Planning Forum meeting: some feedback

6 mins read

On April the 7th, I was invited to attend a Planning Forum at Wandsworth Borough Town Hall. The meeting was chaired by Councillor Leslie McDonnell, Chairman of Planning Committee, with Tony McDonald, Head of Development Control, John Horrocks (Putney Society), Harvey Heath (Battersea Society), Julia Matcham and Peter Deakins (CJAG and responsibilities in resident associations)… and approximately a  dozen others whose names I did not catch or did not know (apologies for that).
I will not give full minutes of the meeting (they should be available here) but I have a few comments.

The meeting started with comments on the previous forum which was… 13th November 2007. Even though there were some exceptional circumstances, it  still puzzles me that no-one in the Council has taken any time for such an important subject as planning discussions with the Community.
There was some explanation following on the involvement of the Mayor of London in planning decisions. My understanding is that the Mayor was only able to make direct refusal in the past. Now, he can “call the application to himself” and take ownership of the application and can hence approve or refuse the planning proposal. Mr McDonald made a comment on the more pro-active cooperation and relationship Wandsworth Council has now with the new Mayor… er which is less amazing considering the fact that it was previously Ken Livingston. The standard process consist on preparing a report to be sent to the Mayor, who can reply and decide whether he wants to take the application for himself. Otherwise, after Planning Committee, the decision is referred to the Mayor who can decide to call it or not. Of course the Secretary of State (or Communities Secretary) has overall precedent, a good example is the recent case for the Ram Brewery.

Taller Buildings

The main part of the agenda was the discussion on “taller buildings”. The Council reiterated its policy expressed by Cllr Lister, Leader of the Council, on this website in January: “Tall buildings […] can, if well designed, create attractive landmarks underlining aspects of the borough’s character and act as a catalyst for regeneration, providing they are located in appropriate locations and acceptable in terms of design and impact on their surroundings. […] In my view, the Planning Applications Committee and the Council has been entirely consistent in its interpretation of the tall buildings policy: a policy which, I consider, is robust and allows the promotion of appropriate development.
I note that the Core Strategy /Tall buildings section 4.132 refers to “tall buildings […] in appropriate location in terms of design and impact on their surroundings“. It looks awkward that the word appropriate is linked to design, as I don’t know architects who would submit a planning that they do not consider as “appropriate”. Therefore the statement can be considered as a sort of blessing on any submission. At least it does not give any indication on a global policy in the borough.

Mr McDonald advocated that the planning officers give mouthfuls of advice to the developers, very often considering in advance the environment, the quality of design and the type of construction and do not hesitate to inform applicants whether their potential proposal is likely to be approved or refused by the Planning Committee. Mr Horrocks rightly questioned the role of the planning Committee for them to rely on the town planners to escape responsibilities. The absence of directive means that residents are not aware of the process until it is often too late for them to act.
In addition I was aghast that Mr McDonald justified a successful application by citing vague examples of conversation with people who first opposed a scheme but years later were quite pleased with the realisation. What about environment that have definitely been smashed for decades by catastrophic planning decisions? Examples of areas which changed and got damaged with the implementation of developments, considered years later as hideous and confrontational by citizens? As a resident recently said: ““Our Wandsworth” brochure amply demonstrates how out of scales and unsympathetic in character  are the few existing high-rise blocks in the area. Standing out like a soar thumb is putting it mildly. Places like the sad, greying concrete towers of the Winstanley Estate are a relic of the Sixities craze for high-rise.

Once again, the Clapham Junction Action Group joins the Battersea Society in calling for a proper and fit for purpose master plan for buildings in Wandsworth Borough: it would save a lot of time (and countless effort) to say in advance and clearly: don’t go tall!

Other particular schemes were also named, with some news on a revisiting scheme for Battersea Power station redevelopment (apparently it has been massively scaled down insize) and the case for Nine Elms redevelopment (the Battersea Society prepared am outline planning brief) should be discussed at the next meeting. Of course, as soon as we will have time to dig out some information on that, we will publish them on the website.

Next Meeting will be organised on November, Tuesday 10th 2009.

Part quote from a letter from Julia Matcham to Councillor Leslie McDonnell, Chairman of Planning Committee, Mr McDonald, Borough Planner, plus Copy to Mark Hunter (Planning Officer in charge of the Clapham Junction redevelopment proposal).
This letter was written subsequent to the Planning Forum meeting at which individual cases are NOT discussed, for fear of ‘prejudicing the outcome’ but the principles involved are.

I find it ironic that the Council who, we learn, have been talking to the developers about Clapham Junction for 5 years, along with Network Rail who were directed by the Council to work with the developers, can use the defence of ‘prejudicing the outcome’ when not answering our questions. It is evident that the Council themselves have been deeply involved and are quite likely to have grown to have an enthusiasm for the project in exactly the same way, that we all agreed at the meeting, architects inevitably had for their own pet projects. Why would that not be so? Do you not think that is ‘prejudicing the outcome’? Five years of the Council getting used to the ideas as against very little warning to local people about what was brewing? To say nothing of the Section 106 ‘improvements’ being temptingly waved under their noses by the developers! So much for ‘prejudicing the outcome’!

For that very reason there should be more than one plan proposed for a development this important. That is the only way really to understand, objectively, the possibilities. It is the biggest Junction in Europe! It deserves special consideration. It is shameful that, effectively, it is developers who are calling the shots.

Surely by way of fairness, at the very least local consultation should have taken place long ago and a great deal more effort put into publicising the plans? It is hardly surprising that people think that the Council arranges matters in such a way as to favour their own preferred outcomes.
The euphemistically called ‘taller buildings’, while discussed at length, never really got to the point, which is that if you had a referendum in the borough very few people would want Tower Blocks. The Council must have the common sense to know that, yet they still want to plant them on us wherever they think they can get away with it.

Planning consents are effectively traded for Section 106 agreements for local works of all sorts. It is quite disgraceful that urban development is victim of this sort of thing.

Yes, it keeps the Council Tax down and meets the Councils housing targets, but at the price of degrading our environment now, and for future generations. Please think again!

One more thing. As we were leaving the meeting we mentioned the fact that, re-the Clapham Junction development, the developers flooded the station with postcards for people to complete. Either yourself, or Mr Mc Donald commented that both sides had done some of that.
This is untrue.

What we did was to leaflet LOCAL people (most of whom knew nothing about the proposed plans) at our own expense, to tell them about what was happening, and to invite them to a meeting where the Council was unable to say much for fear of prejudicing the outcome, and where we discussed with local people as much as we had been allowed to learn in the short time we had been given.

What the developers did was to give post-paid cards to TRAVELLERS who, unless they happened to be local, were unlikely to care what happened as long as the station was improved. How many were local do you think?

And then they flooded the area with glossy, expensive brochures. They also threatened the Action Group with legal action on a trivial basis but which was clearly intended to intimidate. As if they hadn’t enough advantage already!

Do you really think all things there are equal?

Yours sincerely,

Julia Matcham

You can read our article on a better consultation here.

Disclaimer: Cyril Richert was representing the Clapham Junction Action Group at the Council’s meeting


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CJI editor and Clapham Junction Action Group co-founder and coordinator since 2008, Cyril has lived in Clapham Junction since 2001.
He is also funder and CEO of Habilis-Digital Ltd, a digital agency creating and managing websites and Internet solutions.