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Arundel Square … new development is 80% “car-free”

February 8, 2010

20th January 2010

The new aprtments on the south side of Arundel Square ... this is a graphically enhanced image published by the developers

A vigorous campaign by residents and local Labour Councillors has successfully forced Islington Council to declare 80% of the new flats on Arundel Square to be “parking permit-free.” The Council has also agreed to identify additional on-street parking capacity and will soon mark-out some new spaces for residents to relieve some of the additional parking pressure. Previously the Council had denied any responsibility for a gross error – they had failed to include a “permit-free” provision in a key legal agreement with the developer.

The Council’s bungling emerged in September 2009 when the developer began to market the new flats. An “FAQ” sheet prepared for prospective purchasers said that new residents could not apply for parking permits but that underground garage spots could be purchased. Controversy erupted when lawyers for the developer suddenly “pulled” this sales material and declared there was no legal basis for the apartments being excluded from the residents’ parking scheme. Their sales team trumpeted this change saying “the development is NOT car capped and residents can apply for a residents parking permit … this is actually fantastic news as those of you who are familiar with new build developments in the Islington area will know that the majority are classified as car-free.”

Residents were furious to learn this. Because the development was (unusually) allowed an underground car park, everyone in the neighbourhood had assumed that these apartments would not cause any extra pressure on the already densely parked-up streets. Long term residents remembered that many assurances had been given that these flats would not result in additional on-street parking.

The development was first proposed in 1996 by local architect, Bill Thomas, who had the bold idea of “decking over” the railway line to increase the size of the public square. Funding for the railway works proved difficult and Bill submitted a number of planning applications between 2002 and 2003. Each time residents were assured that there would be no increase in on-street parking. In July 2003 Bill obtained planning permission for a development that could finance the decking and also provide a number of affordable homes.

The permission was granted for 139 flats plus underground car parking providing 76 places. According to the 2003 committee papers, the decision-taking Councillors were told that the development complied with the Council’s transport policies and that “parking would be provided in a basement level”. Two years earlier, a Controlled Parking Zone had been implemented in the area and over 200 residents submitted a petition calling for assurance that the development would therefore be “car-free”.

The land and its planning permission were subsequently sold-on to developers United House. Bill Thomas has confirmed on record that it had always been the presumption that the development was a permit free development and that he had never worked on any other basis.

Work started on site in 2007 but not until Islington’s planners had executed a disgraceful sleight of hand. Using “delegated powers”, the Council authorised a “minor” amendment to the granted permission. This was not minor at all. It increased the numbers of flats from 139 to 147 and cut the number of car spaces from 76 to 68. Normally such a change would have required a fresh planning application. But someone pretty senior probably decided this was too risky. In May 2006 a new planning committee had been elected in Islington’s West Area. Its Labour majority had firmly demonstrated a determination to closely scrutinise and intervene in all major planning applications.

When residents discovered that the developers had wriggled out of a commitment to make their development permit-free, they objected vigorously. A letter from the Arundel Square Residents Residents Association was sent to the Head of Development Management on 22nd October 2009. They got no reply.  By mid November, they tried to see Terry Stacy, Lib Dem Leader of the Council, at his Councillor’s “surgery”.  He wasn’t there. Instead they saw Lib Dem John Gilbert. Amazingly he just told them to contact Cllr Paul Convery. It’s not clear why – perhaps because some of the residents live in Caledonian ward or because Paul is the current chair of the West Area Planning Committee.

So, the residents association contacted Paul on 16th November and he immediately escalated the matter to the most senior Council officers with a firm steer to “get this sorted, otherwise it’s going to cause you a lot of grief”. Paul attended a two hour residents meeting and promised to help them get a result. He started a blizzard of emails and and spoke-up about it at the full Council meeting on 3rd December. The residents also addressed the West Area committee on November 26th and received full backing from the committee’s Labour majority. They also went to the Town Hall to the Council’s Sustainability review committee and received backing from the Labour chair, Wally Burgess and others.

Straight away, the Lib Dem leadership denied any responsibility for the mess and blamed members of the 2003 planning committee for not explicitly insisting on a car-free condition in the planning permission. This was pretty cheeky because, at the time, the entire planning committee were Lib Dems.

The planning officials were not much better either. At first they simply replied to residents saying that “the Council could not legally have insisted on a car-free condition.” It subsequently turned out that no-one had even asked the developer to agree such a condition.

Full credit is due to Kevin O’Leary, the overall director for Environment. He immediately grasped that the residents had a fair case and that the development had “always been expected to accommodate its own extra cars”. After all, he said, that’s why it had been granted permission for an underground garage. But it would be hard to persuade the developers to retrospectively agree a new condition making their properties permit-free. However, Paul identified that a valuable point of leverage existed with United House because the company has a 30 year business relationship with the Council. It is part of the consortium in Partners for Improvement, a company upgrading the Council’s 10,000 or so residential street properties. Paul wrote to the Chief Executive of United House in what he describes as “a firm and unambiguous letter”.

By late December, United House agreed to the new condition. Their only sticking point was a legal nicety: they had already agreed sales on a fifth of the properties and said they could not backtrack on the terms of these sale agreements. At a meeting with residents’ representatives  and Kevin O’Leary, Paul said “100% car-free would be preferable but 80% is a pretty good deal; we should take it”.

What are the lessons from all this? First, the Council needs politicians in charge of planning who take a bit more notice of the detail of complicated and controversial scheme like this. Paul says that “if Labour wins a majority in the Town Hall in May 2010, we promise that every legal agreement with developers will be checked and sign-off by the Executive Member for planning”. Second, Paul says “we need to get a firmer grip on the planning department overall. They need to be clear that our planning service does not exist to simply rubber-stamp whatever a developer wants.”

** Note for boundary aficionados: Arundel Square is split across 3 wards: the new development is located in Barnsbury; the north and east sides of the square are in St Mary’s and the remainder is in Caledonian Ward.

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