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The beauty queen and a mysterious maritime death

Frank Vosper

Frank Vosper was born in December 1899, just two weeks before the turn of the century. He was born at 24 Gondar Gardens in West Hampstead – the house where Nobel prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing lived for more than 30 years before her death in 2013.

Vosper’s father Percy was a surgeon at Kings College Hospital, having come from Plympton in Devon to study medicine in London. In 1894, Percy married Blanche Permain, whose father was a fine art dealer and they had moved to Gondar Gardens at the end of 1896.

Frank would have had a comfortable upbringing, yet the story of his premature death at just 36 would have made as good a film as any he might have acted in, with a cast list that included Ernest Hemingway and Miss Great Britain.

24 Gondar Gardens

Frank Vosper was educated at Haileybury School in Hertfordshire. He wanted to be an actor, and when he left school at 17 he called on a theatrical agent who had previously been a pupil at his old school. Incredibly, just on the basis of this shared experience, the agent got him work and young Frank appeared in ‘Julius Caesar’ in March 1919 at the Pavilion Theatre in Mile End.

Frank was talented, and became a very successful actor. After working with actor-manager Sir Ben Greet’s Shakespeare Company, Frank first appeared in the West End in ‘The Young Visitors’ in 1920. After this he left on a theatre tour of India and the Far East. On his return in 1922 he played a succession of both modern and Shakespearean roles. In 1926, Frank joined the Old Vic Company and worked with some of the great actors of the day including Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Alec Guinness, Margaret Rutherford, and Dame Edith Evans.

He appeared in ‘Yellow Sands’, Eden Philpotts’ very successful play which ran for more than 600 performances. Frank was best known for playing Henry VIII in ‘Rose Without a Thorn’, a 1933 play about the relationship between King Henry and Catherine Howard. There is a short film of him getting into costume as Henry, plus clips of his performance.

After leaving the family home, Frank got a small flat at 7 Upper St Martin’s Lane in Seven Dials, where he lived from 1925 to 1927. He became friends with John Gielgud and they appeared together in ‘Hamlet’.

In his 1939 autobiography, Gielgud wrote:

As soon as ‘The Constant Nymph’ had settled down to a certain success, I persuaded my parents to let me leave home. Frank Vosper was shortly to move from a little flat in Seven Dials where he had been living for some time. I greatly admired this flat and arranged to take over from him the rest of his lease. The flat was full of character, and I stayed there for eight years. There was no proper kitchen, and the bathroom, with a rather erratic geyser, was down a very draughty flight of stairs. But otherwise the place was charming. The sitting-room walls had been covered with brown hessian by Vosper, and there was a ceiling in one of the bedrooms painted by an artist friend of his (under the influence, I imagine, of Braque), with large nude figures sprawling about. This I thought very modern and original.

In January 1933, Frank Vosper had a major role in a play called ‘The Green Bay Tree’ by Mordaunt Shairp. This was very controversial. Frank, who was not openly gay, played a homosexual aristocrat who adopts a working-class boy and remodels him in his own image. Mordaunt Shairp was a schoolmaster who lived with his wife at 13 Heath Mansions in Hampstead and had taught at University College School in Frognal from 1920 to 1933 when he left to become a full time playwright. The title of ‘The Green Bay Tree’ is taken from Psalms 37:35. ‘I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree’.

In the play, Frank Vosper played Mr Dulcimer, a wealthy man who bought an 11-year-old boy from his working-class parents for £500. He raises Julian as his stepson and the boy becomes addicted to Dulcimer’s Mayfair way of life. Julian then has to choose between marrying his fiancée Leonora, or staying with Dulcimer.

Although never directly stated, a homosexual relationship is clearly implied. Shairp said he wanted it to be a modern morality tale based on Dr Faustus. The play was very successful and played for six months at the St Martin’s Theatre. It was also very popular when it opened on Broadway in October 1933 when a young Laurence Olivier played Julian and Jill Esmond, who later became Olivier’s wife, played Leonora. It was frequently revived on Broadway and was produced in London at the Jermyn Street Theatre as recently as December 2014.

Vosper’s work on stage got him excellent reviews and he began to work in films. He appeared in more than 20 including, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1934), where he played Ramon the assassin (this was also Peter Lorre’s first English film). Hitchcock remade the film in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day. In 1934, Vosper had a starring role in Michael Powell’s early low-budget thriller, ‘Red Ensign’.

Peter Lorre and Frank Vosper in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934

In addition to being an actor, Frank wrote several plays. His first was ‘Spellbound’, which he produced in 1927. He later rewrote it as ‘People Like Us’. In Who’s Who in the Theatre, Vosper amusingly describes his recreations as ‘criminology and blackberrying’. He was a regular visitor to the Old Bailey and ‘People Like Us’ is based on the notorious Thompson-Bywaters case: in October 1922, Edith Thompson persuaded her young lover Freddie Bywaters to murder her husband. The pair were executed in 1923, although many people thought Edith was not guilty of murder and should not have been hanged. The play had a very brief run at the Strand Theatre in 1929, but was banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s office because of the subject matter. It was not performed again until 1948.

Vosper persuaded Agatha Christie to let him adapt her short story into the play ‘Love From a Stranger’. The first night was so tense there were reports that some of the audience fainted. It received very good reviews and ran from March to August 1936. He then took the play to Broadway where it ran for another couple of months later that year. The play was twice turned into a film and was televised by the BBC in 1938 and 1947. A radio version was also broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1945. Another of his plays ‘Murder on the Second Floor’ was filmed in 1932 and again in 1941 as ‘Shadows on the Stairs’.

