Councillor Robert Davis at his first planning committee since receiving an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List showed no signs of the humility normally associated with someone recognised for public service. If he was humbled, he was hiding it well.
Davis was a sight to behold has he read out his lengthy declaration of interest before commencing the business of reviewing the planning applications before him. His declaration read like a who’s who of Westminster Property Association. Which of course is exactly what it is.
His two Conservative colleagues and the single Labour member of the committee had little or nothing to say on the matter of any interests. This was Bob’s show — he did most of the talking and was ruling the roost. As usual.
In March this year John Zamit of South East Bayswater Residents Association praised Davis for his long and “sterling public service” but commented that he “seemed to be getting ever more autocratic” and that “more and more people say he is acting like someone who has had too much power for too long”.
Zamit is right. And since last Tuesday’s planning meeting, residents in Holcroft Court and Cleveland Street can be added to the list of residents in the City of Westminster who feel their views are being passed over in favour of members of Westminster Property Association.
In front of the planning committee was an application to redevelop a site at 87-125 Cleveland Street — well known for its Banksy mural — and replace it with three tower blocks and a petrol filling station, a mere eight metres from residents’ windows. 105 flats will be built — including a 10-storey block — and not a single social-rented home.
“A crassly over-developed scheme” is what Wendy Shillam of the Fitzrovia West Neighbourhood Forum called it.
Marylebone High Street ward Councillor Iain Bott said he had never before received so many concerns from residents on a matter.
But Councillor Robert Davis MBE dismissed those concerns and with little discussion said he was happy to approve the plans, only offering that it was “regrettable” that residents would lose daylight.
His Conservative colleagues followed in his wake. Only Labour’s Councillor Barbara Grahame expressed concerns about the application not being policy-compliant and opposed the plans.
Councillor Davis during his remarks about the application referred to the Banksy mural on the building saying that “Banksy’s art belongs in a museum” and not as graffiti on the walls of the City of Westminster. “I think it is a disgrace that he does so because it only encourages other people to do so.”
He then when on to say it was up to the owners of the proposed development in Cleveland Street to decide what to do with the Banksy mural.
But Cllr Davis seems to be unaware (or he thinks we are unaware) that the mural belongs to the City Council, and it is not up to him or the planning committee to give it away.
Documents obtained by Fitzrovia News in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request reveal that Westminster Council is actually claiming ownership of the Banksy mural. “The ‘Banksy’ art will remain the property of the Council although could form part of the new development if this is a planning requirement,” says a confidential report.
But it is not Banksy who is a disgrace — it is Councillor Robert Davis MBE and the council he is deputy leader of that is a disgrace. For Davis’s signing off of this planning application comes after a series of moves by cabinet members who sold off this triangle of public property and fed it to the property developers.
In September 2010 Westminster Council instructed their property managing agents Knight Frank to flog the headlease. Then in July 2011 cabinet member councillor Jonathan Glanz gave the go ahead to flog the site to an unnamed buyer. The report on the sale was confidential and only the decision being public.
In February 2014, another confidential report, and Westminster Council cabinet members Daniel Astaire and Melvyn Caplan reached for their fountain pens to sign off more liberal terms for the headlease.
According to the documents we obtained Westminster council would offer a 125 year lease to Dukelease’s development partners Soho Data Holdings if the planning application to redevelop the site is successful. The council say they will put the proceeds into the affordable housing fund, but have redacted the details from the FOI response.
Westminster’s planners describe the existing building as being run down. It is run down because Westminster council who are the freeholders have left it to rot.
Robert Davis said there are regeneration benefits from the scheme.
Yet there are zero regeneration benefits for Holcroft Court and other neighbours from this scheme. It only benefits Dukelease and their development partners who are building luxury flats and will profit handsomely.
As chair of the planning committee Davis is one of the most powerful people in the City of Westminster. This power must come with responsibility. Yet he and his fellow cabinet members have shown only contempt for those they should be serving.
This could have been a model development delivering a mix of market and social-rented homes, public open space and a design more in keeping with the surrounding streets. Instead it is an opportunity lost for local people, and another gain for Westminster Property Association.