Camden Council has been turning a blind eye as a company carries out welding and construction works in the basement of a council estate without proper planning permission, a Highgate councillor has claimed.
Photos provided to City News by Highgate councillor Sian Berry, corroborated through independent visits to the council estate, show that the construction company GEM Environmental Building Services LTD is constantly operating out of the basement of the Whittington Estate, a council estate off Raydon Street in the northeast of Highgate ward.
In an interview with City News, Berry said that she was shocked at the “extent to which it was a depot,” and argued that residents had not been sufficiently consulted on the use of the land. “It’s happened absolutely by stealth,” she said. “Nothing has ever come by me as a local councillor that GEM use it as their base.”
“Camden can’t just pat us on the head and say we’ll make sure [that it will all be alright]… there are rules about that!”
The company initially started working out of the council estate in April 2016 as part of Camden’s “Better Homes” initiative to improve heating in council estates across the borough. But Berry, who is also the leader of the nationwide Green Party, said that residents of the estate had expected to get the land back “fairly nowish”, and that plans had been made to use the space for parking and community activities.
According to Berry, 2020-21 is now “the earliest they will be moving out”.
In a response to a written question submitted by Berry, the council confirmed that GEM’s presence at the Whittington Estate had been extended after it had been awarded additional contracts and that the company was using the space to fulfil its contracts across the borough – contracts that are worth over £5.25m, according to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests filed by City News.
Photos taken by Berry and by this reporter indicate GEM uses the site as a base for contracts with Westminster Council as well as for its Camden contracts. In response to an FOI request, Westminster Council confirmed that it holds contracts with GEM but did not confirm that GEM had been using the space at the Whittington Estate for those contracts. Berry also claims to have seen vans around the estate with an Islington Council logo.
Camden has confirmed that no additional planning permission had been sought before allowing GEM to establish a presence at the Whittington Estate. The council argued that none was needed because of the temporary nature of the works being undergone – arguments that Berry described as “complete bullshit”.
“If you’re going to change the planning permission, that’s a change of use, and residents could have had their say,” she said, arguing even a temporary change in use requires planning permission. “It feels like special treatment for a particular company.”
On being presented with questions regarding the Whittington Estate, GEM referred City News to Camden Council’s advertising and marketing department, who declined to comment.