EXCLUSIVE: Members of Croydon’s planning committee confirm that they were instructed how to vote over the council’s own house-building company’s applications.
By STEVEN DOWNES
A Croydon MP is to call on the council chief executive to carry out an independent investigation into the conduct of Labour councillor Paul Scott over allegations of maladministration.
Scott is the controversial planning committee figure who has repeatedly been accused of bias in his handling of applications from the council-owned house builders, Brick by Brick.
The latest allegations come from a handful of councillors who have confirmed that when serving on the planning committee he effectively “whipped” them over how to vote.
Brick by Brick was set up by the Labour-run local authority with the aim of providing hundreds of new homes by building on council-owned land and property, using millions of pounds of council funding. More than half of the new homes are to be flogged off on the private housing market, to help pay for the rest, which are being made available as unaffordable “affordable” housing.
Since 2015, Brick by Brick has submitted planning applications to Croydon Council for more than 40 sites, and a total of 1,036 new homes. Not one Brick by Brick scheme has been refused planning permission.
As the majority group on the council since 2014, Labour has an in-built majority on the planning committee. According to one of Inside Croydon’s sources, Scott routinely held behind-closed-doors meetings of his party colleagues on the planning committee, where he would brief them on what to expect from the applications they were to consider in the Town Hall chamber. This would usually be acceptable practice.
But the councillor suggests that Scott then over-stepped the line. The councillor wrote to Inside Croydon: “Planning is supposed to be quasi-judicial and members go in with an open mind… But as far as Brick by Brick was concerned, we were told a while ago that the way the planning applications were designed, if one application is refused, they all fail.”
The councillor was unequivocal that it was Scott who provided such a briefing and that the chairman’s intentions were clear. Asked if they felt they were being “whipped”, and instructed to vote along party lines at the planning committee meeting, they said, “Yes.”
This account of events is supported by other members of the committee.
Earlier this year veteran Labour councillor Pat Ryan made public allegations of bias in favour of Brick by Brick applications, as he felt that his ward, Upper Norwood, was being unfairly treated with the council house-builders’ schemes damaging the quality of life for existing residents.
Scott’s conduct in planning committee did see one Brick by Brick development challenged in the High Court through a Judicial Review. That case against the council failed, though, through lack of evidence to show that Scott had broken the strict rules.
But the accounts given to Inside Croydon by planning committee members are the first from within Scott’s fiefdom to confirm what has long been suspected.
The planning committee is not supposed to be run on party lines. Planning committee members are supposed to consider with an open mind the officers’ reports (which are themselves frequently prejudiced in favour of development schemes) and the presentations made for and against the proposals. It is actually illegal for a political group to “whip” its councillors to vote in a particular way.
In the Local Government Association’s advice for elected council members involved in the planning process, called Probity In Planning, it states that councillors “should not favour any person, company, group or locality, nor put themselves in a position where they may appear to be doing so. It is important, therefore, that planning authorities make planning decisions affecting these interests openly, impartially, with sound judgement and for justifiable reasons.
“The process should leave no grounds for suggesting that those participating in the decision were biased or that the decision itself was unlawful, irrational or procedurally improper.”
The LGA advice further says, “Planning decisions cannot be made on a party political basis in response to lobbying; the use of political whips to seek to influence the outcome of a planning application is likely to be regarded as maladministration.”
Scott, a councillor for Woodside ward, chaired the planning committee from May 2014 until last month. Scott stood down from the position in order that he can trouser a bigger wedge of council allowances as the cabinet member for regeneration. He retains, though, an influential position on the planning committee, as the vice-chair to his colleague, Toni Letts.
“It’s fairly obvious who is pulling the strings,” one Katharine Street cynic told Inside Croydon after the latest planning meeting last week.
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 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.
- From May to November 2018, he retained the chairmanship of planning while he was a council cabinet member for environment, transport and regeneration.
- He is 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.
Last week, Inside Croydon wrote to Councillor Scott, and put to him the allegations that he has organised meetings where he had briefed councillors to vote along party lines in favour of Brick by Brick applications.
Scott failed to take the opportunity to state his case.
Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, has in the past submitted a formal complaint about Scott’s handling of the planning committee, though council chief executive, Jo Negrini, decided not to take any action.
Today, Philp said, “I am shocked to hear these allegations, emanating from elected councillors who have served on the planning committee.
“This is a very serious matter indeed. I will be writing to the Council chief executive asking that a proper independent investigation takes place.”
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