Mr President, Vice-Presidents, Members, guests, ladies and gentlemen :
It has been a very busy year for some of us. It has also been a rather long year. For several months before taking over the Chair, I was immersed in Controlled Parking Zone matters. Through the Raynes Park and West Barnes Town Centre Working Party (which no longer exists), we learned about the Council proposals on this scheme. I had a meeting with officials at the Civic Centre, and the upshot of this was that the January 2001 edition of the "Guide" contained details and a map of the proposed extent of the CPZ. It very quickly became evident to me just how far and wide the "Guide" travels ! Sleepy little Residents' Associations all over West Wimbledon came out of hibernation and contacted me as if I was responsible for dreaming up the whole idea. I fielded numerous questions, went to lots of meetings and met a lot of interesting people. It was a hectic time, and some of you will recall some lively and well-attended meetings in this building. There was widespread distrust of the Council's motives : many were convinced it was just a money-making venture. Anyway, it became clear to the Council that public resistance to the scheme was deeply entrenched, and by mid-summer the Council announced that the scheme would not proceed. If there is one lesson we learn from this, it is that the strength of Residents' Asociations (even small ones) is not to be underestimated.
Also through the old Working Party meetings, we learned that the Council had revised an old Planning Framework for a possible redevelopment of the Raynes Park Library. There had been a Site Proposal for this in the UDP since 1999, but nothing had happened because, from the start, the Council would not vote any money for it. Several companies showed interest in a scheme, and eventually the Council selected Michael Shanly Homes' proposals, subject to approval of a planning application. A lot of time and effort went into considering this proposal, which embraced a replacement library, meeting room and fourteen two-bedroom flats together with allocated parking spaces. Pamela Robinson and I had a lot of contact with the directors of the company. We gave them additional briefings, which they valued, and we also gave them several alternative designs for the internal layout of the ground floor.
It became clear that not only were the Council looking for a redevelopment at no cost to themselves, but that they were also trying to drive a hard bargain in other ways. The planning application was due to be considered last September, but on the day before the meeting, the applicant pulled out. The precise reasons for withdrawing the application are not clear, but we suspect that financial negotiations reached the point where the company felt the scheme could not be profitable. This was a very frustrating outcome all round. We believe the company and the Council were still talking towards the end of last year, but the absence of any news is not encouraging. There is still the possibility that the Council will negotiate with one of the other short-listed developers. Time will tell. I should like to thank Pamela Robinson for a lot of work on this.
You may recall that the Council produced a draft Planning Framework for Prince George's during 2000. The Council had consulted widely on this draft, which was intended as guidance to potential developers on what they could and could not do on the site. The Framework Paper was necessary in view of Wimbledon Football Club's declared intention to develop a Football Academy on the site. Andrew Barwick and I made extensive comments on the draft paper, which were very largely accepted by Merton's Planning Department. The Framework paper was due to be approved by Merton's Executive Committee in February last year, but was "pulled" from the agenda at the last minute at the request of the new Chairman of Wimbledon Football Club. Of course, we protested at this irregular behaviour, and for several months pressed the Council to get on with approval. This was eventually achieved in August. We welcomed approval of the paper, even if it did contain some highly unusual references to Wimbledon Football Club. Perhaps I should point out that a potentially rather tricky situation could have arisen if a planning application for the Academy had been submitted before the Framework had been approved.
Let me add a few words about Wimbledon Football Club itself. The directors and supporters of the club have kept up the pressure to "return to Wimbledon", and the delay in approving the Framework paper added to our fears as to the real motive in the club's taking a long lease on Prince George's. Did they want the site for a training Academy, or a stadium ? Fortunately, the situation was clarified about a year ago with a "Joint Statement" issued by Roger Casale M.P., Wimbledon Football Club, Merton Council, Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association and Wimbledon Civic Forum giving "fresh impetus" to bring WFC back to the borough, but, of importance, Prince George's was ruled out as a possible site for a stadium. As most of you will know from the local press, for many months, a tussle has been going on between the supporters of the club who want to return to Plough Lane and the directors of the club who want to move to Milton Keynes. Rather oddly, the official line from the club was that, regardless of the Milton Keynes bid, they still intended to use Prince George's as an Academy. However, we recently learned that the club want to dispose of their lease. Local newspapers originally reported that the All England Lawn Tennis Club were interested in the site, but in fact it proves to be the Lawn Tennis Association. We understand they have had discussions with the Council about the planning restrictions on this site. Clearly we will need to watch this carefully.
