WALTER CRONXITE has discovered that if you offer Croydon Council enough of a cash incentive, there’s seemingly no carbuncle monstrous enough that its planning department won’t allow you to build it
Tomorrow night’s meeting of the council’s planning committee shows just how pointless the process has become under officials who are utterly wedded to the mantra of “regeneration” and who are completely in the thrall of developers. The meeting will demonstrate that if you have enough readies available, then Croydon Council will bend over backwards to allow you to build whatever you like, regardless of the many and reasoned objections from residents, councillors and respected public bodies.The committee is chaired by Paul Scott, one of the small cabal of Progress politicians who think that they control the Labour-run council, but who usually do the bidding of chief executive Jo Negrini and her senior council officials.
It’s just before Christmas, when many people are perhaps distracted by other matters, but there’s a lot of important business to get through at the Town Hall tomorrow, especially since even more important stuff – such as the revised plans for the Westfield and Hammerson redevelopment of the town centre – are expected in the new year. Tomorrow’s likely decisions of the planning committee could set a sorry precedent for what’s to come in Croydon.
Tomorrow’s meeting has an agenda over-stuffed with potentially contentious decisions. One could potentially undermine important aspects of the local transport strategy for the £1.4billion Hammersfield supermall. Another seeks fundamentally to alter the fabric of one of the borough’s district centres, Purley. A third will ride roughshod over the planning laws and the wishes of residents and elected local councillors, likely to allow retrospective permission to “an eyesore, and an affront to local residents”, with no enforcement action, just so that developers can flog off more of their over-priced flats.
And another decision, with a recommendation for approval from officials in what until recently was Negrini’s planning department, will allow for the destruction of one of the borough’s links to its historic heritage, on a sensitive, prime site, and for it to be replaced by a carbuncle that residents are calling “Croydon grey concrete”.
The decline and decay of St Edmund’s Church, on Cornwall Road, overlooking Wandle Park, is a reflection on the ever-diminishing numbers of church-goers, the local parishes’ own desperate need for cash, and a Philistine approach to heritage from the local authority.
St Edmund’s was built in 1881, with accompanying vicarage. Once a hub of the community, the church was the home of a rare stained glass window by world-renowned local artist Cicely Mary Barker.
St Edmund’s was deconsecrated – basically abandoned – by the Church of England a quarter of a century ago, and has been allowed to rot since. In 2011, planning permission was granted by the council for the site’s redevelopment and it was sold by the local parish, which despite expressing the desire for a sensitive use of the building, failed to do anything about it.
Given its key location, overlooking the park which has had millions of pounds of Lottery money spent restoring it, local groups, such as the Friends of Wandle Park, have argued for careful development of the building.“Croydon bangs on about its heritage but does nothing to protect it, except for the big listed buildings,” Simon Jones, of the Friends of Wandle Park, has said.
What seems particularly sinister about the latest planning application, which simply wants to demolish the church and plonk a make-a-quick-buck four-storey block of flats on the site, is Croydon Council’s willing participation in the project.
The area alongside Wandle Park is part of the council’s Old Town Masterplan conservation area, intended to try to preserve some human scale and what’s left of the area’s heritage buildings. In a document with a preface from Councillor Alison Butler, the council cabinet member who is also the partner of planning chair Paul Scott, it says that the area in the Old Town Masterplan “… its streets, squares, green and open spaces – will be attractive places, befitting Croydon’s historic heart and providing for visitors and residents alike. Old Town will be a place where people will enjoy spending time outside”.
No35 Cornwall Road – the formal address of St Edmund’s Church – is right by the boundary of this area, but somehow this historic building next to one of the “attractive places” in “Croydon’s historic heart” has been excluded from it. Some suggest deliberately so.
In the planning documents, St Edmund’s appears on a council map as a “warehouse”, rather than as a church. True, in recent times the building has been used for storage. “But that’s not the point really,” according to Chris Massey, who lives nearby. “It must be a lot easier to grant permission to demolish a warehouse than a church.”
And then there’s the easy money which Croydon Council can make out of the development of the site. As the council report accompanying the planning application reveals: “A total of 32 flats would be provided. The applicant’s intention is that all of the flats would be provided as affordable housing. The Council would secure (by means of a legal agreement) 50 per cent of the units (16 flats) as affordable housing.”
In this post-truth world we inhabit, “affordable” housing means at 80 per cent of the market rate. So not “affordable” at all really when you’re looking at a one-bed modern, parkside flat likely to be on the market for £300,000, or for rent at upwards of £10,000 per year.
But by granting planning permission to the scheme, Croydon Council will be entitled to a 20 per cent discount on something like £4.8million-worth of properties.
For some, this might be seen as shrewd use of public money. After all, Croydon has lumbered itself with a huge target for developing new homes.
Others, though, look at it as a cynical abuse of the council’s powers, and one which completely ignores the objections of Stuart Collins, the Broad Green ward councillor and deputy leader of the council’s Labour group, plus nearly 200 local residents, and the widely respected Victorian Society.
“For those who like the park, it is going to affect the whole nature of it, it is going to be a different park. It is a really lovely building. It is a community asset,” Jones said.
When the plans were put to the public, there was not a single comment registered in favour of the proposals.
Massey told Inside Croydon, “We know that the area needs new housing. But it is how those homes are built which is the issue here. No attempt has been made to re-use or re-build around the existing Victorian architecture.
“Instead, they want to build a four-storey block, which is far too tall for a site right next to the park. A three-storey block would be less intrusive, but that might mean millions of pounds less business for the developers. A church will be lost and what we will have in its place is more ‘Croydon Grey’.”
Massey also believes that the council is giving the developers an easy ride by ignoring the conservation area status nearby, and by overlooking other requirements of developments.
“There is no provision made for ‘outside community shared space’,” he said. “Where will the children from the block play? I assume that they need to go to the park to do so? I was under the impression that developers must not use local public spaces as part of their provision for outside communal ‘play’ space.”
But with the council getting a £1 million discount on 16 flats, it seems that Jo Negrini’s planning department is quite happy to turn a blind eye to that sort of thing, and the objections of senior councillors and hundreds of residents.
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