By 1935, Frank Vosper was living at 34 Acacia Road in St Johns Wood with his partner, the actor Peter Willes. Willes was born in London on 30 April 1913. He was the son of a lawyer, and educated at Stowe. By now, Vosper was at the height of his career and on 9 September 1936, he and Peter sailed on the SS Aquitania to New York where Frank’s play ‘Love From a Stranger’ was to appear on Broadway. Then in December, Frank and his sister Margery went on holiday to Jamaica and were joined in Mexico by Peter, who had been in Hollywood acting in the film ‘Call it a Day’. After Margaret returned to London, Frank and Peter journeyed on to Havana, Hollywood, and then to New York.

From left Olivia de Havilland Ian Hunter Bonita Granville and Peter Willes, Call it a Day 1937

All at sea
On 6 March 1937, Frank and Peter returned to England having sailed from New York on the SS Paris. Other passengers included the American writer Ernest Hemingway and Muriel Oxford, Miss Great Britain 1935, who – after a couple of small parts in films had been undertaking film tests in Hollywood. Here is a film clip of Muriel at a beauty contest.

In the early hours of that Saturday morning, just before the ship was due in to Plymouth, Frank was reported missing. Just over two weeks later, his body was found more than 200 miles away near East Dean in Sussex.

Drawing of finding the body Illustrated Police News 1 April 1937

The papers speculated wildly about what had happened. Peter Willes told reporters that he had met Muriel Oxford at a party on the ship, and that she invited him to her state room where they were joined by Frank. As they drank champagne, Frank had gone into the adjoining lounge where they believed he had climbed out of a window and fallen into the sea. But was it an accident or suicide?

Did he slip, or did he jump?
At the enquiry, Muriel confirmed Peter’s version of events. She had been at a party in the ballroom the night before the ship was due to dock. She had danced with Peter Willes before ordering a bottle of champagne to be taken to her state room. Although she hadn’t met Peter or Frank before, she explained that she asked them to her join her as they were the only Englishmen onboard. Willes had returned to the cabin that he shared with Vosper who reluctantly agreed to go to Muriel’s state room. They sat talking and after about 20 minutes, Vosper got up and walked across the state room to the private lounge. Muriel thought Frank wanted some air and she showed him how to open the window. Later when she and Peter couldn’t find Frank, they raised the alarm.

Peter Willes believed that Frank, who was very short sighted and had broken his glasses, must have thought the low sill of the window led to the boat deck and not straight into the sea. He said Frank always preferred to leave parties unobtrusively so as not to appear rude. But he could not believe Frank had committed suicide. He was far too keen on his work and had spent the whole journey writing a new play.

William Pengelly was Frank’s solicitor and he was determined to find out exactly what had happened. In scenes foreshadowing today’s Crimewatch, he asked Muriel and Peter to reenact the scene on the SS Paris in his Gray’s Inn office. Pengelly also went to Paris to interview Ernest Hemingway who had been travelling on the ship. Hemingway occupied a state room opposite Muriel and strongly denied the press stories that Vosper had argued with people during the voyage, or that Willes had been very attentive to Miss Oxford and that Vosper could have jumped out of the window in a fit of jealousy.

Around the same time, and before a body had been recovered, Peter and Muriel went to Le Havre to help the French examining magistrate by reenacting the events onboard the SS Paris itself. The Magistrate ruled out foul play believing that Vosper committed suicide.

Frank’s badly damaged body was identified by his father Percy. At the beginning of the inquest in Eastbourne, Percy said that Frank was always bright and cheerful and was particularly level headed. He was not keen on parties, and did not stand alcohol very well. But he was not quarrelsome and his father had never seen him drunk. When asked, Percy said he was not aware that Frank had any love affairs. None of the stories in the newspapers revealed that Willes and Vosper were partners.

The inquest, which had begun at the end of March, resumed on 6 April as the jury had decided it could not reach a verdict based only on Muriel and Peter’s evidence. They wanted to hear from the ship’s staff. The court was packed as Robert Cubillare, a night steward, speaking through an interpreter, said that at about 2.15am he had gone to Cabin 243 occupied by Mr Vosper and Mr Willes, and Miss Oxford was there. A lady in an adjoining cabin had complained about the noise, and the steward asked them to keep quiet. A few minutes later the three of them went to Miss Oxford’s state room.

Charles Carbon, the night steward to the state room, said he was summoned at 2.45am. Miss Oxford and Mr Willes were lounging on the divan and were a little merry. Mr Vosper was standing motionless in front of them. When asked if Vosper was laughing or joking, he said Frank was quite silent. Carbon took a bottle of champagne from Miss Oxford and went to put it on ice. When he returned, Frank was missing. He and Mr Willes went to look for Vosper and when they couldn’t find him, the Captain was informed.

The Captain said he was told about Vosper’s disappearance about 3.10am, but he did not think anyone could have got through the small window, and as nobody had seen a man fall overboard, he thought that Frank had simply left the cabin to take some air on the deck. He only reported Frank’s disappearance when they reached Plymouth in the morning. Questioned by Mr Pengelly who represented the families, the Captain admitted he had found some marks on the white window sill.

In his evidence, Mr Pengelly said he known Frank Vosper for 11 years and his financial position was good. He confirmed Vosper was rather sensitive about his poor eyesight and would never wear his glasses in public. Pengelly said he thought it was perfectly possible to step through the window despite what the Captain had said. To demonstrate, he placed a cardboard frame the same size as the window easily over his shoulders. He thought that if Vosper believed there was a deck on the other side then he could have fallen by accident.

