Word on the street: Culture of ‘cronyism’ and fear of appeals play into the hands of property developers

Peter Symonds

Peter Symonds - Credit: Archant

Last Thursday, planning officers convinced Camden’s planning committee to approve Essential Living’s disastrous construction management plan.

This deplorable decision follows the same unelected officers’ recent approval of a further EL application which reduces fire safety in their proposed Avenue Road tower block.

After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, one might have expected officers to demand that fire prevention measures are increased in buildings, rather than approve alterations that seriously reduce them. But then the well-being of Camden residents is clearly not a priority, as the officers’ recommendation on EL’s construction management plan showed.

It was those same unelected, salaried planning officers who encouraged Essential Living to proceed with their reviled plans for 100 Avenue Road in the first place. Did not their so-called planning expertise forewarn them that such a proposal would inflict near-impossible site access problems on the area, render the greenspace unusable, allow fumes and noise from non-stop heavy goods vehicles to damage residents’ health and well-being, and increase already dangerously-high local air pollution? No! The prospect of the millions to be accrued from a Section 106 payment clearly persuaded these “experts” to disregard such inconvenient truths.

No one should be surprised that developers’ plans always trump local residents’ concerns. Planning officers and politicians routinely rub shoulders with property companies, consultants and lobbyists.

A culture of cronyism, while not illegal, now exists to ensure that developers are listened to far more attentively than those likely to be adversely affected by their plans.

After committing himself to “removing unnecessary housing construction regulations”, MP Mark Prisk left office as a Tory housing minister to go to work for Essential Living. Labour councillor Phil Jones quit his cabinet role at Camden last May to take up a job with Turley, the national planning consultancy acting for EL. As a member of Camden’s planning committee, he sat through every one of their planning applications. Residents rightly asked whether his relationship with Turley might have influenced past planning committee decisions. What we know is that such actions have destroyed any faith communities once had in the fairness of the planning system. Council planners, terrified of a developer going to appeal if they refuse an application, regularly bow to the demands of the developer rather than the concerns of residents. They are more-or-less invited to dump their unwanted building on us and walk away!

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At last Thursday’s planning meeting Labour councillor Adam Harrison, who has publicly committed himself to reducing toxic air levels in Camden, asked not one question on the likely increase in pollution EL’s building will inflict, voting with two other Labour councillors to approve the application. Four other councillors voted against EL’s CMP but Labour’s Heather Johnson vote made it a tie. She then used her chairman’s casting vote in enthusiastic and gleeful favour of the developer. No surprise there! Her partiality towards Essential Living has been evident over the years she has chaired the committee. Time and again, she has demonstrated her support for the demands of the developer rather the concerns of those who voted for her to represent them.

Her presence as chair of the planning committee shames Labour. Is it any wonder people have lost all faith in local democracy?

Peter Symonds represents the Combined Residents’ Association of South Hampstead.