St Helens Residents Association ends its legal challenge

With reluctance, the St Helens Residents Association has called a halt to its efforts to mount a judicial review of the decision of Hammersmith & Fulham Council to grant planning permission to the Imperial West development.

The Association raised funds from local residents and other supporters to reach the stage explained in previous posts (see below).  But the advice we received from a leading planning QC was that the grounds for legal challenge were not strong enough to gain ‘pre-event’ insurance against the full costs of what would have become a full-scale action in the High Court.

It was always going to be a David versus Goliath battle.  The council has set aside substantial sums in 2013/14 to fight off a series of legal challenges to its planning decisions on Shepherds Bush Market and the Earls Court development.  The council and Imperial College have deep pockets with which to defend their actions in the courts.  For a small residents association, every thousand pounds we raised was a struggle.  We were unable to proceed with the legal challenge unless we could insure against all costs further down the line, and this proved impossible.

One obstacle to our legal challenge was that the council learned from the High Court judgment which quashed as unlawful its Supplementary Development Plan for Shepherds Bush Market, in May 2012.  Since then the council has continued to delay the re-publication of the similar planning framework for the White City Opportunity Area, thereby avoiding making a further decision that could be challenged on similar grounds.

A draft of the White City Opportunity Area planning Framework was published for consultation two years ago, in April 2011It was meant to be revised in the light of comments from the public, and adopted by the council by the end of that year.

The document has yet to re-appear.  Yet it featured as ‘emerging policy’ in the original and (hastily revised) council committee reports in July 2012 recommending approval to the planning application for Imperial West.  Its also featured in the more recent report recommending approval to the Helical Bar/Aviva scheme on the former Dairy Crest site in Wood Lane (with its 32 storey tower to match that of Imperial’s).

The councils web page on the WCOAPF carries the message ‘We are currently working through the comments received and will consider each comment made on the draft. We will publish a schedule of changes that we propose to make to the document as a result of the comments and representations received. A second round of public consultation is scheduled for Spring 2013 for the next draft, which will respond to the comments received and will make any changes which the Council and the GLA consider appropriate.  

Two years in which to ‘work through comments’ suggests a leisurely pace within planning departments of the Council and the GLA.  The date for re-publication of the WCOAPF has been put back at least three times.  ‘Spring 2013′ is now turning to summer and there is still no sign of the revised document.   Hence our concern that the council has been delaying re-publication and further public consultation simply to avoid legal challenge to the status of the document.  When (and if) the revised document finally appears it will be an irrelevance as virtually all the major sites in the Opportunity Area will have had their future decided.

Meanwhile, Imperial College has declined to once again to provide documents relating to the financing of Imperial West.  We have written in a final attempt to get sensible answers to simple questions.  Failing a reply, we will be pursuing the issue with the Information Commissioner, who oversees Freedom of Information legislation.

 

Imperial College is giving no answers

Imperial College held a major event last night ‘Launching the Vision’ for Imperial West as a ‘research and innovation hub’.  Over 700 guests attended, including London Mayor Boris Johnson and David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science.

We have no problem with the academic goals of the College, or that part of the development at Wood Lane which will help to boost London’s reputation for innovation in medical science.  What we continue to seek from the College is straight answers to questions on how the scheme is being funded, what level of profit the College expects to take back into its own funds, and what is happening to the £35m Government grant  made in November 2012 (see posts below).

We have written in recent weeks to the Chair of the College Council and to the President and Rector Sir Keith O’Nions.  The brief replies we have received do not begin to answer our questions.  We have written again to John Anderson, who has been overseeing the Imperial West development.  Copies of our letters are here SHRA to IC Rector Feb 2013 and here SHRA to IC JA Feb 25th 2013.

It is not clear why the College feels it has to be so secretive.  It is a public body and (as a university) a charity.  It claims that it cannot release information on grounds of commercial confidentiality.   While it is true that universities now operate in a environment where they have to find funds from private as well as public sources, they are not bodies which should be driven by commercial gain.

We are simply asking for a proper explanation on how the figures stack up, on a development that will derive huge capital receipts and income flows from a 35 storey tower with 192 housing units, a hotel of approx 400 rooms, 600 units of profitable student housing and new commercial office space?   All of this is being packed onto a site purchased from the BBC for £28m in 2009, and is being built at heights and densities above those which London-wide and local planning policies would normally allow.

Since 2009, residential values in this part of London have gone up 50%.  As Kensington and Chelsea Council has noted is a recent report to the Government, the housing market in this part of London is hugely distorted by inflows of offshore capital.

