Jo Negrini, the chief executive of Croydon Council, has refused to intervene over complaints, from the public and one of the borough’s MPs, over potential conflicts of interest of senior councillors in the planning process.
Croydon’s cabinet member for housing and regeneration is Alison Butler, who is driving the council’s policy of building 1,000 homes through the Town Hall-owned company, Brick by Brick. Butler is married to Paul Scott, a councillor for Woodside ward and the chair of Croydon’s planning committee which sits in judgement on all planning applications, including those from Birck by Brick.
Brick by Brick is the development vehicle introduced by Negrini when she was head of the council’s planning department; she appointed her council planning department deputy, Colm Lacey, as the company’s managing director. It would be fair to suggest that Negrini’s professional reputation has much at stake over Brick by Brick.
By a happy coincidence (for those firms being handed the juicy, publicly funded contracts), Brick by Brick appointed around a dozen firms of architects to conduct the design work on its housing schemes, just around the same time that RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects, made Negrini an honorary fellow.
Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, has written to Negrini to complain of the potential conflict of interests in having Scott ruling on planning applications effectively submitted on Butler’s watch.
But Negrini refused to act, saying that there is no connection between Butler, the council’s deputy leader, and Brick by Brick.
“That’s just absurd,” Philp said today. “It is a wholly inadequate response.”
Philp has also requested that the council’s planning meetings should in future be webcast, “so that there is a clear record of Scott’s behaviour”. There are mounting complaints about the abrasive manner in which Scott conducts meetings from the chair, over council-backed schemes as well as those put forward by private developers.
At a planning meeting last month, when a developer submitted an application for houses to be built close to the London to Brighton railway line at Purley Oaks, Scott was witnessed to pressure one of his fellow committee members into changing her vote so that the application would be approved.
Tory councillors on the planning committee accused Scott of “whipping” the wavering committee member, something which is illegal under planning law. Scott claims he had clearance for his actions from the Borough Solicitor.
Scott, himself an architect, had originally excused himself from the matter, saying that he knew the architect involved with the application. Nonetheless, Scott ensured that he used his casting vote to have the application approved.
Last week, Scott and the planning committee approved applications from Brick by Brick for 101 homes across eight sites around the borough, using council land and funding. Half of the properties will be put up for lucrative private sale.
And not a single one of the new properties is to be a council home in the usual sense of the phrase.
It is not only the council’s own schemes which are causing disquiet over overdevelopment. In the past fortnight, an appeal has been sent to Sadiq Khan, as Mayor of London, from existing residents whose homes will be affected by the Purley Oaks scheme.
Calling the council’s drive for development a “debacle”, the residents outlined the relationship between Butler and Scott, half of the Gang of Four which controls the Labour group at the Town Hall.
“Immediately one can see that there is a conflict of interests right there,” the residents’ group writes. They accuse Scott of being biased in his chairing of planning meetings, with “legitimate concerns and objections from residents not being taken into account, data deliberately being withheld and facts being manipulated”.
The area around Purley Oaks Station has been prone to flooding, yet an expert report to be submitted to the planning committee in connection with the application was withdrawn on the day of the meeting.
The residents wrote to Mayor Khan: “Planning permission has been denied by Croydon Council in previous years because they considered the land to be ‘unsuitable for development’, yet now suddenly Paul Scott has pushed, and gotten through, plans to build six blocks of flats in a flood zone that will be concreted over, with the ground level raised, and which will obviously compromise the existing properties and businesses bordering the site.”
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