Thursday 8 December 2016

All Fall Down: Planning and Enforcement in Broken Barnet

Updated 9th December

In fact it seems the scale of lack of enforcement in Barnet is far, far worse than could have been imagined: since publishing this yesterday, the post has not only received record numbers of visits, but I have been sent many examples of similar cases, and many comments, some of which I am not publishing - yet. The anecdotal evidence is one thing, but there is evidence from the council's own records of a very serious problem in enforcement.

It seems that at November's Full Council meeting a Tory councillor, perhaps naively thinking the response would prove how well Barnet-Capita were doing in terms of enforcement, asked about the level of 'satisfactory outcomes' in regard to planning enforcement.

Councillor Brian Salinger:

Will the Leader please provide
members with a list of all planning
enforcement cases that officers
have handled in the last 2 years
advising which they consider to
have reached satisfactory outcomes
and which are still outstanding. Will
the leader ensure that the list shows
the dates on which the first
complaint about each of the

developments was logged?

Cllr Richard
Cornelius (Leader of

the Council)

The volume of cases means that this list will have to be supplied

separately to the councillor and published online.

Just look at the response, published separately.

It really is breathtaking, in terms of volume - and content. 

In the majority of cases the outcome is 'No further action'. 

And there are many cases still 'in investigation'.

The range of issues is extraordinary: from a house being built in a barn in Totteridge, to construction of an unauthorised building on Council Land without permission in my own road (one of several breaches), an unauthorised outbuilding in another property in Vivian Avenue - and a subdivided property across the road from our Tory MP. 

The figures need a closer analysis, when time allows, but even a cursory glance is enough to suggest that this is an absolute scandal: and catastrophic for the borough - the loss of control over development is having a massive detrimental impact on the quality of life of residents - and the value of their properties. 

8th December

Writing this blog inevitably means that Mrs Angry receives quite a lot of emails from residents about a range of local issues, but increasingly, since the Capita contracts began, the most common subject of all such correspondence is in regard to ... planning.

Complaints about the way in which our council handles not only planning applications, but also the enforcement of breaches of planning and building regulations, are becoming more and more frequent, and this is rather worrying. 

Many people now are claiming that enforcement is simply ineffective, and believe that the best interests of developers are put before those of residents, as a matter of policy, and in practice. I have to say that I think this is pretty much the case, now, in Broken Barnet.

We know that more and more large scale developments are being approved, seemingly without restraint: and there would appear to be little care to ensure such developments are being considered within any overall policy of what is best for the borough. 

Huge housing schemes are welcomed with little or no insistence that it is affordable, or supported by adequate investment in schools, health care, traffic management and leisure facilities. Vital local services like libraries that support the burgeoning new population are being ruthlessly cut: sports venues are disappearing - and even parks are now vulnerable to development - something that should be unthinkable.

Apart from these larger schemes, however, there is also a growing perception that less and less management, regulation and enforcement of small scale development is in place: that too many inappropriate conversions, extensions and even new build properties are being allowed, with any breaches of planning permission or building control left unsanctioned. This, it is feared, is giving developers the idea that they can simply do whatever they like, without fear of enforcement by the council.

Take the example of the house shown in the pictures above. Or rather what was a house - this is what it looked like, until three weeks ago:

This is in Vivian Avenue: a nice, suburban road in Hendon - in a Labour ward. The property which stood on this site until recently was a perfectly sound, pre war detached house, in keeping with the rest of the road. In need of some renovation, but otherwise a nice family home.

It had been bought by local developers, however, who put in a series of planning applications, from September 2014 onwards, four of which were eventually approved - after four planning committee hearings - and despite numerous objections from neighbouring residents. Oh and some rather curious supporting comments. 

Utilising a step-by-step Oliver Twist 'Please, Sir I want some more' approach, the developers asked for more and more to be built on the site, and conditions were placed on approved schemes that seemed to protect the neighbouring residents and the locality. 

