You might remember my most recent blog concerning a highly controversial local planning application – Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to eat where you shit. Following legitimate community upset about what would be comparable to judge, jury and prosecutor all socialising mid trial (and being caught red handed by the little guy on the defense), we took multiple actions to have our concerns heard. Despite our efforts, we were stoned walled at every turn. Sadly, this lack of respect for the community and refusal to take us seriously is nothing new, emerging as a theme across all blogs I have written in order to chronicle our experience (see blogs from this past November, February and March).
Immediately after writing my juicy blog that raised questions of the impartiality of the planning officers on this case, naturally I posted it on Twitter and tagged my local Labour MP – Matthew Pennycook. His initial response was positive in that he too perceived the socialising of all parties involved in this controversial planning application under review as “concerning”. In addition to this, in an email to residents he said “in my view, it is vital that planning officers, whether they work for the Royal Borough of Greenwich or the Greater London Authority, not only carry out their duties in a transparent, fair and impartial manner but are seen to do so”. #Preach!
After “taking it up with the Council and Mayor’s office” as per his Tweet, he suddenly went silent and refused to engage publicly on the topic further (you can see my attempts at getting him to respond in this Twitter thread). This sudden change of heart was initially quite curious to me, but upon reflection I have come to the conclusion that Pennycook must just be a ‘fall in line’ kinda guy. Remember when Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn put pressure on his MPs to fall in line with the Tory government in the vote to trigger article 50? Well Pennycook did just that despite a clear majority of his constituents voting remain. It seems to me that he has forgotten that politicians who yield more power than him do not hold power over his seat…the people do.
Considering Pennycook wouldn’t comment further publicly, you can read his email correspondence with residents for yourself. Within, he states:
Having been made aware of the fact that Mr Wilson attended Mr Parker’s retirement party at the Taproom on Wednesday 15 March, I immediately sought reassurance on behalf of residents from James Murray, the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Residential Development, about the process by which the GLA will determine the planning application in question. Mr Murray has confirmed that the GLA have not yet made a final decision with regard to the proposals for Buildings 10, 11 and Royal Carriage Square. It is the Mayor of London, not GLA planning officers, that will make the final decision on the planning application. The document dated 20 March that was passed to you by the office of Len Duvall AM is not notification of planning approval; it is the GLA planning officers’ recommendation that will go to the Mayor for consideration on that date. Having considered the matter carefully, the Mayor may ultimately be content for the Council to determine the application or he may not but either way I know that he will make his decision transparently, fairly and impartially.
Not overly reassuring is it? We got similarly daft responses back to our complaints raised from both the Local Greenwich Council and Greater London Authority (so you can read our complaints submitted as well as the responses for yourselves, I have linked the preceding text to both correspondences respectively). To sum it up, all avenues taken by the community to escalate concerns over the impartiality of all parties involved were dismissed with no further investigation and mere verbal reassurances that everyone involved in the decision to grant this controversial planning application approval were, without question, impartial.
I’m sorry ya’ll, but I don’t think the community will be taking your word for it anytime soon. How can you expect the Mayor of London to make his decision transparently, fairly and impartially, if his decision is being informed by recommendations from planning officers that may lack such characteristics? And if you see it as normal for literally ALL key stakeholders with significant influence over the outcome of planning applications to have close personal relationships with one another, then perhaps we should really be questioning a more systemic problem.
I’d like to point out here that the report recommending the planning application be approved, was sent to the Mayor by Colin Wilson’s team on March 20th, and the Mayor made his decision to approve the plan on the basis of that report, on March 20th. I’d also like to point out here that as per Matthew Pennycook’s correspondences with concerned residents, James Murray was made aware of these concerns on either March 17th or 18th. As you might expect, the community has questioned why a decision would be so quickly taken by the Mayor when concerns over the impartiality of the planning officers involved throughout this case were made known to his staff. Surely we aren’t a group of bat shit crazy residents merely moaning if our local MP, Nicky Gavron, and Greenwich LibDems among others all see something “concerning” here.
And yet the plot still thickens. Not only were our concerns dismissed, we were blocked from raising our concerns in a public forum. We submitted the following questions for a local council meeting, and they were rejected:
- Does the council consider that the attendance of Colin Wilson and John Anderson (among others) at Andrew Parkers leaving party to meet expectations of planning officers being, and being seen to be, transparent, fair and impartial? And if so, can they explain?
- What steps have been taken, or will be taken to investigate this potential conflict of interest and how it relates to the recent controversial planning application for the “Heritage Quarter” within the Royal Arsenal Development accepted by the planning board on the basis of Andrew’s recommendation
Our supportive local Councillor John Fahy responded saying, “I have been the Riverside Councillor for the last twenty seven years. I have never seen this happen on any previous occasion…I am, frankly, lost for words. Bad day for democracy.”
In addition to this, after Pennycook went silent, we gained valuable insight into why he wouldn’t support us in our campaign. Before the incident at the TapRoom, a group of Royal Arsenal Residents went to his surgery hours requesting his support in opposition to the planning application. He responded by saying planning was not his responsibility and as such, that he could not take a position. In communications with other similarly concerned residents, he expressed that he had no influence over whether or not planning applications were approved and as such, could merely observe. Indeed, it was interesting to then come across his posts on social media making clear statements in support of residents campaigning on planning matters in other areas of Greenwich.
I think the Facebook thread version of this dialogue below is the most entertaining and revealing. Firstly, Pennycook demonstrates that, contrary to what he implied to many Royal Arsenal Residents, he can take a position on planning matters. This begs the question of why he repeatedly declined to support his Royal Arsenal constituents. Secondly, he puts his foot in his mouth by suggesting the history of planning proposals in the area somehow weighs into what is acceptable in the current application…and the current application is literally appalling in terms of negative impact on vulnerable populations, the environment, and heritage of the site. He also discourages community engagement in local planning by implying that residents made their bed by opposing the 2014 application which “had much to commend it” ….say what? Needless to say he had no further comment.
Sadly, we as residents are at the end of our rope. Personally, I am broadening this fight to be about how our government conducts business. Clearly it is time to drain the swamp. Matthew Pennycook told me to have my say over his performance at the next general election. That opportunity appears to have come sooner than later, and given it would be really hard to vote for him after this experience, Greenwich and Woolwich Liberal Democratic candidate Chris Adams will likely be getting my vote.
*Note – in addition to not being able to bring myself to vote for Pennycook, Chris seems like a stand up guy. He is well educated, passionate and progressive in his political thinking. From my perspective, the LibDems manifesto also has much to commend in it, and after Corbyn’s no show at last nights ITV debate I have serious questions about the Party’s principles and respect for democracy. I realise that the stakes are high this general election but considering this is a safe Labour seat a little protest vote likely won’t hurt anyone.
¬ Robyn Waite (May 19, 2017)