The coroner in addressing the jury, said there appeared little doubt that Mr Vosper had gone through the window. The only question that remained was whether he had done so deliberately to end his life, or was he under the impression that there was a deck on which he would land, in which case it would have been an accident. If it was a case of suicide, it must have been a sudden impulse because he had sent a cable from the ship that afternoon to an old friend saying he was landing the next morning.

The jury took just 25 minutes to reach an open verdict on Frank Vosper’s death. They decided that he met his death by drowning, but it was impossible to say how he got into the water.

What became of the other cast members?
After the inquest, Muriel Oxford, white-faced and angry, told reporters, There was no love making in my state room. These stories are the hardest thing to bear. We were not lying on the settee; we were sitting side by side with our backs against the wall. I deny the stories that Willes and I are in love.

In November 1937, she successfully sued the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror for making libellous claims about her morality. The solicitors representing the newspapers apologised and said there was no intention of making such aspersions. There was no mention of any financial recompense, though there may have been an out-of-court settlement.

The disappearance of Frank Vosper gave rise to the cruel saying, ‘Never get on a ship with Peter Willes’, which was still in circulation in the 1960s. Willes would go on to have a successful career nonetheless. He appeared in ‘The Dawn Patrol’ (1938) with David Niven – a classmate at Stowe, and ‘Idiot’s Delight’ (1939) with Clark Gable. After a distinguished war service, in 1947 he became the tour manager for popular comedian Vic Oliver. This proved good training for his TV work at Associated Rediffusion as a talent scout and producer. Willes produced TV plays by Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’. From 1966 to 1978, he was the innovative Head of Drama at Yorkshire Television and produced several Joe Orton plays. Willes became a good friend of Orton’s but disliked Orton’s partner Kenneth Halliwell who eventually killed Orton and then committed suicide in August 1967. Peter Willes himself died in Gloucester in 1991.

In his will Frank Vosper left £10,463 (worth about £600,000 today), to his solicitor and executor, William Pengelly.

There is a short news clip about Frank Vosper here:

In 1939, Sir John Gielgud wrote about his friend Frank:

His tragic death two years ago was a great shock to all his friends, and I miss him continually. I knew him well for nearly fifteen years. As a companion he had inimitable gaiety and charm. He was generous to a degree, a delightfully Bohemian and charming host and, as an artist, completely free from jealousy of any kind. He often gave the impression that he behaved selfishly in doing exactly as he liked, but in reality he enjoyed nothing so much as giving pleasure to other people. … His happiest time, while I knew him, was during the brilliantly successful run of his own play, ‘Murder on the Second Floor’. His diversity of talents created quite a sensation with the production of this play, and he was hailed by the public and idolised by his company. His dressing-room at the Lyric Theatre was always crowded with friends and acquaintances, and after the play there would be endless parties which went on till the small hours. But Frank was equally happy with just one or two intimate friends, and later he bought and furnished a beautiful little house in St. John’s Wood, ceased to entertain so widely, and settled down to a positively domesticated existence, writing, doing enormous jigsaw puzzles, and joking about how busy everyone else always seemed to be.

Unfortunately, we are left not knowing what really happened to the multi-talented Frank Vosper, who tragically died aged just 36.

Gondar Gardens: Chauffeur-driven retirees vs the slowworm

Gondar Gardens – the old reservoir site in the northern reaches of West Hampstead – has had more than its fair share of development proposals over the past few years. Some have been rejected – even on appeal – and some have been accepted. Yet nothing has actually been built.

The most recent decision was in 2014, when a scheme by developer Linden Wates to build 28 homes along the street side of the open space was approved on appeal.

The "frontage" scheme, approved in 2014

The “frontage” scheme, approved in 2014

Last year, LifeCare Residences bought the site from LindenWates. LifeCare Residences builds luxury retirement homes.

Late Sunday night, the local residents association, GARA, sent an email with more details on what was happening:

  • LifeCare wants to build 108 luxury flats on Gondar Gardens reservoir, together with a restaurant, swimming pool, nursing facilities and various offices to service their ‘retirement community’108? Not a joke? And nursing facilities too?
  • They would make their scheme “car free” by providing a chauffeur service to their residentshardly a model of sustainable transport or encouraging integration with the rest of us!
  • They would pay Camden a large sum in lieu of providing any affordable housing
  • LifeCare and their professional advisers appeared surprised to learn that the Open Space and Site of Nature Conservation Importance cover the whole site except for a small strip on the street frontagewe sent them away to look at the plans!

We already knew that LifeCare builds luxury retirement homes – hardly an amenity for local residents as we are simply not in their target market. Compare that to the currently approved frontage-only scheme for 28 homes that delivers both affordable housing and protection of the Open Space, with 93% of the land gifted to the London Wildlife Trust in perpetuity. Click here for a brief summary of previous schemes.

In case you’re wondering what creatures inhabit this space to justify its importance as a wildlife sanctuary – the answer is slow worms. Before you mock, this is one of the few habitats for them in urban areas, and the species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Does West Hampstead need to sacrifice a green space for some chauffeur-driven wealthy retirees?

Gondar Gardens – the third appeal

The never-ending Gondar Gardens planning saga is taking its next turn.

Linden Wates, the developer, has submitted an appeal against Camden’s refusal of its revised frontage scheme for the reservoir site. This scheme is for 28 flats/houses. It was recommended for acceptance by Camden’s planning officers but refused by councillors at the planning committee on grounds of poor design. This is after the previous, similar, proposal was rejected on appeal by the Planning Inspector. Linden Wates has another proposal that it does have permission for, but which it seems reluctant to pursue at the moment.

This latest appeal will be decided by a Planning Inspector – this time on the basis of written evidence rather than at hearing. The developer, Camden, The Gondar & Agamemnon Residents Associatin (GARA) and Sarre Road residents will each submit written evidence and comments.