RBKC quote data from estate agents Savills, estimating that with with new build apartments in this part of London, 37% are used as a second home and 27% for investment purposes and not lived in.  Up to 70% go to overseas buyers.

RBKC reckon that up to 40% of new build apartments in the borough will remain empty.   This is likely to prove the fate of Imperial Folly, which will then stand as a pointless (but visually intrusive) monument to the greed of investors and developers, and to a London housing market that increasingly excludes Londoners.

Given that the College seems determined to place itself at the heart of this dysfunctional nexus of global capitalism, the least it could do is to come clean on the figures.  Why is it so reluctant to release them?  What ‘competitors’ are going to make use of the information, and how would this do significant harm to a not-for-profit university body?

Some of the financial information we have managed to dig out from past College documents, and this is available elsewhere on this site.  But both the College and Hammersmith & Fulham Council council are being coy about the Financial Viability Assessments used at the time when planning permission was granted in July 2012.

We have now obtained a copy of one of the documents involved, as a result of FoI requests to the council.  This is a report from the District Valuation Service, and can be seen here Redacted_DVA report in the form in which it was provided.  The report is designed to establish whether the scheme is providing a sufficient amount of affordable housing, as required by law under planning policies.  The council’s conclusion was that no further affordable housing (or ‘key worker’ housing in Imperial’s case) could be achieved.

We do not find the document a very convincing analysis, and are currently pursuing a further FoI request with the College.  But if anything the College is getting more secretive rather than less.  It is notable that the minutes and agenda papers for its September 25th meeting are much less informative than in the past.  The agenda paper on the work of the Development Board simply states that all the material is commercially confidential.  Someone in the College has noticed that we take an active interest in what the College Council is discussing.

As a university body which promises in its mission statement ‘to engage with the world’, the College should not have a problem over openness and transparency with the public.  But it seems that it has.

So we hope the 700 guests at last night’s launch event enjoyed themselves.  The 700 households that this association represents will be continuing our battle to see the Imperial West development modified, before the present plans are built.  More news next month.

 

 

 

Next steps on the legal battle

The post below explains that lawyers acting for the St Helens Residents Association sent in January a ‘letter before action’ to Hammersmith & Fulham Council.  This set out two grounds for Judicial Review of the council’s decision to issue a planning permission for the second phase of the Imperial West development.

The council has since responded to this letter and their response is with our lawyers and Counsel.  Meanwhile we are busy raising more funds for the legal costs involved in fighting a court action.   The council will have set aside in its 2013/14 budget significant sums to defend the series of legal challenges that it now faces, on Shepherds Bush Market, Earls Court, and Imperial West.  It is Council Tax payers that foot the bill for these costs – all of which result from the council;’s cavalier approach to the planning system.

The next court hearing on one of several ongoing JRs on the Earls Court development (on the council’s sale of land to Capital and Counties) is due for an oral hearing in late April.

One aspect of the potential Judicial Review on Imperial West is the £35m government grant awarded to Imperial College, after the council’s Planning Applications Committee had examined the financial viability of the development and had concluded that it could finance no more affordable housing.

We have been pursuing FoI applications with the College and with the council, asking for copies of correspondence between the two parties on this subject.  The College has told us they have no such material, while the council has said that it has – but wishes to submit this documentation to a ‘public interest’ test before deciding whether to release it.

So we have asked the College to have another look at its records.  If it did not bother to notify the council of a £35m government grant, and its potential impact on the financing of the Imperial West scheme, it certainly should have done so.  This is not a small sum of money, and must have affected the financial viability assessment carried out by the District Valuer (an independent body).

We have yet to get an answer on where this £35m is going, and what public benefit it is meant to achieve?  The College has not answered our letter of 17th December (despite reminders).  You can access a copy of our letter to the College, from the link in the January 23rd post below.

We feel that this is a matter which is clearly in the public interest, and that Imperial College (a university with charitable status) should not be able to hide behind a blanket of ‘commercial confidentiality’.   So we await with interest to see if these documents will be released.

 

 

The legal battle begins

Hammersmith & Fulham Council issued the planning permission for Phase 2 of the Imperial West development on December 21st 2012.   This followed on from approval by the council’s Planning Applications Committee in July, endorsement by the Mayor of London, and several months of negotiations between the council and Imperial College on the detail of the Section 106 Agreement.

