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.