Hackney Council slammed for hiring “spin doctor” to help controversial bid

An artists impression of the new Hackney March Pavilion

An artists impression of the new Hackney March Pavilion - Credit: Archant

Hackney Council has come under fire for spending thousands of pounds on a “spindoctor” to help push through a controversial application for two car parks and a cricket pavilion on protected green space.

Save Lea Marshes (SLM) campaigners have set up a petition objecting to planning consultant Firstplan’s involvement as the council’s agent for the combined application for two developments on Metropolitan Open Land at East Marsh and North Marsh, and are calling for a public debate.

Paul Charman from SLM said: “Firstplan specialise in helping unscrupulous developers evade planning restrictions and inconvenient policies such as flood risk zones and Metropolitan Open Land, and get permission for environmentally harmful proposals which generate widespread objections.

“The fact is the council is not only using an external company to put in a planning application to themselves, but they are doing that to avoid protecting common land - they should be honouring this and not finding a way around regulations to build what they want.

He continued: “What was originally to be a genuine provision of new essential changing rooms on the site of the original block has now mushroomed into a sprawling edifice stretching out over pristine green, with a palatial bar and viewing area, ripe for rental to private clients.”

Hackney Council has spent £23,000 on Firstplan’s services over the past six years on its Re-making the Marshes project, and the company helped push through the football changing rooms on South Marsh in 2011.

On its website Firstplan states one of the “key challenges” in securing permission to build the changing rooms, which are also now hired out for weddings and conferences, was a “restrictive policy designation”, referring to Metropolitan Open Land protection. The car park proposals have been fraught with contention since they came to light.

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Last year a council application to build a 60-space carpark on East Marsh was withdrawn after it emerged the council employee who made the East Marsh application, Leigh Simms had circulated an email to her council colleagues encouraging them to comment favourably on it.

It then transpired the car park had already been constructed without the mandatory consent from either the council or the government’s Planning Inspectorate.

Meanwhile SLM discovered documents dating back to 2009 showing the council was given the green light by the government’s Planning Inspectorate (PINS) to build a 20-changing room pavilion on the footprint of the present outdated North Marsh building, described by the council at the time as the “optimum location”.

Claims by the council in January – which now wants to add a 68-space car park to the application – that the 2009 plans had been rendered unfeasible because of a water pipe were shown to be untrue when yet more planning documents were uncovered.

The planning application now combining both developments were drawn up by Firstplan were submitted in August.

A council spokesman said they wanted to ensure the Marshes designs were developed inline with correct planning policies and guidance, and had employed Firstplan to ensure this.

Kim Wright, corporate director of health and community services, added: “Planning issues relating to Hackney Marshes are highly complex.

“As such, the council’s parks and green spaces department, which is not staffed by planning experts, wanted to ensure its applications were free of technical errors which would waste both time and resources.

“MOL does come with added planning restrictions, however, MOL policies do allow for facilities associated with the open space, nature conservation and recreational use.

“The council believes its plans fall within MOL rules and will serve to greatly enhance the recreational use of the marshes.”

Firstplan declined to comment.