Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on how Croydon Council is using the pandemic lockdown to lock out the public from the planning process
Council leader Tony Newman has ignored calls from residents’ groups, his own Labour councillors and a local MP and will press ahead with Croydon’s first “virtual” planning committee on Thursday.
The meeting agenda includes a couple of pre-application presentations that could have waited until normal service is resumed, and will consider just one application for planning permission.
It is for 421 flats next to Croydon College, with a potential market value once completed of at least £120million.
The council’s planning committee, under de facto chair Paul Scott, has never turned down a single scheme submitted by Brick by Brick in the past five years.
The decision to go ahead with “virtual” planning meetings, which will exclude the public and their elected representatives, has been fiercely criticised, even by Labour councillors, and described as “outrageous”.
“What is being proposed is an affront to democracy, especially with so many controversial Brick by Brick planning applications in the pipeline. It should be put on hold immediately,” the furious councillor told Inside Croydon.
With the coronavirus lockdown now extended by three weeks, into May, it is impossible for the council to conduct “business as usual”. Under the special pandemic powers handed down by government, the council does have the ability to delegate decisions to council officials on planning matters, and now it has permission to conduct meetings “virtually”. None of which allows for any direct involvement of the public, their elected representatives or residents’ associations.
In Croydon’s case, someone has decided that the planning committee will be held remotely and involve just five councillors – instead of the usual 10 – to make it “more manageable”, according to the council exec responsible, Heather Cheesbrough, in a cheery little planning webinar she took part in last week.
It is easy to make a guess who will comprise Croydon planning’s infamous five: Labour’s Paul Scott, Toni Letts (Scott’s puppet chair) and yes-man Muhammad Ali, plus a couple of makeweight Tory councillors who will be out-voted on every and any contentious matter.
Extraordinarily, the council’s Conservative opposition has actually agreed to this charade.
Yet according to Labour sources, there had been no discussion or debate within their group before the decision to go ahead with virtual planning meetings was made.
Instead, the decision was conveyed to councillors in an email sent on Thursday afternoon from council staffer Kira Maybin on behalf of Jacqueline Harris-Baker, the council’s deputy CEO.
Some might consider the wording used ill-chosen.
The email said, “I am delighted to be able to confirm that the first virtual meeting, a Planning Committee meeting, is now scheduled to take place on the Thursday April 23. With cross-party agreement the committee will proceed with a total of five members in ‘attendance’ which enables the meeting to be managed more effectively and allows for targeted training and briefing to take place in advance of the meeting with regards to the new format and technology.
“Initially, and until appropriate safeguards can be identified, it is not possible to allow public contributions in both the applicant’s and the objector’s slots to be made ‘live’ to the committee. Although the public, objectors and applicants will be able to view the committee live, contributions will initially need to be made by way of written statement read out loud by a committee clerk. This is due to the lack of control within the technology to mute inappropriate interventions from the public. We are continuing to work on this to enable live contributions to be made in due course.”
The italics are ours: it might be a matter of some debate as to what interventions are dismissed as “inappropriate”, and who it is who makes such rulings.
Inside Croydon has been made aware of heated rows – staged virtually, of course – between Scott and Labour colleagues over the council’s insistence to push on with their lip-service consultations for Brick by Brick schemes.
But the decision to go ahead with planning committees in this much-reduced format has left other Labour councillors seething.
“This is outrageous,” one said.
“Nobody canvassed my views on this proposed approach to virtual planning committee meetings. Not my chief whip, not my group leader or group executive, not Paul Scott as the relevant cabinet member nor the chair of the planning committee or any council officer.
“What is being proposed is an affront to democracy, especially with so many controversial Brick by Brick planning applications in the pipeline. It should immediately be put on hold until a way can be found for the technology to provide for full and proper participation by local residents. These are residents who Croydon Council is, of course, supposed to serve.
“It is also unclear from this email whether a ward councillor who may wish to speak at a virtual planning committee meeting will be able to do so or whether they are going to be treated as members of the public and limited to submitting a written statement.
“It also means that any profit-hungry developer with half a brain will now rush to submit even the most controversial set of plans, safe in the knowledge that unsupportive residents who could be expected to turn out en masse to a planning committee meeting to oppose it have, in effect, been locked out of the planning process for as long as the coronavirus lockdown lasts.”
- Click here for your very own copy of the council official’s report on the only planning application to be considered at Croydon’s first virtual planning meeting
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