CROYDON IN CRISIS: Heather Cheesbrough has lied about her qualifications and covered up for planning staff with too-close connections with private developers. Now she’s trying to block an election candidate calling for her to be sacked. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
One of the council’s top-paid executives and a controversial figure at Fisher’s Folly for the past five years has moved to gag one of the Mayoral election candidates – because he dared to call for her to be sacked.
Heather Cheesbrough has been the council’s director of planning and sustainable regeneration since January 2016, when she was appointed to the influential position by Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, the former CEO.
In her time in charge, Cheesbrough and the council planners have frequently outraged locals for the casual way they have dismissed complaints about over-development in some of Croydon’s leafier suburbs. Cheesbrough was also involved in pushing through planning permissions for Brick by Brick, the council-owned, loss-making house-builder, while she oversaw a much-criticised re-drafting of the Local Plan which failed to provide proper protections for the borough’s open spaces and parks.
Planning is a hot topic with voters ahead of May 5’s local elections. It is probably the single issue above others that saw the borough’s long-suffering residents vote for a change to a directly-elected Mayor.
And now one candidate for Mayor, independent Andrew Pelling, has said that if he wins the vote he will see to it that Cheesbrough is removed from her position.
Cheesbrough, a local government public servant who is thought to be on a salary of at least £120,000 per year, has taken great exception to that public declaration – which drew a cheer from the audience at a recent hustings event – and she has tried to get Pelling, a councillor in Waddon, admonished under the Town Hall’s Code of Ethics (yes, they have one; not that you could tell).
Cheesbrough appears to believe that she and her planning staff should be above any public scrutiny or criticism.
Cheesbrough’s complaint runs to nearly a thousand words, and was submitted to Andrew Hunkin, the council’s latest interim monitoring officer, earlier this week.
The complaint appears to rely heavily on the accurate reporting of Inside Croydon for her source material.
Interestingly, Cheesbrough’s complaint refers to the “undermining” of her position – a piece of self-important blather that was used by council lawyers when they were wasting public money, and breaking the law, trying to defend the rapidly declining reputation of Negrini.
Katharine Street sources have today suggested that Cheesbrough’s use of the council’s Code of Ethics is a blatant attempt to intimidate an election candidate and get them to change one of their promises to the electorate.
“It can only have been done with the explicit permission of her current boss, chief exec Katherine Kerswell,” a source suggested.
Kerswell also happens to be the supposedly impartial returning officer for the up-coming elections, something which provides further complications, since the council has in the past used Cheesbrough, and other members of her planning “team”, at the election count.
Others have suggested that Cheesbrough may have made the complaint with some encouragement from Pelling’s erstwhile Labour colleagues at the council, who after spending months campaigning against having a directly-elected Mayor, have now decided that they want Val Shawcross to be the directly-elected Mayor.
Shawcross has made no similar undertaking about reforming the council planning department if she is elected next month.
Inside Croydon has had sight of correspondence relating to Cheesbrough’s complaint sent to Pelling.
It includes, “You have publicly called for the complainant’s forced resignation and or sacking”
“You are a serving Councillor and a Reserve of Planning Committee. The Complainant considers this to be in a breach of the member and officer staff relations protocol.”
They even cite a quote from Pelling: “I also want to see the council’s director of planning, who has lost the confidence of residents, sacked.”
They go on to describe Pelling as “a key figure in the local community” with a “long involvement in local politics”. This, the complaint states, “makes the complainant’s role, which is already challenging, even more so”. Get that? Yes, “challenging”.
“The Complainant indicates that in breaching the Member Officer Code of Conduct, Councillor Pelling has not met the obligations to attain minimum standards of behaviour which include respect for officers and not to bully.
“… This has an impact on the complainant that is demoralising and undermines the work of the entire planning service. The complainant indicates that whilst members and residents may not like some of the decisions that planning officers make, but [sic] officers are undertaking their job, within the parameters that are set by national planning guidance and regional and local policy.”
Cheesbrough’s complaint then goes on to demand total obedience by councillors of all decisions made by her and her department.
“The council’s Local Plan was adopted by Full Council, and the complainant indicates that members should be broadly supportive of the Local Planning Authority and publicly recognise the parameters it operates within, even if they may not like or support individual planning decisions.” Like it or lump it.
“… The complainant indicates that your statements create and reinforce barriers between the local authority and the community in respect of planning and does not act as a bridge. Planning can be incredibly emotive and by naming an officer, you are using residents’ concern over development to boost your political campaign at the expense of an individual officers’ [sic] wellbeing and reputation.
“If you were to be elected as Mayor, it puts the complainant in an extremely difficult position and if you are elected as a ward councillor it would also be challenging, particularly if you were to continue sitting on Planning Committee.
“These comments also impact on the complainant’s professional reputation and career…”.
Cheesbrough’s complaint then includes a stunning revelation, which will have occurred to no one at all, ever: “The complainant indicates that Inside Croydon is in the public domain and future employers will be able to see this.” Who’d have thought it?
Cheesbrough claims that other employers have been using Inside Croydon as source material in due diligence processes when recruiting staff who have worked in Croydon’s planning department.
Inside Croydon, of course, stands by all its reports about Cheesbrough and her planning department as factually correct and accurate. In 12 years of publication, we have never had a single complaint from the council’s planning department, nor a single request to correct any of our coverage of their at times shoddy work.
In her complaint, Cheesbrough then opts to use her planning staff as a form of human shield: effectively, you can’t criticise her, because in so doing, you’re criticising them. “The complainant’s team,” the Cheesbrough complaint claims, “have also expressed concern because if a member feels it is acceptable to behave this way towards the director, they also feel exposed, many live in the borough and have their names on Planning Committee reports.
“They are also highly visible through presenting at Planning Committee. Staff are already reluctant to present at committee because of the comments and allegations made by Inside Croydon, which has for several years named and criticised relatively junior officers from the Planning Service.” Which is, of course, untrue.
Pelling has lodged a counter-complaint with Kerswell, as the returning officer, to insist that Cheesbrough and none of her staff from the planning department should be used as part of the election count team.
Today, knowing that Inside Croydon is widely read, even by members of the public, Pelling said, “This is a blatant attempt by a member of the council’s executive to interfere with the conduct of the elections.
“I am a candidate. I have policies, and one of the key changes we need to see at the council is in the planning department.
“Council directors and staff should be accountable to the public and answerable to elected representatives. Whatever Ms Cheesbrough may think, it is not the other way round.
“Council directors, all of them very well-paid, are not elected to their jobs. They are not above criticism.
“If we candidates cannot stand for election on policies we think will serve the residents of Croydon and suggest actions that will improve the running of the council, then we might as well not have the elections at all.”
In his email, monitoring officer Hunkin says that the complaint against Pelling will be dealt with by May 27… three weeks after the elections.
Read more: Landscape of deceit: director deletes qualification claim
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: Council planners urge developer to pre-empt Local Plan
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