Diary of a Sutton Councillor

A fond farewell to Wallington Public Hall

wallington-public-hall - oldWallington public hall

Wallington Public Hall will close its doors for the final time on 31st March. Built in 1934 with Art Deco features, the venue has hosted a wide range of events.

A potted history

It was originally a cinema, but soon evolved into a theatre hosting a range of productions and performances, including musical theatre and classical concerts. In the 1960s and 70s bands toured a large range of local venues such as Wallington, and in that period nearly every nationally known group appeared. Famous names who appeared here include: Jeff Beck (who was born in Wallington), Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Manfred Mann, Joe Brown, Billy Fury, Status Quo, The Kinks, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones.

Since the late 70s when bands started to perform at larger concert venues and arenas the usage of the hall changed and more recently it hosted Short Mat Bowling, the Evangelical Church, exercise and dance classes, Antiques Fairs, wedding celebrations and the beer festival.  The Hall was also a location for the Blood Transfusion Service and the base for Meals on Wheels.

Reasons for closure

The building has been a poor state for some time.  In 1998 the Council reported:  ‘Hall is outdated, old fashioned and in need of refurbishment’.   Attempts were made to raise funding from the National Lottery.  The Council maintained the hall as best it can in recent years, with the lighting renewed, the kitchen refurbished, and  some redecoration, but its basic condition has been getting worse.  There are currently problems with water coming in, and damp, impacting on the structure.  The Council identified £1.25 million of works that would be needed to update the building.

The Council does not have the funds for the major refurbishment it needs, and without that refurbishment it will decline until it is no longer safe to use.  There is also the recognition that there is no longer a need for the kind of use for which the hall was built and for which it became renowned. Closing the hall will save the council the £75,000 a year it costs to maintain.

The decision was taken by the Environment & Neighbourhoods Committee on 4th September 2014 to close the Hall and this was agreed by Full Council on 3rd November 2014.

The future

The businesses occupying the units at the front of the Hall will be able to continue to trade from these premises until the site is either sold or redeveloped. The Meal on Wheels service will now be provided from the Sutton Inclusion Centre where the kitchens are being enlarged to accommodate it. The Blood Transfusion Service will be provided at the Phoenix Centre. Until demolished the premises are to be secured against illegal entry or occupation through the use of “Guardians” who will live in the building.

There are a range of potential future options for the site including market sale or redevelopment by the council. These are under review to determine the best outcomes for the borough.

The car park

The car park has been reviewed independently of the Hall itself to take account of any impact on Wallington town centre in respect of parking availability. A parking assessment study showed that whilst under-utilised as a short stay car park there was still some need for parking spaces to provide additional capacity for town centre parking at peak times and on Saturdays. It is therefore being proposed to close half of the car park. This will retain 40 spaces for current and future use, with the rest of the car park included with the Hall as a potential development site and will help make it more viable. This will also mean removal of the neighbourhood recycling centre currently in the car park. The final decision will be made at a future Environment & Neighbourhoods Committee meeting.

March 25, 2015 Posted by | Information | , , | Leave a comment

London Resi Conference: Who are we building homes for?

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Yesterday I attended the London Resi Conference where housing developers, investors, land managers, the GLA and other industry professionals gathered to discuss how to deliver housing to address the shortfall of provision in London.

I gained some useful insights into the issues faced and forecasted growth areas.

However the ‘Bright Young Things’ ideas session left me with a heavy heart. We had the usual railing against the planning system and stories of local councillors playing politics because of their ‘nimby’ residents. The proposed solution was to take major planning decisions out of the hands of local authorities and have them all decided by the Mayor’s office. The belief that this would take the politics out of the equation and see speedier resolutions of applications was naive to say the least! The certainty is that there would be less transparency and democracy.

But most of all this debate made me want to shout, ‘Who do you think you are building these homes for?’ Those local people who often object to developments in their area are also the families who would like to be able to afford a larger home, the young adults looking to move out of the family home, or older couples looking to downsize. And often the reason they object is because of the poor offer these developments will make to their area.

