Guest post by Philip Grant in a personal capacity
Architect’s drawing of the two proposed new Council houses at Rokesby Place.
There was a flurry of blogs on “Wembley Matters” last month about the planning application for the proposed Brent Council housing “infill” development at Rokesby Place. On 12 August, Martin wrote about the loss of green space and the tenure change. Straight after the meeting on 17 August, he reported that Planning Committee had “dumped” the a recommendation of the 2020 Brent Poverty Commission Report, and allowed a changed of tenure for the two new homes from Social Rent to London Affordable Rent.
I could not understand the justification for Brent’s Planning Officers recommending LAR when the planning application, only 4 months earlier, had said that the houses would be let at Social Rent level.
Extract from the Planning Statement for the Rokesby Place application, 22/1400.
I added a comment below the second blog, giving the text of a Freedom of Information Act request I’d sent to Brent’s Head of Planning, seeking the evidence behind that change of tenure. Martin published that as a separate post the following day.
I received the information I’d requested on 1 September (that was quick for an FoI, but I’d told the Head of Planning that he should not issue the consent letter until my enquiries were resolved!), I said I would share the response with “Wembley Matters” readers, and will ask Martin to attach it at the end of this article, if possible.
I am not attaching the two enclosures, which were series of emails between Brent Planning Officers, the Brent Project Manager for the Rokesby Place scheme and the planning agent representing Brent Council for application 22/1400. The names of senders and recipients had been redacted (in order to protect the guilty?).
I will include copies of the key emails below, as I explain what Council Officers did wrong, and why the change from Social Rent to LAR was not justified, and should be reversed. There is more detail on this in an open letter, and formal complaint about the conduct of the Council Officers involved, which I have sent to Brent’s Chief Executive. I hope that Martin can also attach a copy of that, as it includes some important points which MUST be put right before any more planning applications for Council “infill” housing schemes are considered.
Email from Planning Case Officer to Project Manager in Brent Property Services.
The email above was sent by the Planning Case Officer (“CO”) to Brent’s Rokesby Place Project Manager (“PM”) when the Officer Report was about to be published with the agenda for the Planning Committee meeting on 17 August. There should not have been any doubt about which rent level should be in the recommended affordable housing condition, as the application clearly stated Social Rent!
But worse than that, the CO should not have been communicating with the PM over the application (especially offering the chance to change a detail in it). There have to be special procedures in place where a Council, like Brent, is both the developer and the Local Planning Authority, to ensure that the Council’s applications are dealt with fairly. This is summed up in the Local Government Association booklet, “Probity in Planning”:
Extract from “Probity in Planning”, 2019 edition.
I have set out why this contact, which could (and did) have an unfair influence on the planning decision, was wrong in my letter to Carolyn Downs, if you are interested in the detailed reasons.
Further emails from the CO to the PM over the next few days, after the Officer Report had been published, show that the Planning Officer knew that recommending LAR might be a mistake, and that if it was, that should be reported to Planning Committee members.
The “confirmation” CO sought was finally provided by PM later that day, and acknowledged by the Planning Case Officer:
But LAR was not correct. It might be what was intended on the New Council Homes ‘master tracker’, but it was not what was shown by the planning application. That was Social Rent, which should have been the tenure included in the Officer Report for Planning Committee.
The emails between the planning agent, Maddox & Associates (“M&A”) and CO, and copied to another person (possibly the Senior Planning Officer who would be presenting the application to Planning Committee) are even more worrying. There were no communications involving the tenure of the proposed new homes after the application was submitted until the afternoon of 17 August, just a couple of hours before the Committee meeting. This was the first, from M&A:
Email from planning agent to Brent Planning Officer(s), 125 minutes before Committee meets.
M&A were concerned. They’ve discovered that “residents” are raising the issue of what rent level should be charged for the proposed new homes (they’d been discussing it on “Wembley Matters” since 12 August!). So M&A claim ‘we have always proposed that the units are 100% London Affordable Rent’. AND, in the final sentence, they effectively ask Planning Officers to repeat that claim, ‘in case Members ask the question to officers directly’ at the meeting!
