The man in uniform knows a rabble rouser when he sees one. “Are these… persons with you?” he asks warily eyeing the group of thirty or so Golden Laneites who had braved the blizzard conditions and the strange bio-diesel tang of the No.4 bus to make it up Islington Town Hall. We review the troops.
The council’s porter was a man who’d seen a thing or two in his time. “Just keep it civilised, you know - have a coffee, have a cup of tea… no arguing with the supporters, no–you know–fighting”, he warns. And then to encourage us “There are biscuits”.
It felt like a long year since we had first seen the plans for the redundant school in the corner of Golden Lane Estate. Some breathless PR girls with architects in tow had breezed up to show us some sketches. Just outline ideas at this stage of course. There was the new school, but it looked rather bigger than the one on the site, which had held 54 students when at capacity. Well the funding stream, you know, we can’t build single form entry schools any more - Just how many students will there be we wondered - around 470. While that sank in we looked at the plans again - what exactly is this tower? Well that would be the housing. 70 flats crammed into a single staircase tower and rammed down onto the site with no space around at all, I remembered a Domestos advert where the bottle is slammed down on the table. High rise - really? But it’s social housing, they said. This was four months before Grenfell.
Back at the Town Hall the reason for the porter’s warnings became clear. Those sketch plans had been a little more advanced than they had let on at the time. In fact they had already begun recruiting parents for the lovely new school which was to open in September. Where we asked? In a Portakabin? Perhaps it was to be one of those Scandanavian schools where the kids spend most of their time outdoors? No, it turned out that one of the local Islington schools was so massively undersubscribed, half their premises were empty. And the new school parents had chosen tonight of all nights to hold a social gathering where they could come and tell the council planning meeting how umm… massively oversubscribed all the local schools are.
Eel Vandals Gone
We gather on the steps of the Town Hall. We have banners just like a proper protest group. The cards spell out S A V E G O L D E N L A N E in individual letters. Golden Laneites are nothing if not creative individualists. At the first attempt we narrowly avoid spelling L A S A G N E L O V E D E N. God knows what that would be protesting.
In response to some unseen signal the parents surge for the council chamber to bag all the best seats. Us objectors file after them - the Edwardian designers of the big round council chamber had foreseen this and made it circular, so all the seats are pretty much alike and all the seats face the committee who are waiting for us.
The planning officer introduces the scheme. Well technically she takes us through her report. There is an error on page 74. It should read “which” instead of “that”. A table on page 220 something is missing a comma. On page 23 the size of the Multi-Use Games Area is actually 480 sqm, not 330. The density of the scheme is double the maximum allowed in the policy, but if you divide that number by the square root of minus seven and take away four it will fully satisfy the requirements. Everyone looks flummoxed. Some councillors rifle the report, possibly trying to find where the missing comma has got to. In my head I am shouting. Yes there is an error. You have recommended a scheme for approval that breaks almost every planning policy in Islington. You the planners, who refuse a rear kitchen extension if it is 30cm too high are about to give yourselves permission to build a 14 storey tower block where the maximum height permitted is six storeys.
You Gotta Catch ‘Em All
The planning officer pauses. For a moment I wonder if I actually did shout aloud. Instead she has found some visuals to show us. The Councillors relax. This is more like it. A photograph of our street comes up on the screen; the street where we have lived for twelve years, I remember the first time we let our son go to the corner shop on his own. We followed him at a distance all the way. She presses a button on her laptop and a CGI of the new block erupts onto the photograph. It is like some sort of monstrous Pokemon appearing in virtual reality, dwarfing everything around it. A Vaporeon perhaps, or a Blastoise. Another photograph of our peaceful City backwater and again the trees and the old school vanish and the CGI plops up, this time in a long view. There are gasps. More views and each time the monster appears. Looming over a block here, shyly filling an empty gap in a distant view there like a drunken uncle at a family wedding. At one point she scrolls backwards quickly and the monster flashes on and off. Now you see it. Someone laughs.
The presentation is over, did the councillors have any questions? There is a lacuna. The councillors are trying very hard to remember what to ask, or possibly what not to ask. The deputy leader of the council, normally rather forthright, sits with her head in her hands fixedly staring at the desk. Would there be a ban on parents driving their kids to the school, because the report says that the school will generate no traffic at all. Some of the parents exchange glances - is it true that people are already driving their kids from the Barbican to the temporary site? No there wouldn’t be a ban exactly because, well probably something to do with human rights.
It is our turn. We get 15 minutes to make our objections. There will be a timer when we get to the end, rather like that music at the Oscars. Alec Forshaw kicks off. He was Conservation officer at Islington for thirty years; since he retired he has never commented on any application, but this one is so appalling, he feels he must. Alec is passionate and articulate. A wail of feedback from the microphone obliterates his next sentence, and the next. The wailing continues. It is a metaphor for something.
My turn. I describe the alternative low-rise scheme we have come up with that would get them more social housing and avoid blighting the street. The feedback wails on. I stop and glance at the committee chair who nods encouragingly. Perhaps if the gentleman sat a little further away from the microphone. I squirm back as far from the microphone as I can. I am nearly two seats away. The thing is a howling banshee.
Clem, Ned and Anna say their piece. They are well-prepared, concise and brilliant. We have run through our points and complete our presentation on fourteen and a half minutes, avoiding the ignominy of the bleeper. The councillors look sympathetic. We really must get that microphone fixed.
Now the supporters get to make their case. The school is already up and running and needs its new home. We must get on and approve it without delay. The chair glances at his watch reflexively. I wonder if the poor parents have any idea how long the City takes to build things. It has taken them two years just to replace the windows on Great Arthur House. Lichen is growing on the scaffold. Children have been born there who assume that everyone lives in a building site.
The parents are genuine and passionate about the new school. They sensibly abandon the howler monkey microphone and speak naturally and from the heart. They are nice people who want the best for their kids; it seems a shame that the City is using them to do this.
Farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear
The chair is summing up. There is a balance. Great harm on the one hand. Great benefit on the other. We have to weigh it up. It sounds a magnificent undertaking. Like something out of Paradise Lost. Could the councillors assess the harm it would cause? The deputy leader is staring down at her papers, what the hell happened to that comma? One councillor sucks on a biro. When the Barbican was built, someone recalls, everyone said it was grotesque. Now it’s listed. Who knew. That prompts a bit of discussion. This harm. It seems to be on the low side of significant. Or should that be the high side of not significant? We are all a bit lost.
The chair moves on. And the benefits? Would anyone like to assess the benefits? We are on safer ground here, approaching, in fact, the pebbly shore on the other side. We definitely need more homes, there is nothing more pressing. Even ones without open space around them. Even ones in a tower with a single staircase. The elephant in the room goes and sits next to the howler monkey. Yes on that, could the planning officer assure us that the tower would be built with non-combustible cladding? Because the report seems to say that would just be a nice option. Desirable. The planning officer coughs. That is because that part of the report is, er, copied directly from the applicant’s fire assessment. For the first time the chair looks alarmed, yes, well that would be a very important option. Everyone looks away.
The vote is over before we know it and we are out the door and back on the icy pavement waiting for the No. 4 bus. I am taking in what we have just been part of. The staging, the manoeuvring. The minuet that we have danced in. At least if I’m ever inadvertently part of a show trial in, say North Korea I think, I will be prepared. My son sends me a text. It is a quote from the great American jurist, Louis Brandeis; on any other day it wouldn’t mean half as much, but just now it helps explain what happened.
“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.”
At least there were biscuits.
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