CROYDON COMMENTARY: Has the council granted planning permission to a slew of sub-standard developments because the local Tories have allowed them to do so? STEVE WHITESIDE on the questions that Croydon Conservatives refuse to answer
Have you ever wondered how Croydon’s Conservative councillors have failed so miserably in trying to prevent woefully deficient and wholly inappropriate planning applications from being approved by the borough’s supposedly “impartial” planners?
If it’s plain for everyone else to see that many of these proposals are so terribly “wrong”, then surely the Tories have what it takes to mount far more robust challenges to these schemes than they have mustered to date?
Is this really all about the antics of Labour’s Paul Scott or the Tories always being outnumbered on the planning committee? Or are those just deliberate and rather sad deflections? Could this not in reality be a rather bizarre case of councillors in safe Tory wards effectively “looking the other way”, while perfectly good family homes are demolished and replaced by sub-standard blocks of flats?
When I embarked on what one council official (the recently retired Pete Smith) labelled a “campaign” against this “intensification by maximisation” of significant parts of the south of the borough, it did look very much like this was a typical case of political bias. A sort of “What the Blues have done unto us, we Reds shall now do unto them”.
In late 2017, I supplied a copy of my detailed objections against a proposal (17/03916/FUL) from property developers Aventier for 54 Arkwright Road, Selsdon, to local Tory councillors, including Dudley Mead and Jason Perry.
The objections contained factual evidence of how the submissions failed to comply with a significant number of development plan policies. Among other things, they highlighted sub-standard living accommodation, inadequate space for cycle and bin storage, poor accessibility and lack of details of sustainable drainage, tree protection and landscape design.
Scott and Smith have been fond of reminding objectors at planning committee meetings that their decisions are reached solely based on planning law and planning regulations, and that if a proposed scheme failed to meet the requirements of the law, it would not be granted permission. Simply saying that you don’t like the look of a new building, or that you’re worried what neighbours living in flats might “bring down” the neighbourhood really won’t cut it. And no proposal is ever refused simply on objections over car parking.
Yet come the committee meeting to consider Arkwright Road, even though prompted to do so by the objector in her three-minute presentation, the Conservative members of the committee remained silent on the vast majority of the “material matters” which had been raised in the objection. The minutes of the meeting show they moved for refusal only on the basis “… that the development was out of character with the area and would impact on neighbouring properties…”.
Noting that Councillor Perry told the meeting that Councillor Mead – a councillor for Selsdon and Ballards ward in which the development was proposed – had been prevented from speaking “on a technicality”, I asked Councillor Mead to explain.
He began by telling me that even if he had been allowed to speak “…it would have made no difference as the Labour party decide these applications before the meeting”. No surprise there.
But it is what he said next that is of interest: “Unfortunately our government, despite our protesting, have not sort [sic] to intervene.”
Really? Why would a Conservative government give up on the opportunity to tear into what Mead described as a “Stalin-type regime”, especially with local elections looming in 2018?
Hold that thought.
In the months leading up that election the following May, Perry and other local Tories were supplied with copies of similar objections against Aventier schemes at 43 Downsway (17/05464/FUL) and 1A West Hill (17/05708/FUL), which were similarly studiously ignored at committee. Instead, the Conservatives on the planning committee again moved to refuse permission only on the very limited grounds of character of the area and impact on adjoining owners – subjective matters of opinion, rather than on matters of provable fact.
Following the approval of 43 Downsway, one councillor, Lynne Hale, told me: “It really feels so unfair and so undemocratic that so many applications which are objected to for perfectly sound planning reasons by so many local residents, [residents’ associations] and councillors, are just being waved through.”
Hale is a Conservative councillor in Sanderstead who also works as a parliamentary assistant to Croydon South MP, the “entrepreneurial” Chris Philp. The only solution she could offer was to write that, “The best way to resolve this really is to make sure that the Conservatives win the Croydon Council elections in May.”
But is this really just all about Labour?
Nothing changed following the election, which Labour won. More detailed objections to sub-standard schemes were provided to the Tories, and disregarded. More ammunition was wasted and dubious demolition carried out.
When the application to develop 1A West Hill went before committee shortly after the election, Perry and his Conservative colleagues on the planning committee once again failed to use the factual evidence that had been provided to them, and instead their only argument against the proposal were the same purely subjective grounds which were doomed to fail.
This April, I wrote to Councillor Perry again to ask him, as the Shadow Cabinet Member for Planning, to give his unambiguous support to the claim that the council officer’s recommendations on the planning applications that brought about the travesty that is 4 Rectory Park, were “perverse”.
I also asked that he acknowledge the selective omission and false statement in the published officer report on the latest application (20-00461-CONR) and to confirm that he understood why the decision based upon it, made by chief planning officer Pete Smith, should be considered unsound.
Predictably, Perry’s reply avoided the key questions and reverted to pointing fingers at the developers and yes, you guessed it, “the current Labour administration”.
Perry told me that his reply was on behalf of himself and the Sanderstead ward councillors, including Hale and the leader of the Conservative opposition on the council, Tim Pollard.
Since the last local elections in 2018 there have been two general elections but the Conservatives have remained in control at national level, which means that they have also retained control of the funding for services provided by the Local Government Ombudsman.
