Thousands of objections from residents have forced Croydon Council into a U-turn on its scheme to flog off a Victorian park lodge and a strip of Grangewood Park. But as our Town Hall reporter, KEN LEE, has discovered, despite declaring their belated opposition, the ward councillors had been in on discussions that approved the sale for at least the past six months
The council has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over the sale of a Victorian parkkeeper’s lodge and park land in Thornton Heath, after thousands of residents signed a petition opposing the latest piece of civic asset-stripping.
It is the second time in three years that Croydon Council has been forced to abandon plans to flog off Heath Lodge in Grangewood Park as a result of public outcry.
On this occasion, the council argued that it needed to sell part of the park, too, to allow any property speculator “access” to the property, a claim strongly disputed by residents.
The sale of the land, plus a Victorian parkkeeper’s lodge in Grangewood Park, was determined by the council last summer, but the decision was kept a secret from the local community and park friends group because, according to internal council documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, council officials feared a public outcry.
On that, at least, they were correct.
The council’s own website describes Grangewood Park as being “identified as demonstrably special and of particular significance to the local community”.
Grangewood Park, the council states, “is a quiet secluded oasis in the heart of a busy local area”.
That didn’t stop the council sneaking out the statutory notice of its intention to sell off a bit of this “demonstrably special” “secluded oasis” in between Christmas and New Year, with objections only being open until January 13. The active and well-supported Friends of Grangewood Park was not even afforded the usual and expected courtesy of being notified by the council of the for sale notice going out.
Residents described the Labour-run council’s actions as “sly”.
Croydon Council has been trying to get Heath Lodge off its hands since its initial attempt to sell the building in 2017. Then, the council bowed to public pressure to reconsider and repurpose the property as homes for assisted living. That public-placating scheme was quietly dropped when the costs were realised of refurbishing and converting the building, which had been neglected by the council for many years.
Last night, as the council backed down from its latest efforts to sell off part of Grangewood Park, a member of the council’s media team was sent out to spin, and lie, on behalf of their employers: “The council wanted to see the dilapidated former Grangewood Park keeper’s cottage and garden restored and reused as a family home, which is why we asked for public feedback on draft proposals to sell this home to a private owner.
“Although this proposal is about restoration, not redevelopment, we have heard from many local people who oppose this plan. As a result, we have decided this property will no longer be sold into private ownership, and instead Croydon Council’s elected members and officers will work with local people over the coming months to find a viable solution the community supports.”
By “elected members”, the council press flunkie meant councillors, who in the case of Thornton Heath ward are Labour’s Karen Jewitt, Callton Young and Pat Clouder, whose complete silence on the issue for the past six months had been noted by unhappy residents.
Silence, that is, until yesterday afternoon – suspiciously close to the time that a decision to pull the plug on the sell-off will have been finalised – when Jewitt posted on social media that she and her fellow ward councillors had joined the protestors in lodging objections to the sale.
Jewitt last night appeared to claiming some credit for the belated decision to abandon the park sale when she told a little-read non-local rag that, “The work behind the scenes paid off.
“We listened and took on board what the residents were saying and we are really pleased that the council has listened”, demonstrating all the qualities of a political weather vane, rather than as a signpost, showing leadership for local residents.
Having conveniently and very publicly joined the winning side of the public debate so late in the day, Jewitt, Young and Clouder might hope that they can claim to have been on the residents’ side.
But Inside Croydon has seen internal council correspondence, obtained through residents’ FoI requests, which shows that Jewitt, Clouder and Young were indeed closely involved in the discussions about the sale six months ago, and which appears to show that in secret, they gave their assent to the deal.
In June, Stephen Wingrave, the council’s “head of asset management and estates”, sent an email to the three Thornton Heath councillors which referred to a “recent update meeting where it was decided to dispose of Heath Lodge at auction”.
This strongly suggests that, if the councillors had objections at that time, they had abandoned them and the interests of local residents in favour of going along with the council official’s asset-stripping policy.
While assuring them that news of the land disposal would not be in the public domain, Wingrave asks the councillors “to confirm you are happy to postpone the sale until September”. The use of “confirm” suggests that the councillors had indeed already agreed to the sale.
The timing of the auction – as Inside Croydon has reported previously – was delayed from last July as the council sought the best possible price for the prized piece of south London park land.
A further email, sent by Wingrave to Simon Hall, the cabinet member for finance, on July 18, 2019, appears to confirm this, when the council official wrote that, “Following various discussions involving ward councillors… it was recommended that we look at disposing of the property.”
Or perhaps it really was the councillors’ belated opposition, announced yesterday, that got the council staff to pull the plug on the sale of the lodge and land yesterday?
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