CROYDON COMMENTARY: Late notice, poor connections and several interested residents unable to log-in for last night’s developers’ webinar for College Green.
JUNO BAKER says Brick by Brick ‘are using this current crisis as a justification to drive through an extremely ill-considered and very controversial project and to sidestep proper process’
In this period of lockdown, companies are having to find new ways of doing things. That’s understood. Webinars are a common alternative to live events, conferences or consultations.
So when we first heard that Brick by Brick had set up a webinar to replace the consultation session for their schemes at College Green that had to be cancelled because of coronavirus, it seemed reasonable.
Thing is, not all webinars are the same. There are webinar platforms, like Remo for example, that allow for meeting people, have virtual tables where you can chat with others and have proper conversations. But for its session yesterday evening, Brick by Brick chose Commonplace, and those attending only had the option of posting questions, not having conversations.
Then there was the timing of the webinar: 6pm. Yes, we’re on lockdown, things are different now. But for people with small children, this is a terrible time to step away from family – supper time, bedtime. And let’s face it, the one thing most of us can be more flexible about in current circumstances is likely to be time.
Previous BxB consultations have lasted all day, on a weekend at the community hub in Chevening Road – a drop-in affair, where those affected by this development could examine large boards covered with the plans and talk to BxB representatives.
This Wednesday evening’s webinar was only an hour, on a creaky connection.
Those residents who were able to join the online consultation were clearly getting frustrated with the poor connectivity and frequent loss of audio and video.
But many residents couldn’t join in at all because of technical issues. The question was raised about whether and how BxB might consult with residents who are elderly, have mental health issues and learning disabilities, as well as those who don’t use technology. There was no answer.
Brick by Brick spent half of the hour presenting their “revised” plans – which are available to see on their website anyway. Of course, they dropped in all the usual guff about taking “our concerns on board” and how they had been “responding to feedback”. But they uploaded pdfs, instead of proper slides, and as their voices crackled and disappeared, we were left to peer at the small pictures and tiny writing on the pdfs. If you wanted to ask a question, you had to post it and hope it would be upvoted and answered.
And that’s a key point.
Because when the Brick by Brick panel did get to the questions, they were very selective about the ones they chose to answer. They focused on parking for about 15 minutes, and dismissed the idea that a large tower block with the sun behind it might overshadow Westow Park. They’ve commissioned a light study which says it won’t. But they won’t share the findings of that study.
Many concerns raised, including about the density of the housing, the loss of light, increase of noise, or overdevelopment, were skipped over.
They talked at length about their plans to provide a new community café. They claimed residents have asked for it, though none of us know anyone who has.
And they described a “pocket park”, which they said was a small green space for people to rest on their way to the park, which is all of about 20metres away. No one’s asked for that, either.
But when fears were raised in the wake of Grenfell about fire safety for the new tower block (which will only have one fire escape for 40 dwellings over 11 floors), the reply was completely lost as the speaker’s audio fizzled out… Even when residents flagged that the audio was lost, no one from Brick by Brick bothered to go back and repeat what had been said.
Many residents asked why this process couldn’t wait a few weeks, or months, so that Brick by Brick could consult properly. Hannah Howard-Jones, BxB’s head of property and engagement, said: “Really the need for more housing is what’s behind it. The government have made it clear that construction is a key activity and delivering homes is very important not only for people in housing need.
“I think this current crisis has highlighted the need for people to be in suitable accommodation. We have families living in temporary accommodation who can’t self-isolate. They’re living in single rooms. So, in terms of why we’re carrying on with our programme and we’re not sort of stopping with how we intend to engage and consult with residents, it really is that housing need that’s driving that.
“If we stop now and put everything on pause, we won’t be able to meet the targets set out in our business plan. We won’t be able to deliver those homes that are so desperately needed. So I hope that explains the reasoning behind this.”
This went unchallenged. That was because, given the nature of this webinar, residents were not allowed to challenge it.
But let’s look at it more closely.
First, this development is not going to enable those currently living in temporary accommodation to self-isolate. The accommodation on this site won’t be ready for a long time to come.
Secondly, people living in temporary accommodation now are very unlikely to be able to afford the prices (whether shared ownership or not) that Brick by Brick charges for most of the homes that they build.
Third, I don’t care about the targets in BxB’s business plan. That’s their problem. Their targets are not more important than the hundreds of local people who live around the proposed development, or who may move to it when it’s completed.
But most of all, they are using this current crisis as a justification to drive through an extremely ill-considered and very controversial project and to sidestep a proper process of consultation.
After giving this unsatisfactory response, the BxB speaker looked for some queries about landscaping, and she read a question about how many Brick by Brick homes are occupied.
“Yes,” she said. “We can come back to that afterwards.”
BxB operates under a banner of providing social and affordable housing. However, when pressed on the lack of affordable units (all the houses in the College Green plans are for private sale; their website does not specify how many of the flats in the tower block would be for private sale), they vaguely replied that they’re looking into it, subject to viability.
So bad luck for those in temporary accommodation. They’re clearly not the priority here.
Unlike Brick by Brick’s business plan.
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