Thursday 24 July 2014

Barham Park planning appeal – the Community fights for its Community Facilities

Guest blog by Philip Grant

It is now more than eight months since Brent’s Planning Committee refused an application by the Barham Park Trust (sole corporate trustee – Brent Council) for a change of use of the former Barham Park library building from community use to business use. On 3 December 2013, the Trustees (five members of Brent’s then Executive) accepted the recommendation of a senior Council Officer to appeal against that decision, but it was only last Tuesday, 22 July, when a Planning Inspector finally held an informal hearing of that appeal at the Civic Centre. The delay was due in part to the Trust’s appeal not being submitted to the Planning Inspectorate until the end of March 2014 (it has been suggested that this was to ensure that the appeal could not be decided before the local elections on 22 May). 

Around thirty local people attended the hearing (including two of the Brent Cabinet members who now have Trustee responsibility, for parts of the proceedings), and although less than half of these came forward to speak when given the opportunity by the Inspector, this impressive display of support for the former library building remaining available for local community use will have been noted by him. This was a planning appeal, so the fact that many of them were Friends of Barham Library was only relevant to the extent that it showed a need and demand for the sort of community facility which could be available on a permanent basis in Sudbury, but there were many other reasons shown to the Inspector why Brent’s planning policy CP23, aimed at protecting existing community and cultural facilities that meet the needs of Brent’s diverse community, should be upheld, as the Planning Committee had already decided. 

The Inspector said at the start that the hearing would have an open discussion format, where interested parties could raise their hands if they wished to comment on or reply to points made on behalf of either the appellant (the Barham Park Trust, represented by a planning consultant, two Brent Council Officers from the Property and Projects department and the Chief Executive of ACAVA, the charity which the Trust wishes to lease most of the Barham Park buildings to, for conversion into artists’ studios for hire) or the party opposing the appeal (Brent Council as Local Planning Authority (“LPA”), represented by a single Planning Officer). After hands were raised at nearly every point made by the planning consultant presenting the Barham Park Trust’s case in support of the appeal, the Inspector decided that he would have to change the format, with no interruptions of the main participants presentations, but any “third party” who wished to say something relevant to the planning appeal being given the opportunity to do so after the appellant and LPA had presented their cases., and answered any questions which he wished to raise with them. 

The reason that several members of the public initially put up their hands to question or comment on the appellant’s case was that it appeared to be full of factual errors and misrepresentations. The planning consultant was painting a picture of the Trust, as a charity, wanting to let out the buildings to another, wonderful charity, which would provide a fantastic range of community facilities in the buildings, but that this was being opposed by mean-minded people who were either failed bidders for space in the buildings or who had simply refused to grasp the splendid new library facilities made available to them under Brent’s Libraries Transformation Project. According to her, ACAVA’s proposed use of the buildings had all the characteristics of D1 community use, as well as cultural use, and would offer a substantial element of community involvement. The change applied for from formal D1 use would only be temporary (under a 15 year lease of the building to ACAVA), and it would revert to D1 use when ACAVA ceased to use the building.


The planning consultant said that if there had been any deficiencies in the Community Facilities Assessment (“CFA”) which formed part of the planning application, these had now been dealt with by the further information submitted by the appellant at the beginning of July 2014, showing the under-utilisation of community facilities available to hire at many other locations within a one mile (as the crow flies) radius of Barham Park. The Planning Officer was allowed to intervene to correct a false impression which the appellant was trying to give, that the Barham Lounge (Unit 2) would be a gain of 178 square metres of D1 community facilities under the proposals. 

The representative of ACAVA also gave a long presentation about the work of his charity, and the sorts of community outreach work that they did at other locations and would hope to do at Barham Park (subject to various provisos about suitable partners and funding). He had to admit, when asked to be more specific, that they could only guarantee that each artist’s workshop would be open to the public for at least one weekend/two days each year, and that they had not started to arrange any community outreach work in the area because they did not yet have a lease on the buildings from the Trust. 

