After years of complaints, council escapes with an apology

12.

That’s the grand total of complaints raised against Croydon Council by members of the public which have been upheld by the Local Government Ombudsman so far this year.

It is a tally of incompetence, ineptitude and maladministration which should be deeply troubling for the council’s leadership, headed by £220,000 chief executive Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini.

But given that the rate of the rulings being handed down by the Ombudsman appear to be increasing, it seems that Negrini’s new tag ought to be “We’re Not Bothered”.

As previously outlined by Inside Croydon, the time-consuming and complex process of pursuing any sort of complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman is likely to deter many people, even with valid complaints, from pursuing their case. They are expected to go through internal complaints procedures at Croydon Council at least twice before taking their case to the outside arbitrator.

And the Ombudsman does not uphold all complaints.

The tally of 12 is just those rulings handed down in 2019 where the Ombudsman’s office has found fault with Croydon Council.

Jo Negrini

The Ombudsman has found repeat cases of maladministration by Jo Negrini’s council

That’s the total only to the end of June – a kind of half-term report which is pushing Croydon close to the top of the most-complained-about local authorities in the country, alongside large cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

The past month has produced a flurry of Ombudsman rulings against Negrini’s council across a range of areas which their office is at liberty to consider: planning, adults social care, education.

Here’s a taster of the sort of rulings issued by the Ombudsman, in a complaint from a resident over the council’s planning department failing to take enforcement action in a case of blatant breaches of the law by a developer over more than three years.

“Ms X says the Council is at fault in its consideration of her reports of breaches of planning control and subsequent planning applications for a site near her home. She says the council did not properly address her concerns about these matters and therefore it has denied her a fair hearing of her concerns.”

The Ombudsman states that they investigated matters which occurred only in the 12 months prior to the complaint being received by the Ombudsman, though the case appears to have begun much earlier. The Ombudsman’s office has a strict limitation on the time scale when complaints must be submitted.

“We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy.

“Ms X lives in a property that borders a site which has been affected by flooding in recent years. In December 2015, the site owners laid concrete slabs on an underdeveloped part of it. The Council was informed and said it would investigate. In April 2016, an enforcement officer visited the site. He was told the works were to facilitate flood mitigation measures work. For this reason, he proposed to take no enforcement action.

Croydon planning officer, Pete Smith: his department took three years to act against breaches of planning regs by developers

“However, communications between the site owners and nearby residents revealed the area had been developed to assist vehicles, including fork lift trucks and Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs), to access the site and for storage of materials in connection with business activities.

“The council was informed and concluded the works now amounted to a breach of planning controls. Officers advised the owners to submit a planning application for the works and not to use the site for this purpose until the application was determined.

“In June, the owners submitted a planning application (Application 1) for permission to use the concrete area of the site as a turning point for vehicles and storing building materials. In July residents emailed the council as they were continuing to witness HGVs and other vehicles using the site despite the owners being told this should stop. The council contacted the owners and again told them to stop.

“The Council notified adjoining owners/occupiers about Application 1 and received many objections to the proposal… Application 1 was due to be determined by the Planning Committee in March 2017.

“However, it was withdrawn from the committee meeting agenda on the day of the meeting after residents raised concerns that the case officer report did not address the issue of whether a change of use application was required.

“In May the council received a Lawful Development Certificate for an Existing Use or Operation application (Application 2) for the business activities at the site. The application was withdrawn in August.

“Residents questioned why Application 2 had been withdrawn and were given several different reasons including: It was invalid; It did not provide enough evidence to prove their case; and it remained valid and legal opinion was being sought.

“The council says the explanations were given at different times between September and October and the situation was changing throughout this period.

“In November…” this is now late 2017, two years after the breaches of planning law were first reported to the council, “… residents reported to the council that cars were using another undeveloped area of the site to park. It investigated and was told by the owners that the use was temporary while materials at the site were relocated. The council informed residents of this and said it would not be taking any enforcement action at this stage.

“In December, the site owners withdrew Application 1 and advised that a new application would be submitted. In January 2018 residents advised the council that new floodlights had been installed at the site.

“The council investigated but found no new floodlights. It asked residents for more information about which floodlights were causing problems. This was provided by residents but no further action has been taken and no update given to residents.

“In May Ms X complained to the Council as she was unhappy with its handling of matters at the site. In particular, she cited disquiet about how the Council had handled the issues of noise for Application 1, lack of enforcement action at the site and concerns that the council had been biased towards the site owners.

“The Council replied that it had responded to reports of planning breaches and that these were being dealt with by the submission of planning applications. It also explained that a noise assessment would form part of its consideration of the new planning application that would be submitted shortly.

Can Croydon’s claims to protect open spaces be taken seriously if the planning department takes no enforcement action over a three year period against a developer?

“Ms X was unhappy with the council’s reply as she felt it did not address her concerns or state if her complaint had been upheld. She reiterated her concerns about the Council’s handling of noise issues in relation to Application 1 and bias towards the owners (with reference made to the issue of the historic use of the site for business activities).

“The council clarified: taking enforcement action at this time was not considered necessary as the harm caused by the identified breaches was considered minimal and the site owners had agreed to submit a new planning application;
the new application would include a noise assessment and a noise management plan; and
Application 2 had been withdrawn and the council was seeking a full planning application that would cover the current business activities of the site.

