Penalise developers who break their extravagant promises

Thursday, 17th June 2021


 100 Avenue Road: How the tower block is due to look if the original project is finished

DEVELOPERS will promise the earth to make a fast buck. A cinema here, a community centre there. Aspirations always sound good.

Who would not want to see a neglected patch of land modernised with a tree-lined open space, perhaps with a snazzy water feature or a new block of much needed low-rent housing?

The reality is that any community benefits offered up by a developer as part of any major housing scheme is largely a distraction from its fundamental objective: profit.

And if that objective suddenly becomes harder to realise, the planning gain will be first for the chop.

It has become an almost inevitable routine of the planning process that a developer will come back a few months, sometimes years, after a scheme has won approval and request significant amendments.

This might be because the company has been hit by fluctuations in the financial markets, or simply that construction industry costs have made the project less “viable”.

Anyone following the saga at Swiss Cottage will know that Essential Living, seven years after getting permission for a tower block, is trying to remove all affordable housing units from the scheme on those grounds.

Another planning headache to blight Camden in recent years has been at the former North London Polytechnic and Pizza Express building in Prince of Wales Road, Kentish Town. Another space unused for too long.

There was much excitement when the plans for a new independent cinema was first proposed. The scheme breezed through the planning system with support from the community because of this arthouse project.

The building was even decorated with signs saying “cinema opening soon”. The reality was that a string of operators found it was not worth their while to run it.

And so the project – first talked about 10 years ago – has always been coming soon-ish. In 2019, a developer was promising they were “100 per cent certain” and a gala opening was imminent.

The latest interest from Rio Cinema is an interesting proposal – a not-for-profit cinema is not an unthinkable endeavour if the will to make it happen is there. But it will no doubt be met with a heavy dose of seen it all before cynicism in planning terms.

Whether this latest attempt comes to pass, there is a wider question of how developers can be properly held to account.

It seems far too easy for developers to take control of a site and then leave it demolished or vacant for years. Simply put, this shouldn’t be possible.

There should be heavy financial penalties for failing to build a scheme, with its promised extras, once planning permission has been granted.

Otherwise trust in the planning system, already severely eroded in Camden, will be completely lost.

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