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?

Labour’s u-turn on Earls Court redevelopment?

adonisThis morning I’ve written for Conservative Home about City Villages. It’s a report from the left wing think tank the IPPR edited by the Labour peer Lord Adonis. He was seeking to be the Labour candidate for Mayor of London but is now backing Dame Tessa Jowell. He was also brought in as an advisor to the new Labour administration in Hammersmith and Fulham.

There is some local interest in the report as Lord Adonis praises the Earls Court redevelopment. In the past Labour have opposed it. The Labour MP Andrew Slaughter made false claim during the last General Election campaign in 2010 that residents would be forced to live in Barking and Dagenham.

But Lord Adonis says:

“As for larger, current city village developments, Gary Yardley, investment director of one of London’s biggest developers Capco, explains his vision for Earls Court, one of the largest development sites in inner London (nearly 80 acres to provide some 7,500 new homes).

“In many ways Earls Court is London’s next ‘great estate’, reinventing their legacy and approach for the 21st century. The site assembly at Earls Court is itself a remarkable feat: partly existing White City council estates, partly large redundant Transport for London (TfL) train storage and repair facilities, and partly the site of the decommissioned Earls Court Exhibition Centre. TfL will retain a stake in the development company for Earls Court.

“The masterplan combines higher density with significant new public amenity, creating new streetscapes and retail/business centres, a site for a new London museum or gallery, new schools, a large new public park, and a car club which every resident will be invited to join.”

Leave aside the shaky grasp of local geography betrayed by his reference to “White City”. This is a positive message about the development.

Then there is Mr Yardley essay which says:

“Major opportunities come with significant challenges – specifically that volumes should not compromise the need for good-quality homes, connectivity or the need for community integration, and the recruitment of good architects is integral to providing vision to sites of this scale.

Essential to getting major projects off the ground are strong relationships with local governments and planners, to ensure the masterplan of the site meets the expectations of local residents and Londoners. In the case of Earls Court, this involves two local authorities, in particular working closely with Hammersmith and Fulham council to ensure all existing qualifying residents of the old estates will be offered a new home within the development. Such major regenerations may transform the landscape, but in order to retain the social fabric and history of places, ensuring the current residents have a place in the new community is critical for building new places around existing social infrastructure.”

The existing West Ken and Gibbs Green estates are rather closed off from the wider area. This is a typical flaw with council estates – very divisive. Restoring street patterns will change this. The new homes will be better than the existing homes.

Not that they will necessarily be as attractive as they could. When Mr Yardley talks about “good architects” he means award winning architects which means bad architects. Trying to ensure that the new housing is attractive is an area where the council could have a positive influence. Unfortunately with the current administrations modernist planning policies – which favour more tower blocks – this is unlikely. But Mr Yardley can hardly be blamed for operating within the design guidance of planning officers.

Still this is a scheme that will offer real improvements. More housing, better housing, a better mix of tenure. It will mean our community is brought together rather than having one section closed off from the rest.