EXCLUSIVE: Distrust of the council’s planning department, and director Heather Cheesbrough, has reached new highs after it was discovered that they have re-employed a developer-friendly official with blatant conflicts of interest. By STEVEN DOWNES
Representatives of residents’ associations at a meeting this week expressed outrage and disgust with the council’s head of planning over her decision to re-employ an official who has been responsible for recommending approval for some of the most egregious examples of over-development seen in the borough.
The RAs told Heather Cheesbrough that they had serious concerns about clear conflicts of interest that they perceive planner Jan Slominski to have, following his return to a council job after 18 months working for a flashy firm of architects who are behind the designs for some massive, and money-spinning, blocks of flats in the borough.
The residents’ associations have now asked Chris Philp, the MP for Croydon South, to intervene on the matter, despite assurances offered by Cheesbrough at the meeting.
Indeed, according to the planning director’s own remarks, in a recording of the meeting which has been passed to Inside Croydon, she appears to admit that Slominski does have conflicts of interest, but said that these will be “managed and mitigated”, without specifying how.
Cheesbrough said that Slominski had made “a full declaration of interests”.
“You have my assurance that we have taken all steps we need to,” she said.
“All our planning officers have the highest levels of integrity,” said Cheesbrough, the council director with such a high level of integrity herself that she had to remove false claims of qualifications on her own online profile when a member of the public caught her out.
The revolving doors at Fisher’s Folly have been spinning a little quicker of late, as 35-year-old Slominski has stepped back, straight into a promotion as the head of the planning department’s southern team after not quite two years working for HTA Design.
The architects – who were much favoured by failed council development firm Brick by Brick – described Slominski as bringing “diverse experience on a wide variety of projects in London and the south”.
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to think that this might also mean that Slominski had connections on the inside of council planning departments, old colleagues and friends, and insights into what might be required to get schemes approved.
The circumstances of Slominski’s departure from HTA are unclear.
His own LinkedIn profile says he worked for HTA until this month, January 2022, but it also suggests that he is available for offers of work: “Busy creating better places to live, work, and play. Get in touch if you’d like some help.”
His profile page on the east London-based firm’s website has already been erased.
Cheesbrough said on Wednesday night that Slominski has joined Croydon’s staff, which seems to suggest that he has served no notice period from HTA. If that is the case, it might strike some as being unusual.
It was just a couple of weeks before Christmas that Slominski appeared at a Croydon Council planning meeting as an HTA employee, speaking on behalf of developers NewPlace, who were trying to push through another large block of flats in Coulsdon. That application was refused by the council’s planning committee.
But it is Slominski’s relationship with another firm of developers, Macar, which has caused greatest concerns for residents as they have stood by, powerless, as Cheesbrugh and her planning department has allowed whole neighbourhoods to be bulldozed and transformed by block after block of flats.
Macar are the developers who have Natalie Gentry among their directors.
Natalie is married to Ross Gentry, another senior member of the Croydon Council planning department.
Serious questions have also been asked about the obvious difficulties that this arrangement presents, but Cheesbrough brushed those aside, claiming that Ross Gentry had properly declared his interests.
Cheesbrough and the council have refused ever to release that declaration.
In June 2020, when he was working at the council previously, Slominski wrote a very favourable pre-app report on a Macar development scheme for 39 flats in South Drive, Coulsdon. Slominski will have already been working his notice period from the council at this time before taking his new job with HTA Design.
Again, when challenged over this very cosy relationship, Cheesbrough declared that all was fine and in proper order.
It was Slominski, too, when working at the council in 2019, who provided the planning report recommending approval for another massive Macar scheme, at Nos 59, 61 and 63 Higher Drive, where the developers have started building three blocks, including one that is five storeys tall, containing 40 flats with an potential market sale value of at least £10million.
At a meeting on Wednesday night, Maureen Levy, the secretary of the East Coulsdon RA and herself a former employee in Croydon Council’s planning department, raised the issue of Slominski’s re-employment and his promotion to team leader for the south of the borough, where Macar is most active.
“It means that he doesn’t just have an influence over the individual cases which he might be dealing with,” Levy said, “but he has an influence over all the applications across the south of Croydon.”
Levy and others have expressed serious reservations over the standard of some of Slominski’s planning reports and recommendations in the past, and they question his very developer-friendly approach.
Cheesbrough, however, would have none of it.
“We are delighted to have him,” she patronised the residents at the meeting.
“While I can understand, Maureen, that you may have some misgivings, Jan is an extremely professional and fully experienced planner.”
Cheesbrough said that she had taken advice from the council’s governance team, “to ensure that people, like yourself, have confidence that when the council makes decisions it does so in a full and transparent way and that any conflicts of interest are managed”.
Presumably, Cheesbrough will be making it an urgent task to provide all attendees at Wednesday’s meeting with a copy of her colleague Jan Slominski’s “full declaration of interests”, to further assist the cause of openness and transparency and ensure, as she said, confidence in the way that she, and the council, conducts itself.
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