Friday, 14 March 2014

How The Queensbury Was Saved

Typo Corrected
The sensational victory by Save The Queensbury campaign last Wednesday is a massive cause for celebration for Willesden Green. It was achieved through the relentless collective efforts of residents and their supporters. One of the founding members of the campaign and irrepressible agitator for its cause, Sujata Aurora, tells the story of how the battle was won.
Guest blog by Sujata Aurora
The Save The Queensbury group won a significant victory on 12 March when Brent’s planning committee threw out proposals to demolish Willesden Green's landmark community pub and replace it with a 10-storey block of flats. 

The 18 month-long campaign was a true community initiative initially set up in October 2012 by a handful of residents and largely ignored by the political parties until the local elections began to loom. It is much to the credit of the campaign that they mobilised mass local support to the extent that they persuaded several previously indifferent councillors to back their cause, almost certainly because the level of attention the issue was generating made them fear the electoral consequences of not doing so. Sadly two of our Willesden Green councillors, LibDems Ann Hunter and Gavin Sneddon, refused to represent residents’ views despite repeated requests, their unresponsiveness maybe a consequence of their not restanding for election.

Despite attracting the belated support of some local politicians the campaign never became compromised and fiercely iterated its independence. As Brent Council's treatment of Save The Queensbury became ever more shabby there was a dawning realisation that the battle was not just against developer Fairview Homes but also against the council itself. Many in the group had had no previous dealings with the council and, perhaps naively, put their faith in the ability of various processes and politicians to protect the pub. Their awakening was rude and the criticisms that they were subsequently forced to make of the council upset some of The Queensbury’s Labour supporters. Yet as one campaigner pointed out, "this is a cross party campaign and we welcome all support, but if we shy away from pointing out the failings of Brent Council where they could have acted to save the pub, then we are doing this cause a disservice.”

Getting the Message Across
While professing some limited support for the campaign, no political party or councillor was prepared to actively lobby in support of policies that would have protected the pub from demolition.
  • The attempt to have The Queensbury listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) under the Localism Act was initially refused with Brent citing, in part, the reason that they needed to consider the developers intention for the site in considering whether it might have future community value. That reason has been confirmed by other authorities and by experts on the Localism Act as a significant misapplication of the regulations. It was only after a threat to go to the Local Government Ombudsman and a new application covering just The Queensbury Pub rather than the entire site, that a listing was successful.
  • Queensbury campaigners took members of CAMRA and planning experts with them to meet with council leader Muhammed Butt in April 2013 - they presented him with examples of pub protection policies from numerous other local authorities. A request for Brent to develop a pub protection policy and produce some planning guidance which would prevent “Change of Use” applications for buildings listed as ACVs got an initially favourable reception from Councillor Butt – but almost a year on they are still waiting for even a draft policy to be produced and the expert on pubs and planning policy who offered to assist is still waiting for a call.
  • A presentation by the Queensbury campaign in October 2013 to officers and councillors at the Partnerships and Place Overview and Scrutiny Committee asking for a review of the ACV listing procedure and a further request for planning guidance to protect ACVs from “Change of Use” resulted in the following resolution: "That the committee will write to the lead member for Environment and Neighbourhoods and ask them to consider implementing a policy on Assets of community value." Six months on, a direct query on progress to the Lead Member for Environment and Neighbourhoods (Cllr Roxanne Mashari) got a response that this is not her remit and she knows nothing about it. A further request for clarification to the chair of the committee (Cllr Zaffar Van Kalwala) is still unanswered. 
  • Numerous requests to have the Queensbury considered as worthy of a local listing (i.e. regarded as of historical or architectural merit) were similarly stonewalled.

In this context the decision of the planning committee to vote against demolition of the pub and to go against the advice of officers is a huge achievement and will hopefully set a precedent to show that Brent is not necessarily a soft touch for developers. As we lose our heritage buildings in Willesden Green like Electric House one by one, this is no mean feat – it is a testament to the well-organised and uncompromising campaign that has been led by residents rather than party politicians. More than that, it is a demonstration that people in Willesden Green desperately need a strong, independent and grassroots voice to represent them.

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