CROYDON COMMENTARY: Tonight’s council business sees a plan to knock down Taberner House and build on part of Queen’s Gardens as the latest move by our bankrupt council to rake back some cash from its disastrous URV property scheme.
ANDREW PELLING asks whether anyone really wants to live in a 30th floor flat with a view over the Croydon Flyover
Croydon residents and visitors enjoying the summer sunshine in Queen’s Gardens should savour the moment.
Tonight, Croydon councillors on the strategic planning committee have a second look at plans that gobble up a good section of the gardens for housing, with the Taberner House office block demolished and replaced by five tall developments strewn across the site. The tallest building would be 30 storeys high on the south eastern corner of the site at the junction of the Croydon Flyover and Park Lane.
There would also be another tower of 10 storeys, two of eight floors and one of six.
This is a key part of the Croydon Urban Regeneration Vehicle, CURV (or URV), in which our council is 50-50 partners with John Laing, giving the developers first dibs on £450 million-worth of public property.
Under the plans submitted tonight, which include 440 high-rise homes, modest estimates suggest that the development could yield £110 million in apartment sales alone.
A previous plan, submitted 12 months ago, offering fewer flats and no 30-storey towers, was rejected because of a range of issues, including strong objections to building on the public open land in Queen’s Gardens.
The revised scheme sees the towers spread further apart across the site to avoid concentrated shadows. The change has been made to allow pedestrians and car drivers over in Barclay Road by the side of Fairfield Halls to enjoy (if that’s the word) a view of the council’s new HQ offices.
Councillors had expressed a view that the previous U-shaped draping of the buildings around the Taberner site was inappropriate and that they would rather not go round this particular bend: “The scheme has been amended by the developer following an investigation of the possibility of creating a ‘U Shaped’ development. They found that a ‘u shaped development’ would not be the favoured option, chiefly due to a loss of the memorial trees within Queens Gardens and the loss of the view from Barclay Road to Bernard Weatherill House,” the report to tonight’s meeting notes.
The council says that there will be more public space available on the redeveloped site, compensating for the encroachment on Queen’s Gardens and the loss of trees, but it stretches credulity to say that the “provision of new publically [sic] accessible courtyard”, as the council report describes it, will be the same quality or as openly accessible as the existing public space when placed in the middle of a mainly private housing development.
The council recognises that the encroachment is a planning concern when it notes that “the principle of incorporating part of Queens Gardens (which is designated as Local Open Land) into the application site must also be considered. Paragraph 74 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that existing open space should not be built on unless the lost land is replaced by open space of equivalent or better quality and quantity, in a suitable location”.
The park space was created in the early 1980s as the old Croydon police station was demolished and the park completed in time to mark the borough’s centenary celebrations.
I can recall being there as a councillor for Mayor Margaret Campbell welcoming the Queen to open the gardens on June 21, 1983, when a small plaque was unveiled.
New housing is undoubtedly needed, that is not in dispute. Indeed, according to Croydon Council’s favoured PR agency, White Label, in a press release issued yesterday for another client, the lack of available housing in Croydon has seen the borough become a “new property hot spot” (as if that was a good thing for anyone other than property speculators).
New housing boosts economic growth through the building jobs created, and by slowing the rise in house prices, so that local people can afford to live and work in London.
A concern with this project is whether the proposed high-rise 440 flats – of one, two or three bedrooms – are the most practical housing option. Croydon has had a mixed experience in respect of actually getting flats sold, or even getting the buildings finished or even started – anyone for another IYLO? What’s happening with Mental Towers?
That worry is accentuated when our council is taking a risk with our money on its off-balance sheet speculation in the property market through its CURV joint venture with Laings, a special purpose vehicle into which it has tossed council assets in partnership with private equity players Henderson Private Equity.
One- and two-bedroomed high-rise flats are not well suited for the typical aspiring families that Croydon has sought to attract in the past. Flats are often purchased for the purposes of capital appreciation by overseas investors, and so not released into actual housing use. High-rise communities offer no practical play space for children. Maybe Croydon council sees a heavy demand from childless cosmopolitan yuppies, seeking to move in to towers overlooking Croydon. If so, it is not a demand that has become apparent elsewhere in Croydon.
Eventually families will take the housing, if the price gets discounted enough, but there is not the school capacity available in the centre of Croydon for any children so housed. The spine set by the old A23 route all the way down the length of the borough has seen births going up 100 per cent in the last 10 years, overwhelming school place provision. The eastern side of the borough has seen a much more modest increase, or none at all, as shown in the map published for a scrutiny committee of the council that investigated school place provision.
Heavy development pressures are being concentrated by the councillors in the centre of the borough and along the A23 corridor. There is a party political motivation for this and an inevitable result of the Conservative party resisting development in the south and east of the borough.
The impact of this approach can be seen in how the census recorded that Tory-held Selsdon and Ballards in Croydon South is one of the few wards in Greater London to lose population from 2001 to 2011.
Normally, a developer can offer to provide money under what is known as a Section 106 provision to pay for improved public amenities as a condition of the granting of planning approval. With Croydon Council being the commercial partner in the Taberner House and Queen’s Gardens development, that is not a possibility.
The whole 50:50 council gamble in property speculation was started by a motivation to capitalise on increasing land values on council-owned properties for which the council could itself provide planning permission. That scheme hit a major snag when the global financial crisis hit, and Croydon Council was forced to borrow money to lend at less-than-market rates to its private equity partner. Before the financial crisis, it was expected that the CURV could borrow easy money, and pay-off any loans by quickly developing schemes and cashing the profits. But the flawed nature of this financial engineering has led to this type of innovative funding approach drying up.
The Conservatives who run our council have history in bad property calls, having lost all of their own capital in the early 1990s at a major development of their extensive headquarters in Tavistock Road, where the whole value of the property was lost in a speculative property co-development of flats. As Council Tax-payers, we don’t want the Conservatives to make the same dreadful capital destruction mistake with our money. Property speculation is not a council function.
Steve Reed, the borough’s new Labour MP, has been drawn into debate with hyper-Tweeter Gavin Barwell, including the disputed costs of the council’s new headquarters building. Labour are saying it is £140 million, Tory MP Barwell seriously reckons it has cost nothing. Barwell even accused Reed of lying, something that the Croydon Central MP would not be allowed to do in the Commons chamber.
“… See if you can find any spend on new HQ in Council revenue budget,” Barwell Tweeted, thus buying into the local Tories’ fantasy of a free council HQ through their supposed financial wizardry.
Barwell’s line reveals that the Conservatives on the local council are engaging in exactly the same kind of dangerous off-balance sheet accounting that did so much to usher in the financial crisis of 2007, when investment banks played that game, and lost.
Bigging up on debt to play the property market on the rates is not a smart approach to running the town’s affairs with the council debt set to balloon by a factor of five to £1.005 billion from the £154.3 million when the Conservatives came to power in 2006 (according to the council’s own figures).
That’s a factor five that the Queen’s Garden’s sunbathers would not want to slap on.
- Andrew Pelling is a former Conservative MP, Croydon councillor and London Assembly Member. He has been selected as a Labour party candidate for Waddon ward for the 2014 local elections
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