Swimming against a powerful tide


“Swimming against a powerful tide”

The purpose of the moratorium on high-rise developments called for by the full Council and agreed by the Cabinet on 25 January is to facilitate:

  • a review of the amenity, infrastructure, viability and financial aspects of the former administration’s draft ‘Staines Masterplan’ (now Staines Town Development Framework) to consider options (initially where the Council is the developer).
  • a public consultation to determine residents’ views on how Staines should be developed as an attractive town to live, work and visit.

A central purpose of the moratorium must be to reflect its origins and the expectations expressed by the Leader at the Cabinet meeting: “We are committed to putting the community first and we want the focus (of the work to be done) to be on the needs of the community, not just financial and commercial aspects.”  Our coalition of residents’ organisations will assist and contribute constructively and positively to the required work programme to the extent we are permitted to do so. We believe we could contribute substantially to the project – particularly, but not only, to the public consultation.

1   Swimming against a powerful tide
There are a number of powerful influences working against the purposes of the moratorium. These need to be recognised, confronted, and dealt with.
1. The issues the moratorium seeks to address are the product of an historical process best exemplified by the 14-storey Arora hotel scheme and contract: a corrosive cocktail of secrecy, over-reach, extraordinary power in very few hands, and the absence of both proper scrutiny and local democratic accountability. (An enquiry into this and the role of individual Cabinet members and Officers may now be inevitable and is probably overdue.)
2. The Council’s current cadre of Officers were an integral part of that process and as a consequence are heavily and personally invested in the Masterplan/SDF. They have worked openly and effectively to prevent a moratorium being much more than a shadow of the Council’s original intention. They are vigorously opposed to any change to the current draft version of the Masterplan/SDF. They will do all they can to protect it and ensure that it is implemented.
3. While there is almost unanimous cross-party agreement among Councillors on the need for fundamental revisions to the draft Masterplan/SDF, the elected body is in an unstable state of near political paralysis. There is now a minority administration and a diversity of opposition groups seemingly unable to work together on much of anything. These circumstances are being stirred by the former Leadership, and both openly and covertly exploited by the current cadre of Officers. We simply do not understand why, on an issue where there is virtually unanimous cross-party agreement, party politics prevents decisive positive action.
4. Despite being in draft, the Masterplan/SDF is well advanced, and considerable financial and other resources have been invested in it already on the assumption it would sail through the approval process. This would have been guaranteed under the former administration. Significant resources should not have been invested in an unapproved Masterplan, and there may now be some financial cost to unravelling some aspects of it.

It is very important we all acknowledge these powerful influences. The Cabinet, Task Group, and Ward Councillors must do whatever is required to offset if not eliminate them. It will be a significant test of the current administration’s pledge to listen to the views of the community and Councillors, to focus on the expressed needs of residents, and to be more open and transparent. The community will be very unforgiving if the product of the review is to blight the town for generations with anything close to the Masterplan/SDF in its current draft form.

2   The immediate challenge
A pre-condition to a successful use of the moratorium is to confront and
deal with the consequences of 1-4 above by ensuring the following:
1. Sites available to third-party developers must be included in the moratorium. Clause 49 of the NPPF appears to provide the Council with clear and solid grounds for insisting on this. We are baffled by why this has not been included in the moratorium decision, and asserted in recent discussions with developers. The Officer’s opinion that Clause 49 does not apply is an ‘opinion’. It is perverse and must be challenged (section 5 below).
2. In a revision to the government’s allocation of housing targets nationally, those for the Midlands and North were raised and many boroughs in the South were adjusted down. Spelthorne’s, against the run of play, was raised from just short of 500 to 606 p.a. without explanation! This must be challenged with vigour, conviction and above all urgency.
3. Recognising the predisposition of the current cadre of Officers and the resources at their disposal, there can be no reason to expect that the purposes of the review will be anything other than frustrated if the work on it is in their hands. This will be especially the case if the Task Group does not invest in independent/ expert/ professional advice and oversight. How this issue is dealt will send a clear message to the community and body of Councillors.

