Thursday, 19 January 2012

Report by Ben Locker of 2007 planning meeting in Stamford Hill

I'm republishing this courtesy of Ben Locker who wrote a blog called Hackney Lookout until 2008. He also wrote a piece in the Hackney Citizen with Charedi blogger "The Shaigetz" called The Goy next door 

June 27th, 2007

Whose law is it anyway? (pt 3)

About 15 years ago, I read a study that found racist attitudes were eroded when members of different groups came to live together in the same residential block. Partly this was because people got to see each other more often, began to share the same concerns and - the reason I thought most resonant at the time - because everyone enjoys having an audience when they’re complaining about how badly-treated they are by their boss, landlord or whoever else is in authority over them.

If there’s one thing that would help community cohesion in Stamford Hill at the moment, then it’s a bout of close-harmony whingeing about the many ways we have all been shafted by Hackney Council over the last decade or more. But one other thing’s for certain: if the various groups on the Hill continue to use shoddy and dishonest tactics themselves, no matter how admirable their motives, we’re not only sending a gilt-edged invitation to that local authority to shaft us some more, we’re going to find this place turned into a tinderbox.

That much was clear to me yesterday evening, when I went to a meeting organised by Hackney Planning Watch at Stamford Hill Library. I was two minutes late and skipped signing the register so that I could be one of the last allowed in. I bagged a spot by the wall where I could stand and not only get a good view of the speakers and everyone in the room, but could see out of the window and into the glass lined corridor opposite.

I’ve worked with Civic Societies before, and most would have been astonished by (and envious of) the number of local people who turned up to discuss a planning issue. There were about a hundred people in a room laid out for seventy, and there was a crowd of at least thirty more outside the door noisily demanding entrance. I could see quite a few trying to get a view of the meeting from the corridor.

So why the passionate interest? Put simply, the Council has released a document that contains suggested alterations to the regulations that control residential alterations and extensions in parts of the borough. If these suggestions are adopted, different planning laws will apply to residents in three areas: Queens Drive in Finsbury Park; Cricketfield Road in Hackney Downs; and 38 streets that comprise the core of my own area, Stamford Hill.

The new regulations are being proposed in Stamford Hill for a number of reasons. Firstly, the area is home to a long-established Orthodox Jewish community, members of which belong to families with an average of 5.9 children. Living space is in short supply and, to accommodate such large families, many have built extensions on the fronts, sides, tops or backs of their houses - and sometimes have done all four. A high proportion of these extensions would (under normal circumstances) have fallen foul of planning regulations but, for one reason or another, have been approved by the council. A significant number have been built with no reference to planning laws whatsoever, and have still not been awarded permission.

In other words, the extensions are a short-term solution to meet the needs of one rapidly-growing section of the community. Its members have been angered by a Council that is now more likely to refuse extensions and, with not a little justice, complain that it is unfair to crack down on these developments when they have been tolerated (or ignored) by the Council for years.

However, many of these extensions have angered other people who live in the Stamford Hill area. Some residents complain that the developments block the light that reaches their own properties. Others point to the noise nuisance that is exacerbated by larger numbers of people living in bigger properties near them. Many are angered by the fact that a good number of developments have wrecked the streetscape and damaged the original shape of Victorian and early-Edwardian terraces. Still more make the point that the developments are storing up trouble for the future, making Stamford Hill overcrowded, encouraging cowboy developers, giving people the incentive to carve up properties into flats and bedsits, and creating urgent problems with structure and flooding.

And underlying all this is a growing resentment nurtured by some people who feel that the Orthodox Jewish community appears to be given de facto special treatment under planning law. No wonder it was a crowded meeting.

Sadly, in such circumstances, good sense often takes a back seat when one’s own interests are at stake. For example, I was very grateful to Hackney Planning Watch (HPW) for calling the meeting, especially as I had no idea that there had been a consultation on the proposed regulations, let alone that it had closed. However, the first thing that I did after reading HPW’s leaflet was to go and find the planning document on Hackney Council’s website (it’s here. What this document does propose is changes to the regulations to front roof slopes, rear roof slopes, and rear extensions. What it does not do is “abandon our streets to unregulated property developers”, as HPW put it. Nor does it cover those developers who “are even applying to build three story houses in residential back gardens”. Nor was it appropriate - at all - for someone from the table to say to Councillor Coggins that “it was your party who sold off our social housing”. I happen to agree, but it was unfair and antagonistic to one of only three councillors who made the effort to show up.

That said, what the proposals are suggesting - and this is the thorniest point for me - that residents within three defined areas of the borough should be subject to different regulations than their neighbours a few streets away. For that reason I thought it highly disingenuous of Councillor Odze to argue that we will all still be subject to planning regulations. Yes we will councillor, but different ones: that is not equality under the law.

This is the point that, more than any other, needs answering and I think that members of the Orthodox community recognise that it is the biggest obstacle to the proposals becoming law. I can think of no other reason why, instead of answering that question, most of the arguments in favour of adopting the new regulations fell into the “Oh go on, we’re nice” category; most notably when a girl of about 12 stood up to make a prepared speech about how her own home was too crowded for her to do her schoolwork properly, how her family faces pressures that arise from her brother’s serious lung disease and how she did “not feel we have been accepted or given space.”

I sympathise, but there are many people across London with similar problems. Should the new regulations apply to them too?

Similarly, I was astonished by the argument one person put forward that Stamford Hill has a miniscule crime rate, thanks to the Orthodox Jewish community: even going so far as to say “when did you last hear of someone mugged by an Orthodox Jew?” Apart from the fact that it ignores a problem with unrecorded crimein the Haredi community, what on earth has that got to do with planning law?

To return to the wider point, though, there was much that was positive about the meeting that could be used as a basis for us all. By and large, all communities on the Hill are sympathetic to (and often adore) large families. Most of us agree that we need more space to have a happier family life (I know I would like a lot more). I also think we all agree that the council’s past inaction and its approval of certain developments have stored up trouble that is now bearing ill-fruit. And I think that, deep down, we all know that allowing inappropriate extensions will only provide a short-term solution for a small proportion of families.

What we need to be asking is what we do about the problem long term. And for that we should be asking ourselves some hard questions, such as whether allowing our planning system to become a communal issue is ever going to be for the wider good, no matter what the motives behind it.

We should then be turning to the council and asking some hard questions, like: Why hasn’t there been a proper consultation on this measure?

Why were the new regulations only published after the local elections?

Why did no member of the council’s ruling party attend last night’s meeting to listen to the citizens’ concerns?

And when we’ve got their answers we can get started on that close-harmony whingeing I was talking about. It will do us all a lot more good than finger pointing, jealousy or diluting the rather limited protection that planning law already gives us.

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