BARRATT HOLMES, our housing correspondent, on the legal challenge facing the Labour council’s private house builder
Croydon Labour go into the last week before the local election with its deputy leader and her husband served with legal documents which could see them dragged into the High Court over their involvement with Brick by Brick, the council’s private building company.
The council received the letter, a Judicial Review pre-action protocol, this week, in respect of a case that is being brought by residents in a usually strongly Labour-voting area, South Norwood.
Planning permission was granted at the end of March by the council’s planning committee, chaired by Paul Scott, for a scheme to build a three-storey tall block of flats on garages and a forecourt north of Avenue Road in SE25. The scheme is being brought by Brick by Brick. The council cabinet member responsible for housing, and Brick by Brick, is Alison Butler, Labour’s deputy leader. Butler and Scott are a married couple.
The legal letter lays out the case which is being brought by neighbours affected by the back-garden development. The resident bringing the case is Alex Toogood. Her home’s garden, and the homes of other residents, be overshadowed by the Brick by Brick building, which looks like something taken straight from Erich Honecker’s East Germany.
Her lawyers’ letter lays out a litany of conflicts of interest between Scott, Butler, the council and Brick by Brick which, it suggests, pre-determined and prejudiced the quasi-judicial planning process, which is supposed to judge the merits of every planning application on its individual merits.
“Of the 41 planning applications that have been submitted by [Brick by Brick] to the council,” the legal letter states, “none has yet been refused.”
Inside Croydon understands that the lawyers acting for Toogood and her neighbours may have evidence which suggests that the council planning committee under Scott has pre-determined that all Brick by Brick schemes must be granted planning permission. If proven, such an allegation could even lead to a criminal prosecution.
The Judicial Review letter also highlights that the local Labour MP, Steve Reed OBE, has voiced his concerns about the close relationship between the council and its housing developer.
Reed, who has also opposed other Brick by Brick developments in his constituency because of their over-development of areas of social housing, had aired his concerns in an email in September last year. There, Reed expressed concerns about democratic safeguards to ensure that Brick by Brick “remains sufficiently arm’s length to guarantee that it has no undue influence over planning decisions. It is important to residents affected by these developments that the council’s planning function is, and is seen to be, fully independent of its role as a developer.”
The lawyers’ letter to Croydon Council cites several examples of alleged bias in the planning process, and Scott’s role, as well as quoting the Labour councillor stating that he does not see the role of planning chair as involving his remaining impartial during committee debates.
Today, Toogood said, “Although the development we’re fighting is a small, 12-unit block, this is part of a much bigger problem. While on the surface it looks good that the council is planning to build more homes, these Brick by Brick developments are often too large for the sites they are being built in, in the wrong locations, and the wrong type of housing, to the detriment of local people and communities. And they’re being approved despite huge public objection and concern on planning grounds.
“Brick by Brick are building the majority of homes for private sale, and no social housing. Recent figures show that more than 60 per cent will be sold privately, while only 7 per cent will be for affordable rent. And building on green space, playgrounds and in-fill sites is a pattern for Brick by Brick.
“For example, the development currently being built on Auckland Rise and Sylvan Hill: Brick by Brick are digging up all the green space on that estate and yet not a single one of the 57 homes proposed could be described as a council home.
“By creating a private company, the council has moved it away from public scrutiny. They don’t act on input or concerns from the local community, and many of the developments contravene local, regional and national policy.
“The council’s planning department, and the planning committee chaired by Councillor Paul Scott, have granted permission for every single Brick by Brick development – over 30 developments so far. This goes far beyond a reasonable desire to build new homes and instead virtually ignores all planning policy. The committee aren’t doing their job properly as they are not basing their decisions on evidence.
“And crucially, we feel that the participation of Councillor Paul Scott in the decision to grant planning permission for the Avenue Road development and others gives rise to an appearance of bias. Councillor Scott is the deputy of Councillor Alison Butler, the cabinet member responsible for Brick by Brick. As her deputy, he is also therefore responsible for Brick by Brick – and yet he is allowed to chair the planning committee, thereby holding some influence on its decisions. Not only that, he is married to Councillor Butler.
“Meanwhile, the CEO of Brick by Brick is a Croydon Council director. We feel this is a clear conflict of interest.
“We feel that the Avenue Road site would be ideal for bungalows or family homes, not a three-storey building with 12 one- and two-bedroom flats crammed in. We met with the council and the developer before they submitted their plans, but they claimed they couldn’t amend their proposal as it would no longer be viable.
“It’s time this situation was rectified, and the only way to do this is through legal action. This is why we need your help – not just for the families impacted by the Avenue Road development, but those affected by all these developments being built without consideration of local residents and communities.
“If you’ve been impacted by these developments, or are shocked by what’s going on across our borough, please support us in our legal fight.”
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