Saturday, 21 November 2009

Did Hackney Council throw in the towel for £50m?

A couple of industry magazines report that Hackney Council could be investigated for pushing through Hammerson's updated plans for Bishopsgate Goods Yard - Bishops Place - too quickly.

Local architect Will Willingdale is quoted in Building Design and Construction News: “It was pushed through. Hammerson pretty much dictated how this planning application was going to be dealt with. I’ve never seen anything like it.I have spent 20 years submitting applications to Hackney Council and I have never been in a position to tell them when to deal with an application.”

The stories also said: "On behalf of several other architects — who don’t want to be named for fear of prejudicing future bids for work — Willingdale instructed solicitor Bill Parry-Davies to write to the mayor’s Greater London Authority."

According to the news stories Open Shoreditch claims that Hackney Council stands to make £50 million from the site, but only on condition of Hammerson securing planning permission, and that this constitutes a conflict of interests.

I might have got the wrong end of the stick but as far as I can tell Hackney's legal department is 25-30% understaffed and was, at one stage, farming out 50% of its work to private firms. This was while the council was dealing with Olympics related contracts. Also, for the last two years, the council's legal department has been looking for a new boss, only finding a new one in February 2009. (April 2007 The Lawyer reported the departure of Hackney's legal chief - has it really taken more than two years to find a new one? Apparently yes it has.)

So it doesn't sound too unrealistic that some things may have got less attention than they deserved.

Also I've been told by a former employee of a large architectural practice that these firms have a policy of challenging every single objection and to appeal every decision against them - however unrealistic their chances of success. This is done by better paid and more specialised lawyers and it is done in the knowledge that local authorities have limited legal budgets and are usually over-worked/understaffed.

This policy keeps local authorities on a permanent back foot and if any mistakes are made they will be in favour of the big companies.

A Google search for Will Willingden produced a less than rave review from Utility Week whose journalists were concerned when he proved difficult to contact. But Willingdale's claims sound believable.

(Gifty Edila, the new head of Hackney's legal department gets a mention in Andrew Boff's EastEight magazine over the council's long-running battle with Broadway Market shopkeeper Spirit.)

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