Thursday, 3 January 2013

Willesden Green Library Centre – some New Year thoughts

Philip Grant has asked me to post this article:-
If Brent’s Regeneration Department had got their way, Willesden Green Library Centre would now be an empty building site, and the 10,000 local people who used its former building every week would be making do with small temporary facilities spread across the borough. The thousands of local residents who signed petitions, and the hundreds who have put in a lot of time and effort to fight the proposals, have ensured that this has not happened yet, and that even if the Cultural Centre plans go ahead, the 1894 library building will be retained. 

We can look back on 2012 with some satisfaction, but as we look forward to 2013 the key battles will come in the next few weeks. In order for the Cultural Centre scheme to go ahead, Brent’s Regeneration Department and Galliford Try Plc have three hurdles to overcome. I hope that these notes, and your own ideas and comments resulting from them, will help us to understand what needs to be done in order, hopefully, to see the scheme fall flat on its face.

1. The Town or Village Green application

The Public Inquiry on Martin Redston’s application to have the public square in front of the Library Centre registered as a Town or Village Green will begin on Monday 11 February. In my view, the square could meet all of the legal tests necessary for registration, and current chances of success are around 50/50, but it is up to the Applicant to produce the evidence necessary to prove his case. That is why Martin needs witness statements from as many people living within the Willesden Green area (the “neighbourhood within a locality” on which the application is based) by Monday 14 January at the latest, giving evidence which shows that they have used the square for leisure activities during the period from 1991 until May 2012 (or for whatever part of that period they have done so). It is very important that only genuine information and details are given, and that no one “invents” evidence thinking that this will help. Any statement which the objectors can show to be false, or the Inspector conducting the Public Inquiry considers likely to be false, will undermine Martin’s case by raising doubts about the validity of all his evidence.

Anyone is welcome to attend the Inquiry (from 10am each day in Space 2 on the first floor of the Library Centre – via the lift opposite the BAR Gallery). I hope that any supporters of the application will treat the proceedings with respect, as any placards or noisy demonstration would probably do more harm than good. From what we saw at the preliminary hearing, the Inspector appears likely to handle the Inquiry properly, and to consider the evidence and arguments of both sides fairly before reaching a conclusion. He hopes to produce his report and recommendation by the end of February. If he decides that the case for registration has not been sufficiently proved, I cannot see any point in trying to pursue this application any further. If he recommends that the square should be registered, Brent Council are not obliged to accept his recommendation, and could just sit on his report without taking any action on it. In that case it will be necessary to campaign publicly to shame Brent into registering this open space as a Town or Village Green, because it is only actual registration which protects the land from being built over.

2. Planning Application ref. 12/2924

Brent’s Planning Committee is likely to consider this application at its meeting on Wednesday 13 February at 7pm. The Planning Committee are not “the enemy”. They are independent of Brent’s Executive, and have a duty to decide applications on proper planning grounds and in accordance with Brent’s stated planning policies (unless material considerations indicate otherwise). There is a reasonable chance that they will reject the application, if the defects of the application are put before them.

Many of us will want to be there, and anyone who has commented on the application should receive notification of the meeting from Brent Planning Service. People should attend as individuals, carrying their notification; this is not the occasion for crowd action, placards or anything that could justify officials at the Town Hall barring the public from the meeting. We need to respect the committee proceedings, so that our views as well as those of the applicant and the Planning Officer receive a fair hearing.

The Planning Officer’s report and recommendation will be very important. It should be available to view online, as part of the meeting agenda documents, about a week beforehand. It will be a long and detailed report, and it needs to be studied very carefully. All of the points showing that planning policies have not, or not fully, been complied with need to be noted and referred to in objectors submissions to the committee, and any points where we disagree with the report over whether a planning policy is satisfied also need to be identified and brought to the committee’s attention. I think it would be a good idea if an individual or small team began listing these planning policy points now (from objections and comments already submitted), so that the list is ready to check against the Planning Officer’s report and be available to the KWG representatives who will speak as objectors at the meeting.

