BARRATT HOLMES, our housing correspondent, on a startling statement from the council planning committee chair which could be seen to prejudice all decisions on Brick by Brick housing
There are mounting concerns among senior figures on Katharine Street, from both political parties represented at the Town Hall, that the council’s planning committee’s decisions over its Brick by Brick developments could be vulnerable to a legal challenge through the High Court.
The Labour-run council’s planning committee meets tonight for the latest batch of applications from Brick by Brick, the council’s wholly owned housing developer. On the agenda are Brick by Brick schemes in Coulsdon, as well as a controversial scheme in South Norwood which has attracted objections from a Labour MP in support of existing residents in the area.
All the applications have been recommended for approval by council planning officials. All previous Brick by Brick schemes have been granted planning permission by the planning committee. And all the applications being presented tonight are expected to be rubber-stamped by the committee, which has a majority of Labour councillors.
And therein lies the grounds for a potentially lengthy and expensive High Court legal action against Croydon Council because its planning committee, under the chairmanship of Labour councillor Paul Scott, has acted in a prejudicial and predetermined manner for a number of planning applications, especially in the case of Brick by Brick schemes.
Speaking at a recent planning sub-committee meeting, Scott’s innate arrogance got the better of him when he announced from the chair that, “There isn’t anywhere in Croydon with detached houses where we wouldn’t allow semi-detached houses. I am in favour of mixed housing everywhere.”
This has been taken by those attending the meeting as a clear endorsement by Scott of Brick by Brick’s policy of using back garden and in-fill sites in what many see as clumsy and imposed overdevelopments around the borough.
Such an endorsement from a key member of the Blairite “Gang of Four” which controls the Labour group on Croydon Council is hardly surprising; Scott, after all, is married to Labour deputy leader Alison Butler, the council cabinet member overseeing Brick by Brick’s plans.
But Scott’s remark – and when challenged this week, Scott did not deny saying it – is the latest clear example of his failure to conduct planning committee matters in the impartial, quasi-judicial manner required by the law.
There have been other examples where Croydon’s chair of planning and his committee have failed to conduct themselves in the unbiased manner demanded of them.
In one case, when considering an application in Purley by a private developer, Scott was video’d by a member of the public in the gallery as he glared at another Labour member of the committee until she changed her vote so that the application went through. It was following the controversy over that meeting that the council began to webcast Scott’s planning meetings.
It is not only Scott who has demonstrated blatant bias for the council’s own building projects. At a pre-application presentation for Brick by Brick flats on Avenue Road in South Norwood, which has its application before the committee tonight, the committee’s vice-chair, Humayun Kabir, clearly stated that he “liked” the scheme and that he intended to support it. So much for going into a planning meeting with an open mind.
The planning committee is not supposed to be run on party lines. Planning committee members are supposed to consider the officers’ reports – which are themselves frequently prejudiced in favour of development schemes – and the presentations made for and against the proposals.
It is illegal for a political group to “whip” its councillors to vote in a particular way.
But sources close to the planning committee have told Inside Croydon that Scott himself has briefed Labour members that “if one Brick by Brick application fails, they all fail”.
If a decision is made by a planning committee and a member is thought to have predetermined their decision, the decision could then be open to a High Court challenge.
Predetermination is used to describe a situation where a member of a planning committee is accused of having “closed their mind” by deciding how to vote before the committee meeting and without considering all the material planning considerations. While they may have a preliminary view on an application, if a committee member makes up their mind on how to vote, without considering all the planning matters and representations on their merits, then they could be accused of predetermining the outcome.
If the court rules that predetermination took place, the decision could be overturned and the planning authority could be forced to take the decision again.
The planning system in England is already weighted heavily in favour of those submitting applications; for example, if an application is refused, the applicant has the right of appeal. There is no such right of appeal for those who objected to a scheme which is granted approval.
But Scott’s blanket approvals for Brick by Brick schemes have generated manifold objections. Croydon’s Trades Union Council and the left-leaning People’s Assembly have also been strongly critical of the way Brick by Brick buildings are being imposed on local communities.
Earlier this month, 17 residents’ groups joined forces to lobby against the schemes in their neighbourhoods, and nearly 100 people turned out last week for a Tory-organised meeting about the developments. Croydon’s Conservatives have since been busy emailing those attendees, and others, encouraging them to turn out at the Town Hall on Monday for a protest at the final full council meeting before the local elections.
The Tories are promising ahead of the May 3 elections to put an immediate halt to Brick by Brick developments should they be elected. As that seems unlikely to happen, a challenge through the law courts against Scott and his committee’s failure to fulfil their duties could become a real option.
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