H&F Council ordered to provide transparency on property deal

I have written before about the refusal of Hammersmith and Fulham Council to publish the viability assessments for property developers. This opposition to transparency is very foolish. If we are to get the attractive new homes built that we need than public confidence in the process is crucial. Openness can allow the proper trust and understanding that is demanded.

Other councils have started publishing the viability assessments. Create Streets backs the idea. It also has cross party support on the London Assembly.

Now there has been a small victory with the Information Commissioner ordering Hammersmith and Fulham Council to come clean:

“1. The complainant has requested from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham the Financial Viability Assessment it obtained in relation to the development of Five Star Car Wash, 10B Shepherd’s Bush Road, London W6 7PJ.

2. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham withheld the requested information under Regulations 12(5)(e) and 12(5)(f) of the EIR.

3. The Commissioner’s decision is that the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has not correctly applied Regulations 12(5)(e) and 12(5)(f) of the EIR. 4. The Commissioner found that the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has breached Regulations 5 and 11 of the EIR.

5. The Commissioner requires the public authority to take the following step to ensure compliance with the legislation.  Disclose the Financial Viability Assessment commissioned by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham requested by the complainant on 16 October 2016.

6. The public authority must take this step within 35 calendar days of the date of this decision notice. Failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.”

The judgement added:

“The Commissioner acknowledges that developers might prefer that information relating to their business interests should remain private. Since the coming into force of the EIR it is the responsibility of public authorities to advise third parties that any information held can be subject to disclosure. Moreover, the Commissioner does not consider it plausible that prospective developers would stop engaging or negotiating with local planning authorities where potentially lucrative development opportunities are at stake on the basis that information held might be disclosed.

“The Commissioner accepts that there are occasions where the real potential for damage to legitimate economics interests caused by the release of information warrants non-disclosure–which is the purpose of the exception. However, in this case, despite being given an opportunity to do so, the Council has failed to explain the specific effects of disclosure and link this to specific parts of the withheld information.”

The full text is here.

How much more straightforward it would be if the Council adopted a policy of transparency. The Council’s planning department has been known to make mistakes. Let’s allow proper public scrutiny of these “viability assessments” at an early stage – not these messy and clumsy efforts to maintain secrecy.

Whatever happened to the “Hammersmith Residents Working Party”?

When the Council established the Hammersmith Residents’ Working Party it emphasised its importance saying that it “will in large part govern what developers are permitted to do”.

According to the Council’s website:

“The Hammersmith Residents’ Working Party meets each month.”

But it would be closer to mark to say it meets annually – while the Council pushes through ugly, unpopular developments.

The Council’s Head of Policy & Spatial Planning says:

“The residents working party is still in operation and we will be scheduling new workshops with the group to review the first draft of the Grimshaw masterplan in due course.  The masterplan will form an important component of the future Hammersmith Supplementary Planning Document (SPD).  The contribution of the HRWP will be critical to this task. 

“Since the last meeting (end of April) the views of the HRWP have been integrated into developing the masterplan.

“It is important to understand the master plan and SPD’s relationship to the new Local Plan.  The SPD will need to sit within this higher level development plan document when adopted.  The new Local Plan Examination in Public was last summer and the Inspector required a subsequent consultation on modifications to the plan over this Autumn/Winter, the document is now due for adoption on 28th February.  This has therefore impacted on engagement with the HRWP.”

Grimshaw are a firm of modernist architects. We have yet to see what they are threatening for Hammersmith – but judging but the other “Master Planning” they have produced on their website it is likely to be pretty awful.

The Council’s Local Plan specifically backs more tower blacks for the Hammersmith Town Centre – see page 134. The “masterplan” will be a “component” of  the Hammersmith Supplementary Planning Document which in turn “will need to sit within this higher level development plan document.”

So when the Council says “the views of the HRWP have been integrated into developing the masterplan” – what it means is that the Council’s policy is to have more tower blocks whether the HRWP wants it or not.

Does the HRWP feel that its views are being “integrated into developing the masterplan”? Since its members are sworn to secrecy and its deliberations are not published we will never know officially. But with it not meeting at all there can scarcely be much confidence – for them or the rest of us.

Even if the reality is that the Council ignores its deliberations the process is pretty chaotic and discourteous. Members who agreed to give up their time being told they would have monthly meetings on a body with genuine clout are left wondering what is happening.

