Planning policy requires that, apart from in ‘exceptional circumstances’, all new housing should have ‘step-free’ access. STEVE WHITESIDE has been looking at whether the council is always meeting those requirements when it grants planning permission to blocks of flats
Croydon’s Local Plans since at least 2013 have acknowledged that the “…London Plan forms part of the statutory development plan for Croydon …”.
Both the current London Plan (2016) and the version about to be published require that apart from specified, exceptional circumstances, 100 per cent of new housing must meet Building Regulation requirements to be either “accessible and adaptable dwellings” (what is referred to as regulation [M4(2)]), or “wheelchair user dwellings” ([M4(3)]).
At the planning committee meeting on July 19, 2018, in answer to a question from the then deputy chair on planning application 18/01499/FUL, for 53 Selcroft Road in Purley, the “strategic applications team leader”, a council planning official called Ross Gentry, advised the councillors on the committee:
“In a context of a scheme of this nature that is not GLA referable in essence, all we can insist on is level access and then the floors on that level can then be conditioned to be part M4(2). There is no lift and there is no policy requirement to insist on a lift in a development of this nature.”
In reality, that this scheme might not be referable to the Greater London Authority was completely irrelevant. That there was no policy requirement to insist on a lift was untrue. Gentry misled the planning committee.
As if to smooth things over, the committee chair, Councillor Paul Scott, offered the following “advice”: “I think I am right in saying that essentially what this all reflects is that for small-scale developments, a lift would be very expensive to put in, so there is a sort of recognition that only ground floor or accessible levels need to have… that level threshold.”
But there again apparently, no such “sort of recognition” exists.
As an architect by profession who is apparently “personally committed to supporting and enabling communities to be… inclusive for all”, the public and the members of the planning committee might reasonably expect Scott to be rather more honest about the advice he provides, particularly at committee.
At the planning committee meeting on October 25, 2018, with regard to another application on behalf of developers Aventier (18/04026/FUL – 22 Briton Crescent in Sanderstead), Pete Smith, the head of development management, said, “With experience around how a lift… affects the overall viability of these schemes it can affect the price substantially and if we were expecting applicants, and particularly small-scale developers, to put submissions in about how viable their scheme is, we will not be meeting this government’s targets around determining planning applications in a speedy manner.”
But Aventier is not a “small-scale” developer. On the firm’s website, they boast of developing more than 375 homes – which would be worth at least £120million.
It is truly alarming that a senior council employee, such as Smith, with all his “delegated powers”, should suggest that the Secretary of State’s targets for decision-making rank above the need for a full and honest consideration of an application’s compliance with the relevant development plan policies.
It might, though, at least partly explain some of the appalling planning decisions being made.
It’s difficult to believe that neither Gentry nor Smith realised that by (wrongly) recommending approval of these flatted schemes without a lift and without an acceptable justification for not having one, the council would be failing to ensure compliance with relevant adopted policies.
It must also be of some concern that the council’s senior legal advisers present, Sean Murphy and Sandra Herbert respectively, did not understand that by approving schemes of this sort and for the reasons given, the council would also be failing in its own Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED).
The PSED is a duty on public authorities to consider how their policies or decisions affect people who under the Equalities Act 2010 have “relevant protected characteristics”, which include age, disability and pregnancy or maternity.
It does appear that a good majority of these small, “windfall” applications, for the demolition of family houses to be replaced by blocks of usually seven to nine flats, all passed by Smith’s planning department and with Scott overseeing the planning committee, have neither lift nor valid justification for that omission. It represents a significant and repeated breach of the adopted development plan, and the PSED.
In the circumstances, perhaps we should also be concerned about just how many other development plan policies have been similarly mishandled or misrepresented by the likes of Scott, Smith and Gentry, along the road to unsustainable “intensification”?
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For one particular development currently being built by Aventier at 122 Riddlesdown Rd the approved planning drawing includes a lift in the car park to allow access to the higher level communal garden. The Council accepted an application to discharge the external works planning condition (still showing the lift on it at this point), then afterwards approved a new drawing as a ‘variation of the condition’ for the developer to actually build to the approved plans, with the lift now vanished from the scheme and no mention of it in the planning officer’s report explaining and justifying the new amendments. A rather suspect approach to the use of planning conditions? Sadly, Croydon’s planners really don’t seem to have time for you if you’re mobility impaired for any reason!