“In September, the council received Application 3 for the retention of mixed use status for the site and the developments for car parking, vehicle turning and storage. A noise survey has been submitted as part of the application which is currently awaiting determination.
Ms X remains unhappy with the council’s handling of matters and considers her concerns have not been given due consideration.”

The account of this case is a demonstration of what many Croydon residents have suspected for several years – that the council’s planning department, under Negrini-appointee Pete Smith, avoids taking enforcement action whenever it can, and operates on a presumption that it will grant planning permission, whatever the nature of the development and however many breaches of planning regulations may have occurred to reach that point.

In theory, at least, Smith and his planning team are answerable to the council’s elected representatives, the borough’s councillors, particularly through the planning committee. For much of the past five years, that committee has been chaired by Paul Scott, the professional architect, developers’ friend and the man who has declared that he wants to “concrete over Croydon”.

That Smith and his enforcement officers can behave with such impunity is demonstrated in the Ombudsman’s own analysis of this case of a long-running planning nightmare for residents.

“Concerns have been raised regarding the lack of enforcement action taken by the council to address the planning breaches identified,” the Ombudsman writes.

“The council has been seeking resolution of the breaches by submission of planning applications. This is one of the enforcement tools that local planning authorities can use to consider if development that has already been undertaken is suitable in planning terms. I do not consider the council is at fault for addressing the planning breaches in this way.

“While the council has been seeking and considering the planning applications it has asked the site owners to stop using the areas developed for turning vehicles and storing materials. While I have been provided with email evidence from July 2016 showing the owners continued to use the site for this purpose, I have seen nothing which demonstrates the problem has persisted in the period I am investigating.

“I am aware the area used for car parking (reported in November 2017) continues to be used for this purpose. The council says that it would not be expedient to take enforcement action as the owners have submitted a planning application relating to this use.” Our italics, for emphasis.

Smith works closely with the de facto planning chair, Paul Scott (right). But on behalf of who?

“As the owners are engaging with the council and it considers the impact of the breach on nearby residents to [be] minimal, it has concluded it would not be expedient to take further enforcement action now. This is a decision the council is entitled to take.

“Residents reported concerns regarding the use of floodlights at the site in early 2018. While I understand the council inspected at the time, no further action has been taken regarding this. Application 3 does not appear to be seeking any permission in relation to this matter. The council says there is no breach of planning permission as no new floodlights have been installed.” Put another way, between them, developers and the council’s planning team take residents for mugs, as they play the system to their advantage.

“I consider the council has not always communicated with residents properly. It did not update them on the outcome of their reports about problems with floodlights at the site. It should have done so.

“The council has also provided conflicting information to residents regarding the reasons for the withdrawal of Application 2. The council should provide accurate information to its residents.” As above re: italics.

“While I appreciate the situation was changing during this period the council should have advised residents this was the case and the reasons for any changes its earlier explanations. Not doing this has caused confusion.

“It has also provided poor responses to Ms X’s complaint. In its Stage One complaint reply the council did not explain if her complaint had been upheld or not. The council should have made the outcome of its investigation clear or explained why a finding of ‘upheld’ or ‘not upheld’ was not appropriate.

“The reply at Stage One also failed to clearly address Ms X’s concerns about consideration of noise in the applications submitted for the site. The council’s Stage Two response recognised this was unclear. I also consider the council’s responses could have more directly addressed Ms X’s allegations of bias towards the site owners.”

“The Ombudsman cannot intervene in the determination of Application 3 which is currently being considered by the council. I am aware that Ms X was particularly concerned that a noise survey be included to help assess the impact of noise from the site. I note that such a survey has been submitted.

“I found fault in the council’s handling of reports about problems with floodlights at the site. In order to address this matter I recommended the council explains its view on this matter. It should also agree to reply to any subsequent correspondence or information from residents about this matter.

“I also found fault by the council regarding the quality and accuracy of its replies to Ms X’s complaint. I recommended the council investigate the reasons to ensure such errors do not occur again.

“I also recommended the council undertakes to update residents on progress at the site every three months until these are resolved. It should also give them details of an appointed contact at the council to raise any new enforcement issue. This will help ensure future communication is improved.

“Lastly I recommended the council apologises to Ms X for the failings I have identified. It agreed.”

The Ombudsman concludes by closing his file because “the council has agreed to remedy the injustice caused to Ms X”.

Remember, earlier in the report, the Ombudsman had described maladministration as an “injustice”.

So nearly four years after raising the matter with the council, and a complete failure of the council enforcement department to take any action, Negrini’s staff get off with issuing an apology.

Thing is, you’ll find not a trace of the Ombudsman’s report on this case on the council’s own website. Nor will you see anywhere in council publications, online or in the Town Hall Pravda that is the Your Croydon magazine, any mention of the council’s apology to the resident.

As far as Jo Negrini, Pete Smith and the council is concerned, it is almost as if the Ombudsman ruling never happened.

Trebles all round!


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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Croydon Council, Jo Negrini, Paul Scott, Pete Smith, Planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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