Thursday 8 December 2011

Town Hall Scheme On Boris Johnson's Desk After H&F Conservatives' Predictable "Yes" Vote

Residents queueing to get into the planning meeting just
before the 7.00pm start. Dozens were barred because
H&F Council booked too small a room
to accommodate everyone
Well over 400 Hammersmith residents turned out to a special session of the Planning Applications Committee (PAC) last week. They had come to hear the arguments the Conservative Administration would use to justify their office and tower block scheme. But, as one leading resident later wrote: council “officers offered no real analysis or justification for their recommendations” adding we have “rarely heard such a display of double-speak and flummery.” Needless to say, none of that stopped all seven Conservative councillors on PAC from somewhat predictably block voting their own Administration’s plan through. Labour’s three PAC members voted against. Now the decision goes to Mayor Boris Johnson (Con).

The Mayor has to review this scheme, not least because the Council has a clear conflict of interests. Boris Johnson has the power to instruct H&F Council to refuse permission. If he looks at the evidence objectively then it’s hard to see him doing anything other than that. But many residents fear that Boris Johnson’s close relationship with H&F Conservatives could be an obstacle. The Mayor and H&F Conservatives work closely on policy together, H&F Council hosted Boris Johnson’s campaign day, the Council Leader worked on the Mayor’s Audit panel and is said to be chairing his re-election committee.

The scheme could also be called in by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. But many residents are equally wary of that, noting that this post is currently held by Mr. Eric Pickles MP (Con). He has described H&F Council as the apple in his eye and even made the Council Leader the Chair of his Innovation Unit.

None of that should affect the process but I understand why residents are concerned. H&F Council’s PAC meeting looked like a stitch-up from beginning to end and has left many with little more than contempt for the way the Administration and Conservative PAC members have acted. I cannot recall witnessing such a thoroughly disingenuous approach to any planning application – and that’s really saying something. I therefore think there should be an independent investigation of what has gone on.

Over 1,300 residents, local community groups and English Heritage had written in to offer their criticisms of the project. English Heritage had taken the unusual step of detailing why this scheme will cause “considerable harm” to the environment. But none of that appeared to matter. The meeting was characterised by Conservative PAC members lining up to ask planted questions and planning officers then nervously responding with their often rehearsed answers. Nobody in the audience had any confidence that any of their concerns were being properly dealt with.

The scheme is the end result of four years’ of negotiations which had been led by Cllr. Mark Loveday, H&F Conservatives’ Chief Whip and Cabinet Member for Strategy and Nigel Pallace, the Director of the Council’s Environment and Planning Department. Driving it all was the Administration’s desire for £35m of new offices for Town Hall bureaucrats. To get those, the Conservative Administration had traded £70m land, will agree to CPO and demolish homes, shops and the cinema; it had agreed to build on a quarter of the riverside park; and for its chosen developer to build tower bocks reaching up to 15 storeys high into the Hammersmith skyline. It is a ridiculous deal and it’s hard to find anyone that supports it other than the Conservative Administration or the developer.

I asked Nigel Pallace how the process had worked, what minutes had been kept of the many private meetings with the developer and who had been involved? Notably, I wanted to know what had come first, the deal or the changes to the Local Development Framework (LDF) and justifications for the scheme his officials are using to recommend “approval”? His response was long and didn’t answer my questions. I asked him another four times. But each time he gave a similar answer. He talked about an earlier scheme that he had worked on with some of my colleagues in a previous Labour Administration - the subtext of all that appeared to be to try and link the current Labour Opposition into this current scheme. A young Conservative councillor pounced on that and tried to articulate an accusation. But Mr. Pallace knew all too well that this was irrelevant; that those people behind the 2002 scheme had listened and dropped it; and that it was me, Cllr. Mike Cartwright (Lab) and former Cllr. Chris Allen (Lab) who ensured that scheme was killed as soon as we found out about it. Labour's last Borough manifesto confirmed that this scheme would be dead forever - had we won the elections last year.

By the time Mr. Pallace had finished his remarks I think many in the audience were of the view that officials had changed the LDF and written their justifications with the sole aim of recommending approval for the Administration’s scheme - not that he said any of that.

Ravenscourt Park ward Councillor Lucy Ivimy (Con) added further clarification. She told the PAC that “the report is deeply defective. It contains basic errors of fact; it appears to accept without criticism arguments and evidence put forward by the applicants, and contains arguments that bear all the hallmarks of being disingenuous. I note that those responsible for producing it, report to that same executive which has been the main moving force for the council behind these proposals, and I wonder what influence that executive has had on the professional judgement of officers.”

Last May, Cllr. Ivimy was sacked from her job in that Executive as the Administration’s Cabinet Member for Housing. Her time in that role made her evidence all the more insightful and powerful. She gave an excellent speech but it really is a shame that she didn’t express similar sentiments when she was Chair of the PAC. Then she ruthlessly forced through a wide variety of awful schemes against hundreds of residents wishes including this one here. Later as a voting member of the PAC, Cllr. Ivimy he didn't express any concerns or even support her own constituents when she voted through these terrible schemes here and here.

Councillor Mark Loveday, the Conservative Chief Whip and the lead Administration councillor for the scheme, was stood at the back of the room eyeing the proceedings at the front. He would have been an anonymous figure for all but the councillors and a few residents.

I wondered what pressure the Conservative PAC members must feel given the importance of this scheme to senior members of their Administration.

The vote took place just before midnight. It had been a long night and it was impressive to see hundreds of people wait so long to see the outcome. Indeed, dozens had been barred from entering the smaller hall the Council had booked at Latymer Upper School. But the outcome was thoroughly predictable. So much so that as we left members of Save Our Skyline (SOS) were stood by the door handing out a press release printed prior to the meeting but criticising the vote that had just happened.

Residents can ask Mayor Boris Johnson to refuse this scheme by emailing Mr. Giles Dolphin here. I think it’s worth copying in Boris Johnson at this email address too. As well as that, residents should write to The Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. You can email him by clicking here. If you want to consider what others are saying the main objections are you can see those here on SOS’ website.


Douglas Mannering said...

There was actually about 100 of us stopped from going in. Was this not a special meeting of the planning committee? If so why did they chose a date when they could only get a small hall in a school. I smell a rat.

Patricia said...

Very thorough report, thank you. Glad you mentioned Cllr Ivimy, it was an excellent speech and brave of her to make it.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't believe what the Conservative councillors were like. I sat quite close to Peter Graham who was the most vocal supporter of the scheme.

He was more interested in tardy party politics than what was going to happen. You were right to accuse him of asking planted questions and missing the point of why he was on the planning committee. His colleagues were not as bad but they were all doing the same.