How Big is our Society?
In preparing this year’s annual report I have been puzzling how, if at all, we fit into the Big Society debate about the right and wrong mix of ways to contribute to community well-being
The answer is that we don’t quite fit any of the stereotypes. The unspoken emphasis is that the debate is primarily about the well-being of people. The Heath and Hampstead Society’s concerns are for the protection and improvement of local amenities and by this we mean spaces, buildings, and abstract ideas about how best to enjoy them.
While amenity is not excluded from the debate, we haven’t yet followed the example from the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which apparently now looks to platoons of residents to pick up street litter.
A second distinction concerns money. Unlike some local charities which contribute to people’s welfare, our income is entirely independent of state grants or contracts, whether central or local, and this leaves us crucially free to criticise.
This financial distinction is, however, not so clear-cut when we consider how in fact we spend much of our energies, and where the majority of the funding for carrying out the improvements to Hampstead and the Heath comes from. They are mostly funded out of “public” budgets.
Influencing how public money is spent on local amenities
A crucial part of the Heath Committee’s work is to influence how the City spends its considerable annual budget to preserve the wild and natural state of the Heath. Our input is especially important in the current financial year when 10% cuts have been approved. We have contributed to the details of the 10-year Management Work Plans so far published for the Upper Vale of Health, the Viaduct Pond, Seven Sisters ponds on the Extension, Tumulus fields and Springett Wood. It is of course an important distinction that funds used by the City on the Heath are “private”, in the sense that they are charitable assets managed by elected officials from the square mile with neither party political affiliation nor Departmental budget control.
Town Committee successes
The Town Committee succeeded this last summer, after many years of lobbying, in influencing the City, Camden, English Heritage and TfL to apply their various budgets to such wonderful effect in the restoration of Whitestone Pond and its surround. We wish them the same success in their even longer standing efforts to work with Barnet and Camden Councils to restore the Toll House opposite the Spaniards Inn.
A quicker result was achieved in having Camden set up the attractive new sign posts directing visitors around Hampstead. The Town Committee continues to work with Camden, schools and residents on the still challenging problems of the school run. The local Group known as Hampstead 2020, who are independent of the Society and whom we support, continue to work hard to persuade TfL to fund dramatic improvements to the streetscape and pedestrian amenity in the centre of Hampstead.
The above are all examples of very friendly co-operation with the relevant authorities. This is not so with proposed library service cuts and closures. The Society has sent a detailed formal challenge to the Executive Member for Culture questioning the lawfulness of the Cabinet decision in December 2010 on which the Library Consultation is based.
In summary we argue that it was and is irrational to fix disproportionate cuts this year amounting to £1.6m over 2012-4 (cumulatively £2m), when central Government has made it clear that no reliable forecast over the three financial years to 2015 can be made in respect of over 80% of revenue (grants and Council tax) for the Camden’s Annual General Fund expenditure, which is currently at £868m.
We were also granted a deputation to speak at the Special Cabinet Meeting on 27 April calling for a drastic rethink to keep all libraries open by making Camden’s service at least measure up to the efficiencies of best practice in other Boroughs.
Direct amenity funding
Obviously the resources at our disposal to improve local amenities are much more limited. We can however be proud of the benefit that the Society’s Hampstead Card scheme, managed by Ann Eastman, has had in the High Street and Heath Street in softening the impact of the general downturn in retail trade, which has hit harder in so many other areas of London. We urge members to continue to show support for local independent traders and service providers by shopping locally and using your Hampstead Card.
Protecting our built environment
This is primarily the work of the Society’s Planning Committee. It has two strands: trying to thwart or amend what we consider to be damaging developments; and influencing the policies and practices adopted by Camden in exercising its duties as the local planning authority. In both these areas we have been extremely active in trying to control basement activity.
For Athlone House we joined forces with The Highgate Society. The issues were in part to prevent the unwarranted destruction of the existing Victorian, slightly eccentric country mansion so well settled as part of the view from the Heath, and its replacement by a “bombastic Xanadu”, the words of our patron Sir Simon Jenkins in the Evening Standard. In part we were keen to reinforce the important judgement protecting private Metropolitan Open Land against erosion by “salami cuts”, which the Society established in the Court of Appeal over the Garden House.
The decision, announced while I was writing this report, has been we are pleased to say in our favour. We wait to see if an appeal is lodged. All those who worked so hard to prepare the Society’s case are to be congratulated on this result. Thanks are also due to the many Society members who took the trouble to write in with letters of objection. A number of other potentially damaging basement applications have come forward and been sent back for further impact assessment to be carried out.
Regrettably some very damaging excavations have been allowed to go ahead and neighbours have suffered grievously. The only good that comes from the latter is that our structural engineering adviser has prepared cogently-argued case histories on three of the most extreme cases, to support the case we make to Camden for policy changes.
