So this is how the local authority planning system works in Croydon in 2015.
1, A speculative developer submits a planning application to the council to turn a popular local amenity, it this case a pub, into a number of under-sized flats.
2, Planning permission is rejected. More than once.
3, The developer ignores the local authority and goes ahead and makes the flat conversion anyway.
4, Local residents offered to buy the property off the owner and create Croydon’s first Asset of Community Value, supported by the Labour chairman of the planning committee and the Tory London Assembly Member.
5, Residents express their outrage when the developer’s agents start renting out the flats, built without permission. They complain to the council, as the planning authority, who undertake to make an inspection.
6, The council decides to take no action against the developer who did the flat conversions without planning permission, and instead suggest its intends to grant planning permission retrospectively.
That’s the perverse course of events that has happened over The Ship, the 160-year-old pub on South Norwood High Street, which closed its doors as a local boozer a year ago. Local residents behind the Save The Ship Campaign received a letter on Friday from Pete Smith, the “head of development [non-]management” in what Croydon Council has ridiculously re-titled its Place Department.
The campaigners tried to raise the complaint with the council’s £180,000 per year chief executive, Nathan Elvery, but he’s far too grand to deal with such a trifling matter, and he has passed it down to the sixth floor of Fisher’s Folly.
According to Smith, the council’s “deputy team leader of the planning [non-]enforcement and trees team” has visited the property “on eight separate occasions since the initial complaint was received back in October 2014. The purpose of the initial site inspection and those thereafter have been to investigate the allegation received by the council that ‘the premises were undergoing unauthorised works to be converted into flats and this was taking place in a conservation area’.”
According to Smith’s account, the council officials have been aware of the works going on in the building since October 2014 – all without any planning permission. So that’s nine months of non-enforcement. “At that early stage a warning was provided to the builder that any works which required planning permission were done so at the owner’s own risk.”
What form did the council’s tough stance on enforcing the decisions of the planning committee take? “Contact details of the owner were obtained and a contact card left.” The developer must be quaking in their steel toe-capped boots.
As a result of the helpful council official visits, the developer submitted another planning application, last November. Permission was refused again by the council’s planning committee in January this year.
As Smith notes: “The applicant advised at that stage that he was intending to exercise his right to appeal the refusal of planning permission, but was at the same time preparing a further planning application, in an attempt to respond to the reasons for refusal. The subsequent planning application (LBC Ref 15/00954/P) was then received to seek to obtain permission for the conversion works which had taken place and refused permission on April 22 2015.
“Neither of the two planning applications were refused on grounds of the loss of the public house and/or the failure to establish a community use at the premises,” Smith writes, meaning that the planning permission was denied because the scheme was of itself unsatisfactory or sub-standard.
The Ship was successfully added to Croydon Council’s Register of Community Assets on May 22, an initiative taken by the local residents with cross-party support from Councillor Paul Scott, the chair of the council’s planning committee (and an architect by profession) and London Assembly Member Steve O’Connell.
As the council’s head of development [non-]management notes, inclusion on the Register of Community Assets for The Ship “… does limit the extent to which changes of use can take place without the need for a planning application …” and that “… all the uses undertaken at the premises (the residential conversion of the public house and associated upper floor accommodation) required (and continues to require) planning permission irrespective of the inclusion of the property of the Council’s Register of Community Assets”.
In his three-page-long letter, Smith continues, “In certain cases the local planning authority can serve a temporary stop notice (to cease work on site), however in all circumstances, the local planning authority need to determine whether it would be expedient to instigate such action. Carrying out development without planning permission is not (in its own right) a reason to instigate planning enforcement action and/or a temporary or full stop notice & enforcement notice.” Those are our italics.
Smith justifies Croydon Council’s do-nothing strategy by saying, “In this instance, I am satisfied that at this stage it is not expedient to instigate formal enforcement or stop notice proceedings.”
Developers who are having trouble getting planning permission for their latest get-rich-quick dodgy conversion scheme won’t need to wait for the Tory Government to introduce its no-holds-barred free-for-all on developments if they are in Croydon. Smith’s letter looks like a green light for them to go ahead and ignore the planning authority altogether right now.
After twice having its planning application to develop flats in The Ship refused, the owner is now working up a third planning application to cover the work he has already done – with the building having been turned into seven flats, all of which are occupied and generating an estimated income of nearly £100,000 per year in rents.
“In this particular case, I strongly believe that negotiations undertaken in this way will result in a more positive outcome for all concerned,” says Croydon Council’s head of development non-management. Though it is difficult to see how the local residents, who were encouraged by Labour and Tory councillors alike to put in the work to register the Asset of Community Value and raise the money to buy The Ship, could see this as a “more positive outcome”.
“I can assure you that the local planning authority is adopting a robust and responsible approach to investigating and resolving this particular breach of planning control,” Smith writes. Presumably typed while having his fingers crossed.
Rachel Lawrence, of the Save The Ship Campaign, was understandably unimpressed.
“We know that planning enforcement is discretionary, but this is ridiculous. There were so many grounds.
“We are not happy about the council’s actions or reply and we shall be answering and have engaged assistance in helping us.”
The next meeting of the council planning committee is on Wednesday. Given how council officials appear so reluctant to enforce the decisions of elected councillors, it is a wonder why they bother to meet at all.
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