When senior officials in Croydon’s planning department refuse to acknowledge their own serious errors, can residents rely on the council’s complaints system? Not if the latest development fiasco in Riddlesdown is anything to go by, says STEVE WHITESIDE
Deliberate delays by council officials in the processing of a formal complaint from a couple in their 90s has helped allow the unlawful demolition of a family home in Sanderstead and the start of development of a block of flats, in breach of planning permission.
Since early 2018 I have tried, along with the Riddlesdown Residents’ Association and other neighbours, to help Mr and Mrs Newlands, the elderly couple who have lived at 96 Hyde Rd for more than 50 years, to defend themselves from the unsustainable intensification that threatens to swallow up their family home.
Our efforts were initially confined to another scheme at No98, which had been put forward by one of the more rapacious developers in southern Croydon, Aventier.
But even as the Newlands were being forced to cope with all the nonsense and nuisance next door, they were faced by the prospect of yet another block of flats right across the road from them, at 89 Hyde Road.
Perhaps the members of the council’s planning committee were still in a state of shock.
It was only a week since the council had issued its Section 114 Notice, to become only the second local authority in England in 20 years effectively to declare itself bankrupt. But on November 18 last year, the committee approved the demolition of 89 Hyde Road and its replacement by a block of nine flats.
A ward councillor, Lynne Hale, spoke at the meeting and raised a series of concerns regarding the overdevelopment of the site. “The proposal includes the unacceptable felling of eight individual trees and five groups of trees… as well as substantial areas of mature hedging,” Hale told the committee. “And the scheme for replanting is hopelessly mean and unviable.”
Given recent issues with flash flooding across London and the failures of the planning process to mitigate against the impact of heavier rainfall, one of Hale’s criticisms of the proposal is of particular relevance, “There appears to have been no consultation with Thames Water by either the developer or the council to see if there is capacity in the sewer network to take the additional foul and possibly surface water discharge from the proposed development.
“Drainage is really important here; it is becoming increasing concerning that the foul water sewers in Riddlesdown are carrying more water than they are designed for and as a result areas downhill from here are suffering frequent episodes of flooding, often foul water and sewage. At times the flooding in Lower Barn Road and Mitchley Avenue is so bad that it cuts Riddlesdown in half.”
And Hale concluded, “The whole scheme does absolutely nothing in terms of sensitive optimisation – it is pure maximisation of the site to the huge detriment of the green and open local character. It will add to the already overloaded drainage and sewer systems – and should be refused.”
The planning committee approved the application.
In approving application 20/00108/FUL, they did so based on a council official’s report, the committee agreed that thereafter “… the director of planning and strategic transport has delegated authority to issue the planning permission and impose conditions and informatives”.
Croydon’s director of planning and strategic transport in November 2020 was Heather Cheesbrough, though she, too, may have been a little distracted from matters in Croydon, as she’d just organised herself an escape plan from Fisher’s Folly with a new job in Redbridge.
The decision notice on the 89 Hyde Road block of flats was signed off by the council’s “head of development management”, Nicola Townsend. It was dated February 22 2021, three months after the committee meeting.
Condition 2 of that formal notice reads “Unless otherwise previously agreed by the Local Planning Authority in writing, the development shall be carried out entirely in accordance with the following drawings and other documents submitted with the application.”
In the words of one barrister, “The tailpiece in Condition 2, ‘Unless otherwise previously agreed’, is in my view unlawful. This is well established.”
Now you might well think that Townsend, as someone with her qualifications and experience, in a position of such significant (delegated) power, would have known this. We certainly think so, and wonder how or why she was persuaded to make such a flagrant error of law in this case.
On April 19 this year, and with the benefit of legal advice, I submitted a formal complaint to the council on behalf of the Newlands.
The complaint was addressed to Townsend’s boss, Cheesbrough (who is still working at Croydon after her new job in Redbridge had somehow fallen through).
The complaint included reference not only to the unlawful tailpiece but also to what I maintain were misleading statements made by the applicant, the agent and council planning officials alike leading up to the committee’s decision.
The complaint concludes as follows:
“It would be unlawful for the council to remake its decision by merely reissuing the decision notice with the ‘tailpiece’ omitted. It is established case law that local planning authorities cannot withdraw and re-issue decision notices to correct such errors. The council’s decision should therefore be revoked under Section 97 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
“Having revoked the decision and before issuing any new decision notice, it would now be expedient for the council to fully reconsider its original decision, before a perfectly good family home is demolished, before more unwelcome and undue stress is caused to neighbours and before more abortive costs are incurred by the applicant. ….
“The Council should properly assess whether this piece of intensification would in fact be in any way sustainable, when considered honestly against the adopted development plan read ‘as a whole’.”
Townsend’s decision notice confirms that, “This planning permission is subject to a Section 106 Agreement under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.”
Although dated February 16 2021, the relevant unilateral undertaking was only published by the council on May 18, almost three months later.
Schedule 1 of the undertaking reads (my italics for emphasis): “Sustainable Transport Contribution… means the sum of £13,500… to be utilised towards (which could include but not limited to and council exercising absolute discretion) sustainable transport, highway management measures and the delivery of sustainable transport initiatives in Sanderstead.”
As we read it, the inclusion of the bracketed text effectively means that the “contribution” could be spent on anything, without restriction and not necessarily even within Sanderstead. But Regulation 122 of the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations 2010 requires that these planning obligations must be necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms and directly related to the development.
On that basis, on June 17 I added to the complaint claiming that the s106 “contribution” described does not satisfy the legal requirements. I argued that the decision to give this undertaking any weight when determining application 20/00108/FUL was another error of law and further reason why Townsend’s decision notice could and should be seen as unlawful.
On July 3, I was phoned by Mr Newlands, who told me that all the trees on the site were being cut down. This was a blatant breach of Condition 15 of the planning permission, which was meant to prevent any work on the trees during the bird-nesting season. There was not, and has been no sign of any action by the council’s planning enforcement officials.
On the morning of July 7, Mr Newlands called again to tell me the road had been blocked for more than an hour, without warning or signage, while demolition machinery was delivered to site.
By 3pm, he reported that the house was pretty much demolished. Croydon Council had been dealing with our formal complaint for three months by this point.
Putting aside the likely unauthorised blocking of the highway, the demolition works were in direct breach of Condition 5 of the permission, which required the submission and approval of a “Construction Logistics Plan” before development commenced.
For Condition 5, “development” includes demolition and at the time of writing, the application to discharge it has still to be determined.
All bad enough, you might think, but there was more to come on the day, this time from the council.
At just after 4pm on July 7, I received an email from a “corporate resolution officer” at Croydon Council telling me that in order to “progress the complaint investigation”, the “planning team” needed to be sent signed authorisation that the Newlands had asked me to act on their behalf in the complaint. The same complaint that the council had been sitting on for almost three months.
In the 10 weeks that had gone by, there had been no mention of this requirement. There was understandable disgust and anger, from the Riddlesdown RA members as well as the long-suffering Newlands, that the council had left it so long before introducing this new excuse for the already totally unacceptable and disrespectful delays. Considering what was now occurring on the sites next door and opposite, “disgust” is probably too mild a word.
According to the council’s own complaints policy, we should have had a response to this complaint within 20 working days. We didn’t and we’re still waiting.
Meanwhile, for a while at least, and albeit it across a demolition site, the Newlands can enjoy an improved view of the greenery to the south.
So that’s alright then, isn’t it?
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