Our construction correspondent BARRATT HOLMES on concerns that the council is pressing ahead with consultations on often controversial housing schemes during the run-up to the General Election
“Are they trying to lose the election for Sarah?”
That was the angry outburst from a senior Labour councillor after they heard that Brick by Brick, the council’s wholly-owned but not very competent builders, were staging consultations on sites around the borough in the days before next Thursday’s General Election.
The latest one is happening today, and takes place in New Addington, one of the hard-fought election battlegrounds in the Croydon Central seat where Sarah Jones is trying to be re-elected as the Labour MP.
Most public organisation suspend consultation activity during the run-up to elections, for fear of swaying the public vote one way or another. Such considerations don’t appear to worry Brick by Brick, or the supposedly Labour-run Croydon Council.
On Tuesday, in the midst of what is an election purdah period when strict restrictions which are supposed to prevent public money being spent on what could be seen as party political material, the council issued a press release about the “drop-in” session being held on Central Parade. The press release included a quote and photograph of Alison Butler, the Labour cabinet member for housing.
New Addington follows similar consultation sessions staged in Upper Norwood (in the Croydon North constituency) last weekend, where highly contentious and controversial plans were unveiled which have provoked a storm of protest from locals. Short consultation sessions, which had been poorly publicised by Brick by Brick, were also held last month for sites in the Old Town and South Croydon areas.
Housing and the homelessness crisis are, of course, strong election issues. Jones was a housing spokesperson in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
Yet in Croydon, while the council housing waiting list continues to grow, after nearly five years and hundreds of millions of pounds of public borrowing, Brick by Brick has yet to deliver a single new council home for social rent.
And Brick by Brick’s reputation among many Croydon residents is subterranean, after their projects were imposed on existing communities, any opposition ignored, and the builders’ contractors have proved to be neither considerate nor able to meet their timetables.
Croydon’s council leadership has somehow been surprised that the public dislike losing their garage and amenity space, they regret seeing their green spaces and kids’ playgrounds being built on, and all so that a Labour-run council can use vast amounts of public money to build over-priced homes mostly for private sale.
There are even suggestions emerging that on some sites, what Brick by Brick has gone ahead and built surpasses and exceeds the footprint and scale for which they were granted planning permission. Yet the only body capable of enforcing the planning rules is Croydon Council – the same people who own and promote Brick by Brick.
Since the company was formed in 2015, not a single Brick by Brick planning application has been refused by the company’s owners, Croydon Council.
This makes the consultation in New Addington just days before the General Election potentially highly toxic for Jones.
Labour campaigners, who are not taking the outcome of next Thursday’s vote for granted in Croydon Central, believe that the council, including cabinet member for housing Alison Butler, risk jeopardising Jones’s chances by pressing ahead with these consultation sessions now.
“These are short, preliminary meetings,” said one Labour councillor. “The full planning applications won’t be made until next year. They don’t need to hold these now. It is stupid beyond words.”
What is proposed in New Addington was meant to be unveiled in a flourish of activity online and at the community centre this morning, although Brick by Brick has scoped out 20 separate sites, with early outline plans for 341 homes that, according to the council “would be prioritised for local people”.
The council’s press release suggests that there will be 97 homes off King Henry’s Drive, 55 homes in Arnhem Drive and 28 homes next to Headley Drive. The nature of these builds – flats? houses? detached or terraced? – has not been revealed, nor has the intended tenure of the properties once they are completed.
When Brick by Brick was launched, it was supposed to deliver at least 50 per cent “affordable” homes. Of the homes being released in 2019, the first to be completed by Brick by Brick, more than 70 per cent have gone for private sale.
“The December 7 event is open to anyone to attend, but particularly for anyone who lives in New Addington or Fieldway or has family connections there,” the council said.
“In addition to this drop-in session, further events in New Addington and Fieldway are planned for January with Brick by Brick architects on the 20 individual sites.
“Once Brick by Brick has taken on board all feedback, full proposals will be submitted for planning approval early in the New Year. If permission is granted, construction work would start in late 2020.”
The council’s slow delivery of the New Addington Leisure Centre is hardly a recommendation to residents considering where to cast their vote next Thursday. Planning permission was granted in 2016, with the centre meant to be completed by 2018, with a budget of £8million.
Yet the centre is unlikely to be ready to open until next year, while the costs have soared to at least £25million, in another triumph for Butler and Tony Newman’s council.
Elsewhere in New Addington, Brick by Brick are already on-site at Warbank Crescent and Uvedale Crescent, where they are building 26 units which will provide the much-needed affordable rented homes.
Colm Lacey, the former council staffer who has lately taken to describing himself somewhat grandly as “the founder of Brick by Brick”, was quoted in this week’s council press release as saying of today’s event that it “… allows us to meet people who are interested in living locally and properly understand their needs so that we can ensure our developments have the greatest positive impact”.
The reality, however, is somewhat different.
Inside Croydon has learned that elsewhere in the borough where these pre-election consultations have taken place, the reaction to the Brick by Brick plans have been dismissive and openly hostile. Yet Labour councillors who have sought to publicise the consultation events or dared to try to represent the views of the people who elect them have been made aware that, once the General Election is over, they could face some kind of disciplinary action from the council leadership.
What consequences the council leaders Newman, Butler and the deeply distrusted Paul Scott, the cabinet member for concreting over green spaces, might face were Jones to lose her marginal seat by a few votes because of discontent over their private house-building programme remains to be seen.
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