During the course of last year, we saw planning applications submitted for four schools in or close to our Association area : St. John Fisher, Sacred Heart, Hatfeild and Bushey Middle. All three of the primary schools are within the functional floodplain of the Beverley Brook, and Bushey Middle is very close to it. The Association and the Environment Agency objected to the original applications for the three primary schools, and, as a consequence, the plans for all three were modified to improve flood alleviation and mitigation measures. This was a difficult issue to deal with, and called for sensitive handling. On the one hand, we felt the need to register our concern that extensive building work within the floodplain was likely to add to flooding risks for residents living nearby, but on the other hand - the "Age of Transfer" proposals having been approved - there was no realistic alternative to extending the schools where they stood. The outcome had to be, and was, a compromise. The extensions were all approved, with a long string of conditions attached, including compensation flood storage works and a strong recommendation to use permeable paving materials wherever possible.
Whilst talking about schools, I should say a word about St. Catherine's Middle School. As part of the review of the Unitary Development Plan, Merton Council drew up a draft Planning Framework for the school in February 2000. As a middle school, St. Catherine's is due to become redundant in due course. The Framework paper envisaged that the site would be suitable for housing development after 2001. This was an error which was quickly corrected by Merton. In fact, the school building will be required by Wimbledon College until 2005. However, having set off the consultation process somewhat prematurely, the Environment Agency objected to a proposal for housing because the whole site is within the floodplain. Margaret Pye and I also submitted objections on behalf of the Association. This happened in June 2000, and all went quiet until Margaret and I became involved in the Public Inquiry for the UDP last summer. The Planning Department in the Council were trying to persuade the Government Inspector for the Inquiry that the UDP should contain a Site Proposal for a possible housing development on the school site. We had put in objections to this proposal. The outcome of all this is unknown, as the Inspector's report is still awaited. Whatever happens, the consultation process on the proposal for housing will have to be resumed after July 2005, when, as currently planned, Wimbledon College will no longer need the building.
I should also mention that I had some contact with Canon Martin Lee, in the Office of the Diocese of Southwark, to discuss the school extensions but in particular to talk about the future of the St. Catherine's site. This is an issue which is on the back-burner for the moment, but it will become live again. I still have a sense of utter dismay that the will and vision are lacking to find a way of retaining the St. Catherine's school buildings for some educational, cultural or social use. Let us hope we can re-visit this issue nearer the appropriate time.
In July last year, several members of the Association, including several Councillors and our President, welcomed to Raynes Park a party from the Greater London Authority. They were members of the Green Spaces Investigative Committee who had come to look at the three sportsfields the future of which occupies so much of our time, Prince George's, LESSA and Royal and Sun Alliance. This committee was involved in a London-wide survey of open green spaces, with a remit to assess the threat to these greenfield sites and to consider how they could be protected. The visit had been set up by Bob Simpson, who provided the party with a very comprehensive brief on the three sportsfields and also on the Lower Morden open land.
The committee showed considerable interest in our concerns, in particular about the future of LESSA and RSA. The team produced their report last November, and it presents a sad account of failure to maintain parks and open spaces right across London. The report contains more than a hint that, in the case of some privately-owned sites, the neglect has been deliberate, thus making it all the more attractive to developers to acquire the sites for housing development. The report will go forward to the Mayor and the GLA as a contribution to what was being called the Spatial Development Strategy, but is now described as the London Plan. Our hope must be that this plan, when it emerges, will put pressure on London councils to preserve these valuable greenfield sites. I should like to say a big "thank you" to Bob Simpson for all the work he did on this.
I have already mentioned briefly the UDP review. I should like to say a little more about this. The UDP is a land-use plan which serves as a sort of "bible" for anybody who wants to submit a planning application or object to one. The current Plan is going through a lengthy process of revision, the second draft having been completed in October 2000. Last summer, the Public Local Inquiry took place, with an Inspector appointed to consider objections to the plan and responses from the Council. A huge amount of work is involved in this process, and developers are particularly active in trying to find ways of amending the Plan to make life easier for themselves, often using planning consultants. Margaret Pye and I were deeply involved in this process and submitted a large number of objections and recommendations to change Plan policies, mainly designed to safeguard those policies dealing with open spaces and Metropolitan Open Land in particular. We are still waiting for the Inspector's Report, so we have yet to discover whether we had much success. This is one of those subjects which is never likely to make the front page of the Mirror or even the Times, but the contents of the UDP are hugely important. I should like to thank Margaret for her contribution to this exercise. Picking your way through the quagmire of a Unitary Development Plan calls for a certain type of resilience. It is not a talent to be found in great abundance.