The latest approval, given earlier this year, after the very interesting supporting comments, and despite all objections, was for side and rear extensions to the property, and a basement, in order to convert it into seven self-contained flats, even though the second to last approval conditioned the extensions allowed to be for a single family home.

Approval was finally given in October: passed by Tory councillors Hugh Rayner, Brian Gordon,Val Duschinsky (present as a substitute) and shed enthusiast Cllr Maureen Braun using her casting vote. Labour members voted against.

Hoardings were erected around the property, and work began. The house was gutted internally. 

Neighbouring residents, unsurprisingly, were upset, and very worried about the impact of living next door to a property that had been built as a home for one family, but would now accommodate seven households. They were wrong to worry about that, however. What happened next was far worse than anything they could have imagined.

On November 17th, it became clear that something was very wrong: the house was disappearing, level by level, in rapid sequence: one neighbouring property had a window broken by debris flying over a boundary fence - thankfully no one was hurt, but this was by good fortune, as no warning had been given of what was happening. 

And what was happening was not an extension, or conversion, as the approval allowed, but - demolition.

No warning, and as far as the neighbours could see, no safeguards to ensure that the demolition was undertaken in a safe and considerate way.  Dust everywhere: was there asbestos on the site? Was there any risk from gas leaks? Were the utility companies informed? Had any risk assessment been made of potential hazards before the work?

What would you do, in such a distressing situation? You would probably ring the council, wouldn't you, and expect them to immediately come out, inspect the site, and close it down until thorough safety checks had been made?

But then this is Barnet, where Capita runs planning, and enforcement, as well as offering support to developers: yes, you might think there is a clear conflict of interest inherent in this arrangement, but that doesn't bother your Tory council.

Neighbours rang the council. Nothing happened. No one was particularly interested in the apparent breach of permission, or the health and safety aspects of demolition, it appeared.

Apart from some contact with an officer on November 18th - the neighbours have heard NOTHING since. The building work continues, with what looks like pile driving, which would imply the foundations of a new building are being prepared. 

The site was secured fully with hoarding for three days: then that was removed and business continued as usual. Was it all a show for enforcement officers? No one knows, because no one has been updated as promised by the council. What are they doing?

Local Labour councillor Adam Langleben visited the site and raised the matter with the planners and was sent a routine enforcement acknowledgement letter a week later. The workers on site, apparently, had not seemed to understand what a councillor was: which is what you might expect, of course.

Rumour has it that there very few enforcement officers working for Barnet-Capita now. That would seem to be something of a problem - for residents, if not for developers. Perhaps this is why there is a perception by some residents that clear breaches are simply not being addressed and enforcement not sufficiently stringent.

It is reported that the council is taking legal advice in the case of Vivian Avenue, perhaps because the developer might think he can claim as one token wall has not been destroyed, there has been no demolition. If so, this to any reasonable person would make a complete mockery of the planning process - and it means any house in this borough, in any road, could disappear in the same way: yes, you could look outside your bedroom window one morning, and find the house next door to you was being knocked down, and there would be next to no support from Barnet Council.

Apart from the worry and disturbance from living next door to a demolition site, the prospect of an unauthorised new building next to yours raises serious concerns about the effect on the value on your own property which is likely to accrue from the loss of continuity in style of housing in your road. 

Well, then. This is not the first time this particular developer has, without planning permission, demolished an older suburban property, in a nice residential road, and replaced it with an modern building. His own home, which eventually, after two appeals, was given retrospective approval. His builder, unfortunately, as previously reported, has a history of Health & Safety breaches, including work on gas appliances for which he was not qualified.

Oh, and - this particular developer ... is connected with another series of posts in this blog: the story of Victoria Park Lodge.

The Lodge is a lovely Edwardian house, arts and crafts style, contemporary with the founding of the Park trust, by local benefactors: lived in for decades by the resident Park Keeper. See here and other posts for further details.

