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Thursday, 29 July 2021

Detrimental developments – What’s Brent Council’s Game?

 Guest post by Philip Grant



1 Morland Gardens, Stonebridge.

What do these three proposed developments have in common?

 

1.    1 Morland Gardens, Stonebridge, with its planned demolition of a locally listed heritage building;

2.    St Raphael’s Estate, with plans to build on part of Brent River Park; and

3.    Kilburn Square, where it’s proposed to build extra homes on an existing green space with trees.

 

The answer is that all three were drawn up by Brent Council officers, and all three go against Brent Council’s own adopted planning policies.

 

Brent River Park, looking towards Wembley Point, with St Raphael’s to the left.

 

How could officers in Brent’s Regeneration major projects team even consider proposals that breach those planning policies? I found out, from a Freedom of Information Act request into the origins of the 1 Morland Gardens proposals, that as early as December 2018 (three months before the first official pre-application meeting between the project team and planning officers), an unnamed planning officer had told them that ‘we’re not likely to refuse a scheme due to loss of this building.’ Planning officers had given the green light to ignore Brent’s heritage assets planning policy DMP7, and backed that up all the way to the Planning Committee meeting twenty months later.

 

A recent protest against Brent’s Kilburn Square proposals.

 

In a recent blog on the Kilburn Square proposals, the Chairman of the local residents’ association said that Brent was ‘playing games’ with existing residents and their near neighbours. There are certainly some games being played by Council officers, and some of those involve “funny business” and questionable practices.

 

It’s perhaps not unexpected that Brent’s planning officers will “aid and abet” their colleagues in Regeneration’s capital projects team, and maintain that ‘on balance’ it is ‘acceptable’ for some of Brent’s planning policies to be broken, where Brent Council is the applicant. But how do they get around other legal requirements over which the Council does not have total control?

 

The 1 Morland Gardens scheme included building out over a highway / footpath and a community garden. As I couldn’t see that the Council had taken the necessary steps to make this possible, I submitted an FoI request in April to get some answers. In a guest blog last month, I was able to show that the Council had not yet followed those legal processes, which meant that the project would be delayed. I wondered whether this was just a careless oversight, or whether Council officers had not bothered to take those steps, hoping that as they were “the Council” they could get away with ignoring them!

 

But surely they had appropriated the main site for planning purposes? After all, the details of what was required to fulfil that legal requirement had been set out in the report to Cabinet on 14 January 2020, and Brent’s Cabinet had delegated responsibility to the then Strategic Director for Regeneration to carry out the required process for this. 

 

I put in another FoI request, and will ask Martin to attach a copy of the response I received last week (the replies provided by Brent are in red). You will see that, eighteen months on from being given that authority, Council officers have not even begun the process. Perhaps they never intended to (after all, you’d have to provide supporting evidence to justify that the heritage building is “surplus to requirements”, among other hurdles). Now they will have no choice!

 

To make my point, I forwarded a copy of the FoI response to Alan Lunt, the current Strategic Director, and referring to this and the earlier failure over the stopping-up order asked:

 

Please let me know whether this means that Brent Council does not intend to proceed with its ill-conceived planning application 20/0345, involving the demolition of the locally listed heritage asset, the Victorian villa "Altamira".’

 

I received this prompt response from him:

 

Thank you for your email. The Council intends to continue with the proposed development of the site in question.’

 

The demolition of the Victorian villa, currently used by the Brent Start adult education college (for which it was acquired, restored and converted from a disused members’ club in 1994), was meant to be principally so that a more up-to-date college facility could be built on the site. But the FoI response (see attached) claims that the “compelling case” for the appropriation of the site will be ‘housing needs’.

 

The shortage of housing in the Borough is a real problem (and a continuing one, because it was a problem 45 years ago, when I worked for a Harlesden-based housing association!). This is a common theme in all three proposed developments that I listed at the start of this article. Yes, Brent has been set challenging targets for the number of new homes which should be built in the borough over the next 20 years. But does this justify some of the tactics being used to force through developments which are clearly detrimental to the environment of the areas they are proposed for?

