KEN LEE reports on the latest shocking development (cough) surrounding the failures of the council planning department
Croydon Council has failed to fulfill its statutory, legal obligations over planning applications. Who says? The head of Croydon Council’s planning department, that’s who.
Yesterday, Inside Croydon carried a Commentary from former council planning committee chair, Adrian Dennis, which accused the council of failing to meet even the most minimal of standards in properly consulting residents of a property which its owners want demolished.
Now, this website has obtained a letter from a senior council official which admits that his department failed to include the comments from a statutory consultee, Network Rail, when preparing a report on a housing development near the main railway line in Purley.
Pete Smith is Croydon Council’s “head of development management planning and strategic transport”.
Or “head of planning” for those who prefer more succinct and meaningful job titles.
His letter, written in May this year, follows a formal complaint about the conduct of a planning application from a private developer to squeeze 37 homes on to a scrap of land close to the London-to-Brighton main railway near Norman Avenue and Derrick Avenue at Purley Oaks.
The planning committee meeting, staged in late March, sparked controversy because the chair, Labour councillor Paul Scott, was recorded on video from the public gallery, when he appeared to coerce another committee member into changing her vote, enabling the application to go forward. Scott and his Labour colleague, Councillor Maggie Mansell, have since denied that any such coercion took place, possibly because such conduct by committee members is illegal.
But now, according to Smith, the committee made its decision at that meeting without having the comments of a statutory consultee included in the planning department’s report to the meeting.
Network Rail is a statutory consultee on all developments close to their railway tracks and land – the law requires local authorities, such as Croydon, to seek their views on such cases, with the expectation that their comments will be relayed to members of the planning committee.
In this case, that never happened.
In Smith’s letter, in response to a complaint from residents on Norman and Derrick Avenues, he writes, “As you will be aware, the report to planning committee summarised the objections received from members of the public, as set out at paragraph 6.3. These issues were addressed in the ‘Material Planning Considerations’ section of the report and I believe that the issues raised by objectors were adequately summarised and considered.
“As you may know, the procedure at planning committee is that officers present a summary of the scheme and key issues verbally to members, who previously had an opportunity to scrutinise the written report and addendum. Following the presentation there is an opportunity for members of the committee to ask questions of officers in order to clarify issues. A significant number of questions were asked on this proposal, suggesting that the committee took a decision with a full understanding of the issues, having made sure that they had clear information in front of them upon which to base their decisions.
“The report does not include the comments received from Network Rail, who are a statutory consultee and commented on the scheme. I am unsure why this was not included and appears to have been in error, for which I apologise. The issues which Network Rail raised were addressed in the detailed wording of planning conditions, which includes a requirement for details of how facades would be maintained adjacent to the rail line.”
It is hard to imagine how elected councillors, as members of the planning committee, can possibly make, in Smith’s words, “a decision with a full understanding of the issues”, if the council’s professional planners deny them access to the comments from a statutory consultee. Though it is good to see that Smith has a grip on the situation: “I am unsure why this was not included and appears to have been in error”.
There were other errors in the planning department’s report, too, such as the name of the applicant: at the time of the application, there was no record of Purley Oaks LLP registered with Companies House.
And a report from the LLFA, the quango responsible for avoiding flood risks in built up areas – the area around Purley Oaks Station is notorious for suffering from flash flooding – was mysteriously withdrawn less than one hour before the committee meeting began, with no satisfactory explanation offered to residents.
A report on the noise and vibration levels on the site, from trains rumbling at full speed to Brighton or London, was also not conducted properly.
These appear to be significant failures and oversights, in a single planning report. It is impossible to say with any confidence that similar errors are not included in other reports from the council’s planning department.
Norman and Derrick Avenue residents say that in their case, the council official’s report to committee was incomplete and misleading.
Andrew Seddington, one of the residents affected, told Inside Croydon, “Residents do not agree with Smith’s assertions in his letter that the absence of the Network Rail comments from the report resulted in an unsound decision or that the planning committee would have come to a different decision.
“Residents remain convinced that the weight of comments by a statutory consultee such as Network Rail would have made a different outcome far more likely.”
Smith was appointed to his job by Jo Negrini when she was the executive director in charge of the borough’s planning department. Negrini is now the council chief executive, so any intervention in this case is likely to reflect badly on her judgement.
The Norman and Derrick Avenues residents’ formal complaint over the matter is still being pursued, and may yet result in the local government ombudsman being called in to adjudicate on the matter.
There is widespread and gathering disquiet about the work of Croydon’s planning department and the conduct of the council planning committee, which has seen a petition raised and backed by 10 residents’ groups from across the borough – Purley and Woodcote Residents’ Association and the Heathfield Gardens Residents/Tenants Group have recently added their endorsement to the petition.
There is even a suggestion that one group of neighbours affected by development plans is considering taking their case to the High Court through a Judicial Review.
For more on Brick by Brick and the council’s planning committee decisions, check out the Inside Croydon archive (the petitioners certainly have):
- Anger at Planning Committee as Scott sways Purley vote
- Call for residents to band together over planning issues
- What’s the point of the planning committee with Scott in charge?
- Negrini absurd response over planning conflicts of interest
- Complaint filed to ombudsman over Scott’s conduct
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