Guest blog by Philip Grant in a personal capacity:-
One of the “spin-offs” from Martin publishing my guest blogs over 1 Morland Gardens is that he received, and passed on to me, a query over a time capsule that was buried there in 1994. Did the people at Brent Council know about it, and if so, would they save and rebury it as part of their planned redevelopment?
I asked, and got the answer that they did, and they would. Through my sharing the answer with the person who had first raised the query, I also discovered how Brent Council came to own the Victorian villa that they now propose to demolish, and how it came to be restored, to improve the environment and quality of life for the local community, with most of the finance coming from the Harlesden City Challenge project in the 1990s.
I am setting out below the full text, and illustrations, of an open letter which I sent to Brent’s Chief Executive over the weekend. I’m sure that many readers will remember BACES, and my letter gives the details about Brent Adult & Community Education Service and Harlesden City Challenge being at the heart of the Council’s ownership of 1 Morland Gardens. This information was never made available to the councillors who have made decisions about Brent’s current proposals for the property, and needs to be more widely known before any final decision is made on whether the plans to demolish this beautiful building go ahead.
My letter begins with my initial response to Brent’s answer to the serious concerns I raised in August about the planning application, and the further information on this that I had obtained under FoI. When Brent’s new Strategic Director, Regeneration, sent me a copy of his report into the concerns I had raised about how Council officers had dealt with the 1 Morland Gardens proposals, I asked if he would have any objection to it being published, in the interests of openness and transparency. He did not want his full report published, but sent me an edited version that could be made public, and I will ask Martin to include that document at the end of this post.
Here is my open letter:-
From: Philip Grant
Chief Executive, Brent Council.
10 October 2020
THIS IS AN OPEN LETTER
Dear Ms Downs,
1 Morland Gardens, its heritage significance and Harlesden City Challenge
Thank you for your letter of 7 October, which was your response to the serious concerns I had raised over the actions of Brent Council officers in connection with the redevelopment proposals for 1 Morland Gardens. Your response was based on the report into those concerns by the Strategic Director, Regeneration, who also sent me a summary version of his report on the same day.
I have not yet provided my response to Mr Lunt’s report, because I am still awaiting some information, the request for which was wrongly refused on 18 September, and is currently the subject of an internal review. It would also help to resolve matters if the Council would provide me with a copy of the advice that Mr Lunt received from Legal Counsel over the planning policy point at issue. I know that this is said to be covered by “privilege”, but as there is no ongoing legal action over this matter, and I have undertaken not to initiate any such action, I cannot see the harm in this being made available to me on an “in confidence” basis.
What both your letter and Mr Lunt’s report have failed to grasp is that the heritage “significance” of the locally listed Victorian villa is at the heart of where Council officers went wrong over 1 Morland Gardens. Both the National Planning Policy Framework and Brent’s own policy DMP7 set out clearly that the starting point for any proposals affecting a heritage asset must be a clear understanding of the architectural and historic significance of that asset.
Brent’s Property Services team failed to seek or obtain any clear understanding of that significance, before embarking on proposals which demanded such a high number of homes, as well as an improved education college and affordable workspace, should be delivered by the scheme.
In giving advice to the Property Services team, in both unofficial (December 2018) and official (from March 2019) pre-application discussions, Brent’s Planning Officers failed to ensure that the applicant had a clear understanding of the significance of the heritage asset. Planning Officers also failed to find out, or show, any proper understanding of the architectural and historic significance of the building themselves. That ignorance was displayed, and had a critical influence on the development of the proposals, when one officer advised that ‘we’re not likely to refuse a scheme due to the loss of this building’ as early as December 2018.
That negligent action, in clear breach of Brent’s stated policies of valuing and protecting the borough’s heritage assets, is in stark contrast to the Council’s original involvement with and redevelopment of 1 Morland Gardens, when it was first acquired in the 1990’s.
