Friday, 3 February 2012

More questions for Brent Council and the Regeneration team

I have been asked to post the following:

Some more questions…..
Brent Council’s own Policy regarding Area Consultative Forums is as follows:. “To give the local community a full voice in the planning and other local government priorities in an area”.
Why is it then, that as the plans for the new Willesden Library and Cultural Centre come to light, it is becoming clear that we are being served a “done deal”? The intended placement and envelope of the proposed building has been decided. The positioning of the building and its relationship to the High Road and surrounding neighbourhood is set. There seems to be an assumption from Brent Council and the Regeneration team that Consultation will only need to be a matter of presenting the scheme as a given, telling us that it will meet their “vision” for the site and discussing the detail of the building use so that we, as a neighbourhood, can feel involved. This does not give us a full voice. Yes, of course we will have opportunity to object when an Application is submitted but what are our chances of being heard when the Council are Applicant, Judge and Jury.
The plans are being currently developed for a Planning Approval  by the partnered Galliford Try alongside Brent’s Regeneration team and there will be considerable work going on to meet the Councils deadline of a submission in April, in order to demolish by September 2012. 
This process is far from democratic. The Council have very successfully managed to exclude the stakeholders and have kept the information regarding the proposed development from the public domain until 18th January 2012. My guess is that the feasibility plan has been on the drawing board for at least 2 years in order to reach the highly developed master plan that is being presented. As residents living within 200 yards of the library, I, and all my neighbours, would not have given the proposals our blessing had we been informed. We all recognise the need for an efficient and well run building to meet the needs of future generations and perhaps demolishing the 1983 building is the best option, but did anyone ask us if we would like to have the Old 1896 Willesden Library demolished? NO.
The 1983 Library Centre, with a footfall of almost 500,000 a year, is well-used and in many ways serves the “vision” that Brent has laid out for the future. The building was overhauled and upgraded 5 years ago at a significant cost to the rate payer. Yes, the existing Centre is not ideal and the needs of future generations could be better met with improved technology and a more sustainable building, but the building is well-used, it works, why rush? Why not improve the status quo by better managing the existing building and create a fund with a longer-term plan to retain the entire site. So little effort has been made to maximise the existing and previously well-loved facilities such as the Cinema, Bookshop and Café. The Cinema and Cafe have been allowed to decline by the Local Authority and the Bookshop has been asked to relocate. 
The phrase “constructive dismissal” springs to mind when I think about these spaces. It is hard to agree that we need a large housing development with a “compact” and ill-conceived Cultural Centre attached. What we really need is good and properly administered Public amenity and a Regeneration Team that is happy to listen to the local Community to deliver a Cultural Centre that will genuinely meet the needs of Willesden Green.
So what is the hurry? 
Brent Council needs to raise cash. They have therefore (behind closed doors) worked up a master plan and consulted with three property developers. These developers have told them that a scheme to rebuild the library would not be viable without the demolition of the Old 1896 Library, to facilitate the construction of private housing units, which could then be sold by the appointed developer for mutual financial benefit. So, the fate of our Community amenity has been decided by the opinions of Brent’s three chosen Property developers, who have been asked to submit bids to develop the land to maximise financial benefit. Not surprisingly, Brent has told us that in the opinion of these three property developers, the site is not financially viable without demolishing the Old 1896 Library. There are no facts and figures publicly available to back this up. There is no evidence of feasibility studies with input from Quantity Surveyor and property valuation. We are simply expected to accept that, for financial reasons, agreed behind closed doors, there are no alternatives.
The truth is, Public Space is being squandered in a rush to do a deal with cash-ready developers to meet the short-sighted ambition of a Regeneration team.
The building sits in a Conservation Area defined by Brent Council as follows:
The Willesden Green Conservation Area has a linear form running along the High Road and Walm Lane. The junction of these two roads and the junction at the original library are foci within the Area; whilst the St Andrews group of buildings and Willesden Green Tube Station mark the boundaries of the Conservation Area. The Heathfield Park Estate has a somewhat different leafy, residential feel from the much busier main roads.
The main Victorian commercial centre contains many significant buildings by several well-known architects. James Brooks, Newman and Newman and Gabriel contributed St Andrews Church, the Old Library and the bank premises respectively. Sexton's Spotted Dog (1881) and Clark's faience-tiled Met. Station of 1924 are also worthy of note.
 It is locally listed as a significant building within the High Road Conservation Area. The Brent Conservation Officer has been consulted so why has there been no mention of the Conservation Area Application that will be required alongside a Planning Application?
Excerpts from Brent’s Conservation Area Policy follows:
Development proposals and new uses in Conservation Areas, or outside them but affecting their setting or views into or out of the area, shall pay special attention to the preservation or enhancement of the character or appearance of the area.
New development and enhancement proposals in Conservation Areas shall have particular regard to any specific design policies as may be prepared by the council, in co-operation with the local community, to ensure that the scale and form of new developments consistent with the preservation or enhancement of the character or appearance of the area.
Consent will not be given for the demolition of a building, or alteration involving demolition of part of a building, in a conservation area unless the building, or part of the building, positively detracts from the character or appearance of the Conservation Area.
Where demolition in a Conservation Area is acceptable and this would form a gap site, then a full planning application will be required to accompany the application for Conservation Area Consent, showing details of what is to be substituted.
Replacement buildings should be seen as a stimulus to imaginative, high quality design and an opportunity to enhance the area.
The Brent Strategy for Development says:
2.5.16 The Council is committed to ensuring that new development contributes to preserving that which is environmentally pleasing in the Borough and improving those parts of Brent which are less attractive…….Wherever possible, schemes to upgrade the environment will be undertaken with the full involvement of the local community.
STR 15
Major development should enhance the public realm, by creating or contributing to attractive and successful outdoor areas. 
 This rare building is so important to the context of the High Road. It’s presence defines the Architectural Character of the area. The new scheme proposes to demolish this gem and gives us a South facing, glass-fronted monstrosity which sits hard up against the reduced pavement and eliminates the gathering space that currently defines the location.

Would a Conservation Officer see the demolition of this landmark and defining historic building in favour of a dense housing scheme as justifiable?

My biggest fear is that the ambition has eclipsed morals. There seem to be no obligations to the existing stake-holders and no intention of listening to the views of anyone other than hand picked property developers”. Are Galliford Try aware of all the Planning issues here or are they agreeing to a deal on the understanding that all Planning issues are already mitigated? If Brent Council are standing by the guidance set out in their own and Central Planning Policy, this situation presents risk for all parties concerned.


  1. Someone should alert Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column to this travesty. This dislike Brent at the best of times would be the icing on their cake I imagine and draw some good attention and media coverage to it.

  2. I meant to say 'they' rather than this! apologies.


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