"We are being pacified": Calls for transparency at public meeting on MSG Sphere
PUBLISHED: 17:00 06 June 2019 | UPDATED: 11:05 11 June 2019
The body tasked with making a final decision over a proposed mega-venue for Stratford faced a grilling last night over whether the plans were a "done deal".
Around 50 people attended a consultation event hosted by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC): the planning authority set to give final approval or refusal to the Madison Square Garden Company's proposed MSG Sphere.
A 3,000-page planning application for the MSG Sphere was submitted to LLDC in March. If approved, it would see a 90m high, domed entertainment complex built on vacant land off Angel Lane, with a capacity of up to 25,000 on event days.
MSG has also submitted a second application to display illuminated advertising on LED panels that would cover the exterior.
A final decision is forecast to be made around December by LLDC's planning committee, which is made up of three unelected Legacy Board members, four independents and five councillors from London local authorities, including two from Newham.
At the meeting at St Paul and St James Church, dozens of people attended to view the plans - which were presented alongside MSG-branded promotional material - and ask questions of Daniel Davies, the case officer from LLDC.
The first question put to Mr Davies after his presentation was how residents could oppose it, followed by a request for "transparency and openness".
One attendee said: "It's almost a done deal and I feel like we are being pacified. It feels like it will go ahead and we're just ticking the box by having this consultation."
Residents questioned whether the decision would be impartial as Jayne McGivern, MSG's executive vice-president of development and construction, is a former LLDC board member.
According to LLDC's annual reports, Ms McGivern was paid up to £14,000 a year to sit on the board as well as the investment committee from 2012 to 2016.
Six people who served on the board at the same time are still in post, including the chair of the planning committee, Philip Lewis.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, voiced support for the project as far back as February 2018 and LLDC staff attended meetings with MSG representatives on at least 62 occasions in 2018.
In response to the concerns, Mr Davies told attendees: "We are the receivers of the application. There's no limit to the number of conditions we can put on [if approved]. Members can say no and can take a different view to officers."
He also said MSG's proposed opening hours - including having the nightclub open until 4am - was "not what we think is acceptable, it's what has been applied for" and that LLDC would assess the health and safety implications of the proposed sphere's lit-up exterior.
He also addressed campaigners' arguments that the site would be better used for social housing, saying: "While housing would be appropriate, the site has been bought by MSG and they are a leisure operator. But that doesn't mean that while it's acceptable in principle, there aren't other considerations."
An individual drafted in to oversee the proceedings, Jonny Zander of social business The Kaizen Partnership, repeatedly told those present: "This has not been decided."
However, following a resident's question about the bodies involved in decision-making, he drew a diagram with a box labelled 'MSG' at the top of the whiteboard and told residents: "MSG are at the top of the tree."
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Mr Zander has since clarified that he was trying to explain the relationship between MSG and its UK arm, Stratford Garden Limited, before explaining the decision-making structure.
In recent weeks the Stop MSG campaign has gathered 100 objection letters from people in the roads surrounding the would-be development site.
The group has objected to the MSG Sphere on a number of grounds, including extreme light pollution from planned events and advertising, air pollution, and the potential for overcrowding at Stratford Station, which they say could not cope with additional crowds - especially in the event of a clash with West Ham match days or events at the O2 and the Olympic Park.
Spokewsoman Lisa Wenborne said: "They are trying to dump this ginormous advertising ball right in the middle of a residential area that will blight the lives of people who live locally. We have knocked on hundreds of doors and people don't even know this dome is being proposed."
Co-campaigner Sakiba Gurda added: "MSG have the money and influence and we are just a bunch of residents trying to fight our cause. This would not happen anywhere else. Anywhere else your elected representatives have to listen, and Stratford has been chosen because we are a weak spot in a poor borough and people don't know how to engage."
Another resident, Nick Kompas, said in a statement issued by Stop MSG that he felt "abandoned", adding: "Where is the Mayor of my borough? The people we elected won't listen to us."
The only person from Newham Council present at the meeting was Cllr Anamul Islam of Forest Gate North, who said he opposed the application.
No-one from MSG was there to answer any of the questions that arose, including what the US-based company would do with the land were the application turned down, or whether MSG's commitment to paying the London Living Wage to all directly-employed staff would be extended to the rest of the supply chain.
When contacted by the Recorder about Ms McGivern's past membership of the LLDC board, a spokesman said: "Jayne McGivern stood down from LLDC's board in January 2016 and had no role in LLDC's decision making process on planning applications, neither does LLDC's board.
"The MSG planning application will be determined solely on planning grounds, in accordance with the Corporation's Code of Practice."
An MSG spokesman said: "We are confident our proposal to bring a state-of-the-art venue to Newham, supporting thousands of jobs and delivering significant community benefit, will continue to win the support of local residents.
"Jayne's membership of London Legacy Development Corporation board until 2016 is a matter of public record. It demonstrates her public service and strong support for the people and places in East London.
"MSG's current planning application will be determined on its merits through the proper process, and any previous board membership has no bearing on that."
The company also stressed that expected capacity for concerts is 17,500 and 14,000 for corporate events and sports, and that it was working with TfL on a transport plan, while the proposal includes a "significant" investment in improvements at Stratford.
An operating plan for crowd management is being developed and the firm has also said it would establish set operating hours and luminance levels for the venue's external lights.
The Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, said: "I met with the Stop MSG group earlier this year to hear their concerns about the scale of the proposed development, light pollution and impact on surrounding neighbourhoods. I also have my concerns about these issues, and hope that these are given serious consideration by the LLDC, alongside the impact of the proposed development on Stratford Station and the local area by increased commuters and visitors.
"The council has been consulted by the LLDC, and is in the process of reviewing the application documents, including an environmental statement. A full response to the LLDC consultation will be prepared over the coming months in line with Newham Council's statutory planning duties."