Guest post by Philip Grant
Last week. Martin gave a detailed report on the Planning Committee meeting, which approved Brent’s plans for 1 Morland Gardens by 5 votes to 2. After six months of working with Willesden Local History Society members to oppose the Council’s application, I am understandably disappointed with the decision, but my comments here are not “sour grapes”.
It may be too late to stop the 1 Morland Gardens proposals from going ahead. But this case has highlighted much wider concerns about the way in which planning matters are dealt with in Brent. If Brent’s planning officers have done what I allege in this article, what culture has been allowed to develop in Brent’s Planning Service which made them think it was acceptable?
I will explain how I believe Brent “won” this planning battle. I may be wrong, and anyone from the Council is welcome to reply if they think I am. If you are interested in how your local authority uses, or abuses, its power, please read on, and make your own judgement.
As the applicant was the London Borough of Brent, it would be reasonable to expect the Council, to comply with its own rules and policies. It has a Planning Code of Practice, which requires ‘that officers and members consider and decide planning matters in a fair impartial and transparent manner’, and ‘that planning decisions are taken on proper planning grounds’.
Cllr. Roxanne Mashari's Foreword to Brent's 2016 Development Management Policies
Brent Council’s planning policies are set out in its Development Management Policies, adopted in November 2016. In her foreword to this the then Lead Member for Regeneration said it ‘contains detailed planning policies which will guide the future development of the borough,’ and that: ‘This plan aims to help make this happen, by giving clear guidance; such as what can be built, where, how, for what use, where restrictions apply and why.’
One of the planning policies adopted by the Council in 2016 is its Heritage Assets policy DMP7, with paragraphs ‘giving clear guidance’ on how that should be applied. At the start of my three minute submission to Planning Committee last week, I set out the key message of Brent’s policy DMP7, that ‘proposals for…heritage assets should…retain buildings, …where their loss would cause harm.’ I also said that the 1 Morland Gardens proposals went wrong over that policy from the start.
The first test in policy DMP7 that proposals need to pass is that they ‘demonstrate a clear understanding of the architectural or historic significance’ of the heritage building. When Brent’s Property team and their architects had their first pre-application meeting with Brent’s planning team on 8 March 2019, they already had their development strategy and ‘strategic brief’ for the project. A summary of that meeting records that: ‘Discussion surrounding building height highlighted that a tall building could be justified in order to include education space, affordable workspace,’ as well as the residential side of the development.
Extract from the application's January 2020 Planning Statement.
Another key point from the 8 March 2019 pre-application meeting was: ‘Further engagement with Heritage Officer required to discuss loss of locally listed villa.’ The Historic Building Assessment they had commissioned for 1 Morland Gardens was not delivered until April 2019. Brent, as applicant, had not properly considered, let alone understood, the architectural and historic significance of the building before discussing its ‘loss’. This was an early opportunity for planning officers to say ‘you are going down a path that breaches Brent’s planning policies – think again’, but they did not.
Section 5.1 of the application’s Planning Statement also says: ‘On balance, the design team concluded that the minimal significance of the historic core is outweighed by the need for new education facilities and housing in the Borough.’ There is no way in which the applicant could have demonstrated a clear understanding of the significance of this heritage asset, as required by policy DMP7, if the team behind the project thought it had ‘minimal significance’. Its discussions with Brent’s Heritage Officer should have told them that.
My own detailed objection comments of 5 March 2020, and the initial comments by Brent’s Principal Heritage Officer in April, both showed that the locally listed building at 1 Morland Gardens had high significance, and that its loss would cause substantial harm to that significance. It should have been clear to planning officers then, if not before, that the application did not comply with Brent’s policy DMP7. Again, they decided to proceed as if that didn’t matter.
It was not just policy DMP7 that should have been flagged-up for Planning Committee to consider. After some revised plans and documents were submitted in June 2020, I put in a detailed objection comment on 17 July, that the proposals failed one of the tests in Brent’s policy DMP1. Planning officers failed to disclose, or discuss, that in their Report to the Committee. When I pointed this out, they did mention it in their Supplementary Information, but in a way which I described as side-stepping the issue on accessibility, when I spoke at the meeting.
Extract from the Planning Officers' Supplementary Report, 12 August 2020.
Despite inviting questions, I was not asked any by committee members on this. The Report did not mention that my objection involved a failure to comply with policy DMP1. It did say, as a response to the accessibility point: ‘the council’s highways officer has confirmed that the revised servicing and accessibility arrangements from [for?] Morland Gardens would be acceptable in highways terms.’ “Highways terms” was not the point at issue in the objection! The failure by planning officers to deal with that objection properly meant that this fault in the application’s proposals was concealed from Planning Committee members.
The key “battleground” at the Planning Committee meeting was whether it mattered that the proposals were ‘contrary to Policy DMP7 of the Local Plan, and London Plan policy 7.8’, and that ‘the application does not accord with the development plan’. Those quotes are from the Report to Committee, so that it was not in dispute that the application could be refused on ‘proper planning grounds’ (which is what decisions are meant to be made on).
At the end of my presentation to the Committee, I had said:
‘If you approve this application, contrary to Brent’s planning policies, you’ll not only condemn this valuable building, but set a precedent that undermines Brent’s entire historic environment strategy, and puts every heritage asset in the borough “at risk”.’
