Candidates line up against new skyscraper close to British Museum – but residents don't trust process

Labour councillor, says, in general, planners have been forced to become 'enablers' of development

Tuesday, 26th April — By Richard Osley

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How the new development at Selkirk House would look

ELECTION candidates were asked to explain why it seemed that strong words against large redevelopment projects rarely seemed to be born out in final planning decisions – as one councillor said planners at the Town Hall had been forced to act almost like “enablers” for new schemes.

The Save Museum Street group are concerned about plans to demolish an old hotel building close to the British Museum – it’s called Selkirk House – and replace it with a larger 20-storey tower of flats and offices overlooking one of London’s most historic districts.

With less than two weeks to go before the Camden Council elections, it invited all the candidates in the Holborn and Covent Garden and Bloomsbury wards to answer questions in St George’s Church.

As the New Journal has reported, only four existing Labour councillors turned up to sit on the panel.

Julian Fulbrook, Awale Olad and Rishi Madlani all spoke out against aspects of the redevelopment plan, although Sue Vincent said she could not give an opinion on the proposals because it could conflict with her role on the planning committee – and the likelihood of her holding a yes/no vote when the project comes up for a final call on building consent later this year.

Julian Fulbrook

Despite these answers – Mr Fulbrook said a concerted community campaign was needed– frustrated neighbours said they did not have confidence that the scheme would be rejected, and expressed dissatisfaction with the process and how decisions are reached.

Asked about the approach the council took generally, Ms Vincent – a former deputy leader of the Camden Council – told the audience: “I think one of the biggest issues we have is when the government wrote the National Planning Policy Framework and it was given to local planning authorities.

“Basically, they have hammered planners for decades, and the planners are more or less told to act as sort of enablers of development and that causes the issues that we have.”

But she added: “I think that there are enough hooks within the national planning framework – for sustainability, for example. So if there is demolition of any building then that can be taken into account.”

A member of the audience had asked whether volunteer campaigns like Save Museum Street, which meets every Monday evening, were doomed to be ignored, and said it was confusing that Camden had a policy of wanting buildings to be retrofitted if possible, rather than demolished – only for permission to often be granted for the bulldozers to come in.

“The question about ‘why we don’t listen’…. I mean, it’s a majority vote,” said Ms Vincent.

“I’m invariably voting in the minority when I’m on the planning committee. I can’t say why the planning department has said to you and to the campaign that they’re not taking that particular policy into account.”

Sue Vincent

She added: “I sit on the planning committee so I make a decision on the applications as they come in front of me. So I will raise questions at that time, if it comes to committee. If there is a development that has a demolition component, I will always raise the fact that we have that policy but there’s caveats out of it.”

Ms Vincent told the room: “I can’t answer why my colleagues don’t follow the planning hooks that we do have.”

Jim Monahan, from the campaign, said he felt officers at the Town Hall were “out of control” and that he wanted to know how it was possible to “reconcile what the council does, and what it says it will do, because there is a huge dichotomy between the two.”

He added that there was a feeling that Camden supported big developments in general and “that there is agreement that large scale redevelopment is good and that growth is good”.

Mr Madlani said: “Planning is a judicial process so we have to play by the rules of that process. I’m willing to work with residents,” adding: “Demolition should not be the first point of call for any building. We know we are in a climate emergency. We need to adapt.”

Mr Fulbrook called the plans for the new tower a “monstrosity” but insisted that the result of the planning process was not already a foregone conclusion.

“We defeated an enormous tower at Templar House just along the road – that was an edifice that was going to cast a deep shadow over our council estate,” he said.

“This tower here is going to cast a shadow over some iconic places like this Hawksmoor Church, the British Museum and a whole neighbourhood. We don’t want a sundial like Centre Point.”

He added: “We need a concerted fight, a concerted campaign and my experience is that if we use the levers of democracy and take forward a point of view, they are listened to by Camden Council committees…. I don’t want to be too sacrilegious but with people in this church we’ve probably got God on our side as well. We need every voice in the community to focus on this particular project and say no.”

Helena Roden, the chair of the hustings, said: “There is a group of us that meet every Monday almost without fail on Zoom and campaign against it there. I think we have had a strong local campaign and I’ve been very heartened by the people that we’ve met – but even so, I’m not convinced that the whole of the council is actually listening to our campaign.

“As a general point as a whole, this sort of money which is brought back into the council by huge developments is very attractive to the council and I can understand why from a budgetary point of view.”

The Selkirk House project is being run by LabTech, the company which has also redeveloped large parts of the market sites around Camden Town. It declined to comments about its revised proposals when asked by the New Journal last week.

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