Now despite being totally independent and impartial (of course!), you might have expected that an Ombudsman under a Conservative administration would like nothing more than to use complaints about this apparently “rogue” Labour-run planning authority to give it a kick where it hurts. Not so. In fact, quite the opposite.
Investigations have been carried out and decisions made without any sort of reference to the evidence contained within relevant objections and petitions, or in some cases even to the formal complaint that led to the Ombudsman’s office. In much the same way as the council’s planners are content to accept incomplete or contradictory documentation from developers, it appears that the Ombudsman is happy to accept at face value anything that Croydon Council tells them.
In one case, correspondence obtained via a Freedom of Information request shows that Smith took the opportunity to deliberately mislead the investigator by misinforming them that the basis of my complaints “…is nearly always around our ‘interpretation’ of planning guidance…”, when in fact they are focused on the council’s misapplication of adopted policy.
Some might suggest that by his intervention, Smith sought to pervert the course of justice. But I couldn’t possibly comment.
On April 30 this year, I provided Councillor Perry with the history of events, of the detailed objections ignored and limited reasons for refusal proposed. I asked him the following questions:
- Why have you or your party colleagues repeatedly declined the opportunity to robustly challenge (or rubbish) officer reports and presentations, having been presented with the facts (rather than opinion) with which to do so?
- Why is your party allowing officers to get away with their (intellectual) dishonesty?
- Why are you choosing to look away, while officers wilfully facilitate the wrongful destruction of so many ‘places’ within the Borough and thereby continue to do harm to so many who live there?
I have had nothing back.
I’m not holding my breath.
Another resident who has tried to highlight the series of very bad building proposals approved by our council without any cogent opposition from Croydon’s Conservatives has confirmed to me that one Tory councillor has told him that they “will not criticise officers, in the ‘belief’ that officers are only following the orders of their political masters”.
So it does not matter how unprofessional, unconstitutional or perverse a council officer’s report or recommendations may be, Croydon Tories will never complain, they will never criticise, even though the council’s constitution provides them with a simple and direct means to so.
According to the constitution, “The role of staff is to give advice and information to Members [councillors] and to implement the policies determined by the Council” [Part 5.B (1.8)].
And “Members can expect from staff… commitment to the Authority as a whole, and not to any political group…” [1.10 (i)].
The constitution goes on to say that if a councillor is dissatisfied with the conduct, behaviour or performance of an employee (for that is what they are, remember), the matter should be raised with the appropriate executive director, and where the matter concerns an executive director, it should be raised with the Chief Executive [1.13].
We know that many residents have been persuaded, like Hale, her boss, Philp, and more recently Councillor Tim Pollard have tried to persuade me, that the only way to change all of this is to get the Tories back in charge of the Town Hall.
But why would they only feel able to challenge council officials if they have a majority of councillors? Have they really not done this yet and if not, why not?
Perhaps the Tories (and their wards) have “benefited” from similar council official partiality in the past and would hope to do so again if and when they were back in power?
Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s because they are not so completely opposed to the general principle of what has been occurring as they like to make out. After all, Jo Negrini was appointed as the executive director of place in January 2014 – when Croydon still had a Conservative-run council.
In his December 2018 response to a Stage 1 complaint about 43 Downsway, the council’s soon-to-be-retired chief planner Smith said: “I do not feel we should be criticised for adopting a position more aligned to a progressive development plan which seeks to respond to challenging issues in a pragmatic and innovative way… rather than adopting a somewhat insular and (dare I say) NIMBY approach to such development.
“I make no apology for adopting a positive approach.”
Yet when you look back at the development plan against which Smith’s team assessed that application, it consisted of local, regional and national policies adopted by Conservative administrations. The applications at 54 Arkwright Road, 1A West Hill and 4 Rectory Park were also considered against Tory policies, policies which had been adopted at a time when Perry was the cabinet member for planning, regeneration and transport.
Croydon South MP Philp has recently written to a resident who is directly suffering from the impact of Smith’s “positive approach” at 28 Grasmere Road in Purley.
In his letter, Philp “explains”: “There is nothing in national planning rules to force councils to behave like Croydon does; it is entirely our Labour council’s choice. The main planning policy document, on which they rely to make their terrible decisions, is the Croydon Local Plan – and they wrote it and voted it through against Conservative opposition.”
But the problem is not the plan, but the planners!
The problem has for some considerable time been that, regardless of which administration wrote or voted them through, Croydon’s planning officials have just ignored agreed policies whenever it suits them.
Instead of raising legitimate, fact-based objections and highlighting short-comings in the planning department, Croydon’s Tories have instead preferred to spend a considerable amount of their party’s funds in supporting residents’ associations and others in a campaign for a democratically elected mayor, even though there is absolutely no guarantee that such a change of leader would make the slightest difference to the accuracy or honesty of planning official reports.
By not taking all (or any of) the opportunities to stop it, Croydon’s Tory councillors appear complicit by default in this charade of planning process, and thereby at least partly responsible for the gradual but seemingly inevitable destruction of their own patch.
With such lack of support from my elected representatives, is there any point in me objecting (to council officials) about planning applications, or complaining (to officials) about their reports or council decisions?
With such strong cross-party “protection” of the council’s planners and no sign of help coming from the Ombudsman, it does seem not. I’m clearly wasting my time.
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