A council director has told residents that there is nothing wrong whatsoever in a member of her planning staff providing pre-application advice to a developer, and then leaving their job at the council to work for the architects hired by the developer to work on the project.
Inside Croydon revealed last week how Jan Slominski had been Croydon Council’s case officer on a proposed monster block in a quiet Coulsdon cul-de-sac, drafting the pre-app advice at the council while serving his notice period.
Slominski’s very favourable pre-app report on the Macar Developments scheme in South Drive was produced in June 2020. He then joined HTA Design, the architects retained by Macar Developments for that very same South Drive project.
But in a reply to residents’ complaints, Heather Cheesbrough, the council’s director of planning and strategic transport, admits that she and her senior staff knew that Slominski was about to join HTA when he was working on the planning application for one of their clients.
“The council can confirm,” Cheesbrough wrote, “that it was aware of Mr Slomenski’s new employer, which Mr Slomeski freely shared with us.”
According to Cheesbrough, an agreed six-month “period of non-engagement” in all matters in Croydon when Slominski moved to HTA would suffice.
But actually allowing him to work on his new employers’ clients’ proposals during his notice period?
Pah, not a problem as far as Cheesbrough is concerned.
“For his work during his notice period, Mr Slomenski continued with the usual arrangements of oversight by his Team Leader and Head of Development Management and where necessary the Director. This consists of all work, written advice and any decision making being reviewed by a senior member of staff,”she wrote.
It amounts to Cheesbrough once again turning a blind-eye to a blatant conflict of interest among her planning staff.
It was Cheesbrough who claimed that Ross Gentry had made all the necessary declarations of interest about being married to a director of Macar Developments, Natalie Gentry. But when challenged, Cheesbrough refused to produce any written evidence of Gentry’s declaration of his wife’s work interests.
After a brief spell working in Lambeth, Ross Gentry is back working in Croydon’s planning department, while Natalie Gentry remains a director at Macar, the firm behind the massive overdevelopment of 39 flats in Coulsdon on the site of what was two family homes.
Cheesbrough’s continuing employment in Croydon might be a surprise to many, too, after she handed in her notice amid the flurry of director-level departures from the cash-strapped council at the end of 2020.
Cheesbrough was due to join Redbridge Council in February this year. But just before Christmas it was announced that the Redbridge CEO who had hired Cheesbrough, Andy Donald, would be stepping down. And Cheesbrough ended up staying put in Croydon.
Cheesbrough is thus one of the few Negrini appointees at the council to have survived the cull at Fisher’s Folly conducted this year by new chief exec Katherine Kerswell.
Through ex-CEO Jo Negrini and Brick by Brick, Croydon has had strong ties with HTA Design for several years. Thanks to Negrini, HTA was handed several juicy contracts to design blocks of flats with the council’s loss-making housebuilders.
And it was in 2016, during HTA chair Ben Derbyshire’s term as president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), that Negrini – with absolutely no architecture qualifications whatsoever – was made given an Honorary Fellowship. Clearly, all just a coincidence.
It has been Cheesbrough – who was hired by Negreedy in 2016 – who has been a driving force behind the overdevelopment of countless suburban streets around Croydon.
“Intensification of the suburbs is a key element of how Croydon is delivering its housing target and the [Local Planning Authority] seeks to optimise housing delivery on all sites,” Cheesbrough has said – conveniently overlooking how Croydon’s housing target has been needlessly increased by the council.
The South Drive scheme and other proposals submitted by Macar and one or two other favoured developers are typical of the kind of large blocks of flats which are pushed through by Cheesbrough’s planners, despite a welter of opposition from the residents that they are being inflicted upon. And all this before any developer-friendly changes to the planning rules from the Tory government.
Inside Croydon has reported 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.
Cheesbrough’s defence of her department’s indefensible position relies on a caveat which she says is provided to all applicants who seek the council’s pre-application advice.
The council’s caveat states,
“This advice is the case officer’s initial assessment of your proposal, and is offered without prejudice to the council’s consideration of a future application. This advice is based on the policies and guidance in effect at the time of writing, which may change in the future.
“Planning applications are subject to formal public notification and consultation, and considered by senior officers and/or the council’s planning committee, who will take account of consultation responses and new planning policies, and will not be bound by the advice in this note.”
Which, as anyone with experience of the planning system, and of Croydon’s planning system, knows well, is nine-carat bullshit.
Developers pay generously for pre-app advice from the council planners in the knowledge that the formal and official nudge and a wink here and there is often enough to steer them past any awkward councillors on the planning committee, if the scheme ever gets that far.
In the case of Macar’s South Drive scheme, Slominski’s pre-app advice read more like a love letter to the developers, his soon-to-be employers’ clients.
“There is support from officers for a building of the proposed height,” he wrote of the two blocks of up to seven storeys in a suburban street of two-storey houses. “The proposed footprint, height and scale may be acceptable,” Slominski said.
Then there was, “The impacts on neighbours are considered to broadly fall within acceptable parameters.” And the fantasyland clincher from Slominski on parking spaces was, “There appears to be sufficient capacity on-street to accommodate the overspill from this development.”
But as far as Cheesbrough is concerned, “we do not feel that our advice provided at pre-application stage was incorrect”.
And rather than stepping in and taking away any work from soon-to-depart Slominski that might have had even a whiff of involvement from HTA Design – a perfectly reasonable and reliable means of avoiding even a suggestion of a major conflict of interest – the £130,000 per year council boss claims that instead she relied on “formal protocols”.
Or as most people would see it: she did nothing.
In a breathless 119-word sentence, Cheesbrough wrote, “I appreciate that you wish to be satisfied that Mr Slomenski did not provide advice that was advantageous to an applicant in view of his impending departure, and I hope that I can reassure you that as a planning service we do have formal protocols in place for staff oversight and management and that because of the complex and at times more subjective nature of planning decision-making, which can require a balancing of polices and material considerations, planning teams have a formal two-stage sign-off process for delegated decision-making to help ensure that any individual output is firmly positioned within the Local Planning Authority’s context and that written advice to applicants is also grounded within the view of the LPA.”
So that’s alright then…
Read more: Council planning decisions ‘open to corruption’, says research
Read more: #Macarnage: Planning officer’s ‘leaving present’ to Coulsdon
Read more: Purley residents outrage over planning’s ‘husband and wife act’
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