We have the simple problem of trying to use a system that relies on the private sector to deliver the housing that is needed in the capital. That housing won’t be provided if there is not a profit to be made on the development. However the type of housing that local people want for their area, together with the investment in the infrastructure necessary to support that development, does not produce the dividends that drive investors. That is why we see the endless pressure to build as densely as possible, and battles over s106 contributions and affordable housing. Indeed one of the bright young things wanted the space standards relaxed so they could build even smaller homes. Are we really proposing to house the next generation in cupboard-sized apartments akin to some of the worst examples seen in Japan? And when those new homes are built, they are unaffordable for local people, so they are sold to better-off commuters who may well spend all day in central London and contribute little to the local economy.

All local councils, local planners and local people want is good quality development that works for their area. Felicie, one of the more progressive thinking Bright Young Things captured it well, suggesting that the offer needs to be quality spaces designed around people and their needs. She talked of flats that would be suitable for families if they were well thought out, and suitably located near the facilities that families require.

A couple of examples of the issues drawn from my area:

A large residential development specially designed for older people was proposed for a site. We thought that it was too large and overbearing for the site, especially compared to what it was replacing, and that there would be objections from the locals. In fact there was widespread support for it because, as lots of residents said, they aspired to live there once they retired. It was an attractive offer.

On the other hand we have a legacy of a large housing development of over 600 properties in a self-contained area in Worcester Park. This development has no inter-relationship with the surrounding buildings or community either physically or in design terms. It has placed considerable strain on the local transport network clogging up a key through route, and created discord and disharmony. This estate and its attendant problems are now a permanent part of the landscape, but the investors will no doubt be long gone having made their money and it is the local council and residents left to deal with the consequences, out of taxpayers’ funds.

To bridge the discordant priorities we need public investment. In Sutton we are showing our willingness to do this by setting up a council-owned housing development company which will allow the local authority to take advantage of preferential borrowing rates to invest in the housing market across all tenures. We will need to work with private partners but our stake will enable us to have more say over design and standards. And for our partners our investment will de-risk projects and provide the wriggle room to be more flexible about affordable housing and densities.

My top tips for developers are to seek early engagement with the council and residents, and be willing to flex their plans in line with feedback from all parties. People understandably object to having things ‘done’ to them. Allowing them to be involved in the process and shape the plans not only assuage the fear factor, it also leads to better developments. Think about place making, not just unit numbers. Resident engagement may be time-consuming, but if the result is a first time granting of planning permission it saves costs that might otherwise be incurred in redrafting and resubmitting plans and fighting an appeal, never mind the costs associated with delayed construction and twitchy investors.

I would also like to see a change of attitude towards CIL and s106 contributions. Both of these ‘taxes’ have the aim of ensuring investment in the local infrastructure to support a new development. That investment can be for education and health facilities, transport infrastructure or public realm improvements. All of which increase the attractiveness of the development to potential buyers/tenants. And a development that enhances an area ensures that local property values remain buoyant.

We have positive testimony from partners who have worked with us in this way: CNM Estates, Subsea 7, Affinity Sutton, Schroders.

And finally a defence of local planning officers who took a bit of a hit in the conference debates. These are professionally qualified, highly skilled people, who are under-resourced and underpaid. They work to nationally-set time scales for dealing with planning applications, and are only allowed to recover costs at rates also set nationally. Rates that do not actually cover the cost of the planning service. In their work they are pitted against highly rewarded asset managers, architects, planning lawyers and transport consultants whose job is to make money for their investment backers. Most planning officers want to see quality developments in their area as much as residents, and delays are frequently more about staff shortages or lack of resources than the obstructive mentality they are frequently portrayed as having.

In Sutton we have a pro-growth agenda, Opportunity Sutton. We welcome new development to deliver the housing and economic growth our borough needs. Our ask is for good quality, sustainable design that works with the local area, and reflects our residents’ needs and aspirations. To help we aim to work in a joined up way across services to facilitate progress through the planning process and are investing in improving our planning service offer. We are refreshing our Local Plan to make it simpler and clearer for developers to understand what our vision for the borough is, and what our expectations are, whilst leaving room for innovation and quality.

