Thursday 22 January 2015

A concept of place making, and the promotion of well being: the West Hendon Inquiry begins

The Holiday Inn, Brent Cross, is placed in perhaps one of the least attractive locations imaginable for any hotel: surrounded on all sides, as it is, by a stranglehold of motorways, high rise flats, an ageing, brutalist style shopping centre, a small industrial estate - and an abandoned rubbish dump. 

The River Brent, once an idyllic retreat, and the favoured subject of pre- Raphaelite Victorian artists like Maddox Brown, now runs through an ecologically barren concrete conduit, full of rusting supermarket trolleys, and plastic bags, waiting for the long promised restoration accompanying yet another 'regeneration' scheme, and serving as another psycho-geographically perfect metaphor, perhaps, for Broken Barnet, where the preservation of environment, if not of community, must accompany the profiteering of property developers.

Yes: to the Holiday Inn, then, yesterday, for the opening day of the West Hendon Housing Inquiry, instigated by the Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government, in order to hear objections to the compulsory purchase of residents homes, in the council owned estate, next to the Welsh Harp, before demolition makes way for a development of luxury housing by Barratts.

The Welsh Harp, of course, is a reservoir created in the 1830s, so as to ensure suffient supply of water for London's canal system. The River Brent flows in and out of it, connecting, for the purposes of our metaphorical journey, one focus of so called regeneration in the western side of the borough, with another, each with their separate story, but both with a common future, as part of a new page of history, refreshed by Tory policies of gerrymandering, social cleansing, and an unswerving support for the insatiable demands of profit hungry large scale developers. And so: West Hendon, then.

Arriving at the Holiday Inn on Tuesday morning, Mrs Angry was immediately distracted by the sight of the events board in the foyer, graced as you should expect, in Broken Barnet-Capitaville, by the corporate image of our new library providers, ie Starbucks: 

Barnet Council, Capita, and G4s: an interesting combination ...

The room was already filling with suits, the suits from Barnet, and Crapita, and Barratts. It became clear throughout the day that the men from Crapita were running the show, in fact. A man from Re foolishly tried sitting next to Mrs Angry and a Labour councillor, to eavesdrop, but was outed by Mrs Angry's crapitorial detector, and moved at the next break, having failed in his mission to reverse the networked surveillance techniques used by her to secure the intelligence on the alleged new library franchise plot, as revealed here.

The Inquiry was to be chaired by Inspector Zoe Hill, who ran the first day's proceedings with admirable tact, and was as accommodating as possible to all parties taking part. 

During the day, Mrs Angry noted, a security man she recognised from the Town Hall paced up and down the corridor outside the Inquiry room, as if they were expecting trouble from some of the residents. In fact the residents behaved impeccably, despite the severe provocation of some of the presentations, and the terrible situation they are in. Curiously, the security man was not in uniform, and if he was wearing his SIA badge, Mrs Angry could not see it, which would be questionable, if he was there on duty, one might think.

Another sign of unease from the local authority became visible once the Guardian journalist Rob Booth turned up, and started talking to the residents. Rob has of course written before about Barnet: the library occupation, and the state of the decaying mansions in Bishops Avenue: the latter subject as far a contrast as one could imagine from the story of West Hendon, and yet, equally valid as evidence of the decadent values of our Tory administration. 

The PR officer from the Town Hall hovered anxiously, watchfully, while residents spoke to the reporter - and seized the opportunity, as soon as possible to whisper in his ear the council's side of things. His article is here  

On the right hand side of the room sat Neil King, QC, counsel for Barnet Council and Barratts, with his assistant, and opposite them on the left, representing a number of residents facing compulsory purchase of their homes, Dan Knowles from Sawyer Fielding, a surveyor specialising in this field of work, who has 26 clients in the next phase of CPOs, and another 12 to come next. He has been involved in negotiations regarding other local schemes such as Stonegrove.

Sitting next to Mr Knowles was Jasmin Parsons, a resident and leaseholder, representing the interests of many other residents, other leaseholders and tenants facing eviction. Or, as she put it - everyone who wanted a voice at this Inquiry.

