Heather Cheesbrough, one of Croydon’s most senior directors, has been accused of misleading the public and the elected councillors on the planning committee in a council cover-up over whether one of her staff properly declared an interest in advance over a multi-million-pound development in Purley.
The council has so far refused to respond to residents’ Freedom of Information requests that have asked for the full documentation that shows that one of its most senior planning officers declared that he is married to the director of a company which was granted permission to build a five-storey block of flats.
Natalie Gentry works for Macar, an Epsom-based developer who has schemes across the borough. Her husband is Ross Gentry, one of Croydon’s most senior planning department officials.
That important detail was not included in the original report prepared ahead of the council’s planning committee in December, where the Labour majority on the committee voted through the scheme for the large block of 40 flats on Higher Drive.
Indeed, the relationship between the planning official and the director of the developers’ firm was only uncovered through some determined research by the Foxley Residents’ Association. Their appeals to Paul Scott, the de facto chair of the planning committee, to defer the consideration of the application until the relationship between the Gentrys could be properly investigated, was ignored.
The Foxley RA claim that “errors and omissions” in the council’s planning department’s report to the committee – which recommended granting planning permission for Macar’s scheme at 59 to 63 Higher Drive – would be “open to challenge by way of Judicial Review”.
Natalie Gentry has been working for Macar since April 2019. A former planning officer for Croydon Council and the GLA, since July last year, she also has her own planning consultancy firm.
In the months following her appointment with Macar, there is a paper trail of correspondence that shows she was lobbying the Croydon planning department hard on behalf of her employers to get the Higher Drive scheme pushed through.
And all that time, her husband, Ross Gentry, was working in the planning office.
In one email, dated September 16, 2019, Natalie Gentry noted 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.”
Despite the absence of any declaration of the Gentrys’ relationship in the planning department’s report to the committee, when they met on December 18, Cheesbrough, the council’s director of planning, told the meeting that due process had been followed.
An addendum to the planning papers states that, “Section 24 of the planning application form, which was published on the council’s website on 12 July 2019, clearly states that Natalie Gentry, Planning Director at Macar Developments is married to Ross Gentry, Team Leader – Strategic Applications.”
Yet no members of the residents’ association can recall seeing or has any record of this declaration in any council documentation before December 18.
It is this record of when this declaration was made which the Foxley Residents’ Association has spent the past four months seeking from the council, and which the council has – so far at least – been unwilling, or unable, to provide.
It is notable that Ross Gentry was previously the head of the council’s South Area planning team, which handles all planning applications the south of the borough, where Macar have most of their development schemes. The council has not been forthcoming about when Ross Gentry was transferred to his role with “strategic applications”, a senior position within the planning department.
A member of the Foxley Residents’ Association told Inside Croydon, “Croydon Council have pointedly failed to provide documentation of when Ross Gentry declared a conflict of interest despite our FoI request.”
That FoI request is now subject to the council’s formal complaints procedure because, according to FRA, “the unsatisfactory nature of the reply” and lengthy delays in providing the partial information.
“All they have to do is show us the conflict of interest declaration form dated April 2019, when Natalie joined Macar – unless, of course, it doesn’t exist and they are trying to cover-up the fact that for several months Ross Gentry was working on this development for Croydon Council when his wife was working on it for Macar.”
The bundle of correspondence provided by the council has been heavily redacted – officially because the council is not able to identify council staff below a designated senior grade. The residents’ association suspects that the council has been overly officious, to disguise essential details.
“They have redacted most of the names. For instance, there is an email on from ‘Planning Director, Macar Developments’ who we know to be Natalie Gentry. But her name has been redacted and so have two @croydon.gov.uk email addresses. So if one of the recipients of Natalie`s email was Ross Gentry, there’s no way of knowing.
“There is also a long letter dated June 26 from ‘Planning Office, South Area Team’ to Altham Lewis Architects, who work for Macar. But again the name of the sender has been redacted so we don`t know if it was Ross Gentry before he supposedly ‘declared an interest’ in July and was moved out of the South Area team.”
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