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Town Hall can learn—from our Hackney neighbours

PUBLISHED: 21:03 01 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:30 05 October 2010

Meaningful debate: how it's done in neighbouring Hackney

Meaningful debate: how it's done in neighbouring Hackney

FOR a fair while now, members of the Tower Hamlets 'development' and 'strategic development' committees have been urged to undertake more site visits before actually determining any planning application. Having watched Hackney councillors conduct their committee debate last week, I think our lot at Tower Hamlets should visit Hackney Town Hall too

Ted Jeory puts East End politicians in the dock

FOR a fair while now, members of the Tower Hamlets "development" and "strategic development" committees have been urged to undertake more site visits before actually determining any planning application.

Having watched Hackney councillors conduct their committee debate last week, I think our lot at Tower Hamlets should visit Hackney Town Hall too.

Not only will they feel the sense of duty, history and heritage that a traditional town hall conveys on visitors, with Hackney council chamber is decorated in beautiful Art Deco style, they will also witness how a meeting should be chaired and meaningful debate conducted.

Although principally there for Hammerson's application to replace the nineteenth century Light Bar in Shoreditch with a new cluster of skyscrapers, I was also intrigued to see how they do things 'over the border'.

Hackney's press office failed to live up to its mightier (and more expensive) East End rival by failing to provide a press desk and agenda (yes, we journalists are that precious, or maybe Hackney's just not used to having reporters there, I don't know), but in most other respects our 'cousin' council won hands down.

Hackney's chair of planning (notice they call it 'planning' committee and not the spin-doctored word 'development') was Labour councillor Vincent Stops: he was, notwithstanding a cockup over voting procedures at the end of the debate, first rate.

He was clear and firm and actually seemed interested in the issues, recognising each application has its own set of residents' concerns.

And what's more, he did what meeting chairs should do: provide a good summing up of all arguments before the vote (to be fair, Tower Hamlets councillor Marc Francis was like that when he chaired the scrutiny committee).

But while personalities can be variable, it's more the committee rule book that has greater effect on democratic discussion.

Objectors (and proponents) in Tower Hamlets are given a fixed five minutes to cram in arguments.

In Hackney, the chair has discretion to extend that to 15 minutes.

Not only that, objectors are then given the chance to take part in the debate.

Development-mad Tower Hamlets will doubtless contend it deals with far more applications and so such a policy would slow matters down.

But when it comes to planning at least, Hackney council can certainly teach 'four- star' Tower Hamlets how to properly engage with residents. Their system was a breath of fresh air.

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PLANNING AS YOU GO ALONG

IF NOTHING else, Tower Hamlets council's planning department has the ability to surprise.

Town Hall planning chief Steve Irvine, who once claimed it was an 'urban myth' that you needed permission to build, caused jaws to drop a couple of weeks ago when he suggested Bow needed a 10-storey tower block to prevent people getting lost down Roman Road.

Now, his department has come up with another eyebrow-raiser.

It lodged an official objection with Hackney council about Hammerson's proposed skyscrapers for Shoreditch (close to the Tower Hamlets boundary).

It told Hackney council that the development's "bulk, scale and height" would ruin the nearby Elder Street conservation area in Spitalfields.

Funny that, because a couple of months ago planners completely ignored similar concerns when they got councillors to rubber-stamp plans for a 25-storey tower in Sclater Street... just 350 yards away.

Perhaps notoriously competitive Tower Hamlets council was merely jealous of all the planning 'gain' money that Hackney would be getting from its scheme on the border.

ted.jeory@archant.co.uk

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