A public inquiry into Purley Baptist Church’s proposed development at Purley Cross will go ahead next month, despite the purdah on public bodies’ activities in the run-up to the General Election.
The staging of such a hotly debated local issue in the run-up to the election on December 12 could give a significant boost to Chris Philp, who is seeking re-election as the Conservative MP for Croydon South.
The proposed development has been heavily politicised since it was first aired, with Philp dubbing the 17-storey tower included as part of the scheme as “the Purley Skyscraper” – in fact, the tower is not tall enough to qualify as a skyscraper – and doing his utmost to undermine a project which would have transformed Purley town centre, using a site which has been derelict since the 1980s.
The original scheme was granted planning permission by the council in December 2016, and included 220 flats and significant facilities for the community. That decision then went before the planning inspector, and after an often heated and hostile public inquiry, the scheme was again given a green light.
But at Philp’s behest, James Brokenshire, the Tory Secretary of State for Local Government, Communities and Housing, stepped in to block the scheme.
Then, in a deeply embarrassing turn of events for Brokenshire, and for Philp, that decision was overturned in court earlier this year, prompting the need for a second public inquiry.
That will now begin on Tuesday, December 3, from 10am, and will be held at Purley Baptist Church on Banstead Road, although there is no “home advantage” expected before the government planning inspector, with Philp likely to break off campaigning to be re-elected in his Croydon South seat and seven residents’ associations likely to be taking a very keen interest.
Some heat has been taken out of the situation, too, after “very productive” meetings were held over the summer attended by RA representatives, the church, the council and developers Thornsett.
The public inquiry is expected to last four days, but it could run into the following week – election week – if necessary.
A new inquiry gets a new inspector, with Paul Jackson BArch RIBA in the hot seat.
The objectors will be the seven residents’ associations, including some whose neighbourhoods are nearly four miles from Purley: Riddlesdown, Hartley and District, East Coulsdon, Sanderstead, Kenley and District, Coulsdon West and Old Coulsdon.
The inspector has advised all parties the points raised as objections in the Secretary of State’s decision letter that were considered in the High Court, including, importantly, “It is important to note that the previous Inspector’s Report and recommendation has not been quashed”.
Last December, Brokenshire issued his own 94-page report to overturn the decisions of the Croydon Council planning department, its planning committee and his own department’s planning inspector. In so doing, it seemed that Brokenshire was even going against his own government’s policy. Which might partly explain why his report was thrown out in the High Court, although after adding considerable delay and costs to the landowners and developers.
The evidence put before the new inquiry will relate to the matters in the Secretary of State’s decision letter that were considered in the High Court:
a) the height of the tower and the standard of design of the proposals for both sites;
b) the effect of the proposed development on designated and non-designated heritage assets; and
c) the policy tests that are appropriate.
While the inspector may hear some of the previous arguments over the scheme, it is unlikely that he will allow his proceedings to be delayed too much by matters outside those outlined above.
The basic issue is that the developers need a 17-storey tower to make their scheme financially viable, while local planning restrictions suggest that the maximum height for buildings in places such as Purley is… 16 storeys.
The inspector will want to hear of any changes to the development plan, national policy or guidance since the Secretary of State’s decision, and any other material changes in circumstance that may be relevant, such as recent nearby planning permissions.
According to the residents’ associations, following their meetings with the developers, the matters of dispute involve the effect on the character and appearance of the area, and the height of the tower. In a statement issued by one of the RAs this week, they said that they do not agree “that some of the residential units should be housed within a 17-storey tower”.
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