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

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.