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.
Given Brent 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:
i. Planning Agent: Previous discussions with the council confirmed that not retaining the villa was acceptable in planning terms and would result in more comprehensive development.
ii. Planning Officer: Heritage officer would prefer to keep it and highlighted risk that a spot listing could be applied.
iii. Planning Officer: The building has lost a lot of its heritage value on account of internal changes.
iv. Planning Officer: Heritage officer would like to arrange a site visit.
v. 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.
The first set of 'retention designs' look impractical, with no reasonable method of servicing all floors of the almost separate block on the corner. Living there might also feel like being in a goldfish bowl.
Nevertheless, those first designs have the look of an attractive small education campus.
The later published retention design might be much more favoured by the college, because it is an integrated building.
The committee-approved 'demolition' design has the big advantage of a proper outdoor green space for the residents to use, whether or not there is an increase in the number of homes.
What are the published regulations regarding flipping an FoI request into a EIR one?
That is commonly done by data holders when confirming receipt of an FoI request.
It looks like requesters should routinely complain about that, EVERY time it is used - or are there cases where it is legitimate?
Is it accurate to usually say:
"I object to the unjustified change of my FoI request into an EIR one, because (a) I am not predominately asking for enviromental information, and (b) the change means that internal communication data is thereby excluded from the request."?
Nice one, Sir Humphrey.
Brent Council hate history and trees in that order.
Brent Council hate history and trees in that order.
This is the text of an email I have just sent to Brent's Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, with copies to the Leader of the Council and Alan Lunt (Strategic Director, Regeneration), attaching a pdf copy of my guest blog above:
'Dear Ms Downs,
I was about to write this email to you this morning, when I received the email from Alan Lunt, with his report on the serious concerns I had raised with you on 20 August, about the actions of Council Officers in connection with the 1 Morland Gardens scheme.
I had a further detailed article published on the "Wembley Matters" website this morning, reporting back on three Freedom of Information Act requests I had made in connection with my concerns. I attach a pdf copy of my article, and would invite you to read it before you consider that the matter of my serious concerns is closed.
It is now clear from the evidence I have obtained (which had been shared with Mr Lunt) that it would have been possible to retain the locally listed Victorian villa as part of a viable redevelopment at 1 Morland Gardens.
What appears to have given Brent's Property Service the "green light" to press ahead with a scheme involving the demolition of this heritage asset was an unofficial briefing by a member of Brent's Planning Service in December 2018. The message given by the unidentified planning officer then was: 'We’re not likely to refuse a scheme due to loss of this building.'
Brent's own planning policies, together with those of the London Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework, state that when considering any possible proposals that affect a heritage asset (including non-designated heritage assets such as locally listed buildings) the starting point must be a clear understanding of the historic and architectural significance of that asset. Neither Brent's Property Service nor its Planning Service showed any such understanding of the heritage value of this Victorian villa before treating the Council's adopted heritage assets planning policy as if it didn't matter.
The starting point for discussion of the locally listed building, at the first official planning pre-application meeting on 8 March 2019, was the statement: 'Previous discussions with the council confirmed that not retaining the villa was acceptable in planning terms.'
As an ordinary citizen of the borough, I say that this disregard for the Council's adopted planning policy on heritage assets is NOT acceptable, and I hope that you, as Brent's Head of Paid Service and Chief Executive, will agree that this attitude shown by Council Officers is not acceptable.
I will add the text of this email as a "comment" below the blog article. I look forward to receiving your response. Best wishes,
Dear Unknown (30 September at 13:15),
'Brent Council hate history' is a sweeping statement, but I agree that there does appear to be a big difference between their words and their actions.
I know I have quoted this before, but it is worth repeating this paragraph, under the heading "Valuing Brent's Heritage", from an official document which the Council published in May 2019:
'The value of Brent's heritage should not be underestimated and is a key message of the Historic Environment Place-making Strategy. Once a heritage asset is demolished it cannot be replaced. Its historic value is lost forever to the community and future generations and it cannot be used for regeneration and place-making purposes. The effective preservation of historic buildings, places and landscapes and their stewardship is therefore fundamental to the Council's role.'
