Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Unattractive column and landscaping at Spring Gardens cost over £300k and approved on delegated authority

Freedom of Information requests have become an increasingly valuable tool in the armoury of inquisitive locals.  Last month, following a brief Twitter discussion concerning who might have agreed to the recent installation of the large unattractive columns outside Vauxhall Spring Gardens, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Lambeth Council asking for project costs and a list of consultees.

I received a response today confirming the total cost of the pillars was £181,586 (construction cost £134,908 of that).  The total cost of the landscaping at the base of the columns was £137,376.  The grand total project cost was £318,943.  The money was taken from Section 106 contributions, so, unfortunately, it is unlikely that the cash could have been spent on local jobs or services, but even still...  Do readers think that is a reasonable cost for the job?  That's a genuine question.  I've no objection to the landscaping (only the pillars), and I believe in paying people a fair London wage, but does that justify the total project cost?

Eight local community groups were theoretically consulted.  Letters were sent to 27 neighbouring properties.  Although the Lambeth Planning reference 09/02510/RG3 indicates that there were 19 consultee comments, the FOI notes that only one objection was received within the deadline (objecting to potential height of trees).  One objection was received after the deadline concerning replanting the mulberry trees, but wasn't taken into consideration due to being received late.  One indication of support was also received, but details weren't included in the FOI response. 

Local readers might also remember the furore surrounding the felling of the Mulberry Trees related to this project that even attracted national press attention, but which was then vigorously refuted by Eamonn McMahon of Friends of Spring Gardens.

Hyperlocal media will hopefully continue to act as a means of ensuring accountability on the part of local authorities, councillors, officers and also local organisations.  But lack of apparent response from some organisations shows that even with the levels of concerned residents that live in the area, it is still possible for some bad design decisions to be pushed through.  Of course, I say "decisions", but this particular planning application was decided on delegated authority, which means it would have been rubber stamped by an unelected officer.  It's not a good example of local democracy in action.  A positive response from only one local group and an officer's report appears to be all that were needed for the spending of over £300k.

The groups the FOI correspondence listed as consulted were:

Association of Waterloo Groups - No comment received
Vauxhall Society - No comment received
Manor of Kennington Residents association
Waterloo Action Centre - No comment received
Waterloo Community Development - Chose to make no comment
Kennington Association - No comment received
Friends of Spring Gardens - Support was indicated
Vision for Vauxhall -No comment received

It's hardly surprising that the three Waterloo groups either made no comment or didn't respond.  I can understand why Waterloo residents wouldn't be interested in Spring Gardens and I'm not sure on the reason for their being consulted.  It's not surprising that Friends of Spring Gardens responded affirmatively, but one wonders whether they actually viewed the plans for the columns before their installation.  I have checked with Kennington Association and Vauxhall Society about whether they received consultation documents as I was surprised to see that they didn't respond.  Vision for Vauxhall no longer appears to exist, so checking with them is now impossible.

The most recent correspondence received from Ruth Smithson (who responded in a good and timely manner) notes:
" colleagues within parks wish to add that the works were funded by S106 monies. These are funds obtained through legal agreements commonly referred to as Section 106 Agreements (S106), after the relevant section in the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act..."
The delegated officer's report, sent to me as part of the FOI response indicates in the top left corner "S106 Agreement Involved:  No".  (Edit: 19/8/2011):  Cllr Mark Harrison has clarified in the comments that  no Section 106 monies were needed as a contribution from the building of the columns.  Thanks to Cllr Harrison for clearing up my confusion.

For more information, you can see the full FOI request and associated documents here.


andymann1276 said...

It was not until these monstrosities were up that I caught up with what was planned and I had a...errr..... 'lively' exchange with the local Counsellor and the Friends of 'Vauxhall' Gardens about them. Unfortunately I've now deleted the emails. The columns are hideous. Fortunately one can only see them walking against the flow of the traffic down South Lambeth Road, or from within Spring Gardens - which rather contradicts one of the justifications I was given: that they advertise the presence of the Gardens to passers-by. Well done for pursuing this. It has been a disgraceful waste of money on something that has neither use nor ornament.

Andrew Nunn
Heyford Avenue SW8

Anonymous said...

I do not find them hideous at all and welcome the improvements that have recently been made to Spring Gardens. One of my concerns is that substantial tree planting was included in the original proposals which has not been acheived due to funds running out. These trees would have been planted around the rear walls of the RVT, vastly improving the aesthetic. As 'Members of Spring Gardens' seem to have an influence on the well being of the area it's a shame they can't do anything about the hoards of clubbers that descend on the grassy knoll each morning and leave their detritus for others to clear.

David B said...

Top detective work there Lurker.

What a disgraceful decision to build these monstrosities. Selective consultation is no consultation at all, because no alternatives were offered other than 'do nothing'. The sole consultee response cannot be blamed for not objecting, although in hindsight it is clear that the authorised party to whom power was delegated (who?) was not competent to make the decision. All would be better served if the work had not gone ahead.