Residents outside the threatened Lodge in Victoria Park

The house in Vivian Avenue which has been demolished is owned by CDEG, one of the companies owned by the family of Mr Adi Friedman and his wife Birgit Friedman. The developer who acquired the Lodge, after a cash purchase, earlier this year, a transaction which has been the subject of an investigation by the council's external auditors, as a result of objections made by local taxpayers, in regard to, amongst other considerations,  whether or not the authority had power in law to sell what campaigners claim are legal restrictions that protect the park from sale and development, due to covenants created at the time of the park's endowment.

You may recall that during the summer, after submitting a highly unpopular application to build a block of flats on the site in Victoria Park, the property's new owners then made an application, later withdrawn, to demolish the Lodge. Thanks to the outcry from local residents and campaigners, this was withdrawn, and eventually, after much protest - and criticism of the way in which the planning department handled the process, for example allowing 'supporters' to be anonymous, while publishing full details of objectors, refusing to compel the applicant to reveal the advice given by Capita planning officers - the application for the flats was rejected.

It is pretty clear, therefore, that it is only by good fortune, or rather thanks to determined lobbying by local residents, that the Lodge is still standing. But for how much longer?

An application has latterly been submitted to hack away at two protected trees in the garden of the Lodge - and then, more worryingly, plans to install a 'loft conversion': in a property which we know the developer wishes to replace with a block of highly profitable flats.

Since the last post written about this very interesting story, more information has come to light about the sale, and the way in which Tory councillors came to approve the principle of sale, several years ago.

First of all came the revelation that on March 30th, the day of the sale by Barnet Council, the property immediately transferred ownership: from a Mr Gruber, who paid the cash upfront, to the Lodge Victoria Park Ltd, which is of course a company run by Mr and Mrs Friedman. No money, it would appear, was exchanged in regard to the second sale. This transaction only came to light when land registry records were updated, six months later. This is all perfectly lawful, of course - if somewhat puzzling.

Then emerged more information from the council side, about the curious case of the missing report which was the basis of recommendations to councillors deciding whether or not to put the Lodge up for sale. This was, it should be noted, long before the current developer was on the scene -  the years that have passed since the sale was approved in principle, and the sale that has now taken place reflect the difficulties that then ensued for the council, when they subsequently realised that there were legal difficulties due to the covenants attached to the park.

When the sale of the Lodge was approved, councillors had been advised by officers that it would be too expensive to renovate, and continue to use as council housing. (The family who used to live there very happily were evicted a few years ago, despite the shortage of social housing in this borough, and the property left empty until sale). It was claimed, on the basis of a report that no one can produce, that the Lodge would cost £100,000 to bring up to suitable standards of accommodation. 

The council has repeatedly been asked, by residents, and by local Labour councillor Ross Houston, for copies of the report that is supposed to have made this assessment - to no avail. It has been 'lost': no one is sure how this occurred. Oh, but then ... when resident Mary O'Connor raised the subject again at the last local Forum, we learned that there was a report, after all, which would be made available. 

All was not what it seemed, however. It was not the original report, that had mysteriously been lost. This was a NEW estimate, in which, by remarkable coincidence, it was found possible to arrive a total very close to the alleged £100,000 cost of renovation.

A great shame that before this new costing, no one had had a chat with the Lodge developer's representative who told residents in the summer that they had spent around £7,000 on the property, before renting it out. 

Last month Mrs Angry had extensive correspondence (copied to the auditor) with Ms Anisa Darr, currently 'Director of Resources' at LBBarnet, in regard to the mystery of the missing dossier. Ah - not missing, Mrs Angry. Just 'not available'. In the sense that say, Lord Lucan is not missing, but 'not available', do you see? 

Hmm. Ms Darr said:

As has been previously stated and confirmed, the original estimate by Barnet Homes is not available.