We know that claim was false, because M&A had proposed that the homes would be for Social Rent. But Brent’s CO also knows it was false, because eight minutes after receiving that email from M&A, the CO sends this reply:
Undeterred by the truth, M&A send a further email to the CO (again cc’d), less than 50 minutes before the start of the Planning Committee meeting which will consider the Rokesby Place application. [The warning that it ‘contains information that may be confidential’ and that the recipient ‘may not … disclose it to anyone else’, does not protect it from a valid FoI request!]:
M&A are “flagging” to Brent Planning a line of argument which could be used to justify LAR being the tenure required in the affordable housing condition included in the Rokesby Place planning consent letter. I don’t know whether the Senior Planning Officer who presented the application to the meeting that evening saw this email, or was aware of its contents. But I do know, from watching and listening to the webcast, that this was the basis of the argument which she used.
I have set out in my open letter to Brent’s Chief Executive, in much greater detail, why the actions of Brent Planning Officers before and at the Planning Committee meeting were wrong and unacceptable. This includes the fact that the objectors (particularly the Ward councillor, Ketan Sheth, over the Social Rent or LAR point) were not dealt with fairly and impartially.
I have also set out how I believe my complaint(s) should be resolved, including the measures needed to ensure that future planning applications where Brent Council is the developer (and there is likely to be a string of new “infill” housing applications over the next few years) are dealt with properly, fairly and impartially.
I may not achieve everything that I hope for, but I am confident that Brent should reverse the decision over affordable housing tenure, so that the two new homes at Rokesby Place will be for Social Rent, not London Affordable Rent.
The tenants of those four-bedroom houses are likely to be large families in urgent housing need. The Planning Officer claimed that the two rent levels were ‘very, very similar’. But, even on the figures she gave, each tenant would be paying £772.20 a year more than they should be if LAR is charged, rather than Social Rent. That’s why the Social Rent level recommended by the Brent Poverty Commission Report is so important to families on a tight budget.
Information Request and Open Letter to Brent CEO. Click on bottom right corner for full page view.
Philip Grant is amazing. Brent Council is sad.
G. Lee writes:
Hearty thanks to Philip for his diligence and dogged determination to uphold the truth amid a very murky and underhand scenario ! Looks like they were in the final instance trying to fudge the issue of Social rent by claiming it was 'more or less' the same as London Affordable rent...Given the vast amount of development that has gone on, and is still going on in Brent over the past 5 years or so Brent Citizens are right to be wondering whether this has been entirely in the best interests of the community, whether officers and / or Councillors have been 100% scrupulous in their dealings with developers and whether all the actions that have prompted these massive developments around the Borough have been entirely LEGAL !
Philip Grant local hero. Should get recognition from the queen over all these do nothing councillors
A very big thank you to Mr Phillip Grant in pursuing this issue and putting in a very comprehensive complaint to Caroline Downs, Brent Council CEO .
Thank you to the reader who submitted a comment yesterday calling for Brent Council to be put in 'Special Measures' as a consequence of the content of Philip's article. As the main comment went further than the article itself in describing officer and councillor conduct and motivation I decided not to publish re potential legal issues. Apologies.
The London Borough of Bent
I'm grateful for some kind comments about me above, thank you, but don't claim to be amazing, or worthy of any "gong" from Her Majesty!
I am lucky enough to have some "investigations" experience from my working life, and to be retired so that I have some spare time which I can devote to things such as trying to understand why the rent level on this planning application was changed from Social Rent to LAR.
While I'm prepared to devote time to matters, especially on heritage and housing, which attract my interest, I can't champion every cause that Brent residents want me to (as some of you will know when I've had to say "No" to your requests).
There are many more people in the community who could take up matters which they don't think are right with the Council, and I do believe that standing up for what you believe is right is important.