3   Task Force review of the Masterplan/SDF
We fully recognise that the Council is wrestling with the complex task of meeting the borough’s housing commitments, not least in the important provision of ‘key-worker and affordable housing’. As noted earlier, we also recognise that the Masterplan/SDF to pepper Staines with tower blocks for some 3,000 shoe-box flats, although in draft, is well advanced. For the review to be thorough and credible, a huge amount of work must be crammed into the next three months. These are the essential elements we recommend:
1. An assessment of the whole scheme by/with SCC in relation to its overall infrastructure impact (roads, parking, water supply and sewage disposal, pollution, schools, medical services, etc) to determine whether it is viable without an unaffordable or otherwise unacceptable need to modify/ improve/ renew any of the infrastructure. This is fundamental to any conclusion on whether and where to build the kind of tower block developments currently envisaged.
2. An assessment of the financial consequences of limiting any new developments to a height no greater than other buildings in the immediate vicinity of each. The ‘financial consequences’ paper to Cabinet from Officers was a grotesque ‘extreme worst case’ projection underpinning their opposition to the moratorium or any changes to the draft Masterplan/SDF. It is critical that the assessment is realistic and reasonable. Given the predisposition of Officers to exaggerate this issue, this in particular must be independently verified to be credible with the community and Councillors.
3. A review of the borough’s ‘key worker and affordable housing’ requirements. The provision of affordable housing is a key and necessary commitment of the Council. But this should start with a clear understanding of what ‘affordable housing’ actually means in practical and financial terms. It would be helpful to share this information with the community because we believe it is greatly misunderstood. It must also include a reassessment of where in the borough these are actually needed and whether the relatively high cost of real estate development in Staines should impact on location decisions.
4. A fresh assessment of available sites for housing development across the
borough to relieve Staines of the disproportionate burden imposed on it by the draft Masterplan/SDF. This must take account of there being as much sensitivity about the impact of tower-block developments as there is about building on greenbelt. It must challenge the absurdly simplistic mantra that “if you can’t build out you must build high”. It is not a binary choice. It must also look broadly at other opportunities throughout the borough and, for example, take advantage of new ‘change of use’ planning regulations that facilitate the conversion and enlargement of commercial and other properties.
5. A 3D visualisation or model (even with Leggo bricks) of the whole Masterplan/SDF scheme to enable a full understanding of its impact on the appearance of the town and on its current residents. Without this no-one will have a clue about the massive difference it would make the town. Care must be taken for this to be accurate and not subject to the kind of perspective distortions typical in developers’ planning applications. This will necessarily also be a fundamental and critical component of any credible public consultation.
6. An insistence that the public consultation is properly constructed and fairly administered, and that its findings will exert a significant influence on any recommendations produced by the review.

4   Public Consultation
It will be important to ensure that the public consultation produces data that will be credible to the community as well as to the Council. We are prepared to run the consultation, with oversight and control from the Task Group to ensure both transparency and the credibility of findings. We would agree in advance the scope, methodology and timelines of the overall consultation programme. Given the severe constraints imposed on such a project by Covid-19 at least until Easter, the consultation will almost certainly need to focus principally on use of the internet.

Whoever does the consultation it will clearly be important for residents to have enough information on which to base an opinion. Essential to this will be the 3-D visualisation of the currently envisaged tower blocks in their setting (per 3.5 above), and an understanding of the location of greenbelt land.
If it is decided that Council Officers should run the residents’ consultation we would like to understand in some detail how this would be done. If this would be to a standard model perhaps an example of this could be shared with us. We would like to understand the methodology, anticipated tools and timelines, etc, and whether and to what extent we could be involved in the detail.

5   Extending the moratorium to all developers
The moratorium must include high-rise developments by third-party developers. Clause 49 of the NPPF recognises that refusing or deferring a planning application is justified where both:
(a) the development proposed is so substantial, or its cumulative effect would be so significant, that to grant permission would undermine the plan-making process by predetermining decisions about the scale, location or phasing of new development that are central to an emerging plan; and
(b) the emerging plan is at an advanced stage but is not yet formally part of the development plan for the area

The judgement of Officers, perhaps not surprisingly, is that these conditions are not met. This ‘opinion’ must be strenuously challenged (and a second outside/ independent/ legal opinion sought).

  • High-rise developments in the pipeline are “substantial”: Those anywhere near the riverfront, for example, are two-and-a-half times taller than other buildings in the immediate vicinity, one in a protected Conservation Area that is also several times the mass of any other building near it. The fact that the Council has imposed a moratorium on its own planned high-rise developments fundamentally supports this.
  • Planning approval for one would be used as a precedent for approving others and “undermine the plan-making process”: The argument for setting a precedent is referenced in recent planning applications.
  • The Staines Town Development Framework is “at an advanced stage”. The draft plan is now subject only to the current review by the Task Group and a Cabinet decision.

The judgement of Officers is an opinion, much as is their recently admitted opinion that the Arora scheme is compatible with its location in the Staines Conservation Area. Councillors should not take either at face value.