Category Archives: Submissions

Merton Heritage Strategy review risks being a paper exercise

Merton Council has published a draft Heritage Strategy to 2025. It should provide a basis to protect, manage and celebrate our diverse heritage and for Merton Council to demonstrate a strong commitment to its future.

We’ve welcomed the intent of a Strategy while asking for more evidence that the lessons have been learned from the weak delivery of the current Strategy agreed in 2015.

Regrettably in our experience the existing Heritage Strategy is all but invisible in discussions with Merton’s planners and those responsible for the local authority’s land and buildings.

Merton Council has delivered on only two of the ten commitments in the current action plan where responsibility lies outside the heritage team. The former Mitcham fire station has been sold off, the Borough Character Study remains unfinished and delivery of The Canons project is already a year behind schedule. There is little value in a Heritage Strategy which is all but ignored by its authors.

The Heritage Strategy places a welcome emphasis on the opportunities for collaboration with voluntary organisations and community groups with an interest in heritage. This sits awkwardly with Merton Council disbanding Merton Heritage Forum in January leaving no other means to collaborate available. The Merton Heritage Forum shambles is perpetuated by officers now claiming it has “not been disbanded” and confirming that doing so results in “no direct costs savings”. The truth is the Council meeting in January decided to “dissolve” the Forum and deleted it from Merton’s constitution.

Delivery of the Heritage Strategy at a time of tight public spending requires ever more attention to the ability of Merton Council to partner with other organisations. With the shining exception of the Heritage and Local Studies Centre, our general experience is one of a top down, uncommunicative organisation which offers little respect for local knowledge and is often absent from the heritage scene.

One example is that it is harder to secure participation of Merton Council owned buildings in Mitcham Heritage Day every year than working with any of our volunteer-run partners. The experience of trying to partner on The Canons project funded by the National Lottery has been head-bangingly frustrating over nearly 10 years, to the point of turning volunteers away.

As a result we have asked Merton Council to progress with the Strategy only when it can provide a clear corporate commitment to heritage, practical mechanisms for collaboration, and an ability to be a good partner. Without these in place the renewed Strategy will be a paper exercise.

We’ve also suggested a more robust approach with a much briefer document supported by principles, a delivery plan and success measures which can be used to judge progress. This should be supported by clear mechanisms for delivery and review and a visibly enhanced corporate commitment from all parts of Merton Council to our heritage.

You can read our full response to Merton’s draft Heritage Strategy here.

Replacing Mitcham Bridge

Mitcham Bridge on Bishopsford Road is the historic gateway to Mitcham across the River Wandle.

You can still see the remains of the old ford on the upstream side. It is located in an important green corridor linking Ravensbury Park and the National Trust’s Watermeads and supports the Wandle Trail.

It is a year since the bridge was closed by flooding while repair works were underway.

Eight months later Merton Council decided that the only way forward was to demolish and build a new bridge. Demolition is underway and Merton Council invited comments on two options for the design of the new parapets last month. We have teamed up with Wandle Valley Forum and Mitcham Society to respond.

The future of Mitcham Bridge is much more important than the design of its parapets.

It is an historic location and it is important that this heritage is recognised and protected. The current bridge carries parish markers as the river is the parish boundary. We have asked that these are incorporated into the new bridge.

There are opportunities for interpretation to tell the story of the area and we’ve offered to work with Merton Council on a project to deliver this.

The works also provide an opportunity to better connect Ravensbury Park and the new bridge should support a wider pavement and make space for those on bikes.

Crossing the new Mitcham Bridge should be an event. We’re asking Merton Council to be more creative and recognise the Wandle through some public art, such as images of a heron or trout rendered in decorative wrought iron railings.

We’ve asked Merton Council to demonstrate how the new bridge will meet the legal requirement to preserve and enhance Wandle Valley Conservation Area. It also needs to support the Catchment Management Plan for the Wandle by enhancing the river’s natural flow, naturalising its banks. reducing shadowing, benefiting wildlife and protecting the water from pollution and silt.

Building a new bridge is a rare and special event. We deserve the best for Mitcham.

Take a look at our joint submission – Bishopsford Road bridge.

Reviewing Design Review during lockdown

Merton Council’s Design Review Panel provides important, independent and expert insight on key development proposals put forward in Merton.

It is made up of architects, urban designers and others who review developments, usually before they become planning applications, and offer an overall judgement of their merit as being Red, Amber or Green.

The Panel’s views have a major influence on the Planning Applications Committee when decisions are made.

The essence of design review is that the Panel discusses the proposals together and collaborates in arriving at an overall view. This is clearly challenging during lockdown but we have been surprised and disappointed to find “meetings” on two key developments in Cricket Green – the design code for the 850 home mega scheme on Benedict Wharf and the latest flats plans for the KwikFit site (pictured) – have been undertaken by email.

