If planning authorities refuse to listen to the public can they really complain when faced with protest? The case of Lambeth and the campaign to #savebrixtonarches
For years few have paid much attention to meetings of the Lambeth Planning Committee, but last week emotions boiled over. Protesters held up banners and threw glitter at councillors as the public shouted ‘shame on you’. The police were called to escort councillors from the building. The issue at stake was the redevelopment of railway arches in Brixton, South London.
Brixton railway station is elevated on a 19th century viaduct and under it, the railway arches have become the heart of this traditionally working class neighbourhood. Along the arches run shops and cafes serving the variety of Brixton’s diverse communities. Surrounding the arches is a thriving market where Brixton’s residents have shopped for decades.
In recent years, as house prices in central London have rocketed, a new community of immigrants have arrived in places like Brixton. Young, white and wealthy professionals have looked to places like Brixton to buy property.
With this new community has come new shops. The chinese fast food restaurant has become an estate agent, Foxtons. The most visible change has been the development of Pop Brixton.
Pop Brixton is a collection of shipping containers marketed as a ‘community of independent retailers’. In reality it is an upmarket open-air food hall for Brixton’s wealthier visitors. It was built on a former council owned car park and was controversial because residents had wanted the council to convert the area into a public open space. But despite that, Pop Brixton does not displace existing traders in the area, and probably provides some additional footfall to them, although they serve very different communities. Enter Pop Brixton and you see a clientele which is almost exclusively white. The world outside Pop Brixton is very different.
The Brixton Arches development is different. Network Rail has seen the potential to cash in on the newly-arrived higher income residents. It wants to refurbish the arches under Brixton station. Existing tenants will be able to return, but of course refurbished accommodation means higher rents and higher prices. The kind of prices charged by independent retailers in places like Pop Brixton. For many retailers that have spent years serving the low-income communities of Brixton, that isn’t an option.
Although there has been increasing disquiet around the gentrification of Brixton over the last few years, the campaign to save the Brixton Arches had a particular resonance. The public realised that through changes in the built environment a community was being priced out of their area. Urban planning was being used a tool to force out one group of people because they are paid less than others and can’t afford to buy goods in shops paying high rents.
The power to shape our communities
Lambeth Council claimed to be listening. Councillors have said that they have negotiated a better deal with Network Rail for the shops currently in the arches. The reality is that traders were offered a terrible deal and Lambeth Council simply managed to secure a bad one instead. No one is convinced and nor should they be; the new deal means above-inflation rent rises every year for the next eight years. Many of the traders appeared at the protest last week.
Lambeth Council had the power to shape the area though its planning powers, but has chosen not to use it. Brixton is part of a conservation area, and Lambeth Council’s planning committee is required in law to pay ‘special attention’ to the preservation of the area’s character. That character is defined in law as being historic as well as aesthetic.
Last week councillors voted to approve Network Rail’s plans with only one councillor, Jo Simpson, opposing the plans. The decision led to the scenes of protest inside the council meeting.
A failure of democracy
Lambeth Council are now claiming that their meeting was attacked by a ‘hardcore mob’ who were intent on disrupting the meeting with ‘aggressive behaviour’. According to the Evening Standard, the council are seeking to review ‘security arrangements’ in light of the protests.
If council officers were indeed threatened, then that is wholly unacceptable, but video evidence of the event shows that the actions of protesters appeared to be nothing more than a vocal and demonstrative but peaceful demonstration.
Before the council seeks to clamp down on protest, it needs to recognise how their own behaviour contributed to the scenes inside the council last Tuesday.
Dealing with criticism is not something that Lambeth does well. Admitting they were wrong, even less so. In 2014 Lambeth’s Labour party swept the board at council elections, winning 59 of 63 council seats on 53% of the popular vote.
In that time they have expelled a councillor for speaking out against library closures and amongst other things, the Brixton Arches. The council has spent tens of thousands of pounds hiring top QCs to defend the indefensible through the courts, such as the decision to demolish a council estate, Cressingham Gardens, based on an unlawful consultation.
In urban planning Lambeth Council have sought to systematically exclude the voice of the public, whilst giving a greater voice to the development industry in decisions about our communities.
The council has established what it calls a ‘strategic planning board’. The existence of this group is not advertised anywhere on Lambeth’s website. It is attended by senior officials, the Leader of the Council, the Chair of the Planning Committee and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration. No minutes or agendas are published and the public is not invited. The role of the planning board is to provide a ‘steer’ to developers on whether their schemes are acceptable to the council in principle.
The practice is prejudice institutionalised. Development proposals will come to the board at an early stage, before much of the important detail has been established. Once it has given a ‘positive steer’ then it will be difficult for the council and councillors to refuse the scheme; the developer has the upper hand in all subsequent negotiations.
Once a development proposal has been finalised it is the policy of the council to invite in major developers to give private briefings about their plans to councillors on the planning committee. These so called ‘technical briefings’ last hours. They are not open to the public and no minutes are taken. If a developer were to provide false information at these meetings (which has happened), there would be no way for any other interested parties to challenge them.
After what can be years of constant engagement with the council and councillors by developers, objectors are limited to a two-minute slot in a public meeting on the night of the decision. It is impossible to see how this process could be considered a fair hearing, a right which is guaranteed in law, but ignored by Lambeth’s procedure.
Lambeth councillors can complain about being shouted at last week, but if the council refuses to hear the heart-felt and entirely legitimate concerns of people seeking to protect their communities, it should be of little surprise if the public respond with protest. After all, how else are we to have our voices heard?