The St Helens Residents Assocation sent the council a ‘letter before action’ in early January 2013.   Advice from leading counsel Gregory Jones QC is that the council’s decision to approve the Imperial West planning application is unlawful.  Subject to the council’s response to our solicitor’s letter, the association intends to apply for judicial review of the decision.

The potential grounds for judicial review are twofold

  • the council erred in law in giving any weight to the emerging White City Opportunity Area Planning Framework
  • the council acted unlawfully by granting planning permission for a development which is in conflict with is Core Strategy policy on affordable housing, without any or any adequate reasons and having misdirected itself as to the correct meaning of policy.

Followers of this website will know the background to the White City Opportunity Area Planning Framework.   Billed as a strategic plan for the whole White City area, a first draft was published for public consultation in April 2011.  This was the document that introduced and promoted the idea of a cluster of very tall buildings adjacent to Westway – a planner’s vision of a ‘Gateway to London’ intended to justify for the 35 storey tower on the Imperial West site and its proposed 32 storey companion on the fomer Dairy Crest site.

A revised version of the WCOAPF was due to be published in late 2011, well before decisions on these two developments.  But publication was delayed, to early 2012, then July 2012, then to the autumn.  The latest promise is that the revised WCOAPF will be the subject of statutory public consultation in ‘Spring 2013′.  By this time, the future of 3 of the main 4 development sites in the Opportunity Area will already have been decided.  Public consultation will be a token exercise, carried out after the event.

The council has already had one such Supplementary Development Plan (for the Shepherds Bush Market area) quashed by the High Court as unlawful, in an important judgment in May 2012.  The similar document for the Earls Court area is the subject of another application for judicial review, brought by the tenants and residents of West Kensington and Gibbs Green.  In October 2012, Mr Justice Sycamore granted this latter application a full hearing, stating that ‘the lawfulness of the defendant’s masterplan for the area is clearly arguable and should be considered at a substantive hearing’.

So there is much water yet to flow under the bridge, in terms of the actions of Hammersmith and Fulham and the series of massive developments that its has encouraged along the H&F/Kensington and Chelsea corridor.   The courts move slowly, and it will be many months before these judicial reviews are decided.   In the meantime, Imperial College has its planning permission and local residents await the resumption of construction work on the site.

This website has sought to gather together the available information on the financing of the Imperial West development.   We have long argued that the commercial content of the scheme (including the residential tower, offices, and hotel) is excessive and aimed primarily at generating capital receipts and income streams for the Imperial College Fund.

A new issue over funding arises from the £35m grant awarded by HEFCE to the College in November, as a financial contribution to the Imperial West development.  When we asked what difference this injection of public money would make, the College responded that it would simply allow the works to start earlier.

There is no clarity as to what extra public benefit this £35m will bring, to a project supposedly being fully financed through a mix of College funds and private sector investment.  When the planning permission was granted to the College in July, the committee report stated that officers were confident that the scheme would be undertaken (i.e. its financial viability was assured).  When the College submitted a grant application to HEFCE a month later, for £35m, it stated ‘Without this contribution the College would be forced to postpone development of the Imperial West Technology Campus until the remaining funding required were to become available’.

Something is not right here.  We are pursuing these matters through a letter to the Chairman of the College Council, and through FoI requests to all the parties involved.

These are public bodies, dealing with large sums of public money, and we will not be fobbed off with inadequate answers.  A copy of our letter to the Chairman of the College Council (to which we have yet to receive a reply) is at this link SHRA to IC on HEFCE and financial viability. Dec 2012.final

If the public purse is contributing an additional (and unforseen) contribution of £35m to the Imperial west development, the least the College could do is to increase the element of key worker housing in the 35 storey tower, from its present one third.  Otherwise it appears that the College will simply need to raise £35m less via its financial partner (Voreda Capital) and the two partners will be able over time to bank the same sum as additional proceeds, and planning gain, from this controversial development.

 

 

Planning permission yet to be issued

As of November 2012, Hammersmith and Fulham Council has yet to issue a planning permission for Phase 2 of the Imperial West development.  Negotiations on the details of the Section 106 Agreement are still in progress.

We have asked for sight of a copy, so as to see what is happening about some of the community benefits that Imperial committed to when first submitting their proposals (such as a day nursery open to local people, and a health centre or polyclinic.  There has been no reply as yet from the council.

We have also written to Imperial to ask about the background to a £35m grant awarded to the College ‘to support the development of its new Imperial West Technology Campus’.  This grant is to go towards the costs of a ‘Research and Translation Hub’ within the development.

