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6 April 2009
A wall of silence surrounds the future of the new cultural centre on Potters’ Field in Bermondsey.
After a battle spanning over a decade to replace the Bethel Estate at Potters’ Field with a cultural attraction to benefit the community, it now appears the ultimate decision will be left in the hands of just a few people at the Town Hall.
There are three proposals for a new attraction at the now world famous site between Tower Bridge and the Major of London's City Hall. Yet after weeks of inquiries by the 'News', to clarify how a decision will be made on what will be housed on the site, the council has failed to answer simple questions about who will make the decision and whether there will be any public consultation at all. It is believed instead that the leader of the council, Nick Stanton, chief executive Annie Shepperd and the executive member for culture, Lewis Robinson, will choose between the trio of bids.
The bids range between a £5 million arts and theatre centre run by Shunt, which is currently housed yards away in the arches under London Bridge, to a transfer of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum from Bristol, and to a £40 million Sports World attraction and British Sports Museum to coincide with London hosting the 2012 Olympics.
The shortlist was drawn up after a world-wide trawl for the best cultural user for the site. Southwark Council and Berkeley Homes appointed new architects Squire & Partners for the project. For over five years the council and Berkeley Homes were deadlocked in disputes, but last year they buried their differences and agreed to work together on "a blank piece of paper", to develop a scheme for the site that includes both housing and a major cultural attraction.
The widely disliked Ian Ritchie 'dalek' towers that Berkeley was previously pushing for the site were ditched. The new architects have drawn up a design for the site, directly across the river from the Tower of London and almost underneath Tower Bridge and it is now a question of what will be housed there.
Their design includes a tower to echo the chimney on the nearby Tate Modern.
It is believed that there is no legal requirement for the council to put the proposal out to public consultation or even obtain agreement from the council assembly or the executive; but the significance of the new attraction and the history behind the battle to save the site for the community has prompted outrage in some quarters.
Councillor Fiona Colley, the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee at the Town Hall, says she has been asking who will make the decision and how the decision will be made for nearly one month, but to no avail.
"It is our job to find out who is making such decisions, to make sure that it is open and transparent so people are confident that the process is fair and proper," she told the 'News'. "I have received a blunt statement back just saying it is independent and it is fair, but nothing on how it fits with the council's decision making process.
If that process is not followed then you do become suspicious, as what is going on at the moment is unclear.
I know that a panel is looking at the applications but don't know whether it will come to the executive committee, so it can be properly looked at by the people elected in the council.
“We need to know if everyone is going to see the reason behind the decision on what would be the new attraction at Potters’ Field. Even if it is done as closed and confidential then those papers, known as pink papers, should be made available to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, to allow us to keep an eye on it. But if it not then there is no way that we as elected members can call it in." And Cllr Colley added that she would be in favour of some public consultation: "It is appropriate that there is public consultation as it will help the council come to a decision.
The finances might be confidential, but everyone knows what the bids are. Do the council want to focus on what facilities there will be for local residents, or are they purely focused on tourism?"
The only response that the 'News' received on the subject was from Southwark Council Chief Executive Annie Shepperd, who said: "This is one of the great sites in London and we are taking the public consultation process seriously, to ensure we get the best scheme possible." However, she did not answer whether there was going to be any public consultation the actual bids. In an explanation to her response a footnote stated: "The plans for the derelict site at Potters’ Fields as a whole have been subject to extensive consultation since August 2008 with residents' groups, local business groups, schools and other interested parties.
The cultural space was a key issue raised during those consultations." Again nothing was mentioned about how the decision was being made.
Opposition Labour leader, Councillor Peter John, asked: "What are the criteria? What was the basis of the criteria? It can't just be a couple of people sitting in a room taking decisions about such an iconic site as Potters’ Field without being held accountable."
London Assembly representative for Southwark and Lambeth, Val Shawcross, whose office overlooks the site for the new cultural centre, said: "I think that in a democratic council it would be very good to ask local people their views. It will have an impact on the local community and you'd think they would want to get schools interested. All being equal on a financial setting, public consultation would help steer the council in the right direction on which one would most benefit the community. Also, you'd think that they would want to excite the local community about it and it would be sensible to ask them now."
Stephen Cornford, Director of the Potters’ Field Park Management Trust, which would neighbour the new attraction, told the 'News' that he was aware that there were applications in, but said he was 'very much in the dark' about any details to do with the proposed attractions. "I asked about the design and access to the attraction, in the hope that it was complementary to the park and was assured that they would be within the existing building plan set out.
Any of the three would be acceptable to us. I have not been asked for our opinion and it is up to the council whether they want to go public."
Would you like to have your say on what attraction you would like at Potters’ Field?
Tel: 020 7231 5258 Comment online: www.southwarknews.co.uk
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