The Planning Officer made clear that Brent Council, as LPA, was opposed to the appeal, as there would be a clear loss of the existing community facilities available in the former library (Unit 3), and it did not accept that ACAVA’s proposed use of that and other units would be anything other than B1 business use for planning purposes. In the view of the LPA, the CFA did not establish the case for over-riding the protection given to Unit 3 by Brent’s core policy CP23, and the further information provided (appendix NTR2 to the appellant’s recent appeal statement) did not provide clarity over whether the under-utilised space at other buildings in the area would provide the type of facility required for the sorts of community use for which there was a demonstrated local need and demand. 

The Planning Inspector asked the appellant for information in response to points which had been made in written submissions, but not yet answered. One point was the identity of the author of the CFA, which had been submitted in anonymous form. The planning consultant replied that this document had been submitted by the Barham Park Trust, and had been prepared on their behalf by a member of the Council’s staff. Later in the hearing she was pressed by one of the speakers to give more details including whether the author had any professional qualification, such as Chartered Surveyor, which if it had been listed in the CFA would have given an assurance that the report was drawn up within the standards laid down by a professional body. The planning consultant questioned the relevance of this point, and said that the author was the planning applicant’s agent at the time, but continued to avoid naming the person (who may have been the man sitting next to her), only adding in her concluding remarks at the end of the hearing that the author of the CFA was an M.R.I.C.S. . 

The Planning Inspector asked the LPA’s representative whether “the Council” had carried out a thorough assessment of the potential loss of D1 space during its consideration of the planning application, and had concluded that the proposed loss of D1 floor space was acceptable, as claimed in the appellant’s written appeal statement. The Planning Officer said that its original position was based on what the CFA said, and that this had not been ‘thoroughly assessed’ before the case went to the Planning Committee meeting. 

Around a dozen members of the public spoke to give their views, either side of a break for lunch between 12.50 and 1.45pm. These included Alton Bell (of the Sudbury youth charity Pivot Point), Paul Lorber (a former Sudbury councillor for 32 years) and Gaynor Lloyd (both active

with the Friends of Barham Library), and Robert Barker (of St John the Evangelist Church and Community Centre). All made strong points in support of the view that the Barham Park complex of buildings was an invaluable community facility, which should be viewed as a whole including the park which it was within. Between them they gave evidence that there was a need and a demand for local community use of the buildings, particularly the former library which the planning application sought to remove from community use, that the locally based groups who wished to use community facilities in the building needed full-time use, not “hire by the hour” rooms, and that there were no other suitable facilities within the area. Deficiencies in the “detailed” information recently submitted by the appellant on under-utilised buildings available for hire were pointed out, and it was not accepted by any of the speakers that the loss of the former library as community facilities would be only ‘temporary’ – it was a real and permanent loss of community facilities which Brent’s diverse community has a continuing need for now. 

Gaynor Lloyd also made the point that, while the planning consultant was making her arguments over library policy based on the Libraries Transformation Project of 2011, Brent’s ruling Labour Group had changed its approach in recent months and was now supporting the idea of community run libraries at several former Brent library sites. The planning consultant claimed that this was irrelevant, as the Barham Park Trust was an entirely separate body from Brent Council. 

Philip Grant (a member of Wembley History Society, but speaking as an individual), criticised the CFA, which he had previously referred to, and did so again, as ‘a dishonest document’. It had failed to consider the need for community facilities of the type which required full time use of D1 buildings, even though the author of the CFA must have known that there was a need and demand for such community facilities in the Barham Park area. The new study (NTR2) of under-utilisation at 19 other locations within a one mile radius of the park continued to ignore that need, but even taking it at face value, it showed that under-utilisation ranged from 10% to 80%, with not a single location available for hire full time. 

Philip Grant said that there was another unanswered question from his written submissions to the Inspector, which was whether the appendix to the CFA which claimed to be ‘ACAVA’s Statement in support of this Planning Application’ was actually what it purported to be, or whether (as it was not on ACAVA’s headed paper, was unsigned and undated, and contained no reference to any planning application) it was simply “copied and pasted” from an earlier document, such as ACAVA’s bid to lease a number of units at Barham Park. He directed this question to the Chief Executive of ACAVA, but the Inspector intervened to say that members of the appellant’s team could not be cross-examined. 

