WALTER CRONXITE reports on the planning permission granted to a Labour council scheme which could make Gavin Barwell’s constituency a safe Tory seat
Barely a year before the next Town Hall elections, and Croydon Tories last night handed a gift-wrapped vote-winning present to the Labour group that’s running the council when four of their councillors voted against proposals to build more than 2,000 homes that just happen in the constituency of the Conservative government’s housing minister.
Even by his own gaffe-prone standards, MP Gavin Barwell would struggle to drop such a massive bollock.
To compound the political blundering, the four Tory members of the council planning committee – Chris Wright, Jason Perry, Sue Winborn and Luke Clancy – also managed to vote against plans for the long overdue and much-needed £30million refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls.
As it was, the built-in Labour majority on the committee voted in favour (planning matters are never subject to a party whip, so we are told), and so gave the go-ahead for one of the largest regeneration projects ever approved in the borough.
The scheme, which will take at least 15 years to complete with three phases of house-building, will provide a new Croydon College, a 6,500 sq ft art gallery (Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, Jo Negrini’s favourite art gallery owner, will be delighted), shops, offices (yeah, like we don’t have enough of those), and the refurbished arts complex.
Did Croydon’s Tories fall into a carefully laid political trap, as they were presented with a hybrid application, with detailed plans for Phase 1 of the housing scheme wrapped up together with the Fairfield Halls project, and more outline proposals for Phases 2 and 3?
With Conservative Fairfield ward councillor Helen Pollard speaking in opposition to the scheme, she raised concerns about “lots of dense housing blocks”.
“Apparently, it’s OK to have homes with too little daylight, and public spaces with almost no sunlight, because it’s considered ‘in the round’,” she said on social media. Her colleagues on the committee also expressed reservations about “overdevelopment”, and spoke of a “missed opportunity”.
The first phase of works approved last night includes the demolition of the Fairfield’s multi-storey car park (don’t even start to ask where the theatre-goers and concert-goers will park their cars) to make way for 218 homes.
The proposals put before the committee last night include a number of compromises, not least the reduced size of Croydon College, and Labour breaking its 2014 manifesto commitment to ensure developers provide at least 30 per cent of the homes they build in the borough are “affordable” (in the Orwellian sense that, because of the high prices in the London housing market, they are not affordable at all).
The Fairfield and College Green homes, being built by the council’s own private developer, Brick by Brick, will include just 15 per cent affordable housing.
“They’ve got to do that to make the sums add up, because they are paying for the Fairfield Halls refurbishment out of the profits of the flat sales,” one of the councillors at the meeting said.
Two years ago, the council was being quite adamant that, according to their own report, the “amount of affordable housing should be maximised – targeting 30 per cent, with right amount of family housing, with some 4-bed units”.
Those admirable principles look now to have been abandoned, unless the £14million grant awarded by Coast to Capital towards the scheme can help make the sums add up as Fairfield Halls refurbishment is subsidised.
The council officials’ report to the planning committee states: “Subject to a review of the Applicant’s Financial Viability Appraisal that takes account of the recently announced Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership grant of £14.2million towards the proposed scheme, the proposed 15 per cent on-site affordable housing provision (in the form of shared ownership tenure) in the ‘Detailed’ element is considered to be the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing possible.”
It is worth emphasising that within the 2,000-plus new homes to be built for the council, there will not be a single council house or flat.
In effect, with these plans, the Labour council could be ensuring that Barwell’s marginal Croydon Central constituency will become a safe Tory seat in years to come, as thousands of Yuppies – the only people likely to be able to afford to live in the pretentiously titled Cultural Quarter – flood into the centre of Croydon.
And by building so many homes in such a dense configuration, the Labour authority appears also to be acting in a way that really ought to appease Tory councillors from the south of the borough, such as Perry (Croham), Wright (Coulsdon East) and Clancy (Coulsdon West), who regularly oppose developments in their neighbourhoods with Nimby-ish zeal. Here are 2,000 housing units that won’t have to be built in the leafier suburbs.
Timothy Godfrey is the Labour cabinet member for culture who has pursued the re-development of the Fairfield Halls since 2006, when the Tories decided to abandon funded refurbishment plans. As Godfrey pointed out today, the volume of housing development in the area has long been agreed in the local masterplan, which was originally drawn up under the previous Conservative administration.
“This site has had a masterplan that was fully consulted on,” Godfrey said. “Previous schemes had housing at the back of Fairfield, which would have been a disaster for the venue.
“The team that have brought this phase forward won’t necessarily be the ones delivering the other blocks,” he said. “Significant changes have been made to the Fairfield Halls refurbishment as a direct result of consultation.”
Godfrey and other Labour front benchers maintain that work on the Halls has been on-going since they were closed for the refurbishment last summer. Nonetheless, after barely six months, the project is already five months behind its two-year completion schedule, according to a council response to a Freedom of Information inquiry.
This, of course, is a bit of a problem for a council which has adopted the word “Delivery” as its motto.
So this week, council leader Tony Newman appeared in a video nasty on YouTube in front of half a dozen blokes in hi-viz jackets and with brooms, apparently in the Fairfield Halls, as he proclaimed that the venue to be “a hive of activity”.
Newman failed to explain what was the nature of the work being conducted behind him, and nor did he deny that at least one of the busy broom-handlers was called “Trigger”
Whoever it was who produced Newman’s video clearly had a cynical sense of humour: it rounds off with a track from David Bowie, the rock star who after an unhappy experience at the town’s art school coined the phrase, “That is so fucking Croydon”.
Which judged by the goings-on at last night’s planning meeting, is just about right.
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