I recently passed on an enquiry that had been forwarded to me about a time capsule, which was buried at the site during that redevelopment in 1994. Sharing the information which Mr Lunt provided on this has brought to light some important information about the recent heritage of the Victorian villa. That is the main reason for this letter, which I am making an open letter, because the information deserves to be in the public domain.
It has now emerged that the Council’s acquisition of 1 Morland Gardens, the restoration of the Victorian villa and its redevelopment into an adult education college came about through the Harlesden City Challenge initiative of the 1990s. No reference to this was made in the then Strategic Director of Regeneration’s Report to Brent’s Cabinet on 14 January 2020, which simply said (at para 3.1): ‘The council fully owns 1 Morland Gardens, which presents an opportunity to deliver an innovative and high quality mixed use development in the heart of Stonebridge ….’
The then Government’s City Challenge programme ran from 1992 to 1998, ‘with the aim of transforming specific rundown inner city areas and improving significantly the quality of life of local residents.’ Harlesden in Brent was one of the areas whose bid for major funding, through a specially formed company Harlesden City Challenge Ltd (“HCC”), was successful. The basis of the finance for City Challenge was that capital projects under the scheme would have 75% funding from the Government, with the other 25% being raised from Local Authorities, local businesses or other sources such as charities.
The initiative for the 1 Morland Gardens scheme appears to have come from Brent Adult & Community Education Service (“BACES”), which wished to expand the range of courses it was able to offer. It had identified the disused Services Rendered Club at 1 Morland Gardens (which had originally been the private residence, “Altamira”, Stonebridge Park) as a possible location, in the heart of the area where it felt the greatest need for its services was.
BACES, together with Brent Victim Support, who also wished to provide a service in the area, approached HCC with their proposal, and were offered £700k of City Challenge funding, if they could obtain the balance required. BACES then got a commitment from George Benham (who was probably Brent’s Director of Education at the time, but later became its Chief Executive) that the Council would back the scheme and make sure it came to fruition, which would involve a minimum of £200k Council funding.
It was on that basis that 1 Morland Gardens was purchased in the name of Brent Council (but with majority funding from HCC). Chassay Architects were commissioned to design a sympathetic restoration of the Victorian part of the building, with partial demolition of some of the later additions by the Services Rendered Club, and a new extension subordinate in design to the heritage building. This would provide an adult education college for BACES, and premises for Brent Victim Support. Planning permission was given for this in January 1994.
Restoration work in progress on the front of the Victorian villa, May 1994. (Still photograph from a video)
During the building work, on 9 May 1994, a ceremony was held to bury a time capsule, containing 25 items chosen by various people involved in the project, including BACES students and members of the local community. A plaque was unveiled, saying that the time capsule ‘was buried to celebrate the creation of a new adult education community college using funds from Harlesden City Challenge and Brent Council’, and that it would be ‘opened in 50 years on 9 May 2044’.
In a short speech at this ceremony HCC’s Chief Executive, Gerry Davis, said HCC was not about physical regeneration, but to make better things that are derelict, to make an environment that looked good, so that the lives of local people would be improved. He may also have been speaking about the HCC Community Garden outside, on the paved area of the former Stonebridge Park, closed off from Hillside when the street was renamed Morland Gardens as part of the 1960s/70s Stonebridge regeneration.
The first BACES courses at 1 Morland Gardens were offered from September 1994, with the new college fully operational from January 1995. As shown by the cover of the supplement (above), giving details of those first courses, HCC was included in the name of the college. A plaque inside its front door carried the message: ‘City Challenge Brent Adult College supported by Harlesden City Challenge Ltd with funds from the Government Office for London.’ The new college, in the restored Victorian building, featured on the front cover of the 1995/96 BACES courses guide.
It is clear from this new information, obtained from the first Head of the City Challenge Brent Adult College (who recently donated material including the items pictured above, and the video mentioned, to Brent Archives), that a key reason behind the purchase and renovation of the Victorian villa was to preserve a beautiful historic building.