 

Council officers are ‘playing games’ with the lives of Brent’s residents. But why are they playing those games, what right do they have to play them and who is encouraging this behaviour? It is about time that this was explained, and if our elected councillors won’t challenge what is happening and let us know why, perhaps we need to demand some answers ourselves.

 


Philip Grant.

 

Brent Council's Response to Philip Grant's Freedom of Information Request

 

8 comments:

  1. I hope that you will not be put off from reading this comment because it is a bit long, and technical in places. I think that many readers will find it of interest.

    1 MORLAND GARDENS – UPDATE ON FoI PROGRESS

    In the last couple of days, since writing the blog above, there has finally been some progress on a Freedom of Information Act request that I made to Brent Council in August 2020.

    One of the key issues over the 1 Morland Gardens planning application was (or should have been) the heritage “significance”, or importance/value, of the Victorian villa which Brent Council plans to demolish. The higher its significance, the stronger the case NOT to demolish it.

    The Council’s Heritage Officer originally said that it had high significance. Then agents on behalf of the Council submitted a report from consultants, claiming that the villa only had low significance.

    At the last minute, the Council’s Heritage Officer changed his view, saying that the building had medium significance (even though he had received information from a Professor of Architectural History showing that its “significance score” should be higher than originally assessed).

    My August 2020 FoI request asked for copies of all emails etc. to or from the Heritage Officer about the significance of the Victorian villa. I was concerned that pressure may have been put on him, from within the Council, to downgrade his view.

    My request also sought copies of emails etc. between planning officers in the period before the Planning Committee meeting, as I felt that their Report to committee, and presentation of the issues at the meeting, was misleading, especially over the “significance” issues.

    The Council’s initial response, on 17 September 2020, began: ‘I can confirm that the information you have requested is held by Brent Council, by law. However, I'm unable to give this to you.’

    It claimed that the information I had requested was “environmental information”, so that it was an EIR request, not an FoI request. The Environmental Information Regulations include an exemption from disclosing ‘internal communications’, and they had used this to refuse my request.

    The regulation was subject to a “public interest” test, but they concluded that: ‘the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.’

    I challenged this, and asked for an internal review. The senior Council Officer who put his name to that review upheld the original response, and the letter of 28 October 2020 gave the following as the reason why it was not “in the public interest” to disclose the information I had requested:

    ‘The council requires a ‘safe space’ to properly carry out its functions away from outside pressure and interference and to have free and frank discussions without fear of these being disclosed. Disclosure of the information withheld under regulation 12(4)(e) would affect the ability of council officers to have such full and frank discussions, which may ultimately damage the quality of advice provided and lead to poorer quality decision-making.’

    Continued in Part 2:-

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  2. Part 2 of 1 MORLAND GARDENS – UPDATE ON FoI PROGRESS

    In November 2020, I appealed against Brent Council’s refusal to the Information Commissioners Officer. On the one previous occasion I had made a complaint about the handling of an FoI request to the ICO, it had been allocated to a Case Officer within two weeks. The initial reply I received said that, because of pressure of work and Covid-19, it was likely to be around four months before it was allocated. In fact, it has taken over eight months!

    The Case Officer’s first email to me, this week, said that as there were two issues outstanding, my complaint might take longer to resolve. If she adjudicated over whether my request was under FoI, rather than EIR, that could lead to an appeal, or, if she found that it should be FoI, as I claimed, the Council might still find a way of refusing to supply the information requested, which would again be subject to a “public interest” test.

    Much as I would like to establish that Brent Council is abusing the use of EIR, to block legitimate FoI requests, I do not wish to delay the matter any further. [Winning that argument after the Victorian villa had been demolished would be an empty victory!]

    I have therefore said that I will not pursue the argument over EIR, so that the Case Officer can deal straight away with whether it is in the public interest to disclose the information I’ve requested. The Case Officer is now asking Brent to let her see all of the information I had requested (almost a year ago!), and for details of the Council’s assessment and reasoning over the “public interest”.

