Whither the Wilson?

Debate and discussion over the future of the Wilson Hospital has been going on for well over a decade.

It has proven frustratingly difficult to find out what is happening from the Clinical Commissioning Group and even harder to get involved in one of the most significant changes to Cricket Green in a generation.

This blog shares the facts about what’s going on as we know them. It has been pieced together from different sources and some of it has only become public as a result of our Freedom of Information requests.

The punchline is that the Wilson is likely not to become the new community health centre for Mitcham.

What we have learned suggests the Wilson is being lined up as a new housing estate instead. The new health centre looks as though it is heading for Sibthorpe Road car park and it would seem there are plans for Mitcham Library to move out of its locally listed building and share premises with the health centre. This in turn will free up the Mitcham Library site for development. The other large healthcare site at Birches Close is also being lined up for new housing.

It shouldn’t really be down to us as a local community group to break this news.

Nor should it be taking so long to provide Mitcham with the healthcare facilities all the public bodies have identified as a priority. We wish that the Clinical Commissioning Group responsible for these decisions was more upfront and open with the community regarding its plans, and that it showed a greater sense of urgency in meeting Mitcham’s healthcare needs.

The Wilson story goes back more than a decade. At first we were told it was one of four sites being considered for a “Local Care Centre” designed to meet the healthcare needs of “East Merton”. This followed a decision not to proceed with developing the site in The Canons which would later fall to Merton Council to line up for new housing through its failed Merantun venture.

The plan was part of a wider investment in Local Care Centres in Merton that saw the new Nelson Health Centre open in 2015. Despite “concerns about how the Mitcham LCC was lagging so far behind the others” being expressed at the Clinical Commissioning Group’s Programme Board in 2013 its plans for Mitcham had only just got going by the time the Nelson opened. This was when the decision was made to select the Wilson over Birches Close or either of the two car parks at Raleigh Gardens and Sibthorpe Road as the “preferred option” for developing the new health centre.

By 2017 the proposals had been renamed as the “Wilson Health & Wellbeing Campus” although we were still unable to get any commitment to an opening date. Instead the local community was shocked to find healthcare provision being reduced and not expanded with the abrupt decision to close the Wilson’s GP service and walk-in centre.

It took until 2018 for an announcement to be made that the “new health and wellbeing space” would open “towards the end of 2021”. Within months this opening date was moved to the “end of 2022” when the project encountered funding problems in the NHS.

It didn’t take long for the certainty over the Wilson’s future as a health centre to begin to crack.

First, we found NHS Property Services lobbying Merton Council to include provision for up to 39 flats and town houses on the Wilson site in its revised Local Plan. Then in response to our direct question at its AGM the Clinical Commissioning Group confirmed that “the health and wellbeing hub planned for Mitcham and surrounding communities remains a key priority” and studiously avoided making any reference to the Wilson itself. This elusive wording was repeated in answering a later question which also signalled yet another delay in the opening date when it confirmed “the facility will not be ready to open as previously estimated in 2022.”

The reasons for change in direction have now become clear. Close reading of NHS Property Services most recent submission on Merton’s Local Plan shows it wants to change the policy allocating the Wilson site for healthcare development so the green light can be given for “residential if the existing services are relocated within an alternative healthcare facility in the wider Mitcham area.” It also asks for the following phrase to be deleted – “development of the site is an opportunity to provide a health centre and a community health hub in a neighbourhood with health inequalities and poor health.” The submissions also support residential development of Birches Close regardless of what happens at the Wilson.

NHS Property Services clearly has residential development on both the Wilson and Birches Close sites near the top of its agenda for Mitcham. Yet, the health inequalities across Merton still exist and the need for them to be addressed through new investment is well established. So if the new community health centre isn’t to be provided at the Wilson where will it go? And how many more years will we have to wait?

The evidence is pointing in one direction – Sibthorpe Road car park just off Fair Green in the heart of Mitcham village. The first clue is buried in the most recent Local Plan comments from NHS Property Services. The car park is owned by Merton Council and not the NHS but the NHS is seeking to include provision for “community and health uses” in whatever happens on the site.

The strongest evidence has come via our recent Freedom of Information request (available here). This confirms that an economic assessment of the relative merits of the Wilson and Sibthorpe Road car park has been carried out which is “beginning to show a profit for the Sibthorpe position.” It also confirms the intention to move Mitcham Library to the new site. The papers also include a project brief revealingly titled as being for the “Mitcham (formerly Wilson) Health and Wellbeing Community Hub”. The proposals include a report which “will also make reference to the possible disposal of the Wilson Hospital site and Birches for residential development as a potential funding solution.”

So why does this matter? In the end it could be the best outcome for future healthcare. We have always questioned why the Wilson was chosen as the preferred site over Sibthorpe Road car park given its better transport links and easier accessibility. A well designed development could make good use of a rundown car park. It also provides the opportunity to revitalise the limited service currently provided at Mitcham Library in a new location.

