Guest blog, by Philip
Grant in a personal capacity:-
Five weeks ago, I wrote about how Brent Council won its planning “victory” over 1 Morland Gardens, its redevelopment scheme
for the Brent Start college in a locally listed Victorian villa in Stonebridge.
I used that article as the basis for raising serious concerns over the conduct
of Council officers with Brent’s Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, and those
concerns are still being investigated.
After the Planning Committee meeting on 12 August, and before I wrote that blog article, I submitted
three Freedom of Information requests. It appeared to me that things had gone
wrong with this scheme from the start, and I was looking for evidence of what
had gone wrong, when and why. In the past two weeks I have received responses
to those requests, and I will share the main points from them with you here, in
the order in which the events happened.
As soon as Planning Committee had approved Brent’s
application, by 5 votes to 2, the Council and its architects publicised in the
construction and architectural press that the £43million scheme was going ahead
(even though the application’s official status is still ‘awaiting decision’,
and it has not yet gone back to the GLA for the Mayor’s Stage 2 consideration).
One of the facts included in their press release was that Curl la Tourelle Head
Architecture had been appointed for the scheme in September 2018, after winning
a competition. One of my FoI’s was to discover more about that competition.
The cover of the winning entry by Curl la Tourelle Head Architecture.
The “competition” was actually an “invitation to
quote” for the design of the Morland Gardens project, which Brent Property
Services sent out to three firms in the summer of 2018. Among the details for
the entries were:
'Part of the
building is locally listed and will need to be factored into any design moving
forward. The full site is in Brent council’s ownership as found in the site
plan. It must be noted that some of the site is designated as public footpath
which may require appropriation.' And;
‘The scheme is
defined as being able to achieve anywhere between 50-70 residential units. It
is expected that the development potential will be maximised.’
Site perspective drawing of CLTH’s proposals, from cover of their entry.
The first of my growing list of blogs on 1 Morland
Gardens, back in February, asked ‘Housing or Heritage? Or both?’. As you may have spotted from the illustrations
above, the original answer to that question by the winning architects was “both”!
Their planning assessment said:
‘Piecemeal development has built up around an
Italianate Villa and does not make best use of the land available. There is a
clear potential to redevelop the site as a co-ordinated whole, to provide
better facilities for the existing uses, new workspace, as well as new housing.
The locally listed villa is of architectural merit
and there is potential to retain the villa as the focus of new development at
the heart of the new project.’
CLTH’s two development options.
The original Curl la Tourelle Head proposals
‘recognise(d) the existing strengths of the site by retaining the locally
listed villa, enhancing its setting at the heart of a new shared collegiate
courtyard.’ They put forward two options. The first, which stayed within the 1
Morland Gardens site, would provide 66 new homes, and keep the existing open
space between it and Brentfield Road, with improvements to the 1994 Harlesden
City Challenge community garden there.
The second option took in the public footpath and
open space, retaining a smaller garden area, but providing 89 new homes, as
well as retaining the villa. This scheme would have been carried out in phases,
allowing the college to be retained on site, rather than decanted to temporary
accommodation. Both schemes would have provided homes in blocks a maximum of
seven storeys high.
It was clear that these were outline schemes, where
detailed designs would have to be developed through discussions with the
client, but on the face of it they provided everything that had been asked for.
One of the case studies that CLTH had put forward, to illustrate their
competence for taking on the project, was a recent scheme they had carried out
in Islington, which involved adding a modern extension to a listed Victorian
residential building. Here they would design modern buildings around another
Victorian heritage building. Why didn’t Brent allow them to do that? The
response to my next FoI throws some light on this point.
In my 20 August article, and based on information
provided in the planning application documents, I wrote: ‘Brent’s Property team and their architects
had their first pre-application meeting with Brent’s planning team on 8 March
2019.’ My FoI asked for the documentation around that meeting. On 28 January
2019, the architects had submitted a detailed “amended report” on their
designs, and this said:
'The proposal puts
forward a new purpose built Adult Education centre, with associated café and
affordable workspace arranged around a new courtyard. Residential development
sits above the education facility, and has the potential to house around 90 new
build homes. The locally listed villa on the site is not retained, as the
development cannot be achieved around this building.'
CLTH’s January 2019 retained
villa option page.
This new document
was to be used in a meeting that the Property team had arranged with ‘Cabinet
members’ in early February. They had also asked CLTH to provide supporting
evidence, in the form of outline designs, for a ‘retained villa option’. This
exercise produced the result that up to 89 housing units could be provided if
the locally listed villa was demolished, while only up to 49 units would be
possible if it were retained. It appears that the project team at Brent’s Property
Service were keen to convince relevant Cabinet members (Regeneration,
Education?) from the start that the Victorian villa had to go.
Council’s heritage assets planning policy, and its public statements that it
valued the borough’s heritage buildings, and would protect them, why did the
Property team think this would be acceptable? The answer to that was tucked
away at Para. 7.2, on page 37 of the amended report. This summarises the
‘planning comments’ from a meeting they had held with an unnamed Brent Planning
Officer on 18 December 2018 (nearly three months before the first official
pre-application meeting!). Those comments included:
‘Locally listed building – it would be good to
retain, but this is likely to be difficult without significantly affecting
development quantum and therefore viability. We’re not likely to refuse a
scheme due to loss of this building, but there is some planning risk associated
with its loss.’
