Tuesday 12 September 2017

Heart and Soul: the Lodge plans rejected, in a victory for Victoria Park

Residents and campaigners, including Mary O'Connor and Roger Chapman, (wearing his lucky tie) packed out the committee room for the Lodge plans meeting

The story of the former park keeper's Lodge, in Victoria Park, Finchley, is something that is so much more than the a tale of one building, one park, or even 'One Barnet', the last, terminal stage of the 'easycouncil' model of local government.

It holds within it, this story, the essence of everything that is wrong with this borough, and this country: the prostitution of our public services, our public institutions, our built heritage, and our greenspaces, to the rule of profit. 

This was a tale of one small historic building, in one park, a recreation ground created by a conservative, philanthropic, benevolent paternalism of the past, put up for sale by a latterday, post Thatcherite, Conservative council determined to discard the role of unpaid civic duty, and indeed their roles as trustees of the park, in preference for an easier life as an easycouncil commissioner. 

This newly defined role enables them to continue to accept a generous allowance from the residents and tax payers of Broken Barnet, while happily handing over responsibility for the authority's functions to profiteering contractors - or dumping it on the backs of volunteers. No volunteers to be found in the council chamber, of course, since the departure of the much respected Tory member Leslie Sussman, who diligently served his community for many years - without taking a penny in allowance. 

In a committee room, one night last week, however, we did see some signs of hope that some of our newer Tory representatives would like to experiment with the idea of engaging with their constituents in a way that is ... kind of like it was meant to work, in the first place. 

That is to say, listening to their views, and, well ... representing them. And acting upon them. Why this miraculous event took place now, at this point, is something we shall contemplate later, and in the context of looming electoral doom - but: it certainly was not what was expected, when the meeting began. 

Mrs Angry had turned up at the Town Hall, on Thursday night, very definitely more in hope than expectation of a rejection of the plans, but wandered upstairs early, as usual, in order to find the papers and read through them again. 

It was quiet, just a handful of other residents waiting and wondering how the evening would go. And then: just before the meeting began, a wonderful sight: held downstairs by security staff, a crowd of residents, almost all of them unknown to Mrs Angry, now moved up the stairs and along the corridor to the committee room. This was a very touching thing to see - that at 6pm on a wet Thursday night, so many people would make the effort to come along to remind councillors whose park it was, and that they had no intention of letting anyone knock down the Lodge, and build a block of flats in its place ...

We took our places, and so did the councillors. Rather interestingly, none of the Tories, at this stage, made any declarations of interest, a development that led to some heckling by members of the public ...

Apart from the Chair, Eva Greenspan, Tory members present were Melvin Cohen - who said not a word all evening, Gabriel Rozenberg, Shimon Ryde, and for Labour, Arjun Mittra, Jim Tierney, and Alan Schneiderman.

The atmosphere in the room was tense, and watchful, as the meeting began with a speech from Roger Chapman, a resident and a former senior planner - with more than thirty years experience - and an interest in local history. 

Mr Chapman laid into the reports now presented to the committee, and pointed out, in an authoritative and incisive summary of the case, the serious flaws in the arguments used to sanction the planning officers' rather incomprehensible recommendation to approve the application. He pointed out, amongst other matters, the interesting fact that the authority's own documents acknowledged the authenticity of the covenant which protects this side of Victoria Park. 

Labour's Arjun Mittra and Tory Shimon Ryde both commented on the compelling argument that he presented that the Lodge site still remains, despite the controversial sale, as part of the park. He also made very important points that had been overlooked by the Highways report, such as the lack of turning space for the cars which would be entering and exiting the flats, at such a dangerous junction and entrance to the park.

Up now came a contribution from a resident apparently in support of the application, and who last year had meetings with officers about the money from the sale, and how it should be spent, in regard to the park. Money for 'improvements' which are not needed, but if they were, should not be dependent on the sale of land within the park itself.

To a certain amount of heckling from the public gallery, this supporter suggested that the Edwardian arts and crafts style Lodge was not of any real merit. 

Victoria Park Lodge, before it was put up for sale by Barnet Council

He thought that apart from the benefit of the money from the sale, the new flats would offer some sort of 'surveillance' over the park. He denied that the playground the flats would immediately overlook was used by families with small children. 

