ENVIRONMENT COMMITTEE REPORT, AUTUMN 2011 Michael Hammerson
The Localism Bill
The House of Lords Report Stage should be reporting on its findings soon, but we are
continuing to lobby on our many outstanding concerns. In the lead is the one being
articulated by the London Forum: Neighbourhood Plans are contradictory, potentially
divisive of communities, an extra layer of burden on the planning system, illusory in the
“increased powers” they claim to give communities and totally unnecessary. Local
development plans, which are devised in consultation with communities, are the democratic
way of establishing local planning policies and are all that is needed.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)
After my tirades in these columns over the sustained assault on the Town Planning system
from the previous government, we were hoping that there would be a period of consolidation
and bedding in; but, no! Hard on the heels of the Localism Bill comes this harmless-
Currently, we have some 25 statements of national planning policy, each covering a different
aspect of planning: General Principles, Housing, Town Centres, Transport, Historic
Environment, Biodiversity, etc. While not legislation, and not legally binding, they are legally
required to be a “material consideration” when considering planning applications. They
average 35 pages each.
The Government has decided – largely because of intense lobbying from the development
profession – that the Planning system is standing in the way of economic recovery and that
“bureaucracy and red tape” have to be eliminated to ensure that the right development takes
place in the right place. Our experience, and that of other amenity groups and local
authorities across the country, has shown that this is not the case, and that even with a
relatively strong planning control system, it is all too easy for badly-designed, selfish and
unnecessary development to get permission.
To this end, it is proposed that the 1000-odd pages of Planning Guidance is to be replaced
by a single 50-page document, the NPPF, produced over the summer by a panel of four
consultants, which is out for “consultation” until mid-October. Current regulations could
certainly be shortened and consolidated to make them more comprehensible and less
opaque. This is not the way to do it.
The subject is immensely complex and the debate has had considerable space on radio and
television and in letters to the press. However, alarm bells start to ring when the best that
Ministers can come up with is that it is “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by left
wingers” (e.g. the Natioinal Trust) and Minister John Howell has misleadingly asserted in the
Times on August 9th that “communities… will have unparalleled powers to plan where
development should or should not go”. However, the Localism Bill specifies that
communities cannot argue for less development. Andrew Lainton, a planning commentator,
has a vast website which is highly critical of the NPPF; it also accuses ministers of “seriously
distorting what the NPPF actually says”.
Our first readings, and those of the London Forum, convince us that in every respect this is a
badly-written, badly-conceived, contradictory, inconsistent, ill-informed and vague document.
If it were to become our sole planning guidance as it stands, it would open the flood-gates to
virtually uncontrolled development. Particularly alarming is its instruction that developments
should not be refused unless they are of “unacceptably poor design”.
Its basic premise - that there should be “a presumption in favour of sustainable
development” - is reasonable enough, but study shows that the Government themselves do
not understand what this means. It gives three different definitions, which in effect mean a
presumption in favour of all development, and that nothing should be refused unless the
harm “demonstrably and significantly outweighs the benefits”. We are told to assume that
“the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes’ ”. Local plans will be required to be
consistent with it; but many London Borough local plans have only been recently approved,
and some, like Haringey’s, still await final approval. This means that all local plans will be out
of date when it becomes official guidance, and since the NPPF states that permission must
be given if a local plan is out of date, developers will be able to argue that all local plans are
out of date. Local authorities are told that they must “approve all individual proposals
wherever possible” – a disastrous statement which promises a field day for developers and
How can one take seriously a policy document stating that “at the heart of the planning
system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development which should be seen as a
golden thread running through plan making and decision taking”? Such woolly,
unprofessional wording in national policy beggars belief.
On Heritage and the historic environment, it is stronger than might have been expected,
considering that heritage has been cut down to three pages. However, it still shows little
understanding of what matters, taking the antiquated position that the heritage is important
individual buildings, and that their protection should be “in a manner appropriate to their
significance”. This would leave us with little in Highgate.
A major issue is housebuilding, which is the result of a restrictive planning system. It
assumes all development is new - no mention of the nearly 1 million vacant housing units
across the country, the massive land banks being sat on by the bulk Housebuilders because
prices are not high enough, or how the open market is to meet the real need, which is for
affordable housing. It trots out the old flawed argument that more housing means cheaper
prices; but given fixed and increasing, building costs, developers will not build if prices go
While it mentions Green Belts, the rest of the countryside seems up for grabs, except that
we should “avoid developing the best agricultural land.” It makes no reference to urban
areas, where most development must rebuild or re-use. It gives local authorities the
impossible burden of having a clear understanding of business needs and of taking ”full
account of relevant market and economic signals such as land prices”, a task no local
authority has the skills or resources to do. Any conditions attached to a planning permission
should ensure that a development provides “acceptable returns to a willing landowner and
willing developer.” Is the purpose of the planning system to protect and subsidise property
My conclusion that these proposals will give free rein to developers is shared by many
experienced, respected professionals. We will be making our concerns known by every
We note with real regret the departure of Hannah Brown, Principal Transport Planner in
Camden’s Highways Department, who left in June to work on an Olympics project. She was
genuinely interested in good design, heritage conservation and close liaison with community
groups. Her achievements locally include the new road layout at the junction of South Grove
and West Hill, the pavement works at the link between West Hill and Pond Square, and
brokering agreement with English Heritage and Thames Water for the restoration of the
Listed 1860s railings around the Highgate Reservoir which we hope will be implemented
before too long.