GARA will argue that proper application of Camden’s policies would result in the site remaining undisturbed, with open views into and across the site from the street and from neighbouring properties. However, it recognises “with deep regret”, that the loss of open space, disruption to the site, and the height and bulk of the frontage scheme have been accepted by previous planning inspectors.

GARA argues that the proposed conditions of the plan are not yet sufficient to protect and enhance our environment in the event of the planning application being accepted; and will insist on changes that will minimise construction impact, and ensure the remaining land is properly protected with residents involved in its management.

Individuals may also comment to the Inspector, quoting case ref APP/X5210/A/14/2218052 online or by e-mail to ku.vo1511238950g.isg1511238950.snip1511238950@slae1511238950ppa1511238950 or on paper (3 copies required) to The Planning Inspectorate, Room 3/19 Eagle, Temple Quay House, 2 The Square, Temple Quay, Bristol BS1 6PN. The deadline for comments to the inspector is 17th June 2014.

Gondar Gardens: The beginning of the end?

Could we be entering the endgame in the Gondar Gardens saga? The developer, Linden Wates, has submitted its third planning application for the site. This attempts to address the very specific points that the national planning inspector raised in turning down Linden Wates appeal over its second plan, which was rejected by Camden. These focus on architectural detail more than any wider environmental impact.

An e-mail from GARA – the residents association that has campaigned tirelessly against all these plans – suggests that the long fight may almost be over.

Here’s GARA’s position in its own words:

“We have successfully protected the Open Space for many years, and we have ensured that each subsequent development proposal is less damaging and less intrusive than its predecessors.

No-one wants any development on the site but when considering this application, Camden will note that the impact on Open Space, the height and bulk of the ‘frontage’ scheme, and transport and parking issues were all accepted by planning inspectors.

Camden’s planning officer says he will consider these matters as resolved, meaning that he will consider only the detailed design. If the revised design acceptable, then Camden officers and councillors will find it difficult to refuse the application. It is with much regret that we have reached this conclusion.

Our task now is to ensure that the proposed design is something we can live with; and to secure the future of the remainder of the site as a nature space, with local involvement. We can also press for conditions on working hours, construction methods, vehicle routes and local amenity contributions.

Improvements to the design since the first ‘frontage’ application include:

  • Mostly pitched roof with dormer windows rather than a solid flat frontage – this is much more in keeping with the area and considerably softens the bulk of the building
  • Improved window detailing and some (not much) subtle brickwork – adding a little character
  • A clear ‘gap’, allowing views across the site from the street (previously obscured by the ‘car lift’ entrance) – this is still only a narrow view, but at least it benefits pedestrians
  • Soft landscaping at the front (a few bushes!); and a secure site boundary”

GARA tells me that the decision not to contest the whole application is purely pragmatic. “If we thought there was a realistic prospect of no development, then we would pursue that heartily,” said David Yass, chair of GARA. “Our challenge is to secure the best we can for our neighbours and wildlife.”

Although the deadline for comments on the new scheme is January 2nd, GARA has agreed with Camden that it can submit its response after its AGM on January 8th (a reassuringly sensible stance by Camden).

To view the planning application, click here and then on “View Related Documents”. The Design & Access Statement is usually the best thing to look at (this is true for all planning applications).

Related reading
The “teletubbies” Scheme
Scheme refused by Camden.
Frontage scheme #1.
Scheme refused by Camden planning committee.
“Teletubbies” sceme approved on appeal.
Frontage scheme #1 rejected on appeal.
Frontage scheme #2 submitted exhibited.

Gondar Gardens: 140 years of history

Here’s a very useful history of the Gondar Gardens reservoir site, provided by GARA – the local residents association.

1874 Reservoir constructed.
1889 Tennis courts on the reservoir roof (no-one knew about slow worms then!).

100 years pass…

1989 Roof substantially repaired.
2002 Reservoir de-commissioned. GARA formed.
2004 Thames Water plans for a six-storey block with 120 flats – thwarted at public inquiry; site protected as Open Space and Site of Nature Conservation Interest.

2010 Linden Wates bought site, put up hoardings and removed trees.
2011/12 ‘Centre’ scheme rejected by planners but approved on appeal – 16 houses in pit of reservoir – this is still an option for Linden Wates to build, but would cost £6.8m in lieu of affordable housing.

2012/13 First ‘frontage’ scheme – refused by planning committee and refused on appeal as design would “harm local area” but impact on open space and height and bulk of scheme accepted.

2013 Revised ‘frontage’ scheme submitted.

  • Preserves 93% of open space as a site for nature, to be given to London Wildlife Trust
  • Opportunity for local residents to be part of management plans
  • Design improved to address inspectors’ concerns and through consultation with GARA

If the 2013 scheme is approved, Linden Wates has indicated that it will proceed and complete it within ~2 years. If it is refused, LW is likely to appeal and may use the intervening time to propose a combination of the ‘centre’ and ‘frontage’ schemes (although it cannot simply build part of each).

Gondar Gardens: Spot the difference

[updated Oct 26th 7pm]

Many professions are so steeped in their own language that they find it almost impossible to communicate in plain English, even when asked. Thus it was that I found myself talking to architects about the revised plans for Gondar Gardens and having to endure lots of explanation about “verticality” and “rhythm”, and not much about what the key differences are between this and the previously rejected project.

It’s a bit of a game of Spot the Difference.

The most obvious difference between the original plan (top) and the new plan (bottom) is the all-glass bay windows, which are apparently “winter gardens”. Who knew.

