Anybody attending the Planning Applications Committee meeting at Crown House on 13th March might have been puzzled by the fact that the agenda paper read "There is no item 2". Since there were fifteen other items due for consideration, the members of the committee probably greeted this with some relief. Item 2 was supposed to be the re-development of Raynes Park library. The background to this, and incidentally the explanation for the removal of this item, can be found in Tim Miles' comprehensive article last month.
Planning policy guidance on a scheme such as this, which includes as many as 29 flats, is that 30% of the accommodation should be provided as "affordable housing", i.e. which can be purchased or rented by those on low to middle incomes. The problem facing Merton Council was that the design and financial aspects of the scheme were broadly acceptable to the council departments dealing with this, but the absence of a clearly-identified "affordable housing" component meant that the scheme conflicted with planning policy. In consequence, the Planning Department felt that they would have to recommend to the councillors on the committee that the application be refused.
Our understanding is that it was intended that all 29 flats would be for sale (to those aged 60 and above) at normal market prices. None of the flats would be available to rent, and the presumption is that the sale price would be beyond the reach of those on low and middle incomes. Those of us following the progress of this application had assumed that sheltered housing (retirement flats) had been viewed by council officials as an acceptable alternative to "affordable housing". However, it seems that under strict interpretation of planning policy, this is not so.
One has to say this looks like a crazy situation, and for the general public very difficult to understand. One question which remains unanswered is why this problem was not seen at a very much earlier stage, remembering that the closing date for revised bids for the scheme was April last year.
In a situation like this, where the Planning Department are minded to recommend refusal of an application, it is quite normal for the applicant to be advised and given the opportunity to either withdraw the application, or amend it in order - hopefully - to make it more compliant with the Unitary Development Plan. Of course, they are not obliged to accept this advice, and can, if they wish, simply take their chance with the Planning Committee.
My understanding is that McCarthy and Stone have not withdrawn their application, but are undertaking a review in the hope that they can provide stronger evidence to support their case. It remains to be seen whether they can achieve their objective. We may therefore see a slightly modified application presented to the committee, possibly at the May meeting. The outcome is awaited with interest.
Many people have voiced their concerns over the years about the failure to provide a replacement for the old Civic Hall in Wimbledon. A proposal slowly working its way through Merton Council may, in time, see a new public hall close to the town centre, though hardly on the scale of and of such grandeur as the old hall, of which only the façade still remains.
From time to time, the local press has reported on the efforts of a number of people, but in particular a body known as the Wimbledon Hall Trust, to try to develop an arts centre on the site in Hartfield Road currently used as a car park. This is the site adjacent to the "bus station", known as the P3 site. It was hoped that the main feature of this arts centre would be a concert hall of significant size and quality.
Merton Council agreed to reserve the site for such a possible development as far back as September 1999. The Trust and those working with them were given reasonable time to put forward proposals and provide evidence that they could secure the necessary funding. To cut rather a long story short, time ran out for the Trust and the funds proved to be elusive. The current position is that the P3 site is to be considered for a commercial-only development designed to achieve the best consideration for the Council in terms of both capital and revenue, based on the working assumption that the site could provide up to 370 car parking spaces.
Along with the possible development of the Hartfield Road site, the Council is considering the use of another site - also currently a car park - adjacent to Wimbledon Theatre in the Broadway. This is known in Council-speak as the P4 site. The recommendation, which as I write is yet to be approved at the top level in Merton Council, is that the P4 site be considered for the development of a public hall of approximately 600 seats, together with meeting rooms similar to those which would normally be available in community association premises.
The current proposals - and I stress that they are still only proposals at this stage - stem from a report by leisure consultants McAlpine, Thorpe and Warrior, which was only completed last February. One of their recommendations is that a feasibility study is undertaken into a new auditorium and performance centre for "arts, cultural and community uses" on the P4 site. At present, it is envisaged that the whole complex might embrace, as well as the hall and meeting rooms, a wide range of other uses such as retail, offices and even a hotel. But remember, these are still early days, with much to be considered.
Merton Council are working on a planning brief for the site (planning guidance and council aspirations for potential developers), and this will be subject to full public consultation. One interesting feature of the recommendations is that an architectural competition be held for the design of the new hall. If this is agreed, let us hope that local architects show interest. If all this comes to fruition, it may not amount to a new Civic Hall, but at least the next best thing.
We will watch this with interest.David J. Freeman