And in line with another issue raised at the conference, we have brought businesses together with training providers so there is an understanding of the skills gaps and as a result many more construction training courses are being provided by our local colleges, and school children are being encouraged to look at careers in the construction industry.

It was interesting to hear Tim Craine of Molior London talk about feeling the need to be a bit more ‘socially conscious’, in particular when negotiating affordable housing. This was refreshing, and perhaps another way of thinking about it is to understand that we are building the homes, and the London, both for ourselves, and for our children. If we want people to work in the city then we need to provide the housing for those people. And everyone want to live in a nice home that meets their needs where they can feel part of a community and have access to the services they need. I don’t know of many people who aspire to rent a cupboard.

Sutton Point, CNM Estates

 

March 19, 2015 Posted by | Opinion | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Clear up behind Crosspoint House

Before

Before

As these before and after pictures show, the area between Crosspoint House and Sainsburys looks much tidier thanks to the owners of Crosspoint House agreeing to deal with the overgrown shrubbery that was attracting litter in this area following a request from your ward councillors.

We have asked the council to now look at improving the areas around the trees close to Rosemount Tower as these too are overgrown with shrubs and weeds and attract litter. We are hoping to replace the weeds with either grass or pebbles.

After

After

March 17, 2015 Posted by | Information | , , , , | Leave a comment

Lib Dem Spring Conference: Members setting priorities for mental health, tackling climate change, fairness, equality and freedom of expression

Jayne McCoy Spring Conference 2015

I am just back from the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Liverpool where I was very proud to have a hand in voting through key policy motions that set out the Liberal Democrat vision for the future.

The first was the call for greater investment in and parity of status for mental health care. Very pleased to see Paul Burstow our Sutton & Cheam MP bringing this motion to Conference, fully supported by Norman Lamb, our Minister for Care and Support.

Then we agreed to keep our foot on the accelerator in our response to climate change by calling for five ‘Green Laws’ to protect our natural environment, move Britain towards a Zero Waste and zero carbon economy and reduce our energy use.

Then we reaffirmed our commitment to freedom of speech and expression whilst promoting tolerance and understanding.

I was particularly pleased to make a small contribution to the manifesto debate: Stronger Economy, Fairer Society, Opportunity for Everyone, by seconding an amendment on behalf of Sutton Lib Dems which had been put forward by Mark Pack. The amendment sought to enhance the policy by emphasising that we need to rebalance the way we address the financial deficit by working harder to ensure that big businesses and the richest in society pay their fair share so that we can reduce the burden on the poorest and on local government which have borne the brunt of the austerity measures in the last four years.

The text of my summation is below:

I am speaking in support of amendment two.

I support it because as a local councillor I have seen first-hand the impacts of the welfare reforms. I have seen increased homelessness, the rise of reliance on food banks and people struggling to manage debt.

I have seen and spoken to people affected. It is clear that it could be any one of us tipped into that situation whether it be through illness, loss of employment, or low wages failing to keep up with rising rents.

I therefore completely reject the Conservative narrative of these people as scroungers; as feckless families taking advantage of the state.

In Sutton we have seen that 50% of the people on our list as eligible for a council house are in work.

The majority of all benefit claimants are working. These must be the hard working poor the Tories like to refer to. But what about those who are out of work? That would be the undeserving poor if we stick to their narrative.

As budget cuts have been passed down to local authorities we have seen many people put out of a job as a result. Workless because of government policy. And the economic downturn meant that there were few jobs to be found. But if you are not working does that make you a scrounger?

The Conservatives might argue that they just mean those who have never worked. But if our children leave school without the necessary skills to take up employment then whose fault is that? If the training they are being provided with does nothing to lead them into employment then who is to blame? And if the job offer is a zero-hours contract or low pay we can’t blame them and penalise them as a result.

A recent study found that 51% of all government cuts were in the form of cuts to local government and benefits.

