Whose side is Croydon Council on? As JOE PAXTON reports from the Town Hall, Crystal Palace Council Tax-payers face a four-day public hearing having had little support from their own local authority
A David v Goliath battle commences at the Town Hall this morning, with a planning appeal brought by the owners of the Queen’s Hotel at Crystal Palace.
The public inquiry run by the government’s planning inspectorate could last up to four days, with lawyers, planning experts, councillors and ordinary residents called to give evidence.
The hotel owners have twice had their expansion plans rejected by the local planning committee, as councillors rebelled against the edict of the council’s planning officials and committee chairman to reject the multi-million-pound overdevelopment.
As the public inquiry gets underway this morning, the battle lines are clearly drawn up.
On one side is big business, which has overt backing in the past from Croydon Council’s planning department and the erstwhile planning committee chair, Labour councillor Paul Scott. The hotel owners, Euro Hotels, have run a campaign to get the £10million scheme pushed through regardless of the impact it might have on a conservation area. Leading that campaign for has been PR consultant and Labour councillor from Lambeth, Jim Dickson.
On the other side are the residents, who have scrambled together the cash to be able to get representation by a barrister in an effort to defend their homes and neighbourhood. They have had public support from Dickson’s former boss at Lambeth Council, Steve Reed OBE, now the MP for Croydon North, as well as their ward councillors.
But Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood councillors Stephen Mann and Pat Ryan have been unable to be interviewed by Inside Croydon about the important public inquiry, however, because their Labour group leader, Tony Newman – a long-time close pal of Scott – has banned them from speaking to this website, in what some suggest is an abuse of power, and others portray as a deliberate attempt to gag the residents’ case.
The uneven contest in a public process that overwhelmingly favours developers is reflected in comments made by Mann on social media.
“The developer has invested thousands in fighting this appeal with a budget that significantly dwarfs the resource available to the local community,” Mann said.
“As councillor I just wished to share my thanks to the residents and community groups, including the Wakefield and Fitzroy Action Group, Norwood Society, Chamber of Commerce and Neighbourhood Forum among the many, many others that have played their part in getting it this far.
“We will make the case for why the inspector should stand by the decision to refuse both applications, which would irreversibly change the character of the area.
“Let us hope the inspector agrees and we can see off the proposals for good.”
The big-money hotel owners want a giant-scale redevelopment of what in the last decade has become a budget hostel, its revenues boosted by wodges of public money from housing benefits paid for accommodating the homeless and newly arrived refugees. Having a bigger hotel for budget tourists would further improve the business’s bottom line.
They want to add 161 rooms to their 334-room hotel. The extra rooms would make the Queen’s larger than the Park Lane Hilton, all on an overcrowded residential road in a conservation area, and with poor public transport links.
Planning applications to Croydon Council were rejected by the planning committee in October 2017 and again in June 2018, Labour committee members such as Wayne Trakas-Lawlor and Jamie Audsley taking the side of local people and voting alongside Conservative councillors to reject the council-approved scheme.
As Inside Croydon reported eight months ago after the latest failed application, “The 6-4 vote at the Town Hall meeting prompted the clear, red-faced fury of committee chairman Paul Scott, who by the end of his own lengthy and very partisan presentation had rendered himself a laughing stock among the residents who packed the public gallery.”
All parties are being reunited in the Town Hall today, for a public process that is estimated to be costing the people of Croydon £100,000, whether Euro Hotels are successful or not in their appeal.
As one resident told Inside Croydon, “You can imagine how worn out we are with campaigning against this overdevelopment – with so few resources available to us, in comparison to the financial might and legal teams of the owners and developers.
“We have been keeping a low-profile to protect ourselves from accusations of nimbyism. This is not about us resisting change, it’s about the vast numbers of residents locally and within the Crystal Palace community who simply do not understand why a hotel bigger than the Park Lane Hilton is necessary nestling in between our residential streets and in our local Conservation Area.
