Thursday, 25 June 2020

1 Morland Gardens planning application – how significant is “significance”?

Guest blog by Philip Grant, in a personal capacity

Back in February, I first wrote about the 1 Morland Gardens planning application (Housing or Heritage? Or both?), under which Brent Council propose to demolish a locally listed Victorian villa in Stonebridge, to build a new adult education college and 65 affordable homes on the site.

2 Morland Gardens (not No. 1) - this is the "twin" Victorian villa. (Photo by Harry Brown)

Because of some defects in the original application, identified from “consultee comments”, a new batch of plans and documents has recently been submitted. Public consultation is now open again on application 20/0345, until Thursday 16 July. One of the new documents is a Heritage Impact Assessment (“HIA”) [see copy below], and this is what raises the important question in my title.

Locally listed buildings are those which have been identified by a Council as “heritage assets”.  “Significance” for planning purposes is defined as: “The value of a heritage asset to this and future generations because of its heritage interest. That interest may be archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic.”

Brent’s planning policies (like national ones, and the London Plan), acknowledge the importance of heritage assets, and set out how they should be protected when there are any proposals affecting them. The policy states: ‘The council will resist significant harm to or loss of heritage assets.’ Anyone considering a development should start with ‘an understanding of the architectural or historic significance of the heritage asset and its wider context.’
 
Brent Council is capable of doing this, as the current application for the locally listed Clock Cottage at Kenton Grange shows. Those plans conserve the old cottage, while building assisted-living flats for disabled people around a courtyard (former stables) behind it. Unfortunately, whoever was giving planning advice, to the Council Officers / Lead Member for the 1 Morland Gardens scheme, either did not understand the policies over heritage assets, or thought they could be ignored (because it was a Council scheme, Planning Committee would “rubber stamp” it?).

When the original application was submitted in February, Brent's planning agents claimed that the locally listed Victorian villa had 'minimal significance', without providing much evidence to support that, and ignoring existing evidence (such as Brent's existing local listing assessment, which gave it a significance score of 8 out of 12). Local historians knew this was nonsense, and launched a campaign to save the building (originally known as “Altamira”)’. Their petition, asking the Council not to demolish the building, achieved 368 signatures.

Cutting from the "Brent & Kilburn Times", 5 March 2020.


I submitted my objection comments in early March, explaining in detail why the application’s assessment of heritage significance was false, and recommending that Planning Officers should advise their Council colleagues to withdraw the application. This appeared to have no effect.


In April, a copy of the comments on the application by Brent's Principal Heritage Officer was obtained. He said that 1 Morland Gardens 'should be considered an important local heritage asset of high significance.' He also pointed out that the applicants (Brent Council) had not provided a proper appraisal of the heritage asset, and the impact of their proposals on it, as required by Brent's own planning policies, and said 'the applicants should seek further advice from a heritage specialist to gather further evidence in support of this application.'


The June 2020 HIA is in response to the Principal Heritage Officer’s comments. The document was prepared on the Council's behalf by Messrs Lichfields, who describe themselves as 'the pre-eminent planning and development consultancy in the UK.' Lichfields report was prepared by heritage specialists, but they were aware why their client (planning agents, acting on behalf of Brent Council) needed that report, at such a late stage in the planning process - to support their planned demolition of the building!


In the introduction to their report, Lichfields make clear that: 'The overview of the significance of the heritage assets has been undertaken using a combination of desk-based study and archival research.' They go on to say that: 'Fieldwork was not possible due to the current Covid-19 situation.' In other words, they only looked at a limited number of documents, and did not come to look at the building, its setting or the surrounding area. 


Despite the limited material available to them, they reached the conclusion: 'the building is of low significance’. Explaining how they reached this conclusion, their report says: ‘The methodology for our assessment of significance draws from the NPPF, HE’s Conservation Principles and the DMRB.’ The table they show for the criteria used is taken from the DMRB, and their conclusion is also: ‘In summary and according to DMRB significance criteria (set out in Section 1), the building is of low significance as it is of low historic and architectural importance and of local interest only.’ 


