Karen Buck

Working hard for Westminster North

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Karen’s article for the St John’s Wood Newsletter

Planning for a stronger community

The onward march of ‘monster basements'- is an end in sight?

Thanks to the excellent campaigning work of the St John's Society on this important ‘quality of life issue', I introduced my '10-minute rule' Parliamentary Bill on permitted development rules and basement excavations before Christmas. I was delighted with the amount of media coverage it received- coverage which is, I think, very helpful to the cause of those of us who want to see proper powers restored to local authorities to resist excavations which are excessive in scale. Whilst it is entirely possible for householders to extend their homes in this way in a responsible and environmentally sensitive manner, it is unfortunately true that some of our neighbourhoods are being blighted by noise and nuisance in the creation of subterranean pleasure palaces that almost boggle the imagination.

Although this specific Bill is unlikely to proceed in this session for lack of Parliamentary time, I will continue to push this with Ministers and to see what other opportunities there may be to take it forward.

Meanwhile, I welcome the subsequent publication of Westminster Council's consultation on planning rules regarding basements, which is a rigorous and detailed document. If it (and the equivalent planning policies being drawn up in similar authorities, such as Kensington) proves robust enough to withstand well-funded legal challenges from developers I would be absolutely delighted. However, my fear is that we will at some stage need to ensure proper statutory underpinning to enable local authorities to be confident that their decisions will not end up with them being dragged into expensive appeals (which they then lose).

Preserving our community assets

On another ‘quality of life' agenda, it was marvellous to see campaigns in defence of much-loved local pubs ‘The Star" and "The Clifton", especially as the proposed residential conversion for the "Star" has, at the time of writing, been withdrawn. Of course it is not going to be possible to defend all enterprises- pubs, shops and so forth- everywhere. People's lifestyles and purchasing habits have changed, and businesses are not going to continue where they are making heavy losses. But where venues are viable and contribute to the life of a community, as the "Star" and the "Clifton" so obviously do, we should do everything in our power to retain them. One option is, of course, the designation of the pub as an "Asset of community value", and I am aware that this option is being investigated.

Worryingly, the direction of travel seems to be going against the ability of local authorities to support the character of their local communities, A government Statutory Instrument changed the planning permitted development rights and Use Class Orders systems for planning with effect from 30th May 2013 so, for example, shops can become payday lenders or fast food restaurants for a period of two years without planning permission. We are currently awaiting the outcome of another consultation on permitted development which may reduce still further the scope of the local council to influence the shape and character of our local high streets by adding to the sets of circumstances where permission for change of use is not required. The likely result will be much less control for local communities about what sort of development happens in the countryside and in High Streets and is, in my view, very much to be regretted.

Pressure on local budgets increases

We have now been told that, despite the savings made from merging various back-office functions between Westminster, Kensington and Hammersmith, Westminster needs to save another £100 million from its budget in the next four years. One of my biggest concerns is whether this can be done without serious damage to ‘frontline' services such as care for elderly and disabled people. Care packages and Taxicards have already been removed from many older and disabled people in the local area, whilst at the same time, we have seen an increase in Accident and Emergency attendances, and longer stays in hospital for people who cannot be discharged because care is not available to enable them to return home. Integrating health and care provision more fully can improve the quality of care, and potentially offer better value for money, but the question remains- if local authority care is having to be cut still further, as Westminster admits, can we also manage to reduce what are expensive and sometimes unnecessary hospital stays? This is an issue that should be of concern to us all- whether we need care, support someone who does, or pay for the services at local or national level.

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