Gondar Reservoir planning inquiry: Tempers fray as Camden and campaigners take on retirement village plans
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“It is inconceivable that Gandhi would back this development.”
At times, a catty final day of the planning inquiry into plans to build a retirement village on the old Gondar Reservoir site in West Hampstead veered towards the absurd.
The inquiry, held at the Crowndale Centre in Mornington Crescent, will see planning inspector Brendan Lyons decide whether to overturn Camden Council’s decision to deny LifeCare Residences permission to go ahead with the plans.
LifeCare’s retirement village would see 81 so-called “extra-care” apartments and a 15-bed care home built in a gated complex, complete with its own gym, cinema and solarium.
The town hall and the Gondar and Agamemnon Residents Association have both resisted the plans, and at the inquiry both parties claimed allowing it to go ahead would have a “catastrophic” effect on the local area and its biodiversity.
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Before lawyers for the council and the developers read scathing closing statements, GARA’s chair David Yass, an engineer by trade, and Christine McCormick made the association’s case.
Mr Yass told the inquiry the Gondar Reservoir site was “a valuable green lung and when it’s gone, it’s gone”, adding that the impact of the development on the ecology, biodiversity, amenity and character of the area was “wholly unacceptable”.
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He also emphasised that to develop the site would undermine the Fortune Green and West Hampstead Neighbourhood plan – and the power of neighbourhood plans generally.
Mrs McCormick spoke about the threats to biodiversity, in particular to the slow-worm population – which is the only such population in Camden.
The Gondar Reservoir site is a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) and thought to be home to bats, birds and hedgehogs.
On behalf of GARA, which has been fighting “over-development” of the land for close to a decade, Mr Yass concluded: “This proposal is bigger and more harmful than both previous schemes combined.”
Camden’s barrister Sasha Blackmore gave a closing speech that slammed the developer’s refusal to consider an affordable housing contribution, and the supposed need for a private estate for wealthy older people given the scale of the housing crisis.
“This scheme causes very substantial harm, is not in accordance with the development plan and is a textbook example of what is not sustainable development,” she said, “and it should be refused.”
She argued the plans would not help solve the housing crisis.
“This is the first inquiry where the individual faces of London’s housing crisis sleep under the awnings of the bar opposite the inquiry venue,” Ms Blackmore said., referring to the use of the new venue. The town hall in Judd Street is shut for refurbishment.
“There is a need for greater choice in the housing available for elderly people, and the council recognises that. But it is inconceivable that Gandhi would support this scheme.”
Ms Blackmore was responding to the use of an apocryphal quote attributed to Gandhi made earlier in the inquiry by LifeCare’s legal team to highlight the importance of providing homes for older people.
LifeCare’s barrister Sasha White QC called some of Camden’s reasons for refusing permission “risible” and said the council was motivated by a “mentality of resentment”.
He added: “The proposal would deliver much-needed housing for older people in a borough which currently makes no provision at all for private extra-care accomodation to relieve pressures on the NHS.”
He added that the proposal would “make best use” of the land, actually “arrest the ecological decline” and be of “world-leading standard”.
Camden and the developer are in dispute as to the building use class the “extra-care” apartments would fall under. Camden said that because they would be self-contained, they should be considered C3 – private homes – and this would mean LifeCare had to make an affordable housing contribution. But the developer says they should be considered as C2 – care homes.
The possibility that future residents of the development might walk their house cats on leashes was also, remarkably, an issue. This had been suggested as a way to prevent them harming slow-worms or birds.
But Ms Blackmore told the inquiry: “A cat is a free-moving animal – it’s not subject to the restrictions of a lease.”
Mr Lyons is expected to take until April or May to decide.
The recent planning history of the Gondar Reservoir
Since the Gondar Reservoir was decommisioned in 2001, it has attracted covetous glances from developers.
In 2010 the land was sold to Linden Wates, who made several attempts to build on the site before selling to LifeCare.
Its first plan was to build 16 homes sunk within the old reservoir.
This scheme was given permission at appeal, despite opposition from campaigners including Gondar Gardens’ late Nobel-laureate Doris Lessing.
In 2013, Linden Wates came back with a second plan, this time to build 28 flats on the street frontage. This would have retained 93 per cent of the green space.
This was approved in December 2015, but not before the developer had come back with another plan to build a mammoth 79 flats on the majority of the site. This was dropped shortly before the site was sold to LifeCare.
The retirement complex developer saw its current application rejected in January 2018, but has fought for it to be heard by the Planning Inspectorate.
Despite this, LifeCare has also applied to make minor changes to the previously approved 2013 scheme, which would appear to be a back-up plan.