This is not so: although young teenagers often play basketball at the far end of the area, the section which would be directly under the gaze of the windows and balconies, right next to the playground, contains barred swings for babies and toddlers, and a slide suitable only for very young children. As Labour's Alan Schneiderman later pointed out, unseen viewers looking down from a block of flats do not represent the sort of surveillance parents would want to see. He also asked if it were not advisable to separate the potential accrual of £600k from the sale of the Lodge from the issue of whether or not the Lodge should be developed.

The next speaker was local Labour councillor Ross Houston, who summarised the many reasons why he supported residents' concerns about the plans: that such a development simply does not fit here; the traffic issues - that Long Lane is a very busy road, near to many schools ... Tory member Gabriel Rozenberg had already pointed out that the entrance adjacent to the Lodge inevitably had many small children running into the park, who would be at risk, should any access to cars be allowed as a result of this proposal.

Another local councillor, veteran Labour member Jim Tierney, who has lived not far from the park for many years, and is one of the few members who understand the historical context of ... well, almost everything ... also spoke, at some length, about the proposed development. The Chair tried to get him to hurry up and finish, at one point - We have had this park for 117 years, he admonished her: So don't be rushing me. You can give the ward councillor a few minutes

Cllr Tierney listed all the planning and highways issues, and the terrible precedent it would make, to allow development in Victoria Park, but he spoke with most feeling about the park itself, and its creation by local people at the end of the nineteenth century, figures such as 'Inky Stephens', the former Finchley MP, and all the others who had subscribed towards the purchase of the land, to commemorate the life of Queen Victoria, and to secure the park for ever for local people, with a carefully written covenant which had been simply ignored, it seems, when the Lodge was sold: but cannot be ignored when it comes to any question of development.

Victoria Park, said Cllr Tierney, in his soft Irish voice, is the soul, and the heart, of Finchley's history and heritage

Heart and soul: two things to which we rarely hear reference, in the committee rooms of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Enough of sentiment for the past: here is the shadow of the future - up to the table came a representative of the developer's agent.

He appeared to be puzzled as to why residents would not welcome what he thought was a marvellous development, and one that would bring immense benefit to Victoria Park. He was clearly aggrieved at the suggestion that residents had not been properly consulted: the agents had hand delivered seventy leaflets about the plans, he claimed. Where, was not clear. Mrs Angry certainly didn't get one, or see one, or meet anyone who had one. 

He meandered on to the subject of crime in the park, which he thought was a good reason to build a block of flats. That would be the old 'surveillance' idea, one must assume. New residents standing at the window, with night vision binoculars, scanning the park, looking for anything which might stop the online commenters in 'support' of the plans, who live in another part of the borough, from dropping by for a midnight ramble, as they claimed in their comments that they like to do.

The agent also said the Lodge had been neglected for '20 years' - clearly not true. Until the council put the property on its bargain basement property sale list, there was a family with young children who lived there. True, the property was then left pointlessly empty when the council found out about the covenant, and the gate and fences left unattended until residents complained, but then when it was sold, the property was renovated, if only in a limited way, and once more has had people living there. Until the week of the meeting, that is. And now again, since the meeting, the lights are on in the property, and clothes on the washing line, evident to any passer by. Most puzzling.

And unfortunately a complaint about negligence sat badly with the evidence shown in some of the photographs that planning officers now displayed on an overhead projector.

But here the fun began.

Tory Cllr Rozenberg, most gratifyingly, now launched a merciless, forensic interrogation of the developer's agent, who was clearly unprepared for his questions. 

Hats off: it was a masterly display, and of the type we rarely see, in the committee rooms of Broken Barnet.

Until then, residents had been unclear as to how the meeting would go, or how the Tory members would approach the highly controversial plans. No doubt remained now. The Tory councillors - or at least those of them who spoke, as one remained silent throughout -  were as appalled as the residents.

The councillor wanted the agent to explain what had happened to some of the fine architectural features of the Lodge; the period features. Specifically the elongated chimney, and the terracotta finials. 

