TOWN HALL SKETCH: If a council’s planning deliberations have to be seen and heard to meet the requirements for democracy laid down by law, then Croydon could be in a spot of trouble, writes WALTER CRONXITE
Well, that was a clusterfuck, even by Croydon’s standards.
Thursday night’s “virtual” planning meeting ran for nearly five and a half hours, including two interruptions. And after all that, they managed to grant planning permission to just a single application.
It wasn’t just the technology which proved to be a challenge for our council – even our so-called “Digital Borough of the Year”, with its “director of digital” on a six-figure salary.
No, probably the biggest problem was the choice of the chair of the planning committee.
Who thought that putting Mr Blobby in charge was a good idea?
Everyone was lined up, their laptops set up at home, all signed in to Microsoft Team. Everyone, that is, who had been allowed to join the meeting by those in charge.
This was the council embracing the white heat of a form of technology that’s been around for nearly two decades, in order to stage the first “virtual” meeting in the borough’s history. And while other south London boroughs had already managed to go ahead during coronavirus lockdown with virtual planning meetings involving all their committee members, or to stage their Town Hall annual meeting with dozens of councillors logged-in, here in Croydon we can only manage to run an important public meeting with just five elected councillors. It was barely quorate.
And as for public “participation”, that meddlesome nuisance was reduced to a bare minimum, and very tightly controlled, too. There really was no excuse for not moving swiftly through the business at hand.
Even so, the committee members were at one point forced to sit around at home, twiddling their thumbs for almost an hour, while the council’s top team of tech experts shuffled about trying to restore the live link. There is a suggestion that the council had failed to acquire a full and proper public licence to use the software, and had instead been trying to get away with using it on the cheap, believing that the business of the meeting would all be done and dusted within three hours.
Oh, how we wish was the case.
But they reckoned without Chris Clark.
Appointed (by council leader Tony Newman), rather than any real election to the role, Clark embraced his task not with the calm, distanced objectivity of an experienced civic official but came at it with all the uncontrolled exuberance of a toddler that had just made a mess in his nappy.
In images streamed live into the homes of an undeclared number of Croydon masochists, the constantly gurning Clark was full of bogus bonhomie, wearing his bright Palace red-and-blue shirt (“Did he think he was going to Selhurst tonight?” one observer asked), and bouncing around on his chair. He appears to have a very bad case of St Vitas dance.
When not reading from a prepared script on his own screen, Clark’s head would lean this way, then that, as he struggled to control himself. Which would be bad enough under “normal” circumstances, but under the covid-19 induced situation where he was often and for too long the only thing that could be seen by observers of the meeting, this was really more of a distraction than the public deserves.
For the avoidance of any doubt as to who is really in charge, it was Paul Scott who introduced the proceedings, announcing that his previous puppet as chair, Toni Letts, was being replaced by Clark, someone else prepared to do as they are told, and all in return for 27 grand a year.
The opposition Tories had provided the cross-party support to allow this charade of local democracy to go ahead. But their councillors on the coronavirus planning committee, Jason Perry and Scott Roche, could not manage to agree on their strategy over the chairmanship stitch-up: while Perry abstained, Roche’s disembodied voice could be heard voting in favour of Clark as chair.
The suspicion that Letts was stood down because the digital revolution has passed her by seemed to be confirmed in the early stages of the meeting, as she would pop up on people’s screens apparently mouthing something but with no words coming out. “Sorry councillor, your microphone’s muted,” from an unseen council official was to become something of a catchphrase through the meeting.
These are not ‘normal’ circumstances
More than two hours at the start of the meeting was taken up by presentations from developers’ agents or architects, speaking on behalf of a couple of large schemes submitted as “pre-apps” – that is, they were sounding out the committee for their opinions of what they want to build. It is really just an undisguised sales pitch.
Under normal circumstances, it might be a useful use of the committee’s time. But these really are not “normal” circumstances.
