Thursday, November 06, 2008

What the Dickens?

Last night I spoke out against the proposal for a massive development in Dickens Yard, just behind Ealing Town Hall at Ealing Council's Planning Committee meeting. There was huge puublic interest in the application, but there was (in my view unnecessarily timid) concern about moving it to a larger venue, so it was held in the Council Chamber with a video and audio relay to a larger hall for the members of the public who didn't fit into the cramped public gallery. You can read what I said here so I don't need to repeat all the arguments, but suffice it to say that I think it is a totally unsuitable scheme for central Ealing and to add insult to injury only 30% of the nearly 700 flats will be affordable for local residents.

Unfortunately, the Planning Committee largely ignored my views, those of English Heritage and those of the thousands of local residents against the scheme and voted by an 8 vote to 2 majority to grant approval for the scheme. In political terms, all the Tory members on the panel (except for the Chair who would only vote in the case of a tie) voted for the application and the Labour members split down the midddle. How about the Lib Dem? Well, I had already ruled myself out of being on the panel to decides Dickens Yard because I'd been campaigning against. But in the event, advice was received that because of the campaigning that we'd done as a party, Lib Dem councillors who weren't quoted in the leaflets and hadn't personally expressed a view on this issue were also disbarred, so there had to be an empty seat where the Lib Dem councillor should have been.

It wouldn't have made a difference to the result - the Tory majority on the Council and hence on Planning means that no application can be refused unless at least one Tory votes against it - but it sets a dangerous precedent that entire parties rather than merely individual councillors are gagged to this extent on campaigning on some of the key local issues.

The Dickens Yard decision was a wasted opportunity to make the developers St George come back with a better scheme that would provide more affordable housing and proper community facilities, in a package that fitted in better in design terms with Ealing.

Anyway, the Dickens Yard scheme will now by referred to Boris and objectors are also looking at ways of either getting it referred to the Government or to a judge through judicial review, so the story isn't completely over, but eyes are now turning to the application by property developers Glenkerrin for a scheme with taller blocks next to Ealing Broadway station.

Sean O'Gorman, the Director of Glenkerrin responsible for their UK operations turned up in the public overflow hall and was apparently clapping the pro-Dickens Yard speeches. One resident who was there described it as the sound of one hand clapping. After the meeting, I was by the Town Hall doors when O'Gorman left with a sweep of his Byronic locks declaring to the assembled disgruntled residents that the result was wonderful news for Ealing, and seeming to positively revel in his unpopularity. At that point he ought to have disappeard in a puff of smoke like a pantomine villain but sweeping out of the Town Hall doors had to suffice.

So does the decision indicate, as O'Gorman's glee no doubt implies, that the Glenkerrin decision will go the same way? Luckily, there are a number of differences. The sheer height (even after they dropped the 40-storey 'Leaf' skyscraper) and impact of the Glenkerrin site is greater. It would be there for all to see opposite the Station and overshadowing Haven Green rather than parts of it being tucked away behind the Town Hall, Gordon Road houses and existing shops as in the Dickens Yard scheme.

While there would no doubt be a substantial section 106 contribution (a payment to the Council to make up for the harm of a development), Glenkerrin already own the land they propose to build on so unlike Dickens Yard there will be no capital receipt to the council. That should not be a factor in a planning decision, but it is difficult to completely remove the thoughts from the back of councillors' minds that rejecting the Dickens Yard scheme would have driven a coach and horses through the Tory Council's spending plans.

Finally, affordable housing provision in the Glkenkerrin scheme is even more pitiful - a mesely 15%. Excluding the retail at the bottom, it's a pure and simple luxury flats development.

So I'm sad at the Dickens Yard decision but hopeful that it still leaves the way open for a rejection of the Glenkerrin scheme, which would be even worse for Ealing.