At least two officers were asked to comment on that by committee members. Their response was that each application was looked at on a ‘case by case basis’, so just because they were being recommended to approve this application which went against Brent’s Heritage Assets policy, it did not mean that any others would be allowed. Frankly, that was disingenuous!
Key paragraph from Brent's Historic Environment Place-making Strategy of May 2019.
Both Roger Macklen and Stella Rodrigues, addressing the committee as objectors, had quoted from the above paragraph. Every word of it cries out that valuable heritage assets, like 1 Morland Gardens, should not be demolished. How could plans, by Brent Council itself, that involved the demolition of the building, not undermine that strategy?
The same is true of the precedent that granting this planning permission sets. It was an application by Brent Council to demolish a significant locally listed heritage asset, despite 366 people petitioning the Council against this, over fifty objectors and the local Ward councillors saying what the building contributed to the character of Stonebridge. What is to stop any private developer from applying to demolish, say, a group of locally listed cottages elsewhere in the borough, with proposals to build a large block of “quality homes”, 50% of them “affordable”, and using the same “public benefit” arguments? After all, Brent, you gave yourself planning permission on those grounds, so if you don’t give it to us as well, we appeal and you lose!
The planning officers’ reason for recommending approval was “public benefits”:
‘there would very significant public benefits, most notably the social, economic and environmental public benefits delivered by the proposed scheme, which include the provision of a much improved adult education facility and the creation of 65 affordable dwellings, including larger family homes, for which there is an acute need in the borough. Those social and economic benefits are in the view of Officers sufficient significantly to outweigh the harm caused by the loss of the heritage asset.’
In my original objection comments of 5 March 2020, I had made the point that the Council’s own guidance on policy DMP7, after setting out the many good reasons why ‘Policy DMP7 … specifically seeks to protect Brent’s heritage’, says at para. 4.29:
‘The Council will resist significant harm to or loss of heritage assets. It will assess proposals which would directly or indirectly impact on heritage assets in the light of their significance and the degree of harm or loss which would be caused. Where the harm would be less than substantial, it will be weighed against any public benefits of the proposal ….’
I have added the bold text and underlining to emphasise what I believe is the statement in the policy which should have decided this application, against accepting the planning officers’ recommendation.
Although this point had been made clearly in my objection comments, it was not referred to or discussed in the Officer Report to Planning Committee. I made it in my presentation at the meeting, and again in answer to a question from the Chair. So why was it ignored, by the majority of the committee members? I believe that they were misled by planning officers.
Their recommendation was based on the argument that the committee should make a ‘balanced judgement’, and that in doing so, the public benefits (in the officers’ opinion) outweighed the harm. The Case Officer presenting the application, said that it was ‘not fully compliant’ with Brent’s planning policy. He said that it was not uncommon for ‘things’ (applications) to come before the committee that were not policy compliant.
From my own experience of following various applications, it is fairly common for various partial breaches of policy (e.g. insufficient percentage of affordable housing, several storeys taller than local guidance) to be ‘considered acceptable’ by planning officers. I can’t remember one where the total breach of an entire policy has been recommended as being acceptable!
Brent’s Heritage Officer had clearly said that ‘The demolition of the building … must be seen as substantial harm to the significance of the heritage asset,’ and that fact was acknowledged by the planning officers. Brent’s policy guidance says that it is ‘where the harm would be less than substantial’, that the harm is weighed against the public benefits. What blinded some of the committee to those facts?
The Development Management Manager (“DMM”) told them that they had to make a balanced judgement because the national policy does not prevent the loss of non-designated heritage assets, such as locally listed buildings. He made it appear that the National Planning Policy Framework (”NPPF”) somehow took precedence over Brent’s own policy DMP7, and that NPPF was a ‘material consideration’ that they must take into account in making their decision.
Para.197, National Planning Policy Framework, February 2019.
Although the DMM emphasised that para.197 of NPPF said that ‘a balanced judgement will be required’, he did not complete the reference, ‘having regard to the scale of any harm or loss and the significance of the heritage asset.’ NPPF does not over-ride local planning policies, but those policies are supposed to be drawn up so that they do not conflict with the national planning guidance. And Brent’s policy DMP7 is in accordance with all of the heritage assets guidance in NPPF. It does have regard to the scale of any harm or loss, by saying that the public benefits of a proposal come into the balance ‘where the harm would be less than substantial.’
The guidance that planning officers should have given to planning committee on policy DMP7 was that because of the substantial harm that would be caused, to a heritage asset of at least medium, but probably high significance, the undoubted ‘public benefits’ of the proposals should not enter into their consideration of the application. Committee members were told the opposite of that.
And the irony is that the ‘public benefits’ were only allowed to appear in a planning application in the first place because Brent’s planning team did not point out to their Council colleagues, at the pre-application stage in the Spring of 2019, that their proposals did not demonstrate a clear understanding of the architectural and historic significance of this heritage asset, the Victorian villa at 1 Morland Gardens!
R.I.P. “Altamira”, elegant survivor of the original 1876 Stonebridge Park? Or will Brent Council come to its senses, and not go ahead with its flawed proposals for 1 Morland Gardens? If they do proceed to demolish this beautiful building, it will be a tainted “victory”.