Westminster Council planners accused of ‘cavalier attitude’ over Banksy site redevelopment plans

A residents’ association in Fitzrovia has accused Westminster Council’s planning officers of having a “cavalier attitude” towards assessing documents for a major development proposal and has asked for the consultation period to be extended. However, the City Council has rejected the claim and says the application will go before councillors this week.

Aerial view of buildings.

A 10-storey tower block is planned for the corner of Clipstone and Cleveland streets (middle of picture). It would be higher than the bronze-coloured university building on the right and over twice the height of Holcroft Court housing estate (foreground left).

In an exchange of letters seen by Fitzrovia News, solicitors for Holcroft Court Residents Association wrote to Westminster Council’s director of legal services arguing that the planning department had allowed misleading drawings and other documents to be validated. According to the letter the drawings failed to show the correct context of a proposed 10-storey tower block only eight metres from residents’ windows. The accuracy of a daylight report is also questioned.

The proposal by Dukelease Properties is to demolish a two-storey commercial site and build offices, shops, a restaurant, a petrol filling station, and 105 flats but no social housing.

Banksy mural on wall.

The site is on the corner of Clipstone Street and Cleveland Street and is well known for featuring a mural — “If Graffiti Changed Anything…” (2011) — by the street artist Banksy and was built in the mid-1960s along with a neighbouring housing estate.

The site is on the corner of Clipstone Street and Cleveland Street and is well known for featuring a mural — “If Graffiti Changed Anything…” — by the street artist Banksy and was built in the mid-1960s along with a neighbouring housing estate.

The planning committee was due to make a decision in April but pressure from residents groups forced planning officers to withdraw the application and postpone the decision. In May the decision was postponed again after new objections were raised.

The planning sub-committee report states the application was withdrawn by officers because “the applicant had incorrectly completed the certificate of ownership”. The report then states: “For the avoidance of doubt, Westminster City Council own the freehold of the site. However, the application is submitted by Dukelease which is the long-term leaseholder.”

But according to the Land Registry the actual leaseholder is a company called Soho Data Holdings (SDH). Dukelease Properties would appear to be SDH’s development partner.

Documents obtained by Fitzrovia News under the Freedom of Information Act show that Westminster council would offer a 125 year lease to SDH if the planning application to redevelop the site is successful. Yet the updated planning officers report makes no mention of this.

Roger Allen, chair of the Holcroft Court Residents Association (HCRA), says the whole process has been a shambles since the plans were first aired last year.

Clipstone Street elevation.

Clipstone Street elevation showing proposed tower block next to Holcroft Court (left). Additional drawings were uploaded onto the Council’s website on 9 June 2015 after Holcroft Court residents complained that the existing drawings did not show the correct context.

Last week solicitors for HCRA wrote to Westminster Council asking to extend the consultation period for the planning application so that the new drawings could be examined properly and checked for accuracy.

Solicitor Richard Buxton wrote on behalf of the residents association saying: “We are extremely concerned about the Council’s handling of the application and seek your agreement to defer the planning committee meeting scheduled for 16 June so that these concerns can be addressed.”

The letter expresses a frustration on behalf of the residents and finds a “cavalier attitude by the Council’s planning officers toward the accuracy of the information surprising in the circumstances of a building of this bulk and massing”.

Buxton writes that on “two occasions the applicant failed to disclose that Westminster City Council owns the freehold of the development site. This was finally established by other objectors concerned with the misinformation about the Council’s ownership interest.”

The letter argues that a confidential report should be made public otherwise the council could leave itself open to a legal challenge.

Buxton writes that “the Council is both the decision maker and the property owner, and therefore it must act with the utmost transparency and appearance of objectivity and lack of bias. The Council’s failure to meet this rigorous standard in these circumstances could be a ground for judicial review”.

The letter also challenges the City Council over the absence of any social-rented housing on the proposed development .

“Our instructions are that Gerald Eve has carried out a viability study for the Council and on this basis advised the Council that it did not need to provide any social housing and that a 10% provision of [intermediate rented] affordable housing would be adequate. Plainly the lack of compliance with Council policy on these matters would be material considerations in the determination of the application and your agreement to provide us a copy of the viability report is requested since that is the sole basis for departure from Council policy,” he wrote.

The City Council’s solicitor Kirsten Chohan responded rejecting the request to defer any decision: “The scheme has not been amended, the supplemental plans are simply to help contextualise the development and therefore it is not necessary to re-consult to enable the application to be determined.”

Chohan states that the request for information on ownership will be processed in accordance to with Freedom of Information (FOI) and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

“Your request on behalf of Holcroft Residents Association (requesting full disclosure of the Cabinet Member Report dated 11 February 2014 and the viability report carried out by Gerald Eve and all supporting documentation) was lodged with the Council’s FOI team on 11 June 2015 and they will process the request in accordance with FOI/ EIR legislation.”

The letter concluded saying that “the officer’s committee report addresses all points on light impact” and that “all consultation requirements have been met”.

A planning committee led by Westminster council’s deputy leader Robert Davis will now hear the application and could made a decision at the meeting. The committee could however postpone a decision to allow councillors to conduct a site visit.

87-125 Cleveland Street, W1. Planning Applications Committee (1) Tuesday 16th June, 2015 6.30 pm.

Update 17 June 2015: The committee, after little discussion, approved the application (subject to s106 agreements and approval from Mayor of London).

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