Local democracy reporter KEN LEE reports on the latest bizarre conduct in the Town Hall chamber
In what must be one of the least transparent pieces of council business conducted even under this Town Hall administration, Paul Scott, the all-powerful chair of the planning committee, shocked those attending last night when he announced an item not on the meeting’s agenda – his own resignation.
No explanation was offered, nor did the four opposition Conservative members of the 10-strong committee bother to seek one. “They were stunned into silence,” said one observer in the chamber.
Scott has long been a target for criticism of the Labour-run council’s planning policy because of his bombastic manner when running planning meetings, and his facility for appearing to possibly have fingers in all sorts of local development pies…
- Scott is an architect who works for central London firm TP Bennett, whose many clients happen to include Westfield, the supermall developers who want to build 1,000 flats with a £1.4billion shopping centre attached in the town centre.
- He chaired planning meetings in which he encountered colleague architects from other firms submitting development applications.
- Since May, he has been a council cabinet member for environment, transport and regeneration, while maintaining the planning chairmanship.
- He is also married to Alison Butler, the cabinet member responsible for housing in the borough.
- Butler’s role sees her responsible for the activities of Brick by Brick, the council-owned house-builders, who over the past four years have submitted applications for planning permission for around 1,000 homes to the council’s planning committee (Chair: P Scott). Not one Brick by Brick application has been refused.
Some element of that nexus of potential conflicts of interest may be addressed by Scott’s resignation last night. Not that he’s going anywhere very far…
The meeting had barely begun before Scott introduced his first, unlisted agenda item.
“I would like to now take one item of business not on the agenda,” Scott told the meeting.
“This is tendering my resignation as chair of the planning committee.”
Conveniently, Muhammad Ali, Scott’s somewhat supine deputy chair of the committee, simultaneously created another opening by resigning his own position.
Scott’s first task as the ex-chair of planning was to nominate his Labour colleague, Selhurst councillor Toni Letts, as his replacement as chair. This was passed by five votes to nil, as the Tories, apparently still stunned, opted to abstain rather than oppose.
And Letts’ first task was to find a deputy planning chair, and she nominated… Paul Scott. This was duly passed, too.
The secrecy surrounding the manoeuvres was such that the matter has not been discussed at the council Labour group meetings. Some councillors have expressed disappointment that neither Clive Fraser nor Chris Clark, other planning committee members, were not put forward to chair the committee. And some expressed surprise that Letts – a long-time trustee with the Whitgift Foundation, the borough’s biggest landowners – has been given the gig (worth a tidy £27,670 in allowances per year, too).
Once Scott and Letts had played their own little game of musical chairs (without the music), what followed was a stumbling charade of local governance. “You can see this hasn’t been rehearsed,” Letts said. Did the lady protest too much?
Letts rifled through her paperwork, trying to find her place in the proceedings. She would spend much of the rest of the meeting seeking planning advice from Scott, rather than from the council’s paid officials.
The manouevrings appear to have been planned in an attempt to avoid something potentially worse that the regular accusations against Scott of conflicts of interest, bullying and of whipping committee members along party lines to vote.
Because Scott and the council risked breaking the law if he continued as planning chair.
No elected councillor is allowed to receive more than one SRA – a special responsibility allowance. But back in May, when council leader Tony Newman was attempting to shore up his clique’s control of the council Labour group, he decided to ignore the requirements of the Local Government Act – which permits no more than 10 members of a Town Hall cabinet – and create a cabinet of 11 councillors.
While continuing as planning chair, Scott was named in a cabinet “job share” with Stuart King for the environment, transport and regeneration brief. Publicly, there was never any clarity over how this might work – would Scott be getting the planning chair’s allowances, or the cabinet member’s £45,168? He couldn’t possibly be getting both, could he?
Last night’s shenanigans, coming six months into the first year of this new council administration, strongly suggests that King has been conducting the cabinet business so far, and Scott’s share of that cabinet job is beginning now.
Katharine Street sources suggest that council officials’ advice was sought over the timing of Scott’s announcement.
Outside of council business, Scott has also this week stepped down as Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party’s campaign co-ordinator.
“His focus will be on his cabinet portfolio and organising Labour group campaign sessions,” one source said. And pulling the strings at planning meetings, it seems.
As the unpaid deputy chair, Scott last night continued his usual style of patronising the committee and the council’s professional planning staff with his vision for a concrete Croydon dystopia. And now he is able to mansplain to Letts on how to conduct committee business, too.
But maybe there was a hint of change in the manner that the planning committee is run last night after all. There were only three recommendations to consider last night, one a conversion of a house in Waddon into five flats. Officers had recommended approval, despite their own report recording that one of the flats would not meet planning rules for provision of external amenity space.
With a next-door neighbour giving a good speech against such blatantly greedy over-crowding, supported by a passionate ward councillor in Robert Canning, the eventual vote was seven against granting permission, and two abstentions.
Only one committee member voted in favour of the application: that was Paul Scott.
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