Highgate residents furious at construction company moving into their basement

Highgate residents furious at construction company moving into their basement

Council estate residents in Highgate, northwest London, have expressed anger at Camden Council after a councillor alleged a construction company had been allowed to occupy the basement of the estate without consulting residents.

“In reality, it looks like they’re running a business,” complained Luke Mitchell, an artist who lives on the estate. “That space was meant to be storage for residents.

“There’s been no consultation. We don’t even know what they’re doing.”

GEM Environmental Building Services LTD initially started working out of the Whittington estate, off Raydon Street in northeast Camden, in April 2016. Their original work was part of Camden’s “Better Homes” initiative to improve heating in council estates across the borough.

However, after enquiries by Highgate councillor Sian Berry, Camden has now confirmed that the company has been given new contracts in the meantime, meaning the space will likely continue to be occupied until at least 2020-21. Moreover, GEM now states on their website that their ‘Camden office’ is located on the estate.

Paolo, another estate resident, who did not want to give his last name, also took issue with GEM’s rent-free occupation of the space. “It doesn’t seem very fair if they’re not paying for it,” he complained. “I haven’t seen any consultation.” Multiple residents who were interviewed said they were not even aware that the basement was occupied.

The latest controversy follows long-standing disagreement between tenants and Camden over whether the original improvement works were value for money, or even necessary at all. Mitchell says he was forced to pay £12-14,000 for the new heating system in his one-bedroom flat.

Now, he says, traffic moving through GEM’s base in the estate means vans are frequently parking on double-yellow lines on weekday mornings. An analysis of parking-violation data, undertaken by this reporter, shows a slight uptick in recorded offences on the surrounding roads since 2016 (see below), though not a significant one when compared to previous years. Mitchell, however, is sceptical that many of these offences are even recorded since the vans quickly move on after unloading.

On being presented with questions regarding parking in and around the Whittington Estate, GEM declined to comment.

camden parking graphic

First all-female final at Hampstead Heath conker championships

First all-female final at Hampstead Heath conker championships

North London has celebrated the first all-female finals at the Hampstead Heath conker championships.

The annual championships took place on Sunday 6 October at the Parliament Hill bandstand. Now in its 18th year, the event was attended by around 250 hardened conker warriors.

The morning was presided over by Paul Maskell, dressed in a tracksuit, top hat and necklace made of conkers. Usually, Maskell works as a leisure and events manager at the City of London Corporation, which manages the Heath. But every year Maskell transforms himself into the Conkermeister, a man learnèd in the art of conker warfare.

With a cry from the Conkermeister of “Let the games begin!”, the championships kicked off at 2:30pm under a sunny sky with scattered clouds. Proceedings quickly descended into something of a mêlée with players apparently randomly swinging their conker strings at one another.

The atmosphere was one of wholesome excitement. Irena Arambasic, an education casual ranger at the Heath, said the championship is “the highlight of the year,” joking that “it’s bigger than Brexit”. She claims in jest that her conker enthusiasm is putting a strain on her marriage. “Where did I go wrong?” asked her husband after returning home to find 220 conker strings laid out on their living room floor.

As the afternoon progressed, some semblance of order was gradually imposed upon the conker carnage. Soon it was time for the age-category finals, a series of one-on-one battles to decide who would win a “no-expenses spared”, highly rare, coveted golden conker. Oohs and ahs went round the circle with each strike of the conker, sternly refereed by a man in a green fleece.

The championship culminated in the over-18s final, described by Maskell as “the main event of our conker spectacular of Hampstead”. Finalists were instructed that Mr. Maskell wanted “a nice cool, clean fight. No bite marks, no scratch marks, just clean conkers with a bit of oomph.”

Tensions were running high. The finalists, Maddie and Sian, battled for several minutes, and appeared evenly matched. But at around 3:30pm, Maddie was pronounced the champion of this year’s games.

Cllr Sian Berry: Camden has turned council estate ‘by stealth’ into a ‘depot’

Cllr Sian Berry: Camden has turned council estate ‘by stealth’ into a ‘depot’

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.

