Our housing correspondent, BARRATT HOLMES, on the latest Brick by Brick schemes which will concrete over green space, destroy mature trees and even tear up a legal covenant that dates back to the 19th century
Thursday’s virtual planning meeting will see the council trying to push through its latest two Brick by Brick schemes, despite strong local opposition.
These latest schemes from the council-owned house-builders will not only concrete over more of the borough’s green open space and destroy mature trees, but it will also rip up the conditions of legally-binding covenants which specifically precludes using the land for development.
The Brick by Brick proposals are for Covington Way in Norbury Park ward in the north of the borough, and at Hawthorn Crescent in Selsdon Vale and Forestdale to the south. Nowhere, it seems, is safe from Croydon’s concrete councillor, Paul Scott, the cabinet member for planning.
At Covington Way, an area of residential family houses and part of the Norwood Grove Conservation Area, Brick by Brick wants to take a green which has been used for decades for community get-togethers, picnics and jubilee celebrations and build a three- and four-storey block of flats on it.
None of the nine flats it proposes there would are intended to provide council homes for rent; there is a suggestion that three flats might be available for unaffordable “affordable” housing, as shared ownership homes. That, though, overlooks the fact that the rookie housing developers at Brick by Brick have still not got round to registering themselves as a recognised provider of such homes.
Hawthorn Crescent sees Brick by Brick wanting to squeeze eight three-bed houses on a small pocket of land, plonked right in front of existing homes, and grubbing up at least 10 mature trees in the process. This, under a council which has declared a climate emergency.
Covington Way is in a ward served by Labour councillors, and while the proposals have attracted 89 objections and not a single comment in support, neither of Norbury Park ward councillors have managed to get round to lodging any objection.
Hawthorn Crescent is in a Tory ward, where the local councillor, Andy Stranack, is one of 70 objectors and is expected to speak on behalf of the residents he represents on Thursday. Again, after going through the initial part of the process, there is not a single comment in favour of this Brick by Brick scheme.
Because of coronavirus, there have been unsatisfactory public consultations since the planning applications were submitted – which is exactly the way Brick by Brick, and their paymasters at the council prefer it. Thursday night’s planning meeting, although now to be virtually attended by a full complement of 10 committee members, still will not offer affected residents an opportunity to speak.
Both schemes were “called-in” for planning committee consideration by Paul Scott, the senior Labour councillor. But as Scott does not have the power to call-in such applications, some say this has demonstrating a degree of pre-determination which colleagues believe prejudices the entire quasi-judicial status of the committee.
But then Scott has form in that respect: back in the days when he chaired the planning committee, councillors related how he effectively whipped the Labour members of the committee to vote for the desired outcome. It is illegal to whip councillors to vote in a specific way at the planning committee.
The reports show Scott as saying that the application should be put before the committee because of the “Potential to provide new homes in response to the housing crisis in accordance with National, Regional and Local Planning Policy”.
Said a council source, “On that basis, then surely all schemes must be placed before the committee?
“His line adopts a supportive position for the scheme. And Paul has not been planning vice-chair since last month. How can he call-in a scheme when he is no longer vice-chair? It amounts to predetermination, essentially.”
Covington Way and Hawthorn Crescent are also both subject to covenants, legally binding documents which place restrictions on what the land might be used for.
In the case of Covington Way, its covenant originally dates to 1898, when it stated that “no part of the hereditaments hereby assured shall be used for any noxious noisy or offensive trade business or purpose and that no dwellinghouse be erected thereon of less prime cost than three hundred”.
But within the last hundred years, Croydon’s predecessor council signed an updated covenant promising never to build on the land.
In 1932, when the property was transferred from Streatham Grove Estate to what was then the County Borough of Croydon, the council entered into a solemn legal agreement that “… no building of any kind shall be erected or permitted to be erected on the said land…”, and that the land should be “used and remain solely as an open space under the control of the Corporation”.
Which seems clear enough, even for Croydon’s notorious concreter Scott.
But at Thursday night’s meeting, Scott is expected to vote in favour of going ahead with the development, provided the council’s lawyers can iron-out the legal details by October 30 this year.
The planning reports submitted for both Brick by Brick applications are full of loaded and biased terminology, deliberately attempting to minimise the importance of the green spaces and in some way trivialise and reduce the objections from residents.