It was clear from the onset, therefore, how disadvantaged, even here, are the people facing the destruction of their homes in the course of the development. Where is the equality of access to justice, when those affected cannot afford to present their case through the services of a highly experienced, and no doubt very well paid QC, and must challenge the so carefully crafted presentations of Barnet's senior officers, and senior executives from Barratts?

However well the Inspector runs this Inquiry, the inequality of representation is a fact that cannot be denied, and this will be almost certain to deliver an outcome which does not reach the expectations of residents, for that reason, and others too. The remit of the Inquiry, as Ms Hill so patiently, and repeatedly explained, is limited, and cannot address areas regarding the planning application itself.

Anyone with any understanding of the background to this story would surely agree that in regard to the limitations imposed by such a narrow interpretation of the Inquiry is the absence, from the documentation submitted to the Inquiry so far, of the original agreement with Barratts: the PDA and viability studies.

Naturally it is in the interests of both Barnet Council and Barratts to continue to refuse to put this information in the public domain, on the grounds of 'commercial sensitivity' - the reason always given, by the authority to FOI requests which seek to hold contractual partners of the authority to account. This might be a bona fide excuse at an earlier part of a tender process: it is hard to see any justification for continuing to withold this vital information so many years later, and at the point of a formal Inquiry.

It was ironic, in fact, that there were several references throughout the first day to the financial viability of the development by the counsel for the council and contractors, asking us to sympathise with the financial constraints they claimed compelled them to push forwards with the phase of the scheme that is shortly to remove so many residents of the estate from their homes.

We do not know how true the claims made by the council and the developers really are. We do not know how much profit they stand to make from the scheme. We do not know how much they paid the taxpayers of this borough for the land they are building on. We do not know if it is true that they paid nothing at all. We do not know how much the land they have taken is worth now, compared to when the agreement was made. And nor does the Inspector: so how can she possibly fairly assess the arrangements for the compulsory purchase orders of the properties in question?

Last year the ICO ordered the disclosure, in part, of the viability report concerning the Heygate regeneration, in Southwark. 

This finding ought surely to apply to Barnet and Barratts, especially as the time that has elapsed since the agreement is so long, and any argument extending to the 'operating model' and 'projections' are no longer relevant. Ms Hill explained that she would need a 'compelling reason' to ask for the viability report to be appended to the Inquiry documents. One might imagine that if the residents had the privilege of the same degree of legal representation as the council and developers, that compelling reason would be strongly argued on their behalf.

The proceedings began with an introduction of representatives, and reference to the objectors concerned. Neil King QC stated there were now 77 remaining objections, and he proceeded to deliver what an opening address, which was meant to be a summary of his clients' position, but became, as Ms Hill remarked, with commendable restraint, 'lengthy, as openings go ...'

The essential point of the address was to explain to the Inquiry why the Compulsory Purchase Orders were necessary - why Phase 3 of the development was itself a key component of the programme of work,  and why failure to proceed would put the financial viability of the whole scheme at risk, or rather their investment would not see an adequate return.

Ah, well then, was the immediate thought of several of us listening to this tale of woe: let us see the evidence, the details of the viability study, so as to assess for ourselves the truth of such an assertion.

The West Hendon 'regeneration' was, we heard, was mindful of the human rights implications that would ensue the purchase and demolition of so many properties. Yes, people would lose their homes, but there was 'a compelling case' in the public interest that outweighed the 'private loss' of the residents so affected. There would be 'social and economic benefits'.

We heard a fairly dismissive description of the estate as a 1960s large panel construction which had had 'a series of problems' - poor insulation, lighting and thermal difficulties - management problems.

We were not told why Barnet Council, as landlord, had failed to address such problems, for some reason, but residents later raised this in a series of questions.

Phase 3, we were told, would, once the homes in question had been demolished, all traces removed and landscaped, provide a visual link to the Welsh Harp. The architect, Hendrik Heyns, would, in the new development,  create a 'clear hierarchy' of buildings, urban blocks gathered around courtyards.

The development complies with the London plan, the core strategy and UDP. Mrs Angry did not hear any reference to density, which was odd, as she was pretty sure someone had claimed the density of the scheme exceeds recommended levels.