DMRB? No, I hadn’t heard of it either. It is actually the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges, issued by Highways England in 2019, as guidance for designing national infrastructure projects such as trunk roads and motorways. Your guess, as to why the HIA used those criteria, may be similar to mine – to get the “right” result for their client! Why not use Brent’s own significance scoring criteria for locally listed buildings, which was adopted by the Council’s Planning Committee in July 2015?

The HIA does refer to that system, claiming that the significance score for 1 Morland Gardens should be 6 out of 12, rather than the 8 out of 12 given to it for its entry in Brent’s local list. I will explain why I believe they are wrong.


One of the “sources” their desk-based assessment used for considering the historic development of the area was a “Brief History of Stonebridge”, produced by the Grange Museum and Brent Archives. The author of that booklet has already submitted an objection comment, pointing out that a quotation used from it was taken out of context. The HIA had used ‘it was never as grandiose as its planners had originally intended’ to play down the importance of the 1876 Stonebridge Park development. The author had actually compared the smart villas built to the scene originally envisaged in a lithograph by the architect.

H.E. Kendall Junior's lithograph of his proposed estate development, c.1872. (Brent Archives image 1776)


The HIA devotes just eight lines to assessing the historic significance of 1 Morland Gardens, before marking down its score to just 1 out of 3. The author of the booklet, who became an expert on the local history of Brent in his 17 years at our Museum and Archives, has made clear that this assessment is totally flawed. Its key statements are that Stonebridge Park ‘was typical of the late-19th century suburban expansion of London,’ and that ‘1 Morland Gardens is not a rare survival, but typical of the eclectic late-Victorian villas seen across Brent. Therefore, the historic significance of the building is considered to be lower than originally assessed, scoring 1/3.' 

The entrance to Stonebridge Park from Hillside, c.1905. (Brent Archives online image 7914)
 

The 1876 development, was the first housing development in this part of Willesden, and gave its name to the Stonebridge Park area. It was built when Willesden’s population was around 25,000, before the massive late-Victorian influx that saw most of the area’s mainly working-class housing constructed, and the population rise to 114,000 by 1901. Added to this, 1 and 2 Morland Gardens are the only two surviving Italianate-style villas in Brent, so they are rare survivals. Any change to the existing historic significance score should be up to 3/3, not down to 1/3.

 1 and 2 Morland Gardens from Hillside, February 2020.

The other significance criteria that the HIA seeks to mark the building down on is its authenticity.


Because it ceased to be a private house 100 years ago, and has undergone internal alterations several times since then, Lichfields argue that the building is ‘much altered’, and therefore only worth 1/3. But the alterations had already been taken into account when Brent scored it 2 out of 3. It is the authentic Victorian outside appearance of the villa, in its setting with the similarly styled 2 Morland Gardens, which has hardly changed since they were built, which makes them so valuable and significant. Just compare the two views above, taken 115 years apart!


If you agree that the Victorian villa at 1 Morland Gardens has a high significance, not a low one, and that it still has value to this and future generations, then I hope you will help to persuade Brent Council that it should not be demolished. The planning application, 20/0345, is open for public consultation again, and you can submit your comments (hopefully objecting to the plans to demolish “Altamira”) on the planning website


Significance is significant. We can try to ensure that the true significance of this building is what decides the planning application, not the false appraisal of it presented in the Heritage Impact Assessment!


Philip Grant.

THE HERITAGE IMPACT ASSESSMENT



10 comments:

Anonymous said...

There was a complete street of these up-market houses running up Morland Gardens, with the road splitting at the top into two branches that were never built.

These provided homes for wealthy commuters via the nearby railway station, across Gladstone Park, and into St Pancras and the City. The station could reopen on the 'West London Orbital' line within a few years, Covid permitting.

