Has Croydon’s planning worm turned? KEN LEE reports from the Town Hall chamber, where two developments of little merit were both rejected last night
Residents in Crystal Palace are preparing themselves for a long-term battle over the future of the Queen’s Hotel on Church Road, after two Labour councillors on the planning committee last night decided to support their cause by rejecting the recommendations of council officials, defying the all-powerful committee chairman, and throwing out a proposal to rebuild the Victorian pile into a 530-room low-rent mega-hostel.
The in-built Labour majority on the 10-strong planning committee was undone by Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, a councillor for South Norwood ward where the hotel is sited, and Jamie Audsley, who both defied council officials and the dire warnings from Paul Scott, the chair, by voting with the four Tory councillors on the committee. Not that planning committee matters are ever decided along party lines, oh no (see below for more on that little canard).
Euro Hotels, the owners of the run-down Queen’s Hotel, are certain now to appeal against the decision, which could cost their business many millions of pounds in lost revenues from providing over-priced accommodation to coach-loads of young tourists and a state-funded halfway house for homeless refugees.
The motion to oppose the expansion plans was moved by Conservative councillor Chris Wright, who spoke of “the misery of local residents” likely to be caused by the over-sized hotel and the traffic it would generate if it was allowed to go ahead. “There are so many things that are really bad about this development, the fact that we’ve got so far with it appalls me,” Wright said. “I move to refuse.”
The surprise came when Trakas-Lawlor seconded Wright’s motion.
Trakas-Lawlor raised many familiar objections on planning grounds, such as the scale, the traffic issues, the closeness to existing, heritage residential properties.
Trakas-Lawlor, a former Mayor of Croydon, emphasised that the scheme was opposed by two local MPs (both Labour), two members of the Greater London Authority (one Labour, one Tory, in Steve O’Connell), and by his ward colleague, Patsy Cummings, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the residents. In his brief speech, O’Connell had decried the development, describing it as “preposterous”. After the proposal had been given a big build-up by a couple of council staff, O’Connell said, “I admire the valiant attempts of the planning officer and transport officer to defend the indefensible.”
Nearly 250 individual residents had submitted objections, and around 25 of them were in the public gallery for the meeting. “Reasonable people with reasonable objections,” was how Trakas-Lawlor described them before announcing that he agreed with Wright and O’Connell and therefore he would second the motion to reject the application.
Scott glared at his colleague. “Councillor,” Scott said from the chair with an air of menace, “I have to warn you, I think the comments you have made in terms of how you are judging this decision are entirely against the whole principle of how we are required to make decisions.”
Scott could clearly see the direction this part of the meeting was going, and here was the chair of the planning committee, not for the first time, seeking to influence the decision of one of the committee members, and doing so by outlining for the applicants a potential line of appeal.
“Whether we like the planning system of not, we have to follow the guidance… Your decision needs to be made on material planning reasons,” Scott said, suggesting that his Labour colleague should “qualify what you have said”.
When Trakas-Lawlor sought to do so, Scott interrupted him, snapping back, “Stop interrupting.”
Once he was allowed to speak again, Trakas-Lawlor maintained that his decision was based on material planning reasons, and he would not be changing his vote.
The procedure at the meeting is often skewed in favour of the developers, and this was the case last night. Both the developers and objectors get equivalent time to present their cases – an all-too-brief couple of minutes – and each councillor on the committee is able to ask questions.
But Scott, as meeting chair, often allows council officials to talk for an unlimited period of time on the proposals, often in most favourable terms.
One observer last night, with extensive professional experience of planning matters at a national and local level, told Inside Croydon, “Of course, council planning officials must make the recommendation which they consider correct in their professional opinion, and it is perfectly right that they explain and defend it robustly in the face of challenges from objectors and councillors.
“I do feel, from what I have seen, that Croydon officers are sometimes going beyond that, and pushing a particular line which could leave them exposed to the misapprehension that they are siding with developers, rather than maintaining professional detachment.
“Procedural changes over the last few years have greatly increased the airtime which both the presenting officer and Pete Smith [the council’s senior planning officer], get in relation to other participants, including objectors.”
And Scott, as chair of the committee, also likes to have his two penn’orth.
Last night, he waxed lyrical about the hotel scheme for a whole six minutes. If you had seen proceedings and did not know any better, you would not have known that Scott was supposed to be a neutral meeting chairman, and you might have thought he was an architect working for the developers.
Scott made assertions that were factually inaccurate (the hotel building does not pre-date the many mid-century, listed buildings in the conservation area, as he tried to claim). He dismissed concerns about parking. “It’s hard to see how the level of parking will be worsened by this development,” Scott said, apparently seriously. The increase in traffic is what should be expected if living in London, Scott said.
“The design is good,” architect Scott said, when the best that anyone else at the meeting could find to say about the monstrous carbuncle was that it was “symmetrical”.
“The scheme is ambitious, it is positive for the town.” Local planning requires hotel developments to be in the district centre, which the Queen’s Hotel is not. This planning requirement was brushed aside by Scott. “It’s very close to the district centre,” he said.
“It’s a heritage asset which will be improved,” Scott told the meeting, without irony.
Scott sometimes gives himself two votes on planning matters – one as a committee member, and then another one as chairman if it is necessary to win the decision.
It may be that after putting forward his views for the developers, he felt that it might come to a casting vote.
Scott called on Councillor Audsley, the hero of paper cup users throughout Thornton Heath. Possibly unwilling to get drawn into a spat with the chair, when asked for his view and vote, all Audsley said was, “There are too many concerns about this proposal.” Audsley voted to refuse permission.
It was a 6-4 split to reject the proposal. Scott, Humayun Kabir, Joy Prince and Pat Clouder voted to approve. Trakas-Lawlor, Audsley, Wright, Jason Perry, Sue Winborn and Richard Chatterjee voted to reject.
After that, Scott needed to vent some smoke from his ears, and he adjourned the meeting for 10 minutes.
The Queen’s Hotel proposal was not the only application which was rejected last night.
After nearly four years of the Tory councillors on the planning committee voting against every back-garden development proposal, last night’s meeting saw the committee consider an application to build two houses in the back garden of a house in Purley owned by… the Croydon Tories.
Scott, as he is entitled to as chair of planning, called this application in to the planning committee for a ruling. In doing so, he sought to highlight the blatant greed and hypocrisy of the Tories over such development issues. Yet he may have also managed to highlight himself and his Labour colleagues as thundering hypocrites, too.
Quite properly, because they all had a vested interest in the outcome, the four Conservative councillors on the planning committee all excused themselves from this part of the meeting.
That left the six Labour councillors at the meeting to consider the merits, or otherwise, of the proposal. One member of the committee cannot remember a previous instance in the last year or so of a back-garden development being rejected.
This one was, though, by a vote of 6-0.
Not that planning committee matters are ever decided along party lines, you understand.
For the second time in the evening, Scott may have opened himself up to further complaints over his handling of planning matters.
- Read the considered report from the council’s own experts, the North Croydon Conservation Area Advisory Panel, by clicking here
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