Wednesday 7 May 2014

Barham Park Library Planning Appeal – Brent Council v. Our Community.

Guest blog by Philip Grant

It is nearly six months since I wrote a blog for this site: “Planning Committee upholds community use of Barham Park Library”.  Brent’s Chief Planner had recommended at the meeting on 13 November 2013 that they should agree a change to business use, based on a Community Facilities Assessment. This document (which I called ‘dishonest’ in an objection comment at the time) had been produced for the Barham Park Trust by anonymous Council Officers, but as I reported:
It was plainly obvious to committee members from evidence given to them by objectors ... that there was a need and demand for community facilities in the area which required full-time use (not a couple of hours a week) of at least parts of the building. To give all of the space to the arts charity ACAVA to let out as artists studios would deprive local people of those existing community facilities.
That should have been the end of the planning process, with the Trust and the Council (effectively one and the same, as Brent is the ‘corporate sole Trustee’ of the Barham Park Trust) working with their preferred tenant, ACAVA, and the local community groups who also wanted to rent space at the Barham Park buildings to find a compromise solution. Instead, on 3 December, the Barham Park Trust Committee (five members of Brent’s Executive) accepted a report from Richard Barrett (Brent’s Operational Director, Property and Projects, and a member of the Barham Park Management Group, a group of Senior Council Officers), and resolved: 
To pursue an appeal against the decision of the Local Planning Authority to refuse planning permission for the change of use of the premises.
Although Mr Barrett said in his report to the Trustees that ‘... there does remain a significant risk that the appeal will be refused’, when questioned about the risk at the meeting he said that, having taken informal advice, ‘... the risks were perceived as being lower than indicated in the report.’ The reason he believed the risks were less was because the Planning Committee had not followed the Planning Officer’s recommendation.

Five months later, there is some bad news for Mr Barrett, and for the Barham Park Trust, and some very good news for the objectors, including the Friends of Barham Library. Last Sunday was the final day of the four week period during which people interested in the planning appeal could submit comments on it to the Planning Inspector. Someone at Brent’s Planning Department must have been working overtime, because that was the day when the Council’s Appeal Statement (as Local Planning Authority) was submitted, and posted on the full details webpage for the Barham Park application 13/2179: .

Brent’s Planning Officer, who originally accepted the Community Facilities Assessment at face value, has now considered the evidence put forward by objectors, and agrees that the Planning Committee decision was the correct one! This is one of many similar extracts from the Statement to the Planning Inspector:
'...  the Local Planning Authority consider that the Community Facilities Assessment does not demonstrate that the existing community floorspace is not required to meet the needs of the local community and as such, it is considered that this proposal is contrary to Policy CP23 of the Brent LDF Core Strategy 2010.'

The planning appeal by the Barham Park Trust raises some important questions:

Why would Brent Council want to appeal against its own Planning Committee’s decision, especially when that decision was based on upholding one of Brent’s core planning policies (CP23 – Protecting Existing Community and Cultural Facilities)?

 Why would the Trustees of a Council-run charity, that claims to want to put the Barham Park buildings back into productive use, delay resolving the issue for months, losing rental income that would help to maintain the property and incurring an estimated £10,000 in fees (out of “charity funds”) to a planning consultant to present the appeal for them? 

and (does this make me a three “whys” man?):

Why did it take so long for the Barham Park Trust’s appeal to be lodged with the Planning Inspectorate?

Here are what I believe to be the answers to these questions. There is a chance that I am wrong on some of the points, and if so, I would invite anyone who feels aggrieved by what I have written to add a comment, or to ask Martin for a “right of reply”.

The Barham Park Management Group is chaired by Jenny Isaac (Operational Director, Neighbourhoods), who as well as being “in charge” of Brent’s parks has overall responsibility for Brent’s library service. She may have wished to prevent any undermining of the Council’s Libraries Transformation Project. Richard Barrett is “in charge” of Brent’s properties, and probably considered that letting the Barham Park buildings to a single tenant, with no local community involvement, was in Brent’s best business interests. They would also have realised that such a proposal would be an attractive proposition for the Labour Executive members on the Barham Park Trust Committee, as any letting to the Friends of Barham Library would suggest that the Executive’s decision to close six libraries in 2011 had been wrong, and might be seen as a “victory” for Cllr. Lorber, the leader of the main opposition party on the Brent Council.

It was the Senior Officers, not the “Trustees”, who put in the planning application in order to make their plans for a single letting to ACAVA possible. They have no interest in Brent’s planning policies, if those policies get in the way of what they want, and did not like being “shown up” by having the planning application rejected. The Officers therefore gave the “Trustees” only two options for how the Barham Park Trust should respond to the Planning Committee decision, but made these more attractive to the Executive members by saying that either would take six months. Even though the Trust Committee members knew that there were other options which should also have been considered, they went along with their Officer’s advice, accepting the delay, loss of rental income and extra costs of a planning appeal because this would put off a resolution of this embarrassing problem until after the local elections in May 2014.