The chimney had been cut in half, and the lovely finials knocked off the roof, in the middle of the night, in an apparent act of random vandalism, by parties unknown, within a day of the Residents Forum where these details had been mentioned, as proof of the building's historic character.

The agent said he could not comment.

Cllr Rozenberg continued, referring to what he described as a state of 'squalor' now clearly demonstrated in the officers' photographs, which showed that for some reason, bags of rubbish had been pushed into the gap between one side of the Lodge and the boundary hedge: hidden from view from the angle of the street, but making a wonderful subject for photographers of neglected sites ready for demolition and development. (See above).

Why had this rubbish been allowed to accumulate? Surely no landlord would tolerate such an awful mess - and does the council not collect rubbish from this address?

No explanation.

The councillor now drew attention to the grafitti on the property, including what he described, with commendable restraint, as a 'green phallus'. 

The agent was lost for words, once more.

Yet there it was, on the projected image above our heads, an urban, twenty first century variation on a theme more usually associated with pagan hill figures carved into the English landscape: a symbol of virility - or defiance. 

The public gallery tittered, as Mrs Angry's over active imagination considered the possibility that this was some sort of manifestation of the Green Man of Broken Barnet, the guardian of our landscape, the protector of our open spaces, leaving his marker, right there, staring in the face of would be developers ... and leaving a warning to the men from Capita, and our elected representatives, to leave our park alone.

The fields lie sleeping.

Present at the committee table were a planning officer, and a consultant who had produced the rather elliptical Highways report. Now it was their turn to speak. As they were recommending this development, they were there to put the case on behalf, effectively, of the developer, and yet, at the same time, advise the councillors on the merits and lawfulness of the proposals. An impossible conflict of roles, you might think - and one complicated by the unique commercial context of the contracted planning service.

The planning officer agreed that there had been a 'substantial' level of objection to the plans (clearly ignored by the planners when making the recommendation), and also admitted that throughout the consultation there had been a series of 'issues' with the website. Indeed there had. The question, unasked, by them, was if the consultation therefore had been, as required by law, adequate, fair, and meaningful. The evidence would suggest otherwise.

It would, in fact, seem to be that there had been a remarkably successful process of 'insultation',  (Copyright G. Roots, 2017, see previous post), rather than any demonstration of meaningful consultation, in regard to the plans to demolish the Lodge, and replace it with a block of flats. 

Right from the off: starting with the decision, during August, a month when so many residents were away, as with last year's plans, to notify the thousands of users of Victoria Park by the means of one thin A4 piece of paper, shoved into an open flimsy cover, and tied the wrong way round on a lamp post as far as possible from the Lodge site, even though there was a perfectly good post right bang outside the building. 

The rain soon soaked through the notice, of course, and made it even more ... unnoticeable.

Residents complained: and pointed out this was utterly inadequate. After much lobbying more notices were put up, in the same flimsy open covers, it carried on raining, and they got wet, and became illegible. Residents' pleas for laminated notices, and notices in the park's own readymade, covered noticeboards by the two main entrances (one by the Lodge) were ignored by Capita Re planning officers. It was pointed out that Capita Re Highways officers use laminated notices, twice the size - this was repeatedly ignored too. Why?

Because the original notice had been hopelessly inadequate, and had affected the rights of residents to be properly notified, when the extra flimsily covered notices were put up, the dates of the consultation had to be amended. And it was agreed only now that all who had commented last year should be notified in writing. This caused enormous confusion over consultation dates with residents. 

It is fair to say that the only way most residents were notified was by local campaigners, like Mary O'Connor, see below, who spent their own time and money printing leaflets, and distributing them in and around the park.

Mary O'Connor during last year's application: pic courtesy local Times Group

Following on from the case of the mysteriously anonymised 'supporting' comments last year (only resolved by complaining to the Chief Executive, and many of them consequently exposed as associates of the developer), this year we had more issues with the online comments process. 

A number of residents reported to Mrs Angry that their objections had gone missing, and some had noted the date on which this had occurred. Had anyone removed them? Or had they been lost, somehow? 

At the very least, it would seem that there was a vulnerability in the system which put personal data at risk.

