Neighbourhood Plan gets nearer

There was a great turnout last Monday for the West Hampstead Neighbourhood Development Forum meeting, chaired by WHAT. There were slides, there were speeches, there was a bit of heckling – but was there any fruitful outcome?

This was a chance for the NDF to present its progress to the public, and for the public to get a better understanding from not just the NDF but also Camden and Urban Design London, a training and networking organisation, about what all this might mean. There was plenty of time for questions, and plenty of questions were asked!

I’m not going to recap the genesis of the NDF, as I’ve covered it at length before. The group has spent the past few months trying to find out what locals think about the area, and how they’d like to see it develop. It is perhaps worth reiterating that the resulting plans from NDFs cannot be anti-development per se.

There has been a survey into people’s views on architecture in the area, and a much more involved survey of locals’ thoughts, which is worth looking at to get a sense of the mood of the population.

All these findings, together with issues highlighted at meetings such as this one, will go into the draft plan. James Earl, chairman, wouldn’t be drawn on when that first plan might be ready – but we’re talking months rather than weeks down the track. Even then, there are plenty of hurdles to jump through, not least a referendum in which everyone living in the affected area can vote. A majority is needed for the plan to become a proper planning document.

The presentation from Urban Design London‘s Paul Lavelle was, for me, the most interesting of the night (it’s at the end of this article). Paul explained how NDPs could work. They are very new and although there are many plans being drafted throughout the country, none has yet come to fruition. He showed a few case studies of those that were relatively advanced to demonstrate their variety in scope. Some plans are effectively mini local plans, that cover everything a council would consider. Others are single-issue plans designed with one objective in mind.

It will be interesting to see where the scope of the West Hampstead & Fortune Green plan ends up. The major issues that people raise are the interchange area between the three stations (the streetscape, the development plans, and the physical interchange of people), and the preservation of West Hampstead’s “village feel”, along with the desire for more green spaces. Architecture also looms large in people’s consciousness. So, the plan could decide to focus very heavily on architecture and far less on service provision, for example. Perhaps at its heart this idea comes down to whether it’s a plan focusing on issues, or on sites. Or, ambitiously, both.

The final speaker was Virginia Berridge, chair of WHAT, who made a couple of excellent points. The first was that the plan had to look ahead – this is a plan that may well not be ready in time to tackle the immediate wave of development proposals for the area. She pointed out that demographic projections suggested that the area would see an increase in the proportion of over-65s and in the number of parents with teenage children. Ensuring that these groups were adequately catered for could, therefore, be a key part of a plan. This might take the form of guiding how Section 106 money (the money developers pay to the council to help offset the cost of more residents) was spent – e.g., on sheltered housing or youth centres.

Virginia also raised the question of whether West Hampstead wanted to be a “posh suburb” or a “mixed community”, and that the answer to this question might also guide the direction the plan took.

With that the floor was open. I won’t attempt to capture all the questions / statements that came up. Many of them were issues that have been voiced before and won’t be resolved by a plan like this. Perhaps the most predictable, and understandable, reaction was from those who questioned whether such a plan would have any impact whatsoever. “Wouldn’t Camden just carry on doing what it wanted”, was the gist of a few people’s arguments. Certainly, some of those who’ve been around the block a few times are somewhat cynical about what this plan could achieve.

James took the angle that it was better to be positive and try and have some influence than just sit back and say that everything was Camden’s fault. Not surprisngly, the councillors present (most of the WH and FG councillors seemed to be there), agreed. Flick Rea even saying that this if we didn’t take this step now we might look back in 10 years time and wonder why on earth we didn’t as West Hamsptead changed irrevocably around us.

Sue Measures, who runs Sidings Community Centre, and who’s certainly been involved in enough of these initiatives to be cynical, also argued passionately that this was an opportunity to build a “shared social vision”. I forget now whether it was Sue at a later point, or someone else, who said that we should “protect what made people come here in the first place”, which seems to me a good sentiment that does not have to be at odds with the inevitable intensification that the area is undergoing.

The issue of the borders came up (raised partly by me), notably the southern border, which is the contentious one. To briefly recap: the NDF is proposing that the southern West Hampstead ward boundary should be the southern boundary of the plan area. WHGARA, the residents assocation for the streets south of the tube line and west of West End Lane, which are within West Hampstead ward, has been saying that its members will have to vote on whether they want to be included or not. This vote was supposed to take place earlier this month, but didn’t. I had originally understood that Camden strongly encouraged NDFs to bring the residents associations on board. At the meeting however, the representative from Camden planning told us that the borders were up to residents to decide. So, it’s not entirely clear to me why a residents association gets to decide on this, unless it can genuinely claim to represent a majority of households within its area.

James pointed out, when he wasn’t being heckled, that no two people he’d spoken to could agree on where the southern boundary of the plan should lie. I can well believe that. My view is that the members of the forum should forget the ward boundaries, which do change over time, and simply agree on what to them seems a logical boundary based on the input they’ve received from all relevant groups. For me, the ward boundary is peculiarly arbitrary – based I assume on balancing ward populations rather than on any sense of where people identify with or any particular planning considerations.

The southern border of West Hampstead ward

In what became a slightly farcical attempt to gauge the mood of the room, we were first asked whether we felt that this area south-west of the tube lines was part of West Hampstead – overwhelmingly people thought it was – and then whether we thought it should be part of the local plan – a slightly smaller majority thought it should be.

Given that the interchange is perhaps the number one planning issue in the area it seems perverse for the area of the plan to be centred so far north. Those living immediately to the south (yes, that includes me), will be at least if not more affected by changes here as the good people of Fortune Green. We already know that the “area for intensification” is not “West Hampstead” as we tend to think of it, but specifically the land along the railway lines. This area has, to be blunt, been sacrificed by Camden to preserve the red brick houses and land to the north. Not that people living outside the plan area are disenfranchised in terms of having their say when planning applications are made that would still affect them, but they would not be given a vote in the referendum on the plan. 

What now? The NDF will press ahead with the application to Camden to recognise the Forum and the area (with an agreed boundary), and then start drafting the plan. Hopefully, to echo several voices in the room last week, quibbles over boundaries do not delay the overall process.

West Hampstead & Fortune Green Neighbourhood Development Forum presentation