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The planning system is a hall of mirrors designed to mislead

‘This isn’t about personal grievances… it’s about the illuminating experience of going through a local authority planning application process, which has revealed the incredible indifference of our political representatives to the local people they serve’, says film director Stephen Daldry

13 July, 2017 — By Stephen Daldry

How the development in King’s Cross might look. Balcap Re have been given the go-ahead to build a three-storey office block. Residents of the listed Derby Lodge, off Britannia Street objected

IF you’ve ever happened to find yourself in a labyrinthine old mirror shop just south of King’s Cross station… if you ever got lost in its maze of frames and reflections… you’ll be sad to learn it’s about to be demolished.

And you will be even sadder to learn that it’s to be replaced, thanks to Camden Council, with a huge three-storey office block in the centre of a quiet courtyard of Grade II-listed local authority flats.

Incidentally, this is some of the first social housing in London, built, if you’re interested, for workers digging the early Underground.

A monochrome office will stand metres from residents’ bedrooms.

It will physically divide a community. It will block light, invade privacy, overlook balconies and windows and stand out terribly. And all of this only after years of disruptive demolition, basement excavation, and heavy construction work.

No one is sadder than the community of residents themselves, the community to which I belong.

This isn’t about personal planning permission grievances. It’s about the illuminating experience of going through a local authority planning application process, which has revealed the incredible indifference of our political representatives to the local people they serve.

When the application was published last year, residents came together in a remarkable way. Meetings were arranged, discussions were had, decisions were made. Efforts were made to communicate with the many residents who don’t speak English to explain the plans and how it might affect them, and to help them articulate their views in writing.

Planning department officials were invited and attended discussions, and important questions about the plans were asked.

It wasn’t always easy, but a democratic conversation was happening. More than 60 households responded with detailed letters explaining their concerns. In a sense it was incredible that the system seemed to be working as it should, involving and listening to the people it serves.

And, more, that this community trusts and invests enough to believe it can play an active part in it.

That we have power here, in our own area.

A voice.

In another sense it was totally depressing.

The system, it turns out, is a giant hall of mirrors, designed to confuse and mislead.

Not a single resident received a reply.

Not a single response to our questions and concerns were offered.

No correspondence regarding any of the serious matters raised, all of which will permanently alter the physical and social make-up of this area, was received.

Nothing until anonymously-addressed letters arrived announcing that permission will be granted.

Requests could be made in writing for the right to speak at the committee meeting for five minutes only. With no more information or explanation, the community here was given just days to organise, prepare and agree on a joint deputation.

Failing that, Camden Council offered residents the helpful option of splitting the minutes between them.

We had six seconds each to protest. The application was approved.

This community now feels powerless and humiliated.

What is the system for if objections are never answered? If people are ignored?

Trust in the council has been severely damaged. Many feel it no longer acts in their interests, instead putting business and profit before people.

There is a reason why people feel atomised and isolated in their own communities, and this is it.

That the same planning committee deciding our futures also oversaw the installation of flammable cladding in Camden shakes our confidence further.

The days of councils dictating over disenfranchised local people must surely now come to an end.

We will not allow this office to be built metres from our homes.

It would stand as a grotesque symbol of the chasm between residents, many of whom were born here, and the vested interests of local authorities.

There are still some mirrors left in the old shop.

Those who claim to serve local people, making decisions which irrevocably affect their lives for many years, should look into one.

Look hard, and decide. In these quickly changing, ever more divided, ever more uncertain times, who is it you really represent?

Stephen Daldry is an Oscar-nominated, Olivier award-winning, film and theatre producer and director, whose films include Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader.


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