Croydon Council’s planning committee has had an application for a development in Purley rushed on to its agenda for tomorrow, its last meeting of 2019, with a scheme submitted from a company whose “development director” is married to a senior member of the council’s planning staff.
When contacted by Inside Croydon yesterday, neither Jo Negrini, the council chief executive, nor Ross Gentry, Croydon’s “south area team leader” in the planning department, gave any confirmation that Gentry had made a declaration of interest over his relationship with a Macar director, as is required by law.
According to one concerned resident who contacted Inside Croydon, “The relationship between Macar and the planning office appears, at best, to be very ‘cosy’.
“Does the planning officer go home and have a chat about his day’s work with the Macar planning director?”
Macar Developments want to demolish three two-storey detached houses on Higher Drive and replace them with a five-storey block of 40 flats.
It is one of at least 13 development applications which Macar has with Croydon Council at present. Macar’s planning director is Natalie Gentry, who it is understood is married to Croydon Council’s Ross Gentry.
Natalie Gentry is a former Croydon Council staff member, who has also previously worked at the Greater London Authority.
Last night, the local residents’ association wrote to Paul Scott, the de facto chair of the planning committee, and his puppet, Toni Letts, demanding that the Higher Drive application be deferred until the relationship between Macar and the council’s planning department can be properly investigated.
The Foxley Residents’ Association claim that “errors and omissions” in the council’s planning department’s report – which recommends granting planning permission for Macar’s scheme at 59 to 63 Higher Drive – would be “open to challenge by way of Judicial Review”.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the resident has revealed correspondence from Macar’s Natalie Gentry to the council planning department (though not addressed directly to Ross Gentry).
The residents believe that the email shows Macar’s Gentry attempting to put pressure on the council, following the payment of £48,000 for “pre-app services”.
Some developers pay for a pre-application consultation with the council’s planners so that they might receive advice which is likely to make their application successful. Such arrangements, common in the planning field, often have all the appearance of a legitimised bribe.
Natalie Gentry has worked for Epsom-based Macar since April this year.
In her email, dated September 16, 2019, she writes that Macar had already secured a buyer for its block of flats, namely Moat housing association.
She notes that a Macar colleague, Alex (believed to refer to Alex MacDonald, the company’s managing director), “is getting very frustrated with the level of service being provided by Croydon Council and making him question the benefits of the £48,000 he’s given Croydon Council for pre-apps services.”
The residents’ association suggest that the Gentry email, “raises lots of questions on whether this has any bearing on the manner in which this contentious application has been fast-tracked to the planning committee without due consideration of all the material issues…”.
Foxley RA has submitted further FoIs on all correspondence between Macar and the planning team, “as we believe there is a conflict of interest”.
This is an area, of course, where perception is everything. The council’s planning department’s first duty is to serve the public, and the public perception, according to one of their members, is that “this husband and wife act raises huge questions about how the planning process is being handled”.
In their urgent email to Letts, Scott and the planning committee, Foxley RA say, “Given this latest development, we request that at the very least, a decision should be delayed until the FoI request has been complied with and the conflict of interest investigated.”
When Inside Croydon raised the matter with Negrini and Ross Gentry yesterday, the only response was a paragraph from the press office which stated, “To avoid any potential conflicts of interest that may arise as part of council business, all officers are required to complete declarations of interests, whether they be financial, a close personal relationship or otherwise.”
Which, of course, is not the same as stating categorically that Ross Gentry has ever made any such declaration.
Indeed, even if such a declaration has been made, there then remains a need to put some clear blue water between Ross Gentry and any applications submitted by the company which employs his wife in a senior capacity.
Yet Negrini and Ross Gentry have so far failed to respond to our request to demonstrate what steps the planning department has taken so that the head of planning for the south of the borough has no involvement with the many development applications received from Macar.
Given the number of Macar projects – on Russell Hill Road, Woodcote Grove Road and The Drive in Coulsdon, all illustrated lovingly on the company’s website – it is hard to imagine how Ross Gentry can supervise the work of the planning department’s south area team and not come into regular contact with schemes proposed by the company which employs his wife in a senior position.
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