The charge that Croydon’s Blairite council leadership is too cosy with property developers and their architect chums has been given even greater weight, after the chair of the borough’s planning committee gave a rousing speech at a launch event for a block of flats estimated to be worth almost £100million.
Leon House, the landmark building in the town centre, is now refurbished and its owners are selling the flats in the block after a two-year conversion from offices.
The developers, FIREM, never needed to get planning permission for their scheme, as they used Permitted Development Rights, a Tory government policy which other builders have exploited to by-pass many rules and regulations, such as the minimum size of homes and the requirement to provide affordable housing.
Croydon has one of the highest number of flats developed using Permitted Development – PD – in the whole of Britain. The town centre already has more than 1,000 flats that have been converted from former office blocks.
Analysis from the homelessness charity Shelter shows Croydon is one of Britain’s “hotspots” for use of this property speculators’ get-out clause, with 38 per cent of all homes delivered in the borough in 2017 coming through Permitted Development rights.
Labour councillors in Croydon, critical of some of the office-to-resi schemes, have described such flats as “the slums of the future”. It has been Croydon Council’s policy since 2014 not to allow any further office-to-resi conversions in the town centre.
None of which seemed to bother Toni Letts, the veteran councillor for Selhurst ward, at the chilled white wine and canapés VIP reception held in Leon House last Thursday.
There, Letts gave a glowing speech about Leon House, which was acquired with PD rights in 2015 by FIREM for a reported £70million.
“Leon House rises tall and proud and is providing high-quality stunning homes each with amazing space,” Letts gushed to the invited guests.
“The innovative approach throughout the tower gives open space for the residents to meet and children to play…” It’s not known whether at the time Letts had actually been to the windswept “Sky Garden” on the 22nd floor of the tower block.
She continued: “Having met some of the residents who are thrilled with their new home, I congratulate FI Real Estate Management for creating homes with great views whether you are looking out across the town centre or towards the amazing green fields and woods in the south of the borough.”
Indeed, the developers liked the councillor’s remarks so much, they even included them in a promotional press release, complete with photograph of Letts in full flow.
The slight problem Letts has created is that FIREM are busy builders, and they already have another multi-million-pound scheme in development nearby, involving the construction of three new tower blocks and more than 300 homes. This has yet to go before Croydon Council’s planning committee, and its chair… Toni Letts.
Letts was only made the £23,746 per year chair of the council’s planning committee last month, in a bizarre display of musical chairs in which she took over from the controversial Paul Scott.
Scott, now holding cabinet responsibility for regeneration (while still with a seat and vote on the planning committee), has himself been accused of having conflicts of interest which ought to have disqualified him from the planning role.
Scott is an architect working for TP Bennett, who happen to have conducted work for Westfield, the shopping mall operators whose planning applications for the £1.4billion redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre were all approved by Scott’s committee, without the councillor declaring the connection with his architects’ firm.
As Inside Croydon reported this week, Leon House, with its 236 “luxury apartments” (one-beds a snip at £338,000 each), is perhaps among the better office-to-resi conversions in the borough, with all its flats being larger than minimum space requirements under planning law.
There is no suggestion that Letts received any sort of consideration for her appearance and speech at the Leon House launch event.
But that is not really the point. According to Katharine Street colleagues this week, Letts’ unambiguous public support for the developers has left her wide open to accusations that she has fundamentally prejudiced herself.
“We can only hope that, when any of the developers’ schemes come before the planning committee, Toni does the right and proper thing and discovers she has an unavoidable appointment that means she cannot attend the Town Hall that day,” one said.
Another said, “Toni believes that she is the best communicator on the council, someone who can get businesses on-side in the borough.”
Letts has held a number of prominent positions on the council, having served as Mayor of Croydon and been cabinet member for business and jobs.
But she also has established relationships with land-owners and property developers, connections which might also cause further difficulties in her new, quasi-judicial role as chair of planning.
One long-standing connection may cause particular and repeat difficulties for Letts.
For many years, even when holding senior positions in the council, Letts continued to take a seat among the trustees of the Whitgift Foundation, the organisation which operates three large private secondary schools in the borough and is Croydon’s biggest landowner. The Foundation’s broad portfolio of properties around the borough includes the Whitgift Centre, which, now subject to a council CPO, is supposedly about to undergo that £1.4billion redevelopment they’ve been talking about for six years.
Following her glowing speech at Leon House last week, Inside Croydon approached Letts for comment on how she may have prejudiced her role as planning committee chair. This time around, though, Letts had nothing to say.
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