The majority are being generalised as scroungers based on a few bad examples, and that has been used as an excuse for reducing benefits and services for the poorest and most vulnerable.

This is not the Liberal Democrat way. We believe that everyone should be given an opportunity and not be penalised for circumstances over which they have little control.

This amendment recognises that the poor have suffered the greatest burden of the last four years’ austerity measures, and it is time to redress the balance, and the narrative.

When people are struggling you give them a helping hand, not a kick in the teeth.

I note the points made by Michael Deyes about, who are the wealthy? However this amendment is about getting the balance right, not attacking the better off.

I therefore ask you to please support this excellent motion enhanced by our amendment.

I was pleased that the amendment was agreed.

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March 16, 2015 Posted by | Liberal Democrats | , , , , , | Leave a comment

RTPI talking planning sense as usual

RTPI

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has published its 10 Proposals for Planning in the next Parliament. As ever its proposals are pragmatic and make sense. A key message is the commitment to deliver the additional housing that England needs, and building places that work for the communities they encompass. As the lack of housebuilding has often been blamed on the planning system by politicians, this is a challenge back to show how planning can be the force that delivers the much needed housing along with the infrastructure that is required to support it. This is the kind of joined up thinking that is often missing from government policy.

As a politician with an interest in Planning I receive stakeholder updates from this organisation and have attended a number of their conferences and working groups. I am always impressed by the balanced and evidenced information provided at these events.

Our representatives in the next parliament would do well to work with the RTPI to understand how we can shape our built environment to fit need in an expedient and co-ordinated manner.

March 11, 2015 Posted by | Information | Leave a comment

Make new friends in Wallington South

stock-footage-teapot-pouring-tea-into-cup-in-slow-motionScill (Sutton Centre for Independent Living and Learning) have set up a new social group for anyone over 18 living in the Wallington South area to meet up with others and make new friends.

The group meets every Thursday from 1.30 – 3.30pm at St Patrick’s Church Hall, 47 Park Hill Road, Wallington SM6 0RU.

Anyone is welcome to attend for coffee, tea and chat, and further activities are available as determined by the group, such as board games, speakers, quizzes or seated exercises.

Scill have set up this and other groups across the borough to encourage community building and to reduce isolation encouraging a ‘know your neighbour’ attitude and follows on from the successful Sutton South Hello project.

St Patrick's Church and hall

St Patrick’s Church and hall

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March 11, 2015 Posted by | Information | , , , | Leave a comment

New events venue opens in Sutton town centre

grand hall 2

On Saturday I attended the official opening of a new large events space in central Sutton: SM1 The Grand Hall.

The Grand Hall is the conversion of the old Snooker Halls at 1A Throwley Way and now offers three large event spaces over three floors suitable for weddings, banquets, parties, meetings and formal events.

The opening was a grand affair with our Sutton MP Paul Burstow performing the official ribbon cutting and welcoming this new enterprise to Sutton town centre.

Guests were served with food and refreshments whilst being treated to a variety of music and performances.

The businessman behind this new venture is Anton Arulnesan who managed to bring his idea to fruition with the help of family and friends.

Sutton has great need of large event space so this venue is a very welcome addition to the town centre offer, especially with its central location. I wish Mr Arulnesan every success for the future.

Grand Hall 1

February 10, 2015 Posted by | Information | , , , | Leave a comment

Infrastructure Plan for London lacking in vision

I recently attended the Policy Forum for London‘s seminar on Infrastructure Planning in London. The future for London presented by representative’s of the Mayor’s Office was of an increasing concentration of business and economic growth in central London, with outer London seen as domiciliary boroughs housing the pool of people who will be employed by those businesses. The transport plan in particular sought only to address the increasing capacity pressures resulting from this daily commute.

This was challenged by myself and others who suggested that a move towards living and working in closer proximity could not only reduce the pressures on the transport network of commuting, but also improve people’s quality of life.

The response was that businesses always sought to cluster, and ensuring a wide employment pool necessitated commuting. The plan was just following the market.

To me this showed a disappointing lack of vision or leadership for the capital, nor did it fully appear to ring true.