The land immediately next door was 'unfortunately' sold for densely-built, low-quality working-class homes, so the upper middle class decline was presumably quite swift.

Whatever the virtues of the building, the benefits of the replacement proposal - to the population of the area and of Brent - vastly outweigh the value of keeping it. The similar building next door will survive.

Philip Grant said...

Dear Anonymous,

While I respect that you are entitled to your own views, just as much as I am to mine, the planning policies on heritage assets are meant to ensure that a balanced judgement is made between the significance of that asset and the benefits of the proposed scheme.

When the harm to, or loss of, that heritage significance is great, as it would be in this case, it is important that an accurate assessment of significance is made, so that the judgement is fair. There are a number of points on which the reasoning behind the 'low significance' which the HIA attributes to 1 Morland Gardens is flawed, or downright incorrect.

On your final point, that the similar building next door will survive, that building was sympathetically converted to a block of flats in the early 2000s (which is what could be done with 1 Morland Gardens). No 2 would survive, but if the proposed 9-storey block of flats is built, right out to the corner of Hillside and Brentfield Road, no one would be able to see it.

Philip.

Philip Grant said...

After I had written the "guest blog" above, I was sent a copy of an email from The Victorian Society to Brent's planning case officer. I will share it here, for information.

'We wrote in objection to this scheme on 9th March 2020 (letter attached). Since this time, altered plans have been submitted, as well as a Heritage Statement. It is our view, however, that the amendments do nothing to assuage our previous concerns, and we therefore maintain our objection based on the harm which would be caused through the loss of this locally listed building to the local area as well as the setting of the Stonebridge Park Public House and St Michael and All Angels.

An additional point of concern is the conclusion reached by the Heritage Statement that the building is of low architectural and historical importance. The statement notes that developments such as this were typical of the period in this area, therefore diminishing its value. We do not dispute the assertion that this type of suburban development was typical of the period, but the assessment fails to take into account the fact that this particular development was the work of H.E. Kendall Jr, an architect of note, therefore adding to its significance.

Additionally, the assessment of architectural significance notes that “1 Morland Gardens is a comparatively small and modest example of his work. It contributes little to the understanding of his varied and eclectic architectural practice”.

Yet the letter of objection written by architectural historian, Anthony Geraghty, University of York (dated 1st May), states that Kendall had a reputation for his small, domestic works, publishing a book on villa designs, and even exhibiting one of his designs in Paris at the Universal Exposition, receiving international attention. 1 Morland Gardens therefore can, and should, be seen as a good surviving example of a key aspect of Kendall’s small, domestic works, and treated accordingly.'

It should also be noted that Professor Geraghty concluded his objection letter of 1 May by saying:
'In short, 1 Morland [Gardens] is not just any nineteenth-century villa, but a charactistic work by an architect of genuine and lasting significance. Its destruction would be a terrible loss, not only to the local environment, but also to the architectural heritage of Victorian Britain.

I strongly urge you to reject this proposal.'

The conclusion in the Lichfields HIA, that the Victorian villa at 1 Morland Gardens 'is of low historic and architectural importance and of local interest only', seems to be built on very shaky foundations!

Anonymous said...

"Whatever the virtues of the building"? This is precisely the mentally that lead to many fine buildings in this country being demolished and/or replaced by monstrosities last century.

Only a small number of people/residents will actually benefit, and not the area or population of Brent, which will be worse off.

I believe there are now more people that have expressed an objection to the demolition of this building than have expressed support.

This building in my view enhances/compliments the "similar" one next door. They are different buildings and both should be kept.

Socialism should not come at the expense of knocking down an existing building that many believe does indeed have merit, or at the expense of our history (Brent's heritage) or the environment.

A Wembley Matters reader.

Stella said...

Hi Philip,

I am a local resident and I believe I misplaced the letter where this was informed by the council. Is there a website we can sign up for to reject this proposal?