At the time of the disappearance, one of the residents had calculated, the number of objections lost represented about 21% of all comments: clearly a statistically significant figure. And yes: it seemed all the missing comments were objections, with one exception. 

That exception was allegedly - and we use the term here because of the history of questionable comments last year - from a woman (calling herself 'Mr') apparently supporting the plans in terms of a rather offensive remark - because of what he/she claimed was the 'raping history' of the park. Clearly an absurd and repellent remark ... and the only supporting one to disappear. 

A long, long series of emails took place over the weeks of the 'consultation', trying to establish how the disappearance had happened. After a while this was blamed on IDOX, the third party providers of Capita Re's planning portal. Ok: ask them to explain. After more time went by, we heard planning officers were informed by IDOX that this must be due to an 'outage' on a certain night in July. Oh. Very interesting. Because by then the date on which the act of disappearance had occurred had been provided to Mrs Angry: and ... well, well: it pre-dated the date of the 'outage'. 

The officer maintained this was still the probable cause. Mrs Angry asked if Capita, or IDOX, were in the process of re-writing the laws of physics, or rather the law of cause and effect, in order to explain how an event may happen after the consequence? Or perhaps they subscribe to the Jungian theory of synchronicity, which holds that there is another universal law, one of 'meaningful coincidences'? That must be it.

Next came the response that now they thought it was the system overloading. Even though ... the disappeared comments were left on a range of dates? And how curious that this applied only to objections, with the one exception previously noted. Whatever the cause, clearly an unreliable system, in which we may not invest any degree of confidence,

This issue was still unresolved by the time of Thursday's meeting. As was the fact that Capita Re officers had unaccountably failed to upload sixty other objecting comments - sent only privately as an unasked for FOI response, before the meeting, but not put in the public domain. Why not?

The senior Capita Re planning officer who had dealt with all these complaints was, as it turned out, the very same one sitting at the committee table, defending the decision to recommend approval of the developers' application. 

Yes, despite only 69 mostly questionable comments in support of the plans - and more than 450 objections against, almost all from local residents outraged by the proposal to build flats in their park, and listing many very sound and reasoned grounds for objection, that met all the planning requirements for refusal. And despite the rather curious Highways report that failed to address the full impact, in terms of raised risk of accidents as a result of allowing a block of flats in the park, with access and parking for a number of cars, right by the busy entrance, at an already very dangerous junction.

And so, apart from the failure in the process of consultation, here was another reason for concern over the recommendation: the very real conflict of interests posed by the way in which Capita Re manages the privatised system of planning, in Broken Barnet. 

At a Re contract review meeting with residents earlier this summer, concerns about this issue were raised with two Tory members, councillors Zinkin and Finn. They were clearly dismayed at the level of discontent among residents over the way planning is now managed - or not - and the poor standard of enforcement of breaches of planning conditions. 

Cllr Finn had stated, rather unconvincingly, that he did not think there was any problem with the multiplicity of roles played by Capita in these services, and other functions of the outsourced council. (And remember Capita is also a developer, which has the potential to complicate things even further). Finn thought there must be 'Chinese Walls' and all sorts of safeguards to ensure there was no conflict. He is wrong: in fact there would appear to be no evidence of any system that properly mitigates against such a risk - or, equally importantly, the risk of the perception of conflict of interest. Mrs Angry understands, moreover, that this is an issue that has been reported to the authority's external auditors.

And the Lodge case is a good example of this unmitigated risk: with the same officers giving fee based, private advice to the applicant, information which to we are not party; overseeing the process of consultation, and then making the recommendation to approve the plans. This is, by any reasonable standard, simply not acceptable: not transparent, or fair.

Now that planning is part of a profit making business, rather than an in house process meant to work for the local community, are planning officers under pressure from senior managers to reach targets of approved applications? 

Where are the checks and balances that should be in place to ensure that we have a service that works for residents and taxpayers, and does not prioritise what is best for Capita?

Back to the meeting.

The Highways consultant said he understood the points about safety. But of course it had been councillors and residents at the meeting, rather than officers, who had pointed out the huge risks to children running into the park, in this area, and the risk from traffic at a dangerous junction.

He commented only that it was the duty of parents to teach them the Highway Code. 

