We seriously haven’t recovered yet from our attendance at last night’s monster six hour pantomime playing at the Tooley St Theatre where the show was all about whether a large unaccountable development company (Lend Lease) could link up with a smaller unaccountable local council (Southwark) and do dastardly business together. The audience were played by local people who think these ugly sisters of business and wannabe politicians are about to re-stage the Kings New Clothes down at The Elephant. Any road up, here is a quick report. We will come back to the details at a later date.
• 50 members of the public were excluded from a public meeting that affects their area. The Council didn’t have a room big enough at Tooley St offices to hold all those who wanted to sit through the pantomime so it kept a whole bunch of folks outside until half way thorough when enough people had left to accommodate 20 of them. The police and security kept the door between the lobby and the meeting room secure. At one point in the break, they even started off not letting anyone from the hearing going into where the excluded folks were but relented after some argument. Of course, the Council was uninterested in holding the meeting in a place that was actually big enough despite their being over 200 objections received. Of 102 possible seats, many were taken up by Lend Lease, Soundings (Consultation cronies) and council folks. A bigger room is a no brainer if you actually give a toss!
• About 30 of the excluded people decided to hold their own fantastic objectors meeting outside in the lobby to discuss why they were there and their own concerns. We thought that was a brilliant idea instead of just giving up and going home.
• This is what the meeting looked like. A bright and airless room where we sat for 6 hours listening to one hour of brilliant focused, precise and wise objections to the Council’s willful overlooking of a Masterplan that breaches it’s own policies in numerous topics – affordable housing, car parking, sustainability, health and education and over-12 play provision and so on. And then 5 hours more of silence from any Labour Councillors to actually have any single criticism of the Masterplan and sometimes good and sometimes rather tired questioning from the Lib-Dems on the Planning Committee. All the Councillors had received detailed objections from tons of people as emails and papers and these were also all in the large 197 page Planning Committee document that each of them had. Yet they were unable to really get to grips with both the nuances and precise content of those objections. At the start we were informed that the meeting was ‘not party political‘ as if having 4 Labour councillors and 3 Lib-Dems was going to make no difference at all to the final vote.
• We also heard over an hour of Lend Lease corporate waffle and nonsense. One example among the many that we are afraid to unleash to those who weren’t there: When asked whether new more chain shops might be seen as a dangerous competition to long established local traders, one Lend Lease word magician replied that he ‘didn’t like to think of it as competition but as more like opportunity‘. Of course destroying local shopping is also contrary to the new 2012 National Planning Policy Framework that seeks for council to ‘ensure the vitality of town centres‘ i.e don’t make everywhere chain retail hell.
During Lend Lease’s questioning by the Council (akin to being ‘savaged by a dead sheep‘ as the saying goes) local people held up signs in silence to highlight key objections to the Masterplan. The Chair for the night Labour Councilor Nick Dolezal, who we found rather showy and cartoonish, freaked out and threatened the protestors with removal even though when security came they were decidedly reluctant to begin grabbing anyone. (Dolezal later publicly described them as ‘our little pixies‘!). Another threat to remove everyone bar the Council, the developers and the objectors who had spoken was also aired was similarly ignored because how can you seriously bar the public from a public meeting.
The silent protest was only meant to highlight the farce in progress anyhow and not to prevent anyone from hearing the rest of what was said. After twenty interesting minutes of Dolezal overreaction, the posters were lowered so that the show could go on. At point, a protestor offered the boyish Leader of the Council Peter John some posters which he took and enthusiastically threw to the floor. ‘Peter, not down there! You’re supposed to hold them up!’, was the poster givers reply. Made us laugh anyhow!
There was a telling moment near the end when the procedure requires ‘one representative for any supporters who live within 100 metres of the developement site‘ to come and testify their support. No one in the room rose to take up that role!