It would be used for the benefit of the local community, in providing a range of vocational and recreational courses. As well as providing a beautiful and inspiring college for its students, it would, together with the HCC Community Garden in front of it, improve the environment in a run-down area, and the quality of life for everyone living there. And as the burying of the time capsule shows, it was intended and expected that the renovated Victorian building would provide those benefits for at least fifty years
Now Brent Council, without a proper understanding or consideration of the heritage value of the building, plans to demolish it. It’s plans also include (as part of claimed ‘public realm improvements’) building over much of the Harlesden City Challenge Community Garden, and replacing it with a much smaller garden area that will be part of the proposed new college, not a space for public enjoyment.
These Harlesden City Challenge disclosures raise questions that need to be answered, and the answers made publicly available, before the Council goes any further with its ill thought out scheme.
· Was the preservation of this heritage building part of the basis on which City Challenge funding was obtained for the new adult college in the 1990s?
· What were the terms of the letter from senior Brent Council Officer, George Benham, in respect of committing the Council to the purchase and renovation of 1 Morland Gardens, as far as relate to the future of the heritage building?
· Were there any covenants or provisions in the purchase contract for 1 Morland Gardens over the preservation of the Victorian villa on that property?
· What commitments were given over the future of the Victorian villa in return for the £700k received from HCC?
· Was the £700k grant for the purchase and restoration of 1 Morland Gardens repayable if the building was either demolished, or ceased to be used as an adult education college?
· If so, is that condition over the repayment of the grant, or any part of it, still in force?
I realise that the answers to these questions lie back in the 1990s, but I am aware from its catalogue that Brent Archives holds a Local History Collection boxfile, reference LHC/1/PLA/4, which contains a large number of documents relating to Harlesden City Challenge, 1993-1998, which may help with at least some information.
I hope I have shown that it is not just Brent’s Victorian heritage, but also its modern Harlesden City Challenge heritage, that is of significant historic and architectural value here. I make no apology for persisting in my efforts to persuade the Council that the proposals by Brent’s Property Service, aided and abetted by Brent’s Planning Service, have “got it wrong”.
Well done for digging this out - and underlining the importance of an awareness of our local history.
I have now seen some of the information that was donated to Brent Archives about the acquisition and refurbishment of 1 Morland Gardens in the 1990s. Here are a few of the highlights from it:
1. Job skills and education training were one of the main themes of the Harlesden's bid for funds from the Government's City Challenge regeneration scheme.
2. BACES already had a strong reputation for its imaginative and innovative approach to adult education, which had received national and international attention.
3. Chassay Architects were first approached by BACES in the Spring of 1993, to find a suitable site for a new adult education college in the Harlesden City Challenge bid area.
4. It was Chassay Architects who recommended 1 Morland Gardens, which 'had been vacant for several years, but neglected for many more. Whilst the original Italianate villa was well built with good quality materials, many of the additions were not.'
5. The villa was on a prominent corner site, with good transport links, and a local landmark building which the Council had Locally Listed because of its importance to the character of the area:- 'The area has a disjointed feel, with the Italianate villa and its leafy surroundings as a symbol of former times to all travelling west on Hillside.'
6.'After much searching, the site at 1 Morland Gardens was found to be the only one suitable, and although not for sale, succesfully purchased. The brief developed from the Client's [BACES] requirements and their vision of the area's needs with the support and encouragement of LB Brent and Harlesden City Challenge.'
7.'With newly relandscaped surroundings, the whole will not only be an outstanding centre, but could become a symbol of a potential future for the area.'
8. However, a local newspaper article in February 1995 revealed that a report from the Council's solicitor had found: 'There have been serious breaches of the council's procedures and regulations' over the project.
In July 1993, the Council's Harlesden City Challenge committee had approved a grant of £150k to buy the freehold of the property, when they had no authority to acquire land in Brent Council's name.
In March 1994, the then Chief Executive had sent a report to a Policy and Resources committee seeking an increase in the capital budget for the project to £300k, but pointing out that there had been no previous approval for any spending on it!
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