Is something shifting in the Town Hall planning department? Amid news of the exit of a senior manager, and of director Heather Cheesbrough correcting her false claims on her online CV, and now a High Court ruling against the council’s lack of enforcement, STEVE WHITESIDE checked out the latest meeting of the planning committee
Every now and then, there appears a glimmer of hope that at some point the council’s planners’ rampage through the borough’s suburbs might be brought to an end. At the latest planning committee meeting, there was another flicker, maybe two.
On that particular evening, what has typically become a routine “win” for developers – the demolition of a large family home and replacement with a block of never more than nine flats, none of them “affordable” – was refused by councillors who decided to go against the planning official’s recommendation.
The decision was made over an application for 41 Fairdene Road, Coulsdon. The council’s decision notice states that, “The proposed block of nine flats would be out of keeping with the character of the area and fails to respect local character and heritage, contrary to policies SP4, DM10 and DM18 of the Croydon Local Plan 2018 and policy D3 of the London Plan 2021.” They are our italics, for emphasis.
While acknowledging that the building proposed was larger than the neighbouring properties, the case officer, Muhammad Saleem, advised that “the height is compliant with policy and the approach to the massing with the hipped roof form is considered to sit well within the streetscene. The design approach is high quality”.
In his presentation to the committee, Richard Freeman, the council’s development management’s south team leader, confirmed that advice.
The councillors on the committee were having none of it, however. One, Clive Fraser, said “It just jars somehow. This reinterpretation just doesn’t work. In my view, it’s not a good design.”
Another, Leila Ben-Hassel, said, “I actually personally love the design. I wouldn’t call it poor quality. I think it is beautiful, but for the wrong location.”
In the end, eight councillors voted to refuse permission with one abstention, the chair, Chris Clark.
So have councillors finally remembered (or been reminded) that the “Suburban Design Guide” is not adopted policy (that is, something that they must implement), but rather a supplementary planning document, SPD2 (something which is optional)?
Although it adds detail to the policies in the Local Plan and is a material consideration in planning decisions, SPD2 is not actually part of the development plan.
Just because a design is pitched as “sympathetic and faithful”, “innovative and original”, or a “contemporary reinterpretation” – all of which were wheeled out in this case – the councillors on the committee appear to have woken up to the possibility that if they think a development proposal doesn’t “fit”, they are allowed to say so.
The councillors response this month is surprising, given what was discussed by the committee as recently as July when they deliberated over a similar piece of over-development, this time at 56 West Hill, Sanderstead.
Even though the applicant there had also sought to follow one of the recipes served up in the council’s much-criticised SPD2, councillors openly discussed whether they could or should refuse permission purely because they didn’t like the way it looked.
They had again been persuaded, by Freeman as it happens, that any and all breaches of adopted policy identified in the submission could be properly sorted out later by planning officers (like Mr Freeman) through the discharge of conditions. But as we have reported previously, this approach, with the planning department working cosily with developers, rarely enforces all the conditions.
On design, Ben-Hassel told the July meeting, “I’m not a fan myself of reinterpretation style that tries to then mimic the traditional form. But that is subjective, that is my personal opinion.” The main problem, the committee felt, was that if they refused permission just because they didn’t like the “style” and the applicant went to appeal and won, then the decision would be overturned and costs would be awarded against the council.
I emphasise the would because, in fact, that is not necessarily the case. Council planning staff would and should have known that, but they chose not to say, so with their responsibilities to tax-payers in mind, in July the councillors approved that application.
Now maybe there was a real, material difference behind the reasoning in these two decisions. But I can’t see it.
Perhaps the difference on November 18 was that the three-minute presentation for the developer was provided by council planning department old boy, Jan Slominski, now working at HTA Design.
Or could it be that councillors on the committee are starting not to take everything they are being told at face value, be that by the applicants and their agents but also by the council’s own planning department, including developer-friendly director, Heather Cheesbrough?
Which brings me to another encouraging thought that I took from the latest planning meeting: councillors finally aired residents’ long-standing concerns about the service, or lack of it, provided by the council’s planning enforcement team.
In response to a recent investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman, Croydon Council recognised that its team had not met its “usual” service standards, claiming that the reasons for this in “recent years” were that:
- The planning enforcement service was affected by the effects of covid-19, and
- Stage 1 (complaint) responses come from within the relevant department, and the council, like other authorities, is finding it difficult to find and keep qualified planning enforcement officers. The staff shortage has led to service difficulties including delays in response times.
But as many of us know to our cost, the planning enforcement service has not been fit for purpose since long before covid-19.
