A guest post from Joseph Black, one of the co-founders of the Save West Hampstead “Stop the Blocks!” campaign. In this story, Joseph shows us how individuals associated with Westminster’s Homes for Votes Scandal have reemerged in the world of Camden Neighbourhood Planning. The account gives us a stark and timely warning of the dangers of Neighbourhood Planning being captured by local power-brokers with an interest in local development.
The coalition government’s Localism Act 2011 brought into being the concept of neighbourhood planning. Since then, Neighbourhood Forums have been springing up apace across London and the country and so deserve a little scrutiny from anyone with an interest in local planning issues. This article provides an overview of neighbourhood planning and examines it in the context of West Hampstead, the first area in Camden, and only the second in London, to have a Neighbourhood Plan.
From the outset Neighbourhood Planning has been presented as a radical new means by which communities would be given greater control over the size, nature, design and pace of developments in their area. The act created three core neighbourhood planning powers: to create a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP), make a Neighbourhood Development Order (NDO), and to grant permission for small-scale site-specific developments by a community group.
Responsibility for these powers falls by default to town or parish councils and, in the absence of such councils, the powers are available to new Special Purpose Vehicles known as a Neighbourhood Development Forum (NDF). NDFs are groups composed of representatives of a local community and serve as the body that draws up a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP). The plan, if approved in council-organised referendum, then becomes an extra formal tier of local planning policy.
Neighbourhood Forums, Neighbourhood Plans
Notionally at least, neighbourhood planning sounds like it has the potential to create a new level of participatory democracy in communities and create dialogues between residents, businesses and local authorities about development. In practice however, the reality can be very different and NDFs can become part of the problem rather than the solution to local planning issues, and fail to represent communities that fall under a forum’s self-appointed jurisdiction. There are also limits on the amount of control that NDFs can exert. NDFs cannot, for example, propose that there be less development in an area than already planned, imposing immediate constraints on the efficacy of NDFs in slowing the pace of development insofar as they must conform with wider local planning goals.
NDFs are also unencumbered by processes ordinarily associated with truly public bodies (registers of interests, affiliations, etc.) beyond any requirements that may or may not be outlined in constitutions. Consequently, NDFs are innately imbued with legitimate and largely unaddressed questions about inclusivity, representation, democracy, transparency and accountability to the point that the wishes of wider local communities are not represented by a forum’s administration. If a forum lays claim to an area in which 20,000 people live and only 20 people routinely turn up for its meetings, can it legitimately be described as democratic, representative or participatory?
Additionally, the terms under which representatives of the local community are defined are broad and open to exploitation by those with the time, inclination and interests in planning outcomes. Property developers with land, business or development interests in an area are perfectly entitled to participate in NDFs. They can even set them up if they so wish, or do so at arm’s length if an element of plausible deniability about the true function of the forum seems more appropriate.
Further compounding these issues is the fact NDFs are generally heavily reliant on volunteers, together with all the problems that arise with any entity that relies on the good will and availability of its participants to ensure smooth operation. This in turn allows for greater exploitation by those that can muster the time and energy resources needed to expedite the business of neighbourhood planning; namely landowners and developers.
The Case of West Hampstead
West Hampstead has both the good fortune and misfortune of Thameslink, North London Line overground and Jubilee line underground stations. The stations are referred to as the West Hampstead Interchange and are partly why the area was identified in the GLA London Plan as an Intensification Area, with potential for 800 new homes and an additional 100 jobs to be created.
All three stations are physically separate from each other, connected by narrow pavements over a railway bridge stretch of the heavily traffic-laden West End Lane. Major works were undertaken on the Thameslink station and major works are now getting underway to enlarge the overground station and resolve access and capacity issues. None of the works has gone any way to easing the difficulties of moving between the three stations.
The one remaining station due for improvement in the West Hampstead Interchange jigsaw is the underground station.
Local people and groups have long petitioned and campaigned for step-free access to no great avail. With around a thousand new homes built and the influx of new residents, the station’s single access point, with its limited ticketing facilities, few ticket barriers and lack of step-free access, has far exceeded its natural limitations.