In fact, in Mrs Angry's view at least, it is the duty of planning and highways officers to consider the impact of developments within public parks, in terms of safeguarding children, but we had seen little evidence of that.

Tory Shimon Ryde said that he hardly knew where to begin with this application ... that the Lodge was ancillary to the park. Labour's Alan Scheiderman said we want the park preserved and enhanced, not developed.

Well: by now it was clear that the meeting was not going the way the developers wanted; and it was also clear that the officers at the table were somewhat taken aback by an unprecedented level of criticism, couched in such robust terms, by the Tory members. 

The mood of the residents crowding out the room lifted, and we watched carefully now as they negotiated the grounds for refusal, which the planning officer seemed to want to remain the same as the previous year. Members would not allow this, however, seeing the danger of further attempts to develop the site, should it not be made absolutely clear that the Lodge and its grounds are still, to all intents and purposes, part of the park.

The vote, when it came, was unanimous - albeit the third Tory member, Councillor Melvin Cohen, appeared slightly slower to raise his hand in opposition, until the last moment.

The application was unanimously rejected.

All very well. An impressive performance from the two Tory members who had questioned the applicant and officers. The fact remains, however, that the Tory group as a whole had originally approved the sale of the Lodge both in principle, when Finchley MP Mike Freer was leader, and then in practice, when the property was sold, in a cash purchase, to the current apparent owner. We say 'apparent', as the circumstances of the sale were rather puzzling, with a change of ownership on the day of completion.

On the other hand, it is fair to say that members appear to have been misled when making these decisions. They were not told about the covenant - and then they were led to believe that renovation of the property would be so expensive that it was not a credible proposition. Officers' reports insisted that it would cost £100,000 to bring the house to a decent standard of accommodation. In the event, the developer's representative admitted it cost only a fraction of this - and when FOI requests were made for the estimate on which the £100k cost was based ... it emerged there was no trace of any such report. Would members have sanctioned the sale, if they had been in full possession of the facts?

The Lodge survives. The developer will probably try to appeal, but he might be better advised to cut his losses, and accept defeat. He knows, or should know, his investment in this site is only of value in terms of the period property that he had hoped to demolish. With or without that property, he cannot build on this site, and so the only course of action is to sell the Lodge - or return it to the council. For the sake of the residents of Finchley, we must hope that the latter action is at least possible. It seems the most fair outcome for all parties.

The story of the Lodge is also the demonstration of a changing political landscape, here in Broken Barnet. There can be little doubt that the local elections next year, and the risk of a general election at any moment, in a newly marginal constituency, helped to encourage support from our Tory members for residents' opposition to this proposal. But there is also the dawning realisation among the more astute Tories that the impact of the Capita contracts in terms of voters, in regard to issues like planning and enforcement, is beginning to make itself felt. And the very serious criticisms raised by the current audit review pose fundamental concerns that they can no longer ignore.

Not just about one building, then, or one park, or the issue of development: this story has been about the future of our borough, its heart, and its soul; and about the extent to which we have given away our ability to direct the course of our local democratic process, so that it safeguards the best interests of our community. It is time to acknowledge the problem, and address it.

The fields still lie sleeping, underneath, here in Finchley, and elsewhere in the borough, and the spirit of defiance, and a lingering hope of a better future, they remain as well, somewhere out there, beyond the boundaries of our common history, and heritage. 

And that, in the end, is the real story of the Lodge, in Victoria Park.


Anonymous said...

Well, Mrs Angry, I think that if Barnet Council buy back The Lodge it should be at a considerable discount because of course the destruction of the original features has made it less attractive to buyers.
There are also conveyancing costs to consider, which need to be paid by the current owner.

Ann Bronkhorst said...

Such good news with (as ever) plenty of detail and a sardonic eye on the councillors' foot-shuffling. I wonder what will happen to the Lodge?

Mrs Angry said...

Anon: I'd buy the flipping thing back myself if I could, and give it to residents for community use. And a cafe, with home made cake, and tables outside.

Ann: foot-shuffling. Perfectly put. Start a blog. I've had enough: just want to go and eat cake in the park, & sit talking to crows.