Does this extra Government funding change the financial context of the scheme?  It is not a trivial sum.  We wait to hear.

Boris gives the go ahead

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has given the go-ahead to the Imperial West scheme, leaving it to LB Hammersmith & Fulham to issue planning permission for the development.

This is despite Boris saying back in March, when the scheme first came before him, that he wanted the height of the 35 storey tower looked at again.  But that was then, and this is now.  Boris was in campaign mode back in March, for the London Mayoral elections, and taking some notice of public protests on the scheme.  Now, safely back as Mayor, his concerns have clearly gone away.  The tower has stayed at 35 storeys.

We had written in early September to ask both the GLA and LBHF when the Mayoral decision at ‘stage 2′ would be made, having previously been told it would be some time this month.   We had no response, until hey presto two days after the decision was taken we are told that all is done and dusted.  The necessary documents reached the Mayor on 12th September and by the 20th the GLA officer recommendation was approved.  We are still trying to find out how we could have known what was happening up at City Hall.

The GLA website publishes a weekly list of planning applications referred to the Mayor, but it seems to have no entries after June 2102 (NB since we first published this post, the listing has been updated – marvellous what a bit of publicity can do to galvanise bureaucracies).

The GLA officer report, recommending ‘on balance’ that the Imperial West development should be approved, can be read here pdu2540b_imperial_west

As with the report to the LBHF Planning Applications Committee, the GLA document goes to tortuous lengths to find sufficient justification to approve a development of this height and scale at this location.  It also attempts to address the various grounds for legal challenge, to which our lawyers alerted the council back in July (see earlier posts below).  We do not find these parts of the report very convincing, and we doubt if a High Court judge will either.

Fund raising from our members, to finance a legal challenge, is going well.  But we are not going to give more details on the subject on this public website.  Please get in touch if you are not already an association member, and have advice or financial support to offer.  You can email us at sthelensassn@aol.com

Boris, the ball is in your court

The decision of Hammersmith and Fulham Council on the Imperial West scheme remains subject to ‘no contrary direction’ by the Mayor of London.  Because of the scale and height of the proposed development, the planning application has to be agreed by Boris as well as the Borough.

Back in March (and before the London Mayoral elections) the GLA planners reviewed the proposals, and Boris specifically asked that the height of the tower be looked at again.  Imperial tweaked the design of the top of the tower and re-oriented it on the site.  But there was no reduction in height.

Now safely back for another term at County Hall, Boris may be less influenced than in March by public objections to the scheme.  But local residents are continuing to email mayor@london.gov.uk to say they think this gross overdevelopment of the site should not proceed.

Other things have also changed since the GLA last looked at the proposals, and not least the current legal challenges to the way in which Hammersmith & Fulham has been using Supplementary Planning Documents to pave the way for the more extreme planning proposals in the borough. GLA planners will find it harder this time round to rely on the infamous 2011 draft White City Opportunity Area Planning Framework, to justify letting through the Imperial West project.

See our SHRA letter to GLA 27 July 2012 for more details.  The GLA risk joining LBHF as co defendants to a Judicial Review application, if the Mayor does not intervene over this planning application.  The two bodies are already co-defendants on the legal challenge to the Earls Court scheme, following the success in the High Court of the shopkeepers of Goldhawk Road.

 

Imperial West planning application approved

To no great surprise, the Imperial West application was approved last night at a lengthy meeting of the LBHF Planning Applications Committee.  This decision remains subject to ‘no contrary direction’ by Boris Johnson, Mayor for London.  We will be turning our campaigning efforts in his direction, as well as meeting with lawyers Webster Dixon on the scope for judicial review of the council’s decision.

The text of the press release issued jointly by SHRA and Woodlands Area Residents is as follows:

COUNCIL APPROVES TOWER BLOCK DESPITE WARNINGS FROM LOCAL RESIDENTS THAT IT MAY BE UNLAWFUL

Hammersmith and Fulham Council allows 35-storey block of flats on Woodlands site.

Despite strong protests and objections, a London council has given approval to a massive development scheme that local residents groups warn may be unlawful.

After two and a half hours of debate, the Conservative majority on Hammersmith and Fulham Council pushed through approval for a further phase of development on the Woodlands site on Wood Lane in West London.

Imperial College acquired the site from the BBC in 2009. It has since built four blocks of student accommodation. In late 2011 the college applied for planning permission for further development, including a 35-storey block of flats, a hotel and 12 storey office buildings.

