Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on the latest disconnect between the interests of residents, their elected representatives and the council’s planning committee
Another Thursday, another planning meeting, another Brick by Brick scheme backed by the council against the wishes of the people the council is supposed to serve, and another protest on the steps of the Town Hall.
The protestors’ placards and slogans have been organised by the Croydon Trades Union Council, in protest against the Labour-run council’s plan to concrete over a scrap of green space on Coombe Road, next to the historic, Grade II-listed Ruskin House.
But perhaps the most shameful positioning at tonight’s planning meeting surrounds the conduct of the councillors for South Norwood ward.
Residents there are justifiably concerned about an over-development which threatens to blight their homes and neighbourhood for many years to come.
But the residents of Sunny Bank, a quiet and narrow, one-way residential street, have been left to fend for themselves, without any one of their three elected councillors speaking on their behalf.
Wandle Housing Association wants to build nine flats, in two blocks, in the back garden of 12 Sunny Bank. One of the blocks of flats will be three storeys tall, in a street otherwise made up of two-storey houses.
In all, 20 residents have lodged objections to the scheme, which is why it has been brought before the planning committee tonight for consideration.
Despite the best efforts of residents to contact their elected councillors, none of them – Patsy Cummings, Jane Avis or Clive Fraser – has lodged any objection to the scheme, nor will they speak to the committee tonight on behalf of the people they are supposed to represent.
Indeed, until this week, Fraser, Cummings and Avis had not even bothered to acknowledge the affected residents’ increasingly desperate pleas for help.
One Sunny Bank resident wrote to Inside Croydon on Monday: “I have been trying to contact Clive Fraser by email, Twitter, Facebook messenger and left a message on his mobile. I have also emailed Patsy Cummings. I haven’t had any response.”
The resident simply wanted one of her councillors to represent their views to the committee. “In my case, there will be loss of light in our garden and there will be a lot of disruption if building works begin, plus a lot of noise.” Despite the attempts to contact the councillors, it was not until Tuesday, two days before the planning meeting, that Fraser finally responded.
The recently elected councillor would not be able to speak on behalf of residents at the planning meeting because… he is a member of the planning committee.
In his long-awaited reply, Fraser wrote: “I think in relation to my own position, as a voting member of the committee, if I were to speak against the application as a local councillor, [it] would prejudice my ability to vote on the application. Therefore, if there is a local resident speaking against, I will ask a number of follow-up questions on the application as a committee member, and cast my vote accordingly…
“I do have concerns regarding overdevelopment of the site, and particularly the height of the larger block.”
So clearly, as a committee member, Fraser could not speak on behalf of his ward’s residents.
“It’s a pity he did not let us know that sooner,” the resident told Inside Croydon.
The resident says that they did get a phone call from Fraser before his email, when he suggested that Patsy Cummings would address the committee on behalf of residents.
It was only the next day that the resident was informed, by text message from Fraser, that none of the three ward councillors would be speaking at the committee.
In his email, Fraser advised that this was “due to other long-standing commitments”.
It is suggested that Jane Avis is at a wedding. In Scotland. On a Thursday.
It is not clear what Patsy Cummings’ excuse is. Even after a lengthy, patronising email, which was only sent yesterday, Cummings has offered no excuse for her absence from tonight’s meeting, and nothing resembling an apology. All the residents received was a string of platitudes about … the value of communication.
Cummings wrote: “Please be assured that it is actually far better that Clive speaks as a committee member. He has no time restrictions, can ask as many questions as he would like, going back to drill down on any responses he feels inadequate, and will ensure that all your issues are addressed for as long as needed.”
Which is all true. But does little to reassure residents who wanted to know that their elected representatives have their back, and would speak on their behalf.
Suffice to say, the residents of Sunny Bank – soon to be not-so-Sunny Bank once the blocks of flats are built in their neighbour’s back garden – are underwhelmed with their councillors’ off-hand excuses.
The resident has replied to Cummings. In her email, she wrote: “I needed help and hence contacted my councillors to help me with a situation I found myself in, as my neighbour is having nine flats built in his garden. I emailed several times focusing on Clive Fraser as I believed he was the person to contact. I then found out none of the councillors could help…
“I feel you have been very dismissive and I am wondering if the purpose was to put me off making any further demands on you. I do not need to know how hard you work. I need to know you will support me and I am doubting you can do this.”
The resident says that they and their neighbours feel very badly let down.
“I feel dread that the development will most likely go ahead and you do not appreciate how I am feeling. I hope that you will show more compassion should anyone else finds themselves in my situation than you have shown me.”
It may be worth noting that while the Sunny Bank residents go to tonight’s planning committee unrepresented by their elected councillors, Clive Fraser is the council Labour group’s chief whip (total allowances: £26,086) and sits on a total of 12 council committees, is the chair of the Croydon Labour Party’s Local Campaign Forum and was, until last week, the chair of the Croydon North Constituency Labour Party.
Fraser’s colleague, the unavoidably absent Jane Avis, was recently promoted into the council cabinet (total allowances: £43,339); and Patsy “Communication” Cummings is a deputy cabinet member (total allowances: £21,371).
Earlier in the agenda, tonight’s planning committee is due to consider the contentious plan for Brick by Brick to plonk an ugly (there’s no other word for it) grey block of flats on what is (albeit small) open green space on the corner of Coombe Road and Edridge Road.
Such building runs counter to all the assurances offered by the Labour administration’s leadership that green space in the borough is “safe in their hands”.
Indeed, Croydon TUC calls it a “devious application”.
In a letter of objection sent to all members of the committee, they say, “While the need for new housing is being required by government and the Mayor [of London], it should not be at the expense of other important aspects of the character and quality of life of the neighbourhoods in which people live.”
The trades unionists say, “The deviousness of the application is what Croydon TUC would expect from private developers, not a council-owned company.”
Citing the scheme’s own viability report – which suggested that only by building so many one-bedroom flats could Brick by Brick turn a profit – the TUC objection letter states, “So the whole point of this scheme is to make money, not to provide the kind of housing units that are really needed.
“This might be a justifiable position for a private developer to argue with a local authority where the developer owns the land. Given the council is the owner of the land it could decide that the gain is not worth conflicting with other policies of the Croydon Local Plan and should have pulled back the land from Brick by Brick.
“If the ownership of the land has been transferred to Brick by Brick then what was the amount of the financial transaction, and what is being done with any sale proceeds? If the sum was very low then there must be something wrong with the viability calculations, as the price of land for a development is a key cost.”
And the objection concludes: “The planning chairman will argue that people need homes and this is the priority. The Croydon Local Plan 2018 has many other policies that have to be taken into account. The need for housing is not an adequate justification for ignoring those other policies.”
The planning committee, under the chairmanship of Paul “Concrete Over Croydon” Scott, is expected to vote through the Brick by Brick scheme, just as it has done in more than 40 other sites around the borough.
And yet again, the views and interests of the people of Croydon will be ignored.
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