Money for the community: where should it go?

Regular readers will know that I keep wittering on about Section 106 money as if it’s some sort of pot of gold at the end of a development rainbow. But how does this money get allocated, to what, and how will its successor – the marginally less obscurely named Community Infrastructure Levy – work?

Eric Pickles, MP
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

There was a public meeting last Thursday to discuss just this. I was at whampreview, but Father Andrew Cain from St James and St Mary’s was taking notes for me! Here’s his excellent report.

“At a crowded and occasionally boisterous public meeting on Thursday, a gathering of (as was pointed out) mostly older and white residents gathered to learn more about the potential largesse that the spate of building development might bring to West Hampstead. If only we can find out who has it, discover what it is meant to be spent on and agree where it actually might be spent without fighting each other in hand-to-hand combat to secure a slice for our own pet projects.

Arranged by WHAT, and ably chaired by Viginina Berridge, the panel consisted of Cllr Valerie Leach, cabinet member for Regeneration and Growth, David Morrissey, principal planner, Sites Team, Camden Council, Cllr Flick Rea, Fortune Green ward, and Di West, manager of West Hampstead Community Centre.

My strongest thoughts at the end of the evening were two things: first, I was struck by just how wonderful a local trooper is Flick Rea. She treated us to a fantastic rant against the iniquities of the secrecy of the council. Second, was just how little anyone seems to know about how decisions are actually made in the council, including our lovely local councillors, many of whom were present and equally frustrated and confused as the rest of us!

Val Leach spoke first about the desire to open up the issue of the allocation of money for community use in the area and then David gave us a rather interesting run through the background to Section 106 money, why it’s important and what is happening to it.

For those who don’t know, s106 money is the cash that developers are sometimes required to give to the council in order to build whatever it is that they want to build (Flick referred to it several times as being like a legal bribe). There is, however, little point in learning much about it since the government wants to replace it with a new wheeze for raising money called the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). Both are intended to ensure that something is done locally to alleviate the impact on local communities of major developments.

In the past, s106 was tailored to larger projects only and sometimes meant there was cash for schools, parks and roads and sometimes that infrastructure improvements had to be made at the developers’ cost. Occasionally, and hence the number of community group representatives at this meeting, there is money for community amenity and support. At the moment there is a lot of s106 money theoretically sloshing around in West Hampstead. The plans for 187-199 West End Lane alone represent £355,000 for community amenity – and with so many large project in various stages of the planning pipeline, there is plenty more to come.

In the future, the CIL will apply to every building project – even small house building projects – and will be a flat rate in different zones across the borough. Rather than being tied to specific named benefits, as s106 is, there will be more flexibility on how this CIL money is allocated. This is why CIL is important although, as David Morrisey explained to us, the government has yet to make it terribly clear how it is going to work: there is some suggestion that only 15 to 25% of CIL money raised will have to be spent in the area where the building developments take place. The higher figure will apply only where the community has got itself organised and formed a Neighbourhood Development Forum in order to draw up a Neighbourhood plan. The rest is not fixed to the local area (unlike s106 was theoretically) and may well be siphoned off to other parts of the borough where there is (perceived to be) a greater need.

So, at this point, a big plug for the Fortune Green and West Hampstead Neighbourhood Development Forum. It has got itself organised for us and is developing a plan for the area (it is also looking for local support and for people to join in). Given that West Hampstead is earmarked as a Growth Area for Intensification in the London Plan, with an anticipated 800 new homes already under planning or construction there is likely to be lots of change coming – so speak now or for ever hold your peace (if you can find any amongst the influx of cars, concrete, students, babies, people looking for doctors surgeries and trying to get a seat in the Alice House).

After David had told us all this and after Flick’s fabulous rant about the lack of transparency we heard a little from Di West about how hard it is to raise money for community groups in the area, something we all know about!

The open question session then revealed a seething mass of unhappiness from everything to do with the library floor (I’m not entirely sure how that was relevant to the subject under discussion) to the prospect of the children’s library being replaced by an internet café and the ugliness of the new Jewish Centre on Lymington Road. (I can’t be alone in thinking it rather lovely, surely?). It was hard to keep people focused on the issue that was actually meant to be being discussed and without Tulip Siddiq (who is rather good, I thought) calming things down about the library and reassuring people that the children’s library is safe things might have got harder for Virginia than they did.

The upshot of the long (too long) evening was the recognition that there is a need to find a way both to decide what the local community thinks it is important to do in the area to improve local amenity, and to get a local voice heard within the arcane and shadowy world of Camden’s planning and legal departments. Needless to say I think a post office is a vital public amenity and the fact that our local one is going to close soon should focus minds and resources on making sure we keep a post office locally.

But what we need is a proper process and I do not think that the suggestion of a box in the library is a good way forward. If we were to place a box in the library then it wouldn’t be surprising if most of the suggestions were to do with the library – just as if the box went in Sidings Community Centre the outcome might favour their plans for the Peace park and football pitch and one in my church would come out in favour of our plans to house the post office and run a debt advice and family support service alongside it.

Nor do I think that a gathered wish list is necessarily the best way. What we need is some strategic thinking – possibly through the Neighbourhood forum – that identifies the needs of the area and works to support them. There has to be a process that allows for some form of planning and also appreciates timescales. Some projects need funding sooner than others, some may wait until larger sums of s106 (or CIL) are available.

What was clear from the meeting was that all present want the area to benefit and the good thing is that there appears to be a considerable amount of money around that could help many local projects and needs – we just need to be clear about what we want and find out how to get that across.

We didn’t end the evening with any consensus on what we want; nor were we any clearer about where to go and how to make our voice heard but it was a start and let’s hope that the ball keeps rolling.”