The Fitzrovia West Neighbourhood Forum has been working on a number of fronts to bring about improvements to the area, despite delays caused by the two lockdowns.
Our neighbourhood plan was subject to a further round of consultation over the summer and is now being considered by an Examiner appointed by Westminster City Council. We are in discussion with the Council’s planners to iron out any differences and to agree a ‘statement of common ground’. This will enable the Examiner to review the plan, recommend any further changes and enable the referendum to go ahead. As a result of the pandemic, this cannot happen before the 6 May 2021.
Meanwhile, two further developments will affect the role and content of the neighbourhood plan. First, the Council has been through an enquiry relating to changes to the City Plan. The Inspectors have recently announced that they would like to see further changes in order to make it ‘sound’. This will require a further round of public consultation running into the New Year so the final adoption will not be until well into 2021.
Secondly, the Government has also made a number of changes to the national planning system which will affect both the City Plan and our neighbourhood plan. The most important of these changes is to combine shops, offices, cafes, restaurants and several other uses into one category so that planning permission is no longer required to change from one of these uses to another. This makes the protection of local shops very difficult although betting shops, pubs, bars and hot food takeaways will still require approval if being established for the first time or if changed from another use.
In September this year the Government published a White Paper which sets out major changes to the planning system which will require legislation before it can be implemented. The idea is to speed up the system and create more certainty — particularly for developers. The intention is to have three categories of land: ‘growth, renewal and protected’. Only in ‘protected’ areas will planning applications be required. In growth and renewal areas applications in line with the local plan and a design code will be automatically approved. Councils will thus have much less control over development and public consultation will be greatly reduced except in the protected areas. Each local authority will also be given a target for housebuilding suggesting an increasing amount of centralised control from Whitehall.
The White Paper has generated a lot of opposition from community and conservation organisations. Many local authorities and some of the outer boroughs and green belt councils fear that they will be required to provide the most land for new house building. The legislation will take time to pass through Parliament and will inevitably generate opposition so may not see the light of day in its current form. If it goes through, it will have a far-reaching impact. Neighbourhood plans will still have a role but they will be based much more on general design principles than detailed policies.
Following on from our annual general meeting in September, the Forum has investigated the potential for a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) in Fitzrovia. After discussions with West End ward councillors, we are considering applying for funding to carry out a detailed traffic study of the area. Any plans for an LTN which might follow would be based on extensive consultation with residents and businesses. We are also providing general support for extending arrangements for outdoor dining at least until March next year. If these arrangements are made permanent, we want to see the City Council produce detailed guidance in order to improve the appearance of fencing, planters, seating areas and the use of energy-efficient heaters. There should also be conditions such as no external music and closure by 10pm.
We understand the Oxford Street Project is under review by some newly appointed consultants. Oxford Street has suffered badly in two lockdowns so we await to see how the new plan will manage traffic and how the street can be made more attractive for both shopping and a wide variety of other cultural, leisure and hospitality uses. We are hoping there will be a period of detailed consultation when the new plans are finally published.
Nick Bailey is secretary of Fitzrovia West Neighbourhood Forum.