My hiding behind delegated powers, there is no accountability through the normal channels. Did it even go to Planning Committee for scrutiny?

I do hope that elected local Councillors will be asking some pressing questions of the official(s) responsible for this was of time, money and blight on the environment.

andymann1276 said...

I'm glad you like the columns Anonymous. But how very much nicer it would have been to have two fine tall specimen trees instead. As for the clubbers, well, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were noted for their moral laxity during part of their history at least. Perhaps those today who cool off on the grass are the true inheritors of the 18th century pleasure seekers and deserve their space. But certainly, thanks are due to the council workmen (I assume) who clean up after them.

SE11 Lurker said...

@Anonymous Maybe if the (in my view) hideous columns hadn't been installed, there'd have been more money to complete the tree planting programme...

The clubbers have been part of the area for years, and inject plenty of tax money to pay for the cleanup. I'm with Andymann that they are the true inheritors of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

We'll probably see more improvements to the area when the Vauxhall Business Improvement District is implemented, which I'm expecting it will be.

matt mcConnell said...

I'd be curious to know who proposed the design for the columns, who was the architect, and who was the building firm. I wonder what relationship they might have with the proponents and approver of the scheme.

Anonymous said...

well done for posting on this, very interesting to see how much these looming ugly objects cost. public art will never unite the, er, public, but this really does seem to be a case of wasting money on an overpriced project that has brought little benefit to the park and area overall. what a shame more trees weren't planted and some attractive and useful park benches (like the ones in front of the ritzy) weren't installed for the public to benefit from. but i'm baffled as to why the vauxhall society didn't even respond?

Cllr Mark Harrison said...

What this post and these comments fail to ackowledge is the role played by the Friends of Vauxhall Spring Garden. The Friends are a dedicated and community-minded group of residents who have worked consistently over the past few years to improve the park and agree the masterplan for its transformation. The Friends are open to all and their AGM is advertised widely in the area. Anyone with an interest in the park and its refurbishment could have got involved with the Friends at any time. The Friends have gone to great lengths to ensure the masterplan is exhibited to as many people as possible - displaying it at their AGMs and at events like the Vauxhall Expo.

I've defended the pillars before - some people like them, some people don't. It's a matter of taste, which isn't really within the remit of the Planning process. They are there to provide an entrance to the park, draw attention to the park, and be a focal point for the entrance. I think they do this job well.

I'm surprised that that the pillars didn't go to the Planning Committee - presumably the lack of objections meant it was considered on delegated authority.

I agree it is disappointing that the plans to green the back of the RVT haven't come to fruition but hopefully they can be on the agenda for the future. However, more than a dozen new trees have been planted as part of the entrance works so we haven't been denied new trees!

Benches were removed from the entrance deliberately because of the serious problems Vauxhall has with street drinkers - the previous entrance was often intimidating and unpleasant because of street drinkers using the benches there.

The Friends are actively working to deal with the issue of litter from clubbers:

The architect for the whole masterplan for Vauxhall Spring Gardens is DSDHA
It's completely wrong to suggest there is any impropriety in the use of this architect.

Finally, the project was funded with S106 money from other developments in Vauxhall. The Planning Report referring to no S106 agreement means that there was no S106 agreement needed for the pillars themselves.

SE11 Lurker said...

@Cllr Mark

I don't deny that Friends of Spring Gardens played a role in this project. I'm not seeking to undermine their dedication. I'm simply asking whether they understood the design of the pillars prior to their construction. There are very few local people who admit to liking them!

Nobody is denying that the Friends of Spring Garden are well-intentioned and community-minded, but I think that local community groups (as well as the Council) need to be held to account to ensure they are not taken over by cabals of residents with their own agendas. (I'm not accusing Friends of Spring Gardens of being a cabal. I think the design of the pillars is an unintended oversight, rather than the result of some sort of malicious local foist!) But I think it's only right to be able to actively critique and question the decisions of local community groups online.

Taste may not be within the remit of the planning process, but I'd have thought it's a question of design as well as taste. The columns draw attention to themselves, rather than the park itself, which perhaps wasn't intended! I don't think the decision concerning a huge piece of public art is equivalent to a private residential basement request, so I too am surprised that they were agreed on delegated authority.

It's very unfortunate that none of the other community groups weighed in on this proposal because they too have a vital balancing role to play. What I would say though is that there is a limit to the number of Friends groups (and AGMs) to which local residents can belong. Last time I counted, there were over ten Friends groups in the Kennington/Oval/Vauxhall area. Residents cannot be everywhere at once, but I hope the Lesson of the Unfortunate Vauxhall Pillars might be a wake-up call to locals, at least before we end up with the giant gold Basavanna statue, anyhow.

Finally, I should add that local bloggers must also be held to account to ensure their voices aren't over-loud. It's good news that Tradescant Road has its own blog, and rather sad that Onion Bag (who was a true pro) left the area. The more voices the merrier... It's vital that open conversations be allowed to continue. It's what we'll need for a truly co-operative council :-)

Old Free And Single said...

