Wednesday 21 August 2019

Preston Library development supported by Planning Committee as community divisions revealed

One of the most positive things about the Preston Library Campaign is how the project to run a volunteer library and multiple activities, including the regular quiz night at The Preston pub, has been how it has built community cohesion and become a part of the social landscape.

That appeared to be under threat tonight at the Planning Committee where people from the campaign formed up on both sides, for and against the application for a 2 to 4 storey block on the library sites, incorporating a smaller community space earmarked for the library but subject to agreements currently being negotiated.

An early surprise was a statement from the Chair, Cllr Denselow, that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had requested the Planning Committee not to make a formal decision tonight as the department would want to consider calling the application in for their consideration.  In tonight's hearing the committee would declare its support or opposition to the application.

One notable aspect of the meeting was the lack of protection of officers by the chair when opponents of the scheme frequently interrupted officers' explanations with jeering and ironic laughter. Councillors are fair game and can respond, but officers are not in the same position. One member of the public held up a poster asking, 'Do you live in the area?'

Philip Bromberg, Chair of Preston Community Library, was both cheered and jeered at when he made his contribution in favour of the application.  He quoted the Bookseller magazine's commendation of the community library for its achievement's in 'hard times.'  It was hoped to agree a peppercorn rent for 49 years for the library space making it a permanent and sustainable library for the future. The library had successfully negotiated temporary accommodation at Ashley Garden while building took place. He told councillors he would not address issues over the design of the building. When a councillor asked him if the Library group has consulted residents, there were shouts of 'No' from the public gallery but Bromberg listed a series of events.

Michael Rushe, speaking against the development for the South Kenton and Preston Park Residents Association, claimed the application was unlawful because it did not follow the Local Plan guidelines and there were errors and misinformation in the application documents. He asked why it was that officers thought they could ignore such guidance when it came to Brent Council development proposals but enforced them with private developers. The residents had not been part of any discussion on alternatives to the plans.

Cllr Michael Maurice, who had been replaced by Cllr Kansagra for tonight's committee meeting, made a presentation as a local resident and councillor that centred on issues such as  the size of the development which he referred to as huge, 'a blot on the landscape and nothing short of a monstrosity' -which made me wonder if this was how he would describe a 2 - 4 storey building how he would describe the 28 storey 'Twin Towers' in Wembley High Road or the proposed 24 storey Argent House opposite Stonebridge Station (incidentally the latter was pulled from tonight's agenda and deferred to another meeting).  Maurice focused on the need for parking for library users, especially for the users of the Memory Lounge (provision for people with dementia) and their carers. He also accused council planners of double-standards regarding council and private development.

The three Preston ward councillors all made contributions and were clearly in a difficult position trying  to represent both sides. Cllr Kennelly, who is a Preston resident as well as ward councillor, said that everything he had to say was premised on the Council signing an agreement with the library and that it would occupy the new space.  He said no one in the community would 'support the library not being there.' However he was concerned about over-development and air pollution. He claimed that the community had been railroaded in 2010 resulting in deep mistrust in the community about how the issue had been handled from the beginning. They were not properly consulted until 2016. Overall he was in favour of the development if the issues he had raised were addressed.

Fellow Preston councillor Cllr Afzal raised residents' concerns that the housing in the development would be sub-standard (someone in the public gallery held up a poster saying 'Lavour voters Against Rabbit hitches) and there would be parking issues both during and after construction.  He identified concerns over 'leading questions' during the consultation and emphasised that residents must be listened to. He said he would support the development if it was car-free.  Cllr Thakkar acknowledged that residents were unhappy but said she was in favour of quality affordable housing and a library on the site.

Cllr Johnson elicited the information that the parking and traffic surveys were based on 2013 information and gently asked, to laughter, if it would not have been wiser to update the figures.

Planning Committee Chair, Cllr Denselow, asked officers why a 2008 application had been opposed by officers but this one supported. He was told that this application was being made in a different context and that the former design had been of poor quality and out of keeping with the local area. He was confident that it would be turned down if resubmitted. In further responses the committee were told that Brent objected to the London Mayor's 'small site' target of a 1,000 new  homes annually because it was thought to be unrealistic for the borough. However the major target for all homes was not opposed.  When Denselow pursued claims over the allegations of illegality with the legal advisor he was told a decision could be appealed through judicial review.  Clearly this would be a very costly strategy for residents.

In  response to another challenge officers said that in their opinion they had met all planning guidance. Condition 4 protects the D1 space for community use and any deviation would require a new planning application. the library's Asset of Community Value (ACV) status would be lost with redevelopment but officers expected it to be reapplied for. If the application was rejected it would be a matter for the Council to decide the next steps, not planning officers.

Cllr Hirani, lead Cabinet member for Public Health, Culture and Leisure, argued that following the library closures made by a previous Labour administration the proposed development retaining a library marked a new chapter in the relationship between Brent Council and the community.  He claimed that changes had been made to the development proposal as a result of feedback from the community. Preston Library would be playing a part in the Brent Borough of Culture 2020 along with other libraries.

The Planning Committee voted 6 in favour of the application, one against and one abstention. We must now wait and see what, if any, intervention comes from the Secretary of State.

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