CROYDON IN CRISIS: Our environment reporter, CHRIS PECKHAM, on how the authority’s financial crisis is being used as an excuse to push through a twice-rejected plan
After twice being forced to back down twice in the face of public hostility in the space of three years, cash-strapped Croydon Council has now started flogging off part of a much-loved, “historic” public park.
Heath Lodge in Grangewood Park is to be sold – little more than 12 months since the Labour-controlled council’s secretive attempts to flog off the building and some parkland had been exposed and forced to be abandoned.
The Lodge is a Victorian-built, small former parkkeeper’s home at the gates to the park which lies between Thornton Heath and Upper Norwood.
The Lodge had been occupied until 2011, but a decade’s worth of neglect and disinvestment by the council has left the building in a near-derelict state. Estimates of the repair costs start at £150,000 – money that the council said it did not have, even before it declared itself effectively bankrupt.
Last year was the second time that the Labour council had tried to sell off the Lodge. They had previously drawn up disposal plans in 2017.
This time, there appears to be no way of stopping the sale. The Lodge and part of the park were included in a list of council properties for disposal, part of interim finance director Chris Buss’s fire sale of public assets towards paying off some of the multi-million-pound overspend incurred in 2020 during the first covid-19 lockdown.
Part of the council cuts proposed include reducing the already modest parks budget by £400,000 per year.
Minutes of a council cabinet meeting in February describe the sale of the Lodge and a selection of other property assets – notably including the Croydon Park Hotel – as “quick wins”, saying that they were “assets which were larger liabilities for the council”.
How this can include such a modest property as Heath Lodge was never explained.
The minutes record, “In response to the quick sale of properties identified in Tranche 1, the [cabinet member for Croydon Renewal, Stuart King] stated that the majority of those properties were empty, disused or soon to be disused buildings which were no longer required by the services, and so lent themselves to immediate disposal.
“It was stressed, however, that the business case and governance would be important elements to provide assurance to Members that due consideration was given to each asset and that best consideration was achieved.”
The key detail of the valuation placed on the Lodge and accompanying land was kept secret, only discussed under the Part B section of the meeting that excluded the public and press.
The council’s secretiveness over Grangewood Park is nothing new. The last time they tried to sell the Lodge, they published a sales offer on Boxing Day, 2019 – presumably hoping few residents would notice. In that, at least, they were wrong.
A 3,000-signature petition later, the council issued a grovelling climbdown in which they solemnly promised to “work with local people over the coming months to find a viable solution the community supports”.
No prizes for guessing that no such work to find a viable solution ever took place.
Residents and the park’s Friends group are now angry that the council has managed to push through this property disposal during lockdown and without consultation. There is some dispute as to whether the council even has the rights to sell the land that it parcelled up with the old building.
And not a penny from the sale of the lodge and part of the park will be used towards long-promised improvements to the park’s amenities, something which had been offered as a sop in previous attempts to off-load the Lodge.
Labour ward councillors in Upper Norwood and Thornton Heath wards, and the local Progress MP, Steve Reed OBE, have been noticeably very quiet over the sale of the Lodge.
Laughably, given Croydon Council’s planning department’s usually cavalier approach to “covenants” on other people’s land (they ignore them), senior council officials have promised that any development of the site will carry with it legal restrictions limiting the new build to family housing. “It’s the sort of promise that won’t be worth the paper it is written on,” one local activist cynically observed.
Selling parkland and public spaces, or handing them over to Brick by Brick, the council’s bungling development company, was the go-to policy of the Labour administration under the discredited leadership of Tony Newman, Simon Hall and Alison Butler long before coronavirus highlighted their financial shortcomings.
In March 2016, the council’s cabinet approved a report “Ambitious for parks and green spaces in Croydon – working with our communities”. Said a Katharine Street source, “‘Ambitious’ was a favourite word of Newman and his clique. Everyone understands what the word is supposed to mean. Newman and Butler used it to disguise their true intentions.”
The title of that council report contained a massive clue as to the intention to hand over the running of the borough’s parks to volunteers. The paper laid out a grim future of a parks service with no budgets, thanks to austerity cuts. “It was no kind of ambition that anyone who truly cares for the borough really shared,” said the source.
Croydon has 127 parks and open spaces. A 2017 “masterplan” identified just six of them for some form of on-going funding and management arrangements, with the rest left to fend for themselves, surviving off hand-outs from a few modest grants and the goodwill and hard work of volunteers.
This was all a significant backing down from the sunlit uplands promised by Newman & Co’s 2014 local election manifesto, which included “a named park keeper” in every park (and they needn’t necessarily all be named “Percy”).
Any Percy the Parkkeeper in 2021 would struggle to find anywhere to base themselves: when the council drew up its original scheme to flog off Heath Lodge in 2017, it had just sold a similar park lodge, in Addington Park.
Yet publicly, Newman, Hall and Butler denied that any such disposal plans for public parks existed.
In a Town Hall public meeting in July 2019, Butler had the bare-faced front to shout “lying cow” across the chamber floor when a Tory councillor had the audacity to expose her secret plans to sell as many as 30 parks and open spaces around the borough. The real liar here, though, was Butler.
Today, of the trio of Newman, ex-finance chief Hall and Butler, only Butler, the former deputy leader of the council, remains as a councillor.
It took the financial collapse of the council, thanks to her disastrous Brick by Brick house-building delivery, to finally achieve what Butler had been trying to do with Heath Lodge for nearly five years.
In a meeting last month with the Friends of Grangewood Park, King and Stephen Wingrave, the council’s head of assets and estates, told residents that there was no flexibility over the sale of the lodge and parkland.
The plans are exactly the same as those which were thwarted in January 2020, with the same 195 sq m strip of land around the Lodge. The council is expected to advertise the sale, as required by Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972, soon.
The attachment of the land to the Lodge sale, the council officials maintain, is essential, otherwise potential developers will be deterred by an unviable plot, making the building virtually unsellable.
The council’s position is to claim that the government’s £120million bail-out has come with strings attached, including asset disposal. Which is true, but only up to a point.
It has always been clear that Robert Jenrick and the disapproving Whitehall mandarins at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government probably had their eyes on big-ticket properties such as the Croydon Park Hotel. Disposing of small patches of public parks has never been mentioned explicitly – but there’s genuine fears now that the council will use the demands of MHCLG as an excuse to flog-off other bits of public open space.
“If it goes ahead, this will set a very dangerous precedent for all green spaces in the borough,” one concerned Thornton heath activist has said.
In the council’s Local Plan, Grangewood Park was described as a green space that is “demonstrably special” and of “particular significance” to the community. The words “historic”, “secluded” and “oasis” were also used.
The Friends’ petition started more than a year ago now has more than 4,000 signatures, and is likely to be re-presented to the council soon.
“The council can’t just be allowed to walk over communities just because it has found itself in this financial mess,” said a Friends of Grangewood Park member.
Read more: Council handed biggest bail-out ever
Read more: Council forced to declare itself bankrupt
Read more: Croydon tops the table for flogging off public assets
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