This is a suitable moment to mention that the Government recently produced a Green Paper called "Planning : Delivering a Fundamental Change". It has been called by critics (and there are plenty of them) a "Charter for Developers". One of the recommendations is to do away with UDPs and replace them with "Local Development Frameworks", which, by all accounts, will not offer the general public anything like the same degree of protection as does the existing UDP. Take note that this consultation document, which the CPRE regards as a disaster in the making, has issued from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions - in short, Mr Byers' empire. I suspect there are many people who would take the view that any time would be a good time to bury this particular Green Paper !
As part of the process of trying to encourage the general public to take a greater interest, or indeed any interest, in local government business, the Council, under pressure from Whitehall, has set up local Area Forums. The one for our area is the Raynes Park and Lower Morden Area Forum. In our area, these Forums have replaced the old Town Centre Working Parties. I ought to point out that our Area Forum covers the wards of Cannon Hill and Lower Morden as well as our more familiar territory of Raynes Park and West Barnes. There have only been two meetings so far, both fairly well-attended. We had representatives at each of these to ensure our concerns were noted. There has been a good exchange of views between the public on the one hand and Councillors and Officials on the other. Subjects considered so far include graffiti, refuse collection, recycling, youth crime and preserving open spaces. It is still too early to say whether these Forums will be successful. The test will be whether Councillors take note and act on our concerns. Value for money from the Council Tax is what we are looking for and what we should expect.
Along with the future of Wimbledon Football Club, the one issue which has been in the forefront of our minds for the last year or more has been LESSA. Barratt Homes submitted their first application for a mixture of houses and flats in December 2000. About half of the proposed development would have been within the floodplain of the Beverley Brook. Quite rightly, the Environment Agency made a strong objection, as did this Association, and the proposal was refused by Merton Council about a year ago. All went quiet for a few months, but we knew that this was the lull before the storm. Sure enough, the storm broke last October, with what is called an "amended" application. Rather cunningly, the applicant changed the plans to a proposal for five blocks of flats located to the north and east of the site, just outside the designated floodplain. The Association alerted residents living around the site, and Bob Simpson, Martin Mitchell and others delivered 1100 newsletters in the local area. This news update provided details of the revised plans, and gave members the information needed to submit their own objections. I am grateful to all those who did so. We submitted a very detailed formal objection to the Council on 31 October last year.
Between then and now, and we are not finished yet, numerous letters have been sent to a range of bodies campaigning against this proposal. You will be relieved to hear that I am not going to take you through the tortuous detail in all this correspondence. The subject matter of our dealings with people like the Environment Agency and the Council for the Protection of Rural England is rather complex, and would not make for easy reading. I should like to take this opportunity to express my thanks, indeed the thanks of the Association, in particular to Bob and Ann Simpson for the magnificent contribution they have made on this issue, and also to Margaret Pye for the advice she has given.
Our formal objection of last October has been followed by a string of letters to and meetings with the Council, and this still goes on. The small team working on this issue are confident that we have the better of the argument. We know this application is in flagrant conflict with the Unitary Development Plan, and also with Government planning guidance. I had assumed that by now we would know the outcome of this application ; it is possible that it will go to Committee next month (April 2002). Whatever happens, I can say that we have done everything the members could have expected of us to preserve the whole of the LESSA site for outdoor sport and recreation. If the development does go ahead, I am hopeful that, at least, the Council will insist on changes to the plans which would result in the buildings being less intrusive in terms of their height and bulk, etc.
Whilst monitoring developments on the LESSA application, we have been waiting to see if a planning application would emerge on the Royal and Sun Alliance sportsground. No doubt Jerry Cuthbert must have wondered whether his moment in the spotlight would ever come. We have been in contact with the company, and we know that Bryant Homes Southern Counties Ltd have an interest in the site. We are ready to respond to any application which comes forward.
