Â£1 million is a lot of money for one vote but that was the value of one vote on the planning committee last Wednesday.
On Wednesday the Conservative members of the planning committee walked out of the meeting when discussion of a planning application in East Acton ward came up. It is a block of flats adjacent to North Acton tube station that carries with it a Â£1 million worth of Section 106 funds, also known as â€œplanning gainâ€. It seems that the Ealing Labour group is so keen to get its hands on this money it is prepared to subvert the planning process and ignore its own manifesto.
In August planning application P/2011/4250 for a housing and commercial development of 18 storeys was refused on the following grounds:
1. Overdevelopment by reason of lack of amenity space.
2. Low proportion of affordable housing.
Apart from a few balconies and a rooftop play area there was no amenity space (gardens, playgrounds, balconies, etc). The proportion of social housing proposed made a mockery of Labourâ€™s manifesto pledges to â€œbuild 3,000 affordable homes â€œ and â€œreinstate the requirement for 50% affordable homes in all private developmentsâ€. The developer was offering to provide 20 affordable homes out of 151, a measly 13.2%.
This decision was not made lightly. There was an hour long debate about the merits of this proposal in which detailed questions were asked of officers.
The vote in August was telling. The Conservatives and one LibDem opposition councillors voted against the application along with the only ward councillor from the affected ward, East Actonâ€™s Cllr Kate Crawford. The rest of the Labour group voted for, ignoring their own aspirations for more affordable housing in favour of Labourâ€™s North Acton vanity project (of which more later).
On Wednesday this same application came back to the planning committee. Normally when an application is refused the developer will either appeal or come back with a substantially modified proposal. In this case the Labour chairman of the planning committee, Cllr Ray Wall, and the planning officers allowed this application to boomerang back to the committee after three months using the pretext that on the 6th September 2012, there was a government ministerial statement from Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government).
The only concession that had been made as a result of the previous refusal was to increase the amenity space by 380m2, by giving 19 flats larger balconies and providing another play area on the top of a ten storey building.
No attempt had been made to get anywhere nearer to Labourâ€™s manifesto commitment of 50% affordable. It seems that Labour would rather take the cash.
They are particularly keen to get hold of contributions to Cllr Bellâ€™s North Acton piazza, a concrete square that replaces a well used petrol station. This developer was offering Â£692K towards this particular project. This sum had been promised up front, to â€œbe paid prior to the commencement of any part of the developmentâ€œ. The only thing better than free money is free money right now!
Anyway the Conservative councillors could see what was coming and didnâ€™t want any part of it. They walked out and the lonely LibDem member of the committee was the only one to vote against the massed ranks of Labour councillors ignoring their own manifesto. As for Cllr Crawford she has seemingly been mollified with a 2.5m2 per flat increase in amenity space. As the developer has not offered any increase in affordable homes it seems too that she is happy to wave goodbye to Labourâ€™s affordable housing promises.
The council hasnâ€™t consulted anyone about its piazza or made any public decisions. It is ignoring its own manifesto promise to increase affordable housing and pressing ahead with delivering the piazza in spite of objections from residents.
Labour has got its way, and collected Â£1 million, thanks to Kate Crawfordâ€™s one vote.