EXCLUSIVE: The revolving door between the council planning department and private developers and architects is exposed over a scheme for 39 flats in Coulsdon. By STEVEN DOWNES
Before Jan Slominski was hired as a senior planning adviser for the architects working on the latest proposal for a monstrous block of flats in Coulsdon, he had been Croydon Council’s case officer on the very same project, providing crucial official planning advice to the developers on their pre-application submission.
Inside Croydon has discovered correspondence from the council which admits that it was Slominski himself who had provided developers Macar with generally approving comments for their crass seven-storey megablock in a residential street in Coulsdon.
Slominski’s very favourable pre-app report on the Macar scheme in South Drive was produced in June 2020 – when the council official will have been working his notice before taking a new job with HTA Design. HTA Design just happen to be the architects retained by Macar Developments for that very same South Drive project.
Macar are also the developers who have Natalie Gentry among their directors; Natalie is married to Ross Gentry, a senior member of the Croydon Council planning department and aformer colleague of Slominski.
The senior management in the council’s planning department, from Heather Cheesbrough, the director of planning, down, are all aware of the very cosy relationships between current and former staff and the developers. And none of them appear prepared to do anything about it.
Yet while potential conflicts of interest are tolerated within the planning department, other council officials have meanwhile been issuing directives to elected councillors, members of the planning committee, ordering them not to visit South Drive, just in case it might, hmmm, prejudice the process.
Inside Croydon reported last week on the South Drive proposals, which have received nearly 500 comments objections, including from the East Coulsdon Residents’ Association.
HTA’s inside knowledge, courtesy of Slominski, of the application and of Croydon’s planning department could prove invaluable in getting approval for the £12million project, although the council claims that they have “received no contact regarding this site” from their former employee since he left Fisher’s Folly a year ago.
Nor would they: no one has ever accused HTA, Macar or Slominski of being that stupid.
Indeed, there is no suggestion that any of the parties involved have done anything unlawful.
In any case, Smolinski may have had a significant influence over the scheme’s planning fate before he had even left Croydon Council.
This year, agents claiming to be working for Macar Developments have been approaching homeowners on South Drive offering to buy their homes with a view to redevelopment, falsely claiming that the application for the site of Nos 1 and 3 has already been granted planning permission.
“The clear implication is that if the council can green-light a seven-storey block on this road, then similar schemes will also get planning permission,” one resident who had received an approach told Inside Croydon.
“They seem so confident that permission will be granted, it’s like it is already a done deal. And some of my neighbours are considering getting out before all the damage and destruction is done.”
This strategy of “Macarnage” has already been played out on selected suburban streets in Purley and Kenley, and by more than one seemingly favoured developer who knows how to play the planning system and Croydon’s planning department.
Coulsdon residents raised their worries over the potential conflicts of interest with the council in a letter of complaint in March. The reply, from a senior council planning official, and seen by Inside Croydon, admitted, “Jan Slominski did inform us of the identify [sic] of his new employer.
“The council is unable to restrict who a person works for after they have left the council’s employment however, we did informally agree with Mr Slomenski that it would not be appropriate for him to take on work within the Borough of Croydon for at least six months following his departure from the council. Jan has adhered to this, but this time frame has now lapsed.
“From a review of the file, Mr Slominski wrote several pre app responses on this site, as he was the case officer on this scheme. This included a letter dated June 2020 with feedback to the applicant from Mr Slominski. Mr Slominski then took up employment at HTA in July.”
And according to the council, that’s all absolutely fine.
“HTA are providing architectural advice rather than planning advice to the applicant regarding 1- 3 South Drive,” they wrote. “The applicant has a separate planning agent. It is also important to note the officers now dealing with 1 – 3 South Drive have received no contact from Mr Slominski regarding this site since he left the council’s employment.”
Not for the first time, the council clearly takes the residents it is supposed to serve for fools.
The council has skirted around the sensitive issue of quite how closely their former planning official was associated with the detail of a scheme which his current employers are working on.
Slominski did indeed write several pre-app responses on the 1-3 South Drive proposal, including a Planning Application Feedback Note dated June 2020.
In that document, Slominski made statements on some of the most contentious elements of the proposal, suggesting that the council might well approve of the size and scale of the Macar build.
His comments included:
- Height: “There is support from officers for a building of the proposed height.” One of the two blocks proposed will have seven storeys (including a lower ground floor). The existing buildings in South Drive are only two storeys tall.
- Scale and massing: “The Council’s pre-application advice was that the proposed footprint, height and scale may be acceptable.” That’s 39 flats acceptable on a plot which previously was two family homes.
- Overshadowing and impact on neighbours: “The impacts on neighbours are considered to broadly fall within acceptable parameters.” Acceptable to whom, exactly? Certainly not the near 500 objectors to the scheme.
- Parking: “There appears to be sufficient capacity on-street to accommodate the overspill from this development.” This is something which Coulsdon residents contest as being untrue, and deeply resent.
Such pre-app comments from a Croydon Council official, delivered when Slominski was working out his notice before joining HTA Design, might be seen as something of a leaving present. Though definitely not to the people of South Drive.
As one beleaguered resident of South Drive wrote to council leader Hamida Ali, “Mr Slominski’s comments have given the impression of council approval of these aspects of the design.
“It is not surprising, therefore, that despite other minor revisions to the plan, these elements of the design have barely changed and remain as unacceptable to local residents now as they were prior to Mr Slominski’s feedback guidance.”
Of course, and oh so conveniently, it is HTA Designs who are responsible, as Macar’s architectural designers, for accommodating the council’s feedback – that is, Slominski’s feedback – on the project.
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