As for the council finding it difficult to retain staff, perhaps the working conditions might just have something to do with that. Are enforcement officers allowed to perform their duties properly? Can officials refuse to lie or ignore blatant breaches of planning conditions?
Can planning officials issue enforcement or stop notices when they should? Do they act primarily in the interest of residents, or the developer?
According to the Planning Enforcement Handbook published by the Royal Town Planning Institute last year, “Without enforcement, our places, our environment and our quality of life would all be the poorer. At its heart, the planning system relies on trust and our enforcers provide the backbone of this trust.”
The enforcement officer in that case left the council in December 2020. As far as I am aware, he was never replaced.
As Inside Croydon’s loyal reader will be aware, I am working with other residents with regard to unlawful developments. As part of that work, I have come across conduct that is certainly not becoming of any council employee claiming to operate with “the highest personal integrity and professionalism”.
At 98 Hyde Road, the enforcement officer refused to accept that the building was being built too close to Copthorne Rise. They allowed the works to continue for many months, until finally, after several complaints, the then head of development management, Pete Smith, was forced to accept reality. What had been built had to be demolished.
It has now been rebuilt, though it is still not in accordance with the approved drawings (that is, it is still unlawful). But hey-ho, work continues.
At 12 The Ridge Way, it has been clear for more than six months that the ground floor and roof level of the new building would be far higher in relation to the adjacent house than was approved when the development was granted planning permission.
In September, the enforcement officer told residents that based on an “independent” survey, one arranged by the developer, the council was satisfied “that the building is being constructed in the correct place, and is currently no higher than approved.” When asked to ensure that this “independent” survey was published, the council officials (along with his other highly professional officer colleagues) ignored residents. Sound familiar?
The officer later claimed that, “The two properties either side are not surveyed by the developer and are a ‘representation’ about what is there.
“The developer only has to submit accurate plans for what is being constructed inside the red lines of the submitted site plan, which in this case is the curtilage of No12.”
So months after submission, the substantive complaint has still not been properly investigated. My own independent survey shows that relative to the neighbouring property, the roof of this development is nearly 1.5metres higher than was approved when planning permission was granted.
At 22 Briton Crescent, complaints were made as far back as 2019 that the building was positioned incorrectly on the site. Yet it appears that the case officer (Joe Sales) has done nothing to progress the council’s determination of a retrospective planning application that was validated at the beginning of 2021.
Last week, I asked the enforcement officer to “confirm the date of any planning contravention notice, enforcement notice, temporary stop notice or stop notice issued with regard to the above development”. The officer replied that they could “only confirm at this stage that the planning enforcement case file is on-going, and the site is still under investigation”.
Later in the day, they added, “At this stage I cannot give you further information about this on-going investigation, but it is very much a live case.” Which says a lot for the planning department’s lack of public accountability.
Anyone else think that they might be hiding something?
Note, John Penn was the officer involved in all the above examples. You do have to wonder whether all Croydon’s planning enforcement officers are as naturally obstructive and apparently incompetent as Penn, or whether they are instructed to act in this way.
Given the performance at this month’s planning committee meeting by Freeman and his boss, Nicola Townsend, it is hard to reach a view that the situation might improve any time soon.
“We make sure that all the planning conditions are properly implemented,” Freeman said, which is totally untrue. He clearly can’t help himself.
Townsend chipped in: “I think it is a little wrong to say that we will just retrospectively grant a planning application if someone does something wrong. If we do have an enforcement breach, we have to look at that breach. We have to look at the extent of the harm and whether it is in the public interest to take enforcement action or what enforcement action we could take.”
This is just more defensive flannel, to cover for a failed and failing service on Townsend’s watch.
Just like her old boss, Pete Smith, before her, Townsend appears to be in denial about the important part being played by her “planning enforcement” team in a perverse “course of dealing” with developments which are unlawful. Townsend also seems oblivious to the scale of the physical mess that the council’s chosen strategy has helped create across the borough and the harm it is causing to individuals and communities.
At the end of the latest planning committee meeting, it was announced that Freeman is to leave his job with the council. I suspect there will be very few who have witnessed his offensive and misleading performances at committee who will be sorry to see him go.
Yes, there are those glimmers of hope, but if we leave things to the council directors, managers and staff who have helped create this mess, it seems unlikely that there will be any significant change of course.
In which case it looks like I’ll be heading back to court, and from what I’ve been hearing I won’t be alone.
Read more: Buyers beware: High Court judge puts planners in the dock
Read more: Director of planning’s bogus claim over Institute membership
Read more: Developers given free rein from a council with no controls
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