As per the response to Cllr Houston’s members item 


it was confirmed that a revised estimate was undertaken to determine the estimated value of works required to bring Victoria Lodge into decent homes standards for residual use.

This was a desktop estimate and in order to complete this exercise decent homes methodology, age of the building and a schedule of rates from our framework of service providers was used. The estimate was completed by an Estates lead within my team and did not involve getting quotes from contractors. Similarly on-site inspections from building services team would only be required, on any of our assets, once a decision to progress the works, on the initial estimate, had been made. 

I have included the link to the rather revealing responses to Cllr Houston's questions, but as you will see, for some strange reason, it no longer works, and the document is no longer in the public domain. Curiouser, and curiouser. Is there something in it they don't want us to see? Is it the other offers that were made for the property? Details that should not have been published? Not to worry, chaps: we kept copies anyway.

The new desktop estimate, belatedly produced at the end of this summer, when the campaign to save the Lodge was in full swing, was created without any assessment or quotation by builders, or tradesmen, fortunately manages, somehow, to stretch to the £100,000 figure given to councillors when the sale decision was made. 

There is, however, no evidence that the authority can offer to prove that there ever was a report based on any previous assessment of cost of renovation, in fact: there is no audit trail, nothing. One might reasonably suspect, therefore, that it is entirely possible that the £100,000 figure was total fantasy, and that councillors, not for the first time, and not for the last time, were ... misled.

Other misleading information would appear to be a failure to investigate the background to the covenants and restrictions that are meant to protect the park from development: and frankly it might well be that the developer who bought the Lodge did so under the impression that he would be able to get permission to build flats on the site. Was he also ... misled? Or does he have reason to think he can ignore the covenant?

Let us repeat this one more time: whatever the arguments over the legality of the sale of part of the park, there is no doubt about this covenant in regard to the Lodge site: no building may be erected there other than accommodation for a park keeper, a cricket pavilion, or a bandstand. In other words, as the council's own lawyer admitted, he may well have been sold 'a white elephant'. And to be quite clear - now the site is only of any value with the Lodge intact.

The Lodge is now let to tenants on some casual basis: yet a neighbour was informed by someone associated with the building that this was still council housing, which clearly it is not. Rubbish is regularly accumulating around the periphery of the site: one might ask why the landlord would want the site to be so untidy and unappealing. Hard to think of a reason, isn't it?

Over in Hendon, almost opposite the Town Hall, another part of our built heritage is being demolished, after standing neglected for some time: the White Bear, an historic and architecturally pleasing pub, standing on a site which has been the location for an inn for centuries, and is - was  - surrounded by eighteenth century houses. After public outcry a couple of years ago, when demolition and development was first planned, councillors rejected the application. Once campaigners thought they had won the argument and focus shifted, the plans were quietly approved.

This sort of example is happening all over the borough: developers, large and small in scale, unchallenged by regulation or enforcement, ripping up our built heritage, our green spaces,: essential features of what our Tory council likes to promote as a borough that is a 'successful city-suburb'. 

Even our most historic properties are not safe, like the former Church Farmhouse Museum, just around the corner from the White Bear, and at the back of the Town Hall, the heart of the oldest part of Hendon: put up for sale, like the Lodge, pointlessly, as offering nothing to developers because of the restrictions of its Grade 2* listing - so left to decay and stand as a crumbling symbol of everything wrong with the unprincipled, moribund state of Broken Barnet. And the Town Hall itself, as reported in the previous post, also listed, is being carved up inside, in order to accommodate valuable office space.

The limited protection offered by listing can only ever apply to a handful of properties. Throughout the borough now, we are increasingly seeing the loss of buildings, homes that should be retained as they are, integral to their local architectural context, part of our joint history, all through lack of a well directed and properly enforced system of planning, and simply because there is a fast buck to be made, somewhere, for someone. Such development does not address the serious housing crisis in this borough, providing low rent accommodation or affordable housing for those on modest incomes: they are targeted at overseas buyers - as in West Hendon, and even - preposterously, at the other end of the scale - in the case of the flats unsuccessfully proposed to replace the Lodge in Victoria Park.

