Croydon’s planning department, confronted with a massive workload in the borough’s relentless drive for redevelopment, is struggling under the strain with an exodus of experienced senior employees from an already understaffed office, and reports of some officials being reduced to tears by their managers.Many of the problems in planning can be traced back to Jo Negrini, the council’s CEO, from her time in charge of the department, and from some of her appointments she has made since being promoted.
And the rock-bottom morale in Fisher’s Folly is unlikely to be helped by the probability that one of the latest, more controversial decisions of the council’s planning committee, and the conduct of the chair of that committee, Councillor Paul Scott, seem set to be referred to the local government ombudsman.
Staff at the council had complained of a culture of bullying long before Negrini joined Croydon; one tragic instance is believed by some to have contributed to the suicide of a former colleague after they had been made redundant.
But the most recent allegations from council officials suggest greater pressure is being placed on the planning department’s various sections. Already working with fewer staff than necessary, the shortfall is now being made up with what one observer has described as “a very mixed bag of temps supporting the permanent staff”.
In the past 12 months, at least three experienced planners have left development management (a key section which processes planning applications), two have left policy (the people who oversee the Local Plan) and two design officers have also left, with another about to quit, too. “These really were excellent officers who worked closely with development management to help improve designs,” Inside Croydon has been told.
“The experience and know-how which has been lost cannot be replaced overnight, and at the moment, everyone is under the cosh,” was how one council official described the situation. “Some senior planning officials are working till eight or nine o’clock every night, and over weekends, too.”
The turnover of temporary staff is also high, “which is not helpful in a department like planning, where it is more efficient if the staff know the area well and the council’s policies and the way that the authority works”. The staffing and recruitment issues are made worse because of a shortage of qualified and experienced planning staff in London and the south-east.
But the issues of having an under-staffed planning department at one of the busiest times for development in the borough’s history could yet have far more serious, and longer-term, impact than a mix-up over important paperwork.
The loss of experience from the Local Plan team might explain the embarrassing mix-up recently, with Croydon Council initially submitting to the government’s planning inspectorate its 2015 version of the Local Plan, the version drawn up prior to a costly and lengthy public consultation, rather than the 2016 edition which had been updated to incorporate changes as a result of the consultation.
Croydon’s Labour council is gung-ho to bulldoze through schemes for 1,000 new homes each year by Brick by Brick, Negrini’s brainchild of a council-owned developer. And this is on top of the demands of giving what a Fisher’s Folly insider has described as “the kid gloves treatment” to Westfield and the associated Compulsory Purchase Order for the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre area.
Planning staff have been constantly frustrated by the lack of know-how and understanding of their functions by Negrini and, more recently, Heather Cheesbrough, the director of planning who joined Croydon last year.
It has been suggested that Cheesbrough admitted on her arrival from her previous job at Hounslow that there were some fundamental things about planning which she did not know. Given that £90,000-plus Cheesbrough’s main responsibility is the successful delivery of the £1.4billion Westfield and Hammerson scheme, that could prove to be a bit of an issue.
But it’s nothing that the staff and managers in the planning department were not familiar with after a couple of years of working for Negrini.
“She hasn’t got a bloody clue what is going on in planning,” is one description of Croydon’s high-profile, Cannes conference-attending, RIBA award-winning chief executive who previously was in charge of… planning.
“She has to refer everything to one of the department’s senior managers, which just adds to his workload.
“She’ll have a very vague idea about the latest with the big ticket stuff, but that’s it.
“If you want an example, just look at what she told developers at that session at MIPIM in Cannes – vacuous bullshit, from beginning the end. Yet she holds complete control over the council, including Newman and the elected councillors, who are even less well-informed than she is. As far as they’re concerned, what Jo wants, she gets.”
Newman and his Labour group have yet to find a way round the political fall-out of Negrini’s £3million council loan to Boxpark, in which she failed to include any funding conditions such as the nature of the business to be conducted on the Ruskin Square site next to East Croydon Station. The council thought it was going to get a load of chic boutiques and fashion outlets, just as with Boxpark’s Shoreditch operation; what they got instead was 10-quid burgers and a load of over-priced bars.
Negrini’s Boozepark loan also failed to ensure that any of the traders on the site, or Boxpark itself, complies with the Labour council’s policy on paying the London Living Wage, a massive, and expensive, missed opportunity in an employment sector notorious for its poor pay and conditions.
Within Croydon’s planning team, perhaps the biggest, mounting resentment is that, before her promotion to CEO, it had been Negrini who had put forward staff reductions within the already stretched planning department in the latest redundancy round forced by government austerity cuts.
“It was her big play to curry favour with her then boss, Nathan Elvery. But it just demonstrated that she had no real grasp of the department, its staff or the workload, which she is adding to by the day.”On top of all that, the planning department could be facing the disruption of at least one serious complaint to the local government ombudsman as a consequence of the behaviour of the planning committee chair, Councillor Paul Scott.
The planning committee is made up of elected councillors, who receive reports on applications for planning permission drafted by the council’s professional staff, usually with a recommendation on a course of action, supposedly based on law and council policy.
Last month, the planning department report had recommended granting planning permission for a development of flats close to the railway lines near Purley Oaks Station, though for some reason an expert submission highlighting the flood risks in the area was withdrawn at the 11th hour.
Scott’s position as chair of the planning committee is supposed to be entirely neutral.But increasingly, he is being seen as utterly compromised.
The Labour Woodside councillor is an architect by profession. He is also married to Councillor Alison Butler, who is the cabinet member responsible for meeting the council’s tough targets on housing – Croydon wants to build nearly 10,000 homes in five years, three times as many as other outer London boroughs south of the Thames.
At the most recent meeting, Scott was witnessed by the public to persuade another committee member to change their vote, with the effect of pushing through permission. It is against the law for anyone to lobby or try to influence any member of a local authority planning committee. The matter has now been taken up on behalf of residents in the neighbourhood by the Tory MP for Croydon South, Chris Philp.
At the Purley Oaks discussion, Scott declared an interest, since he said he may have known the architect working for the applicant. Yet, despite multiple objections to the scheme from ward councillors, the MP and residents, Scott still used his casting vote to give planning permission for the application, perhaps in the knowledge that the system is rigged in favour of developers, because there is no third-party right of appeal.
Residents have considered taking the decision to a Judicial Review, but the legal costs of such a process run into the tens of thousands. “Which is why people like Scott are so cocky about pushing crap through,” our Katharine Street source said.
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