“Right from the start we have stated that we are not simply opposed to all development of the site, but have asked that the developers prioritise quality over quantity. Many SE19 residents would love to see an improved Queen’s Hotel: sadly we do not believe this to be the case with the proposed expansion.”
The hotel owners have previously claimed that their building could not be accepted into the Best Western chain of hotels unless the expansion took place. The Queen’s Hotel was re-branded as a Best Western last November.
The hotel owners’ consultant, Dickson, a director of Four Communications, has been forced to admit publicly that Best Western status “would no longer be listed as a benefit of the proposed redevelopment”.
Claims made by Dickson and the developers that the bigger hotel would also be good for local businesses have also been dismissed, by businesses based locally, including the Crystal Palace Chamber of Commerce.
According to the minutes of the Queen’s Hotel’s community forum, organised by Dickson and staged last October, the best that the hotel group can now offer in terms of supporting the local economy is “employing local people on the London Living Wage”.
Yet this appears to have been a blatant lie.
Recently an advertisement for staff appeared on the hotel railings, written in Romanian. A resident told Inside Croydon: “When we called to inquire about these jobs, there was no mention of the London Living Wage. When a photo of the ad appeared on Twitter, they quickly removed it.”
The hotel owners have also been accused of trying to buy up neighbouring houses in and around Church Road, in a property land grab thought to be intended to buy-off opposition and with a view to further expansion at a later date.
“With so many aspects of what the developers have said so far about their plans proving to be unreliable or untrue, we wonder what else can be trusted?” said another resident.
The neighbours, though, feel like they are having to take on a juggernaut, and that they do not have the support of their own local authority.
“Croydon Council has supported this scale of development since the start – providing helpful ‘advice’ at pre-app meetings for the developers – and both applications were recommended for approval by the planning officers. Paul Scott and the council’s head of planning, Pete Smith, have both been in favour. Scott even told a planning meeting that he likes the idea of a hotel room without any windows, because it’s just like being on a cruise ship.
“What has gone before doesn’t give us confidence that the council will perform its duty, and properly defend the decision of its planning committee to reject the application.
“The business relationship between Euro Hotels and Croydon Council is well documented, with up to £1.5million a year being spent on their rooms for emergency accommodation.”
The hotel owners have made “very few” concessions to their original proposals, according to a resident of Wakefield Gardens, the quiet residential street which backs on to the rear of the Queen’s Hotel.
“An early proposal included the demolition of the hotel’s mews building at the very rear of the site, which backs on to several private gardens in Wakefield Gardens. We had to fight hard for plans to be amended to keep the mews building. It was a great relief as it would otherwise have meant that excavation for the five-storey underground car park would have been happening extremely close to our homes, the nearest being just feet from a neighbour’s back door.
“It all comes back to size and scale: a smaller hotel would demand few parking spaces for which a more appropriately sized car park would be sufficient.
“This concession was made only because this small group of residents was shouting the loudest. It is by no means our main objection to the proposed expansion, nor is it what led to more than 300 individual Crystal Palace residents submitting their own objections on the grounds of overdevelopment, impact on local infrastructure, traffic and parking, and heritage issues.”
The residents say that they feel abandoned by the council in the tough task of making their case. “Despite figures being plucked from the sky and disingenuous claims about job creation, it is up to us to provide evidence that the negative impact will outweigh these ‘positive benefits’. This is no easy task.”
The next four days should show whose side Croydon Council is on: big business, or the Council Tax-payers.
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Crystal Palace residents are truly in a parlous position and can expect no help from the Council. That’s it, put simply.
It is because the Council is resolutely sticking to its mantra “Our Policies Matter, Not Our People”. That was never in any manifesto I have ever seen and I have some doubt that, if it was ever in a future manifesto, it would help to get them re-elected.
Let’s hope they don’t want to contact the council by phone, “There is no one available to take your call” five times this morning.
There is always someone available to take your two-grand Council Tax.