The appearance of the Fortune Green and West Hampstead Neighbourhood Development Forum — one of the early London-based adopters of Neighbourhood Planning — upped the stakes considerably. Not only is the group calling for station improvements, they’ve gone to great lengths over several years to prepare their own ‘solution’ which they are now using to lobby local councillors, the MP, TfL and the GLA.
The story of how the NDF station ‘improvement’ plans came to be provides a timely cautionary tale about the perils of neighbourhood planning.
Overview of West Hampstead Underground Station Issues
The map above shows West Hampstead underground station in the context of its surrounds. Note the positions of the overground and Thameslink stations; West End Lane to the west; Blackburn Road to the north, which heads east to the O2 Centre shopping and entertainment complex and the A41 Finchley Road; Broadhurst Gardens to the south, and the footbridge connecting Blackburn Road and Broadhurst Gardens.
The station suffers from a single, small entrance and ticket hall unfit to cope with the volume of passengers, a single, narrow stairway to platforms and no step-free access for wheelchairs, prams, etc.
All of these issues, aside from step free access, result from there being a single entry and exit point, which routinely results in dangerous bottlenecks that sees passengers bunching and queuing in great throngs on West End Lane as they wait to access the platforms, fighting against passengers endeavouring to exit the station who are forced to wend their way through the incoming mass of bodies. And all this ingress/egress activity has to contend with just five ticket barriers.
The preferred solution to improve access to West Hampstead underground station has two key components:
1) Create a second entrance and ticket hall at the eastern end of the platforms, complete with a lift to provide step free access.
2) Enlarge the existing entrance to something more akin to its original size with better ticketing facilities. Train operating companies own the properties either side of the existing entrance, so this is feasible.
This would allow passengers to filter on and off the platforms from both ends and has the advantage of drawing passenger traffic away from the over-crowded West End Lane entrance and its dangerous narrow pavements. The eastern end of the platforms is already home to a footbridge connecting Blackburn Road and the O2 Centre to Broadhurst Gardens. By expanding and upgrading this structure, there exists the potential for a third access point in Broadhurst Gardens, thereby making the station more accessible to passengers arriving from south of the station.
The Fortune Green and West Hampstead Neighbourhood Development Forum
Discussions about Neighbourhood Planning in West Hampstead started in 2011, the year of the Localism Act, and on 9 July 2015 the Neighbourhood Development Plan was put to a referendum and approved by just 13% of the eligible electorate. However, the NDFs aspirations to adopt West Hampstead station as its own pet project started long before their plan was finalised and put to a public vote, when — as evinced by the referendum turnout — most residents unwittingly falling under its jurisdiction had no inkling that such a forum even existed.
West Hampstead station appears to have been first discussed at NDF meetings in August 2013. Forum minutes make reference to the addition of a second entrance to the station on Blackburn Road. This was reiterated at the September meeting, outlining the benefits if “the Underground station had a second entrance (at the far signal box end of the platform)”.
The idea of a second entrance, which many feel is the best solution to the station’s problems, soon morphed into a plan to conduct an “Interchange project study” that an NDF member — local landowner, Richard Loftus of Loftus Family Property — “had offered to fund”.
Interchange project study: Access to the Jubilee Line station remained inadequate and there was a proposal to again look at the possibility of creating new entrances with the aim of easing passenger flow. Contrary to the 2003 report by Colin Buchanan Partners which proposed that a link between the three stations would be best achieved on the East side, it was clear that such a link was now only possible on the West side. Richard Loftus had offered to fund a study of access to the stations. Guy Shackle, the architect who was undertaking this work, would welcome any comments and it was thought that at the June meeting it would be helpful to look at any outline sketches by then available. Doubts were expressed about whether TfL were likely to engage with any proposal for major change at the underground station; other comments made included the need to widen pavements, measures to speed up the movement of busses [sic] through the area, provision for cyclists and disabled access.
Station discussions picked up again in June 2014. By this point the “Interchange project study” was no longer just a study but instead “plans to improve the ‘interchange’ between the three WH stations”. All of this was still being “paid for by local landowner Richard Loftus under the auspices of the NDF”. NDF minutes outline how the group then planned to promote the Loftus-funded works and lobby Transport for London and the Mayor.
