Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Hundreds of residents in protest meeting

Around 400 people crammed Rivercourt Methodist Church this evening to protest against the Council's plans to fundamentally alter the skyline and environment of Hammersmith. Packing the church to the rafters, they even had to open the upstairs balcony, some pretty angry residents proved they were not to messed with lightly by the Council.

Compered ably by one of the leaders of the Save our Skyline campaign, himself a criminal barrister who observed that aspects of the scheme would provide a haven for muggers “of whom I have rather a lot of contact”, one speaker after another was called to decry the loss of what they regarded as the best elements of Hammersmith. Essentially the story is thus: the Council wants a new Town Hall, saying the current one is falling down. To get it they're offering the developers a chance to build two huge new tower blocks of luxury flats which they can then sell off, complete with a bridge so the new luxury flat dwellers can walk to the river directly without the inconvenience of crossing the road.

Highlights from the evening for me were:
  • Furnival Gardens being revealed as the landing point for an enormous bridge that would link the two tower blocks of luxury flats the developers would build as part of the deal. The bridge would eat up roughly a third of the entire park. (This is the same park they said they were defending against evil Thames Water)
  • 54 homes for blind people would be demolished and the residents themselves have already been told they are going to be made homeless by the scheme – complete with a Braille map to rub in where their houses will no longer be!
  • Of these luxury flats – 320 of them in two fourteen storey blocks – only 100 parking spaces will be provided. So Hammersmith residents can look forward to some fun and games parking.
  • A large new supermarket its likely to be part of the scheme, in fact I learned that Tescos already own the freehold of the Hammersmith cinema which is due to be knocked down as part of the redevelopment, so guess which chain it would be
  • The differing perceptions of both Andy Slaughter MP, who perhaps predictably received a thunderous applause in his criticism of the project and exhortation to residents to fight on – and Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh who I think despite not being flavour of the month did deserve a lot of credit for turning up to listen and addressing the residents. He got polite applause, but credit to him for arguing his case.
We were treated throughout the evening to various visuals of the projected change to the skyline if the project goes ahead. Speakers caustically noted that the developers themselves had refused to provide visuals from street level – only from above – because that way the buildings didnt look too high or imposing. They certainly look imposing from the visuals the residents own architects have drawn up – to the point where that part of Hammersmith would essentially be unrecognisable and dominated by two blocks of luxury flats soaring into the sky. The highest buildings in Hammersmith at the moment noted one speaker are four storeys high, with the Town Hall being a lofty nine storeys.

We heard from a blind man Kevin O'Flattery who lost his sight overnight as a result of a brain tumour. He is one of the many blind residents set to lose their homes to make way for the scheme and the personal account of how that would affect him was heart rending. He feared not so much losing bricks and mortar but his independent life – and vowed to nail his door shut and be removed by force when the knock came.

One speaker, previewing the arrival of a large Tescos as part of the deal since they own the freehold to the cinema site set to be redeveloped, estimated that over 40 deliveries would be made by lorry to the store per day and that far from creating jobs it would destroy them. She gave the example of a small grocer on King Street that closed within a year of a Tescos Express having opened nearby.

She was followed by three speakers, two of whom were young girls, who emphasised the community role of the local cinema and said that to lose such a loved local institution (“I've gone to it all my life, so did my mum”) would mean they would have to trek all the way to Shepherd's Bush to see films.

Angela Dixon, a historic buildings campaigner, urged the Council to take a “Heritage led development” approach which had the starting point of “what's already good about the area” rather than what new things can we create. This had been largely absent from the Council's plans, she said.

Andy Slaughter MP followed the Brackenbury Residents Association representative who, fresh from having lost against the Council on the Goldhawk Industrial Estate planning development, offered some ideas for residents to target the “soft underbelly” of an otherwise armour plated Developer-Council axis. The MP said he'd been puzzling for a long time about what the Prime Minister meant by “Big Society” but that if anything was it it was in this room. The gallery loved it. Interspersed with applause he described the planning in this borough as a “charade” (more clapping) and said that the Council had got themselves into a predicament that they really needn't have. He said he was dealing with over 20 similar applications throughout the Borough of which this wasn't even the biggest – he urged them to fight on and they responded with more applause.

Eventually, and called from the back of the room by the chair of the evening, Council Leader Cllr Greenhalgh made his way to the front. Heckled by one particularly angry lady, he reached the front and cut a suitably chastened sight. Essentially he said he was there to listen and listen he would. He said that the comments had in some cases “hurt” - in particular the refrain that had been repeated all night that basically the developers were now running the show. He pledged an independent study into the scheme to judge whether that was fair, acknowledging that the scheme itself had grown from its original guise. He re-committed the council to “listen” and said that even if his career ended at the hands of local people he wouldn't ever want them to think he hadn't listened. Difficult gig - but he got the tone right and people respected him I think for coming along at all.

And there was the odd voice of discord even among this rally of the disgruntled - one member of the audience pointed out that the blind peoples homes were in a state of disrepair, and another more thrusting man jumped to his feet and said that the voice of business hadn't been heard. "Get on with it" he said for the sake of businesses in Hammersmith who in his view stood to gain from the plans - cue lots of shouting from the audience and defensive hand gestures from said businessman.

Coming out of the hall I was accosted by one elderly gentleman who'd also spoken at the meeting. He owns the Dove pier on Furnival Gardens which was built along with the rest of the gardens in the Great Exhibition year of 1951. He had started a petition, he said, of opeople determined never to vote Tory locally if this decision went ahead. The thing that got me about tonight was how angry people seemed to be, but how damned polite they all were! Apologising for bothering me he asked whether I wouldn't mind awfully signing his petition?

And do you know, I have a hunch about this. Just a gut feeling and I have no proof to back it up - but reading body language, tone and what's not being said as much as what is - I think Cllr Greenhalgh is wishing he'd never let this one get this far. Let's be frank, this part of our borough is traditional Tory territory - and yet here was a church full of people cheering a Labour MP to the rafters and getting up one after the other to slam the council. It's this that in my view cost Shaun Bailey his seat in Parliament, and Cllr Greenhalgh is astute enough to realise that. He won the planning battle on the Goldhawk Road against the Brackenbury Residents, but lost the political battle. I suspect the "study" he announced this evening may be a face-saving way out of his present predicament on this one at least.


  1. Good on you for reporting it Chris, thank you.

  2. I second that. I have to say IMO you are spot on with your gut feeling, furthermore your reporting is again very even.

  3. The existing Town Hall extension is a blight on that part of Hammersmith, lets hope that the planning for it's replacement actually improves the area - I don't think a private bridge which eats up a third of Furnival Gardens will do that.