In answer to the query about the Environmental Information Regulations, an FoI request should only be treated as an EIR request if the information requested falls within the following definition (set out in Reg. 2 of the EIRs):-
'“environmental information” has the same meaning as in Article 2(1) of the [Council Directive 2003/4/EC], namely any information in written, visual, aural, electronic or any other material form on—
(a)the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms, and the interaction among these elements;
(b)factors, such as substances, energy, noise, radiation or waste, including radioactive waste, emissions, discharges and other releases into the environment, affecting or likely to affect the elements of the environment referred to in (a);
(c)measures (including administrative measures), such as policies, legislation, plans, programmes, environmental agreements, and activities affecting or likely to affect the elements and factors referred to in (a) and (b) as well as measures or activities designed to protect those elements;
(d)reports on the implementation of environmental legislation;
(e)cost-benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used within the framework of the measures and activities referred to in (c); and
(f)the state of human health and safety, including the contamination of the food chain, where relevant, conditions of human life, cultural sites and built structures inasmuch as they are or may be affected by the state of the elements of the environment referred to in (a) or, through those elements, by any of the matters referred to in (b) and (c);'
The Information Commissioner's Office has issued a clear guide to the EIRs, to help public authorities deal with requests correctly:
This guide includes the following statement:
'The Regulations provide a separate right of access to information about the environment. All other types of information are covered by the Freedom of Information Act. When you receive a request, you need to consider whether the information that has been asked for is environmental or not, and then deal with the request under the appropriate legislation.
There are similarities between the two regimes for accessing information, but there are some important differences. It is essential that you deal with requests under the correct regime.'
When local Councils, or other bodies, choose to deal with FoI requests as if they are EIR requests, when they are not actually requesting "environmental information" (as defined above), they are in clear breach of the ICO guidance, and it is up to information seekers to resist that tendency.
I will certainly be objecting to that practice, if I come across it again!
Further to the copy of my email to Carolyn Downs of 30 September above, I have received the following from the Chief Executive's Officer:
'Dear Mr Grant
Thank you for your email. I would like to acknowledge receipt on behalf of Carolyn Downs.
This will be discussed with relevant colleagues and a response provided as soon as is possible.'
I will, of course, let "Wembley Matters" readers know the outcome.
This is the reply that I received to my email to Brent's Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, which I posted in a comment on 30 September above:-
'Dear Mr Grant
Thank you for taking the time to write to me regarding your concern.
I have of course been provided with Alan Lunt’s response which seems to clearly set out the fact there is no evidence to suggest that the report presented to members “was less than objective and balanced”. Mr Lunt also states that “I also cannot find evidence to suggest that any statements made by Officers during consideration of the application at Planning Committee was anything but accurate”.
More weight must however be given to the information provided by the planning
officers to the Planning Committee. Accordingly, the planning officers would have had a duty to place before the Planning Committee all relevant matters. The question that should be asked is whether the report was sufficiently clear and full to enable the Councillors to come to an informed decision.
I am advised that when determining an application, the Council have a duty to look at material consideration even where policy is written in absolute terms. Accordingly, the officers would have understood the necessity of weighing the public benefit in relation to this scheme which is a material consideration. The question should also be asked whether the planning officers in fact presented a clear and balanced argument in relation to the issues being considered.
It would seem that part of your concern is whether the statement made by a planning officer on 18th December 2018 would have unduly prevented the property team from investigating alternative design options.
You will however note that part of the officer’s report was dedicated to the heading “Assessment of alternative design options retaining locally listed building”. The planning officers have clearly stated that various design options were explored at pre-application stage. Elements of this section included detailing why those designs were in fact rejected.
The planning officers clearly state that “Overall, officers are satisfied that the applicants have undertaken a robust and comprehensive exercise in exploring viable options to re-develop the site while retaining the significant parts of the existing building”.
There has been sufficient investigation and detail provided in the officer’s report, Alan Lunt’s report and subsequent letter dated 7th October 2020 to conclude that officer’s statements were reasonable.
Post a Comment