Riots in Tottenham
During the riots, the Planning Offices of the Town Hall were set on fire. The Department has
moved to Wood Green, and there has been some disruption in the processing of planning
applications. This is, in a way, fortunate in that it coincides with the usual seasonal fall in
An essential part of our work is being able to keep track of planning decisions, particularly in
cases where we have made observations. The difficulty of dealing with two or more local
authorities is compounded by the fact that, whereas details of decisions are easily available
from Haringey’s website, no such information is available from Camden and it remains
extremely difficult to find out the results of decisions.
There is also the problem that, in an effort to save costs, an increasing number of planning
applications are available only on-line. It is difficult enough to read an A1 or A2 architect’s
plan on a normal computer screen or an A4 printout; far worse when an application is
accompanied by dozens of drawings, which are listed on the website link to the application
details. Camden’s website does give some clue as to what the drawing shows – existing
elevation, proposed ground plan, etc; Haringey’s gives only a number. It is often necessary
to sift through many drawings to find the relatively few we need.
Highgate Garden Centre and Athlone House
There is no further news on either of these although we expect a new application to
demolish and rebuild Athlone House.
BT Broad Band Control Boxes and Cross-Boundary Liaison
A number of applications for these large new boxes have been refused because of bad
siting in the Conservation Area, but our requests to Haringey for a site meeting to discuss
the wider policy and approach to locating the boxes have been repeatedly ignored. Our
efforts to bring the two local authorities together to discuss Cross-Boundary Liaison have
been keenly supported by Councillors on both sides, and Camden officers appear willing to
meet with us if their Haringey counterparts agree.
A national newspaper asked what we thought of plans by Jude Law to build a basement in
the house he has just bought on The Grove. I said that we were not worried as the
basement extension looked pretty small. An article appeared the same day on the paper’s
website: “Jude Law at loggerheads with local community”, and advised that “the influential
Highgate Society” had resolved to block his proposals. At his request I met Mr Law at the
house and was able to confirm that the proposed basement extension was harmless.
A few weeks later Kate Moss was known to have bought another house on The Grove
(where Coleridge once lived) and, we were warned, wanted to build a huge basement. The
facts prove otherwise; no basement is proposed. The application does though include eight
security cameras which, in spite of the new owner’s high profile, sounded rather OTT for this
important Grade II* House, and we have advised Camden that the impact of these should be
carefully assessed and any modifications proposed before permission is granted. It is rather
sad that the issue in both cases was not the impact on the buildings, the integrity of the
Conservation Area, or the Society’s role in both, but the least important factor of all, from our
point of view – the celebrity of the owners.
Water House, Millfield Lane
We have had further meetings with the owners of the Water House about their plans for a
major redevelopment of their site adjoining Hampstead Heath. The revised design for the
new house is architecturally good, but it is still much too large for the size of the site and will
involve raising the ground level within the site to minimise the heavy lorries needed to
remove excavated basement spoil. This could disrupt water flow to an adjoining pond and
cause as yet unassessed damage to the stream known to exist under the site which feeds
into the Heath’s Bird Sanctuary pond. The mechanisms of how to accommodate contractors’
traffic along Millfield Lane with the busy pedestrian traffic of Heath users - and without
risking pollution of the Ponds – has yet to be settled to the assurance of ourselves and the
other Heath user groups at the meetings.
Ponds on the Heath
there is little new to report with regard to the Ponds on the Heath and the threat that new
legislation may compel works to the dams which will cause immense disruption to the Heath.
The members of the Heath Consultative Committee remain unconvinced that the extent of
work proposed is necessary, and will continue to work with the City to understand the
complex issues and to seek the minimum work required. Our neighbours at the Heath and
Hampstead Society, as original community “guardians” of the Heath, are currently engaged
in an immense amount of research which will hopefully inform this debate.
30a Highgate High Street
We had to criticise an application for a second floor rear extension above part of the Pizza
Express premises. It would have set an extremely damaging precedent for building at the
back of the High Street, being in my opinion badly-designed and located, and would have
seriously overshadowed and ruined views from neighbours’ flats. The application also,
puzzlingly, included an application for a flagpole at the front.
