Green light for ‘monolithic' block for homeless families

Cabinet councillor told it's up to him to decide whether it's fair for him to vote on application

Friday, 30th April 2021 — By Richard Osley

Chester Road hostel impression 1

How the new block will look

A HOSTEL considered a gem from Camden’s “golden age” of civic architecture is to be demolished after planners approved a new four-storey block.

The redevelopment of the Chester Road hostel, a council-owned site, will lead to provision of 50 new temporary accommodation units for those on the overstretched waiting list for help.

Critics of the scheme did not object to the aims of the project, but the planning department received a large postbag opposing both the look of the new green building and the demolition of the existing building in Highgate – a 1970s work from architect Bill Forrest, a contemporary of RIBA gold medallist Neave Brown.

The Twentieth Century Society had called for its preservation, although Historic England turned down a listing request.

At Thursday’s meeting, councillors had differing opinions on the scale and look of the new building, which has otherwise been celebrated for its dual aspect homes and space for children’s play.

One point of controversy is whether it has been designed to look like a public institution rather than somewhere to live. Another was the shade of green tiles – British Racing Green –­ chosen for the scheme.

Liberal Democrat councillor Flick Rea said she was not a fan of the Modernist building on the site, but added: “To me ceramic tiles remind me of a public toilet,” adding: “This doesn’t look like Highgate to me.”

She said: “It doesn’t fit in with the Victorian terraces.

“It is an anomaly, not only that, it’s a strident in-your-face anomaly. It sits on the corner and it stares at you.”

The hostel building designed by Bill Forrest

Despite her reservations, she voted in favour of the application and said she was “totally in favour” of the site being used to help homeless families.

Residents living nearby had complained of a “monolithic” design that would stick out on the corner of Dartmouth Park Hill, but planning officials said the proposals would not harm the conservation area.

Another sceptic was Conservative councillor Oliver Cooper, who said: “These are homes, so you want them to look like homes rather than looking different because it was publicly built – which I think is an anathema to the idea of having mixed communities and people fitting in.” He was among two to vote against the designs being given planning permission on the night.

Rhys Makinson, the council’s director of housing support services, told the meeting there were “key strategic reasons to support the development of this hostel”, adding: “Camden has set out an ambition that by 2025, everyone should have a place they call home and nobody should be sleeping on the streets.”

Mr Makinson said: “Homeless families cannot afford to live even temporarily in private rented properties in Camden. Demand for council homes exceeds supply with 6,000 families waiting.

“By necessity then, many of Camden’s homeless families are placed in accommodation that’s outside of the borough.”

He added that there were “misconceptions” about hostels and that there was “virtually no anti-social behaviour” reported in Camden’s other family units.

Seven councillors voted in favour of the new building. Two voted against. Labour councillor Anna Wright, who represents the Highgate ward, abstained.

Can he vote? It’s up to him to decide

A PLANNING meeting was told that it was up to a cabinet member to decide for himself whether he should have a vote on the Highgate hostel scheme.

Labour councillor Danny Beales was one of the panel who voted in favour of granting approval, but it had been questioned beforehand whether it was appropriate for him to take part at all.

The project is a key plank in Camden’s overall housing and homelessness strategy and in his position on the council’s executive – the 10 most senior Labour councillors guiding policy – he had supported the idea of the hostel at an earlier stage.

Cllr Danny Beales

Cllr Beales told the meeting that he had “participated in the cabinet decision about the business case” but insisted that he retained an “open mind” about design and planning.

During exchanges at the start of Thursday’s meeting, Conservative councillor Oliver Cooper had suggested that Cllr Beales was effectively already a consultee on the scheme and asked for clarification over whether he should vote.

Council lawyer Aidan Brookes, who advises the committee, said: “It obviously is a matter for Cllr Beales’ own judgement. As he said, the duty on members tonight is to determine this based on planning considerations and it’s a matter of his judgement as to whether he thinks he can do that. If he thinks he is able to do that, then obviously it’s open to him to participate.”

Labour has 43 councillors at the Town Hall and planning is often a chance for backbenchers to get more involved, although currently three cabinet members hold a seat on the committee. On a fairly regular basis in recent years, Camden’s own committee has had to decide on applications filed by the council itself.

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