Council planning staff have described both sites simply as “amenity land”, or “incidental amenity space” (incidental to what, the council officials fail to state), and the scheme for Covington Way’s green space is described as only “partial development”. So that’ll be alright then…
Worse, the council appears to have got up to some sneaky tricks to frustrate residents’ efforts to protect their green spaces.
In April, the Selsdon Residents’ Association managed to put together an application to have the green space with its hawthorn hedging and trees recognised as an Asset of Community Value, a status which would offer some protection to the site.
There is no mention of the ACV in the planning documents. When the residents’ association questioned this apparent oversight, the council managed to “discover” the ACV application in the mailroom of Fisher’s Folly, and blamed confusion and delays in its receipt on covid-19.
“How convenient,” a Katharine Street cynic told Inside Croydon.
“Usually, when land or a building is being considered for ACV status, the council planners are obliged to defer any planning application. By bringing the application forward now, it looks suspiciously like the council is trying to fast-track the application before it can be granted ACV status.”
Elsewhere, Scott and the planning department’s incompetence in their failure in submitting their local plan to get protections for the borough’s green spaces from development is now being used to the advantage of Brick by Brick.
Among the objections to the Covington Way scheme is a reference to its sometime status as a Local Area of Special Character, or LASC.
Back in 2016, the council planners made a botch job of drafting the Croydon Local Plan (or CLP), putting forward more than 70 parks, open spaces, even churchyards, for special protection as “Local Green Space”. But they failed to make strong enough cases for such designation, so that the government planning inspector rejected the council’s sloppy work out of hand, leaving all the sites vulnerable to development.
Now, the council is using that to allow its in-house builder to build on green spaces.
“Local Areas of Special Character,” a council official notes dismissively in rejecting the Norbury Park residents’objections, “are no longer recognised by [the Croydon Local Plan].”
How convenient. Again.
Residents in both neighbourhoods are furious with their council.
“We are dismayed that a company owned by Croydon Council should want to build on land protected by a covenant stating that it should remain ‘solely as an open space under control of the Corporation’,” residents from Covington Way wrote earlier this year.
“We believe the council should be capitalising on the land’s environmental and aesthetic qualities as part of its Green Grid and Local Green Space initiatives, rather than building on it.”
Their list of objections will appear familiar to many other residents’ groups who have also had their green space or children’s playground handed over to Brick by Brick.
“The proposed flats would be completely out of character with the surrounding homes… Planning consent has not been granted for any other type of development in the area…
“The scale and height of the proposed development are out of proportion with the rest of the area… these flats would be three and four storeys and would dwarf neighbouring homes… they would rise 12 metres above those on the southern side of Crescent Way.”
But Croydon’s missionary zeal to build flats everywhere and anywhere is exposed in the residents’ objections regarding their conservation area (which the council planning officer refers to in the official report, mistakenly, as “Northwood Grove”).
The residents state, “The site is adjacent to the Grade II-listed Norwood Grove Park and its Conservation Area. Developments within the Conservation Area can only gain planning permission if they preserve or enhance it. As the site immediately abuts the Conservation Area, it would have a detrimental impact on it.”
The council, though, want to bulldoze on. “The scheme has been reduced in scale thereby reducing its impact upon the setting of the conservation area, respecting the scale and character of the surrounding built form, preserving feature trees and more importantly maintaining a large proportion of the site for amenity space,” the report states.
Residents are unconvinced. “A large proportion for amenity space? They must be joking. By the time they have built their three- and four-storey building there, they will utterly change the character of the area.”
Not according to the council’s planning report. “The development would have a neutral impact on the character and appearance of the adjacent Norwood Grove Conservation Area, Norwood Grove itself and the recognised panoramic view of Centre Croydon.”
In Selsdon, the eight small houses – which have the appearance of 19th-Century railway workers’ cottages – will all be going for private sale, and so will do little to address the housing crisis in the borough, but have the potential to bolster Brick by Brick’s profits.
Challenged on this, the council uses the excuse offered by private developers when they dodge any social responsibility for providing affordable housing. “The development proposes less than 10 units and therefore is not required to deliver affordable housing,” the report prepared on behalf of a Labour-run council states.
And as far as the council is concerned, Hawthorn Crescent’s restrictive covenant on the land, requiring it to be set aside as open space, they say, “This is not material to the determination of the planning application.”
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