But you know, the key strategic aim of the plan was - no, not making shed loads of money, of course, what was it ... checking notes ... ah: The Promotion of Well Being

Not sure whose well being. Perhaps the well being of the well rewarded senior executives of Barratts, but certainly not the leaseholders facing the compulsory purchase of their homes, or the tenants going through the distress of eviction: the process of 'decanting', as they call it - those whose community is being ripped apart, torn down and eradicated so as to make room for people with more money and more inclined to vote for the Tory administration which approved the scheme in the first place.

But still we sat listening to Mr King, and heard him tell us all about the 'variety of economic and social benefits' ... high quality homes, better management etc etc. 

The pledges made to residents, around the only time they have been balloted as to their opinion of the development, even though the development over which they were balloted was not the same development being built now ... and even though those residents are being effectively largely excluded from any chance of a home in the new buildings.

We heard that 'changes had to be made', in regard to the pledges, due to 'changed' economic factors. We are not in a position to judge the truth of this, because, let us say it again, we do not know the financial details hidden in that viability study.

We were reminded that the Inquiry could not be used to contest the level of offers made to leaseholders. It was not a valuation tribunal. Just as well, from their point of view, of course.

Compulsory Purchase Orders, we heard, are 'a postive tool in planning'.

More references, of many more throughout the day, to 'decanting'.
past tense: decanted; past participle: decanted
gradually pour (wine, port, or another liquid) from one container into another, typically in order to separate out sediment.

Tenants, non secure tenants, moved to the estate and kept there for years but not allowed the dignity of formal long term protection of rights: human detritus, to be removed at the will of the council and their developers.

Decanted, like the dregs at the bottom of a cheap bottle of wine: an term so offensive, so dehumanising, but so casually used that its offensive implications simply do not register with the housing officers and developers, and their lawyers and apologists, who so easily overlook the real suffering caused by their actions and decisions. 

Actions and decisions all in the pursuit of profit, led, in this case, by the lure of private profit from public land, subsidised by the public purse: by you, and me, and most offensive of all, by the taxes of the working people of West Hendon being thrown out of their homes, and airbrushed out of the lovely photographs in the advertisements for Hendon Waterside.

A break then: and we were allowed to take photographs, if we wished. Mrs Angry took this one of Jasmin Parsons, peering at the model of the estate where she lives: behind her resident Kalim Khalick and Dan Knowles talk to the Guardian's Rob Booth.

After the break, it was time for witness evidence from Mr Martin, described on the fact sheet as: Martin Cowie, BA (Hons) DIP TP, LBB Interim Assistant Director of Strategic Planning, Regeneration and Transport. (We like Interims, in Barnet, don't we? Except of course 'Re', the Barnet-Capita hybrid, the Joint Venture, is rather more Capita, than Barnet, other than in terms of burden of risk).

Mr Cowie was there to tell us all about 'LBB's Regeneration Objectives'. This began with a brief history of the West Hendon scheme, beginning in what is, in Capitaville, prehistory:  2002, when a Labour-Libdem Coalition (yes, can you believe it?) thought it ought to abide by the principles of the Decent Homes strategy. Not a bad idea, you might agree. Well, not, of course if you are a Barnet Tory councillor, and take over the administration shortly afterwards. Decent Homes? For poor people? For f*cks sake: what were they thinking?

Mr King took Mr Cowie through his statement, in summary, a process which promised to be almost as long in summary as the summary of Mr King's opening remarks. So, from 2002, and the prospect of Decent Homes, to 2015, and a development bearing no resemblance to the original proposals and pledges, but now a luxury build from which the local community was excluded, and indeed will be removed, in order to facilitate its creation.

The change in the developement was due, said Mr Cowie, to 'changing economic circumstances' but he held that the scheme would be 'a inclusive place for all sections of the community'. What was to be avoided was having 'pockets of the new scheme sitting in an 'old and unattractive setting. This would, Mrs Angry could see, be most unfortunate, and it was lucky that the council and developers would make a lovely new view of the Harp, by knocking down a few homes. 

As Mr Cowie told us, with an admirably straight face, the concept of place making is very important to the council

Ah yes: place making. Love that. Easy, see: you take a place, and you turn it into ... another place. A different sort of place, obviously, without any poor people in it. And if any poor people get in the way of the new place, you decant them. 

Time for objectors to ask Mr Cowie questions.

