Guest post by Philip Grant in a personal capacity
Last month I sent an open letter to Brent’s Strategic Director for Regeneration, and Lead Member for Education, explaining why it would not be a good idea to award a Design & Build contract for the Council’s proposed redevelopment at 1 Morland Gardens. Notice of the intended decision to award a contract on 4 January 2022, dated 3 December, had appeared on Brent’s website.
The Key Decision had still not been announced on the Council’s website by the evening of 11 January, but I did receive a response to my open letter then. I will ask Martin to attach that at the end of this article, so that anyone who wishes to read it can do so. The response confirmed ‘that the council intends to proceed with the proposed scheme of works’.
Architect’s visual impression of the proposed scheme for 1 Morland Gardens
However (as is becoming common with Brent Council, if you can get a reply from them), the response raises as many questions as it answers. It does, of course, begin by referring to ‘the very many benefits that the scheme will provide.’
This ignores the fact that if Council Officers had followed Brent’s own, and national, planning rules over heritage assets at the start, they would never have come up with this scheme! It involves the demolition of an irreplaceable locally listed heritage building. And if the Planning Committee in August 2020 had been properly advised, they would have known that this heritage asset was too “significant” for them to decide that the “public benefits” of the proposals outweighed the importance of retaining the beautiful, architectural and historic Victorian villa.
Extract from Brent Council’s May 2019 Historic Environment Place-making Strategy
The response lists one of the benefits of the scheme as ‘65 social rented homes.’ Will these really be homes let to Council tenants at genuine social rent levels, or is this just another example of Brent officers (and Lead Members) misusing the term ‘social rented homes’ when they are actually referring to “affordable housing”?
Brent originally told the GLA that the new homes at 1 Morland Gardens would be for “social rent”, but at the planning permission stage in 2020, the Council had changed this to 'all of the 65 units would be delivered at London Affordable Rent.' In a comment on an earlier blog, I pointed out that £6.5m of the cost for these homes was meant to be funded from the GLA’s Affordable Homes programme for 2016-2021. Even though the end date for that was extended to construction beginning by 31 March 2022, that £6.5m is unlikely to be available. Does a change back to “social rent” mean that some of Brent’s funding from the 2021-2026 GLA programme will now have to be used for this project?
Are you are wondering what is behind the "little dig" in the response ('I know from previous correspondence that you are concerned with the pace of delivery of social rented accommodation in Brent ....')? It refers to my attempts to get Cllr. Shama Tatler or Mr Lunt to explain properly why they propose that 152 of the 250 new homes on the Council-owned vacant former Copland School site at Cecil Avenue (Wembley High Road) should be built for a private developer to sell at a profit, rather than all 250 being genuine affordable rented housing for people in urgent housing need. I have yet to receive an answer to that!
Moving on to Brent’s responses to the six reasons why they should not award this contract, the “answers” to points 1, 2, 3 and 6 are similar. The Council has not yet done anything about the legal requirements over stopping-up orders, appropriation of land for planning purposes or the planning condition that it needs to “divert” (that is, dig up and move!) the water main in Hillside / Brentfield Road.
It could have begun these tasks, which it admits are necessary to complete before construction can commence, at any time after receiving full planning consent in October 2020. Instead, it now says that ‘the council will complete the first stage of the two-stage design and build contract and finalise and obtain the necessary legal pre-requisites in order to begin any construction works.’ But there is no guarantee that at least one of these ‘legal pre-requisites’, the stopping-up orders, will be obtained! Why even pay for the first stage, when you don’t know whether the proposed construction work could go ahead?
The Victorian villa which Brent Council’s project would demolish. (Photo by Irina Porter)
Reason 4 was the effect of the proposed demolition on climate. As Brent Council has declared a “Climate Emergency”, you would think that Senior Officers and Lead Members would take that matter seriously. But here the response is: ‘Whilst the proposed redevelopment will emit CO2, the benefits the project brings can go some way to justify this.’ Have they quantified the climate damage, and measured the harm this will cause as compared to the alternative option, retaining the Victorian villa, which I have suggested? Or is this just another example of Brent Council making fine-sounding promises, but not following them in practice?
The response to reason 5, the Design & Build Contract itself, leaves a very important point unanswered. I had asked: ‘Why is it proposed that ‘the contractor is undertaking design work’ and ‘design liability’, when full planning permission was given for a detailed design by architects Curl la Tourelle Head?’
That point has been ignored. Is Brent Council proposing to pay the contractor to come up with a new design, or make significant changes to a detailed design it has already paid a firm of architects to prepare for it? And if there are any significant changes to the building plans that were approved in 2020, won’t that mean a new application for planning permission? Surely those are important questions that need to be answered!
The response tells me that: ‘The council has appointed technical consultants to ensure the designs by the contractor meet the council’s requirements ….’ How much will these consultants cost, and will that cost have to be met out of the budget for the project agreed by Brent’s Cabinet two years ago?
A bigger reason why I was concerned about the proposed two-stage contract was this: ‘If the contractor given the proposed D&B contract wishes to keep within Brent’s maximum price for the scheme, there is a severe risk that they would cut corners, both in modifying the design and carrying out the building work.’
Brent’s answer: ‘the technical consultants will be monitoring the contractor’s progress to ensure the build meets the requirements in terms of materials used, methods of construction and quality of finishes. It is expected that this monitoring will prevent any issues with the quality of the finished building and any issues can be dealt with under the defects liability (including latent defects) responsibilities set out in the contract.’
Do you have confidence in the Council’s expectations that there won’t be any “issues” with a ‘cross-laminated timber structure’ (one of the tallest buildings in this country to use that method), with ‘innovative hybrid steel reinforcement’ supporting external cladding? Or that if there are any “issues”, they will be dealt with by the contractor ‘under the defects liability’? Given Brent’s experience over Granville New Homes, I have a feeling that history might repeat itself, IF the Council continues its insistence on pursuing its flawed 1 Morland Gardens project.