It is likely that a maximum of only three members of the public will be allowed to speak at the Planning Committee meeting, and probably for only two minutes each (one may be allowed three minutes). It is probably safe to assume that only two objectors will be allowed to speak, and to identify who would be the best two (with one “in reserve”) to speak clearly, concisely and confidently as to why, on proper planning grounds, the application should be rejected. Those two should notify the committee’s Democratic Services Officer, Joe Kwateng, at: that they wish to speak as objectors as soon as possible after the date for hearing of the application is confirmed, with the “reserve” sending an application as soon as those two requests to speak have been acknowledged. [I will not be putting myself forward as a speaker, as I think local people from Willesden Green would carry more weight – I will do what I can to ensure that several procedural matters are dealt with properly, including that of Cllr. Ann John as a member of the committee].

As indicated above, the key points to get across are why the application should be rejected on planning grounds. It might be best for one speaker to deal with the housing part of the application, and one to deal with the Cultural Centre points. They will need to work together to see who will have room in their two (or three) minutes to also include the planning policy failures on consultation, the fact that unlike the Civic Centre, WGLC is not in a regeneration area but in a district centre whose suburban character is meant to be protected under Brent’s own policy CP17, and the points arising from part of the site being in a conservation area (with the rest within that area’s “setting”). It will be a tall order to get everything into such a short time, by with careful preparation I think it can be done.

It will not be possible for the Planning Committee to grant full planning permission to this application at their meeting. If they are “minded to accept” the application, it will have to wait while the linked conservation area consent application is referred to the Secretary of State (see below). If the Planning Officer’s report recommends granting planning permission, the committee will not be able to reject the application at their meeting – they will have to record that they are “minded to refuse” the application, set out their grounds for this view, and then adjourn hearing of it to a later meeting. The only way that the application can be refused outright at the meeting is if the Planning Officer recommends refusal and they are satisfied that he is correct to do so. We do not yet know the recommendation will be (or whether, exceptionally in the particular circumstances of this case, there will be no recommendation) but the more proper planning grounds for refusing the application we can draw to the Planning Committee’s attention at the meeting, the better for our case.

3. Conservation Area Consent Application ref. 12/2925
This application cannot be decided by Brent’s Planning Committee, as despite its attempt to hide behind Galliford Try as the “sole applicant”, Brent is legally the joint applicant, at least as far as the proposed Cultural Centre is concerned. The conservation area consent application will only be considered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (or the planning advisors which recommend what decision he should make) if Brent’s Planning Committee are “minded to accept” the planning application. 

Brent’s Planning Service will have to submit all of the documents in respect of this application, including all of the objections and comments made on it, for consideration. There is nothing further that we can do to influence the outcome, and there will be no public hearing. The usual time for such consideration before a decision is given is, apparently, between 16 and 20 weeks, but can occasionally exceed six months in a complicated case. If the decision is to grant the application, this would then allow Brent’s Planning Committee to grant full planning consent.

Because the two applications have been combined in a single form and set of documents, it is difficult to work out what the conservation area consent application part of it actually consists of. When I managed to do so, in order to submit my detailed comments, I discovered that it is a total mess! The application form seeks permission for the partial demolition of just the southern extension of the 1894 library building, confirming this in its proposed demolition plans and Town Planning Statement, then puts forward plans for work involving the complete demolition of all internal walls and floors within the locally listed building. This and other contradictions in the documents, together with a failure to actually consider the tests which the application needs to pass before it could be accepted, means that the Secretary of State would have little option but to reject it.

Brent’s Regeneration Department are aware of my detailed comments on this conservation area consent application, and if they have any sense, they and Galliford Try will withdraw it and submit a fresh application in place of 12/2925. This would mean another public notice, providing a further 21 days to consider, comment on or object to their consent application. If they press ahead with the existing application, they may well trip over this hurdle, even IF they manage to clear the first two. That is a big “IF”, and something which is far from certain as long as we organise and prepare properly the cases in favour of the Town and Village Green and against the planning application.

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