As far as the Tory councillors and Capita are concerned, developers may do more or less what they want - and there is little you can do about it. Don't be surprised if you wake up one morning and find a pile of bricks where once there was a house next door to you. And if you don't like the idea of that prospect ... please remember not to keep voting for the people who allow such wanton destruction.


Alan Stanton said...

In Haringey what passes for a Labour Council leadership has invited in the Vogon Constructor Fleet to "regenerate" (i.e. social cleanse) Tottenham.

Though the first victims are likely to be the Council Estates rather than the expensive highlands of Muswell Hill.

Of course, I would never in my wildest dreams harbour the slightest wish to hear that developers have surprised a Haringey "cabinet" member by demolishing the home next door. However I rather suspect that none of them will be stirred from their smug condescending certainties until something like that happens in their own street.

Lindsay said...

Sadly this is totally what I expect from this disgraceful council. Next to my property, planning permission has been granted to build on a piece of land that was until 16 years ago, a back garden, that is a mere 7 metres wide. All I ever do these days is object to bloody Barnet about something or other. It is appalling.

Enforcement Free Zone said...

Thank you so much for highlighting so accurately the nonsense that is the planning and enforcement department in Barnet.

There is absolutely no protection for the residents from developers who are garden grabbing and filling our front gardens with cars and huge commercial sized bin storage for more and more flats.

I have an unauthorised home services business operating out of a garage opposite my home, the top floor of a house some doors down that has been converted to flats with more occupancy that has been approved, on-street parking stress due to a developer not providing approved car park spaces, rubbish and dirty discharge from an outlet onto where we walk on the pavements from a new flat build and now the cherry on the cake: a real possibility of an entirely new building appearing in the gap where the house was demolished in Vivian Avenue!

Was it not meant to be extended for a lovely spacious family house for the developer last year?

Yes, they have all been reported, some at least a year ago.

There is wanton destruction and there is also purposeful strangulation of our amenities and outlook as we know them.

What is also galling is that developers can apparently wreak havoc in different parts of the borough time and time again without penalties!
I cannot vote with my feet but I will not be voting for those who care not for my home.

I Live On Vivian Avenue said...

It is plain to the ordinary man, woman and the Lodge crow that Barnet planning and enforcement department is in dire straits. Why are those who are paid thousands at top management not able to get their acts together?

I hear there are only 5 enforcement officers for the whole borough. They cannot come out as they are busy filing cases in date order regardless of severity of the breaches. One could happily collect rent for years on illegal unauthorised bedsits before enforcement gets on the case.

How did they lose an important document validating the reasons for the Lodge sale? Isn’t it a public document that needs to be securely saved for future presentation? Sloppy housekeeping or not available because the values for bringing The Lodge up to Decent Home Standards are so ridiculously made up they would not stand up to public scrutiny?

Roxana said...

In my street alone, there are 15 properties with various applications -planning, building,retrospective,prior approvals,enforcement investigations.
One property has eleven entries to its address on the Barnet planning portal.
I have seen 16 entries for another not in my street for a single dwelling.

Is the planning and enforcement department understaffed?
Is it policy not to enforce because of the workload?
A resident would expect the council to be efficient and effective. After all, the reason for having a planning department is to have control over the type of development allowed in our borough.

Well it appears that controls are very lax. It is very curious why the Vivian Avenue development seems to have gone ahead after 4 planning committee hearings. Reminds of a case where a planning consultant, speaking for the applicant, categorically said they had removed a basement from the plans to make it better for their neighbours in terms of reducing development. A month later, she was back at committee asking for the basement which was generously approved by planning committee on recommendation by the case officer.

Now surely that stinks. It is just playing the system and Barnet planning is allowing themselves to be played. Why is that so? Please continue to blog about this. We need the truth.