We have teamed up with the architects behind the latest KwikFit plans to write to Cabinet Member Martin Whelton and Planning Committee Chair Linda Kirby to share our concerns and ask for changes to be made. Conducting design review by email works against the:

  • opportunity for the applicant to explain their design thinking and answer any questions
  • chance for a shared panel view to emerge through discussion
  • ability to correct any misconceptions such as if the panel suggests something that has been explored and discounted
  • transparency of applicants and officers hearing the panel’s view emerge during the meeting
  • scope for the chair to moderate the discussion, especially if different views are expressed, or points are unclear
  • process for arriving at a shared outcome (Red/Amber/Green) among independent members, leaving it to officers and members who are also responsible for advising on and determining the application
  • ability of the public to observe and record proceedings in those instances where a planning application has been submitted

We believe these issues could be addressed during lockdown by adopting the same approach to online meetings as Merton Council has taken for Cabinet and Planning Applications Committee.

It also points to the opportunity for further strengthening the process post Covid-19, including the benefit of having an independent secretariat for managing the Design Review Panel so the views of officers and councillors who are also responsible for making decisions on planning applications are kept separate.

Read our letter

Slow start for Merton’s Covid-19 Active Transport Strategy

With fewer cars on the road and everyone respecting the two metre rule we are seeing local authorities across the country working hard to create more space for people.

Pavements are being widened, parking bays suspended, new cycle lanes installed, crossing times changed to favour pedestrians and rat runs blocked off to create new outdoor space.

We can hope and expect that many of these initiatives will become permanent as our lives change and adapt in the years ahead.

The Mayor of London has announced a “London Streetspace” programme in response to a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase in walking.

Merton Council has now launched its own Covid-19 Active and Health Travel response  in the face of a growing clamour for action. The ambition is strong Merton Council will repurpose some of our borough’s streets and key locations to serve this unprecedented demand for walking and cycling in a major strategic shift to meet our long terms sustainability and active travel goals”

But the accompanying delivery falls well short of what’s needed.

There are only 14 proposals for immediate action across the entire Borough. The document itself is undated, hard to navigate, full of links which don’t work, missing information on most of its proposals and even lacks a Merton Council logo.

We’ve identified a number of shortcomings:

1. Geographical bias. One of the standout problems with the plans is that eight of the 14 proposals are in Wimbledon. The only place in Mitcham to benefit is London Road between the White Hart and Mitcham tram stop, with plans for first a temporary cycle lane and then a permanent cycle/bus lane on opposite sides of the road. The other places outside Wimbledon to benefit are confined to three proposals on the A298 Kingston Rd/Merton High St and one for Haydons Road bridge. Without a dramatic shift in emphasis the inequalities between the east and the west of our borough will be perpetuated.  

2. Whose roads? Most the main roads in Merton are the responsibility of Transport for London and not Merton Council. The plans are silent on which of the proposals can be delivered by Merton Council and where a green light is needed from Transport for London. We need a clear strategy for what Merton Council will be delivering itself as well as what it depends on others to permit.

3. Selection criteria. The plans are silent on how the first 14 proposals have been selected. Are they the easiest to implement or those which will bring most benefit? Have choices which will slow traffic down been ruled out? Are they the schemes most likely to get funding or those which will most improve lives? What proposals have already been rejected and why? We need to know the basis on which decisions have been made as well as what has been decided.

4. Funding choices. The plan includes the commitment of £80,000 Merton Council funding but the costed proposals add up to only £19,000. It remains unclear whether the rest, and any additional proposals that might follow, are entirely dependent on funding from Transport for London or off the back of development taking place in the Borough. Given the ambition for a “major strategic shift” we need to see more than a funding bid to Transport for London as the main commitment by Merton Council to deliver change on our streets.

5. Collaboration vacuum. Local authorities across the country have tapped into the knowledge and expertise of local communities in devising their Covid-19 transport plans. Many have collaborated online and gathered ideas and proposals from the communities who know their area best. A wide range of collaboration and mapping tools are now available free of charge to local authorities to help. None of this is visible in Merton Council’s plans. Instead they are based on a seemingly haphazard mix of, says the official online document, “officer observations, feedback from business groups, local councillors and picking up residents’ concerns via social media.” Far from reaching out to involve people the plans promise to “accelerate” the limited consultation already carried out on street works.

The approach perpetuates the misguided belief that consultation causes delay and that it is about navigating the legal procedures necessary to gain permission rather than a source of ideas and inspiration. Merton Council is way behind the curve in its attitude and approach.

6. Publicity drought.The lack of publicity for the transport plans is striking and they were placed online without any announcement. Even Merton Council’s lone tweet set a strange tone in stating it was “working with” the responsible Cabinet Member Martin Whelton. To his credit Councillor Whelton was the first to announce the proposals and has engaged in the subsequent discussion on social media. Nevertheless, we need a communication strategy based on more than the social media following of a Cabinet member and we need the future of our streets and public places to be higher on Merton Council’s priorities.