The two projects hardly count as urgent business, either. Both had already been before the Place Review Panel, the council’s semi-independent group of architects and planning and design experts whose input and opinions are, it might be suggested, a good deal more valuable than Chris Clark’s. Or Toni Letts’.
Both of the schemes appear to have merits and much to commend them.
Both are on brownfield sites that, currently, are under-utilised. The first is a 29-storey tower for a corner site at 103 to 111 Croydon High Street, to the south of the Flyover. It is to include retail, offices and 121 new homes, 30 per cent of which will be affordable.
“I think this is a fantastic building!” gushed Letts, who has been known to be a little too cosy with developers. “It might be seen in New York!
“I like it!” she added. You would never have guessed.
Clark, who even at this early stage of the meeting appeared to be enjoying the sound of his own voice rather too much, waffled on for a bit and offered up something about “respect the symmetry”.
And that was just about the sum total of those committee members’ “input” on that pre-app presentation. There was some discussion about the colour of the bricks to be used (from Scott, keen to impress that he is a professional architect) and the impact on the views of Croydon Minster (“We consider there will be harm, but less than extensive harm,” was the apology offered by chief planner Pete Smith).
There was, though, no mention of the overbearing impact the tower might have on the listed Dr Johnson’s House, just a few doors down the High Street.
And no one on the committee, post-Grenfell, bothered to enquire whether the building, which will have sprinklers in every apartment, will also have more than a single fire escape for those living in this very tall, high-rise tower.
But with Clark bouncing around in his chair, the developers’ representatives were given carte blanche to drone on, and on, and on. This was becoming the committee that time forgot.
The other pre-app presentation came from an architect from a top London firm with a rather disturbing habit of sniffing, loudly, as if to punctuate her every sentence, something amplified by her microphone. It was another aspect of the virtual meeting which might otherwise have passed by observers in a regular Town Hall meeting. Let’s hope she isn’t coming down with something serious.
The architect was talking about a scheme on Bensham Lane, which is a proposal to turn a car park used by NHS workers at Mayday into 53 temporary homes. It would also include a “hub” with a laundrette, a communal lounge area and something the architect called a “cantine”.
The architects are HTA, the same people responsible for the modular towers at 101 George Street and the newer proposal for co-living in the even taller College Tower. Bensham Lane’s mix of small flats and little houses would, like the towers, also be built using off-site prepared modules, and once finished, it would be leased to Croydon Council as an alternative to the office-to-resi converted blocks which it uses instead of B&Bs.
“Can we give it a nice name?” was the intervention from Letts, once she’d unmuted her microphone.
A gratuitous piece of self-serving self-abuse
This presentation saw a welcome innovation: a councillor for the ward had logged in to make a few remarks on behalf of the residents he represents. Stuart King agreed that he had been impressed with what he had seen, but emphasised the importance of having a proper consultation with the people of West Thornton, an idea with which Letts seemed to have some difficulty.
Partway through this presentation, Clark, as chair, actually interrupted. Not to speed proceedings along, but to announce a 15-minute break. Committees do routinely take a comfort break around two hours into their deliberations, but this would take slightly longer in order to show Clark on camera enthusiastically clapping at 8pm to “support” the NHS and keyworkers.
This really was the virtual committee virtue signalling, a gratuitous piece of self-serving, populist self-abuse by the new chair, and it came across as deeply insincere.
In the previous couple of weeks two of Croydon’s Aldermen had died, one of them a former planning committee chair, no less.
And on the day of this planning meeting, it had been confirmed that a member of council staff, Asha Walrond, had died from coronavirus.
It might have been appropriate for Clark to ask his committee to have a moment’s silence to remember these three people who had all given public service to the borough. Instead, he chose to grandstand on camera for a minute before taking a leak.
It was 8.24pm before Clark brought the committee to the one planning application on its agenda, the 421 flats on the site squeezed in behind the Fairfield Halls. And it was 8.50pm when it really all went very wrong.