I have seen businesses choosing to move out of central London and relocate in Sutton in an effort to improve the quality of life of their staff. Other businesses, such as Subsea 7, have chosen to expand their existing operations in our suburban borough because many of their staff live in the area and this maintained their quality of life. We also have businesses clustering outside of central London; again Subsea 7 noted this as a reason for remaining in the borough. We have a world class concentration of expertise in cancer diagnosis and treatment on a par with Oxford and Cambridge life science clusters with the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden, that have significant ambition, and importantly space, to grow. And in Beddington we have a Strategic Industrial Location that is noted in the Mayor’s London Plan. And that is just in Sutton. Croydon is at least registered as an area of opportunity for growth because of its established economic presence, and other outer London boroughs have their own clusters of businesses to build on.

As for commuting, that appears to be less of a choice than a necessity for many Londoners as housing and planning policy seems intent on pricing all but the uber-rich out of central London.

The problem with following market forces is that the market only seeks to serve itself. Surely the purpose of politicians and leaders is to have a vision to shape the country, or in this case the capital, to best serve all its citizens. Allowing market forces free rein sees London as nothing more than a cash cow to be exploited to drive economic growth at the expense of all else.

So if we allow this strategy to follow through what will be the London of the future? The centre will be a hive of commerce and activity, but its only other offer will be as a playground for the wealthy and for tourists. The soul will be lost from the heart of the city. The luxury flats only affordable for foreign investors or as second homes for the elite will be left empty for much of the time, and central London will be a glossy showpiece, not the living, organic, busy city we love. Employment land in outer London will be replaced with housing, serviced by bland retail parks and supermarkets because the district centres and small high streets will have been eroded by poor planning policies and the lack of daytime custom. Housing estates without a clustering around a key shopping area are not conducive to community cohesion or neighbourliness, and so the occupants will become insular and strangers to each other.

London has always been a vibrant metropolis, its charm and success built on the rich living side by side with the less well off; foreign settlers brushing shoulders with Cockney incumbents. Bustling street markets squeezed in between the imposing structures of banks and opulant state buildings. There have always been tourists providing a means to make a living for the industrious and entrepreneurial large or small, and clusters of businesses have always grown organically, often around the diversity of the people and the skills that they have brought to an area. London’s charm has always been its diversity, in its architecture as well as its people. Sometimes that may jar, but it also gives it its edge, its vibrancy and its innovation.

My fear is that the current direction of travel risks eroding all this, and will turn our thriving bustling capital into a bland, sterile showroom. It will be shiny and new, but lacking any soul.

Interestingly the vision and desire to forge new ways of thinking came from other speakers at the conference. The presentation about the Thames Tideway Tunnel was the first to show a real commitment to sustainability, and an understanding of how major infrastructure development can also be used as a force for improving the skills and ambitions of the next generation. The speaker from the London Waste and Recycling Board also gave a forward looking plan which involved shaping the way people deal with waste to achieve a more sustainable capital. Sandra Roebuck from Lambeth Council gave an excellent presentation demonstrating how they were fighting to ensure there remained a supply of affordable housing for people living in the capital, but highlighting the struggle to retain a local employment offer within the borough too. The presentation from BT Group was a good example of the opposite approach, with plans explained about how the company will give the public what they want, but apparently didn’t  need, and with no mention of any actual benefit to the consumer of this offer.

The purpose of politicians is to be thought-leaders, not market followers. We need a vision for the capital, not a free rein for those that wish to exploit London for all they can suck out of it. London is home for many, a marketplace to others. It is a melting pot for ideas and creativity. It holds history and culture, attracts science and innovation. People visit to see, to learn, to do business and to play. We must nurture all aspects of this, and provide room for the capital to evolve. But we can also shape our future capital. We can have a sustainable city,  a vibrant city, and a beautiful city. But to do so needs a vision, and plans to support that vision.

What was presented instead was a fix of extrapolated existing problems, and the factory-farming of a bloated cash cow economy.

February 5, 2015 Posted by | Opinion | , , , | 2 Comments

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