Planning officers routinely ignoring the requirements of local plans, little or no enforcement of conditions applied when permission has been granted and the courts throwing out decisions of the council. STEVE WHITESIDE on a litany of shortcomings, and worse, at Fisher’s Folly
Croydon Council’s “director of planning and strategic transport”, Heather Cheesbrough BA (Hons) PG Dip LA CMLI MRTPI, recently lectured elected councillors that criticism of her department was unmerited, stating that, “All the planning officers in the team have the highest personal integrity and professionalism”.
Is that true, or is she merely defending the indefensible?
To assess just how “professionally” Cheesbrough and her officers have been performing their duties, I have taken a look at just one aspect of their assessment of planning applications that continues to cause him concern: the landscape design around some of the new developments ging up around the borough.
Policy DM10.8(f) of Croydon’s Local Plan states that, “Adherence with Supplementary Planning Guidance 12 Landscape Design… will be encouraged to aid compliance with the policies contained in the Local Plan.”
The notes attached to that policy include, “The council considers landscape as an integral part of all development and would therefore require proposals for new developments… to be accompanied by plans detailing all existing and proposed hard and soft landscaping affected by or to be incorporated into the scheme.” My italics, for emphasis.
Supplementary Planning Guidance 12 Landscape Design “provides detailed guidance and clarity on what the council is seeking from development proposals on providing safe well-designed landscaped schemes.”
That adopted guidance includes checklists of the information that will be needed by council planning officials if they are to assess applications with regard to landscape design properly.
Additionally, the notes beneath Policy D4 (Delivering good design) within the London Plan 2021, include, “The scrutiny of a proposed development’s design should cover its… landscaping”, and “Assessment of the design of… landscaping… should be undertaken as part of assessing the whole development and not deferred for consideration after planning permission has been granted.”
Yet despite all of that, while Cheesbrough has been in charge of planning in the borough:
- reports by planning case officials regularly (almost always) fail to include SPG12 (Landscape Design) in the list of relevant supplementary planning guidance
- much of the information included in the checklists is not provided as part of applications (the repeated lack of adequate or accurate site plan and levels information is particularly inappropriate and often contrary to local validation requirements)
- hard and soft landscape details are (almost) always the subject of planning conditions, and
- there appears to be no appropriately qualified officers to assess any landscape proposals that are submitted. This task is now often performed by an inadequately qualified tree officer or, more likely, an inadequately qualified planning officer, if it is performed at all.
There can be no doubt that during Cheesbrough’s time at Croydon, her officials have most certainly not ensured that hard and soft landscape has been considered as “an integral part of all development”. Last month, the planning committee approved applications which had been typically lacking in key information and where officials had yet again recommended that hard and soft landscape details were dealt with by condition.
In the circumstances, it seems inevitable that we will see more landscape outcomes like that at 54 Arkwright Road, where we are left with a parking forecourt which will seriously detract from both the new building and the character of an area, especially when crammed full of cars or vans.
The originally approved application (by Aventier) promised 12 new trees (a 400 per cent increase!), but by the time the council got to discharging the planning conditions, the new trees provided as part of the development were reduced to one, plonked right at the back of the site.
It’s worth noting that the decision on the latest, retrospective application on this site (20/04314/CONR) was recently the subject of a challenge at Judicial Review. As a result of that challenge, the council has accepted that the application was assessed wrongly by the case officers and the decision by Nicola Townsend, the “head of development management”, in April 2021 has since been quashed by order of the court.
We now await another, retrospective application for this development, to be considered properly, including full consultation and referral to planning committee as appropriate.
However, it is very difficult to see how an acceptable landscape scheme could now be provided: there just isn’t the space, there never really was. This was always over-development.
Did Cheesbrough’s planning department’s conduct in this case really demonstrate “the highest personal integrity and professionalism” on the part of officials?