Clark made his second intervention of the night, claiming that the council computer geeks needed to make a break in transmission in order to provide continuity (yeah… that’s pretty much the oxymoron he chose). It seems that the council’s use of Microsoft Team could only run for three hours.
Before he disappeared, Clark made some muttered promise that a new, refreshed link would be posted on the council website. It was, but not for a long time later. On the meeting agenda page on the council’s website, there was a message: “On-demand viewing isn’t available for this live event. Please contact the organiser to view the recording.”
For almost an hour, the only link on the council’s webcast page was the wrong link, the expired one. An interested observer of this shambles of civic democracy was David Boothroyd, a Labour councillor in Westminster as well as an employee for lobbyist firm Thorncliffe.
“It raises interesting points under the regs,” Boothroyd told Inside Croydon, “because they say it’s only a valid meeting if the public can hear it.”
There is little doubt that if any patient members of the public had been watching The Mr Blobby Show thus far, only a small proportion of them was able to pick up where they left off – in the middle of discussion over a £180million housing scheme currently being funded by the public.
“Apologies, we had to adjourn for technical reasons but are back online now,” Mr Blobby posted on his personal Twitter feed at 10.07pm. More than four hours after the meeting started, someone had stuck a shilling in the meter and we were off again.
The remarkable thing about this entire sham was that the name of the applicant, the developers who were putting forward this scheme, only got mentioned twice in almost two hours, and one of those occasions was only by accident. Because the applicant is, of course, Brick by Brick.
With the meeting up and running again, what followed, after a council official had been allowed to finish her very long and very faltering presentation (she was allowed more than 1hr 20min to speak), was a bit of a discussion between Clark, Smith and Scott over the proposal.
Here, it was admitted that the reason only 16 per cent of the 421 flats proposed will be “affordable” is that the additional profit generated from any private sales is needed to pay for the costs of refurbishing the Fairfield Halls.
That’s the Brick by Brick-led refurbishment which over-ran by 15 months and ended up costing at least £43million – or £13million over-budget.
Smith explained that this was “an enabling development”, and that the number of units on this tight, complicated “jig-saw” of a site had doubled from its previous application (before Brick by Brick dropped the ball over the purchase of the College Annex part of the site) because of the need to “create value out of the site”.
“Because this is a one-off scheme,” Smith said, excusing the council’s breaking of its own and the London Mayor’s planning policies, “it doesn’t really affect how we negotiate affordable housing on other sites.”
‘A significant subsidy for the Fairfield Halls’
Of course, a large site with a small proportion of affordable homes might also be considered more attractive to the big developers who might buy the scheme off the council.
No ward councillor had put themselves forward to speak on behalf of the residents. Though as Mr Blobby is a councillor for Fairfield ward, he did more than enough talking for everyone.
At times sounding over-excited, windbag Clark managed to ensure the meeting went well past 11pm. But then, with no pubs open during covid lockdown, for once he probably wasn’t that bothered about closing time.
He blustered along, talking about “a significant subsidy” for the Fairfield Halls, as he asked a council official to answer a question that they had already answered a few moments before (just as any good committee chair would never do). Oh, how he laughed, at his own joke, referring to “my Fidel Castro question”.
Almost without fail, Clark’s questions also tended to be at least twice as long as the answers they elicited.
The meeting was not without further technical problems, either, with the borough’s most senior lawyer having to intervene – it was not just the public who could not hear what was going on, even members of the committee were struggling with the live stream dropping out.
But eventually, at 11.15pm, Clark finally brought his committee to a vote on whether to approve the scheme. Predictably, the vote went three in favour, and two against.
No Brick by Brick scheme, however bad, has ever been refused planning permission by the planning committee of Croydon Council, the owners of Brick by Brick.
So now armed with valuable planning permission, requiring only 16 per cent affordable housing in the town centre, Brick by Brick can go ahead and try to “flip” the site, flogging it on to some other, more capable developer.
Why it all took so long, only Mr Blobby can explain. But if you want to maintain a strand of sanity during the lockdown, we’d advise that you really don’t want to ask him.
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