Using ‘localism’ to defend Highgate

Michael Hammerson offers some personal advice to other communities on the uses – and frustrations – of the localism legislation

We have clearly been fortunate in Highgate, where our Neighbourhood Forum has now been designated. Not only is it cross-boundary (Camden and Haringey), but the Ward Councillors on both sides are immensely supportive and their policy officers are being helpful.

People ask us how much frontline funding we have had from our local authorities, but in many ways I think that’s is something of a red herring. We haven’t had a penny from either local authority – mainly because they have been given no extra money to pass on to us – and very little other funding except from small donations (notably one to enable us to print 10,000 consultation questionnaires for every household in the area). We recognise that we are a voluntary group and so we are just getting on with it, rather than putting any financial demands on the Councils (Haringey, we know, has some of the country’s most deprived areas, and we are really reluctant to ask them for extra money of this sort), mainly with practical help (until the end of March) from the Prince’s Foundation and CABE as Government-appointed facilitators. What does understandably concern the local authorities is the cost of the referendum, which some believe could be around £20,000, but there seems to be a Government commitment to providing some money once the Plans are in place.

Making the most of badly thought out legislation
We also share the wider belief that the legislation was badly thought out, with little understanding of the needs of urban communities; but, on the other hand, everyone, from government, through Local Authorities and developers to local communities, are all on the same starting line, and we intend to make the most of it within the vague constraints of the legislation. Although our Forum was initiated by the local amenity society, we have managed to engage a wide range of local groups and we now think the Forum is very representative of the area. We have been lucky in that, although our Forum area is large, we have settled border issues with neighbouring groups very amicably, and even persuaded one group who were very resistant to joining to come in, while groups well out on the fringe made it clear that they wanted to be a part of it. We understand that some areas trying to set up Forums have already hit serious border wars, which, if correct, reinforces my initial fear that the Act had as much potential for dividing communities as for uniting them.

We are also aware that we in Highgate are very fortunate in having a huge fund of planning and other experience, from long engagement with the planning system and a lot of senior professionals in a huge range of fields on the various committees and groups in the area (as well as a lot of enthusiasm and commitment from the wider public) – but we are still finding the process physically and mentally demanding on top of everything else that we are all doing, and the task for communities new to the game will be daunting. It has also required very determined and tactful leadership, and we fortunately have a very good Chair.

But I don’t mean to put anyone off; on the contrary. As I have said, everybody is on the same starting line, and you know the needs of your area better than anyone. What you should do is to establish, with help, what a Neighbourhood Plan should look like, and work out what you want it to contain. Some of what you put in may be contrary to local or national policy; but the next step is not to give up, but to get help from people who know something about Town Planning – local professionals, ward councillors, local authority planners – to re-word it for you in a form which will pass the final Independent Examination. There will be nothing more discouraging that to go to all the effort of putting a plan together, to have it rejected by an Examiner; therefore, lessen the chance of that happening by getting it looked over before it goes to the Examination.

Remember, too, that a Neighbourhood Plan does not have to solve the problems of the whole world. Indeed, it need only address one single issue, if that’s what you want. The idea is to find out in what ways local and national planning and legislation and guidance fails to meet your area’s needs, and use it to augment them – just be careful not to contradict them, which would be fatal to the Plan. Most important, make it aspirational but achievable; a wish-list of the unattainable or impracticable will receive short shrift at Examination.

Fighting off the invasion of the oligarchs
All of the Highgate Neighbourhood Forum area is within a Conservation Area, and while protection of that, and of the area’s heritage and open space, is fundamental to our aims, we recognise that we must use the opportunity to try and identify sites where housing and new business opportunities, both badly needed, could go. We are also addressing such issues as transport, open space, social and community aspects, sustainability and ecology, partly because they are integral to the character and liveability of the area, but also to engage those sectors of the community whose priority is not town planning, and it is clearly the opportunity to become involved in these other issues which have drawn in the wider community.

What is desperately needed in our area is affordable housing; but the area (which, as the estate agents put it, is “much sought after”) is being invaded by oligarchs and other offshore entities who want to park their money in tax havens and have no interest whatever in the impact on one of London’s finest Conservation Areas and what is still a real village community. They are trying to tear the area apart with demolitions of houses integral to the designated character of the Conservation Area, and build vastly bigger mansions and gated developments in the most vulgarly dubious of international styles. We are fighting this invasion vigorously but, with the limitless money and expensive legal muscle being employed by the developers to wear down cash-strapped local authorities who are too often tempted to give permissions against their own policies to avoid the huge expense of appeals, it is a real David-and-Goliath contest. Despite this, the local amenity society has won several appeals, against the odds.

In the face of this – and the artificially-racked-up land prices which result – any hope of getting affordable housing in our area is minimal, and in an area like Highgate, the reality is that the Government’s much-vaunted “Community Right to Build” is little more than a fiction – the community owns no sites and the local authorities hardly any – as is the Community right to designate Community Assets, the effectiveness of which will depend entirely on the willingness of the owners to be co-operative; and in an area of very high values like Highgate, this is unlikely.

The mythical ‘Community Right to Buy’
All this further so-called breakthrough in community empowerment does is to give a Community three months to raise the market price to buy an asset if it comes onto the market. This may be all very well in Little Twittering-on-the-Mobile, where the local pub, post office or tithe barn might be sufficiently affordable for a fund-raising effort. It is widely recognized that the legislation was predicated on the parish council model, by legislators who came from another planet, had not the slightest idea of how communities coped with the real town planning issues in large urban area, and never troubled to ask communities what they actually wanted. In an area like Highgate, £millions – often tens of £millions – are needed to be able to acquire anything. For groups like ours, the “right” appears to have been modelled on the legend of Tantalus rather than any practical considerations.

Further, if the asset, be it never so important to the community, does not come onto the market – or, as in the case of one of our major assets, is transferred by a miracle of modern accounting to a company in the British Virgin Islands – what is the point of going to the trouble of designating it?

I hope the above gives some idea of how a group long actively engaged in the planning system is embracing Localism in its area. We are tackling it with a great deal of determination, and with encouraging support and enthusiasm from the local community, and are optimistic of seeing it through – if a little daunted by the hard work it entails – given the clear desire of local government, councillors and the wider community to make it work.

Michael Hammerson
February 2013

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