Have to say after all the work I was surprised to see these pillars emerge - at first I thought these must be the much talked of ventilation shafts for the Northern Line extension! Apparently not. I do think that if public art is commissioned it should be from actual artists and not architects - the result might have been more aesthetic. If the money was gained from section 106 then here is no reason it could not have been used for other improvements elsewhere - however I have no objection to improvements to Spring Gardens - but like many commenting here would have preferred to see investment in living trees and shrubs which at least provide environmental benefit as well as 'artistic'. Re the consultation process although it may be convenient to only consult with local groups I cannot believe (given the vast number of pizza leaflets i receive) that it could be more expensive to leaflet local residents? I live within a 5-10 minute walk of Spring Gardens and was not aware of any consultation nor of the Friends Of Vauxhall Gardens meetings.
Perhaps lessons will be learnt for next time they have spare 106 cash to spend?

Anonymous said...

From Ross Davies, Chairman of The Vauxhall Society:

I am puzzled by Lambeth Borough Council’s assertion that it received no reply from The Vauxhall Society (TVS) to a consultation about the erection of two black, concrete pillars in Spring Gardens, former site of Vauxhall Gardens.

I have been a member of the TVS committee since June 2009, and Chairman since July 2010. At no time do I recall the Society’s receiving or discussing such an approach.

That is not to say that Lambeth did not send a consultation document. If one was sent, perhaps it was wrongly addressed. It has happened before.

I am unlikely to have forgotten such an approach, and I am in little doubt as to what the response would have been.

If Lambeth can substantiate its claim to have consulted The Vauxhall Society, I will happily apologize and withdraw these remarks.

If nothing else, however, publication of Lambeth’s reply to Lurking About SE11’s Freedom of Information inquiry begs another question.

This is:

Section 106 money paid for the pillars. Section 106 money is what Lambeth obliges developers to contribute towards local ‘services and infrastructure’, such as highways, recreational facilities, education, health and ‘affordable housing’.

If, as Lurking About suggests, the spending on the pillars of £300,000 in S106 (public) money was so casually nodded through, is it about time to look at Lambeth’s policy of automatically diverting to Spring Gardens the vast sums in S106 money extracted from developers in the Vauxhall Cross area? Should not some of that money be going to causes nearer the developments that are being taxed to support Spring Gardens?

Ross Davies


The Vauxhall Society

James Green said...

Thanks to Cllr Mark Harrison for clarifying many of the ill-informed statements made in this article. Given the sceptical and cynical nature of the piece - especially with regards to the last paragraph which suggests that Lambeth were mistaken to suggest no s106 agreement was involved - i would expect the article to be amended so as not to provoke hysteria.
I am one of the people who sites on the grassy knolls of a weekend (and a local resident) and i have recognised a tremendous improvement since the entrance work has been completed. People seem to have forgotten how horrible the old entrance was and how intimidating at night. Given the general quality or the local urban environment i am enormously surprised that you have such a problem with the appearance of a couple of columns.Surely there are bigger battles? I have just read Anna Minton's book 'Ground Control'. If what she says is true we should be much more concerned about the implications of the recently approved BID (business improvement district).

SE11 Lurker said...

@James I've naturally amended the article, explaining Cllr Harrison's clarification and thanking him for his input.

There are certainly bigger battles than the columns, but it's quite possible to raise multiple issues concerning local built environment. The column issue is a prelude to the potential arrival of the giant Basavanna statue. Some of the posts I write on the blog appear to receive more response from local residents than others, and I don't know why. I've written a lot of stuff that has received no comment at all, so it looks as though the columns have touched a nerve.

I don't dispute that the landscaping near to the entrance of the park has improved it tremendously. It's only the columns I'm objecting to. I also support the use of Spring Gardens for folk using the local pubs and clubs, but I don't deny there is still an issue with problem drinkers in the area, as raised at the most recent Princes ward police meeting.

I have used this blog to comment on the BID before. In fact, I wrote an extensive Vauxhall BID post here, which I'd be grateful to receive comments on. I'd be grateful too if you could expand on your reading of Anna Minton's book 'Ground Control', with which I'm not familiar.

Anonymous said...

I am not surprised on costs considering some arty pieces round town and what they cost.
I did find it amusing when there was a waterspout from a broken pipe at the base of the cctv camera in the middle of the crossing and it reminded me for all the world of a scene from Lord of the Rings (evil eye on top of pedestal, flood round the base, twin black towers in background - I half expected a swarm of creatures from the depths and a fire monster!)
Getting used to the columns but I thought there were supposed to be some figures on top?

Anonymous said...

Marble Arch costs ...

Anonymous said...

I find the pair of enormous black phalluses amusing. But, as a wheelchair user, I object to the cobbles.

Anonymous said...

This makes interesting reading. However, I still don't understand what the columns represent. Are they to symbolise enormous gates that aren't there? Does the design have anything at all to do with the are, or was a sort of off the peg design that could have gone anywhere? I suspect the latter, or I am guessing they would have been dearer.

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