Housing correspondent BARRATT HOLMES on the gathering storm over the council’s housing targets, with the administration accused of allowing ‘planning policy in this borough to be hijacked by one or two individuals’
The Town Hall’s under-fire planning department could soon be dragged into the High Court, as a dispute escalates between residents and the council over a block of flats on Higher Drive in Purley.
The focus of the residents’ discontent is Paul Scott, the architect of the Labour council’s planning policy, and Heather Cheesbrough, the council’s £130,000-plus exec director of planning. Scott and Cheesbrough stand accused of having misled councillors on the planning committee, and of misdirecting the borough’s policy with housing targets for Croydon nearly three times higher than what is actually required.
In a strongly worded letter of complaint sent to Cheesbrough this month, and seen by Inside Croydon, she is pointedly accused of failing to follow planning advice handed down from the Mayor of London’s office, and by doing so managing to favour the developers’ case on Higher Drive.
Scott and Cheesbrough are already under mounting pressure over their parts in the shambolic handling of the council’s loss-making in-house house-builder, Brick by Brick. But their unfettered drive for over-development across the borough is also under fire, as it has emerged that while they have set a 10-year home-building target for the borough of 15,110 units when all that is required is 6,470.
In the final planning committee meeting of 2019, permission was granted by the council for a scheme in which a private developer wants to demolish three, two-storey family homes, typical of the kind already on the road, to be replaced with an ugly five-storey block with 40 flats.
The scheme was submitted from a company whose “development director” is married to a senior member of the council’s planning staff, a fact which was never declared by the council until the day of the planning meeting, and after it had been reported by Inside Croydon.
The council’s planning department had recommended granting permission, despite objections from local residents about the scale of the development and the clear possibility of a serious conflict of interest within the planning department. Scott, the de facto chair of the planning committee, spoke in glowing terms about the scheme for six minutes – much longer than any members of the public were allowed.
Under the planning system, developers have an opportunity to appeal against a decision if their application is turned down, but those opposing schemes have no such recourse unless they decide to take their case to the courts through a Judicial Review, a process for which the “entry fee” is at least £12,000. But so angry and determined are Higher Drive’s residents over their treatment by the council planners that that could be their next step.
They believe that they have a very strong case, simply because Cheesbrough and Scott misdirected members of the planning committee.
In a resident’s letter to Cheesbrough, sent earlier this month, they highlighted how she had told the planning meeting on December 19 that the scheme at 59-63 Higher Drive should only be judged against the current London Plan.
But according to the Mayor of London’s office, “The current 2016 Current Plan (as consolidated with alterations since 2011) is still the adopted Development Plan, but the Draft (Emerging) London Plan is a material consideration in planning decisions. The significance given to it is a matter for the decision-maker, but it gains more weight as it moves through the process to adoption. We highlight to you that the current emerging London Plan is now at an advanced stage of adoption.”
It is under the revised Plan that Croydon is given a much-reduced target for home-building over the next decade. This makes the arguments – so often trotted out by Scott, Cheesbrough and their shills – for building ever more blocks of flats in the borough’s residential suburban streets baseless.
In the resident’s letter, they write, “If the Mayor’s office is correct, which I expect is the case, you should have advised Cllr [Simon] Brew and Committee Members the emerging plan is a material consideration in planning decisions and reminded Councillors the significance given to it is a matter for Committee Members to decide.”
Brew is a Conservative councillor for Purley ward, who spoke against the scheme on Higher Drive.
“Your planning report to Committee should then have expanded upon this and the status of the emerging plan and its relevance to the proposals being discussed…
“For your information, the Mayor of London wrote to the Secretary of State on 9th December 2019 to confirm that the New London Plan will adopt the Government’s substantially lower housing target figures for Croydon.
“This letter was made public 10 days before Croydon’s Planning Committee sat on 19th December 2019 and should therefore have been reflected in your response to Cllr Brew, included in your planning report and the wider statement to Committee.
“The New London Plan will now state Croydon’s 10-year targets (2019/20 -2028/29) for net housing completions on small sites (below 0.25 hectares in size) is 6,470 units, not 15,110 units.
