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Firm that installed ill-fated ‘smart benches’ without planning permission shifts blame back to Islington Council

PUBLISHED: 15:30 11 August 2017 | UPDATED: 15:47 11 August 2017

Happier times: Cllr Claudia Webbe tests out one of the smart benches near Islington Green in January. Picture: Simon Way

Happier times: Cllr Claudia Webbe tests out one of the smart benches near Islington Green in January. Picture: Simon Way

+44(0)7971954733 simon@simonway.co.uk www.simonway.co.uk

The firm that installed ill-fated “smart benches” across Islington without planning permission says the town hall is to blame – for telling it no permission would be needed.

A smart bench in Essex Road - the one that will be allowed to remain. Picture: Islington Council A smart bench in Essex Road - the one that will be allowed to remain. Picture: Islington Council

Four of the five benches, which include phone charging points, have been denied retrospective planning permission by the town hall, meaning they will have to be ripped up within three months.

The council had originally trumpeted the scheme – but police, conservation groups and Transport for London objected to them because of the risk of phone snatches and the fact the large structures didn’t fit in with Islington’s streets.

Strawberry Energy’s chief exec Miloš Milisavljevi – the man whose name appears on planning applications for the five benches – told the Gazette today he was “very surprised” at the outcome, saying the council had full details of the scheme when it advised him not to seek planning permission.

“The locations of the benches were analysed and approved by the council using multiple criteria, such as public safety, footpath space, and street clatter,” he said. “The original opinion provided to us prior to the installation of the benches was that planning permission was not required.

The smart bench in Essex Road that can stay. One further north must be removed. Picture: Islington Council The smart bench in Essex Road that can stay. One further north must be removed. Picture: Islington Council

“We were very surprised when subsequently that requirement was introduced, moreover because the first benches had already been installed at that point.”

Police feared the benches would act as a crime magnet in a borough with such a high number of phone snatches by moped and bike riders. But despite 20,000 uses of the benches, Mr Milisavljevi said no crime had been reported in six months.

“We are disappointed to learn that four out of five retrospective planning applications were rejected despite many positive reactions from the local residents and the fact that no crimes were reported in relation to the benches and no complaints were made either to the council’s safety agency or Strawberry Energy,” he said.

Explaining the plan to install the smart benches, which included the option of donating to Cancer Research UK as well as free wi-fi, he added: “Our goal was to make Islington more responsive to the needs of the modern lifestyle, at zero cost for the taxpayer. [...]

A smart bench in Old Street. Picture: Islington Council A smart bench in Old Street. Picture: Islington Council

“We stay committed to Islington as our partner. It is our aim to work together with the council in order to find more suitable locations across the borough.”

Environment boss Cllr Claudia Webbe, in whose portfolio the planning department sits, said: “Naturally we support the principle of Strawberry Energy’s smart benches, which offer people the chance to charge their mobile phone and use wi-fi for free, and donate to such a worthy cause, all thanks to solar power. They also gather valuable local data for us on air quality.

“We are happy that Islington was chosen as part of the trial and we worked closely with Strawberry Energy on bringing the benches to the borough. We are disappointed that four have since been refused retrospective planning permission, and will look to learn the lessons from this in future.

“We are pleased that Strawberry Energy will continue to work with us on finding alternative suitable locations for these benches, helping to build a network across London.”

A smart bench by Newington Green. Picture: Picture: Islington Council A smart bench by Newington Green. Picture: Picture: Islington Council

What do you think? E-mail gazette.letters@archant.co.uk.

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