I ought to mention the Parks and Open Spaces study which suddenly came upon us in January. The Council commissioned a firm of planning consultants, W.S. Atkins, to carry out this exercise. The motives for the study seemed plausible enough : in short, to assess whether the needs of local residents are being met now and will be in the future. However, we suspected there might be a hidden agenda. Several members of the Association attended consultation meetings, and we submitted our views on this subject to both the consultants and the Council. I am grateful to Martin Mitchell and Pamela Robinson for help with this.
Our concerns, which Council officers bravely tried to dispel, were that the Council were looking for independent evidence that some greenfield sites in the borough, particularly privately-owned sites, were no longer needed for outdoor sport and recreation and could therefore perhaps be used for other purposes. Do I need to say what we think those "other purposes" might be ? We made it clear to the Atkins team that, for a variety of reasons, we believe it is important to preserve the larger greenfield sites in the interests of the quality of life for present and future generations.
I must now deal with some of the more run-of-the-mill matters and the "credits". I seldom report on this, but we are represented on WURA who meet quarterly in Wimbledon Village. Our thanks go to Betty Claircourt, who attends these meetings and briefs us on any matters of mutual concern.
We continue to monitor the Council's weekly list of planning applications, and my thanks go to Pamela Robinson for looking after this. I should add that Pamela has done a lot of work on her own and in helping me with objections to and comments on a number of applications, in particular those in the Raynes Park shopping parade like the Pinehouse, the old Co-Op and Bellinger & Price, all of which are earmarked as "food and drink" establishments. We have had some success in objecting to smaller-scale applications in other parts of Raynes Park, West Barnes and Wimbledon.
Graffiti is never far away from us - sadly. Some members of the Association attended training sessions run by the Council, and, having been trained in how to clean off graffiti, the likes of Councillors Lewis-Lavender and Dysart along with Tim Miles, Debbie Coady and others were to be observed in the clean-up process. I am pleased to say that the Council does seem to be taking this issue more seriously now, though I would like to see more effort put into preventing graffiti in addition to removing it.
We have a continuing dialogue with Mr Irfan Malik, who is Head of Amenity Services at Merton, about rubbish collections and street sweeping, and more recently about recycling. Whoever is in charge of this subject in any London Borough will never have an easy life. There will always be competition for additional financial resources, and there will always be room for improvement.
I am contacted from time to time by people complaining about speeding vehicles and the need, as they see it, for either more or less traffic calming. This is another contentious field. Not everybody is in favour of road humps and speed tables. We do pass on comments to the Council, and they normally promise to consider them. However, with the Traffic Calming scheme for West Barnes having been completed a couple of years ago, it is unlikely there can be any changes for some years.
The Beat Manager for the West Barnes Ward, P.C. Tiddy, used to attend our monthly meetings regularly until he was drafted up to central London after 11 September last year. I am pleased to report that Alistair is now back on his normal beat, and we hope that this will help to keep the lid on the incidence of local crime.
I should like to thank Councillors Lewis-Lavender, Dysart and Brierly for their invaluable contribution over the course of the year. They are very busy people, yet they attend our meetings whenever they can. The knowledge and contacts that Councillors have are of considerable value to the Chairman of the Association, whoever he or she may be. Our thanks are extended once again to Wendy Hunt for the superb job she does as Editor and Advertising Manager of the "Guide", to Debbie Coady, our Secretary, who has given me splendid support even though she doesn't have any spare time, and also to Jan Bailey for the most comprehensive minutes I have seen in ages. Our thanks also go to John Cock, our Treasurer, who manages to keep up with our accounts as well as doing a lot of work for other local bodies, and to Tim Miles, our Webmaster, who manages what Garry described last year as "our electronic window on the world".
I should also like to add my personal thanks to Garry Hunt and Jill Truman for the help they have given me over the year and for taking over the Chair when I was not available. And, of course, our sincere thanks go to the "foot-soldiers" of the Association : Malcolm Day the Distribution Manager, the Area Co-Ordinators and all the Road Stewards who deliver the "Guide" and collect the subscriptions. We could not function without your help. And lastly, I thank all those who attended the meetings and helped the Association during the past year. If I have forgotten anybody I should have mentioned, then my sincere apologies.David Freeman