Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on how the de facto chair of the council’s planning committee will tonight be made even more powerful, while being made even less accountable
Buried in the lengthy agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full council is a set of proposals which will hand even more powers over planning in the borough into the hands of the controversial Labour councillor Paul Scott.
Yet while making the powerful even more powerful, the amendments to the council constitution going before the Town Hall meeting tonight will also make Scott even less accountable.
And in an extraordinary display of local government arrogance, even by the standards of Scott and his best mate, council leader Tony Newman, the changes to the constitution are being recommended even while there is an on-going review of the way the council is governed.
Last year’s Croydon Labour manifesto for the local elections promised to hold “an independent review of the council’s governance structure, bringing together best practice across the country and beyond to develop a model tailored to the needs and aspirations of Croydon residents. The main goal of the review would be to enhance local democracy and community engagement”.
But Newman, having already nobbled that non-independent review of council governance to ensure he gets the outcome he desires, is now nobbling the council constitution, pushing through changes which will take powers away from other members of the planning committee, including Labour councillors, and which will withhold information and documents on planning matters from elected councillors.
The changes to the constitution going before the council tonight, meanwhile, will also hand significant additional power to the deputy chair of the planning committee… Scott himself.
Inside Croydon understands that none of the changes to the council constitution which will be pushed through at tonight’s Town Hall meeting have ever been raised or discussed with Newman and Scott’s colleagues in the council Labour group.
But fellow Labour councillors are not the only ones treated with disdain by Newman and Scott.
There are two protests expected at the Town Hall tonight, both in-part prompted by the often arrogant and some maintain unlawful conduct of Scott and the Labour administration’s approach on planning and house-building around the borough.
Scott, who is a director at architects’ firm TP Bennett – whose clients have included shopping mall developers Westfield, something Scott failed to declare – chaired the planning committee from May 2014 until last November.
He stood down then only in order to trouser the wodge of cash that came with his recent promotion to cabinet member status. Scott now receives £45,168 per year in allowances, up from the £23,746 he was on the previous council financial year.
On the night that Scott made the announcement that he was resigning as planning chair, there followed an elaborate game of Town Hall musical chairs in which he nominated veteran councillor Toni Letts as his puppet successor, while his erstwhile deputy chair, Muhammad Ali, dutifully stood aside to make way for Scott to immediately become deputy chair of the committee.
“It is all a pantomime,” said a Katharine Street source. “Or a farce, if you prefer.
“It’s blatantly obvious that Scott is still chairing that committee. Poor old Toni doesn’t have a clue most of the time, and Scott’s pulling her strings all of the time.”
Formally, according to the council constitution, the chair of the planning committee has powers which the deputy chair does not. Until, that is, tonight, when changes are proposed which will allow the deputy chair to call in planning applications to be heard by the committee.
“This is to allow Scott to throw his weight around with the planning department,” the source said.
Tonight’s full council meeting will be the last for three months.
Its agenda is stuffed full of contentious and controversial items, including one petition which directly attacks Scott and the planning committee’s misuse of its authority over the conversion of family houses into flats. The petition calls for area planning committees to be established, a measure that Scott and Newman have already said that they will reject.
There’s expected to be hundreds of protesters on the Town Hall steps and in the public gallery, many encouraged to attend by the local Conservatives to demonstrate against the council’s planning policies, with others campaigning for a directly elected mayor. A third group is expected to attend to hear Newman’s promised declaration of a climate emergency in the borough.
The meeting, due to start at 6.30pm, could go on longer than yesterday’s Wimbledon men’s singles final.
It could be at least three hours into the meeting, following set-piece debates and public questions before they get to a somewhat innocuous-looking item, Appendix 2 to item number 11 of the agenda, “For Members to receive a report and recommendations with proposed updates to the Council’s Constitution”.
The document accompanying this runs to 22 pages of councilspeak, on “Planning and Planning Sub-Committee Procedure”. With changes helpfully annotated by a council functionary, it is clear that the majority of revisions to planning procedure have been made directly for the benefit of Scott.
Virtually every reference in the appendix to chair of the committee is to be amended with the addition of the words “or vice chair”, meaning Scott will have exactly the same powers as the committee chair, in a belated attempt by Scott and Newman, aided and abetted by council executives Jo Negrini and her very close colleague, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, to enshrine into council regulations what observers have been saying for the past six months: Scott is the de facto chair of planning, but they just cannot admit it because that, too, would represent a breach of local government law.
This includes giving Scott the power to call in for consideration by the committee any planning applications that he doesn’t like the look of, or of which he does approve, and wants to ensure gets pushed through on his watch. Such powers are, at present, only held by the constituency MP or London Assembly Member, by councillors for the affected ward, or the chair of the planning committee.
By a stroke of Harris-Baker’s lawyer’s pen tonight, Scott will have that power formally restored.
There are other changes recommended which will make it more difficult for the public to challenge planning objections, such as the amendment to double the number of signatures required for a petition to the planning committee to count as an objection, up from 20 to 40.
And where, until tonight, members of the planning committee have always had access to the council’s professional planning staff’s case files at meetings, under tonight’s proposals there is a line drawn right through the words “The planning files will also be available for inspection at the meeting by Members of the Committee”, which will withdraw such transparency as there was around the planning process.
The changes have unsettled even Labour councillors. “When Labour won the council in 2014, our manifesto then promised the most open and transparent council in Croydon’s history.
“These changes to the constitution, when they push them through on the nod, late into the meeting, will only make the council less open and transparent. It represents a worrying concentration of power.”
- Click here to see the changes to the council constitution on the planning process going in front of the Town Hall tonight
- Read the council’s governance review panel interim report here
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