After a meeting of the Residents' Association committee in January, I sent the following message to Robert Hobbs, head of Merton's Education, Leisure and Libraries department, and to the Environmental Services department :
At a recent meeting of the Raynes Park and West Barnes Residents' Association, Councillor Cheng introduced us to David Thoroughgood, managing director of the Exel Group, who showed us the plans his company had drawn up for a replacement library and meeting hall for Raynes Park.
In general, I think we all preferred Exel's plan to that of the currently preferred bidders, McCarthy and Stone. Exel appear to have been able to allow considerably more space for the public areas (whereas McCarthy and Stone's new library and meeting hall would be scarcely any bigger than those in the current building), even though their proposed building seems smaller overall (with a low central area joining two towers, rather than McCarthy and Stone's somewhat monolithic construction).
I also think the mixture of office space and general residential accommodation is more sensible than devoting the entire block to retirement flats, and I was particularly impressed at their foresight in allowing space for a temporary library on the site while building is in progress. This would be even more important if the mobile library is going to be abolished, as has been reported in the Guardian recently.
However, we gather that Exel's proposal has been rejected. There may well be a very good reason for this, but could you explain briefly what it is, please ? The point is that whereas most planning proposals are simply a question of whether or not a single developer's proposal for a piece of land should be approved or not, with the Raynes Park library, we are talking about the provision of an important public building, and I feel that it would be more appropriate to gather the views of potential users on two or three alternative proposals (though, of course, there may be financial or other practical reasons why we might have to accept second best).
Perhaps this could be discussed at the forthcoming meeting of the Raynes Park and Lower Morden Area Forum."
(I could also have added that, all else being equal, I felt that Exel should be given additional credit for being a local company ; though I suspected that there were rules against taking that into account.)
I received a reply from the council's Estates Surveyor, Graham Masson, which entirely failed to answer any of the questions I'd asked, and in fact seemed more like a copy of the form letter sent to unsuccessful bidders. When I complained about this, he explained that unfortunately he was not allowed to tell me why McCarthy and Stone had been selected (for reasons of "commercial confidentiality", no doubt), but that this had been communicated to local councillors and to the unsuccessful applicants. I checked this with Councillor Cheng and with Mr Thoroughgood, who both claimed to be still none the wiser.
An explanation (in the end, a perfectly simple though far from satisfactory one) was provided at the council's Raynes Park and Lower Morden Area Forum meeting on 27th February, and by a letter sent some days earlier by Mr. Adebayo, Head of Service Development in Merton's Environmental Services Department, to the Apostles Residents' Association. The council have a statutory requirement "to secure best consideration when disposing land and property assets" - in other words, they have to accept the most profitable of suitable proposals, whether they are selling freehold land or (as had originally been intended) a long lease. I suppose this rule is designed to prevent corruption, so that councils can't accept lower bids from their friends, but it does seem a shame that it prevents them from considering alternatives which might bring in less money but be better for the community overall.
However, the background to this letter and the discussion at the Area Forum was that it had emerged that the council's Planning Department is likely to recommend refusal of McCarthy and Stone's application, because of another rule that any development including more than fourteen "dwelling units" must include a certain proportion of "affordable housing" (as had been made clear in the planning brief for the site). The McCarthy and Stone bid had nevertheless been considered acceptable as they had managed to convince the council that they would be allowed to ignore this rule because of the special nature of their development (retirement homes), in spite of a recent enquiry at which it was decided otherwise. The Planning Committee might still pass the planning application even if the officers recommended refusal, or a refusal might be overturned on appeal. Councillor Margaret Brierly suggested at the Area Forum meeting that the developers might be planning to meet the requirements by providing funds for such housing elsewhere in the borough (which seems a more sensible approach than trying to incorporate different types of flat in the same block in the first place) ; though if they haven't budgeted for having to do that then we might find them suddenly withdrawing their plans, as Michael Shanly Homes did eighteen months ago.
I don't think it would be fair to pin all the blame for this ludicrous situation onto council members or officers : it appears to be the result of central government legislation, no doubt well-intentioned but awkward to put into practice, which forces the erection of a "Chinese wall" between council departments so that even if the left hand does know what the right hand is doing, they have to act as though they don't. However, it looks as though the final chapter in the story of this development has not yet been written after all.Tim Miles
20th March : It has now been confirmed by Merton Council that the mobile library will close at the end of the month, and that other libraries will have reduced opening hours.