Croydon’s planners have clearly never heard the old saying, ‘when in a hole, stop digging’, as suspicion mounts over the absence of documents to support dubious statements given to a committee, as KEN LEE reports
Croydon Council has been accused of a cover-up over a senior planning official’s failure to declare that he is married to the director of a firm of builders. The council’s refusal to answer straightforward questions over a declaration of interest opens the serious possibility that an executive director may have misled a committee of councillors.
And Inside Croydon has now discovered a second case where council planning official Ross Gentry “forgot” to mention that his wife just happens to be employed in a senior role at a multi-million-pound firm of builders with more than a dozen planning applications in the borough.
Inside Croydon can reveal that there is already a formal complaint filed to a government ombudsman for an earlier planning application to the council where Gentry failed to declare publicly his relationship with Macar Development’s Natalie Gentry.
In December, Inside Croydon reported how de facto planning chair Paul Scott refused requests from the MP for Croydon South, Chris Philp, and the Foxley Residents’ Association to defer a planning application from Macar Developments, so that the relationship between Macar and a senior member of the planning team could be looked into.
Significantly, 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. Natalie Gentry joined Macar in April 2019.
Council planning officials – colleagues of Gentry working in Fisher’s Folly – had recommended granting planning permission for Macar’s scheme for a five-storey block of 40 flats at 59 to 63 Higher Drive. And, of course, at the planning committee last December, Macar was granted permission for its lucrative £10million-plus development in Purley, one of 13 submitted to Croydon Council at that time.
Nowhere in the council’s official planning reports submitted to that committee ahead of the meeting was there any mention of the relationship between Natalie Gentry and Ross Gentry, who is currently the council planning department’s “strategic applications team leader”.
Ahead of the meeting, residents had uncovered emails to the council’s planning department from Natalie Gentry at Macar which showed the developer seeking to put pressure on the council to grant planning permission for the project following the payment of £48,000 for “pre-app services”.
On the night of the planning meeting, Heather Cheesbrough, the council’s six-figure salaried exec director, told the committee that “an appropriate declaration” had been made by Ross Gentry. Neither Cheesbrough nor anyone else at the council has ever managed to produce any documentary evidence to support this claim.
Now angry residents have effectively accused Cheesbrough of lying to cover Gentry’s, and her own, arse.
After nearly five months of dogged, patient and polite pursuit by the Purley residents, asking the council to produce any documentation to support Cheesbrough’s claim made at that December planning meeting, the council has failed to produce anything.
The council has already broken the law with a long-overdue response to Freedom of Information requests from the Foxley RA and other worried residents, in an apparent attempt to frustrate and stall their enquiries.
But yesterday – three months late – it came up with this non-answer to questions about just when Ross Gentry declared to his council bosses that he is married to a director of the planning applicant: “The council is able to confirm that in accordance with our code of conduct, appropriate declaration has been made.” This merely parrots Cheesbrough’s line taken at the planning meeting in December.
But when it comes to actually furnishing any detail, or providing a copy of the declaration which Gentry is supposed to have made, the council has built a brick wall of its very own: “The council considers that to provide you with any further information is exempt from disclosure and apply Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, ‘Personal information’, to your request. In particular, the requested information is considered to be exempt under the exemption in Section 40 (2) (a) (i) (Personal Information) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
“This is an absolute exemption and therefore does not require the balancing of the public interests.”
One angry resident told Inside Croydon today, “There is no way that this case qualifies for any sort of personal information exemption. We have requested documentary proof to demonstrate when and how a senior Croydon planner made a declaration of interest, as Heather Cheesbrough assured everyone at that planning committee was the case.
“The council has a duty to keep records of all declarations and all we are asking is the record showing when this was made.
“The council has failed to produce that evidence. If it exists, why not produce it? They’ve had five months to do so, and have refused.
“So what we have instead is a cover-up, which also suggests something very serious: Cheesbrough deliberately misled the planning committee.”
The Purley residents have now taken their case to the next stage of the council’s internal complaints process, while maintaining that they are considering a costly Judicial Review against the council over the way planning permission was granted to this scheme.
But this is not the only peculiarly Croydon-style version of “Gentry-fication” that’s been going on in the desirable locations in the south of the borough, where Ross Gentry was for a long time the head of the area’s planning team.
Residents on Highland Road in Kenley ward already have their case on the desk of the Local Government Ombudsman over the granting of planning permission for another multi-million-pound development for Macar under very similar circumstances.
That planning application for a four-to-five storey block of flats – all intended for lucrative private sale – at 5 Highland Drive was lodged with the council in July last year, three months after Natalie Gentry joined Macar. The scheme was rubber-stamped by the planning committee meeting on November 27.
A source close to the case has told Inside Croydon that this application from Macar also went forward without any apparent or public declaration of interest by Ross Gentry. The case has already been through the council’s Stage 1 and Stage 2 complaints process, and is now with the LGO.
And as one suspicious resident said today, “To forget to declare such an important conflict of interest once might be an accident. But twice..?”
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