But still it matters. It matters because of the way these decisions have been made, leaving the local community in the dark about the future of their neighbourhood. It matters because of the consequences of significant development now being lined up for the Wilson, Birches Close and Mitcham Library, each of which has locally listed buildings and its own special character. And it matters because after more than a decade of delay and obfuscation and three changes in the opening date we can expect to wait many more years before Mitcham and Pollards Hill are provided with the healthcare facilities that all the public bodies involved say are urgently needed.

There are still ways to turn things around. The Clinical Commissioning Group could transform its understanding of how community collaboration works in practice. Merton Council could write a Local Plan that guarantees well designed and sensitive development. The local community could be brought in not only to define local health needs but also to codesign the future development on all four sites.

The powerful legacy of the Wilson Hospital comes from it being endowed to the local community by Sir Isaac Wilson a century ago. The last year has shown us all the benefits that can come from collaboration between health bodies, local authorities and local communities. Now we have the opportunity to create an equally powerful and contemporary legacy for the future. We stand ready to help.

Scrutinising Merton

Every year Merton Council invites views on the issues which should be given extra scrutiny through its array of Committees. It’s a welcome initiative although history has shown that very few issues raised other than by ward councillors get taken up. After six years we gave up trying in 2020 and didn’t respond. We’re having another go in response to this year’s invitation.

Seven issues have risen to the top and we’re asking Merton Council to look at them more deeply:

Operation of the planning service. This has become ever more problematic over time and we believe a review is long overdue. It should cover everything from the operation of the Planning Applications Committee to the quality of consultation and information provided on planning applications.

Tree management and protection. With over 130 trees lined up for the chop within 800m of the cricket ground we’re calling for a review of tree protection and more attention to how trees are cared for.

Online reporting. Anyone who has tried to report fly tipping, pavement parking and other issues will know just how offputting Merton Council’s online reporting service can be. It’s hard to navigate, requires different issues to be reported in different ways, provides no guarantees of follow up and lacks published information on what is happening Borough wide. User friendly online reporting tools are widely available and affordable and we are asking their use to be investigated.

Effectiveness of Mitcham Common Conservators. Set up under 19th century legislation it is increasingly apparent that the way Mitcham Common is being run is not fit for purpose. We’re asking Merton Council to review the Conservators’ role and ensure that Mitcham Common gets the forward looking, transparent and engaging management this jewel in Merton’s crown deserves.

School run and travel plans. With growing school rolls and impacts from the school run we believe it is time properly to review the effectiveness of school travel plans which promise much but rarely deliver.

Illegal fly parking. There’s a growing trend towards pavement parking around Fair Green and fly parking on the edge of Three Kings Piece, and Merton Council has passed the buck between departments when asked to sort it out.

Air quality. Our work with Mitcham Society has shown air pollution levels around Cricket Green and Fair Green exceeding legal levels. This isn’t helped by having diesel buses running through the heart of Mitcham’s village centre.

Read our full submission of topics for scrutiny here.

Capturing Cricket Green’s character

There is something very special about the character of Cricket Green.

It is widely recognised by those who live here and visitors often comment on the village-feel, our greens, a sense of history and the mix of interesting buildings.

We always ask developers to respect this character when they come forward with new buildings and it is important to protect it.

Describing Cricket Green’s character isn’t easy. It’s a complex place shaped over centuries of development and change. The task has been taken on by Merton’s new Character Study which is being consulted on by Merton Council.

We’ve welcome the study. It is much needed and a vital complement to the new Local Plan that will guide development well into the 2030s.

Merton Council has already had one false start when it produced studies for 22 of Merton’s 36 character areas between 2011 and 2015 but failed to finalise them and give them legal weight when planning decisions are made.

The new Character Study misses out on the richness of the unfinished work. By providing an assessment of the complex character of Cricket Green in just 103 words it leaves our special neighbourhood short changed.

The earlier Character Study now being set aside devoted over 1,400 words to Cricket Green.

Merton Council’s approach to preparing the Character Study means it owes more to the view of external consultants than local communities. Despite years of asking to be involved there has been only limited consultation and the character descriptions of 20 out of the 36 neighbourhoods across the Borough are informed by comments from fewer than ten people.

We have stressed the importance of recognising Mitcham as a village and addressing the importance of our registered greens and the special qualities of Mitcham Common. We have welcomed Merton Council’s acknowledgment of the importance of the historic crossing of the Wandle at Mitcham Bridge which has been misnamed in the controversy over building a new “Bishopsford Road Bridge”.

For Cricket Green we have taken Merton Council’s text and redrafted it to reflect local priorities. See our proposed changes in the graphic at the bottom of this post.

Our proposals have been informed by the work behind the Cricket Green Charter published in 2019 after we contacted over 5,000 households. The changes we propose recognise the true history of Mitcham cricket ground, put more emphasis on the important role played by mature trees and look towards the sensitive re-use of important sites such as the Wilson, Birches Close and the Burn Bullock.

Merton Council is also consulting on a draft Toolkit to secure better quality design in new buildings on the many small sites across the Borough. Sites of less than a quarter of a hectare have been responsible for over 60% of new homes built in the the borough in last 15 years.