To cut a long story short, there was no surprise when the 2 Lib-Dems voted against (because it wasn’t their party in power but they would have done the same as Labour did last night if they were) and 4 Labour votes for the scheme. There was one totally pointless abstention from a most bizarre Lib-Dem councillor (who used to be a Tory councillor) from Dulwich. At telling moment came about 20 minutes before the vote when Dolezal was rushing to finish and in a moment of pushing things along, he said ‘Oh, I’m getting serious now‘ to which we would add: Well, it is probably a serious business, no? You wouldn’t think so given Dolezal’s constant gum-chewing, jokes and lack of impartiality.
To give you a clue as to how The Elephant was sold last night we will highlight the fact that when Lend Lease were questioned on whether they will receive the freehold of the Heygate Estate land, Dolezal ruled that this question had no bearing on the planning permission. It’s a bloody good question though! When you consider that the whole scheme delivers only 71 truly affordable socially rented units to replace the 1100+ council tenancies that made up Heygate and the rest of the ‘guaranteed‘ 25% of affordable homes are of such a tenure type* that they are actually extremely unaffordable for local people and also many Londoners, you might start to wonder how it is that this scheme can be granted approval. When you consider that Lend Lease reckons that the scheme is barely viable at approx 10% affordable housing but are committed to 25%, and that no-one is allowed to actually look at the figures because they are commercially sensitive, you might wonder if a load of porkies is being told. Would they really commit to something so obviously risky? When you consider all this, the question of whether Southwark will give Lend Lease the freehold to this currently publicly-owned land is a good and pertinent one.
(* In addition to the 71 target rent places (socially-rented) there will be a further 194 ‘Affordable Rent’ places, these rents being set at a rate of 50% of the private market rental rate locally. i.e not affordable to many. And this despite Southwark’s own 2011 objections to the concept of ‘Affordable Rent’ and the 2012 London Plan’s examination criticisms).
Anyhow, we have on tape Lend Lease’s absolute commitment to seeing this project through. So of they ever wangle out of it over the next 16 years, we will find them and subject them to a merciless replaying of this promise.
Oh, by the way, we would really be fools if we actually believed their promises. Like the Council, promises are made to be broken and to be forgotten.It is a rule at these meetings that no photography or sound / video recordings must be made and so with no actual official record of last night’s proceedings being made for public scrutiny, all of Lend Lease’s promises remain words in a room in a particular moment in time. Happily, to keep an important unofficial record, there were camera’s-a-g0-go (as you can see) recording the proceedings and at least two people in the audience taped the whole thing.
There was many a moment like this: When asked about interim uses on the Heygate site before the new houses are built and whether it would get in touch with Celia from Victory Park who had initiated a tree nursery with local school children in the Heygate Rose Garden*. They said ‘Yes, they would‘. It was common for them to nod and solemnly say ‘Yes, they would‘ to remaining open to alleviating many concerns that were raised. But with no minutes or record, who is there to keep them to their easy words?
(* We can add that this lovely example of a local community-led labour of love was not so heart-warming to the Council. They have welded the gates of the Rose Garden shut so neither Celia nor the kids can now get in there)
We will say it again: Southwark has no interest in hearing objections, useful criticism or local wisdom. It has no interest in even pretending (like Lend Lease) that it’s consultation is meaningful to any planning inquiry. It is wholly unaccountable to it’s voters. It is a total joke for anyone who cares passionately ebnough to engage in local politics through this kind of framework. This way of working is flawed. It simply cannot work to the benefit of local people. We spent years in consultation with these people, taking it seriously and giving up our knowledge and passions for free but we have not seen one single thing barring a few saved trees taken seriously or put into the Masterplan. The Masterplan remains a totally blatant and greedy land grab at the expense of local people.
After attending Lend Lease’s One The Elephant luxury flats ‘community preview‘ last week and last night’s farce, we were starting to get resigned to all this, to start to think it’s all over or that there is no alternative to the private investment model of housing and regeneration. It was a tough week.
But there is another way and we need to find it. We will continue doing what we do and we invite you, as always, to join us in that work.