Mr Knowles asked points of information regarding owner occupiers and tenants whose circumstances would appear not to have been addressed by the recent offers from Barratts. Mr Cowie was uncertain. They're not allowed to come back, claimed a woman in the public seats, seemingly better informed.

Jasmin Parsons asked about Ramsay Close which has now been removed from the scheme: why? 

Leaseholder Kalim Khalick asked about the state of the buildings as described in the report: you were the managers, he reminded the Barnet officer. And he pointed out the amount of work for which he and other leaseholders were now being billed: £10,000 worth of maintenance.

Local Labour councillor Devra Kay asked about the infrastructure that the huge increase in population will require, and the state of progress in agreeing the delivery of schools, GPs and so on. It seemed clear from the response that nothing much was in place yet, nor was likely to be in time for the new residents.

Jasmin Parsons raised a point about references to deprivation in regard to the estate. Mr Cowie advised her that it was defined by government. She felt that the references implied the residents were people 'living in squalor' - that is how we see you describing us ... She pointed out that in 2002, the council had stated it would not be doing any more major maintenance. Residents had asked for documentation regarding maintenance and inspection - but it had still not appeared. And the economic changes? There had been an upturn, so where was the argument.

Mr Cowie stated he could only restate some of the key points, but then went on to assert that West Hendon suffered from problems associated with 'large post war council estates'.  It was, he said 'as simple as that'. West Hendon, he added, rather ridiculously, 'would not be an attractive place, fifty years hence ...' He meant, of course, the estate, left as it is: but the estate has been neglected, and the idea of refurbishment ignored, once the prospect of handing it over to developers had taken hold. Jasmin alleged that the council actually refused government money to improve the estate so as to be able to follow its own plans for development.

Kalim asked again about the issue of supposed economic benefits. They were knocking down the shops, for a better view, and a higher price for properties. Where were the 1500 new households going to shop? Where were the promised construction jobs for the local people? What was the economic benefit to the community? 

There is no community, said a woman behind us: it's going, going, gone ...

Mr Cowie burbled on rather frantically now about a 'significant uplift' to the area, as a result of the spending power of the swanky new residents. The truth is that anyone with the means to buy one of the luxury homes in Hendon Waterside is going to be severely disappointed to see the state of the local amenities and shops: the level of gentrification they will no doubt require to make them feel more at home is a long, long way off. Last time Mrs Angry read the marketing blurb, potential buyers were being advised that they would find all  they need in Hampstead ...

A question from resident Jackie Coleman. They talk about the visual impact: what about the human impact, in destroying a whole community? You are making out these buildings are for us, she said, they are for the private sector ... she said her neighbours had gone, and so had the wildlife from the Harp.

Cowie was talking even more incomprehensibly now, about unfortunate impacts, well burst, in many ways. Eh?

Dan Knowles introduced the theme that neither the council nor the developers want to discuss: the pledges made to residents, which they feel are now all being broken. 

You will have a brand new home
All will be housed on the new development
You will have a choice of landlord
You will have a choice of where to move
You have a real say in the regeneration
York Memorial Park will not be touched
Homeowners properties will be bought at current housing prices
No major works will be undertaken while the regeneration is under construction

It is fair to assume, he said that public opinion, if it were to be re-balloted, would not be so much in the council's favour ...

Mr Cowie tended not to agree, and tried to convince us that not so many of the pledges had been thrown out. 

Kalim said that if the pledges had not changed, 'none of us would be in this building'.

After lunch, the session resumed with Matt Calladine, Head of development for Barratt London, sitting in the hot seat, to delight us all with his vision of the 'Scheme description and commitment to delivery'.  Mr King took him through his statement. 

It transpired that they had indemnified the council's CPO arrangements, and were paying the costs of the Inquiry. Mrs Angry resolved to eat more biscuits, and appropriate more bottles of water. Generous of them, you might think, but then: they are getting a luxury housing development from us, so: fair enough, really, isn't it?

Mr Calladine had clearly been doing his homework during the lunch break and was keen to mop up any unfortunate misunderstandings or omissions in the contribution by Mr Cowie.

He told us there had been a test, a couple of weeks ago, to see how many people working in site were indeed, as promised to residents originally, from the local area. He proudly announced that 21% of workers were from NW9, or immediate postcodes. Mrs Angry thought he seemed to expect us to be impressed by that. But erm: that means that 79% do not, and of the 21%, there is no proof that any are from the local community in West Hendon, as NW9 is rather large, and - surrounding postcodes?

