Town Hall reporter KEN LEE watched last night’s council planning committee, so you wouldn’t have to…
Paul Scott, the Labour-run council’s chair of the planning committee, last night allowed himself to vote twice to push through a housing scheme in South Norwood.
In doing so, Scott went against the wishes of dozens of local residents, as well as against the views of one of the ward’s councillors who sits on the committee, and it was all done to allow a private developer to build two blocks of flats, without a single guarantee or undertaking that any of the homes will be available for social rent or “affordable” sale.
Indeed, Scott used his position as the meeting’s chair to provide lengthy and enthusiastic backing for another flat-building schemes which was passed last night and which was also devoid of any social housing provision. This second scheme had been submitted by Brick by Brick, the Labour council’s very own housing developer.
For as well as voting through the aforementioned scheme in the garden of a semi-detached house in Sunny Bank, Scott steered through committee Brick by Brick’s ugly grey block of money-spinning one-bedroom flats to concrete over a patch of town centre green open space alongside the historic, Grade II-listed Ruskin House.
Not that Scott had things all his own way last night.
For the second successive planning meeting, Labour members of Scott’s committee defied their bombastic chair and rejected the recommendations of the council’s developer-friendly planning department to throw out an application.
The previous time, it was the overdevelopment of the Queen’s Hotel which was sent off with a flea in its ear. Last night, the much-loved Thornton Heath boozer the Welcome Inn was saved from its avaricious pub company, which wanted to develop the building into self-contained flats and a maisonette and shrink the pub space so much that it would have rendered it unviable to operate as a community local.
And, just as he had done for the Queen’s Hotel last month, it was the recently elected South Norwood councillor Clive Fraser who led the committee members’ defiance of Scott and the planning officers.
The Welcome Inn application had been made by property owners the Wellington Pub Company, against the wishes of the pub landlord of the last 20 years, Donal Dempsey. Dempsey maintained that by carving up the pub space for lucrative private flats, it would be impossible for him to operate the community activities his pub has become known for – the darts teams, pool league and karaoke nights.
The council’s professional planning officers pushed the application hard. They have a policy under the recently adopted local plan which protects pubs from demolition, and here was a scheme which wasn’t seeking to demolish the pub, so everything was just hunky dory as far as they, and Scott, were concerned.
The council officers, led by development director Heather Cheesbrough, sided with the developers’ architect, claiming that there would be only “a slight decrease in floor area”, and dismissing the landlord’s concerns that he would be left with a pub from which it would be impossible to meet his rent demands as “not a material planning consideration”.
Such is the shabby manner in which Croydon’s planning department conducts itself, their report to the committee passed off the PubCo’s viability report and claims about the reduction of the pub area as Gospel.
Yet when local architect Ron Terry came forward to speak on behalf of Dempsey and his Thornton Heath regulars, he disclosed that the figures which the developers had put forward, and which had been endorsed by the council’s planners, were a complete crock of shit.
The developers, and council planners, had claimed that the reduction of the pub’s beer garden – a vital component in any boozer’s attraction to families with children – would be reduced from its present size, a relatively modest 29m², to an entirely spacious 19m².
Yet Terry had gone along with his professional architect’s tape measure and told the committee that the pub’s beer garden is in fact 55m² – nearly twice as large as the developers had claimed.
And the developers’ plans would, in reality, Terry revealed, reduce the beer garden to a meagre 15m².
None of the council’s professional planning staff had noticed this discrepancy.
As Terry then proceeded to rubbish the developers’ and the planning officials’ figures for the inside of the pub – which would be reduced by 25per cent if the PubCo got its way – Scott interrupted him and curtailed the objector’s objections.
Earlier this month, the members of the planning committee had trudged along to the Welcome Inn to see the pub for themselves, at the suggestion of Tory councillor Jason Perry and Fraser.
More than one committee member claimed that the visit, seeing the scope of the alterations, had been influential in their judgement. “You can’t stage a wake and expect members of the breeaved family to spend their time in the pub toilets,” was one insight into how the reduction in pub size might affect its operation.
Croydon’s planning committee gives Scott an in-built majority on every decision – although, strictly speaking, as it performs a quasi-judicial function, voting at planning is never supposed to be along party lines. Funnily enough, though, that tends to be how many of the planning votes go, with five Labour councillors toeing the party line trumping the four Tories on the committee. Scott, from the chair, always adds his own vote.
But on the Welcome Inn application, that comfortable majority started to break down even before the discussions began. Nina Degrads, the newbie councillor for Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood ward, declared herself unable to take part in the decision. “I went to this pub a lot growing up,” she said. “I don’t feel I should vote on this.”
Scott seemed keen to keep her part of the process, but once Degrads had made her declaration, he had no option but to send her off to the back of the room for the next half-hour.
Fraser was the most notable dissenter in the discussions. “Who in the council is qualified to review the developers’ viability assessments?” he asked. Answer, there came none.
Where, Fraser asked, is the rent assessment? Again, the planning officer, who had spoken at such length about the merits of the scheme, had no answer.
Repeatedly, Scott, Cheesbrough and Nicola Townsend, the planning official in charge of this application, took it in turns to speak strongly in favour of the scheme, in addition to the applicant’s own little speech.
The committee’s dilemma, though, was of Paul Scott’s own making.
