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Jul 01 2013

Open Letter to Rt Hon Michael Gove re: Whitchurch Playing Fields

guest_postGuest post by Melanie Lewis, concerning the Whitchurch Playing Fields. Whatever your opinion or thoughts about the plans for the fields, its rare to see such determination and courage to fight what someone believes is right.

Dear Right Honourable Michael Gove,

Re: Sale of School Land and the Protection  of School Playing Fields – Whitchurch Playing Fields, Wemborough Road, Harrow, HA7 2EQ

I have emailed you a copy of this letter, but I have posted this hard copy along with all the evidence that I referred to. This evidence will demonstrate that Harrow Council is wilfully and illegally disposing of well used and much loved school playing Fields.

Document 1: This shows the original deeds of the land, which was owned by Carreras Cigarette factory for their employees to exercise and use for informal pastimes. The deed is dated 1929 and I have evidence from residents that can attest to that period.

Document 2: Shows that Carreras Sports Field was subject to a Compulsory Purchase order from the then Middlesex County Council in 1960. There were issues regarding the building of a covered swimming baths. Under the heading “Resolved to RECOMMEND”; it states that there cannot be a covered swimming bath and ancillary works on the Field.

Since that time the Field has been used by schools, church groups, youth groups, football clubs and residents as an Open Space. We have evidence going back to before WWII from various people as to the nature of its use.

In 2010, the Council in the London Borough of Harrow changed hands from Conservative control to Labour. I will not bore you with the litany of disasters there have been, nor the fact that the Labour party have split and we are now run by a group of nine Councillors, calling themselves “Independent Labour”.

In 2011, quite by chance. we discovered that Whitchurch Playing Fields was to be developed. As residents we had not received any consultation, warning and knew nothing about what was to befall us. Despite claims to the contrary, neither did any of our Ward Councillors and the then Head of Place Shaping, a Mr Andrew Trehern, was forced to make a public apology. His stance on forcing this development through never changed. His aggressive tactics, bombastic nature  and sheer single mindedness in regards to this development left many residents questioning his motives. Mr Trehern was due to retire in June 2013, however, many residents had asked many difficult questions and, suddenly, four months he was due to retire, a cash strapped Harrow Council made him redundant, with a £175,000 leaving pay-off.

Document 3: This is a report to Cabinet, written by the aforementioned Mr Trehern. We, as residents, were shocked to see that the lease term for the development had been changed from 30 years with a 5 year review, to 99 years. Our questions as to how much the ‘peppercorn’ rent was, eventually resulted in the answer being £0. The truth was no rent at all. Effectively, this meant that Harrow Council was giving away a 25 acre education playing Field in London for free. The Service Level Agreement on the next page of document 3 gives the two nearest primary schools 1000 hours per year, during core school time, of use. It is not clear if this is per school or to be shared. The schools also have to remain as community schools, if they strive hard to reach academy status, then any use of the educational field will immediately cease. Currently, these two primary schools can use the Field as much as they want, whenever they want. This development would be a retrograde step for them. They would have to book Field in advance and they would have time restrictions. May I also draw your attention to Point 4 in the service level agreement. This states that StanmoreBaptistChurch will have their use, which is currently weekly plus their special event days and summer camp, reduced to 1 day a year, and that 1 day is subject to the local authority’s consent. Apart from the clause that requires them to get consent from the local authority, which is too weird for anyone to understand, this is a huge loss to the Church. Maybe I am old-fashioned in that I think that children who attend Church youth groups, fun days and camps are also receiving a fabulous education and I would count the Church’s use of the fields as educational use. This is another retrograde step for another educational establishment.

If one continues looking at this document, you will see that under the heading; ‘Legal Implications’, the Council boasts of its power to dispose of land as it sees fit. But the Council knows this is education land and so different legislation applies. The Council justifies the disposal of this Field by saying that “any use by schools has only been occasional”. The report then asserts that your consent is not needed and neither do they have to bother with informing or asking residents. I would ask you to bear that in mind and we will return to that very point later. The final page of the report to cabinet names Andrew Connell, Senior Professional-Estate Development, as the contact person and I will also return to Mr Connell’s involvement later.