However, there was much more going on in the background than mere studies, reviews and the creation of design proposals, and it was backed by significantly greater ambitions than the addition of the required second entrance. It was only in September 2014 the forum organiser thought it appropriate to draw the attention of forum members to these background activities. The Chair and Secretary of the NDF, James Earl, revealed he, “local businessman and landowner” Richard Loftus, and architect Guy Shackle had already met with TfL “over the summer” to discuss the Loftus/Shackle/NDF proposals for the station. These proposals were now to relocate the station, creating a new single entrance but, crucially, an entrance moved across the road and away from land and property owned by Loftus and over which a pesky public transport station, especially one with a second entrance on Blackburn Road, might impose significant development constraints.
The minutes note that “The proposals are currently at a preliminary stage — TfL say the overall design concept is possible” and, further, that the group is “waiting for TfL to come back on a number of technical issues” following which “A revised scheme will then be drawn up and published.” The forum then outlines its long-term game plan: “This will then be publicised via councillors, Camden Council, the Mayor of London, general election candidates etc” with the caveat that “The station is not currently at the top of TfL’s priority list – we therefore need to argue the case – and make sure it’s on their agenda as a practical proposal“. Quite some commitment for a group that has yet to receive any mandate from the residents on which it has imposed itself as a planning body and quite some aspiration for what is seemingly a purely voluntary body.
Despite the core NDF team creating the plan being well aware of the Loftus-funded work it was doing on a proposal to move the station, the referendum version of the NDP makes no mention of such plans. Instead it refers to how “the entrance hall needs to be enlarged” and states that “Proposals should also be brought forward for the provision of a second entrance to the station”. Of course, for there to be a “second entrance” there must first be a first entrance, but this simple logic seems to have escaped the notice of the NDF.
This begs the question: Why would the Plan being prepared for referendum refer to a “second entrance… from the pedestrian bridge at the eastern end of the station” when the organisation producing the plan was keenly busying itself developing a proposal funded by Loftus that provided neither the “second entrance” nor even their recommended proposal “for the provision of a second entrance”?
“He Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune”
In November 2014 the NDF noted the “problematic” nature of two sets of comments received on its proposed final draft of its Plan. One set of “problematic” comments was submitted by Boyer Planning “on behalf of Loftus Family Property, Owners of Asher House”. Asher House being the former Accurist watch factory located on Blackburn Road adjacent to the station.
Boyer Planning were keen to make it known there are plans “to relocate the tube station entrance to the west of West End Lane” — the same plans which go unmentioned in the NDP — in advance of “redeveloping Blackburn road”. They also fail to mention that it is their own client, Richard Loftus, who is developing and funding the tube station relocation proposals, nor do they highlight that Loftus is the sole source of the private funds for the project to physically relocate the station away from Loftus-owned land and property.
It should be noted that discussions are currently taking place to relocate the tube station entrance to the west of West End Lane and this would reduce pedestrian traffic on the east side and would open up the possibility of redeveloping Blackburn road as a street with emphasis on pedestrian movement with retail, resident and community facilities.
To many, a developer and private landowner funding major public infrastructure development proposals to decommission a 137-year old tube station while simultaneously staking claims to increased development rights around it, might seem like a significant conflict of interests. Or, to view the situation from a different perspective: Would this proposal be any more or less acceptable if Loftus had foisted the plans on the public without using the NDF special purpose vehicle as a legitimising cover? The NDF has yet to acknowledge a conflict of interest might exist, nor have they seen fit to explain why they believe it’s appropriate for a publicly funded body — supposedly operating as a body that gives residents more control over development in the area — to be working, developing and actively promoting a private developer’s station relocation plans which fail to resolve key issues that need to be addressed.