The appeal appears to have been Mr Barrett’s “preferred option”. I was puzzled as to why it should take six months, as it was a relatively straightforward matter and I thought that the appeal could probably have been lodged by the end of January. However, if the Barham Park Trust did not actually appeal until after mid-March, there would not be time for it to be decided until after 22 May. As it was, the appeal was lodged at the end of March 2014, giving a four week period from 7 April to 4 May for objectors and others to submit their comments on the appeal. Was it a coincidence that this might be a period when Cllr. Lorber and his supporters would perhaps be too busy preparing for the local elections to be able to respond effectively with their written representations?

If I am only half right in the “answers” I have given to the questions I raised, I think that this calls into doubt the actions of both the Council Officers and the Brent Executive members who between them run the Barham Park Trust. The Trust is meant to be a charity whose object is ‘the provision of Barham Park and its buildings for recreational purposes’. Titus Barham, who left the property to Wembley on his death in 1937, clearly saw this as being for the benefit of the people of the district in which he had made his home. The way in which the letting of the buildings, the planning application and the planning appeal have been handled by the Trust could be seen as an abuse of power, putting the interests of Brent Council and of its current ruling politicians ahead of the interests of the local community.

The appeal has still to be decided by the Planning Inspector, but there is now a very strong case for it to be rejected, and for Brent Planning Committee’s original decision to stand. This will ensure that the former Barham Park library must be used as “community facilities”, but it does not guarantee that all, or part, of it will be made available for the Friends of Barham Library and their volunteer-run library service. That will depend on who is elected in the Brent Council poll on 22 May, and whether whoever controls the Council after those elections is willing to stand up to Senior Council Officers who have become used to getting their own way. 

I hope that thought will motivate you to use your vote for candidates who are committed in practice to local councillors, Council Officers and local people working together for the benefit of our community, rather than to a situation that we have seen too often in recent years of Brent Council v. Our Community


Toby Chambers said...

As Sudbury Independent candidate Brent Council v Community does not solve the problems.

It creates further community divide.

The Sudbury Town Neighbourhood Plan developed under the Localism Act makes it very clear Barham Park should be developed for community use.

Office and Light Industrial as proposed by ACAVA is totally inappropriate.

We need a total rethink of Barham Park with council officers starting to listen to what people want.

Toby Chambers
Sudbury Independent Candidate

Anonymous said...

Are you an independent candidate for Sudbury Toby? Well I never.

Anonymous said...

I have sent links to this "blog" to the five Executive members on the Barham Park Trust Committee, to the two Council Officers I have named, and to the three main party leaders on Brent Council (from whom I am still awaiting an answer to my letter of 4 February on "Respecting Brent's Constitution", and failures by Senior Council Officers to do that).

I agree that the "Trustee" authority for Barham Park should reflect the wishes of local people, as well as the Council which holds the legal status of 'corporate sole Trustee'. Here is a paragraph from my email to Cllrs Butt, Kansagra and Lorber on this point:
'One final suggestion, on the composition of the Barham Park Trust Committee. This case has shown the dangers of allowing the committee to continue as just a sub-committee of the Executive. It would be safer, democratically, for this "Trustee" authority to be exercised by a small cross-party committee of the Council. Better still, it should also include a couple of non-political members, perhaps nominated by local residents or other groups in the Sudbury area as people living in and respected by Sudbury's community.'

I do sometimes feel the need to criticise "the Council", whether councillors, Council Officers or both, but I also try to work with them to suggest ways that things can be improved, or to offer practical help. This is one suggestion that I hope others will also support, if they agree that it would be a sensible one to implement.
Philip Grant.

Toby Chambers said...

I fully support the separation of Barham Park Trust from Brent Local Authority.

I actually met with a representative from the Charity Commission on the same they had a separate meeting with Jenny Isacc.

I discussed with the charity commission how the community could be representative on Trustee board. Brent Council could simply advise they are stepping down. Charity Commission would be appointed as interim board and then appointment of community board.

Other Local Authorities have done this and it has worked well as a strong board of local community people result in better decisions for buildings and parks held under a charitable trust.

It would also reduce Local Authority time in managing Barham Park Trust.

It would require a better long term plan in earning income from the trusts assets, but could deliver a better long term solution than currently proposed by ACAVA. Barham Park Trust could secure many different funding opportunities such.

If elected I pledge the local community should be the Trustees

Toby Chambers
Sudbury Independent

Anonymous said...

Toby's thinking is further down the road of the proper governance of the Barham Park Trust than mine, but it does definitely need to change. Whether or not the voters of Sudbury elect Toby, this matter is 'on the agenda' for the leaders of Brent's (current) main political parties, and has been brought to the notice of Brent's Chief Executive. The local community will need to be vigilant after the new Council is elected, to make sure that the future of the Barham Park Trust, as well as of the park itself and its buildings, stays 'on the agenda', and that a sensible outcome to this issue is achieved.
Philip Grant.