If you feel that there is something you would like to take up, hopefully reading how I put together Freedom of Information Act requests or how I try to set things out carefully, with reasons and evidence, but also with courtesy, in letters such as my open letter to Carolyn Downs, will prove helpful to you.
In this particular case, it was fairly simple to draft an FoI request. The change must have occurred between the date the application was submitted and the date of the Planning Committee meeting. There had to be some evidence for it, so I could identify who any communications would have to have been between, and ask for information about those and any documentary evidence of them.
It was what that evidence showed which was so shocking. Once a Brent Council planning application has been submitted, there is supposed to be no direct contact between the Council Officers on the Planning and Project sides. Here there had been, and it involved interference over one of the details of the planning application! That goes directly against procedures which are supposed to be in place, which are meant to ensure that the Council's own applications are not given unfair preferential treatment.
The correspondence between the agent Brent had appointed to handle its Rokesby Place planning application and the Planning Officer (or Officers? - I could not be sure who the emails had been copied to), was very worrying too. It certainly mirrored the lack of impartiality shown at the Planning Committee meeting.
When something has gone wrong like that, it needs to be called-out, and that is what I have done here. I've written to Brent's Chief Executive, and made suggestions for how it needs to be put right; and I've also put the evidence and my letter "in the public domain", so that I can expect a proper answer and you will know what that is.
Basically, it is all about holding the Council to account (somebody has to do that, because in recent years our elected councillors don't seem to have been able to do that themselves!), and trying to ensure that the local community is treated fairly in its dealings with the decision-makers at the Civic Centre.
Mr Grant you have gone above and beyond our expectations. As a Brent Council resident I applaud you for your insightful email to the CEO to Mr Carolyn Downs . I really feel that your experience is an asset in so many ways in voicing the concerns of many of the Brent Residents. We will be seriously impacted by this Infill in areas of social housing . Brent are careful with choosing their words and at most very vague...they never give straight answers.
They always have something to hide and are behaving in a reckless manner.They are least bothered about addressing serious concerns of residents and the impact of natural light, urban greening or disabled parking to name afew areas that willbe impacted by the infill projects around the borough not to mention the damage to existing trees.
I am sure I speak for many Brent residents who appreciate your time efforts and your knowledge .I really do hope that Brent Residents stand strong on this absolutely unreasonable development plans in Brent.
Thank you once again for drawing attention to community and I urge Brent residents to stand united in insisting on clarity and honesty from Brent at every stage of their plans . We need honesty !
Dear Anonymous (9 September at 13:23),
Thank you for your comment. I agree with you entirely that we need honesty from Brent Council, but they have a duty to give us more than that.
Ever since 1995, the "Seven Principles of Conduct in Public Life" have applied to all elected officers (such as MPs and local councillors) and all people who work in public services, such as our local Council. They are a key part of Brent's "Members' Code of Conduct", and the code of conduct which all employees of Brent Council have to sign-up to.
Here is a reminder of what those Seven Principles are (copied from Brent's "Members' Code of Conduct"), so that you, or any other resident, can remind Cabinet members, other councillors or Senior Officers of them, should you feel they are not upholding these proper standards:-
1. Selflessness - You should serve only the public interest and should never
improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person.
2. Integrity - You should not place yourself in situations where your integrity may be questioned, should not behave improperly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.
3. Objectivity - You should make decisions on merit, including when making
appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards or benefits.
4. Accountability - You should be accountable to the public for your actions and the manner in which you carry out your responsibilities, and should co-operate fully and honestly with any scrutiny appropriate to your particular office.
5. Openness - You should be as open as possible about your actions and those of the Council, and should be prepared to give reasons for those actions.
6. Honesty - You should be truthful in your Council work and avoid creating situations where your honesty may be called into question.
7. Leadership - You should promote and support these principles by leadership, and by example, and should act in a way that secures or preserves public confidence.
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