Thanks

Stella said...

Hi Philip,

I am a local resident and I believe I misplaced the letter where this was informed by the council. Is there a website we can sign up for to reject this proposal?

Thanks

Unknown said...

When Willesden Local History Society members read the claim in the Heritage Impact Assessment's Historic Significance section, that '1 Morland Gardens is not a rare survival, but typical of the eclectic late-Victorian villas seen across Brent,' we did not think it was correct.

As Chair of the Local History Society, I put a post on Facebook, shared with other groups in Willesden, Kilburn and Stonebridge, asking whether anyone knew of any other Italianate-style Victorian villas in the area, and if so, to provide their addresses (with a photograph, if possible).

We received over forty responses, none of them able to identify any other similar houses (apart from 2 Morland Gardens). This is just a small selection of the responses we received from Facebook members, across the south of Brent:

‘I can’t think of any similar buildings. If there are any in the Brondesbury area they must be behind gates. So no public ones.’

‘I worked for Brent for 40 years, leaving in 2019. I worked in the traffic / highways department which meant I had to go out on site a lot. I am not aware of any other buildings of this type in the borough.’

‘I only moved into the neighbourhood four and a bit years ago, but have seen no similar buildings across Brent. Indeed, this building is the one of greatest significance in Harlesden.’

‘I've taken photos around Brent and cannot think of any other building that resembles the Altamira.’

'I don't recall seeing another building in this style. I'd demand the planners give details of the other buildings that exist in this style in the area. If there are other examples let's have the addresses.'

'This and the building next door are the only surviving buildings of this design and build left in Stonebridge & Harlesden. These types of houses (mansions) were all built in Brentfield Road and Hillside but were demolished in the 60's to make way for the redevelopment of Stonebridge area, not for the better I might add. They are the only 2 buildings of this type in the area and should be saved.'

‘ "Low significance" How? There are very few buildings like this left, in my mind this surely puts them on the high significance scale, they are RARE and should be protected.’

'I'm an estate Agent in Wembley and have worked on the High Road for nearly 20 years. This is the only building of this style I am aware of in Wembley or Harlesden area.'

‘Save it. Beautiful building.’

'Seems to me that this building was previously considered important enough to save, when all the rest went. It is a complete and "stand alone" link to a prosperous and optimistic time in our town's past and I think it's important that the best of the past is kept and woven into our lives today.'

These comments, and more, show that the Heritage Impact Assessment's view of the importance of 1 Morland Gardens is based on incorrect information. This Victorian villa is not of "low significance", but of "high significance" and valued by the local community.
Irina Porter, Chair and Journal Editor, Willesden Local History Society

Unknown said...

Brent Council have always hated history, and Trees.

Philip Grant said...

Dear Stella,

Thank you for your support.

If you "click" your mouse (or similar pointer on your device) on the underlined words "planning website", near the end of my blog article, it should automatically open the Brent planning website at the 1 Morland Gardens application, 20/0345.

You can then "click" again on the tab for "make comments", and this will open the page and guidance for how to submit your objection.

Philip.

Philip Grant said...

CORRECTION:

Someone has spotted that the opening photo in my blog above is of 2 Morland Gardens (originally "Hurworth", now Sankofa House), NOT 1 Morland Gardens. Thank you for pointing this out!

I apologise for the error - the photograph was sent to me several months ago, as being 1 Morland Gardens, and I did not examine it closely enough before using it for this article.

However, it does prove the point that these beautiful 1876 buildings can be sympathetically converted for modern use (as 2 Morland Gardens was around 2002), without losing their original architectural character.

A similar conversion is what should be done to 1 Morland Gardens, if it is no longer fit for purpose as an adult education college for Brent Start. That would leave 1 & 2 Morland Gardens as an attractive and historically important part of the Stonebridge townscape, while still providing some of the socially rented homes for local people that the current application promises.