Introducing Richard Loftus
So who is Richard Loftus? Richard is one of the heirs to the Accurist watch company fortunes and a regular on the Times Rich List. The former Accurist watch factory happens to be located on Blackburn Road in West Hampstead, immediately adjacent to West Hampstead underground station. Loftus was also the developer behind a nine-storey student block on the same road, the proposal for which was refused by Camden planners and overturned at appeal by Loftus. The loose definition of “local representatives” that specify who can take part in neighbourhood planning qualify Loftus — a property developer who owns land and property in West Hampstead — as a local representative, without any acknowledgement that his interests and concerns for the area are vastly different to those of people who call West Hampstead home.
Loftus is perhaps better known through his connection to Dame Shirley Porter’s Homes for Votes Scandal.
In a bid to secure Westminster Council for the Conservatives, Dame Shirley instituted a covert policy of moving Labour voters out of parts of the borough that the Conservatives were targeting. One shocking example of this saw as many as 60-100+ homeless families relocated to Hermes and Chantry Point tower blocks in a safe Labour ward. Both blocks were condemned a decade earlier and due for decontamination or demolition owing to the presence of asbestos. In the intervening period, Westminster council had taken an active policy of destroying internal heating and sanitation systems to render the properties unusable. Yet none of this prevented the Conservative council using these buildings to move suspected Labour sympathisers out of Conservative target wards.
This dark episode of using public funds to try to throw an election did not go unnoticed. The District Auditor would later find that Dame Shirley had acted unlawfully and was guilty of “disgraceful and improper gerrymandering” and together with colleagues liable to pay over £30m in damages. Guardian journalist Dave Hill explains a little more about Loftus’ role in the affair in an in-depth article published shortly after the Portergate gerrymandering scandal came to light.
At the time of the scandal’s exposure, Jeremy Corbyn tabled an Early Day Motion naming Loftus, so too did Robert Ainsworth. In 1998, West Hampstead’s representative to the GLA, Andrew Dismore, brought the subject up in Parliament citing Loftus’ involvement in a “clandestine city hall plot” that involved a “panoply of espionage”. Dismore noted Loftus’ contempt for architectural heritage and any constraints that might be placed on his ability to further and profit from his development interests.
Back to the present
West Hampstead residents and passengers who use the West Hampstead interchange and daily experience the problems and dangers that exist during times of peak usage, now find themselves at the mercy of a majorly disruptive station relocation proposal that will do little to address the key problems from which the station suffers.
Despite the NDF initially supporting the preferred approach of opening a second entrance and enlarging the existing station entrance, adding capacity, those proposals appear to have been undermined after the involvement of a local landowner with significant development interests in land and property adjacent to the station. That landowner funded the project to develop the new proposal to move the station.
The NDF are now giving all their support to the Loftus plan, despite not undertaking any meaningful consultation with residents or passengers. The station relocation proposals have become the preferred branding for the West Hampstead and Fortune Green Neighbourhood Development Forum’s Twitter account; a testimony to the importance they place on their role in promoting Loftus’ plan to relocate the station.
Meetings with TfL and the GLA have taken place. In recent months, the NDF has lobbied mayoral candidates, the local MP Tulip Siddiq, TfL and the GLA.
— West Hampstead NDF (@WHampsteadNDF) April 15, 2016
— West Hampstead NDF (@WHampsteadNDF) June 1, 2016
The photo in the tweet immediately above shows Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq alongside NDF Chair, James Earl, clutching a mock-up of the NDF/Loftus plans for a relocated West Hampstead underground station. Also pictured are architect Guy Shackle and former Leader of Camden Council, Keith Moffitt. Out of shot is the funder of the station relocation project, Richard Loftus, who also attended the meeting.
It is beyond contention that West Hampstead underground station is in desperate need of upgrading and expanding to contend with the volume of passengers that pass through it. That said, any proposed solutions must actually solve the very real problems that exist, with the only interests served being public and passenger interests rather than those of a local landowner that has expended considerable time, effort and expense to concoct something that might look like a solution which instead merely serves to further his own private development aspirations.
While it is perfectly proper for a Neighbourhood Forum to aim to campaign for better public transport facilities, serious questions need to be asked when such a group assumes for itself the remit to invent and promote a single solution, especially when that solution is bought and paid for by private landowner interests.