Our housing correspondent, BARRATT HOLMES, reports on cross-party opposition to a property speculators’ multi-million-pound scheme that could change the exclusive Whitgift Estate forever
Sarah Jones, Croydon Central’s Labour MP, will tomorrow night speak out at a Town Hall meeting against a recommendation from the planning department of the Labour-run council, by opposing planning approval for a scheme to build flats on the Whitgift Estate in her constituency.
Last month, Jones was appointed as Labour’s shadow spokesperson on housing.
Also expected to speak at the Town Hall tomorrow, and opposing the recommendation from the council’s planning officials, will be Steve O’Connell, the Tory London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton.
Residents on the exclusive Whitgift Estate fear that if the scheme – which involves demolishing an existing house and replacing it with a money-spinning block of flats – gets approval, it would begin the process of changing the area into a flat land, similar to other neighbouring areas.
The meeting has a very heavy agenda, which runs to nearly 130 pages, and sees proposals for many sites across the borough several of which are similar in that they represent the area being intensified into high occupancy use, reflecting the huge housing pressures in Croydon. Councillors on the committee will likely be sitting for more than five hours, perhaps even to midnight.
Included on the agenda are also the revised, though still controversial, plans for the enlargement of the Queen’s Hotel in Crystal Palace, which was previously rejected by the committee when Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, the popular former Mayor, was a member.
Trakas-Lawlor was removed from his planning committee duties soon afterwards for having dared speak up on behalf of residents and defying the will of chair of planning, his Labour colleague Paul Scott, and the council’s head of planning, Pete Smith.
Smith’s planning department’s recommendation for tomorrow night’s meeting is to grant permission to the Queen’s Hotel application.
Scott is often criticised for represeenting what many see as an over-concentration of power in the council. Scott was recently promoted into Tony Newman’s council cabinet while retaining his planning committee chairmanship. He is married to Alison Butler, Labour’s deputy leader and the cabinet member for housing.
Scott has in the past joked to the committee about his determination to “concrete over” Croydon.
The planning committee is not supposed to operate along party political lines, but somehow invariably does. Since last month’s local elections, Labour’s previous planning committee members, with experience of applications from the likes of the Queen’s Hotel and Scott’s unique style of managing planning business, have all been cast aside.
Three of the six Labour councillors who hold the majority on the committee are new to the council, including vice-chair Muhammad Ali. Of the quartet of Tories on the committee, only Jason Perry has any experience of the council’s planning process, and bombastic Scott.
The application for planning permission on the Whitgift Estate is symptomatic of the kind of over-development facing so many parts of the borough, with speculative schemes being put forward to transform single-family houses into blocks comprising eight or more homes, in developments which will change the character of a neighbourhood forever.
Under Scott – dubbed “The General” by his mate, Newman – that is unimportant.
The four-bedroom house at 114 Addiscombe Road, as shown in the planning committee’s report, sits in a generous-sized plot. The property appears to have been sold for around £600,000 in April 2017. Nine new flats put on the market in such a desirable area are estimated as likely to fetch at least £2.5million.
The planning application is brought on behalf of a company which was registered around the time the house changed hands, and is called Addiscombe Treehouse Ltd.
According to Companies House records, Addiscombe Treehouse’s business is “the buying and selling of own real estate”. It operates out of offices in Crayford, Kent, and has a single director, 34-year-old Lyndon Modeste. Modeste is also a director of two other companies registered at the same Crayford address.
The proposal for 114 Addiscombe Road is to build in its place nine flats (five of them two-bedroomed), while providing only five parking spaces.
Baldly, the report recommends that councillors approve the application as, “The proposed new building would preserve the character of the area.” As those more familiar with the planning process than the six rookie councillors on the committee would expect, the council official who compiled the report has done nothing to justify that sweeping statement.
With developers having secured option buy-outs on a number of other properties on the Whitgift Estate, the passage of this planning application could set the precedent for the transformation of the Whitgift Estate, with single dwellings being demolished and their plots being used to build blocks of flats.
He said: “Even that will not be enough to meet the full demand that is anticipated.”
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, wants Croydon to build those homes much quicker, setting a target of 29,490 to be built in Croydon in just 10 years. Even Scott is against that acceleration and the Labour council may yet oppose Khan’s draft London Plan, due to be put in place next year.
But in the context of the housing pressure, Scott has already made it clear that there are no “no-go areas” for new housing. He said, “There isn’t anywhere in Croydon where there are detached houses where we wouldn’t allow semi-detached houses.” Or flats, it seems.
The Addiscombe Road plans show that the flats would have their car park up against the gardens of neighbouring, detached houses on Fitzjames Avenue. The car park will also have space for 17 bicycles, whose riders will daily face competition for road space with the articulated lorries and buses on the busy adjacent A232.
In total, there have been 312 objections submitted against the 114 Addiscombe Road scheme.
Those objectors will together be granted a grand total of three minutes to speak at the meeting – one minute for each of three nominated resident speakers.
Scott, meanwhile, is expected to air his views, at length and repeatedly, whenever it suits him, while council officials will be granted a 15-minute slot to speak in favour of the application. Modeste, or his agents, will also get three minutes.
The residents affected, in common with objectors to other schemes pushed through the planning committee by Scott, feel that this is unfair and unbalanced.
Which is why MP Jones’s decision to speak on behalf of her constituents was so welcomed. As well as Jones and O’Connell, Park Hill and Whitgift ward councillor Vidhi Mohan will also speak on their behalf.
It may well be around the council’s high-handed attitude to change of character that the three politicians’ concerns will concentrate.
Residents feel that the council were dismissive of character concerns from the start of the application process last summer, even at the pre-application stage where the developer pays the council a fee to brief them about the application.
The long delay between first consideration of applications and decision by committee emphasises just how slow the process is, thus blocking much-needed housing.
Understaffed and overworked local authority planning departments, not just in Croydon, are as much a reason why housing does not get built as the opposition of neighbouring residents.
And whoever it was who drafted the planning department’s report on this application had clearly not bothered to read the council’s own, recently adopted Croydon Plan. That states that the Whitgift Estate is, “a good example of the residential character of detached houses on relatively large plots”.
With Scott on a mission to get his committee to deliver on Croydon’s 33,000 new homes, it will likely not matter what’s written in the Croydon Plan, despite the five years of consultation and the costly Planning Inspector’s public inquiry that went into it.
At the election last month, Mohan won Park Hill and Whitgift’s single seat, but it was the Conservatives’ fourth most marginal ward. Development pressures, and Scott’s bullying approach to planning matters and the committee, were both issues at the election, the latter prompting widespread public complaints.
The depressing thought for Whitgift Estate residents will be that, even if it was a Conservative-controlled council, they too would be granting planning permission to such schemes. The neighbours of 114 Addiscombe Road might even be persuaded to consider getting a valuation on their own properties, and consider how much it might all be worth if they can squeeze nine flats on to them.
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