Hill View is one of the council office sites to be sold off by Bexley council to help
fund its new headquarters at 2 Watling Street. When Bellway Homes agreed to buy
it it is inconceivable that the council did not give a firm indication that
their plans would be approved. Last Thursday evening the council’s planning
committee met to do just that, but there is an election coming and Welling has
shown before how fickle it can be at the ballot box, so a particular sort of
charade had to be played out. This would consist of various councillors being
trotted out to criticise the scheme.
After the planning officers spent 20 minutes giving an overview of the proposals - 47 houses and 14 flats - the two objectors allowed to speak were invited to do so for three minutes each. Chairman councillor Peter Reader had refused a request for one to speak for four minutes and the other for two.
The first speaker was a Mr. David Burke with whom I have swapped a transcript of his speech (PDF) for a copy of my audio recording. I felt it was a big mistake to base his objections on his solicitor’s analysis of where Bexley council had broken the law or their own rules. Long term readers will know all too well that Bexley council has no respect for the law or its own rules. Ian Clement, Petition, Obscene blog, Closed Session, illegal yellow lines, unjustifiable bus lane. Need I go on?
Mr. Burke had been speaking for two minutes and 30 seconds when chairman Peter Reader asked him to stop. Mr. Burke continued but at two minutes 52 seconds (the recording doesn’t lie) councillor Reader began to throw his toys out of his pram and that was the end of that.
The next speaker was Mrs. Baldwinson who was unhappy that the side elevation of one of the proposed new houses looked to be closer to her window than Bexley council’s own rules allowed but she had not been permitted to know the measured distance. She was also concerned that an area already subject to flooding would become worse. The lady said she had previously been assured by councillors James Hunt, Steven Hall and Linda Bailey that none of her concerns would be realised.
Bellway’s representative was then given five minutes to make his case and in contrast to the short changing of Mr. Burke he was told he was “welcome to take five and a half minutes”. Apart from his spiel about how wonderful the development would be he said that Bellway was ready to start building as soon as possible.
Welling councillor James Hunt then spoke for the affected local residents. He spent a few seconds commenting on the legal issues raised by Mr. Burke and then jumped to Mrs. Baldwinson’s proximity problem. He described it as “a serious issue”. Elsewhere there will be “windows looking straight into bedroom windows”.
Councillor Hunt said that the flooding problems are causing “mushrooms and fungus growing up the walls. There is a serious issue of flooding which will be exacerbated by this development. Drainage must be seriously addressed before this can be accepted this evening. If we lived there we wouldn’t want it”. He then moved on to the issue of balconies. The flats are “almost on the boundary line and have balconies on the back which overlook the houses in Sandringham Drive and Marina Drive”. (The second street name was barely audible so may have been Peter’s Close.) He hoped that the committee would take these things into account. “If we don’t we will have all failed in our jobs.”
After a two minute break for councillors to read an Addendum to the Agenda the reliably obnoxious councillor Val Clark jumped straight in to say “this is a very good scheme … and that the conditions imposed should allay residents’ fears. What we could put there they definitely wouldn’t like”. In a few short words she ignored all of councillor Hunt’s concerns and threatened residents with something worse.
Councillor Colin Tandy asked questions about the drains and spoke of deferring the scheme under the Localism Act’s Neighbourhood Forum procedure which he accepted might cause a lengthy delay.
Mrs. Susan Clark, Head of Development Control, said that the developer would have to meet all current drainage regulations before being allowed to proceed. The legal advice was that Localism Act considerations should “be given very little weight”.
Councillor Mike Slaughter was “bloody glad that it was not going to be offices” but he was concerned about the drainage and remarked on the credibility of the Environment Agency which was seeing no problems with it. The water table is such “that as soon as it rains you get puddling”. He was “very unhappy about the drainage problems down there”.
Councillor Slaughter then turned his attention to “the recreational land around the flats” and the fact that a lot of the two storey houses have “bedrooms in the roof”. “Is that not three storey?” he asked. “It is bending the rules.” The open space for the twelve flats was “mean”.
A council officer said that council policy requires a 45% area for communal use (of what he didn’t say but one might assume of the internal space) and this figure would only be met by including a strip of land on the far boundary of the site. By implication the area adjacent to the flats did not meet the council’s minimum requirement. Councillor Slaughter said that was another example of “bending the rules”. He asked for the figure for the area immediately outside the flats; “it’s nowhere near 45%”. Mrs. Clark accepted the rules were not met but argued that because the flats were mainly one bedroomed it didn’t matter.
A barely recognisable councillor Brian Bishop also expressed concern about the drainage. He asked if any conditions would be imposed on patios etc. which might make the problem worse. He additionally and helpfully asked if Mrs. Baldwinson’s question about building distances could be answered.
Mrs. Clark said the planning conditions would not allow any extensions etc. and large patios have to be permeable. Another council officer then ran his ruler over the plans to ascertain the distance between various boundary walls. The figures varied around the 16 metre mark with the smallest “a shade under 15”, the standard minimum being 16 metres between blank walls and 22 metres when windows are involved. Having mentioned another under 16 metres the council officer rather curiously said he “was confident throughout the scheme all the separation distances are achieved”. Councillor Slaughter failed to say this was another piece of rule bending. However councillor Bishop recognised “it was less than what is required. It needs to be noted”.
Councillor Margaret O’Neill (Labour) was unhappy about the balcony supports which ran straight down to the ground. They represented a security risk.
Councillor Simon Windle had misgivings about the flats too and the lack of recreational area, he asked how much below the mysterious 45% it was. No one knew. He had questions about the separation distances too, the under 16 metres between blank walls in particular. The householder concerned interjected that his wall was not blank, it included his kitchen window. Chairman Reader, rude as usual, said he could not accept a correction from the audience, but the council officer who had been dismissive of the under 16 metre problem earlier said that he had ignored the kitchen window as he did not consider a kitchen to be “a habitable room”. Another bit of rule bending and who does the cooking in his house? Councillor Windle was asked if his questions had been answered and he said “No”.
Councillor Kerry Allon said he had concerns about the overlooking and the drainage but “the plan is as good as we can hope for … it’s not perfect but it is as good as we can get and I am happy to second it”. Councillor Val Clark had earlier proposed approval but what she said was lost to the recording due to the noise of disgruntled voters exiting the chamber.
The sale of Hill View is very important to Bexley council. It needs the money to help pay for its extravagance in Watling Street, the funding of which has not been made public. If Hill View is not sold quickly Bexley council will be in financial difficulties even quicker than forecast. It is a near certainty that council leader O’Neill would be insisting that the plans were approved, indeed the usual pre-meeting council leaks said as much.
Councillor Hunt was chosen to champion the residents but according to them he hadn’t even bothered to show up at their meetings. His comments to the committee were not as half-hearted as I was led to believe they might be but they achieved nothing so perhaps any aspirations to take over Katie Perrior’s Children’s Services cabinet post are not totally scuppered.
The planning committee consists of ten councillors. Four didn’t speak at all, Val Clark was right behind the application from the start as you would expect of someone in O’Neill’s Inner Circle and five councillors had serious concerns about some aspects of it. Councillor Hunt did too but he is not a committee member, so how do you think this faux regard for residents translated into practice? Yes you are right, there was a unanimous vote in favour of what had been labelled “rule bending”. When has Bexley council ever had any regard for rules?
With Welling’s reputation for voting for fringe parties maybe next May that not so fringe party, UKIP, should flood Welling with candidates. That might put paid to councillor Hunt’s ambitions. Not that I see anything particularly bad in James Hunt, there are an awful lot worse, but even the best of them keep very bad company.