‘Come outside if you’ve got balls’: brothers’ feud on trial at Uxbridge Magistrates Court

‘Come outside if you’ve got balls’: brothers’ feud on trial at Uxbridge Magistrates Court

A man has been convicted after sending a series of unprovoked “menacing” texts to his brother.

Mr Pritpaul Rana, 40, of 25 Broad Walk Road, Hounslow, pled guilty at Uxbridge magistrates court on Thursday morning to sending online messages of a “menacing character”, a crime under the Communications Act 2003.

Mr Taranjit Rai, crown prosecutor, told the court that Mr Rana sent the texts to his brother late at night on 5 August. The texts led his brother, living at 19 Blackberry Farm Close, Hounslow, to call the police twice over the course of the evening.

“Carry on doing your own little pathetic sideline, and wait till I smash you,” Mr Rana wrote to his brother shortly before midnight. “Come outside you side cunt [sic] if you’ve got balls. Be outside in 30 seconds.” The court heard that the two had had a “fairly good” relationship until 5 August.

Many of Mr Rana’s texts made little sense, leading his brother to suspect he was drunk.

At 2:50am, the complainant received another text that he took as a “direct threat”, reading: “You ever speak to me again like you did last night, you won’t be awake for 12 hours,” and, “I’d literally piss on you.”

Shortly afterwards, Mr Rana arrived at his brother’s house. Once there, he started banging on his brother’s window, kicking his car, and banging on his front door. The court heard the complainant became “extremely scared” and felt unsafe until the police arrived, as he feared Mr. Rana would break into the house.

The defence said that Mr Rana was “truly remorseful” and a “broken man” who had been disowned by his parents and recently gone through a “serious break-up” with his partner, separating him from his daughter. The court heard Mr Rana had a “love-hate relationship” with his brother, but that this was nonetheless a “one-off scenario” and that Mr Rana only drank alcohol occasionally.

Mr Rana will be sentenced later this week. Mr Rana was convicted by a three-magistrate panel made up of Ms S Jerath, Mrs M. Pound, and Ms A Rawal.

Acclaimed woodwork centre in dire financial straits

Acclaimed woodwork centre in dire financial straits

A community woodwork centre in Highgate Newtown, northwest London, may have to close as soon as January if more funding is not found. The closure of the centre could threaten a ground-breaking scheme to integrate woodwork into the curriculum of local schools.

Ricky Jefferson, who runs the woodwork centre, delivered a stark warning earlier this week over the state of the centre’s finances. “We seriously do need funding because otherwise we will close,” he says.

The warning comes as the centre is initiating a ‘first-of-its-kind’ collaboration with Brookfield primary school, which has begun regular woodwork sessions for year two students  at the Highgate Newtown Community Centre on Thursday afternoons.

Becca Evenhuis, year 2 teacher at Brookfield, was full of praise for the programme. “It’s lovely seeing them outside a classroom,” she said, enthusing that the children “come back really excited”. “Pupils who are physical learners have a real chance to excel.”

But last week Jefferson, who receives no income from his work at the centre, spent £90 on dust masks and £165 on tools. All came out of his own pocket – an unsustainable model – but he can hardly bear the thought of the centre closing down. “I can’t just stop,” he says. “It’s not just me now. It’s took me 20 years to get where I am now.”

The cash crisis is only the latest blow for the woodwork centre, after promises by Camden Council to build Jefferson a new workshop have suffered repeated delays.

First planned to be completed before the summer holidays, the opening of the centre was pushed back to September, then October. Jefferson emphasises his gratitude towards the council for their financial support, but now thinks it will be “close to Christmas” before the new centre is finished, and – while he doesn’t know for sure the reason behind the delays – speculates that Brexit-related uncertainty may be to blame.

“Anyone would be mad at the moment to take on new building contracts”, he says, pointing to the vast number of imported materials that are required for such a project. Uncertainty around tariffs simply makes it impossible to plan costs for any kind of construction work.