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A frosty reception for ‘managed democracy’

18 July, 2019 — By John Gulliver

View from Gloucester Crescent of the crane in Centric Close

I COULD hear the pain in her voice as she recounted how badly she felt she and her neighbours had been treated by officialdom – something that had happened two years ago. Memories, however, can become frozen in time.

That, to my surprise, was what I discovered when I talked to residents whose family homes are now overshadowed by a new block of flats in Camden Town built despite their strenuous objections. Their complaints consisted of loss of amenity, loss of light, disrupted lives – typical fusillades aimed against seemingly indifferent planners and elected councillors at meetings. A barrage of emails had accompanied the protests.

But this had all come to nought. Even now, a monstrously tall crane still stands sentinel over the houses where residents attempt to carry on with their lives.

Slowly, week by week the newly built flats in Oval Road are being “released” – sales jargon by the developers to denote they can now be seen by prospective purchasers. The flats start at nearly £700,000 for a one-bedroom suite, rising to around £1.3m for two- or three-bedroom suites.

I was contacted recently by a resident in Oval Road still agitated by the fact that people living in the four-storey block of flats at the rear of the back gardens will be able to “see into their homes”. Privacy gone in a flash.

Residents, still wounded by what they felt was the cold manner of their opponents at the Town Hall, sceptically believe the developers – Fairview Homes – won’t keep their word and “obscure” the windows in the block to keep out prying eyes.

But when I rang Fairview I was assured that, in fact, the windows of the offending block were “frosted” so that the new residents could not look down at their new neighbours, while those in the Oval Road houses could not look into their homes.

However, when the Fairview representative examined the site plans more carefully following my phone calls it now seems that while the window at one end of the block will be “frosted” over, the windows are the other end won’t be “obscured”.

Who is to blame? Not Fairview, it seems. But Town Hall planners who, effectively, drew up the original plans that would allow some windows to be “frosted”, and not others.

This means that those living at the end of Oval Road near the entrance to the block, were left out of the “frost” plans. One victim appears to be Primavera Boman at No 27. While another opponent of the scheme, at No 19, the other end of the scheme, will benefit from “frosted” windows.

It looked as if the hatchet could be buried after the two-year battle over the scheme.

But not now given that the muddle – revealed through my inquiries – will probably reignite more agitation by some of the residents. Possibly, they will drag their elected councillors into the fray.

The cause of the muddle is unclear. A mistake by planners? Or part of an agreed policy?

What appears to be the case is that the four-storey block at the heart of the muddle was built for use by a housing association, believed to be Origin, who have acquired 27 flats – half of which will be let at “affordable” and half of higher market level rates. The windows in the “private” part of the scheme are not likely to be “frosted”.

When I began to look into the scheme it had a certain historic ring about it. A war of words had been fought and settled. Now, fresh objections are likely to be aired.

All this feeds the annoyance residents feel of being ignored by officials. They expected the developers to strenuously fight their case. It was the way they were treated at the town hall that irritated them – they were expected to expertly sift through scores of pages of detailed specifications, then present arguments in the style and manner of experienced architects to the council.

But even if they had been able to jump that hurdle they were then only given a few minutes – five at the most – to put their case in a deputation. They felt a hostility from the councillors on the planning committee, and felt the chairwoman was far too curt and un­cooperative.

They appreciated they were able to present written submissions, that there had been a “consultation” of sorts, that the ward councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli had backed them, but the dead weight of all the other councillors had sunk their case.

One of the residents, Adam Shaw, a BBC journalist, summed up their dilemma: “You could say that a certain kind of democracy was at work. But it was managed democracy.”

He meant “managed” so that the council would end up the victor.

This happens time and again.

This week we may be seeing another slice of “managed democracy” at work over another controversial scheme – the vital plan for the rejuvenation of the large Camley Street scheme with the council and their opponents – members of the Camley Street Neighbourhood Forum – taking up their positions at two meetings, the Scrutiny committee hearing on Tuesday and the “Cabinet” meeting due to be held last night (Wednesday).

Again and again these battles are being fought out in Camden and elsewhere – such as the battle over the fourth runway at Heathrow – and again and again the dice is invariably loaded in favour of the authorities.

All this leads at first to a disenchantment with politicians – this was palpable among residents in Oval Road – and then comes a sense of disenfranchisement, a ruptured disconnect between the electors and their rulers, a sense of powerlessness, and this, in turn, creates a vacuum – and vacuums in
society are dangerous – any extremists can fill them.

This seems a far cry from Oval Road but, however surprising it may seem, it isn’t.

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