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Hackney’s planning volunteers: ‘If I don’t take an active interest in my own back yard, who else will?’

PUBLISHED: 08:18 24 March 2017 | UPDATED: 18:13 06 October 2017

Nick Perry, Lisa Shell, and John Finn of the Hackney Society in Sanford Terrace. The society managed to save a Georgian terrace overlooking Stoke Newington Common from demolition 50 years ago. Picture: Polly Hancock

Nick Perry, Lisa Shell, and John Finn of the Hackney Society in Sanford Terrace. The society managed to save a Georgian terrace overlooking Stoke Newington Common from demolition 50 years ago. Picture: Polly Hancock

(Photo: Polly Hancock)

Meet the raggedy band of volunteers who spend their spare time keeping hotshot developers in line. The Gazette caught up with members of Hackney’s Conservation Area Advisory Committees to find out what they do.

The central and south Hackney conservation area advisory committee in action. Picture: Mike Hood The central and south Hackney conservation area advisory committee in action. Picture: Mike Hood

A row that could potentially have seen Hackney’s historic buildings flattened has ended after the town hall caved to the modest demands of volunteer planning inspectors.

Hackney has six Conservation Area Advisory Committees (CAACs), whose members analyse planning applications for multi-million-pound developments while sitting in dingy rooms above pubs, “cold rooms” in libraries and, in one case, the chairman’s kitchen.

But who are these people, what do they do, and why do they do it? The Gazette quizzed two senior members, chairman of the Hackney Society and Clapton CAAC Nick Perry and Central and South Hackney CAAC secretary Mike Hood.

“People that live in Hackney have a real sense of interest as to what’s going on in their area,” said Mike. “And we want to keep it within the boundaries of conservation. The last thing we want is to see a huge great eyesore.

Extraordinary plans for a lavish two-storey basement extension in this listed vicarage in De Beauvoir Square were dashed after being met with strong opposition in May last year. Nick Perry compared the proposals for a six-car garage, complete with turning circle and car lift, with the Batcave.  Picture: Ken Mears Extraordinary plans for a lavish two-storey basement extension in this listed vicarage in De Beauvoir Square were dashed after being met with strong opposition in May last year. Nick Perry compared the proposals for a six-car garage, complete with turning circle and car lift, with the Batcave. Picture: Ken Mears

“I’ve always been very interested in buildings, and old historic buildings in particular. I’m retired but I worked in construction for 40 odd years.

“I’ve lived in London Fields for 40 years, and it’s always nice to see what we’ve got, and it’s important we keep it.”

The CAACs work like this: Hackney planning officers send them relevant applications for their area and they analyse them to see if they comply with the Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) guidelines.

But dwindling support from the town hall came to a head last month when Mike and his colleagues quit. The council said they could no longer afford the £8,000 cost to print and send out all the documents, so they said they couldn’t do it anymore.

A long-running campaign stopped a Sainsburys and 53 luxury flats being built on the Wilmer Place site in Stoke Newington High Street . Nick Perry led the Stokey Local opposition to the plans. A long-running campaign stopped a Sainsburys and 53 luxury flats being built on the Wilmer Place site in Stoke Newington High Street . Nick Perry led the Stokey Local opposition to the plans.

Thankfully the row has now ended amicably, and the group will next month meet for the first time at Hackney Town Hall with some new toys to play with – a projector, laptop and monitor.

Nick Perry can only dream of such luxuries. He’s been hosting the Clapton CAAC in his kitchen for two years since the group was kicked out of the town hall for the ongoing refurbishment work. But he soldiers on, and believes as long as there are people like him who care, Hackney’s heritage is in good hands.

He said: “The writing has been on the wall for a while – well, the writing has been in a PDF, because no one writes any more – and the groups have adapted as best they can using the resources available to them. In the early days, before my time, a council officer would come along to meetings and even buy drinks, I’m told.

“We’ve increasingly had to take on the admin ourselves. Clapton can have between 20 and 40 applications to look through each month and the prep is a lot of work.

The Acorn in Queensbridge Road was  set to be demolished by Macneil UB40 Ltd and rebuilt with a seven-storey block of flats above it, but following a campaign to save it Hackney planners this week refused permission, saying the building was a heritage asset. Picture: Ewan Munro/creative commons licence cc by-sa 2.0 The Acorn in Queensbridge Road was set to be demolished by Macneil UB40 Ltd and rebuilt with a seven-storey block of flats above it, but following a campaign to save it Hackney planners this week refused permission, saying the building was a heritage asset. Picture: Ewan Munro/creative commons licence cc by-sa 2.0

“We have three to six minutes to look through each application, discuss it and decide on what we want to say, plus the time writing it up and submitting it later.

“But it’s easy to be a grumpy Nimby, shrug your shoulders and say: ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about that.’ If I don’t take an active interest in my own back yard, who else is going to?

“What we do isn’t about saying ‘no’ to everything, but it’s certainly about questioning whether each development is the best it can be and whether it’s good enough to enrich the place I live in – for me and all those who come after me. After all, a good development should be around for a couple of generations at least.

“Those who make bad planning decisions don’t usually have to live cheek-by-jowl with the consequences.”

Last week the CAACs were handed 60 applications to evaluate. If you fancy helping them out, they’re on the lookout for new members. Click here.

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