Matt Thorley: Labour’s duplicity over Fulham Boys School exposed

matthorleyA guest post from Matt Thorley

Is Watermeadow Court Suitable For Fulham Boys School?

Disappointingly the Labour leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Cllr. Stephen Cowan, has firmly rejected proposals to explore the possibility of the Fulham Boys School acquiring Watermeadow Court as their permanent home. He states that “the Council is no longer free to dispose of the site for an alternative purpose” due to the fact that the Council has entered into a Conditional Land Sale Agreement.

The clear implication here is that the Council has sold its interest in Watermeadow Court and, as such, cannot explore the possibility of offering the site to the Fulham Boys School. However a quick search of the Land Registry indicates that this is not correct. The Land Registry confirms that the proprietor for the vacant site known as Watermeadow Court is held in the name of The Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. So clearly the Council still retains its freehold interest and retains all legal rights associated with this interest.

Conditional Land Sale Agreement

Whilst the Council is clearly the owner of the site the Land Registry search does reference a charge against the site with the beneficiary being an entity known as HFS Developments LLP. This charge relates to the Conditional Land Sale Agreement that was signed on 28th March 2014.

HFS Developments is 50% owned by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and 50% by Stanhope Plc. Under the terms of the agreement the Council and Stanhope PLC would agree a Site Specific Development Plan (“SSDP”) for individual sites identified under the agreement, such as Watermeadow Court. A SSDP for Watermeadow Court was submitted prior to the signing of the agreement and this document, which lays out in detail development proposals for the site, including financing plans, housing mix and anticipated return, was adopted under the Conditional Land Sale Agreement.

When does a conditional land sale become unconditional?

Under the terms of the agreement the Council is obligated to dispose of its interest if a number of conditions are adhered to. These conditions cover, amongst other things, vacant possession, rights of light claims and environmental matters including contaminated land.
Perhaps the most significant of these conditions in relation to Watermeadow Court is that detailed planning permission has to be secured in accordance with SSDP.

Why is this so important?

Cllr. Cowan has stated he is opposed to the SSDP for Watermeadow Court. Given that the Council and Stanhope do not agree on the SSDP for Watermeadow Court then it is very challenging to understand how any planning application can be brought forward. This is a fundamental condition that needs to be discharged for the conditional land sale to become unconditional.

It is also worth noting that the Council, as the freeholder, would need to consent to any proposed development and if this consent were not forthcoming then no planning permission could be build out. Further any planning consent would be contingent on approval from the Council’s Planning and Development Control Committee which is a quasi-judicial committee.

Can the SSDP for Watermeadow Court be changed?

In theory the Council can enter into negotiations with Stanhope Plc and agree an amended SSDP for Watermeadow Court. Under the terms of the conditional land sale agreement any amended SSDP would need to be approved by both the Council and Stanhope Plc.

If this is Cllr. Cowan’s intention it would be helpful if he stated so. I would have thought if this were his chosen approach then it would be sensible to outline a timetable for these negotiations. The large number of conditions contained in the 28th March agreement need to be satisfied within a three year period. However if it clear that no agreement can be reached on an amended SSDP for Watermeadow Court then the conditional land sale agreement cannot proceed. It would then be logical to exercise the jettison clause contained in the agreement in relation to Watermeadow Court. This would in turn then remove the charge on the land registry and allow the Council to dispose of the site, as Cllr. Cowan puts, “for an alternative purpose.”

TFBSlogoWhere does this leave Fulham Boys School?

The Council has stated it will do everything within its power to assist the Fulham Boys School find a permanent home. Given this it is vital the Council publicly outlines at the earliest opportunity its plans for Watermeadow Court. It would be helpful if the below questions could be answered:

1.     Does the Council intend to adhere to the current SSDP for Watermeadow Court?

2.     If the Council does not support the current SSDP for Watermeadow Court then do they plan to enter negotiations with Stanhope Plc to amend the SSDP? If so when are these negotiations expected to commence and has any cut-off date been proposed if an agreement is not possible?

3.     If the Council does not intend to adhere to current SSDP or seek to negotiate an amended SSDP for the site will it consider terminating the conditional land sale agreement given the conditions contained within this agreement cannot be adhered it?

4.     In the event the conditions attached to the conditional land sale agreement are not met will the Council agree, in principal, to offering the site to the Fulham Boys School?

If the Council wishes to adhere to the current SSDP or is able to negotiate an amended SSDP to their and Stanhope’s satisfaction then, disappointing, the Council will not be in a positon to offer the site to Fulham Boys School.

Given Cllr. Cowan’s public pronouncements that the Watermeadow Court SSDP is ill-advised then is difficult to understand how he and his administration could support the current SSDP. It is also difficult to foresee Stanhope Plc and the Council agreeing an amended SSDP for Watermeadow Court along the terms Cllr. Cowan has alluded to in the past. As such it would prove impossible to discharge the condition relating to planning and therefore the conditional land agreement cannot become unconditional.

I think Cllr. Cowan may have been premature in rejecting the possibility of the Fulham Boys School acquiring Watermeadow Court as their permanent home. The Council needs to be forthcoming about its plans for Watermeadow Court. I very much hope they will state their position clearly in the coming days.

There are clearly obstacles in place to the Fulham Boys School acquiring the site. However these are not insurmountable. A Council commitment to the principal of the possibility of the Fulham Boys School acquiring Watermeadow Court as their permanent home would be a welcome and very positive step forward.

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