The Council must come clean on its Capco negotiations

In November a letter was delivered to residents on the Gibbs Green and West Kensington estates from the council leader Cllr Stephen Cowan. It wasn’t from the Labour Party but was an official Council communication – and therefore subject to the rules from the Local Government Publicity Code for accuracy and impartiality. It concerned the Capco proposals for the Earls Court redevelopment.

The letter said:

“My colleagues and I have been negotiating hard to either get the estates back or radically improve the deal and secure new like-for-like homes for all our residents on the two estates.

“Capco’s latest proposal is to develop a new Masterplan for the Earls Court scheme.  If that gets planning permission we would see the two estates return to council control. 

“There are many steps towards finalising this agreement but I wanted to let you know as soon as possible about what’s happening.”

This could be good news. For example I have written about a popular and beautiful alternative to Capco’s plans for Empress Place. On the other hand simply maintaining the (ugly) status quo on the estates would be a missed opportunity – just as the current (ugly) Capco plans are.

Would “council control” mean leaving the buildings as they are? The letter is unclear.

Naturally opinions will differ whatever emerges. Which is fine – but I wish it could be more friendly, open and honest. For years there have been bitter divisions and political exploitation. Secrecy has allowed scaremongering to flourish.

Once Cllr Cowan and Capco have concluded “finalising the agreement” will residents (tenants and leaseholders) be given a veto? Would such a ballot be a three way choice between the estates staying as they are, the current Capco proposal or whatever revised proposal emerges? The letter doesn’t say. Yet if Cllr Cowan thinks he’s come up with something that “radically improves” the deal then why would be be afraid of checking if the residents agree?

If we try to find out more the Capco website says nothing about any changes. The TRAs – who are led by staunch opponents of the current Capco plans – are very pleased by the prospect of change. But they don’t seem to have much detail either.

Never mind. Perhaps we can look to the Council’s website to see if we can find the full story there. It used to say in the Transparency section:

“Minutes of meetings between councillors and developers. We now publish notes of all our meetings with developers – no secret discussions!”

Those words have been removed. Instead it just says: “Meetings between developers and councillors”.

Nothing is included about Capco.

Why not? The Council’s Monitoring Officer tells me:

“I can now confirm that the meetings with Capco, regarding the potential return of the West Ken and Gibbs Green Estates to council control, took place with officers under the existing Conditional Land Sale Agreement arrangements, in consultation with the Leader. It would therefore be inappropriate to minute these on the council’s website.  The Leader has been kept informed on progress of negotiations throughout.”

So Cllr Cowan’s letter was false when he told residents: “I have been negotiating hard.” He hasn’t been negotiating hard or soft – he’s just been “kept informed” of how others have been getting on with the negotiating. The previous claim on the Council’s website – “We now publish notes of all our meetings with developers – no secret discussions!” – was still pretty misleading even if it was the officials doing the negotiating rather than the councillors. So it was right that the Council removed those words given they did not reflect the reality.

But it wouldn’t it be better still for Capco and the Council to be open about what they are planning? Wouldn’t there be a better chance of a deal being popular – and therefore sustainable – if all residents have the chance to comment at an early stage?

Ugly office block plan for Wellesley Avenue rejected

I was pleased that last night Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s Planning and Development Control Committee rejected a proposal for an ugly office block in Wellesley Avenue.

The overbearing development would also have been harmful to residents in Dorville Crescent and have had a negative impact on the character of the conservation area.

Planning officers had recommended rejection and my only criticism was that they should have been more emphatic in doing so.

For instance it said of 14 Wellesley Avenue that the “timber cladding on the front elevation is not in keeping with the character and appearance of the conservation area.”

We can all sneer at “mock Tudor”. The building is rather idiosyncratic in the context of the local area. But the point is that the proposed replacement would be awful. So that would be a bad swap. Give me mock Tudor!

With regard to traffic the planning officers said:

“Regarding visitors to the office use it is considered that due to the good public transport accessibility in this location, people would be likely to use transport methods other than a private car to visit the site and therefore the proposal is unlikely to generate any increase in parking pressure or cause conditions detrimental to traffic conditions. “

Come off it.

The office would have 200 people and so there would be a lot more traffic – with all the couriers, Uber taxis, Amazon deliveries, etc.

That would be bad for local schools – with air pollution and congestion during the school run for those children dropped off.

The traffic caused by the existing workshop is very modest – they take in perhaps three cars a week. Also cars are currently parked in the garage, but in future all cars would be on the street.

By all means let’s have a change of use for the workshop – but it should be for new (but traditional) housing. That is what is needed rather than more offices.