As Scott puffed out his chest in pride, he reminded the committee it had been his idea to bring in a new planning policy (referred to as “DM21”) under the local plan for the protection of pubs from demolition and change of use. Whoever drafted it had not foreseen the possibility that property owners would seek a way round such demands.
It was Fraser who nailed it. “The property market is adapting to suit the policy,” he said. “It amounts to nothing more than corporate greed.
“As sure as night follows day, this pub will close,” Fraser said.
But, with the council lacking an adequate pub protection policy to use to protect the pub, Fraser announced, quite reasonably, that, “I can’t vote for this scheme, but I can’t bring myself to vote against it.”
By abstaining, Fraser had cleverly manoeuvred himself in such a way that he would defy Scott’s clear wishes, without actually voting against him. Scott’s in-built Labour majority was now reduced by two.
Gamely, Scott’s new vice chair of planning, Muhammad Ali, offered his support. He felt it was wrong to try to anticipate the impact on the pub’s business. “We’re trying to look too far into the future,” Ali told the… errr… planning committee.
When it came to the vote, it was only Scott and Ali who were in favour. A cheer went up from the public gallery. Scott appeared to be more red in the face than usual.
Fraser was to the fore later, too, as – being as good as his word – from his seat on the committee he provided a rearguard action for residents of Sunny Bank as they sought to avoid over-development and the loss of character of their narrow, village-like one-way road.
Yet again, Fraser went over the planning officers’ report on the application and found numerous and glaring shortcomings. The private developers – working with a housing association – had put forward a scheme with fewer than 10 dwellings, which meant that there was no requirement on them to provide any affordable housing within the development.
The development was listed as three storeys, Fraser noted, when, with building into the taller block’s roof space, that would in fact be four storeys. Planning officer Townsend could not hide her increasing exasperation at her work being contradicted at every turn.
The gardens in which the two blocks are to be built once backed on to the Deptford-Croydon Canal, Fraser informed the committee. “We’re in danger of losing the entire street pattern that’s been there since 1844,” he said.
It was just a pity that Fraser had no back-up, by way of a speaker on behalf of the local residents, such as one of his fellow ward councillors, Patsy Cummings or Jane Avis. Avis, for one, has in the past spoken publicly against the “concreting over” of South Norwood, and against “over-development” and the risk of losing the area’s “character” (as can be seen in the Croydon Labour video from August 2009, with the councillor and Malcolm Wicks, the late MP for Croydon North).
But at last night’s planning meeting, Avis was nowhere to be seen.
It was left to Fraser to vote against the scheme. “There is a need for housing, but we need a different approach,” he said.
Scott, from the chair, voted with the four other Labour committee members. Fraser voted against, as did the four Tories on the committee. With the vote tied at 5-5, Scott awarded himself a second vote, and the scheme was granted planning permission.
Inside Croydon asked the Borough Solicitor to show where, in the council’s constitution, Paul Scott is permitted twice as many votes as any other planning committee member. The council official was either unable, or unwilling, to offer such clarification.
The last item considered last night was the fate of some public open space on Coombe Road, in an application from Brick by Brick which has been described by local trades unionists as “devious”.
They had good grounds for such a view. The developer’s agent actually introduced Brick by Brick as “an independent development company”, when everyone in the room knew that Brick by Brick is the council’s wholly owned housing developer. Devious indeed.
Cheesbrough shrugged off the complaints about concreting over the small green space. The planning department had never sought any planning protection for the open space, and besides, it was “previously developed land”. Cheesbrough didn’t mention that this had been public open space for more than 70 years, reclaimed from the rubble left by the Luftwaffe. Devious indeed.
Richard Freeman, the planning officer in charge, claimed that he and his colleagues are “really comfortable with the relationship with the listed building”, saying this as he showed the meeting a slide which demonstrated that the flats would completely block the view of Ruskin House from the bottom of Coombe Road. Devious.
Here, they want to build eight one-bed flats and a three bedroom house, none of them for social rent or “affordable” sale, but just for the maximum profit they can achieve. Under a Labour council. Using public land and council money. In the midst of a housing crisis.
Scott was beside himself over this scheme. It would have a “pocket park”, he said (referring to a single bench by a busy road).
He said that eight one-bed flats and a three bed house was “a good mix of housing”.
Scott, an architect, praised the architects’ work.
The architects in this instance are Common Ground, a commercial practice established by Croydon Council that is now part of Brick by Brick. “We have extensive experience designing and delivering residential schemes in and around London and most recently in Croydon,” claim the architects working for a company which has existed for three years and has so far delivered not a single home. Some experience.
For this application, there was no opposition from Fraser – who, after all, had run into a bit of local bother with his comrades in Ruskin House when last year he unilaterally decided to remove the local Labour Party’s office from the building, its home for half a century. This time, Fraser spoke admiringly of the architecture. Was this the quid pro quo by the Labour chief whip to stay in Scott’s good books?
Brick by Brick was formed by Croydon Council in 2015, a project run by Alison Butler, who just happens to be married to Paul Scott. So far, it has managed to build zero homes, and despite having had more than 40 planning applications pushed through, has delivered not a single scheme for anything which might be understood to be council housing.
Scott’s committee duly voted along party lines for the latest Brick by Brick scheme. One objector described the development as “cretinous”. It was hard to disagree.
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