While the Inspector allowed the Downshire Hill developer to proceed, the challenges we had mounted during a three-year campaign ensured that the risks of serious neighbour damage had been significantly reduced and the hurdle level of technical assessment needed to get approval was significantly raised for the benefit of the wider community. This precedent was helpful in persuading Camden to add neighbour-protecting conditions to the approval eventually given to South Hampstead School for its underground sports hall.
Preventing public nuisance
In recent years the Society has been able to assist groups of residents to resist late night opening for alcohol sales. We did this by using the considerable opportunities created under the Licensing Act 2003 for residents to club together to produce the evidence to persuade Camden’s Licensing Panels to refuse opening during anti-social hours. The message has generally registered with intending owners and managers of licensed premises in Hampstead.
We value genuine traditional local pubs, although many across the country have been forced to close by the changing economics of drinking. We hope for example that the Duke of Hamilton can remain open.
We recently worked with local residents to obtain important changes to the licence conditions sought by new owners of premises at the top of Pond Street, which have been re-opened with an attractive new formula, but which still needed thoughtful controls to make life bearable for close neighbours.
Lines of collective communication
In all these activities the Society must be “big” in its communication skills, both listening and putting across a thorough understanding of the legal and technical knowledge needed. We need this to punch above our weight and to be receptive to current opinions both among and outside our membership. It also helps to have the right friends.
We have joined Civic Voice, which has replaced the defunct Civic Trust as the national voice of civic societies like ours, to lobby central government. They have a powerful team headed by Tony Burton, who will be our guest speaker at the AGM. We are delighted that Helen Marcus became a Trustee. We remain enthusiastic members of the London Forum, which does a remarkable job of lobbying the GLA on behalf of around 130 London amenity societies. Again Helen is a member of their executive committee and news editor.
We held our second annual get-together at Burgh House with representatives of local residents’ associations and trade bodies. Many of our fifty or so active committee members are of course also members of their local RAs, but taking time to sit together and talk through shared issues, problems and solutions on a regular basis is agreed by all to be useful.
Camden Councillors now hold local area forums covering sets of Wards and attended by Camden officers with expertise on topics on the agenda. These help them to maintain a constructive dialogue with us their constituents.
The Local Development Framework
In November 2010 Camden adopted new local planning policies known as the Local Development Framework. This contains two development policies known as DP 27 and DP 23, which give local residents important new protections against unacceptable damage from excavation by developers. On April 6 2011 Camden adopted Special Planning Guidance applicable to basements and light wells, which incorporates the important technical guidelines prepared for Camden by Arup. This sets out the detailed technical data and assessment procedures which developers must present to Camden to enable an informed decision to be made whether or not to grant permission safely.
With the hugely generous financial support from Members to the Basement Appeal, we have been able to ensure that those new policies are the most neighbour-friendly in the country. However, the rather obscure geotechnical and structural engineering knowledge needed to interpret correctly the impact basements may have on neighbouring properties and local flooding risks means that progress still needs to be made in enabling Camden officers to apply these excellent policies correctly. Bad decisions are still being made.
Gordon Maclean, with support from the Committee, reviews and where necessary challenges the 40-50 applications submitted per month to Camden in NW3. Where a controversial decision goes before the Development Control Committee, we often combine forces with immediate residents to try to persuade Councillors in a spoken deputation to follow our advice; this is more often than not asking them to vote against the planning officer’s recommendation.
The third leg can be to join Camden in defending an Appeal, where we obtained a favourable decision, but where the developer has appealed. There are two notable examples of the latter. Athlone House and 9 Downshire Hill were both cases where we, as Rule 6 Parties at a Public Enquiry, supported Camden, and in the case of Athlone House, the City of London as well, to defend their decisions. We felt these involved crucial issues of policy principle and the protection of an important landmark and a street with 48 listed buildings respectively.
Promoting an appreciation of Hampstead and its history
The Heath Committee organised a particularly successful and high quality Springett Lecture given this year by Professor Oliver Rackham analysing the historic impact of becoming what he called an urban island on the ecology of the Heath. We held this in the Rosslyn Hill Chapel.
It was an excellent promotional event for the Society appreciated by an audience of over 200. The Town Committee has obtained house owners’ agreement for us to install Hampstead plaques to commemorate Sir David Low and Daphne du Maurier. In addition to our very popular Heath Walks, the Town Committee has now launched two new programmes: one will take visitors and members around the houses with our and English Heritage plaques commemorating distinguished earlier occupants; the other has started with a two part-walk to trace the route of the Fleet River from its source on the Heath down to the Thames, particularly timely in view of the current discussion of flood dams at the Heath ponds.
We have invited Stephen Taylor to join the General Committee. His name will go forward for election at the AGM. Stephen has done sterling work in organising the residents on the Parliament Hill spur to form an RA group called Hillsiders. He has been a member of our Web Committee since it was formed and is highly valued on that for his technical skills.
The Society AGM
Our AGM will be on June 27th at Hampstead Town Hall. I look forward to seeing many of you there.