We lodged a strong objection to an application for a development in Compton Avenue. A
developer had bought two houses at the bottom of the road on very large plots and adjoining
Highgate Golf Course. One was to be retained and refurbished; the other was to be
demolished and built in the style beloved of denizens of The Bishop’s Avenue. The two were
to be linked by a gigantic basement covering at least one third of the entire site and which
could have had a major impact on the hydrology of the Golf Course. There was no
hydrological report. The application has now been withdrawn.
18 North Hill (Woodland Cottage)
Burglars set fire to Woodland Cottage and extensive damage resulted. Though not Listed,
this is one of the finest early Victorian houses in the road, with a beautiful cottage-style
Victorian porch which was recently restored by the owners. Their understandable concern
for security led to an application for front walls and railings to this formerly low-fronted
garden, and for a substantial roof extension which would have changed the character of this
sensitive building. We were glad that the application has now been withdrawn.
270 Archway Road
An application was submitted to convert three garages at the rear into a dwelling, with a new
basement. The main impact will be on Highgate Avenue, onto which the garages open.
While a sensitive conversion or even rebuild might be appropriate, the drawings suggested
that it would simply look like a converted garage, and gave no indication of how any light
would reach the basement window, since this would open out onto the adjoining garden and
necessitate digging a light well through it.
St. Joseph’s Church, Highgate Hill
We were invited to a preliminary meeting to discuss the renewal of proposals for major
redevelopment at St Joseph’s. It is evident that the Church is in a considerable state of
disrepair, and that substantial funding is needed to restore it, but whether “enabling
development” on such a scale is appropriate is a matter on which English Heritage must
decide, as the Church is Listed Grade II* (We are told, its organ has recently been Listed
Grade I). While the proposals are at such an early stage that it is difficult to make any useful
comment, but we are worried about proposals to build over the fine rear gardens on such an
intensive scale. We hope to have further meetings with the project managers as their
proposals develop. There is the likelihood of early archaeological remains on the site which
will have to be taken into consideration in any development scheme.
Highgate School’s response to my recommendation that they should carry out
archaeological excavations on their new development site on North Road resulted in
contractors Compass Archaeology being called in. The site is located close to the school’s
original 16th century buildings and to the toll-gate on the road running through the mediaeval
Deer Park which used to enclose much of Highgate north of the village. Preliminary findings
show that investigation was well worth while. 17th and 18th century wells and pits yielded
good groups of contemporary pottery, while surviving ground levels showed evidence for
16th century brickmaking, which fits in perfectly with a 1576 document in the school’s
archives ordering bricks for the new school to be fired on the site. Firmly sealed by those
levels was a mystifying array of square-cut ditches, deeply dug below the original ground
surface, which seems not to have been far below the modern surface. Though no datable
material was found in them, they seem likely to be of mediaeval date and to indicate that
there was considerable activity going on at the time.
Most of the area bounded by Hampstead Lane, Southwood Lane/Muswell Hill Road,
Woodside Avenue and Hampstead Garden suburb as far as the Spaniards was covered by s
huge Norman Deer Park, a massive area owned from the 7th to the 19th century by the
The huge Deer Park, owned from the 7th to the 19th century by the Church, has been
managed for at least 2,000 years. It held a large and important hunting lodge (now below the
12th green of Highgate Golf course) and housing for all the horses, dogs and many staff
needed to run a big and active establishment, geared to lavish entertainment and large-
scale agriculture and woodland management. With the vast developments going on in the
area, particularly on the large house plots north and north-west of Hampstead Lane, we
have a unique opportunity to explore the potential of a mediaeval deer park. It has proved
virtually impossible to persuade either Barnet or Haringey to take archaeology seriously in
this area, and as a result I believe that we have lost many sites, on at least one of which I
had personally found a scatter of prehistoric flint tools. The finds at Highgate School
demonstrate that this situation must not continue, and we are calling on English Heritage to
require a better archaeological policy for the area.
Tile Kiln Lane
The situation here remains one of the greatest concern. It has now been established that the
new buildings have been built 700mm (2’4”) higher than that of the adjoining property, even
though the applicants attested that it would be no higher. Their statement was in response to
a previous refusal at appeal on grounds that the excessive height would be visually
damaging when viewed from the Archway Bridge. After receiving complaints from local
residents, we pressed Haringey for several months to make the measurements and take
action, but they delayed for so long that it seems likely that, if they did now take enforcement
action, any appeal Inspector would throw such action out as having been delayed
unreasonably when it should have been addressed while the construction was going on.
Haringey are therefore refusing to take action, maintaining that the difference in height is
“not material”. In our view this is yet another regrettable instance of the ineffectiveness of
enforcement in Haringey.