More talk of phasing - and 'decanting' and the dire consequences to their profits, should people not feck off out of it and let them knock their homes down. Mrs Angry's terminology, rather than Mr Calladine's, of course.

Phase 3 required this, we heard, in order to provide 'a gateway to the site ... permeability' and, oh: a view to the Welsh Harp for those who are ready to pay big wonga for it. To hell with the 'decanting block'. Move along please, you're spoiling the view, don't you know?

Well, the upshot of it all, as Mr King reminded us, is that 'times have changed, and that is a fact'. Facts is facts, in Capitaville, as they are in Coketown. We live in Hard Times, do we not?

Our latterday Gradgrind continued to lead the man from Barratts through more a difficult terrain of unpalatable facts into a nicer place, where he could be seen to offer encouragement to residents to drop their objections, and learn to love Barratts and Barnet Council ... offers dependent on individuals' private arrangements, of course.

After a break, Dan Knowles started to question Mr Calladine.

Viability could change month by month: how was it assessed?

- There were regular updates.

Of the 21% of workers were any noted specifically as being from the West Hendon estate?

- No.

Shared equity: only ten properties being made available - how many of them are actually affordable?

- 90%.

Only one property was actually affordable to those eligible, according to Mr Knowles, for 18 of the clients he represents.

Mr Calladine suggested they could sit down and talk ...

Ms Hill hoped they might be able to find common ground.

Jasmin asked a very interesting question.

Originally there was no shared equity available: all this was a recent proposal, and only through pressure - why?

- He wasn't sure of the historic circumstances.

Promises being made so late, yet they still want people out by the end of March!

- Now looking no earlier than the end of June.

York Memorial Park (which the original pledge had promised to preserve, but was given to Barratts to build on). You are splitting up the remaining part of the park, splitting it in two, taking away our football pitch.

-You can access other playing fields, over Silkstream Bridge.

But we can't take part in activities together, playing football, looking on, interacting ...

-We are enhancing it, not dissecting it.

You've stolen York Memorial Park to open up the area, to make a green concrete corridor to link  the Welsh Harp with the Edgware Road.

-This is a permeable and open scheme.

About the drones that you were flying over our homes, on Sunday ... (This was an incredible despatch, from the war zone that is West Hendon - Barratts apparently using surveillance and photography not just of the building site but the estate, with no consultation - police were called).

- This was the fault of the Sales and Marketing Team's consultants, who were taking advantage of lovely weather. It will not happen again.

Kalim asked what was going to happen between the time when their local shops are demolished, and the appearance of new ones. It transpired there would be expected to be a gap of at about two years. Shops do naturally evolve, he said. But the area, according to the man from Barratts 'would regenerate itself.

Funny, thought Mrs Angry: I thought that was what you were supposed to do, on our behalf?

You talk about the area as if it is just West Hendon Estate, said Kalim: there are thousands of others living around here, West Hendon is not just a housing estate, there is a community on both sides of the Edgware Road. 

It's about getting a diverse community, he was informed. The local cafe is doing wonderful business. Hmm, thought Mrs Angry: from the workers wanting a full English. Can't quite see the Russian oligarchs sitting down to a nice fry up. Still: there's a Carluccios in Hampstead.

And so the questions continued. Residents were assured that there will be enough units available for shared equity for those interested. The point that almost none are now eligible was not answered by vague hints that the developers would now be prepared to consider individual cases.

Adam  Langleben tried to find out how many properties had been marketed overseas. 

I couldn't tell you, said Mr Calladine.

Was it true there was a 20% profit margin for Barratts?

Mr Calladine was not commenting.

Wasn't it true that the properties were really only affordable for young professionals on high salaries?

I understand your point of view. Some people, he said ... may choose to live elsewhere.

Or more likely, thought Mrs Angry, the majority of people in the local community will have no choice at all, and will be driven out, decanted, made homeless, rootless, dispersed - while Barratts sit back, count the money, and enjoy the benefits of their development, on our land, their West Hendon.

The Inquiry is expected to continue for eight days.

No comments: