Brick by Brick is concreting over the borough, block by block, and one senior councillor is not going to let anyone get in the way of the council’s housing company. But as BARRATT HOLMES reports, the council’s affordable homes target is slipping badly
This week’s planning committee meeting at the Town Hall caused uproar again as a Labour councillor, in the Labour-controlled council, refused to allow a Labour shadow minister speak on behalf of his constituents.
Paul Scott, the chair of the planning committee, was up to his tricks yet again as he helps to drive through developments on council-owned property which appear to benefit the businesses of house builders and architects, while ignoring the interests of residents.
Scott is married to Alison Butler, the Labour-run council’s cabinet member for housing. Scott’s day job is as an architect.
Among the applications for planning permission considered on Wednesday was another batch submitted on behalf of Brick by Brick, the council-owned development company which has been set a target of 1,000 homes on publicly owned sites. Among these was a scheme to build between existing council-built homes near Church Road, Auckland Rise and Sylvan Hill in Upper Norwood.
Block by Block wants to build six blocks of between three and five storeys, for 57 homes. Only 19 of these properties will be shared ownership, while the other 38 homes will all go for private sale. Even modest, ex-council one-bedroom flats in the area have recently been selling for £320,000.
Scott, who is a director at architects TP Bennett, describes the proposals (which can be accessed here) as “a well-designed scheme” and says that “it will help to pay for affordable homes in the area”.
Yet such is the opposition locally to the council-sponsored in-fill scheme that a new residents’ group has been formed, and they turned out in force on Wednesday night.
Scott began the meeting by delivering a speech calling on the members of his committee to consider the need for more housing. One veteran of council planning described the chair’s intervention in this manner as “unprecedented”. And when it came to decide on the Auckland Rise application, Scott read from pre-prepared notes – so nothing that had been said at the sham of a meeting appeared to any importance with the committee chairman.
This was an additional meeting, arranged since the General Election was called, and was held despite the strict purdah rules banning any political activity by local authorities during the election campaign. Scott used the General Election as an excuse to deny Steve Reed OBE, who is seeking re-election as the MP for Croydon North, and Steve O’Connell, the Conservative London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton, an opportunity to speak at the meeting.
Both oppose the scheme, which Reed has described as “overdevelopment”.
Scott refused to allow the senior politicians to speak “on technical grounds”. The technical grounds would be that, since the dissolution of parliament, Reed is technically not an MP. That a Labour councillor should use this to deny the Labour Party’s candidate in a safe Labour seat the chance to represent the people who in two weeks’ time could be voting for him may seem a perverse abuse of the law – especially since Scott will have approved the date of the meeting during the purdah period.
It was left to a Conservative councillor on the planning committee, Luke Clancy, to call on the chairman to use his discretion to allow Reed and O’Connell to speak on behalf of the residents.
Scott, who is already subject to an investigation into his conduct at a previous planning meeting, does not even bother to disguise his arrogance and contempt any longer. “And councillor,” Scott said, sneeringly, “why would I do that? We only use discretion in particular very special circumstances.”
Clancy responded: “You could have decided it was in the public interest. Instead dissent is gagged as this administration continues a policy of building at any cost.”
Reed had at least submitted a letter to the committee in which he summarised the many short-comings of the scheme and residents’ objections.
In his letter to the committee, Reed wrote: “Croydon North is the most densely populated part of Croydon and one of the most densely populated parts of London. We already have a shortage of GPs, severe pressure on school places, overcrowded public transport during peak periods, and very poor traffic flows on overcrowded roads that contributes to poor air quality.”
Reed was critical of the scheme for failing to meet the council’s own targets. “Only 37 per cent of the new-build is affordable, and there is no social housing.” Existing tenants on Auckland Rise fear that the intention is to gentrify the area, ultimately pricing them out of their homes.
Reed also highlighted that a large number of disabled and vulnerable residents currently housed on the estate had not been properly considered. “I am advised there has been no impact assessment carried out on vulnerable residents, some living with mental ill-health, whose needs should be properly taken into account in reaching a final decision…
“The estate was originally designed around a large number of established trees and to provide a pleasant living environment with plenty of green space. The proposed six new blocks threaten to overwhelm this with a loss of trees and green space…” At least 28 mature trees will be hacked down to make way for Block by Block’s blocks – trees which council planners of a previous era had carefully built around to provide a wildlife corridor between Beaulah Heights and Oakland Woods – both designated conservation areas, remnants of the ancient Great North Wood.
“I do not believe Auckland Rise is an appropriate location for development as currently proposed,” Reed wrote.
Resident Tabihitha Wilson, whom Scott did allow to speak to the meeting, highlighted that the council would be going ahead with a scheme which fails to meet its own planning guideline on light for properties, and that it is more intensive than a scheme which its own planning department had rejected, twice, five years ago. Then, the council official wrote: “The siting and massing of the development wouldn’t respect existing buildings or the spaces on the estate.”
Wilson told Wednesday night’s meeting, “Nothing has changed since then, except the development now before you is far bigger and more destructive.
“Brick by Brick will turn the estate into a cramped, discordant ghetto,” Wilson said.
And there is growing cynicism about the council’s much-trumpeted targets for affordable and social housing. Butler and her boss, Tony Newman, have often boasted that Brick by Brick will deliver 50 per cent affordable housing, while happy to flog off the other half on the private market to overseas investors.
Even as the Block by Block planning applications tick through, it is becoming clear that they are struggling to meet their self-termed “ambitious” target, with Scott quoted in the Guildford Advertiser as saying, “The build on Auckland Rise and Sylvan Hill is part of a wider scheme to provide 43 per cent of affordable homes to the borough.”
Note that: 43 per cent. Not 50 per cent. It seems that Croydon Labour’s Gang of Four has just moved its own goal posts.
The Auckland Rise scheme delivers only 33per cent affordable housing, and no social housing for rent at all.
When it came to a vote, predictably the committee split on party lines, with six Labour councillors voting for and four Tories opposing. Planning committee decisions are not supposed to be made along party lines.
Residents affected have no right of appeal against a council planning committee ruling on a council development company’s scheme, though they say that they will fight on.
Robert de la Poer, of the newly formed action group, told Inside Croydon, “We feel this decision was decided long before the meeting even began. We are fully aware that the council-owned Brick by Brick requires every one of their ‘tranche’ of eight applications to be approved or risk the whole project becoming financially unviable. Since the Auckland Rise site is considered a ‘recipient’ for other social and affordable housing ‘donor’ sites, it is vital to the success of the Labour-backed project.
“The designation of such ‘donor’ sites is against the spirit and letter of planning policies and guidelines in Croydon and across the country, as it encourages ghettoisation. It is equally unfair to residents of sites which are effectively hung out to dry in order to squeeze out cash to pay for overdevelopment elsewhere.
“We believe this decision was made in an accountant’s office. We are exploring our options and will be calling the validity of the whole process into question.”
It could be that Councillor Scott could yet be facing another complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.
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