Conservation area advisory committee

This advisory committee of the London Borough of Merton meets on a quarterly basis at the Civic Centre. Represented on it are members of the many amenity societies in the borough plus councillors, professional bodies and organizations such as ourselves. It involves anyone who has an interest in the physical environment in Conservation Areas and as you can imagine, there is potentially quite a large membership.

I attend as a representative of the Wandle Industrial Museum mainly when there is something on the agenda that affects the area along the Wandle. For example, recently the planning application for the Renewable Energy Centre next to Abbey Mills was up for discussion although I have since been informed that their lottery funding has been withdrawn, which is a pity in a way, as it was an innovative building and could have been quite an attraction.

The committee does have its shortcomings, the main one being that the agenda is only received a few days before the meeting. Sometimes this is too short notice even to attend but the real problem is that it leaves little or no time to visit the site let alone consult with other members of our organization. I am sure the same goes for many of the other societies as there is rarely a "full house".

The majority of items under discussion are planning applications within Conservation Areas. As the local authority has a statutory duty to consider applications within eight weeks (in theory, at least!), it can mean that certain development proposals do not appear before the Advisory Committee, otherwise the delay could allow the applicant to appeal to the Secretary of State on the grounds of non-determination.

Even if an application is discussed, the Committee only has an advisory role, the decision to approve or refuse remains with the officers and councillors at a planning committee.

As many of those representing the various organizations are like myself, Architects or Town Planners, there is a temptation to get involved with proposals that are outside our "patch". I am guilty as anyone on this, especially where a site is prominent or near to where I live and work!

The Advisory Committee was also responsible for setting up Merton's Historic Buildings Trust and I was invited to be a Board member along with Michael Harrison and Cllrs. Ian Munn and Paul Barasi. The Trust was formed to access Heritage funds that the Council is unable to apply for, the main intention being to refurbish The Canons in Mitcham.

Believe it or not, this Grade II Listed Building owned by the London Borough of Merton, is on English Heritage's "at risk" register. We met with the Chief Executive last year with a view to taking on this task but the Board have recently discovered that the Council is submitting a separate bid without any consultation with its own Historic Building Trust!

Yes, the committee does have its shortcomings and whether it or the Trust will continue to serve any useful function within the changing structure of local government remains to be seen. It would be a shame to see it go as there is a lot of good will and expertise amongst its members that would be lost to the community.

Stephen Saul

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