“This equates to a 60% reduction in housing unit numbers as Cllr Brew correctly reported to Committee in his statement.”
The correspondent’s criticism of Cheesbrough is withering of a highly paid public servant: “Croydon’s percentage reduction in housing figures are the most significant decrease of all London’s boroughs. This demonstrates the extent to which the council administration has allowed planning policy in this borough to be hijacked by one or two individuals.
“Given the extent to which planning officers and Cllrs Paul Scott and Toni Letts, in particular, have used target housing figures as one of the key justifications for the heavy-handed measures to intensify Croydon’s southern suburbs, it now calls into question the safety and suitability of the SPD2 Guidance document derived from substantially adjusted figures and such a narrow justification…”.
“SPD2” is part of the council’s supplementary planning documents, a guidance paper for developers looking to build in the suburbs.
Neither viable or sustainable
“I regret to say is the reason why planning in this borough is now in a state of chaos.
“Residents warned planners and councillors that the naïve aims of Cllr Scott’s SPD2 will become a runaway train – where are it’s stops and checks and how do you now throttle it back to target a substantially reduced number of housing numbers?
“How does SPD2 respond to the Government Planning Inspectorate’s conclusion (now adopted in the emerging London Plan) that it is neither viable or sustainable to achieve the excessively high quantum of residential units on existing small suburban residential windfall sites?
“This means SPD2, concocted to deliver an unstructured suburban gold-rush, needs to be reconsidered.
“No other Local Authority has anything close to Croydon’s SPD2. Why?
“Four years ago, unlike Croydon, the smart local authorities in Greater London took far better counsel; they were careful in not making a knee-jerk reaction to the Mayor’s then explorative target figures by adopting such a radical and wholly untested planning guidance as SPD2. These boroughs did not ingratiate themselves with City Hall and they did not seek out silly short-term planning plaudits and awards… these are the local authorities that now find themselves on the other side of a revised London Plan with viable and sustainable planning policies.
“Not so Croydon Council, who did all the above, heavily guided by Cllr Scott, and we now find ourselves with an out of control guidance document called SPD2.
“As a piece of planning guidance SPD2 is crudely conceived and is little more than a blunt instrument that bludgeons usual good rules of balanced, sustainable Town Planning practice in order to prop-open the door to any developer. The majority of the developers it attracts are only interested in easy-fit nine-unit private tenure models that maximises profit and conveniently sit just below the affordable housing threshold.
Unrealistic and unachievable
“SPD2 is open-ended, lazy, unstructured planning guidance that relies solely on the ubiquitous ‘windfall’ site. Council removes the planning rules and sits back to see what comes in. This is the reason Government and the GLA say this mode of local planning cannot be relied upon to deliver the required housing numbers or produce balanced, sustainable and integrated developments.
“In the emerging London Plan, the Government and the Mayor of London has also reduced Croydon’s overall 10-year net housing figures from 29,490 units to 20,790 units, equating to a drop of one-third. Of all 35 Boroughs in Greater London, Croydon has seen the greatest drop in its key 10-year housing target figures.
“This demonstrates Croydon’s new ‘flagship’ Planning policies are derived from wildly overstated targets that are now judged by the Government and the Mayor to be unrealistic and unachievable. This again calls to question the safety and validity of SPD2 as a planning vehicle for this borough.
“Cllr Paul Scott said to Committee on December 19 that the Council will continue to use SPD2 to produce one-third of its annual 10-year housing target. What he failed to say is that this one-third now only equates to 6,740 units, substantially down from the 15,000-plus units he continually shouted from the rooftops for the past couple of years.
“Why his reticence now?
“SPD2 is the sort of policy you would concoct if your motivation is not just housing numbers but has an underlying political agenda. The crudeness of the latter is now laid bear with the findings in the new London Plan.
“Croydon Planners need to wake up, stop acquiescing to Cllr Scott and take a serious look at how SPD2 is going to be monitored, controlled and administered and in doing so make proposals to mitigate against the worst excesses of this policy that are already becoming manifest. Failure to do this will continue to put the Council and its planners on a direct collision course with residents.”
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