Woodlands Area Residents and the St Helens Residents Association oppose the plans. They argue that council planning policies do not provide permission for such tall buildings on the site, which is adjacent to residential streets and a conservation area in neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea.

“The council and the GLA gave Imperial an informal green light to these proposals two years ago,” says Henry Peterson, Chair of the St Helens Residents Association. “They are now struggling to justify a massive overdevelopment which makes no sense at this location. Some of the things said by planning officers at the committee meeting were greeted with laughter and disbelief by a large audience”

Hammersmith and Fulham Council this week withdrew plans to redevelop its own Town Hall after years of opposition from local residents and amenity groups. Council leader Nicholas Botterill conceded that the council had “listened and learned” in response to strong opposition from local residents and the concerns of the Greater London Authority over the height of proposed residential tower blocks.

The council does not seem to be listening to residents in the north of the borough, where it has identified White City as an Opportunity Area. However the latest planning framework for the area is still in draft, has yet to undergo statutory consultation, or be formally adopted.

Nevertheless, council planners recommended approval for the development of the Woodlands site. Although Labour councillors all voted against the application, it was approved by Conservative members who have majority control of the borough.

Representatives of local residents and amenity groups turned out to protest at the plans, carrying placards urging the council not to ignore the law.

Residents associations are now considering the case for legal review. This follows a similar case in the borough where a judge recently ruled that the council had not followed the correct planning procedures. They are calling on the Mayor of London to intervene, given the objections received from the adjacent borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which has also opposed the plans.

Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith and the Shadow Minister for Justice, has lent strong support to these local campaigns to protect the rights of residents. He attended the committee meeting and said: “I’m delighted that people across the borough are fighting back and I will do all I can to support Shepherds Bush, Hammersmith and West Kensington residents against the wreckers in the Town Hall.”

 

 

 

Decision due on July 25th

The planners at Hammersmith & Fulham have now redrafted sections of the report which they were forced to withdraw from the Planning Applications Committee on July 10th.

The revised report attempts to meet the various legal challenges which we and our lawyers (Webster Dixon) put to them.  We don’t think the new version helps the council’s position.  Our latest letter to councillors on the Planning Applications Committee is here SHRA to LBHF July 18.2012

The committee meets again on  Wednesday 25th July and the Imperial West application will be the first item on the agenda at 7pm.  Come and join us in front of the Hammersmith Town Hall, King Street, W6 9JU from 6.40 onwards.   Last time round, we had to stand everyone down at the last minute, when the report was withdrawn.  This time we think that the planning application will be discussed and decided, but check back here before you make the journey.  The council’s processes for making planning decisions are not running smoothly these days, and who knows what may happen next.

Imperial West decision deferred by LBHF (again)

For the third time, Hammersmith and Fulham Council has deferred a decision on the Imperial West Phase 2 application.  First it was meant to be decided by their Planning Applications Committee in March, then June and then July 10th.

Twenty four hours before the committee was due to meet, the council sent an email to interested parties saying: ‘The decision to withdraw the Application has been taken in order to provide officers with an opportunity to clarify certain matters in the planning report, in particular the policy context in which the development proposals fall to be assessed. Such clarification will assist Members in their consideration of the Application’.

What this means is that the council’s planning officers are finally waking up to the legal questions that we have posed to them, over many months. These relate to the status of the new draft version of the White City OAPF as opposed to the version adopted by the council in 2004.

The 2011 draft version introduced the specious idea of 100m towers along Westway as a ‘gateway to London’.  The 2004 version said (much more sensibly) that buildings north of the Westway should respect the neighbouring residential areas.

This ‘inconvenient truth’ has been resolutely ignored by Imperial’s consultants and LBHF planners.  But the successful legal challenge by the Shepherds Bush Market traders, and the letter sent by our legal advisers Webster Dixon, have made the councillors on the Planning Applications Committee stop to wonder if they were about to make an unlawful decision.  This can only be a good thing, if it offers hope that the massive over-development proposed in the Imperial West scheme gets a closer look.

The council says that the application will be back on the PAC agenda for July 25th.  Given that the council has already had over 6 months to assess the scheme, it is not clear what is going to change between now and then.  We wait to see the revised report and recommendation.

This very late deferral has meant that people planning to lobby at the Town Hall tomorrow July 10th now have no reason to go there.  We have contacted all our 280 members.  Sorry if you have had a wasted trip by the time that you read this, but it is really not our fault.  The council needs to get its act together.