I was personally horrified at the possible loss of this amenity to our schools, youth groups and residents. I made a number of attempts to speak to various council officers but to no avail. In fact, some of them were more than rude, they were threatening. My complaints were ignored until I finally received a phone call from Mike Howes, a senior council officer, who told me that if I continued to make a fuss and complain about this development than Michael Lockwood (CEO of Harrow Council) and Hugh Peart (Head of Legal Services at Harrow Council), would take legal action against me. I refused then and I refuse now to be quashed by such a threat. I am extremely fortunate in that our MP, Mr Bob Blackman, is a marvellous and dedicated man who has continually tried to help me in any way he can. Mr Blackman MP has been a great source of help and comfort and I enclose his letter to the Council’s auditors as Document 4. Mr Blackman hoped that this might make the Council rethink their plans. As a point of interest, I have also enclosed the reply to my Freedom of Information request as to how much the Council paid consultants to produce the Strategic Flood Risk Assessment. The SFRA, paid for and produced by this Labour administration, states unequivocally, that Whitchurch Playing Fields is a flood plain for 60,000 sq m of water and to develop it would put too many homes at risk.

As I was unable to engage with anyone at the Council, on the advice of one of my Ward Councillors, I took the only avenue left open. I applied for Whitchurch Playing Fields to be awarded Town/Village Green status, thereby protecting it for all perpetuity against development. May I refer you here to Document 5, this is a map of the immediate area and you can see how close Whitchurch and StanburnPrimary Schools are to the Fields and also the proximity of StanmoreBaptistChurch. We also have two other educational establishments, which are very close to the Fields; StanmoreCollege and ParkHigh School, which has been awarded academy status.

Obviously, the Council objected to my Town/Village Green application and we were given a date for a Public Inquiry, 10th June this year. I had over 150 witness statements as to the use of the Field and 18 oral witnesses including my wonderful MP, Mr Bob Blackman and two sitting Councillors in Harrow who have also gone above and beyond what a resident would normally expect of a councillor; Councillor Barry Macleod-Cullinane and Councillor Moshenson. I would just like to make a side note here that both these men have been tireless in their support for me and the Conservative party would be hard pushed to find two better representatives of the Party’s policies, trust, honesty and integrity then the two aforementioned Councillors.

You can imagine my surprise when the Council’s objection to my Town/Village Green application was that the amount of use by schools would make it impossible for residents to have been able to access the land freely and to the extent that I was claiming. Hang on a minute, is this not the same council who just a few months ago claimed that schools use was ‘occasional’? We were presented, as evidence for the Inquiry, with 35 letters from Mr Andrew Connell, (yes, the very man who one should contact about the report to Cabinet stating that schools don’t really use the land). These letters I have called Document 6.

Document 6: If I may be so bold as to direct your attention to a number of points in these letters. They are dated 6th February 2013, but the report for Cabinet was dated 22nd November 2012. In order to give a factual and accurate picture of schools’ use of the Fields in the report to Cabinet, all the schools must have already received a letter asking about their use. Why would Mr Connell need to waste his time and the council’s money writing to them again? Why could we not see the letters that must have gone out to schools before the report to Cabinet was written? Reading the letters reveals that these are not repeat letters at all, these schools and the Church had not previously been approached about their use of the Fields. This is proved in Mr Connell’s letter to Stanmore Baptist Church; their reply gives a long list of use but also tells them that the secretary to whom they addressed the letter had left the Church’s employ some ten years previously. The question then remains; on what basis did Mr Andrew Trehern and Mr Andrew Connell make the bold statement that schools’ use was ‘occasional’ if they had not, in fact, contacted the schools?

Again, in Document 6 you will see highlighted the phrase; “registration as a TVG may prevent the proposed construction of modern sports facilities on the land which the Council intends to make available for hire to the community”. Bad grammar aside, to be blunt, this statement by Mr Connell is an outright lie. The council will have no say over who the developers (known as ‘The Consortium’), hire their facilities to. Apart from knowing that StanmoreBaptistChurch has been singled out to lose nearly all their historic use, the council are absolving themselves of any rights over the Fields. The letter neatly omits to tell the schools that, if they work hard and gain academy status, their use of the land will stop. It also fails to tell the schools that there are already very modern and newly built sports facilities just half a mile up the road in The Hive. My final point about this letter is that it is signed by Andrew Connell, a very senior officer, who one would have expected to give evidence at a Public Inquiry into the Fields. However, this senior council officer sat in the Inquiry, all day, every day, whispering into the ear of the council’s QC, but never gave any evidence.

Documents 8,9,10 and 11: Document 8 draws a reply from the Acting Headteacher of Stanburn Junior School. Mr English says that they stopped using the Fields once they realised they were supposed to book in advance. Prior to that, “groups of between 30-90 pupils” would use the Fields “2-3 times a week”. At this point it would be prudent to tell you that StanburnSchool has been selected as one of the Harrow schools that needs to double in size. From September 2013 the school will be huge and they have built on any grassy areas they had.

Document 9: From HatchEndHigh School says they use the Field 4-5 times a year.

Document 10: This is not very clear but you can see it is a booking of two cricket pitches by Hatch End High on Thursday 12th May 2011 and one pitch booked by ParkHigh School (now Academy). As Park High is now an academy, they will be unable to use the Field if it is developed.

