A nasty war of words has broken out in Purley over the local baptist church’s development of a 17-storey tower overlooking the ugly gyratory road system.
So unpleasant is the behaviour that Purley has revealed itself as no longer the genteel place of suburban good manners of the days of Terry and June, as it is now divided by a bitter row over a site which has lain derelict for decades.
Croydon Council’s planning committee, in a three-hour-long session last night, approved the controversial proposal for a housing project which Purley Baptist Church claims will help to regenerate a town centre on land left unused for 40 years.
The buildings proposed are only a modest three storeys tall near Purley Library and on land opposite on Banstead Road. But it is the tower block which even the drawings by the scheme’s architects, Procter and Matthews, show will dominate the suburban town centre which have generated so much ill-feeling and outright hostility, with a 4,000 signature petition, the full force of the local Conservative Party’s politicians, and worryingly politicised residents’ associations from miles away in Coulsdon, Sanderstead and Riddlesdown all weighing-in with their two-penn’orth.
The development comprises 114 flats, an auditorium capable of accommodating 500 (or, put another way, the entire membership of the Croydon Tory Party), plus community and church space and a retail unit on the “Island Site”, with a three- to eight-storey building of 106 flats on the “South Site” of Banstead Road.
This was not the first time that the development has been considered by the council’s planning committee, accompanied by frequent interruptions from the public gallery: there had been previous pre-application presentations in 2014, 2015 and last January. This time, though, was “for real”, with the decision of the committee determining whether the scheme could go ahead.
Now, local communities need to pick up the pieces after a very unpleasant confrontation fuelled by incendiary comments by local politicians who played to a gallery packed with baying residents.
Those in favour of the Purley Baptist Church’s development include the business improvement district, Purley BID, and the more locally based residents’ association for Purley and Woodcote (PWRA).
The noisy mob in the public gallery frequently had to be told by the planning committee chair, Paul Scott, that “if you can’t behave, please leave”. On one occasion, Scott described their behaviour as “totally childish and unacceptable”.
The ugly tone of the meeting had been preceded by the mob chanting “No! No!No!” before being allowed into the public gallery. James Collins, the senior minister, in his opening remarks to the presentation, described the church’s mission as to “Honour God and to love our neighbours”. Purley Baptist Church has been part of the community for more than 100 years.
Yet Collins was immediately shouted down by the audience. Someone even called out “Backhander!”, an allegation of corruption for which no evidence was offered. Neighbourliness does not seem to be a Purley aspiration these days.
Poison was dripped into the debate by Purley Conservative councillor Donald Speakman with his opening words: “Nasty, Nasty, Nasty, Nasty.” In case he had not made his point, Speakman then described the application as the church being “nasty to the residents”. Speakman derided local business support for the application, as they would in his opinion obviously favour it.
The local MP, Chris Philp, had also come to garner votes from the public gallery. He had a petition of more than 9,000 electors, he salivated. He accused the Labour councillors on the committee of being whipped to support the proposal, something which was later denied by Scott as being “outrageous and misinformed”.
Philp then singled out Purley BID CEO Simon Cripps for criticism, saying that the application with just 37 parking spaces for 220 flats would be bad for parking. Philp said that when he first came to Purley, Cripps told him that parking was the primary problem. The site will, though, have 352 places for bicycles.
Philp then chose to attack the local residents’ association which he said “did not consult the members”. This concern had also been raised by a PWRA dissenter.
Philp said that he preferred an eight-storey development as approved by the previous Conservative council administration. Scott had to remind Philp that in fact, the previous Tory administration had given guidance in 2013 that a 14-storey building would be acceptable.
Philp’s local attachments, of course, are only recent and entirely selfish, his having been parachuted into the Croydon South constituency by the Tories ahead of last year’s election. Thus, when Philp said that the 17-storey tower “was out of keeping with a peaceful town like Purley”, anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time could not help but wonder whether he has ever encountered the traffic around Tesco’s.
But in true Nimby style, Philp told the meeting that the development was more suitable elsewhere in Croydon. His lack of knowledge of the area was betrayed when he claimed the site had been vacant for 25 years.
A member of the public distilled the arguments in favour succinctly as “local jobs, increased footfall for business, local housing, local community activities, elderly care, the council and the church coming together to strengthen the heart of Purley”.
Tarsem Flora, the former chair of the PWRA, said that the site had been “an eyesore for over 40 years”. The PWRA committee supported the proposal and Flora said he wanted a taller building than the 17 storey one proposed to create more of a landmark and wanted to see “Purley return to being a vibrant centre where currently too many buildings lay empty”. Flora did not want “another 40 years of decay”. Flora, unlike Philp, seemed to know what he was talking about.
Cripps also felt that the £70 million development would “bring renewal to the town”. Business “really support” the proposal, he said.
Tory councillor Chris Wright, leading for the Tories as they opposed a business-backed scheme, concentrated on traffic issues and parking concerns, what he called “poor quality design” and overdevelopment. Wright called for “TfL and the GLA to come to an agreement on traffic improvements in Purley”, conveniently forgetting that Purley residents had successfully defeated such proposals from a Conservative council to drive a flyover through this site in the 1980s, and then again when London Mayor Ken Livingstone made a similar proposal in the last decade.
The building scheme, to provide jobs, improve footfall and to develop a site abandoned for 40 years “does nothing at all to help Purley”, according to Wright.
He also felt that “we can’t keep ignoring public opinion to this extent”. Scott countered that planning law and process meant that this “is not a referendum and indeed it has not been a referendum”.
Pete Smith, one of the council’s senior planning staff, advised that the application “in an urban situation” had “density that is appropriate for this highly accessible location”.
When put to the vote, the proposal passed 6-4, the councillors objecting all being Tories: Luke Clancy, Susan Winborn and Chris Wright, with Richard Chatterjee coming off the subs’ bench in the absence of Jason Perry.
We must assume that the four Conservative councillors were all expressing their own individual opinions on the scheme, and that they had not been subject to a party whip whatsoever, as the Tories used the occasion to posture for votes, cynically, regardless of the damage to the community they represent.
- Click here to read the full council report to the planning committee on the Purley Baptist Church scheme
More coverage on recent planning issues:
- East Croydon’s Bridge to Nowhere won’t be finished until 2024
- Council planners join with developer to block objections
- Council’s £1m discount on flats secures planning permission
- MP Reed joins criticism of overdevelopment by Brick by Brick
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