Whatever the outcome of the court case over Croydon’s proposed landlord licensing scheme, which had an application for a Judicial Review heard by Mr Justice Silber at the High Court this week, the role played by Richard Plant could prove critical.
Those who were in the High Court on Tuesday suggest that the judge’s decision on whether to grant the review really could go either way.
The challenge to the Labour-run council’s flagship policy has been brought by the shadowy Croydon Property Forum, a group which is registered at an address in Bury, Lancashire, and which while claiming to represent “hundreds of landlords and tenants”, has been reluctant to identify who these might actually be.
Tuesday’s court hearing confirmed that at least one of the Forum’s members is a former chairman of the Croydon Central Labour Party, while another called upon to give evidence in a case which argues that developers were not consulted properly is the chairman of the Develop Croydon forum,
It is Plant who holds that latter role, in a private sector group which works closely with the council to, well, err… develop Croydon, or at least represent the views of those businesses with a commercial stake in the borough. Develop Croydon uses the Grey Label PR firm which enjoys so much regular work from the council, and annually sends a delegation off to Cannes for the MIPIM property speculators’ shin-dig. So it might be reasonable to assume that, through Develop Croydon, developers in Croydon are kept in touch with the local council’s plans.
Plant’s influential position with Develop Croydon owes much to the fact that he is a partner in Stiles Harold Williams, one of Croydon’s biggest commercial estate agencies, who manage the property portfolios of many landlords, including the influential Whitgift Foundation.
Croydon Labour’s landlord licensing scheme was a key proposal in their 2014 manifesto. When the possibility of the policy being subjected to a legal challenge was raised earlier this year, both Jo Negrini, the council’s executive director for planning, and deputy leader Alison Butler, who oversees housing in the Town Hall cabinet, assured their colleagues that there had been a robust consultation, and that the matter would never come to court… Oh well.
Negrini and Butler had planned that the scheme should begin on October 1. The council has continued to encourage landlords to sign-up for the scheme, despite the threat of the pending court case.
Under the scheme, landlords are charged £750 licence fee per property for every five-year period.
The scheme has been opposed by Croydon Conservative councillors, and not just because some of them happen to be landlords themelves. Dudley Mead, Croydon Tories’ deputy leader, helped the Property Forum group by writing to his local party’s members inviting them to join the group legal action.
The Croydon Property Forum is seeking a legal review of the scheme by a High Court judge, claiming that Croydon Council had not taken “reasonable steps to consult any person who can be affected”. Their argument is that while the council approached the borough’s landlords, not enough – if any – efforts were made to consult developers in Croydon.
This is an interesting proposition, since among those members of the Croydon Property Forum whose identities are known is Anwar Ansari, a developer of multiple properties in Croydon, including one where the Labour group staged its celebration party after winning last year’s local elections. As a former chairman of Croydon Central Labour Party, it might also be reasonable to assume that Ansari is also aware of the party’s policies, especially on housing.
In a witness statement read to the court, Ansari said that developers of multi-million-pound schemes such as his may struggle as a result of licensing and stop investing in Croydon.
The council claims that it distributed 9,000 leaflets to landlords as part of its consultation, as well as having information and a questionnaire online. It also conducted more than 1,000 doorstep interviews.
Lawyers for the Croydon Property Forum also seemed to suggest that the council had failed to consult with… Develop Croydon.
The council’s defence is that it has acted reasonably, and that it is developers’ and landlords’ own responsibility to conduct some element of due diligence to discover what legal responsibilities they would have for their properties in an area.
“It’s common sense, any person investing tens of millions of pounds is going to want to know is this a good place for them to be buying and developing property,” said Clive Sheldon QC, the barrister whose fees for representing the council will be paid for by Council Tax-payers – unless Mr Justice Silber awards costs against the property developers who have brought the case.
Sheldon said there is no evidence that large developers such as Westfield and Hammerson were not aware of the scheme. Council leaflets, he said, do not have to be sent by recorded delivery.
The council’s case appeared to carry some weight with the judge, who referred to the very existence of Develop Croydon as a sign that developers were, indeed, considered important in the borough.
It was on this point that Plant responded.
Plant did not do so as the chairman of Develop Croydon, but wearing his other hats, as a resident and landlord’s agent – his agency Stiles Harold Williams are busy right across the borough and their biggest clients, the Whitgift Foundation, are the driving force behind the £1 billion Hammersfield development. Not for the first time, Plant’s multiple roles have put him on the spot.
“The judge didn’t seem especially impressed,” according to one observer in the public gallery.
Mr Justice Silber told the lawyers in court that he expects to issue the result of his deliberation as to whether to grant the Judicial Review by next Thursday, August 13.
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