7. Limited choices. The plans focus on a very limited number of ways to improve our streets and public spaces in a very limited number of places. There is so much more that can be done than replacing parking with pavements in five locations, widening pavements in five more, providing cycle lanes in four locations and putting some stickers down on the pavement outside two shops to help manage queues. Every neighbourhood should be benefiting from such measures and more space being provided in every one of Merton’s high streets and shopping areas. The phasing of traffic lights and the timing of crossings should be changed to favour pedestrians wherever possible. Existing pedestrian and cycle routes should be promoted and the plans extended to block off some roads as through routes for cars and make them available for pedestrians. Existing controls over travel plans, fly parking, pavement parking and vehicle speeds should be better enforced. We need a much more comprehensive and ambitious approach.

For Cricket Green having just one short cycle lane and an even shorter bus/cycle lane on the opposite side of a small stretch of London Road is a very slow start. Our Cricket Green Charter already provides a way forward for both immediate and longer term plans:

“Pedestrian routes should be enhanced throughout the area, including more pedestrian priority at road crossings and new links through Benedict Wharf, the Wilson, Worsfold House and the Birches, and to the Wandle Trail, Watermeads and Morden Hall Park.  Highways investment should support measures to reduce, calm, pacify or eliminate road traffic and reduce air pollution including: ending Lower Green West’s isolation as a traffic island; improving conditions for pedestrians in Cricket Green Road (east), Church Road, Church Path, Three Kings Pond and at Jubilee Corner and the cricket pavilion; and closing King George VI Avenue to cars.”

Immediate priorities should also include rephasing traffic and crossing lights and taking action to create space for people around Mitcham Junction station, Mitcham tramstop and central Mitcham. Heavy lorries should be banned from the narrow part of Church Road and more space provided for pedestrians along London Road from Cricket Green into Fair Green. This can all be achieved without harming the character of the area or losing green space. Let us know if you have others and they can be fed in direct to Merton Council via future.merton@merton.gov.uk.

The “major strategic shift” envisaged in Merton’s plans is ambitious and welcome. Its benefits need to be felt in every neighbourhood and to make it happen we are asking Merton Council to listen harder and collaborate more.

Our call for Merton Council to up its game on community engagement

Merton Council is reviewing its official “Statement of Community Involvement”.

This is an important document which sets out the approach Merton Council takes to involving local people and organisations in development and planning issues.

We’ve welcomed the long overdue review which will replace a 13 year old document that does not meet today’s expectations for deeper and earlier community engagement in planning decisions. 

We are calling for a step change in Merton Council’s approach which, in our experience, rarely exceeds legal compliance and sometimes even falls short of this. This discourages community engagement, frustrates those who do engage, and ultimately results in less well informed and poorer planning outcomes.

We have identified an array of current problems and inconsistencies in Merton Council practice.

These range from squeezing the time available for the public to speak at Planning Committee to a quality of online public access to planning documents that falls well short of other local authorities. 

Merton Council allows significant changes to planning applications to be made without publicity, blocks resident representations on planning applications appearing online and often provides inadequate summaries of public views in reports presented to councillors.

It also fails to make good use of design tools which can involve people in setting local expectations, such as masterplanning and design codes. We are clear in our reponse that we expect prospective developers to be put in touch with local community groups before they submit planning applications.

Merton Council’s draft Statement of Community Involvement states that “Merton’s local communities are those that are most likely affected by development in their local area and more importantly, know the most about their neighbourhood and how they would like it to grow and be shaped for the future.

These are fine words. We are asking for changes to make the effective engagement of Merton’s local communities a reality.

Read our submission to Merton Council’s draft Statement of Community Involvement –Statement of Community Involvement – Dec 19

Merton’s Climate Action Plan – our submission

Merton Council is one of hundreds of public bodies that have now declared a Climate Emergency.

We commend its cross party declaration back in July 2019 and the commitment to producing a Climate Action Plan.

Cricket Green’s role in helping tackle the Climate Emergency was an issue raised during our own local discussions in producing the Cricket Green Charter. We have now developed this thinking into a submission to Merton Council.

We believe there is much that can be done that is already in the gift of Merton Council to deliver.

This includes much stronger planning policies, action to tackle excess parking and idling traffic, better walking routes and a major programme for planting new trees, hedges and shrubs throughout the area. Cricket Green’s rich network of green spaces provide important carbon sinks that could perform even better if they were managed properly in ways that reduce mowing and encourage wild areas. Merton Council and its contractors should also be using zero emission vehicles and equipment. Zero emission buses should also be the norm, starting with all routes running through Fair Green.

In addressing the Climate Emergency we urge Merton Council also to ensure any measures respect the historic environment of Mitcham Cricket Green Conservation Area and its environs. We see a close alignment between measures for tackling the Climate Emergency and those that protect the historic and natural environment. It is imperative to securing continuing wide public support for climate action that this is not seen to cause harm to other aspects of the environment which local people care about.

Read our submission on Merton’s Climate Action Plan Tackling the Climate Emergency – Dec 19