Tony Newman, the leader of Croydon Council, has “turned down flat” a call from an MP that would see all planning applications and consultations on Brick by Brick building projects suspended until after the coronavirus emergency.
Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, wrote to the Labour council leader last week saying that, “It is not appropriate to pursue politically contentious matters at this time and clearly proper scrutiny of planning applications cannot be done by local residents.”
This Thursday, the council will be staging the first meeting of its planning committee since the covid-19 lockdown began. But with regular Town Hall meetings not possible, it will be conducted “virtually”, involving just five committee members instead of the usual 10. The built-in Labour majority will be maintained, with three of the committee members.
The public will be excluded from Thursday’s meeting altogether, with council officials reading out written submissions. The council has so far been unclear whether elected councillors for wards affected by the planning applications will be allowed to address the virtual meetings.
Other authorities have decided to suspend the planning process where they can during the unprecedented crisis. In neighbouring Lambeth, also a Labour-run council, their housing organisation, Homes for Lambeth, has stopped all development consultations for the duration of the emergency.
And Transport for London, which has the backing of the Mayor of London to develop some of its less-used property into housing, has also stopped conducting consultations because of the inability of the public to play its part in what should be a “transparent and robust” process.
But not in Croydon.
Here, Thursday’s meeting will consider just a single planning application: from Brick by Brick, the council-owned, financially floundering developer.
The planning application is for a long-delayed scheme behind the Fairfield Halls which is potentially worth £120million (at least, estimated based on recent market values) and includes 421 flats. Only 16 per cent of the proposed new homes would be “affordable” housing. Private developers are expected to deliver twice as much “affordable” housing in such large-scale projects.
The council says it is only allowing five councillors to take part remotely in the virtual meeting in order to make it more “manageable”, even though other organisations have managed to harness modern communications software for virtual meetings involving as many as 50 people at a time.
Further planning applications have been also submitted by Brick by Brick which are expected to be given a green light by the council in due course using its much-reduced and less-than-satisfactory virtual model.
A Labour councillor told Inside Croydon at the weekend that what is proposed is “an affront to democracy”.
The councillor said that the planning process, “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”.
And in his letter to Newman, Philp, a junior minister in the Tory government, wrote, “I am writing to request that Brick by Brick does not progress any of its contentious planning applications during the current coronavirus situation because residents do not have the ability to properly scrutinise the applications.
“Many of the applications to date have involved residents getting together to discuss their concerns about the impact of proposed developments on their local communities, and clearly this is currently impossible for them to do.
“Brick by Brick is 100 per cent owned by the council, so the council can direct its actions.
“It is not appropriate to pursue politically contentious matters at this time and clearly proper scrutiny of planning applications cannot be done by local residents.
“I would therefore further request that all contentious planning applications be paused during this time.”
But according to an email to Philp’s Croydon South constituents, Newman “turned down flat” the call, claiming the public’s views would be taken into account at virtual planning meetings.
Today, Philp said, “I do not accept this. In a lockdown, the public cannot organise petitions, attend the meeting in person, protest at the Town Hall, hold public meetings to question the developer or discuss the issue between themselves.
“While the council may be obliged to hear third-party applications if they can, they are the applicant for the Brick by Brick projects and could choose to pause the applications.
“They should pause Brick by Brick applications because it is not appropriate to pursue such politically contentious matters during the coronavirus pandemic.”
To a certain extent, Philp had the rug pulled out from under him when the council managed to get cross-party support from the oppositive Conservative group at the Town Hall to go ahead with the bastardised version of planning committee meetings.
On Twitter, Newman claimed that “no applications will be taken until, with cross-party agreement, the planning committee is up and running (on a virtual model) and residents’ views are able to be taken into consideration… all of which your government is urging us to do”.
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