The new plan also removes the housing of the entry to the underground car park between the two buildings, and the cladding for the projections is lighter. As to that verticality and rhythm, that refers to much more regular spacing of windows and more emphasis on the vertical structure compared with the broken-up facade of the original.

The developers clearly hope that these detailed changes will win over the planning inspector. Actually, they probably hope that Camden council believes they will win over planning inspector and passes the plans first time around, preventing the appeal and Camden’s liability for the appellants legal costs.

Here’s why the planning inspector rejected the previous proposal (crucially, not on any grounds of environmental impact).

However, my main concern with the appeal scheme is the detailed design. The proposed design seeks to repeat the proportions of houses and bay windows seen in the area, through a series of brick projections. However, the varying size of the projections, the large expanses of brickwork (seen particularly on the two large projections), the combination of geometric shapes and the four storey sections with a flat roof, only serve to distinguish all elements of its design from those in the surrounding area. There is no visible connection to the intricate shapes, decorative detailing (including red brick and white mouldings) or the strong vertical emphasis seen in the surrounding houses which combine to determine the character of West Hampstead.

There are examples of new development of contrasting design in the area. However, they are generally smaller developments, which exert little influence over the area. By contrast, the appeal scheme would stretch some 70 metres along Gondar Gardens, filling most of this section of the road along one side. It would impose a long development of a very different character, thereby significantly harming the distinct and attractive character of this part of West Hampstead and its contribution to the wider area.

Even if the new proposal addresses these concerns, and it certainly looks to a layman like me that it’s a step in that direction, it’s hard to believe it’s going to win over those who have contested the development of Gondar Gardens so vigorously over the past few years. You can look at all the detailed architectural responses here.

Local residents group GARA, which has worked so hard to fight the various development proposals, commented that the latest proposals “address some aspects [of the inspector’s comments] but appear to have done little about the lack of detailing around windows etc, and have not properly addressed the issue of being out of place in its environment.”

The original “Teletubbies plan“, rejected by Camden but overturned on appeal, could still happen. However, the developers tell me that “there are a number of complex legal arrangements delaying its development, in particular relating to the off-site provision of affordable housing.” According to GARA, this means either finding a second site where the afforable housing could be built, or making a one-off £6m contribution to Camden.

Back to the tweaked design, here’s what local councillor Flick Rea thought of it:

Just seen new design for Gondar Gardens development – precious little difference except for some sticking out chunks in light brick- ugh!
— Flick Rea (@FlickRea) October 15, 2013

New twist in Gondar Gardens saga

If you’re playing catch-up on the interminable story of Gondar Gardens, which progesses as fast as the slow worms that have previously come to its rescue, then please read this succinct summary of where we stood back in June.

In a nutshell, a developer had submitted two separate plans to build houses on this disused reservoir site. Camden had rejected both plans, the national planning inspector overturned that decision on the first plan, but upheld it on the second.

Now, the developer is talking about a third plan. Sigh. It’s tempting to wonder whether its aim is solely to bankrupt the local residents association, GARA, which rallies its troops and fights any attempt to turn this green space into property. More likely is that the approved plan is now too expensive to develop. Here’s the e-mailed invite to view the new plans:

Linden Homes and Wates Developments would like to invite you to view new images, plans and designs for the former reservoir on Gondar Gardens.

As you will know, Linden Homes and Wates Developments have been working in partnership for the past several years to redevelop the site with a new residential development. Earlier this year a scheme for a frontage development along Gondar Gardens was refused planning permission due to its architectural design.

We have been working up a revised set of plans, carefully taking into account the feedback received from the earlier scheme. The new proposals will deliver up to 28 new homes, 10 of which will be affordable, helping to meet the local housing need. We believe these revised proposals create a better design solution for the site which will contribute positively to the neighbourhood.

If you’re interested in seeing whether Linden Wates can come up with something that Camden might be willing to approve, head along to St Luke’s Church on Kidderpore Avenue on the 15th October, between 2pm-8pm.

The proposals rejected by the national planning inspector

Gondar Gardens: Second appeal rejected

This morning I heard that the verdict of the Planning Inspector was finally in on Linden Wates’ second appeal. To recap very quickly:

  • Scheme #1: 16 large houses in the middle of the to-be-excavated reservoir space, mostly below ground level; major loss of open space and major impact on wildlife; low impact on street frontage; and a large contribution to Camden in lieu of affordable housing. Refused by Camden.
  • Scheme #2: 28 units filling-in the street frontage between existing mansion blocks; lower impact on wildlife but significant impact on openness from the street and houses opposite; affordable housing included within the scheme. Refused at Camden planning committee.
  • Scheme #1 approved on appeal by the national planning inspector
  • Scheme #2 rejected on appeal by the national planning inspector – see below!

What does this mean? The developer can:

  1. Build the first scheme;
  2. Improve the design of the second scheme within the same envelope and re-submit;
  3. Prepare another scheme combining elements of #1 and #2, and addressing points on design;
  4. Sell the site.

All these options would also have been available to the developer if they had won this appeal, but the inspector has now removed the option to build what has been deemed the poorly designed scheme #2.

Read on for all the details, via GARA (the local residents association that has so actively campaigned against development on the reservoir site):

“Fantastic news, at least temporarily … the ‘frontage’ appeal is dismissed for reasons of poor detailed design. But the impact on Open Space, SNCI, views, parking etc are all considered acceptable.

As you know, having won one appeal, the developer appealed against refusal of its second planning application for this site. The first scheme allows destruction of a large part of the protected Open Space and Site of Nature Conservation Interest. The second scheme – refused on appeal – would block the Open Space aspect from the street, including views across the site towards Hampstead.

