Residents told me they expected similar numbers at last night’s PAC but guessed there could be as many as 300. The assembled people said they found it hard to believe that H&F Council had not planned to accommodate them – especially as last week’s meeting had been attended by the Leader of the Council and the Borough’s Cabinet Member for Community Engagement, along with all three Fulham Reach Conservative ward councillors. They should have seen the numbers then and expected at least the same for last night. That failure to act didn't reflect well on any of them.

Shortly before 7.00 pm, two officials arrived at the front door. The crowd went quiet, “The Chairman of the Planning Committee has agreed to let you all in and we’re moving the meeting to the Assembly Hall” said one. A cheer went up. We were told it would delay things by half an hour as chairs, tables and technical support would need to be arranged.

Act Two
By 7.15ish, people began to file into the Assembly Hall. That is a vast room with high municipal ceilings, wooden floors and echoing acoustics. A neat rectangle of chairs was laid out for the public about twenty feet away from an equally neat square of tables and chairs set aside for the committee and planning officials. The three Labour PAC members were already seated. The Conservatives and their officials' seats were empty. We waited.

Just over ten minutes later the Conservatives arrived looking flustered. Officials fiddled with an array of wires, computers, presentation screens and microphones. Then at 7.30 pm Cllr. Alex Chalk (Con), the Chair of PAC, announced that there would be another five minute delay.

About another ten minutes passed and none of the electrics were yet working. Cllr Chalk spoke again thanking people for their patience and asking us to bear with him for another five minutes.

By 8.00 pm a slow hand clap started but died out after five minutes or so. At 8.10 pm Cllr. Chalk stood up for what appeared to be the final time. “I am sorry to tell you that we cannot get the presentation or audio equipment to work.” He went on to tell us that the presentation screen was particularly important. “We will have to adjourn to another date” he said. But just at that exact point the screen came to life. “We have visual” shouted one of the technicians. The meeting was on.

Act Three
There were still no microphones. Someone in the audience suggested that the public might be able to hear better if they moved the chairs closer to the Committee’s table. All agreed. And so I sat and watched in amazed admiration as almost all of the individual members of the 140 strong crowd moved in unison across the empty space. The majority took advantage of a machine-like manoeuvre which involved remaining seated while repeatedly pulling oneself forward by outstretched legs. It couldn’t have been more beautifully choreographed if someone had tried. A clunk, clunk, clunk noise reverberated around the Assembly Hall as the group collectively progressed towards us at a regal pace - eventually enveloping an almost perfect U shape around the committee tables. Now we were all seated just a couple of feet or so away from each other. Everyone would be able to hear.

Cllr. Chalk took charge. He opened the re-convened meeting. “Minutes?” he asked. “Agreed” they said. "Apologies" was next and we were sailing through the agenda at an impressive pace. We came to “Fulham Reach.” It was item number one. All smiled as the presentation dutifully flickered onto the screen and a planning officer was called to his feet to present his report.

He began to read out the first few lines of his talk. He had a gentle, quiet voice. “We can’t hear you!” said someone from across the hall. The officer stopped nervously and began again but spoke at the same decibel level. “We really can’t hear you” said another. Cllr. Chalk lent over and spoke directly to the officer. “Could you possibly talk a little louder?” he asked politely. The officer resumed but no luck – now the audience were becoming frustrated. Cllr. Chalk called for a vote on whether or not to proceed. The St. George delegation’s hands shot up and swung it for the “Yes” camp. So on we went.

The officer remained inaudible. “Has the Council got a megaphone?” asked one person. A gentleman with a cockney accent, and a voice I’m advised is described in operatic circles as ‘basso profondo,’ kindly offered his assistance adding "I cun read it awt for ya?" Someone else suggested that people might hear the presentation if the officer stood in a different part of the hall. The more the helpful interventions flowed, the more that poor man’s voice faltered. It wasn’t going to work.

Cllr. Chalk conferred with his fellow Conservatives. “I’m afraid this isn’t working. We will have to adjourn” he advised. All agreed.

It was now around 8.30 pm. There was a quiet anger as people left: “incompetent!” said one, “ridiculous” another added - clearly referring to their Conservative councillors who had failed to get the Council to accommodate them as it was obvious to all that officials had done everything they could once they were told to move the meeting. Residents were genuinely disbelieving how events unfolded that evening despite having witnessed every bit of it.

St. George's delegation was some of the last to leave the hall. I watched as people filed out and found myself standing next to someone from that firm. “So that went well then?” I said, attempting a joke to lighten the situation. But he was in no mood for humour. He was furious.


Peter Jay said...

It was a shame that nobody from the local newspaper was there to report any of this.

Anonymous said...

Good account of what happened.

I know you state at the top of the piece that the meeting has been reconvened for the 23rd but has the word gone out?

We - those of us against this monstrosity - will want to see the same numbers attending but I am unconvinced that the new date has been well-publicised.

Anonymous said...

To Pete Jay

I think, on the contrary, someone was there:

Anonymous said...

More on the nefarious doings of LBHF:

LBHF publishes planning application for Shepherd's Bush Market then mysteriously withdraws it:

What is going on?