Personally, knowing the full history of this case, I don’t see it. All I see here is a disgraceful lack of scrutiny or adherence to policy or good practice from the very outset, not only in the consideration of landscape design but also with regard to tree protection and sustainable drainage, among many other material planning matters.
The impact of the council’s unsustainable strategy of “intensification by maximisation” is now becoming all too clear on the ground. If not abandoned, it is likely to have a devastating effect on some areas and on many of the people who live there.
While all of this has been going on, Cheesbrough’s Linkedin profile, under “Licenses and Certifications”, a collation of her professional qualifications, has included “CMLI”, apparently signifying that she is a Chartered Member of the Landscape Institute.
So I checked. I couldn’t find Heather Cheesbrough’s name in the Landscape Institute’s member directory. In early November 2020, I contacted Cheesbrough directly and asked that she confirm that she was still a chartered member and if not, when her membership ended. There has been no acknowledgement or response.
In the absence of a reply from my council’s employee, I asked the Landscape Institute (their motto: “Inspiring great places”). You can imagine my surprise when they informed me that Heather Cheesbrough had not been a chartered member of the Institute since May 2013.
I wrote to Cheesbrough again. “According to the LI’s website, on cessation of your membership, you should have informed all relevant third parties of your change in membership status. Could you please ensure that this apparent misuse of a ‘protected title’ is now rectified as soon as possible?”
Again, I didn’t receive as much as the courtesy of an acknowledgement.
I wrote to the council director again in July this year. “Would you please confirm that you have rejoined the Institute, or in the alternative, when you intend to finally remove any reference to your membership of the Institute from your LinkedIn profile and elsewhere?”
In August, I was told that the Landscape Institute had written to Cheesbrough telling her to remove “CMLI” from her LinkedIn profile and from anywhere else it may be used. They also asked her to let them know when it had been removed.
As of today, the bogus CMLI still appears on Heather Cheesbrough’s own LinkedIn profile.
Loyal readers may remember that Croydon’s planning department appears to have a bit of an issue with its leading figures, their qualifications and memberships of regulatory and professional bodies. Nicola Townsend’s predecessor as the borough’s head planner, Pete Smith, for example, was not a chartered member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, and therefore not subject to its rules and standards of professional conduct.
Neither the council, nor Jo Negrini, the CEO who’d appointed Smith to be the borough’s top planner, nor elected councillors in charge of planning, such as Paul Scott, ever offered any explanation why they felt it acceptable to have a head of planning who was not a chartered member of the RTPI.
In the case of Cheesbrough and the Landscape Institute, she appears content to flout the Institute’s rules and directives, just as her officers are content to conceal serious breaches of adopted policy within planning applications and ignore blatant non-compliance or breach of condition when developments are on site.
Cheesbrough’s LinkedIn page also still shows that she is “Qualified as a Landscape Architect and Town Planner”. There are other websites that contain similar claims, such as New London Architecture (who were always enthusiastic cheerleaders for Cheesbrugh’s former boss, “regeneration practitioner” Negrini) and a firm of conference organisers.
I believe that like me, most people would see this as Cheesbrough still “marketing” herself as some kind of expert, a practising landscape architect.
As a former chartered member myself, I am not happy that Cheesbrough continues to ignore what to me is a very important, fundamental issue. A matter, if you like, of integrity.
It is also very relevant to residents in some parts of the borough, given the position Cheesbrough holds and the atrociously poor quality landscape schemes that her officers continue to support.
I have suggested that for the sake of the reputation of the Institute (“Inspiring great places”), it might want to distance itself from the ongoing work of Cheesbrough and her “team”, which she regards as having the “highest personal integrity and professionalism”, but which in its quest for development quantity at the expense of design quality seems set to irreversibly damage the landscape and character of large parts of this borough.
The evidence is all around us, and it looks likely to get significantly worse if Cheesbrough, “BA (Hons) PG Dip LA CMLI MRTPI”, is allowed to have her way.
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