Here is what the inspector says in dismissing the second appeal:

Conclusion [from Inspector’s report, 3-Jun-13]
The development has been designed to minimise the impact on the POS [private open space] and SNCI [site of nature conservation interest] and I have concluded that the benefits of the scheme outweigh any small harm in this regard. While many other aspects of the scheme are acceptable including the siting and size of the proposed buildings, the scheme fails on the detailed design as outlined above [in the report]. For this reason, it would be contrary to National and Local Plan policy and the appeal is dismissed.

You can read the inspector’s report. It’s fairly brief and to the point.

As one resident said, “It makes last year’s report on the centre scheme seem even more odd and I think we were incredibly unlucky that we did not win that appeal. I welcome the fact that she says the site is of high ecological value and re-emphasised the public asset and green lung.”

Well done to everyone involved (we represented ourselves at this public inquiry, against the developer’s expensive legal team and raft of experts) and thank you to everyone for your great support. Thanks also to Camden for defending the council’s position and to the inspector for her decision.”

Gondar Gardens – second appeal date set

It’s easy to get lost with the Gondar Gardens saga – it’s almost as long as Lord of the Rings, and with only marginally fewer cast members.

Here’s the recap:

Linden Wates put in a proposal to turn the whole site into a “tellytuby” development. GARA (Gondar and Agamemnon Residents Association) said “no”. Camden also said “no”. Linden Wates appealed.

While they appealed, they submitted another less controversial proposal – the so-called “frontage” scheme. GARA said no. Camden said no.

The National Planning Inspector overturned Camden’s “no” for the Tellytubby plan despite vociferous objections from GARA.

Now, even though the first scheme has approval, Linden Wates is appealing the second scheme too. This may be more about recouping their costs than to get permission to build the scheme, although were this also to be overturned, it would give them the option of either scheme.

The public inquiry will start on Tue 9th April at 10am at Camden Town Hall in Judd Street. GARA expects it will last around four days. GARA will be a formal party to the inquiry, making the case for protection of the site focusing on the potential loss of enjoyment of the open space from the street and loss of part of the protected site of nature conservation interest; the impact on neighbours; a design not in keeping with the area; and the impact on the local environment (parking, traffic etc.).

I will, of course, keep you posted as and when I hear more.

Gondar Gardens appeal saga drags on

Planning law is a strange beast.

Let me refresh your memory. Linden Wates recently won an appeal to build very low-impact homes on the resevoir site in Gondar Gardens. In a considered review of the application, the Planning Inspector believed that any negative impact on the open space would be offset by the benefits of this development.

GARA – the local residents association – which has long campaigned against developing this site, was naturally disappointed.

It seemed as if that was the end of the story. But there was a rumbling subplot. After Camden had initially rejected this plan, the developer submitted a second plan. This was arguably less controversial than the first – it was a street-frontage plan rather than one that would develop the green space itself. Camden rejected this one too.

Now, despite having won the first appeal, the developer is appealing against this second decision too. This has thrown everyone for a loop. What is Linden Wates objective? They can’t build both developments, and surely if the first one had passed first time they’d have moved forward with it.

Street-view of second plan – now being appealed

Either they think the first scheme is less profitable than the second, and having won the first appeal are confident in the second. Or perhaps they hope that a successful appeal with this second plan would give them the leeway to propose an even more ambitious third scheme.

Strikes me that this is a waste of public money – if a developer has a plan approved for one site through appeal to the national inspector, that should be the end of it for at least the amount of time that planning permission lasts.

Gondar Gardens will be developed

News came in late last night that the Planning Inspector (that’s a national, not a Camden position) had upheld the appeal by Linden Wates. This was after Camden rejected Linden Wates’ original 2011 proposal to develop the reservoir site into 16 houses, largely submerged beneath ground level [full planning application].

You can read more about the background to the development, the critical role played by the humble slow worm, as well as look at the developers’ second, less flamboyant proposal (also rejected by Camden).

The planning inspector’s decision draws a line under this contentious development – GARA (the Gondar and Agamemnon Residents Association), which was the driving force behind the “no” campaign, has acknowledged that there is virtually no chance of any counter-appeal and, to its credit, is now looking to the future.

The inspector’s report is long, but worth reading if you’re interested in such things. It’s a thoughtful and detailed consideration of the merits and drawbacks of the proposal, and explicitly recognises the challenges of balancing housing need and ecological merit, design and environmental impact, and planning policies that do – in their details – sometimes clash. Naturally, the conclusion won’t please everyone, and it’s certainly a shame that a gated community will result.

Here are the key sections:

Para 6. The appeal is allowed and planning permission is granted for the redevelopment of the existing reservoir structure to provide 16 residential units, associated parking, refuse storage and landscaping, and use of the surrounding land and rear of the site for open space (nature reserve) at Reservoir site, Gondar Gardens, London NW6 1QG in accordance with the terms of the application, Ref: 2011/0395/P, dated 24 January
2011, and the plans submitted with it, subject to the conditions included in the
schedule at the end of this decision.

Para 7. I consider there are 5 main issues in this case. They are:
(i) the effect of the proposed development on the character and appearance of the site and its surrounding area;
(ii) the ecological impact of the proposal;
(iii) the structural condition of the redundant reservoir;
(iv) the form and content of the proposal in relation to:
 – the provision of affordable housing,
 – the density and mix of the proposed dwellings, and
 – the design of the scheme within its townscape context;
and, if necessary;
(v) whether the project justifies the obligations cited above taking account of the contents of Regulation 122 of the Community Infrastructure Regulations 2010.

