Looking back, what amazes me is how quickly I stopped being a (fairly) normal person and became the sort of wild-eyed planning-law obsessive from whom I would previously have run away at speed. One minute I was enjoying a quiet Friday afternoon at home in north London; the next a letter dropped through the door, explaining that somebody intended to build a monstrosity at the end of my garden (though the planners at Barnet council didn’t use those exact words).
Less than 30 minutes after the letter had hit the carpet, I raced upstairs to design a leaflet on my computer, including a line drawing of the charming Victorian vicarage they were planning to demolish. And with help from my daughter, Nancy, we dropped a copy through the letter box of every house on the street, inviting the neighbours into our homethe next day to wring our hands and gibber in unison. (I didn’t use those exact words, either.)
Since then, early last year, I have lived every moment on red alert, convinced that horrid people “out there” are determined to ruin my life by cramming 53 homes into the grounds of the doomed vicarage and turning a narrow, leafy lane into an urban canyon.
I embraced my inner Nimby — because if I won’t make a fuss about the area where I live, who will? And I discovered that my inner Nimby is quite a nerd: somebody who sends strongly worded letters to the local press, engages with local politicians of every stripe and gets to grips with fearsomely complex regulations relating to sunlight, daylight and rights to light (all technically different, I’ll have you know). But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It is important to emphasise that I have never previously invited all my neighbours into my house at once. But this is what happens when a person is rattled. Happily, the neighbours turned out to be delightful. What’s more, we discovered that they include a number of lawyers and a property developer whose forensic grasp of procedure is, frankly, awesome.
Months later, we haven’t beaten it, but we have won a couple of battles. We built a large group through meetings in the local church and mass email campaigns. We gathered the most charming local children at the front of a group photo for the papers. And we lodged so many formal objections that officials were forced to refer the development to Barnet’s planning committee. (The threshold for this is five. We got 140.)
I yodelled forth an account of people’s heartache relating to a) overdevelopment — we’re not against building more homes, but this scheme is just too big, b) loss of light, c) loss of amenity, d) destruction of a notable landmark and the character of the area, and e) harm to wildlife.
My neighbours politely cheered when I’d finished. Then it was my fellow speaker’s turn. He lobbed a grenade into proceedings by listing the ways in which the application failed to meet criteria set by the council itself. Mandatory documents were missing, he said, then listed them. Stunned planning officers started dashing around the chamber, consulting lawyers and the chairman of the committee. The application was withdrawn.
We breathed again. But we never really relaxed. And, indeed, the same proposal was resubmitted just days before Christmas. While others watched the Queen’s Speech, we all downloaded documents submitted by the developer, most of them brain-freezingly dull. And when we found mistakes, we punched the air as if we had snatched a surprise victory at the Court of Appeal.
After New Year, we were blessed to be visited at home by representatives of all the main parties. At the coming election, I will face a ballot paper on which I know all the candidates.
Convinced that loss of light was a key issue, I talked to experts at the Law Commission and the chartered surveyors Anstey Horne. I filmed sunsets throughout autumn and winter, showing golden light passing horizontally right through our house as the sun set below the line of the proposed new roof. I ordered a vast photograph and filmed my daughter blacking out the sky.
Yet it seemed some councillors were not watching this film. Disaster! How could they make a proper decision if they were not hearing what we had to say? I taught myself to use MailChimp, a mass email system used by marketing people. I learnt to tailor messages to different segments of our large email list: people on my side of the road, people on both sides, councillors by political affiliation and so on.
And I learnt that if I uploaded videos to Wistia, instead of YouTube, I could tell who had watched them and for how long. I could call councillors who had not done so and nudge them.
Meanwhile, my neighbour consulted a barrister, who argued that the proposed development could be technically unlawful. In the light of this legal opinion, the application was put on hold once again. We gave ourselves just two cheers, but it can only be a matter of time before the developer — or another one — is back.
Beat the developers:
- Raise awareness — most people will not have paid attention to official letters and notices relating to proposed developments. Turn the bland official description into something that will grab people’s attention. And use pictures as well as words.
- Remember that the easiest option is likely to have theleast impact. Actually going around and knocking on neighbours’ doors will get them to pay attention.
- Get as many people as you can find into your group. Planners take notice if they receive a lot of objections — but be sure to recruit “real” people with a genuine stake in the outcome. Passers-by and extended family won’t cut it.
- Use an email list system such as MailChimp, which allows you to segment your mailing list into different interest groups, so you can target them with specific messages. You can also tell who has bothered to open your emails.
- Don’t waste your time on irrelevant issues. Councils are only allowed to consider specific points when deciding whether or not to allow a development.
1040 words. First published 2 March 2014. © Times Newspapers Ltd.