Published: 22 September, 2015
by Cllr CLAIRE-LOUISE LEYLAND, Leader of the Conservative Group (pictured)
I’VE had misgivings for some time about planning in Camden and a recent High Court judgment has provided evidence that shows that many of my concerns may well be justified.
This is a worry for local people, because the impact of development can fundamentally change the nature of our communities. Developments can also cause years of inconvenience and distress for families and businesses, for example, if the construction management plan is not able to address the problems that arise (like traffic movements, noise and air quality).
As councillors on the development control committee, we often have to make difficult choices. I believe that we can only make good decisions, if we have: 1) feedback from residents who live in the area and know it best; 2) a range of expert reports of the highest quality; and 3) officers’ recommendations that accurately set out all of the considerations and then provide well-substantiated conclusions.
Feedback from residents is vital. And has become even more important over recent months, as it has begun to look like some of the reports that come to committee do not seem to show sufficient understanding of what people love about their areas, or what the carefully-drafted conservation area statements have sought to protect. In addition, many of our conservation area advisory committees (CAACs) are struggling to cope with changes to the planning process, which mean that we do not get as many responses from them as we used to get.
It is some comfort that people have been given more influence by the Localism Act 2011, with new rights and powers that allow communities to shape development in their area. Our first neighbourhood development plan – Fortune Green and West Hampstead NDP - is very impressive. It passed through referendum in July 2015 and will be adopted by the council this week. This NDP will sit alongside the council’s own planning policies, ensuring that local people’s views in Fortune Green and West Hampstead must be properly taken into account by Camden.
Unfortunately there are other issues that I have noted with concern since I rejoined the committee last May, which cannot be addressed by an NDP. These relate to the scope of expert reports, inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies in presentations to committee, and the quality of responses to questions raised by residents and councillors in the meetings. The long-term, catastrophic impact of these combined issues was brought into stark relief at the planning meeting that considered 100 Avenue Road – a 24-storey tower block on the edge of the Belsize Conservation Area which was recommended for approval by Camden’s staff. Hundreds of people came to the meeting to explain to the committee why the officer’s on-balance conclusion to recommend approval was not right for their area.
They also pointed out several concerns with the expert reports and, as a result, questioned the conclusions Camden’s staff had drawn from these.
Another notable application came to development control committee last year too (Ref: 2014/2621/P). Developers sought to turn the Hope and Anchor pub next door to Koko, a world-famous late nightclub, into eight flats. There was much interest in this application from across the borough. It is well-known that in Camden we try to protect community spaces, especially pubs and music venues, as these capture the creative, innovative spirit of Camden and provide spaces that bring together our diverse community. The owners of Koko told the committee they were worried about the impact that this application would have. They explained that it was clear to them that people moving into the flats would definitely be impacted by the music and would complain about the noise. They told us that Camden planners had not considered the issues fully or understood the real impact of live music. Councillors were very concerned to hear this and debated the application for some time, but officers continued to assure us the concerns were not justified. The application was approved. The owners of the nightclub appealed to the High Court, and have now won their legal challenge against Camden’s decision (Obar Camden Limited v The London Borough of Camden. Case Number: CO/738/2015).
Most concerning for residents of Camden, though, is what Mr Justice Stewart said in making his judgment. He said councillors’ attention had not been drawn to the potential impact of the development on Koko’s premises and other local heritage assets. He also stated that the setting of listed buildings and the character of the conservation area had to be given “considerable importance and weight”. He noted councillors had been “significantly misled” by the officers’ report in relation to certain aspects of the noise issue and that the council’s approach to planning conditions designed to mitigate the impact of noise on residents of the new flats was irrational. It also became apparent officers had amended the wording of the conditions following the meeting, as part of a further consideration of noise considerations – despite no having power to redraft the conditions.
It is not right local people and businesses should be let down by Camden Council in this way. We need proper processes for gathering feedback from residents and CAACs. We need this feedback to be given proper weight by Camden in making recommendations. We also need to commission expert reports that really do address the issues that would impact local people.
And we need Camden’s planning department to give us guidance that we can all rely on. The cabinet member for regeneration, transport and planning needs to explain to the community right away what steps he will be taking to ensure that these appalling failures by Camden’s planning department will be addressed.