Character and appearance
Para 15. …The reservoir structure constituted previously developed land within the
terms of the definition now included in Annex 2 of the NPPF. The area surrounding the reservoir falls within its curtilage and, as a result of the definition, it too forms previously developed land. Although the presumption in favour of the redevelopment of previously developed land in preference to the development of greenfield land is not now as pervasive, it is nevertheless retained in paragraph 17 of the NPPF as one of the core planning principles. My predecessor referred in this context to the urgent need to find more sites for housing development, but, in accordance with the principle, the preference for redevelopment has to be tempered if the site concerned is of high environmental value.

Para 16. I am in no doubt that such value can be derived from both the ecological value of a site within its own terms, and/or from the contribution which it might make to amenity in the broadest sense – including residential amenity. In this context my colleague referred to the extensive views into the site from the surrounding houses. Although taken individually these are private views, they amount collectively to a considerable public asset and a ‘green lung’ providing local amenity. I agree with this description and assessment. Having further discussed the ecological interest of the land, he recommended the land should remain in the Schedule to the UDP as private open space (as well as being designated as a Site of Nature Conservation Interest – SINC).

Para 17. This protection is now expressed in Policy CS15 of the Camden Core Strategy 2010. The plan recognises that open space can fall into 2 categories: that which is open to the public (and which can provide for sport and recreation), and private open space – to which there is no or limited public access (such as, for example, railway embankments). The appeal site falls into the latter category and the first purpose of the policy is that such spaces will be protected.

Para 21. I saw on my visit that, although from the higher level windows in the Gondar Gardens and Sarre Road houses the proposed development would be clearly visible, this effect would be counter-balanced by the enhanced breadth of the prospect as a whole at this level. I recognise the presence of the proposed development would vary from the many windows overlooking the land, but taking all these matters into account, I conclude in relation to this main issue that the proposed development would have a limited adverse effect on the character and appearance of the site and its surrounding area. It would thus conflict to a degree with the purpose of paragraph (a) in the first component of Policy CS15.

click for larger view


Ecology
Para 24. The site was the subject of 30 ecological surveys in 2008-10, but was found to include only a low number of slow worms. There was agreement between the parties that the reservoir roof itself would not constitute a particularly attractive location for the species, but the south and east sides of the land are considered highly suitable. It was acknowledged at the inquiry that slow worms would readily travel between the site and adjacent gardens where they would be likely to find suitable features for hibernating, foraging and basking opportunities.

Para 28. …Subject to the implementation of an appropriate scheme and the regulation of access, I am unconvinced that the slow worms would be adversely affected by the scheme as a whole – rather the reverse.

Para 32. …On the basis of the evidence I have received in this case, for example, the surrounding domestic gardens appear to make a greater contribution to the nature conservation interest of the area than the reservoir roof – even though the former do not fall within the SINC and the latter does.

Para 33. …I consider the ecological interest of the site as a whole would be enhanced and improved and that in this respect the limited harm identified under the first main issue [character and apperance] would be outweighed.

Affordable housing
Para 45. I see little prospect that market housing on the land could ever be used to generate on-site affordable housing. I therefore conclude in relation to this issue that the appellant is justified in seeking to take advantage (by making a payment-in-lieu) of the exception included in Policy DP3 and paragraph 3.74 of The London Plan.

On the issue of the reservoir structure itself, the inspector says he considers “the debate over the condition of the structure to have been peripheral to the determination of the appeal.”

Much of the Section 106 agreements had already been settled, but it’s interesting to see the total sum the developers will have to stump up. This is in addition to the payment of £6.8 million in lieu of affordable housing, which the inspector agreed was not feasible on the site (it will now go towards housing elsewhere in the borough). And also in addition to the costs of looking after those slow worms!

£62,720 community facilities contribution
£261,184 education contribution
£68,610 public open space contribution
£38,777 highways contribution

In an e-mail to GARA memebers, chairman David Yass, who campaigned vigorously against the development, said “This comes as a huge disappointment”, while another member summed it up with “gutted.” GARA has undoubtedly helped improve the plan, and helped secure some significant conditions that should help minimise the impact of the development on local residents and wildlife, during and after construction.

Inside the reservoir

Gondar Gardens – first appeal nears conclusion

The tale of the proposed development of the Gondar Gardens reservoir site is a lengthy one. In essence, a couple of years ago, developers Linden Wates put forward a plan that would have seen the disused site turned into a series of semi-sunken homes, that became known as the Teletubby development. Planning permission was refused, partly due to the presence of slow worms on the site.

Computer image of original plans

A second, less controversial development was then put forward that kept much of the green space intact, but still added new housing on the street. This too was refused.

 

Artist’s impression of second proposal

While the second proposal was being considered, Linden Wates was appealing the first decision. That appeal opened in May but was adjourned after three days. The inquiry reconvened last week, and the hearing concluded yesterday.

Here’s the assessment of how the appeal has gone from the perspective of the Gondar & Agamemnon Residents Association (GARA):

Back in May, both Camden and GARA gave evidence as to why the refusal should be upheld, and were cross-examined at length. Linden Wates started to give their evidence.

This week, the inquiry reconvened. Linden Wates gave detailed evidence and were cross-examined by Camden’s barrister and GARA’s barrister.

On Thursday, there was a lengthy examination of opposing experts’ views about the state of the reservoir structure and its likelihood of partial or total collapse; and a debate about Linden Wates’ approach to affordable housing (i.e., paying for it to be somewhere else).

Almost all of Friday was spent with Linden Wates’ planning consultant, with arguments about the relative merits of different aspects of planning policy. That might sound interminable but it goes to the heart of the matter – does the protection of being Open Space and a Site of Nature Conservation Interest outweigh the developer’s argument that the structure itself is ‘previously developed land’?

