WALTER CRONXITE, our political editor, on an against-the-odds victory for residents over the council’s planning machine
For the second time in little more than six months, councillors sitting on Croydon’s planning committee have thrown out proposals for a giant-scale redevelopment of a budget hostel at the Queen’s Hotel in Crystal Palace.
The 6-4 vote at the Town Hall meeting prompted the clear, red-faced fury of committee chairman Paul Scott, who by the end of his own lengthy and very partisan presentation had rendered himself a laughing stock among the residents who packed the public gallery.
Last night’s decision is certain to lead to a formal appeal by the developers to the government minister, and probably a public inquiry. The owners of the hotel had threatened as much in their “negotiations” with the council’s planners, effectively a £100,000 threat to the public purse.
Euro Hotels’ £10million redevelopment scheme was only slightly altered from the proposals which had been chucked out last October.
They wanted to add 161 rooms to their run-down 334-room budget hotel. The extra rooms would make it larger than the Park Lane Hilton, and all on an overcrowded residential road in a conservation area, and with poor public transport links.
The scheme had again drawn cross-party opposition, with Labour ward councillor Pat Ryan and Tory London Assembly Member Steve O’Connell both speaking against the proposal.
Local MP, Steve Reed OBE, and Fiona Twycross, the Labour London Assembly Member who lives in the area, also opposed the scheme, alongside hundreds of local residents who live in or near the Church Road Conservation Area, in which the 150-year-old hotel sits.
The matter was discussed and debated for almost two hours. As they had done last year, Croydon Council’s craven planning department had recommended granting approval to the scheme.
Yet despite the best efforts of Scott and Pete Smith, the council’s “head of development management”, to patronise, coerce and browbeat the nine councillors who make up the committee, a majority still voted to reject the scheme.
As well as the four Conservative councillors on the committee – Jason Perry, Oni Oviri, Scott Roche and Simon Brew – two Labour councillors also voted against the scheme: Chris Clark and Clive Fraser.
Those voting in favour of the project were Muhammad Ali, Felicity Flynn and Toni Letts, while Scott, despite being the chair of the meeting, also exercised a vote, as he is wont to do.
Until that point, Smith and Scott had dominated proceedings, like a comedy double act – a sort of Statler and Waldorf, but with fewer laughs. Smith took up the first half-hour of the item, laboriously going through a rambling presentation. At times, a casual observer could have been forgiven for mistaking Smith for a paid representative of the developers, their architects or agents, rather than an employee of the council, so full of praise was he for the scheme.
Smith had begun by putting the committee members on warning. The developers had already submitted a formal appeal to the Secretary of State over the previous planning refusal. Scott prompted the full-time council official over the potential consequences of such an appeal, and likely public inquiry: costs of £100,000 for the council.
The message from Statler and Waldorf to the committee was clear, though no one was laughing. Smith suggested that it had been intimated that, in discussions with the hotel developers, if planning permission was granted now, the appeal – and the costs – would go away. They weren’t even trying to be subtle about the threat.
Euro Hotels, their architects and agents, had returned to the council in January for a pre-application presentation, a process in which they had received guidance from Smith and his colleagues over what might be required for a successful application. The developers had paid the council for this “service”.
On Thursday night, other figures, big figures, were bandied around, such as the notional £2.3million a year which the hotel owners suggested their bigger hotel would bring in to the local economy. This figure was emphasised both by the applicant, by Smith and by Scott, and in 500-plus pro forma letters in favour of the scheme that had been received by the planning department, even though the economic impact is not a material planning consideration.
“It takes a scheme of epic proportions to bring together cross-party opposition,” O’Connell said, before characterising Smith’s 30-minute presentation as “a eulogy from the planning officer”.
Yet while Scott never once interrupted any of the various speakers at the meeting who were in favour of the scheme, the committee chair cut off O’Connell after barely two minutes, just as the Assembly Member was reminding the meeting that the scheme’s impact on the local economy is not a planning consideration.
Veteran Upper Norwood councillor Pat Ryan spoke passionately against the scheme, “Very little has changed,” he said, comparing the current to the previous scheme. Ryan identified an obvious flaw in the proposals, which would see the hotel charge its guests around £5 per night for use of their on-site car park, a move which would inevitably see hotel clients park on neighbouring streets, with all the inconvenience that might bring.
Ryan criticised the council’s planning department for failing to conduct a business impact survey and ended his speech by declaring, “Put people before profits.”