Document 11: A reply from Headteacher, Mr P Gamble, from HarrowHigh School, saying that their school uses the Fields 2-3 times a week in football season and twice a week in cricket season.

I’m sure you can appreciate my obvious confusion here. Just a few months ago the Field was used only ‘occasionally’ by schools. The use of StanburnSchool and Harrow High alone make the use more than ‘occasional’.

Document 12: Sadly, this document shows the level of Mr Connell’s desperation to ensure that the Fields did not get TVG status, in order that this development by the generically named ‘Consortium’ would go ahead. This is a letter from Mrs Anne Winstrom, Headteacher of Whitchurch Nursery and FirstSchool. The date of the letter is interesting, in fact Mrs Winstrom wrote two letters, one on 7th May 2013 and one on 8th May 2013, that’s quite a long wait to reply to a letter sent in February 2013. On the first page, Mrs Winstrom says that they “need this Field to fulfil our 2-5 hours of PE lessons each week”. (Why neither Mr English from Stanburn School or Mrs Winstrom from Whitchurch School can spell nor avail themselves of spell-check is also beyond me, but there you are!). She goes on to add that they are a three form entry school with a 52 place nursery. She bemoans their lack of space and grassed area. She then goes on to question what “a village green development is, but it sounds  a backward step for the children of Harrow”. I don’t know what a village green development is either, of course, if I don’t know what something is, I make an effort to find out. This would have been very easy for Mrs Winstrom as my name and address were emblazoned in yellow all over the Field and I live approximately 1 minute’s walk away. Unfortunately, not only does Mrs Winstrom not use spell-check, she also doesn’t use Google, the telephone or any other method to find the answers to her question. Turning over the page and we find out why that is, Mrs Winstrom has had a visitor from The Consortium, kindly arranged by Mr Connell to avail her of all the information she needs to make a reasonable decision. She is giddy with the excitement of the promised swimming pool (that is not on the plans and can’t ever be built on the Fields) and she has been told that “a village green development would not allow us even to use the Fields”. One is forced to feel dismay if this is the standard of Headteachers in Primary schools. Where did she get her information? Who told her that a TVG registration means that you can no longer use the Fields? Why, oh why, would this woman rely on the information supplied to her by a representative of The Consortium. He dangled a fictitious swimming pool in front of her eyes, forgot to tell her that use of the development is limited and ceases altogether if Whitchurch becomes an academy and deliberately lies to her about what a TVG registration means. The final two pages of the same document are from Tara Gratton, Headteacher of Whitchurch Junior School, we are not informed whether she is Miss, Mrs or Ms Gratton and she doesn’t bother dating the letter. However, it has a lovely, chatty tone to her friend, Andrew (Connell). Miss/Mrs/Ms Gratton also claims that they use the Fields a great deal. Approximately three times a week, in fact, sometimes more. Of course, we are not sure how well Mrs/Miss/Ms Gratton has understood the questions as when, in question 4, she is asked if she obtained a licence, consent or permission to use the Fields, her reply is; “There are  800 pupils on site”. Thanks for telling us that information. Mrs/Miss/Ms Gratton is also against plans to withdraw access to the Fields.

The fact that none of these Headteachers can compose a letter, understand a simple question or even be bothered to do the slightest bit of research is a problem, but not the main one here. The fact that Mrs Winstrom was so easily, let’s say, ‘incentivised’ is a problem. As is the fact that a Senior Council Officer, Mr Andrew Connell, he of the ‘occasional’ school use, decided that sending in a representative from The Consortium to offer such an incentive was the right way to behave. Not only does it speak loudly as to what kind of person Andrew Connell is, but also what kind of organisation this Consortium is. We have tried, in vain, to trace all the owners of this Consortium. We have searched at Companies House and for their tax returns. We can find no trace of them, they have a number of ventures under a number of different names, all of which hide the identities of the people behind it. We have only ever met one employee, and as his name and job title changed every time we met him, it in absolutely no way gives us any faith that this is the kind of people we want to do business with in the Borough.

To bring a very long letter to a conclusion and I apologise profusely for the amount of time I have taken up with such an epistle. My understanding of your legislation for disposal of school land is that it should not be done unless it meets with strict and clearly laid out criteria. Whitchurch Playing Fields do not meet these criteria. We did, once upon a time have another park just over half a mile away, but that has been turned into a state of the art sports facility, with Astro-turf, floodlights, a gym and most importantly of all with a sports facility, an all day bar and a function suite for 500 people. In fact, exactly the same as the plans for the Fields here. The Hive, as it is known, is Barnet FC’s home ground and after just three years local residents are up in arms over the congestion of roads, the parking and most importantly of all, the lack of availability for local groups. Now, once again, Harrow is planning to dispose and absolve itself of all responsibility for a much loved local amenity. They begrudge the £40,000 per annum upkeep. This is a council with a £10 million under spend, that has raised our Council Tax and made most of its front line staff redundant.

