Is Liddell Road tower a “middle finger to West Hampstead”?

Last night’s public meeting to discuss Camden’s proposals for Liddell Road was always going to get tetchy. Alex Bushell from Camden’s planning department struggled to keep on top of an audience that grew increasingly frustrated as the evening drew on.

The seeds of dissent were sown when architect Prisca Thielmann from Macreanor Lavington failed to bring the one slide everyone really wanted to see – the cross section of the site showing the 14-storey block. She also found it hard to talk about the development in terms that lay people understand. Phrases such as “the tower block will animate the park” didn’t go down well with an audience that seemed predisposed to be sceptical.

View from the park

View from Maygrove Peace Park looking east

Readers of West Hampstead Life wouldn’t have learned much new about the proposals. One fact that came to light is that the £6.7 million Camden received from central government to build a new school is now going to Liddell Road. However, this simply means that another £6.7 million from the site can be spent elsewhere in addition to the £3 million surplus the scheme will already generate, so it’s having no material impact on the scheme.

Apparently, West Hampstead residents are expected to take this on the chin because the new Emmanuel School building was funded by money that came from outside of West Hampstead. It’s a fair point, but overlooks the fact that West Hampstead residents are experiencing an incredibly rapid period of growth that has been forced upon them and that will irreversibly change the fabric of the community. If money generated by this growth then leaves the area when it could be used to mitigate or alleviate some of the pressures this change will bring, it’s no suprise that residents are unimpressed. To expect otherwise would be to expect a degree of altruism that few communities would be likely to display. More school places are, after all, a statutory requirement not a frippery.

Naturally, there were plenty of questions last night about the height of the tower block and whether there is any way in which it could be lower, or moved to the other end of the site, or both. The block was memorably described by West Hampstead NDF chairman James Earl as a “middle finger to West Hampstead” in his barnstorming speech last night. There were also questions about the school – although it’s worth remembering that the school has already been approved by Camden. There is still debate about the catchment area, however, and lots of questions about the traffic impact.

There was strong feeling about the lack of any affordable housing, especially in light the additional £6.7 million funding, but the argument remains that for the scheme to be financially viable there can be no affordable housing. Financially viable means also generating that £3 million surplus, although why this is £3 million and not £2 million or £4 million is not clear.

Five of the six West Hampstead and Fortune Green councillors were present (Angela Pober (West Hampstead) was at Frank Dobson’s grand farewell announcement instead – an apology for her absence would probably have been appropriate). Phil Rosenberg (West Hampstead) and Lorna Russell (Fortune Green) both spoke, requesting that the scheme be looked at again to see whether there wasn’t some way to reduce the massing and to work with the community to improve the scheme.

Cllrs Flick Rea and Richard Olszewski chose not to comment specifically on the plans, as both are on the planning committee and speaking now can prejudice their position and leave them unable to vote. Cllr Rea did however suggest to the chairman that another such meeting would be valuable given the strength of feeling and the numbers of people in the room who were unable to get a chance to speak. No such commitment was forthcoming.

The lack of clarity and transparency over the economics of the site is a problem Camden councillors and officers must address (and is one that’s been raised before in conjunction with the loss of jobs on this site). The better understanding residents have of the business case, the more likely they are to appreciate the challenges that the council faces in delivering the much-needed school. It’s a long shot to suggest that it will bring everyone on board with a 14-storey tower block, but greater transparency on the proposals might at least foster a more sensible debate and give residents some confidence that West Hampstead is not simply seen as a cash cow by the Town Hall.

  • paul acland

    Yes I would to understanding the funding better.

  • Cllr Richard Olszewski

    To clarify: I didn’t choose not to comment. I had my hand up on numerous occasions, but didn’t get called. Had I been called, I would have echoed the comments made by councillors Phil Rosenberg and Lorna Russell. It is clear from the meeting that the council has to look again at the issues of the height of the tall building and the lack of affordable housing. I have already made these points at the full council meeting on 14 July, and at the Children, Schools and Families scrutiny committee on 17 July.

    Had I been given the opportunity to speak last night, I would also have supported Flick Rea’s suggestion of a further public meeting, as there are clearly, plenty of questions that need answering. I put this to officers after the meeting, and I hope that it will be possible to have a further public discussion of the proposals.

    • Thanks for clarifying Richard – one of many who were passed over for a chance to speak! A follow-up meeting would be extremely beneficial!

  • paul acland

    The difference it would seem with the Liddell road scheme and the Emmanuel school is that the Emmanuel School did not generate any money from on site development so the school was entirely funded from monies from elsewhere. My understanding is that the current Liddell road scheme is completely funding the new school ( so no monies are required from elsewhere – unlike Emanuel) and on top of that £3M is being generated for the schools funding pot ( plus I understand the £6.7M which will be used to as enabling money to ‘fund’ the development, but not used to pay for the school). In essence isn’t this scheme putting £16.3M into the schools funding pot? . I would like the Council to ask the Architects to look at what is the most appropriate scheme for the site ( which might be a 10 storied rather than a 15 storied apartment block) and then see what revenue can be generated from that scheme, If building a 15 storey tower block ( higher than any other tower blocks in area, not in the development zone, overshadowing the park etc ) is not appropriate then surely other ways of funding should be investigated.

  • paul acland

    It would also seem to me that the development of the west Hampstead area is being looked at in a piecemeal fashion. Would it not be more appropriate to build a 14 storied tower block or two on the more urban site at 156 ( Travis Perkin) a more urban site already surrounded by Five storied buildings. And why doesn’t Camden develop this site rather than selling it off to developers?

  • James King

    I was one of the unlucky ones that didn’t get called to speak yesterday. I wanted to flag the need to consider the starting point in West Hampstead ward – which is a particularly acute shortage of affordable housing. From memory, West Hampstead is in the bottom quartile in terms of the numbers of social housing units, when compared to other wards in Camden. For example, in our neck of the woods, there are many more council units not only in Kilburn, but also in Swiss Cottage and Fortune Green wards. Furthermore, there is a desperate need for shared ownership (part rent, part buy) options to offer at least some young WH residents on middle incomes some hope of staying in NW6. It is in this context that the decision to bank £3m from this development for the Camden schools budget for unknown purposes is particularly problematic. Even if the Council thought this was a good wheeze when the Liddell Road project was first commenced, it became totally unjustifiable when the Government subsequently provided an extra £6.7m to the Council’s education department to meet the demand for extra school places.

    Developments of this scale do not come along very often, and we need a better balance of objectives. Our new NW6 Labour councillors stood on a ticket of providing new social housing only weeks ago so it is shocking to see no affordable housing included in this proposed plan. Although they made tentative noises in the right direction last night, I suggest they need to get a bit louder and more direct if they are to persuade their Labour Cabinet colleagues to rethink.