Croydon College has sold off disused playing fields near the Purley Way to a private firm of housing developers, while the land does not have planning permission for housing.
None of the parties to the secretive deal are willing to divulge the financial terms of the land sale.
But it seems possible that a valuable public asset – playing fields – have been transferred to private interests at a rock-bottom price as part of a multi-million-pound gamble by the developers.
With space on the site for more than 120 homes, the property speculators at London Strategic Land, the new owners, if they are allowed to build on the fields, could end up selling houses worth an estimated total of £40million. Yet they may have acquired the site for less than £1million.
The Heath Clark playing fields, next to Duppas Hill Park, have been vacant since the school they used to serve was closed and bulldozed to make way for housing almost 20 years ago. Then, more than 150 homes were built on what is now called Old School Place.
The school playing fields were passed to Croydon College, but have been largely left unused. No attempt has been made to link the playing fields with the neighbouring park. More recently, the fenced-off playing fields have served as casual grazing for some travellers’ ponies, or as a speedway track for boy racers.
Land prices vary, of course. Elsewhere in Croydon, plots of land without planning permission have been selling for £4,000 per acre.
Yet the asking price for one acre of land with planning permission for housing could be as much as £1million.
The Heath Clark site is estimated to amount to around 10 acres.
Until this year, the Heath Clark playing fields had protected status as local open land, effectively barring any kind of development.
But the current Labour-run council, in preparing the Croydon Local Plan, decided to remove this protection.
In a written answer to council questions last October, Alison Butler, the deputy leader, said that the site could instead be used to build a secondary school and between 62 and 128 new homes.
The reason Butler gave for Heath Clark losing its protected open land status was that it “did not meet the criteria as it is not publically [sic] accessible” – something which has never occurred to the ponies, and their owners, who seem to access the site as they please. Certainly, neither Croydon Council nor the college ever sought to find ways of making the playing fields more readily accessible to local people, as they might have done.
At the recent planning inspector’s hearings on the Croydon Local Plan, consultants working for Croydon College filed lengthy objections to the site’s designation for a school build.
Also observed as attending the inspector’s session which discussed the Heath Clark site was a representative of London Strategic Land, a recently established investment fund management firm, based in the West End and chaired by Mark Tagliaferri.
That inspector’s hearing was on May 31.
At the hearing, the inspector was clearly unimpressed with the council’s submission, which maintained that the site must be used for a new school. The inspector sent the council and the college away and told them to agree something called a Statement of Common Ground and Areas of Dispute.
This was duly done, and a document was signed by the council and the land owners, Croydon College, on June 29.
In the agreement, it states, “Both parties agree that the current level of projected growth in Secondary School places up to 2031 could be met by the identified supply of secondary school places without the need for Heath Clark, provided site 662 (Coombe Road Playing Fields, Coombe Road) and Site 116 (Rees House & Morland Lodge, Morland Road) are delivered in the first 10 years of the Local Plan and population growth is as projected.”
The Statement of Common Ground agreement between the council and Croydon College is not planning permission, and it does not guarantee that the land can be used for housing. But the document appears to have been used by the college to fast-track the land sale to London Strategic Land.
London Strategic are now left to wait for the inspector’s ruling, like a gambler watching the wheels turning on a one-armed bandit. If the inspector rules that Heath Clark should be re-designated as a site for housing, they will have hit the jackpot.
But the company has already had at least one meeting with Croydon Council and been told that they still want the site for a school.
According to Simon Hall, the cabinet member for finance, “The Council has reaffirmed that it continues to consider that this site should be used mainly for educational purposes, with any housing being subsidiary to that.
“It has made representations to that effect in the examination in public with the inspector and explained this to London Strategic Land.
“Obviously, we will all have to see what the Inspector determines, as with all areas where there is dispute.”
London Strategic Land and Croydon College both confirmed today that the land sale had gone through, subject to the usual contractual niceties involved with any six-figure-plus transaction.
Frances Wadsworth, the principal of Croydon College, was not available to answer questions directly about the vast differential in the land’s value if sold without planning permission.
But in a statement to Inside Croydon she said, “It’s land we’ve had for some time but has not been of any particular use to our students.
“Of course, the funds will come in very useful when invested in education, which is a good thing.
“The land is being put to better use.”
London Strategic refused to answer any questions on the circumstances of their Waddon land grab.
Many similar land sales include something called an “overage provision”, so that if planning permission is obtained for the development of the property within 30 years, an additional percentage of the uplift in the value of the property will be due to the seller. That might – might – yield an additional £3million to Croydon College in due course.
But public-owned playing fields will still be lost forever.
The governors at Croydon College include academics and teachers, as well as Martin Corney, the chief executive of the Whitgift Foundation, the biggest landowners in the borough, while the chair of the college’s audit committee is Craig O’Donnell, who works in a senior role at another property developer, Land Securities.
Croydon College, close to East Croydon, is undergoing significant redevelopment work as part of the £30million refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, with some of its property being utilised to build town centre flats by the council-owned house-builders, Brick by Brick.
With government cuts to budgets hitting all education establishments, Croydon College may well have felt squeezed into doing a quick deal. Only when the full figures of the Heath Clark sale are finally made available – if they ever are – will we know whether they have managed to obtain best value out of a public asset being handed over for potentially massive private profit.
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