We’ve welcomed the approach while also stressing that it will require more than the publication of a Toolkit to deliver the necessary sea change in Merton’s culture which will secure quality design informed by early community engagement and local preferences in new development.

You can read our comments on Merton’s draft Character Study here.

You can read our comments on Merton’s draft Small Sites Toolkit here.

Facelift for Bramcote Parade

Merton Council has applied for permission to restore the shopfronts on Bramcote Parade and replace the intrusive advertising.

We’ve warmly welcomed the plans which follow our success in having Bramcote Court and Parade added to the Local List in 2017.

The work is being funded by a £90,000 allocation from the money raised by the Community Infrastructure Levy which is paid by new development.

As the images show the work will have a significant and positive impact. It will restore some of the original details of the shopfronts and reinstate the distinctive curved sweep. The shops will be much more sensitively lit at night. One consequence is that the poor design, colour and build quality of the new flats being built on the other side of the road by the formers Queen’s Head will become sadly even more apparent. Merton Council expects the work on the shop fronts to be complete this year.

It is important that the new works stand the test of time and we’ve highlighted problems with similar investment at Morden Court Parade. This has seen good work undone by changes resulting from new businesses moving in only a year or two after the facelift.

Following the rejection of our efforts to have some the oldest shops in Mitcham around Fair Green locally listed last year we’re keen to see Merton Council move on to restore these as the next priority for this welcome shopfront initiative.

You can read our submission here.


Reviewing Merton Council’s Design Review Panel

In common with many local authorities Merton Council uses a Design Review Panel to help it assess the design quality of new developments.

This is made up of external architects, urban designers, transport planners, landscape and other professional who review schemes, often well before a planning application is submitted.

We welcome design review. When operated transparently and well it can provide insight and support to raise the game in the quality of design. There are also risks, especially when it operates in a deep seated culture that views the role of the Design Review Panel as a closed group of behind-the-scenes advisors that stands separate from normal standards of public scrutiny or engagement.

Government policy is placing ever more emphasis on design quality and the role of design review and it also features in Merton’s new Local Plan. It is timely therefore to have Merton’s approach put under the spotlight by the Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel and we’ve drawn a number of issues and concerns to its attention in a detailed submission.

The bottom line is that Merton’s Design Review Panel is not fit for purpose.

It doesn’t meet the industry standard and Merton Council has chosen not to sign up to the Mayor of London’s Quality Review Charter.

Merton is an outlier in having the Chair of its Planning Applications Committee also as Chair of its Design Review Panel seemingly oblivious to the problems this causes.

There is evidence that Merton’s constitutional safeguards to prevent any conflict are being breached – including the then Chair of the Planning Applications Committee voting to grant planning permission for a development that was subject to design review at a meeting she also chaired.

The Design Review Panel has other failings including:

  • no agreed terms of reference
  • no details on the Panel members and why they are qualified to serve
  • no controls over the length of time Panel members serve, with some exceeding 10 years
  • no transparent mechanism for handling conflicts of interest where Panel members are
  • working on development projects in Merton
  • failures to publish reports or provide advance notice of meetings
  • holding reviews of Merton Council’s own developments behind closed doors
  • the same officer who provides professional advice on urban design also running the Design Review Panel and writing its reports
  • holding review by email despite commitments not to do so and failing to publish their contents even where meetings would otherwise be held in public
  • operating an outdated traffic light system that rates schemes as Red, Amber or Green and which is regularly abused
  • failing to design review some controversial developments, including a large block of flats on Metropolitan Open Land at Imperial Fields described by Merton Council’s design officer as an “office block in a car park”

We’ve made 22 recommendations for reforms which will guarantee the probity of design review and ensure the Design Review Panel operates transparently and effectively. These can all be delivered in six months.

You can read our submission on the Design Review Panel here

You can also see our submission as a paper for the Merton Council Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel meeting on 23 February 2021 here

You can watch that meeting and meetings of the Design Review Panel on Merton TV

Big change at Old Bank House

Cricket Green was briefly the commercial hub of Mitcham and the Old Bank House on Lower Green West stems from this history.

This prominent building has been underused for many years and is now the focus of a planning application to convert it into flats.

This will include extension on the sides facing both the cricket ground and Lower Green.

Done well the two extension could “complete” the building and enhance the area while doubling the floorspace. A line of coloured brick would separate the old and the new and tell the story of how it has been built.

We’ve supported the changes providing the extensions can truly match to quality of brick and stonework on the existing building. It’s a major challenge similar to that recently faced by the adjacent Cricketers flats that were required to colour match the Vestry Hall bricks.

It’s also important that the change of use doesn’t set any precedent for losing the neighbouring workshops recently vacated by London Box Sash Windows to residential. Cricket Green needs to retain business and employment at its heart and Merton’s new Local Plan should ensure this.

Any development will need to be mindful of construction impacts on the Grade II listed cottages between the Old Bank House and the Grade II listed White Hart. The historic bench mark on the Old Bank House should also be protected during construction work and into the future.

You can read our full response – Old Bank House – Feb 21.