The planning consultant said that the point being made was irrelevant, as the presence of ACAVA at the hearing on behalf of the appellant showed their support for the planning application and appeal.
Another of the “interested parties” who spoke was Mr D. Kataria, a former councillor who said that he had been a member of Brent’s Planning Committee on 13 November 2013 when they refused this planning application by six votes to one. They had spent between 60 and 90 minutes on this case, had heard evidence from a number of people, both for and against, had asked many questions, including explanations of some of the planning points involved from the Planning Officers in attendance, and had discussed the various points before reaching their decision. Although the grounds for refusal had simply been given as CP23, this was on the advice of the Officers. There were other grounds, and he read extracts from the London Plan and the Localism Act, which both supported the view which the Planning Committee had taken that the community facilities at Barham Park must be protected. The appeal should be dismissed, and the Planning Committee’s decision should stand. 

Other speakers included Dilwyn Chambers, a local historian, who said that Brent Council had made a commitment many years ago that a museum would be provided in Wembley, and the Council or Barham Park Trust should have considered the former library as an excellent site for this; and Toby Chambers, a Sudbury resident who said that ACAVA’s business approach was wrong as it would use Barham Park as a base for outreach, when what was needed was a use for the buildings which brought people into the park, so that plans for the Barham Park buildings should begin again from scratch. The Inspector thanked them for their comments, but said that neither was relevant to the matters on which he had to decide the planning appeal. 

One of the afternoon speakers was Caroline, who explained why the former Barham Park library had been very important to her. She had been diagnosed as bi-polar more than ten years ago, and had been treated for some time at the Mental Health Unit at Wembley Hospital. Groups of patients would be taken to the library, a quiet and safe place in beautiful surroundings where they could feel part of “normal” life again as part of their recovery. The locations of libraries at Ealing Road or the Civic Centre were far too busy and noisy for this. Another reason why she felt that the Barham Park library location was so important is that she has since trained as a teacher, and taking groups of young children to a library is an important part of their social development, in addition to its access to suitable books and encouragement of reading. Early years children can’t concentrate for very long at a time, and need to run around in between short periods of looking at books – the safe parkland around Barham Park library is ideal for this. She felt that those were two good reasons why the former library building should stay in community use, including a community library facility. 

After all members of the public who wished to speak had been given the opportunity to do so, the Inspector dealt with several procedural matters, such as, on a “without prejudice” basis, what conditions should be attached to any planning permission, if he was to decide that the appeal succeeded. He made the point that this should not be taken as indicating how he would decide the matter. The appellant and LPA were then given the chance to make closing remarks. 

The Planning Officer made clear that Brent as LPA was still opposed to the appeal, and stood by its decision to refuse the original application for a change of use from D1 to B1. The planning consultant said that the Officer’s Recommendation to Planning Committee had been to accept the application for a change of use, and that as no new information had been given at the Planning Committee meeting, that recommendation should still stand. The Planning Officer said that there had been new 
 information and evidence put forward at the Planning Committee meeting, including by Rev. Bell, which in the LPA’s view justified the Committee’s decision not to follow the original Officer’s advice. 

The Planning Inspector said that his decision on the appeal might take a number of weeks, and would be “posted” on the Planning Inspectorate website when it was ready. He would now close the hearing (around 2.50pm) and would visit the site of the Barham Park buildings which were the subject of the appeal (a start time of 3.30pm was agreed for the visit). Although the formal parties to the appeal, and any interested persons who wished to, could also attend this site visit, he would not accept any further comments or arguments from anyone on the appeal. 

This is my report of the planning appeal hearing, admittedly from the point of view of one of the opponents to the appeal. As this is a “blog”, you are encouraged to comment on it. 

On the basis of what you have read, how would you decide the appeal? Do you agree that Brent Council, through the Barham Park Trust, should be allowed to do what those making the decisions think provides the “best value” for the Council (and is most convenient for Council Officers)? Should they be allowed to do this even if it goes against Brent’s own planning policies? Or should the needs and wishes of the local community (at least as expressed by those who were willing to take part in the planning application and planning appeal process) succeed in maintaining the former library part of the Barham Park buildings for use as community facilities for the benefit of local people? 