    An EIR regulation requires that a public authority apply a presumption in favour of disclosure when considering the public interest test. I believe that there is a strong public interest in establishing whether Council Officers acted improperly in connection with the 1 Morland Gardens planning application.

    If they did, then action needs to be taken to correct the position in this case, and to make sure that such things do not occur again in other cases. Good governance at a local Council must be “in the public interest”!

    And surely it is in the Council’s interest as well, especially if the information shows that there is no evidence of improper actions by Council Officers? If there is nothing to hide (and I don’t know whether there is, or not), why try to hide it?

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  3. Thanks Philip - excellent detailed work! Our petition for a smaller Kilburn Square scheme has now passed 800 signatures, and we'd love to get to 1000

    Anyone who's not yet signed, please do - and then share as widely as you can.
    http://chng.it/xwxLyYcDhP Thanks. Keith Anderson, Chair, Kilburn Village RA

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  4. The fact remains that Stonebridge residents will benefit vastly more from the new housing and the expanded college on the site, rather than leaving the current attractive building intact.

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    Replies
    1. Presume that's you Tatler? More (un) Affordable Rents no doubt?

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  5. Dear Anonymous (2 August at 11:39),

    Thank you for your comment. You are entitled to your view, and I agree that there are many Brent residents who need good quality homes at affordable social rents (rather than the "London Affordable Rents" that the Council seemed to be suggesting in their 1 Morland Gardens planning application).

    Where we appear to disagree is over the means of providing sites for the new housing.

    Brent's heritage buildings and existing green spaces are important parts of providing a quality environment for all residents. That is why Brent has adopted planning policies which are designed to protect these valuable assets.

    What I am objecting to is Council Officers drawing up schemes which disregard those policies, and Planning Officers supporting those schemes (and even being willing to mislead elected members of the Planning Committee) in order to push them through.

    Council housing projects need to be in the best overall interests of Brent's residents, not just a numbers game to build more homes. They should not be in flagrant breach of the Council's own adopted planning policies.

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  6. ANOTHER GOOD ENVIRONMENTAL REASON WHY BRENT'S DEVELOPMENTS CAN BE DETRIMENTAL!

    The following is a question which was asked (but not answered) at a recent Brent Connects meeting, by the Chair of the South Kenton and Preston Park Residents Association.

    I am posting it here, with his permission, as it raises another important concern over the short-sighted nature of the consideration given by Brent Council and its officers over its proposals for extra homes:-

    'The Council is proceeding with two developments - that at Preston Library and 1 Morland Gardens where existing buildings are being demolished only to be rebuilt for exactly the same use on the same site.

    At the Preston Library Site the demolition of the existing building and the rebuilding of the new library facility will result in emissions of 600tC02e. The estimated loss of embodied energy has been calculated using the ICE Database (at https://circularecology.com/) - since there is no information in the planning application about embodied carbon. The very limited carbon saving elements proposed in the planning application for operational energy will never compensate for the carbon emissions in demolition and construction over the proposed life of the building. The climate catastrophe is [at the] beginning [of] the project and there is no recovery.

    At 1 Morland Gardens the estimated loss of embodied carbon in demolition and rebuild is four times the Preston Library Site - c2400tCO2e (our calculation has still to be completed).

    These are climate destroying developments where Brent Council is the developer.

    At Preston Library the community has proposed an alternative plan to keep the existing library and provide housing on the site - an alternative the Council has refused to consider. (Page 2 of the Council's Climate Change Strategy - 'we will work collaboratively with our residents'?).

    The Council Leader justifies the development as providing homes for 'those who need them'. This is the same justification that all climate abusers use for all forms of carbon emissions - that their immediate, special and honourable objective is greater and more important than the future of life on the planet.

    Could you please provide the Climate Emergency Team's assessment of these developments and explain how the developments align with the Council's Climate Change Emergency Declaration.'

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  7. Will any Stonebridge residents be able to afford to live there? Will anyone in Brent be able to afford the Workspaces? What about the pollution you are causing by demolishing and building. Live where you live? Not this council.

    ReplyDelete