One of the committee members, novice planning councillor Scott Roche, took his opportunity to speak to ask Smith where the £2.3million figure had been plucked from.
“I don’t think you should rely entirely on figures,” Croydon’s most senior planning professional told the meeting. “It doesn’t matter what it is.” So someone had just made it up, then…
While a couple of the committee members had had previous experience of the planning process, the composition of the committee had been thoroughly changed since last October; only two members of the committee then, Scott and Perry, remain.
Some of the new members, though, appeared to have done some homework, and had been checking on the planning regs, rather than just taking Smith’s report at face value.
Muhammad Ali noticed that the application allowed for five coach parking bays on the site, when Transport for London’s planning requirement for a hotel of such size requires 11 coach parking spaces.
He’d put Smith on the spot. “Yes, you’re right,” Smith admitted. There had been no mention of TfL’s coach parking policy in the planning official’s lengthy presentation. “We believe five is satisfactory,” he said. “A lot of coach parking might impact detrimentally.” So Smith was unilaterally over-ruling TfL’s London-wide policy requirement.
Another new member of the committee, Clive Fraser, questioned the hotel’s links to public transport. He asked if anyone knew how long it might take to walk from the nearest railway station to the hotel.
A council official estimated “about 10 minutes”: someone needs to hand that council officer a suitcase loaded with bricks, and invite him to set off up Anerley Hill from Crystal Palace Station and hustle the whole way – about three-quarters of a mile – along Church Road to the Queen’s. Even in his racing shoes, Mo Farah would struggle to break the 10-minute barrier.
But Croydon’s planning department has become used to fobbing off elected councillors with idiotic, or simply plainly false, information.
Fraser was intrigued by the high number of rooms in the proposed enlarged hotel which would be without windows. “I’ve been led to believe they are very popular,” Smith answered, apparently in all seriousness. There had been no mention of the many windowless rooms in Smith’s lengthy submission to the committee.
Speaking with the authority of the committee chair, Scott would later support the planning chief’s position on these “very popular” windowless hotel rooms.
In a summing up that lasted six minutes – about three times longer than he allowed O’Connell to speak earlier – Scott went out of his way to knock down any of the arguments put forward in criticism of the over-development.
“If you look at most, if not all, modern cruise ships, for example,” Cap’n Scott ventured, “at least half of the bedrooms in those are fully internal bedrooms.”
With loud laughter from those in the public gallery audible throughout the council chamber, Scott’s experience of life on the ocean wave was clearly going down about as well as… well, the Titanic.
“Have a look next time you’re on the internet,” Scott struggled on, though his ship was going down fast.
In his speech, Scott denied the existence of TfL’s planning guidelines on coach parking. “There is no regulation for that at the moment,” Scott said, publicly contradicting his vice-chair (who happens to work for TfL).
Scott emphasised that the massively over-sized hotel would bring “a massive regeneration impact” to Crystal Palace and the surrounding area, including South Norwood, “bringing many jobs and customers to pubs, cafés and restaurants. That cannot be questioned in any way,” Scott told the committee members, without addressing whether such a matter is in anyway relevant as a consideration for the planning committee.
“All in all, this proposed scheme is good for heritage, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for employment, it’s good in regard of the upgrade and the quality of the hotel, it’s good for access for all, it’s good for the tourism industry more widely in London, and the impact on local neighbours will be minimal, and actually will probably improve the situation in regard to parking, the free van parking and the proper management of the coaches,” Scott said, moving a proposal for approval of the developers’ scheme.
Would anyone dare contradict him?
Despite the lengthy and bombastic steering of the committee by Scott and Smith, Clark and Fraser – who both have previous experience as councillors, in Croydon and elsewhere – remained unconvinced.
Smith had told the meeting that he had persuaded the hotel owners to promise to lay on a mini-bus shuttle service to their hotel from East Croydon Station, which the planning chief claimed would offer “more sustainability”. Perhaps he did not realise that this move was, of itself, proof of how unsustainable the large hotel’s links with public transport truly are.
“It’s about quality not quantity,” said Fraser, recently elected in South Norwood ward, before adding that “the intensification is not supported by public transport”.
When the votes were tallied up, it was also clear that the Queen’s Hotel proposals were not supported by the planning committee members.
- Click here to see the official report on the Queen’s Hotel proposals from Croydon Council’s planning department
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