Council gags architecture experts on costly Place Review Panel

Croydon’s Place Review Panel has been gagged, just three months since the building design body was set up, at potentially considerable public expense.

Celeb fashionista Wayne Hemingway: he might have a view on Croydon’s new buildings, but he’s not allowed to share them

Once a month, six members of the panel of high-profile architects and designers, who include the celebrity fashionista Wayne Hemingway, are supposed to meet in Croydon to consider as many as four of the latest, biggest development projects which have been submitted to the council for planning permission.

The panel is the latest pet project of council chief executive – and honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects – Jo Negrini.

“The Place Review Panel will oversee the development of the whole place with a view to improving the borough’s look and feel for those living, working and visiting the borough,” was what Negrini said as recently as November, when revealing the names of the 22 members and three co-chairs in the hand-picked panel.

When launched, it seemed to be suggested that the Place Review Panel could serve as some sort of architectural watchdog for Croydon, looking after the public interest by airing expert opinions of some of the biggest and most high-profile schemes coming down the planning pathway to a neighbourhood near you – such as the £1.4billion Westfield supermall project, developers’ Hub’s plan to build on the former site of Taberner House and on to parts of Queen’s Gardens, or for the sky-high tower at No1 Lansdowne.

Indeed, shortly after the panel was announced, Angela Brady, one of its co-chairs, told Inside Croydon that it would be essential for the PRP to spend time looking at Westfield and Hammerson’s revised proposals for redeveloping the Whitgift Centre and Centrale.

“I believe that we could really add value to the proposals,” Brady said then. “I would love to have a look at that scheme.”

But now it turns out that Brady and her bunch of architects and design gurus may never get a chance to review what could be the most important development project in central Croydon for a generation.

In fact, it seems possible that none of the results of the experts’ deliberations may ever be published if individual developers opt to veto the panel’s reports on their projects.

The expertise of Negrini’s architect chums never comes cheap. The panellists are each to be paid a day’s professional fees and expenses for their time and insights – something which could easily amount to £100,000 of our hard-pressed council’s cash in the first year alone.

As part of Negrini’s latest cunning plan, perhaps in an attempt to cover some of those costs, developers who submit their schemes to the panel are expected to pay £5,000 (including VAT) for the privilege of getting a seal of approval from the Croydon’s panel of experts.

But if they don’t like what the panel comes up with, the developers can refuse the council permission to publish it.

And if they refuse to cough up the five grand fee, Negrini’s Place Review Panel may not even be asked to take a look at their plans – even if those plans are for a £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre.

In the council’s guidance on the work of the Place Review Panel, its says, “The panel’s report on reviews will be confidential until a full planning application is submitted. Once a valid full planning application is submitted and registered on the council website, the panel’s report will be published online and released as a public document with the full planning application, unless otherwise agreed with the applicant team.” Those are our italics.

Three months into Croydon’s Place Review Panel’s existence, and so far not a single report has been published.

Block by Block: Croydon Council CEO Jo Negrini

The people of Croydon have even been kept in the dark on the panel’s considered opinions of the various in-fill housing projects which have been submitted by the council’s own housing development company, Block by Block.

Or is it Cheek by Jowl?

Or perhaps it is Brick by Brick?

Because surely the council’s own company will have been requesting peer reviews of its architect-designed schemes, seeking endorsement for work which effectively has been commissioned by Negrini and her sometime council planning department deputy, Colm Lacey?

But if they have, no one is saying.

Members of the panel have been ordered not to speak to the press and told that their deliberations are “strictly confidential”.

And the council’s press office this week refused to answer any questions about how many schemes had been reviewed by the Place Review Panel. Nor would they say what those schemes might be.

The council press office was unable or unwilling to say when any of the Place Review Panel’s reports on schemes might be published.

It all makes the comments four months ago from Alison Butler, the Labour council’s cabinet member for homes, regeneration and planning, ring more hollow than usual. “The panel is made up of an exciting group of experts and their valuable knowledge will be instrumental in furthering Croydon’s commitment to achieve the highest quality architecture across the borough,” said Butler.

Alison Butler is backed up by her husband, the planning committee chair

At the time, Butler’s remarks were enthusiastically backed up by the chair of Croydon’s planning committee, Councillor Paul Scott, who is himself an architect.

Scott also happens to be Alison Butler’s husband.

“It is an exciting time for regeneration in Croydon and the panel’s expertise will elevate the quality of new developments across the borough,” Scott said. Ahhh: Elevate the quality.

“I’m looking forward to the highest quality architecture and urban design coming to committee.” Which is a view probably shared by most of the people of Croydon. It has just been such a long wait, though…

According to a badly drafted council press release issued at the time, “The panel will play an important role in scrutinising and challenging design quality, to allow the borough’s renaissance …” yes, renaissance, no less “… to fully flourish and create places that continue to attract investment and that people care about and want to spend time in.”

Although that “important role” of the panel in scrutinising design quality is now being kept well away from any scrutiny of its own.

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7 Responses to Council gags architecture experts on costly Place Review Panel

  1. Nice to see that Negrini is continuing to waste our money.

  2. Maybe they should take a look at some of the shocking planning applications that are being approved with no regard for suitability, sustainability, safety or indeed design in the borough, with no degree of transparency or regard for due process – like the recent debacle re. the proposed development behind Norman & Derrick Avenues. They might think twice about being linked to a local authority which thinks this is acceptable.

  3. derekthrower says:

    It is very difficult to plan a renaissance and scrutinise projects when nothing is happening. Perhaps this is the practical reason for all this and further that Negrini has bagged her RIBA award and doesn’t need to showboat for the great and good anymore. Any analysis can see through another set of hollow promises made by the Council when they do not have the ability to influence what happens on the major development sites of central Croydon.

  4. joeycan says:

    How much would it cost the Borough to terminate Ms Negrini’s appoinntment as CEO to our Council. Would it be less than what she is costing the residents annually with her hair-brained, non-transparent schemes; and how are Messrs Butler and Scott getting away with the collusion that appears to me to be indicated by their similar outbursts on any development project?

  5. croydonres says:

    Yeah, good question, the CEO could be told to GO.
    Fancy appointing a high-profile panel of the great and good of UK architecture and design, then not use them, or even let them talk in public ! It can’t be doing much for Croydon’s reputation in such exalted circles. Red faces all round at the RIBA, I hope.

  6. Is any member of the Place Review Panel actually based in Croydon? It’s difficult to judge something you can only experience on paper.

    • The panel is supposed to consider proposals. They are not there to judge existing, already built buildings – so they will, by definition, be checking out designs and blueprints that form part of any proposal. They do that by reviewing the planning materials and the panel meeting in Croydon once a month, which gives them the opportunity to visit the site and see the environment around it.

      At least, that’s the theory. In practice, it’s hard toimagine why they bother at all, apart from as a way for Jo Negrini to transfer more public money to her architect mates.

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