After nearly a decade of profit-hungry developers being allowed to build too-small flats in too-large blocks in Croydon’s leafy suburbs, a government official has finally pointed out that this does nothing to help the housing crisis. By BARRATT HOLMES
Residents in Purley are this week celebrating a minor victory in their constant struggle with profit-hungry developers, after the government’s independent Planning Inspector dismissed an appeal against the rejection of planning permission for a five-storey block of flats on Hartley Down.
Even the developer’s belated offer to make the vast building have a “Tudorbethan” appearance (yep, they really did use that word) was not enough to sway Inspector DR McCreery.
But the Inspector’s findings might offer some support and solace for those residents, and their residents’ associations, in their continuing campaigns against the developer-friendly council’s planning department and the destruction of their suburban streets and neighbourhoods, block by block.
The Inspector found that the proposed nine-flat block failed to meet several of Croydon Council’s own planning policies and London housing policies – raising the very reasonable observation that the same could be applied to dozens of similar recent developments which have been waved through by the council’s planning department without any hindrance.
“The scale of development proposed in this instance would lead to demonstrable harm to the character and appearance of the surroundings,” states the Inspector’s report on the scheme proposed for 6 Hartley Down by Buxworth Homes.
“As such, I do not regard the proposal to represent appropriate densification.”
In July 2020, Buxworth had sought – and paid for – pre-app planning advice from the council.
They wanted the planners onside for their money-spinning scheme to demolish the existing modest bungalow and erect a block of nine flats – three one-beds, four two-beds and two three-bed room homes – and with undercroft access to parking at the rear. By proposing only nine flats, the developers had no legal requirement to include any less-profitable “affordable housing” in their scheme.
In October that year, the council planners provided a 14-page advice note, most of which was simply a regurgitation of the relevant planning policies, or details of the additional information that would need to be submitted before the council could possibly make an informed decision.
According to one member of HADRA, the Hartley and District Residents’ Association, who has been following the case closely, “To be honest, I can’t believe developers stump up a grand or two for this twaddle.
A planning application was eventually submitted in December 2020 for nine flats in “a three-storey building with accommodation within the basement and within the roof area”. By which they actually meant a five-storey behemoth.
This attracted lots of local objections, including from HADRA and Croydon South MP Chris Philp.
And, unusually, the council planning department issued a refusal notice in March 2021.
“Straight refusal, didn’t even go to Planning Committee,” the local said, sounding just a tad surprised.
Hence the appeal to the Planning Inspectorate in May last year.
In November, Buxworth submitted a revised planning application, reducing the proposal to eight slightly less-pokey flats.
HADRA submitted further representations to both.
“Put simply, the proposed building is too big, offers poor quality accommodation and is detrimental to immediate neighbours and the local street scene,” they said.
The revised application was withdrawn in December 2021, and this week, the Inspector provided his ruling on the failings of the proposal.
The ruling may yet be parroted back at Croydon’s planning department every time that they try to approve similar over-large blocks in suburban streets.
“Considering all the evidence put forward, the proposal would have a harmful effect on the character and appearance of the area,” the Inspector said. “Consequently, there is conflict with the development plan, specifically Policies SP4 and DM10 of the Local Plan which require high-quality proposals that are respectful in terms of scale, height and massing.”
Elsewhere, McCreery noted, “The proposed development… would not result in an acceptable housing mix or living conditions for future occupants.”
The Inspector took into account the Paul Scott mantra about there being a housing crisis, but McCreery is clearly not in such thrall to developers, and their architects, as has been the most unpopular councillor in a very unpopular council.
“The benefits,” of building nine small flats on the site of a former single family home, “do not come at any cost,” the Inspector wrote.
Raising an issue which Councillor Scott managed to ignore for the six years he chaired the planning committee, the Inspector noted, “There is a balance to be struck and a line after which appropriate site optimisation and densification becomes materially harmful.
“In the case of the proposal, the benefits do not provide material considerations that would outweigh the conflict with the development plan.”
Perhaps most importantly, what the Inspector’s report said next effectively tears up the informal pact that Scott and the Croydon planning department have had with certain developers over the last eight years, of giving a green light to block after block of nine under-sized flats.
“Policy SP2.7 of the Local Plan,” the Inspector points out, “sets a target for 30per cent of all new homes to have three or more bedrooms… The target should not be applied unthinkingly, however if all proposals fell short without justification, then it would never be met and the policy would be severely undermined…
“I do not accept the argument at face value that under-provision in this instance makes little difference in the wider context of the policy as other proposals would make up for it, either presently or into the future.”
Only two of the nine flats on this Hartley Down site was to have three bedrooms.
Of the four, small two-bed flats proposed, one was barely larger than some one-bedroom flats, at a mere 68.5sqm – generous, perhaps, for a rabbit hutch, but a long way short of what should be acceptable for a family home.
The proposed building, the Inspector found, “would be seen to rise significantly above the neighbouring bungalow with a substantial portion sitting forwards of the front building line of it. As such, the building would … be perceived as a significantly larger structure than others in the surroundings…
“The combination of the height and mass of the front and side elevations, as seen in the views described, would result in a built development of excessive perceived scale. It would be seen to dominate the surroundings in a fashion that would have a negative and harmful effect on the suburban character of the area.”
Not that the residents of Hartley Down are getting out their bunting for a street party just year.
HADRA’s Lucia Briault told Inside Croydon, “Our peaceful suburbs remain under attack from greedy developers.
“There’s another block of flats being built a few doors up at No22. Buxworth Homes are still devising more schemes, including one to replace two bungalows a few doors down with two sizeable blocks of flats. At least Buxworth are not trying to circumvent the affordable housing contribution by bringing forward the two sites separately.
“We’re not ‘Nimbys’. We desperately want new homes to be built locally for our children and grandchildren.
“But we also want the infrastructure improvements that need to accompany rapid population growth.
“What we object to more than anything is the preponderance of ‘luxury’ flats which no one except rich investors can afford to buy, leaving future generations caught in an unenviable trap: paying rent that’s higher than the mortgage payments would be, as well as uncontrolled management charges on top.
“There’s a reason they call these new builds ‘fleecehold’.”
Figures on Zoopla give the buy-to-let investor’s game away. A typical three-bed semi in Purley might cost around £600,000, which would require mortgage payments of about £1,500 per month (if you can get a mortgage that’s 10-to-15 times your salary).
But if you wanted to rent the very same house, Zoopla estimates that it will cost £1,800 per calendar month.
And meanwhile, Croydon Council’s delivery of homes for social rent has been miserably poor, providing little help to end the housing crisis.
Briault said, “Flooding the market with expensive flats for sale or private rent will not drive down the price of houses.
“Demand for suburban houses with gardens is increasing in our post-lockdown world, and while developers are still willing to pay over the market price for sites with potential for development, so there are proportionally fewer and fewer houses available and their price continues to rise.”
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
Read more: Objections? What objections? Opposition? What opposition?
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