Brackenbury Residents Association said the proposed scheme was “alien” and added:

“We value the benefits of mixed use within residential areas, but we consider this application would introduce the wrong mix, creating an inappropriate design for the street, an inappropriate commercial presence, and an insensitive neighbour to the existing houses.”

New developments don’t have to be unattractive. But all too often they are. Local residents and I left the meeting last night to allow the Committee to proceed with its work – remorselessly approving schemes to make our borough less and less beautiful.

But at least we had our victory:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

Public consultation opens on Thursday for the Town Hall redevelopment

After the fiasco of the demolition of the cinema a public consultation opens on Thursday (9 November 2017) on the Council’s new proposals to redevelop Hammersmith Town Hall and immediately-surrounding area of King Street.

Public consultation events will take place on:

Thursday 9 November from 4pm to 8pm
Saturday 11 November from 10am to 2pm

Both events will be held at Hammersmith Town Hall in King Street.

I have asked what alternative design (if any) will be offered to residents to the one to be produced by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners….

UPDATE

The panels with the awful new proposals are here.

Update on King Street cinema site

The Council are remaining pretty secretive regarding fiasco of the Town Hall redevelopment scheme – which was abandoned after the cinema (a “building of merit”) had been demolished. The financial viability of the scheme had been brought into question after the Council demanded extra Section 106 money from their development partners on the scheme Helical Bar. Now with the project abandoned the Council won’t get any Section 106 money, will probably be obliged to spend millions buying the land where the cinema and face delays during which the huge maintenance bill for the Council’s awful town hall extension will continue.

What an almighty stuff up.

Anyway apparently new plans are under way. I’m told that the under the proposed new scheme will include a replacement cinema (provided by Curzon) also that the town hall extension will go. The architects involved are Richard Rogers so whatever is built will be pretty hideous – but could scarcely manage to be worse than what is there at present. There is a plan for 210 flats of which half will be “affordable” (whatever that turns out to mean). The housing association that it is proposed will be involved is A2Dominion. I have some concerns about them as a landlord. Only yesterday I was talking to residents in Invermead Close (which they own) and came away with a litany of complaints about delays with repairs, failure to deal with rats, poor parking arrangements and so on.

The grandly named “Town Hall Development Commission” is supposed to be “resident-led”. This is a bit of a joke. It has four people on it – the council leader Cllr Stephen Cowan, a couple of architects and Melanie Whitlock. I think Melanie is a capable, independent minded and public spirited figure. But she is just one resident – and she is the first to say that she does not pretend to represent anyone other than herself.

There is due to be an exhibition of the new plans in November.

Ugly new plans for Hammersmith Grove’s “Triangle” site

Another appalling planning proposal.

This one concerns the site known as the Hammersmith Triangle –  5-17 Hammersmith Grove and 1-11 Britannia House: 3 and 3A Hammersmith Grove and 12-18 Beadon Road. There have been various proposals from its owners Romulus since 2013.

Britannia House is seven storey. The Triangle – is a part 6, part 7 storey. The new building would be between eight and 14 storeys. So the proposal is to replace very ugly buildings with even bigger very ugly buildings.

Also we need more homes rather than more offices.

The Hammersmith Society has objected.

It’s Chairman, Tom Ryland, says the design concept “is almost industrial with its metal cladding – most unsympathetic and alien to both Hammersmith centre and the adjoining Conservation Areas.” The design has a “hard-edged, almost brutal quality.”

Among the other points he makes:

Height:  The office block (south and main part of the development) proposition is taller than its neighbours at 10 & 12 Hammersmith Grove (Development Securities), Sovereign Court tower (St George) on Beadon Road and I Lyric Square. The developer advises that the height is justified by the need to provide a sense of enclosure to Lyric Square, but the plans – and illustrations in the Design and Access Statement – show how stark this cliff face will look….

Proximity to Conservation Areas:  The site is adjacent to the Bradmore CA,  Hammersmith Grove CA and Hammersmith Broadway CA. It is within a few yards of low-rise Victorian residential streets to the north. Despite the stepping back at the upper floors, the proposed building will tower over the residential streets to the north. This is not a happy conjunction between town centre and residential areas….

At present the charming landscaping in Hammersmith Grove carries on the domestic landscaping of front gardens to the north and landscaping around 10 Hammersmith Grove, also set back from the pavement line. Although landscaping is proposed on the cut-back terraces on Beadon Road, these will only be seen and appreciated by the users of the office building, and not by the man in the street.