Add in arguments about whether the new National Planning Policy Framework promotes development, or protects land of high environmental value, and you have the opportunity for some lively debate, some of it rivalling any West End theatre production (OK, only in parts).

Also on Friday, local resident Mark Stonebanks made an excellent contribution, challenging LW’s competence in areas of traffic and parking, design, and drainage.

Monday – the final day – started with a visit to houses on all four sides of the site. The inspector seemed to expect the good views from Gondar Gardens and the less good views from Agamemnon Road (obscured by trees); but he appeared surprised at the extent of views from Hillfield and Sarre Roads.

We returned to the inquiry and heard an impassioned, yet controlled statement from Hugh McCormick [Ed: I don’t know who he is]. Linden Wates’ barrister declined to cross-examine. There followed some haggling over conditions / Section 106 matters to be imposed “should the appeal be successful”. Linden Wates and Camden had pre-agreed most of this, and it was GARA that raised some issues although it made very limited headway.

Then it was onto the showpiece summing-up from each barrister. This is a curious affair in which each party submits a written statement (typically 20 close-typed A4 pages) and then proceeds to read the entire document aloud.

GARA’s barrister covered all the key points: ecological value; open space; and traffic, parking and other matters – all of which are supported by both planning policy and real local importance. Camden defended its multiple reasons for refusing planning permission, even to the extent of appearing to promote the second (frontage) scheme in order to demonstrate that alternatives to the appeal scheme could exist.

Linden Wates’ barrister was very professional in putting its case. We expect a decision by the end of November, which is just after the deadline for Linden Wates to appeal against refusal of the second scheme.

I’ll keep you posted on what happens next!

Gondar Gardens saved again

At last week’s Development Control committee meeting, councillors voted 7-2 against the proposed development by Linden Homes and Wates Development of the Gondar Gardens reservoir site up in Fortune Green.

The reservoir site at sunrise (photo via GARA)

This is the second time Camden has turned down a plan from these developers to build flats and houses on this disused but much loved plot of land. The first proposal, for “Teletubby” style semi-submerged dwellings, is in the appeal process (due to be heard next week) and Linden Wates will presumably appeal this latest decision too.

There seemed to be some confusion as to why Camden planning officers were recommending that permission be granted, while acknowledging in their report that the plans were not always in keeping with planning policy. That, combined with an impassioned speech by Fortune Green councillor Flick Rea (who chose to remove herself from the DC for this vote so she could speak against it) and the articulate statement of a 13 year-old boy called Benjamin seemed to sway councillors.

Cllr Rea invoked images of bucolic destruction in her statement: “Imagine the diggers destroying grassland, sending valuable wildlife scurrying or slithering off into the undergrowth. Two years of construction will drive away birds and bats and probably kill off the slow worms.”

Benjamin meanwhile focused on the legacy that Camden would be leaving if councillors approved the proposals. “This is like children going into a toy shop knowing they can’t have anything. You are the parents. If you give in now, they’ll be back for more. When did one lonesome toy ever satisfy a child?”

Councillors ultimately deemed that the scheme was of little architectural merit and not in keeping with the area, while the issue of public access to the remaining open space was unclear.

For the Gondar and Agamemnon Residents Association, this was another significant victory in what has been a long-running campaign to preserve the reservoir site, which is home to slow worms and other species rarely found in built-up areas.

Loading…Webcast Available Here : <a href=”http://www.camden.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/56645/start_time/7787000″>http://www.camden.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/56645/start_time/7787000</a>

Are new Gondar Gardens plan a-go-go?

The Gondar Gardens reservoir is back on the planning agenda. Here’s the story so far. Gondar Gardens is a large patch of green land that sits over a disused Victorian reservoir.

The land is owned by Linden Homes and Wates, who submitted plans to build a series of homes on the site in what was generally described as “Teletubbies style”. These semi-subterranean homes were deemed to be out of keeping with the area, and the threat to local biodiversity – most notably the local slow worm population – was enough to see the plan rejected after a vociferous campaign.

The developers are appealing the decision, but one would assume that they’re not especially confident of winning as they have invested in an entirely new and completely different plan for the site, which they were exhibiting at the library last Wednesday.The new plan take up much less of the site and instead just front onto the west side of Gondar Gardens road.

The previous plans took up the space marked by the inner red rectangle

There would be 19 private homes and 9 affordable housing units. To keep the environmentalists happy, the development goes big on managing the remaining open space (which is far greater under this proposal than the previous one), and once complete the land would be handed over to a trust with covenants restricting any future development.

Architecturally, the designs so far apparently try to reflect the neighbouring buildings but in a modern style.

At the exhibition there was some debate as to whether this had been successful yet – the current design being very boxy and angular compared to the bay windows and pitched roofs of the houses around. The developer suggested that the design was a work in progress. At least, unlike some other developments locally, this one would not rise above existing buildings.

On Wedensday December 14th, there is a Camden Development Management Forum at the synagogue hall on Dennington Park Road. This is a chance for the public to hear more about the proposals and ask questions. Registration will be at 6.15pm for a 6.30pm start and the meeting shouldn’t last more than two hours. This is not a formal consultation meeting as no plans have yet been submitted.

The exhibition boards are visible below, or you can download them from www.gondargardens.co.uk.

At the West Hampstead and Fortune Green Area Action group meeting a couple of days earlier, Fortune Green councillor Russell Eagling seemed to imply that this development was much more in keeping with the sort of thing the council would look favourably on. It is also worth noting that these units would not count towards the 800 new homes required under the intensification plan that emanates from City Hall – that is focused entirely on the land around the three railways lines.
Gondar Gardens exhibition boards