CROYDON COMMENTARY: Pete Smith has been responsible for some ‘appallingly bad decisions’ while the head of the council planning department. Yet he has been free of risk of censure by the town planners’ professional body simply by not being an active member.
With Smith about to retire, STEVE WHITESIDE asks whether a directly elected mayor might address the biases found in Croydon’s planning department
In an early letter to residents, DEMOC – the campaign for a Democratically Elected Mayor of Croydon – told us that “…an elected mayor will… be far more likely to listen to residents… Under the current system, the council is certainly not listening to local communities about planning decisions and they are approving developments that do not have the consent of local people.”
Then, at a launch of its campaign in early February, Chris Philp MP is reported to have told the meeting, that the council “… are abusing the powers that the planning committee has to grant planning applications indiscriminately in the borough, most of all in the south of the borough. Time and time again people have been there to plead with the planning committee to listen, but they never do.”
It is worth noting that the council’s constitution sets out that applications should generally only be taken to the planning committee if council officials are recommending their approval. If officials were to decide to refuse, as we believe they should have already done in so many cases, any “bias” on the part of planning committee members (including Councillor Paul Scott) would never be an issue.
I say “generally”, because the planning committee chair (and now the deputy chair, Scott) can refer any application to the committee, if or when they fear that council planning officials might dare choose to refuse. This option provides a simple but very effective warning to reporting officials, that a negative recommendation might well be disregarded by the majority party at committee (and most probably will be, if it suits)… as well as potentially endanger the official’s career prospects.
As Councillor Scott explained in his Planning and Regeneration Cabinet Member Bulletin of April 2019, “Almost all our decisions follow the recommendations made by our highly professional and experienced team of planning officers. …”.
In his October 2019 bulletin, Councillor Scott went further, helpfully explaining that, “The reason why the majority of cases determined by Planning Committee were approved was due to the fact that the vast majority of schemes referred to Planning Committee are supported by our professional planning officers – all with a positive officer recommendation…”.
So any “bias” therefore must lie with the officials then!
Certainly, my MP’s recent letter to me suggests that, as well as believing that the whole planning process is biased against them, there is a strong feeling among residents that planning officials deliver the reports that are “… expected of them by their council employers.”
The professional conduct of council officials is therefore key to the council’s fair and proper decision-making on planning applications.
The senior council official who over recent years has been responsible for checking and overseeing that conduct, including the impartiality and honesty of the whole process, is the head of development management, Pete Smith.
Smith is apparently set to retire – the council started advertising for his replacement at the start of this month, offering a post that can pay between £80,000 and £85,000; you can view the job spec by clicking here.
I’m sure that some will say that Smith will leave behind a job well done.
But I suspect that many more will feel that Smith has “managed” many appallingly bad recommendations to the planning committee and has himself made many more appallingly bad decisions using his “delegated” powers. Smith has been allowed to perform these duties by his superiors at Croydon Council without being an active member of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), and thereby is free of risk of censure by the relevant professional body.
Going back to the idea of a directly elected mayor, as I understand it any such mayor would have “exclusive” powers or “co-decision” powers, as defined in the Local Government (Functions and Responsibilities) (England) Regulations 2000.
The exclusive powers consist of all the powers that are granted to a local authority by Act of Parliament except those defined either as co-decision powers or as “not to be the responsibility of an authority’s executive”. The latter list includes quasi-judicial decisions on planning and legal decisions.
In the circumstances, I do wonder what any elected mayor would be able to achieve with regard to planning – or the “management” of development in Croydon.
Could and would they have any say in Smith’s replacement and ensure that he or she is a member of the RTPI and therefore professionally accountable?
Could and would they ensure that development management officers do not mislead in reports and presentations to decision-makers?
Could and would the directly elected mayor remove the option for the chair (or the deputy chair) to threaten referral of applications to the planning committee?
Could and would they be able to ensure that committee members will always consider applications with an “open mind”?
If the answer to any of the above is “Yes”, then perhaps a directly elected mayor might make a difference.
If not, then I am really not sure why we keep being told that such a new “leader” is “the only way to make them listen to us” or how an elected mayor could make any real impact on the often perverse way in which this particular local planning authority determines planning applications.
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I believe that Pete Smith’s line manager, Shifa Mustafa, and her line manager Jo Negrini are qualified Planners so they should have an insight into Pete’s role. However I have no idea whether or not they remain active in their professional bodies. It is curious that, with so much planning talent coupled with the architectural expertise of Cllr Scott, so much resentment can be caused. Mind you, the 1960’s redevelopment of central Croydon, also approved by Planners, caused similar trouble so at least there is a track record.
From what the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) tells us, neither Jo Negrini nor Shifa Mustafa are members of the Institute. They may have qualifications in planning, obtained here or abroad, but like Mr Smith (and other officers within Development Management) they are NOT bound by the Institute’s Code of Professional Conduct in the way that active members would be.
According to that Code, the RTPI ” … exists to advance the science and art of planning for the benefit of the public. To achieve this the Chartered Institute requires planning professionals to meet and maintain high standards of competence and conduct themselves in a way that inspires trust and confidence in the profession …”
As I understand it, Pete Smith’s line manager will in fact be the Council’s Director of Planning and Strategic Transport, Heather Cheesbrough, who we believe IS a member of the RTPI. I’m not sure that empowering Mr Smith to ‘manage’ planning applications in the way he has, to the significant detriment of people and place, really does inspire any sort of trust or confidence in her or her profession … or in those to whom she reports, Mustafa and Negrini.