Despite Brent’s adopted policy on heritage assets,
here was a member of Brent’s Planning Service actively encouraging his Property
Service colleagues to break that policy!
The start of the minutes of the Planning
Pre-Application meeting on 8 March 2019.
The first official meeting between Brent Property
Service, as applicant, and its architects, with Brent’s Planning Service to
discuss the 1 Morland Gardens scheme was on 8 March 2019. In my FoI request I
had asked for a copy of the minutes of that meeting, and these had been made by
Tibbalds, the planning agent appointed by to handle Brent’s application. As you
can see above, the identities of the meeting participants have been redacted in
the copy supplied to me.
The main contributions from the Brent planning side
were made by one officer, whose identity I can probably guess from the initials
used in the minutes. However, as I’ve made clear that the serious concerns I
raised are not a complaint against any individual officer(s), I will not
disclose that identity here. This is what the minutes record under “locally listed
building”, with the initials replaced by job titles:
Previous discussions with the council confirmed that not retaining the villa
was acceptable in planning terms and would result in more comprehensive
Heritage officer would prefer to keep it and highlighted risk that a spot
listing could be applied.
Planning Officer: The
building has lost a lot of its heritage value on account of internal changes.
Heritage officer would like to arrange a site visit.
Action: Architect to arrange site visit.
I would have expected, at this “first”
pre-application meeting, that at least one of the three planning officers
present would have mentioned Brent’s heritage assets planning policy DMP7, its
requirement that applicants must demonstrate a clear understanding of the
historic and architectural significance of the heritage building, and seek to
retain it as part of their proposals. Instead, they appear to have gone along
with the view that not retaining it was “acceptable”, and apart from saying
that ‘the Heritage Officer would prefer to keep it’, the spokesperson for
Brent’s planners actually talks down its value.
Brent’s planning officers have clearly treated the
Council’s adopted heritage assets planning policy as if it did not matter. The locally listed building was
"sacrificed" by Brent's planning team, even before the Heritage
officer has been able to take a proper look at it, and on a very superficial
view held by one of them, without any clear knowledge or understanding of the
building's historical and architectural value!
The Heritage Officer
was present at the Planning team’s Major Cases Forum meeting on 18 April 2019,
when the pre-application for the 1 Morland Gardens scheme was discussed. The
record of that meeting observed, under “Principle of Development” that: ‘Loss
of locally listed building required to enable efficient re-development of site
– argument has been put forward that an alternative scheme retaining the
building would only provide 39 units; however could other options be explored?’
(Note the “villa retained option” has “lost” another 10 homes!)
At the meeting, the Heritage Officer put forward
some ideas on how he thought that the scheme could be redesigned to retain the
Victorian villa, which he still felt should not be demolished. After follow-up
emails, the architects did submit some 'design packages on an updated retention scheme for the Villa and
options for moving the Villa's tower,' on 14 May, but the link to those
documents was redacted in the copy I received. It seems likely that these were
the were the “revised retention scheme” designs shown as an Appendix to the
Design & Access Statement which formed part of the planning application.
Those last “retained
villa” designs were so impractical, compared to the original ideas that won the
architects this contract. I doubt that they were ever intended to be of any
use, other than so that the applicant could say that they had tried to find a
solution which would allow the locally listed villa to be retained, when their
client, Brent's Property Service, had already decided, no later than January
2019, that they would demolish the building in order to achieve the maximum
number of homes as part of the redevelopment scheme.
My third FoI request
was for emails etc. within Brent Council over the Heritage Officer’s response
to the Heritage Impact Assessment of June 2020, and his final comments on the “significance” of the
locally listed villa, and the preparation of the Planning Officer’s Report(s) to,
and presentation of their case at, the Planning Committee on 12 August. Exactly
twenty working days after my request, I received the Council’s response from
the Head of Planning. He formally refused my request under Regulation 14 of the
Environmental Information Regulations, 2004 (the EIRs), on the grounds that
‘internal communications’ are exempt under Reg. 12(4)(e) of the EIRs.
When he first
acknowledged my request, I had said that I was puzzled as to why he would treat
my FoI request as if it were under the EIRs, but had said ‘as long as the
information is provided, as it should be under a normal FoI request, I will not
make an issue of that point.’ It is now an issue, as I have expressed
dissatisfaction with his refusal, and asked for an internal review by a senior
Council Officer not connected with Brent’s Planning Service!
There is no
equivalent exemption for ‘internal communications’ in the Freedom of
Information Act, so I can see now why it suited Brent to deal with my request
as if it were under the EIRs. But I was not asking for “environmental
information” – it was not requesting copies of bat surveys(!), or anything else
within that definition. The exemptions in Reg. 12 are subject to a public
interest test, under which ‘a public authority shall apply a
presumption in favour of disclosure.'
According to the Head of Planning, emails etc. ‘provide the authority with the necessary space to
discuss matters and provide advice in private.’ He believes this outweighs the
public benefit of ‘openness and transparency of the consideration of the
planning application.’ I believe that, if Brent’s planning officers have
nothing to hide, it would be in the Council’s interest, as well as in the
public interest, to supply the evidence that shows it.
And if they have got something to hide, the serious
concerns I have raised may well be justified.