I sincerely hope you will use your powers to save this educational land and stop the proposed disposal and development. In that way Whitchurch Playing Fields may remain as our green lung, an open space that has been used formally and informally by residents, schools and youth groups harmoniously for over 70 years.

Thank you in anticipation of your reply.

Yours sincerely

Melanie Lewis (Mrs)

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11 comments

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  1. 4Democracy

    Melanie what an interesting but shocking read. You are to be applauded for all the time and effort you have put into this and I sincerely hope you are successful.

    Can this council’s reputation get any worse?

  2. Melanie

    Thank you and I agree, both the old Labour and Independent Labour have reduced our lovely Borough to a filthy, unkempt shambles. Shame on the Councillors and Council officers for using our Borough for their own free loading ends. Roll on 2014 when residents can vote them out!

  3. AllThingsGood

    Bravo Melanie! I agree with 4Democracy you are to be applauded for your time and effort. Unfortunately I too had a long battle with Harrow Council which went on for over 2 years, and it is interesting that you mention Mike Howes ( a yes man), Hugh Peart (** ******** *****) and Michael Lockwood ( he who sits in his ivory tower all day). I had similar threats to you, and can only urge you to keep fighting. This goes way beyond which party is running Harrow currently, , and has more to do with the people at the top. Once you have challenged Hugh Peart about anything legal as I once did, knowing the issue you have uncovered is not legal, he and his team will do all in their power to discredit you. Believe me when I say Hugh Peart is not a man who likes to lose! Keep going, stay strong, and I wish you a successful outcome!

    [Note: edited by Admin to ‘tone it down’]

    1. Melanie

      Thank you for your words of support. I often think my next port of call should be the police!

  4. AllThingsGood

    Would like to add to the above my comments were not at all inflammatory, or in any way were rude words used.

  5. Murray Glendowan

    You are so right when you assert “our lovely Borough [has been reduced] to a filthy, unkempt shambles. During our campaign regarding the dog ‘poo’ bins I did pose the question “who do these people think they are” and “on whose behalf are they acting”. The question remains unanswered.
    I also related the shame surrounding the Care Quality Commission, Mid Staffordshire hospitals and others as prime examples of organisations that seem to have been consumed by their own importance and become self-serving having lost sight of a primary responsibility towards their constituencies.
    One wonders if Harrow Council should be added to this shameful list as a council out of control as a self-perpetuating beast. Unfortunately, residents often have to live with the consequences of the wilful actions of these ‘here to-day and gone-tomorrow Johnny come- latelys’.
    Congratulations on your well researched argument and your letter.

    1. Melanie

      Absolutely, they forget that come next May they could all well be back in the community without a Councillor title to hide behind. But the Council Officers are the most arrogant. They work for the London Borough of Harrow, therefore CEOs and Heads of Legal Services work for US. WE don’t work for them, they are in our employ. I’m sure Andrew Trehern’s bye bye present of £175,000 was a fantastic use of tax payers money. He was retiring in June anyway, why rush him out with a big pay off? That’s the other problem, Lockwood and Peart think we’re all a bit stupid and they are a cut above us. Pride comes before a fall. I received another threat yesterday! Shame on them-I still feel it may be necessary to turn all my evidence over to the police. Then we’ll see who’s still laughing!

  6. AllThingsGood

    When Bill Stephenson became leader of the Council one of his promises was to deal with the arrogance of some Council officers, make them more accessible to us, and to be a listening council. Unfortunately Mr Stephenson failed, and when I called upon his help was not interested in helping at all! I am extremely saddened that we who pay their wages, are ignored continuously, stepped upon when we unearth wrongdoing, and ultimately treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark). I was once told by a politician that the legal dept within a council is paid not to help or protect residents, but to protect themselves against legal action, maladministration, anything basically that would shed bad light upon them. My belief is it is time for Michael Lockwood to step down…..he appears not to care when us the service users have genuine cause for concern over members of his staff.

    1. Melanie

      Andrew Connell sat on his backside until 2pm listening to summations. On the site visit he ignored us residents like we were dirt, even when they came into our houses to see the view of the field. I must say to his credit David Corby was a complete gentleman and very polite

  7. AllThingsGood

    Are you surprised another Council officer not interested in what residents want, only in it for themselves!!!!!!

  8. Melanie

    What we really want to know is if Winstrom sold herself for a fictitious swimming pool then how much is a council officer going for??

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