Our south of the borough correspondent, PEARL LEE, reports on how the council’s planning department has broken the land speed record to push through the £1m sale of a site that was earmarked for a community centre
The consequences of the multi-million failure of Brick by Brick seem certain to be suffered by residents of the borough for years to come, and a meeting tonight of the council’s scrutiny committee is likely to underline just that.
Five years ago, when Alison Butler, then the council’s deputy leader, and Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, the chief exec, were promising to turn Croydon into a land of milk and honey, the people of Coulsdon were asked to give up their town centre car park, a disused adult education centre and their much-loved community centre, all on the solemn promise that in return they’d get nearly 200 new homes, a shiny new NHS medical building and a purpose-built community centre actually in the centre of the community.
It is increasingly looking as if the only thing Coulsdon is going to get is… shafted.
When first presented to the Coulsdon public, the nexus of land deals involving the various pieces of public property were deemed to be indivisible and interdependent. Building a load of flats on a car park would help to pay for other council commitments and services.
But Brick by Brick is at least two years late in completing the flats on Lion Green Road. Permission was granted in 2017 on a nod (just as all BxB planning applications were granted) from the chair of the planning committee, Butler’s husband, Paul Scott. At the time, the development had the support of the East Coulsdon Residents’ Association.
The 157 flats would mostly go for private sale, with an estimated value of around £30million. The council has yet to see a penny of that money from Brick by Brick, hence the financial clusterfuck last year.
Alongside those flats, another 33 were due to be built on Barrie Close, just off the Chipstead Valley Road, where a community centre has served generations of Coulsdonians since 1935.
The two dozen or so community groups using the venerable centre were promised a like-for-like replacement building, where the old CALAT Centre is, and a new health centre also developed there would serve the whole town, not just the new residents living up on Cane Hill.
But as with so many aspects of public property handed over to Brick by Brick, Colm Lacey and his team managed to screw things up.
For a start, no one bothered asking the NHS if they actually wanted a health centre in Coulsdon or, more importantly, whether they had a budget for one. All progress on the switch of sites between Malcolm Road and Barrie Close ground to a halt.
Now, with the cash-strapped council conducting a fire sale of assets – including ex-BxB sites – residents in Coulsdon and the charitable trust which runs the commmunity centre fear that the demand for local facilities will be forgotten as chiefs at the bankrupted Town Hall look to convert property into cash to satisfy the watching Whitehall mandarins.
Last week, planning permission was granted to convert the former CALAT Centre on Malcolm Road into an NHS kidney dialysis centre. The whole planning process took just seven days – council officials operating at land speed record pace compared to their usual laborious rate of progress.
The planning application was submitted not by the council, but by the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust, which suggests that the sale, if it hasn’t gone through already, is at a very advanced stage. According to a council report to tonight’s meeting, “Terms have been agreed as set out in the [secret] Part B report and these are in line with the external valuation and are conditional on the developer obtaining a suitable planning consent.” Cushty.
Katharine Street sources suggest that the planning department extracted its digit over this particular application after direct intervention by senior Labour councillors, possibly even the council leader, Hamida Ali.
The site has been valued in a confidential report, seen by Inside Croydon, as worth a tad over £1million. If it goes ahead, it seems that the alternative site promised for a community centre will be lost.
The move has prompted deep suspicion by locals in Coulsdon.
The council’s Labour leadership has been pressed “to honour its commitment to the residents of Coulsdon” over the relocation of the community centre, in a motion passed this month by the Croydon South Constituency Labour Party.
But senior council figures involved in the deal, such as Callton Young, the cabinet member for digging the council out of the Brick by Brick hole, and deputy leader Stuart King, have dismissed all appeals.
Concerns over the unpopularity of the move among voters – there’s a referendum coming up, remember – were dismissed by one senior figure who said, “It’s in the south.”
Another told a resident, “We need the money.”
The council has a target of £4.23million for capital receipts in this financial year, with other disposals likely to include the sale of Coulsdon Court Golf Club and the lease of Heathfield House to a special school.
And when challenged over how the move would play badly in the politics of the borough, a veteran Labour campaigner was told by a member of the council leadership that if they wanted to stop the CALAT sale, “You’ll need to get the [Labour group] members to vote me out.”
It is against this background that the decision over the sale of the Malcolm Road site has been called in for scrutiny tonight.
According to the meeting’s paperwork, Young took the decision on the sale in consultation with Ali on July 31. The scrutiny committee agenda states that, “The decision is outside of the Policy Framework in regards the Interim Asset Disposal Strategy agreed this year.
“Officers presented the draft Interim Strategy to Scrutiny and the list of properties that were to be sold.
“The report stated the following: ‘Former CALAT Coulsdon, Malcolm Road and Barrie Close site (Coulsdon Community Centre)… both assets need to be sold together to allow relocation of Community Centre’. Decision is in contradiction of what officers had informed Scrutiny previously.”
The sale of the CALAT site, the scrutiny report states, fails to meet two considerations laid out in Young’s own asset disposal strategy that was agreed by the council in February this year, namely “to ensure an asset is not being sold off if it could provide a cost-effective solution for another service area” and “Achieving ‘Best Consideration’ – would delaying a disposal be more beneficial?”
The scrutiny committee wants the site to be withdrawn from sale and to be reviewed, “to see if the original proposals for these Coulsdon Sites to build a new community centre, social housing and a new medical centre can be achieved”.
The scrutiny committee, which is made up of Conservative as well as Labour councillors, is requesting, “An explanation as to why the original decision for these sites was abandoned”, and “A copy of the current business case, the requirement for which was set out in the February 2021 Cabinet Paper”. It seems that council has not yet kicked the old, bad habits of Brick by Brick’s detail-lite business plans.
There is no doubt that the area is in need of a kidney dialysis centre, since the one in Purley closed in June this year. The council has refused two separate planning applications to relocate the dialysis centre to the Ullswater Crescent industrial estate in Coulsdon, meaning that since June, patients have had to be sent to St George’s Hospital at Tooting, St Helier or Epsom, as well as Mayday, adding up to two hours of journey time to their regular treatment days.
The use of the Malcolm Road site for the dialysis centre would, however, leave the community centre with nowhere to go if Barrie Close is flogged off for housing.
The community centre’s trustees are clinging to the hope enshrined in their lease from the council, which has five years still to run, and which promises that if they are ever moved, or once the lease expires, the council is to provide them with a “like for like replacement”.
“We’ve had five years of the sword of Damocles hanging over us,” one told Inside Croydon, “so in a way we’re used to the uncertainty.
“But we have five years on our lease, and the promise of a like for like replacement, and we’ll live with that, and we’ll make sure that the council delivers on the legal commitment within that lease.”
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