KEN LEE, our Town Hall reporter, on growing concerns about what testimony to trust at the council’s planning meetings
Did Croydon’s most senior planning official mislead elected councillors on the planning committee last week?
Had the planning department provided unhelpful “advice” to the constituency MP’s staff?
And was any of this done deliberately, to further the interests of a property developer?
Many residents who attended the planning meeting in the Town Hall chamber to hear the item considering a planning application to build an out-of-character block of nine flats on the site of a four-bedroom house on Addiscombe Road were disappointed when their local MP, Sarah Jones, did not arrive to speak on their behalf, as had been expected.
More than 300 objections to the plans had been received ahead of the meeting, mostly on the grounds of overdevelopment of a site in one of Croydon’s plusher neighbourhoods. On the council’s planning portal, listed among the objectors were the ward’s Conservative councillor, Vidhi Mohan, and Steve O’Connell, the Tory London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton. Jones’s name, however, did not appear.
Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, but after telling the Whitgift Estate Residents’ Association that she was sympathetic with their views and that she would also lodge an objection to the development, last week Jones discovered that she was unable to overcome the impossible and be in two places at one time. The Labour MP was required to be in Westminster at the same time as Croydon’s planning meeting.
But Jones’s office assured residents that she would submit a written objection, and she also drafted a note for circulation to the committee members by the council’s democratic services department, outlining her position.
Certainly Vidhi Mohan, the Conservative councillor who represents the affected ward, was convinced that Jones opposed the scheme, as he mentioned her and O’Connell in his presentation to the committee. “I was informed by the Whitgift Estate residents that Sarah Jones had put in an objection,” he told Inside Croydon.
“I understand they came to this view based on conversations they had with her.”
It was after Mohan’s brief speech that Pete Smith, the council’s “head of development management”, interjected “on a point of order”.
As can be seen on the council’s webcast of the meeting, Smith told the committee members: “There has been no objection from the constituency MP.”
Was Smith telling the planning committee that Councillor Mohan had just lied to them?
Was Smith suggesting that the local MP has deliberately misled hundreds of her constituents?
According to Jones’s staff, the MP did indeed file a letter of objection.
Inside Croydon understands that Jones wrote to Smith’s boss, Croydon’s six-figure salaried “director of planning and strategic transport”, Heather Cheesbrough, with her objections to the overdevelopment of 114 Addiscombe Road.
“Doesn’t Pete Smith talk to his boss then?” one disgruntled on-looker at the planning meeting said.
Writing to the council director was the course of action which the MP’s office had been told to take by council staff in the democratic services department – which is answerable to the council £200,000 per year CEO, Jo Negrini, who was once Smith’s boss in planning.
It is suggested that Jones’s staff, when they contacted Croydon Council, were referred to the Town Hall constitution, and told that because this was not a ‘major development’, the MP would not be able to speak at the meeting.
Local authority officials effectively barring a constituency MP from addressing its planning committee appears to be an unprecedented move. Why would they want to do such a thing?
Had Jones filed a routine objection on the council’s planning portal, as Mohan and O’Connell did, it will have been registered and she would have had the right to speak.
Certainly, Jones’s predecessor as the MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell, often submitted objections and spoke on behalf of his constituents at planning meetings, even under a Tory council administration when the planning department had recommended approval for schemes.
And the next application considered by the planning committee last Thursday, the Queen’s Hotel expansion at Crystal Palace, has had objections lodged by the Croydon North MP, Steve Reed OBE, in contradiction of the Labour-run council’s planning department’s recommendation. The hotel application was rejected by the councillors on the planning committee.
Might the intervention of the local Labour MP have made a difference in the application for 114 Addiscombe Road, too?
In the absence of Jones, planning permission for 114 Addiscombe Road was approved by the planning committee, voting 6-4, along party lines, with the six Labour councillors on the committee voting in favour of a scheme.
The councillors voted on the basis that the constituency MP did not object to the scheme.
However, it is understood that Jones had also drafted a memo, for distribution in her absence, to all members of the planning committee, and had it sent to the council’s democratic services office.
That note was never mentioned at the planning meeting, and it is suggested that it was never delivered to its intended recipients.
The application for 114 Addiscombe Road was from a private developer to build nine flats (five of them two-bedroomed), while providing only five parking spaces, on the site of an existing period four-bedroom house.
Baldly, the council’s planning department’s report recommended that councillors should approve the application as, “The proposed new building would preserve the character of the area”. Which is clearly the kind of bullshit nonsense which Smith’s planning department has appeared to have made a speciality.
114 Addiscombe Road was the first application considered by the committee at last week’s meeting, and while the residents’ representative and Councillor Mohan were each afforded just three minutes to argue their case, council official Pete Smith was allowed to speak in glowing terms about the application for almost a quarter of an hour – about half the time taken up by the entire item.
Smith called the block of flats in the midst of the Whitgift Estate’s family houses “a good solution”. It must be assumed that this was said in all sincerity.
Inside Croydon contacted Pete Smith, to give him an opportunity to explain whether, when he told the committee that Sarah Jones had not objected to the scheme, he was unaware that his own boss, Heather Cheesbrough, was in receipt of a letter from the MP objecting to the scheme.
We also asked Smith why this letter was not recorded on the council’s planning portal.
And we asked what happened to the note from the MP, sent to democratic services, which was to be circulated among the committee members.
Smith has failed to respond to our questions about whether or not he lied to the planning committee.
Our loyal reader can make up their own mind why.
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