What does this appeal hearing tell you about the attitudes of Council Officers (on both sides of the table) to Council policies, and the views of the Brent residents they serve? What does it say about their openness and transparency, and their integrity, as although the two Officers representing the Barham Park Trust did not speak at the hearing, except in whispers to the planning consultant they had hired for the purpose, they were the ones whose attitudes and arguments she was presenting? 

And what about the lost use of the Barham Park buildings, the lost income from their letting (estimated at £43,000 p.a.), the further delay in carrying out the necessary repair and refurbishment work, let alone the thousands of pounds of professional costs incurred, all because the Trustees were persuaded to appeal against, rather than accept, the decision of Brent’s Planning Committee? Has this been a waste of time and money? The members of the local community who have been campaigning to preserve the former Barham Park library building for community use were certainly prepared to give their time, both in making written submissions and in attending the appeal hearing, for what they believe is a cause worth fighting for, and I sincerely hope that their time has not been wasted. 

If you live in the Sudbury area, and want to tell councillors and Council Officers what you think should happen to the former library in Barham Park, why not take the opportunity to visit them during their “Week of Action”, on Monday 28 July or Saturday 2 August from 12 noon to 4pm at Butler’s Green, Sudbury Town Centre. If you want to contact the Trustees of the Barham Park Trust, and give your views direct to them, they are Councillors Michael Pavey (Chair), James Denselow, Krupesh Hirani, Margaret McLennan and Keith Perrin.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to see that James Denselow - who's taken over Roxanne Mashari's responsibility for libraries, I believe - is part of the Barham Park Trust that wants to turn the former Barham Park Library from community to business use. Cllr Denselow has backed the deal, brokered by Cllr Mashari, that FKRL has done with Andrew Gillick for the D1 space - described by some as 'a cupboard' - at Kensal Rise Library. How does he explain favouring one former library over another?

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Cllr. Denselow, I don't think that the new Barham Park Trust Committee has met since it was appointed, following the local elections, and his change of role. The planning application for change of use was the work of Council Officers (the Barham Park Management Group), not the "Trustees".

I hope that the new Trustees will take a different view of the community facilities provided by the former Barham Park library than their predecessors, who were rushed into an appeal against the correct Planning Committee decision on the basis of poor advice from a Senior Council Officer. That is why it is important that local people let them know their feelings on the matter, to help them make the right decisions.


Anonymous said...

The change of use planning idea might have been an officer initiative, Philip, but it wouldn't have got the go-ahead without the backing of the politicians, and probably Brent's chief executive. It's they who must be held to account.

Toby Chambers said...

Following last week's planning hearing I have contacted ACAVA as there financial accounts are cause for serious concern as their current liabilities exceed their current assets by over £200,000. The charity is therefore putting its assets at risk in agreeing to take on more liabilities, rather than consolidating their existing buildings.

I have advised ACAVA I will issue a complain to the Charity Commission by Wednesday 30 July, if they do not satisfying me with the potential technical insolvent position of the Charity.

Anonymous said...

Well done.

The local Sudbury community do not want a Charity that seem to be floundering, but promising the earth, but then can't deliver when their finances are maxed out.

Interesting enough to see how ACAVA scored on the finances on their application, given cause for serious concern. It does not seem finance is Brent Councils strong point given the amounts Brent seem to continually waste.

Anonymous said...

Might also be worth a complaint to Charity Commission : re All Souls College and misuse of ACV.

Anonymous said...

Will follow up. Thanks.

Amanda K said...

It is sad that so many libraries are being closed. iI is the case though that literature is widely and freely available, all the classics can be read electronically for free.
I am an artist who rents an ACAVA studio. I have found ACAVA an excellent landlord and cannot believe it is foundering as a charity. We will probably lose our building to developers, either the Mayor of London, Car Giant, QPR, who knows. Our neck of the woods is considered a brownfield site although it is home to thriving small businesses and artists' studios. The only answer is to move further out of London. The weekend before last we had hundreds of people through our studios on the Art West art trail. I think many people found it a very positive experience, we had great feedback. We only open one weekend but I don't think many artists would deny access to people who were interested to see what they were doing. It may be that ACAVA would be good for Barham Park. Especially as the library is closed anyway.