Boris Johnson has revealed his true colours and taken a brick to people power

The Mayor of London has effectively killed off any hope of devolved power in London

Mira Bar Hillel
Tuesday 07 October 2014 09:37
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Boris Johnson argued that he could perform both roles as MP and Mayor
Boris Johnson argued that he could perform both roles as MP and Mayor

Remember Localism? It was born alongside The Big Society in the Conservative’s election Community Chest for the 2010 elections. It was then enshrined in the Localism Act a year later, which aimed to "devolve more decision making powers from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils."

But it died on Friday morning when London Mayor Boris Johnson overruled two democratically elected local council and a very active local community. He killed it when he imposed upon them a massive development of mainly private flats which he had previously described as “a wonderful place to live”. They don’t agree.

This is not how things were meant to be. If anything, localism should have meant that decisions of this kind would made from the local level upwards, not the other way round.

At Mount Pleasant, the vastly valuable development site in North London which Royal Mail picked up for a song when it was controversially privatised, the concept was turned on its head with the decision made by the top riding roughshod over all the local views.

At a bad-tempered three-hour meeting at London’s City Hall Boris typically dismissed all the objections with a wave of his hand. The Royal Mail scheme was “well-considered”, “imaginative” and a “high-quality new neighbourhood for London”, he insisted.

The meeting was repeatedly interrupted by members of the public who wanted to know why they were not allowed to speak at a public meeting. They jeered at the designs, which look like typical high-rise high density proposals meant to produce the maximum number of saleable units. And they questioned the affordability of the “affordable” homes (they are not, unless you earn £100,000 a year).

Islington councillor James Murray said: “This is a cynical exercise by Royal Mail to maximise the value of the site at the expense of affordable homes for ordinary Londoners. You are handing over a huge windfall to Royal Mail which we estimate to be worth at least £30 million.” Camden, the other council whose land Mount Pleasant straddles, had also rejected the scheme several months ago.

But Boris said the scheme was “well-considered”, and Boris is, as we know, an honourable man. So planning permission was granted. Just like that.

None of this could have happened before 2008. Until then Mayors had powers to refuse projects approved by local councils, but not to allow projects they had rejected.

But for the past six years Boris has been able to do just this. Which is why, when they knew that Camden and Islington were on the brink of rejecting their plans late last year, Royal Mail took their plans direct to a very receptive Mayor. Moreover, while they had offered the two Labour councils around 20 per cent “affordable” homes, the scheme presented to Boris included only 12 per cent.

So City Hall can claim it “doubled the affordable housing”, which is sleight of hand. Their claim that the 10 buildings, rising to 15 storeys, would “meet local needs” was greeted by snorts of derision from the crowded public gallery. The blocks were designed by a veritable Who’s Who of British architects: AHMM, Allies & Morrison, Feilden Clegg Bradley and Wilkinson Eyre.

But one local, fellow designer Thomas Heatherwick, branded it “empty, cynical and vacuous” – until he was forced to retract by the architecture establishment who, as Prince Charles can testify, are a very scary bunch.

The Heir to the Throne played no direct role in this particular row, but a rival scheme for the site, designed along townscape features he support by one of his favourite architects, made an H-Hour appearance. Designed by the Create Streets organisation, it was promoted by the Mount Pleasant Association, and in a survey approved by 98 per cent of nearby residents. You can’t get more local than that.

But, as I feared all along, if “localism” and "empowering the people" was ever anything more than just a hollow political cliché, it certainly isn’t now. RIP.

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