Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Ward's Corner: Just smile and say cheese

White balloons went up in Tottenham, north London, last night. Emblazoned with the slogans, 'No demolition, No Dereliction' and 'Plan for the Community', the balloons helped to inflate the raucous nature of a meeting between developers Grainger and Tottenham residents and market traders. 

The meeting, held inside the local further education college, was called by Haringey Council to consider Grainger's controversial plans to demolish Ward's Corner, a popular Tottenham landmark that houses a thriving market run mainly by Latin American, African, Caribbean and Indian traders. 

Grainger want to replace Ward's Corner with a gleaming shopping centre and 197 solely private apartments built on a site that straddles four tube tunnels at Seven Sisters, a busy Victoria Line station.

The stakes are high. Paranoia levels rose higher than the balloons. Roy, a member of the Ward's Corner Coalition that bitterly opposes Grainger's plans, told me Haringey officers were refusing to allow coalition members to display their colourful posters depicting their alternative, 'community friendly' re-development scheme for Ward's Corner. 

Just as Roy and I spoke, a Grainger ranger, clad in an open shirt and sports jacket, breezed in to the meeting carrying a plastic box that housed a smart model of Grainger's planned development.

"How are my leaflets going to harm that model?" asked a coalition member when she tried to put her wad of leaflets next to the model sat on a table inside the meeting hall. "I'll fetch you something else to put your leaflets on," replied a Haringey officer.

Worse was yet to come. Paul Smith, the council's Development Manager, apologised for the late start and explained the purpose of the meeting wasn't to make a decision but to ask questions about Grainger's plannning application. He requested a "courteous level of behaviour" but then discourteously demanded that "no photographs be taken during the meeting without permission".

Smith even asked a freelance photographer why he was taking photos. "I'm an interested freelance photographer," replied the snapper, who lives in Tottenham. "I'm a member of the National Union of Journalists and a bona fide news-gatherer."

Smith also took umbrage at the sight of a film camera operated by campaigners against Grainger's development. "I would say that you probably can't film this meeting," said Smith, provoking an enormous clamour inside the room.

"Nobody has asked us for permission to film," added Marc Dorfman, the council's assistant planning director. "Normal process would be for any requests to go to the Council's communications unit."

I tried to ask Smith if anyone from the communications unit was on duty at this very public meeting. Smith waved me away before he and Dorfman entered into a prolonged, huddled whisper with Grainger's development director, David Walters. 
"Grainger aren't happy with the meeting being filmed. It could be doctored," said Smith to Dorfman. 
"It could be manipulated," I heard Walters complain.

Wasted time passed slowly. Valuable discussion about the nitty gritty of Grainger's interesting proposals was delayed even further. The meeting descended into a meeting about taking photographs. During the ensuing hub-bub, I was told nobody from the communications unit was present. 

Finally, Walters ploughed through Grainger's presentation. "We're not entirely comfortable (about being filmed) but we're entirely committed to talking to you this evening," said Walters. "I hope that any photographs or videos will be used in the spirit in which this presentation is made."  

On the morning after the meeting, a Haringey spokeswoman told me: "The development management forum is a public meeting and we would expect some media to be present."

If Grainger are genuinely trying to win Tottenham hearts and minds over their Ward's Corner plans, this camera-shy episode didn't help them. 

As for Haringey's council officers, their knee-jerk reaction to initially try to stop film-makers, photographers and journalists from going about their honest business shows how press freedoms can be fragile even at the local level.

More postings about Grainger's Ward's Corner planning application HGY/2008/0303 will follow soon. 
The Development Management Forum meeting took place in Tottenham on Tuesday, 2nd February, 2011.

Paul Coleman, London, February 2011.


Anonymous said...

Spot on mate.
As one of the snappers in question, I had taken pictures of the same people who made the Grainger presentation in the same FE College last year. The difference being that last year they made no such attempt to stifle photography by the press and campaigners at the very public meeting.
I wonder what has changed?
And the Council seemed so willing to go along with their efforts to censor.
Will send you some of the images.
All the best!

Pam I said...

@ anonymous, the difference is that the previous meeting was organised and facilitated by the Wards Corner Community Coalition, ie the people who are challenging the Grainger/LBH proposal; all WCC meetings are open to everyone and minutes and footage published online, transparently.

That huddle of discussion took half an hour out of a two-hour meeting.