Video salesman’s £20m hospital scheme slammed as “barmy”

It was long enough ago that when Samuel Johnson declared patriotism to be the last refuge of a scoundrel, the great diarist could not have known that centuries later scoundrels would instead be taking refuge behind allegations of “nimbyism”.

Work going on on the Higher Drive site

Thus the millionaire developer who charges as much as £7,200 a week for patients staying at his high-dependency hospital has turned on Kenley residents, near the site of his latest money-spinning venture on Higher Drive, accusing them of “nimbyism” – “Not In My Back Yard”-ism.

Despite grumbles about Croydon Council failing to properly consult – residents claim less than 20 were directly approached – more than 160 complaints, led by local councillor Steve O’Connell, have been filed against businessman John Whelan’s latest planning application for an additional 22-bed hospital development at 94 Higher Drive.

Croydon Council originally denied Whelan’s care home business, Fairlie House, planning consent to build next door at 92 Higher Drive. But this was agreed on appeal last year.

Now, it seems, having been given permission subject to strict conditions on one site, the Whelans are trying to bulldoze their way to a hospital of almost twice the approved size as they cash-in on what could be a lucrative seven-figure annual business, with scant regard for existing residents.

Significantly, Michael Aldous, the planning inspector who delivered his report in January 2010, only granted permission at the appeal for No92 provided it was within certain restrictions on size and scale, including a limit to “the maximum number of residents shall be restricted to 30 at any time”. He also demanded that the developers should ensure that they have a proper transport plan.

With building work well under way at 92 Higher Drive, it is arguable that these two essential conditions of planning permission could be broken.

Reports suggest development of the neighbouring plots on Higher Drive could see a High Depency Unit for more than 50 patients in a residential area, where the roads and a nearby children’s playground make it unsuited to the traffic demands of a fully operating hospital and its staff.

Transport for London has given the area one of the lowest ratings possible for public transport access, yet Fairlie House admits that its plans allow for just 14 car parking spaces, despite expecting to employ at least 60 staff. Some suggest that the hospital may actually need up to 120 staff to operate properly.

Last week, O’Connell said: “This is a monster of an application. It would be grotesquely out of character in this area. It is far, far too big and the capacity for parking is just barmy.”

THE MILLIONAIRE BUSINESSMAN behind the scheme is John Whelan. He is a former video salesman who only moved into the care home business in the mid-1980s when he saw the profits that could be made from long-term care of patients.

According to Fairlie House’s own figures, they charge between £500 and £7,200 per week – with the NHS picking up much of the tab. That could all add up to £390,000 per year for each severely disabled patient. With full occupancy, that suggests a business turning over around £20 million a year.

Whelan started out smallscale, for a hand-full of patients accomodated in his own family home. Despite the lack of any medical background, the family-run business Fairlie House has run a similar home in West Norwood for several years, expanding to 50 beds. There, they employ 150 staff.

Whelan has been seeking to get a low-cost site in the south of Croydon for more than three years. The latest application for No94 perhaps demonstrates that Whelan knows how to “play” the planning system.

Rather than seek a site of appropriate size and location for a new HDU, the entrepreneur seems to be trying to reduce his start-up costs by shoehorning the buildings into a less expensive residential plot.

In 2008, the Whelans tried to buy another Kenley house with a nice sized garden so as to squeeze in a 53-bed HDU (Croydon planning application 08/02424/P).  Like Higher Drive, this house on Pondfield Road was in deepest suburbia, without a rail station or even a bus stop anywhere close.

And as with Fairlie’s Higher Drive proposal, the off-road parking provision was completely inadequate, making car-use by staff and visitors obligatory, potentially creating increased danger for children attending Hayes Primary School.

Most property developers rely on the apathy and inertia of local residents when filing planning applications. As few as 12 objections is usually sufficient for Croydon’s planning department to deem an application “controversial”. But in 2008, Fairlie’s Pondfield Road application caused an outcry in Kenley, attracting 498 objections.

Local residents protest against the hospital development on Higher Drive. As they are entitled

Croydon Council refused the application. The good folk of Kenley braced themselves for a planning appeal to the Bristol-based planning inspectorate. But it never came. Fairlie had a “Plan B” – the Higher Drive site.

Although Croydon’s planning department robustly refused Fairlie’s application to redevelop 92 Higher Drive in April 2009, Fairlie appealed, and nine months later the inspector overturned the council’s decision.

But then came the sneaky part. Fairlie had negotiated an option to buy the neighbouring home –94 Higher Drive – subject to their obtaining planning permission at No92. Thus, after having gained conditional planning permission for a 30-bed HDU on appeal, the Whelans are now looking to develop a 50-bed hospital.

Whelan is hurt and astonished that Kenley residents should find objectionable what he sees as his altruistic gesture of building a £20 million a year turnover business almost literally in other people’s backyard.

“It is nimbyism, pure and simple, and it is becoming difficult not to take it personally,” Whelan said, as local campaigners started posting their banners up and down Higher Drive last week (mysteriously, some of the banners were torn down during the dead of night. We wonder who might be doing that?).

Fairlie House, however sadly afflicted its patients may be, remains a profit-driven business, and not a charity.

Whelan and his family business, in seeking to develop a hospital on a lower cost site, however inappropriate it may be for purpose, to help maximise their own profits, are acting in their own interests, as they are entitled to do.

By accusing the existing residents, many of whom have had their family homes on Higher Drive for decades, of “nimbyism” for defending their own interests, Whelan is at best being hypocritical. At worst, he is being a bit of a scoundrel.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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