In planning cases in Croydon, as far as the interests of residents are concerned, even when they win, they lose. Our summer intern, BILL DING, reports on the latest twist for Barham Road
Residents on Barham Road were this week trying to work out what they did wrong, after a developers’ scheme which they had argued against successfully on two occasions was given the green light by the government planning inspector – despite the plans to chop up a decent house into under-sized flats failing to meet planning guidelines.
Around 95 per cent of cases that are heard by the council planning committee under its de facto chair Paul Scott get approved.
Yet occasionally, very occasionally, the committee members manage to think for themselves and decide not simply to follow the recommendation in the council staff’s report – which is always eagerly supported by Scott – and grant approval.
This once-in-a-blue-moon event occurred last November when the Labour majority on the committee ignored the developer-friendly pleadings of Scott and turned down an application to extend an attractive Victorian semi-detached house in leafy Barham Road and turn it into five flats.
Council officials had recommended approval despite their own report recording that only one of the flats would meet their own planning guidelines for the provision of private external amenity space, and also noted how one of the flats failed to provide extra internal amenity space in lieu of access to private open space.
But while neighbours and residents, with the strong support of Waddon ward councillor Robert Canning, won that particular battle, the fight was far from over. Why would a developer looking to make a handsome profit on the conversion of a house into flats let a few residents, their ward councillors and Croydon’s planning committee get in their way?
The applicant, Craig Budge, through his agent, Andrew Hollins of Hollins Planning Ltd, appealed the decision to the Planning Inspectorate.
The Planning Inspectorate is the government agency that, amongst other things, adjudicates across England and Wales on planning appeals submitted by disgruntled developers when a council doesn’t given them what they want.
The appeals system is entirely skewed in favour of developers: had the committee last November approved the scheme, residents and their democratically elected councillors would have no such right of appeal.
The crux of the appeal was that the planning committee should have been more flexible because, while one of the flats did not meet the planning guidelines with a shortfall in private amenity space, it really wasn’t much of a shortfall. This was only a matter for planning guidance rather than planning policy.
At the same time, the developer submitted a new application that did meet the guidelines for internal amenity space in all five flats. Why the developer chose not to do this in his first application remains a mystery.
Much to the puzzlement of local residents, council officials fast-tracked this second application on to the agenda of the planning committee meeting held on May 30. This saw the residents of Barham Road, and Canning, having to return to the Town Hall and stay late into the evening to speak against the new proposal.
With several members of the committee also expressing reservations about the revised plans, Scott’s efforts to bully his fellow councillors into adopting the council planning official’s recommendation to grant approval were quickly abandoned as he was again forced to U-turn on this scheme in favour of a motion to defer the decision and undertake a site visit.
A Town Hall source told Inside Croydon that they were “distinctly unimpressed” with the decision to take the second Barham Road application on May 30, and what they called “a frivolous waste of people’s time and public money”, instead of waiting a few weeks to benefit from the Planning Inspector’s verdict and informed opinion on the first application.
“It was Paul Scott’s decision and it made no sense at all,” they said.
“It just wasted everybody’s time and Council Tax-payers’ money. But Scott always thinks that he knows best.”
The pointlessness of going through the charade of hearing of the second application became apparent when the Inspector’s report, published on July 24, upheld the developer’s appeal on their first application.
The Inspector concluded that the proposed development “would provide adequate living conditions for the future occupiers of the proposed dwelling in terms of internal accommodation and outdoor amenity space”.
Various other concerns that residents and their ward councillors raised directly with the Inspector as part of the appeal process – such as inadequate arrangements for storing bins, the loss of a family home and the proposed conversion not being in keeping with the character of a pretty cul-de-sac – were all dismissed.
Canning and his Waddon ward councillor colleagues are far from happy with the Inspector’s decision, announcing on social media that they were “bitterly disappointed” that the appeal was upheld and that, in their view, the proposal is “overdevelopment not in keeping with the character of Barham Road”.
But they, and the residents, have no recourse to appeal the decision.
Perhaps the real lesson to be learned from this sorry saga is one for Croydon South MP Chris Philp and his Tory councillor chums.
Croydon’s Conservatives have taken to calling on residents to protest at council and planning committee meetings to “stop the council from continuing with its disastrous policies”.
The proposed conversion of 11 Barham Road was highlighted by Philp as one over which to take to the battlements. But Philp has been conspicuous by his absence at the protests he has organised and was nowhere to be seen when the planning committee heard the original or revised Barham Road applications, even though the house is in the MP’s Croydon South constituency.
And with Croydon’s Tories now calling for local planning committees in the belief that these can somehow magically circumvent planning law, the number of developer appeals to the Planning Inspectorate could rise sharply if such committees were established and applications more frequently refused just because local residents didn’t like a particular proposal.
“There’s no doubt that Paul Scott’s bombastic and confrontational approach at planning committee meetings has alienated countless residents across the borough, particularly in the south,” said our source.
“But the fact is that the law does not allow for planning decisions to be determined by referendum and, under the existing planning process, the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the developer.
“Without a rock-solid reason to turn down a request for planning permission, you can be certain that a savvy developer will play the system and appeal the decision to the Planning Inspectorate. That’s what happened with 11 Barham Road.”
Of course, Philp knows this very well – he has himself made millions from providing finance for the development industry, which so often uses the planning system to bulldoze through against public opinion. He has made no announcements about seeking to introduce any legislation in parliament or influencing his own government’s policy to change the bias in favour of developers in the law.
Not that this will be of any consolation to the beleaguered residents of Barham Road as another profit-hungry developer in Croydon gets his way and laughs all the way to the bank.
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