Council’s planning chief attempts to gag Mayor candidate

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

Above criticism: Croydon Council’s planning director Heather Cheesbrough

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.

Count plan: council CEO Katherine Kerswell has previously used Cheesbrough to staff election night

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”

They refer to a report on this website that announced Pelling’s candidacy for Mayor.

“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.

‘We need to see changes in the planning department’: election candidate Andrew Pelling

“… 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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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in 2022 council elections, 2022 Croydon Mayor election, Andrew Pelling, Brick by Brick, Croydon Council, Heather Cheesbrough, Jo Negrini, Katherine Kerswell, Planning, Val Shawcross, Waddon and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Council’s planning chief attempts to gag Mayor candidate

  1. Gareth Sullivan says:

    You forget to mention that SPD2, the hugely damaging planning guidance document came about when Cheesbrough was director of planning. This is the document that allows developers to buy family houses, knock them down and build blocks of nine flats, ignore social housing, and then bank the huge profits.

    Cheesbrough did nothing to change, amend or temper this extraordinarily damaging document. If there’s a block of flats being built near you, Heather Cheesbrough allowed it through SPD2.

    No other local authority has a document like SPD2. No planning director in the UK was daft enough to introduce such a document. I’m unsure if this was her being daft, or if it was a deep dislike for residents or if it was some kind of obedience fixation with Cllr Paul Scott and her inability to control Pete Smith, one of her staff who wrote the words.

    Of course Cheesbrough had the glam rags on at the first sniff of an award for -SPD2. SPD2 is seen as a bit of a freak document- nobody would be stupid enough to introduce it in their own borough but they are fascinated, nonetheless. A bit like rubbernecking a road traffic accident.,

    Add this is in addition to HC’s inability to engage with residents, her inability to keep senior staff in the planning department and her inability to disguise her disdain when it looks like the planning committee might refuse yet another 9 flat development.

    But the big thing which Cheesbrough totally fails to understand is that the Mayoral election in Croydon is largely because of the failure of planning under her direction and the wish of residents to change it, by whatever means.

    Residents in this borough are not putting up with more planning under Heather Cheesbrough under a new Mayor.

    Kerswell similarly refuses to engage on the Cheesbrough issue and many are now questioning why are we paying her bloated salary when we have an executive mayor in place.

    It’s time for change.

  2. It was clear at the husting that Shawcross, regarded the past as something to be forgotten. Council taxpayers who will be paying for the past over the next ten years are unlikely to be so understanding. We really need an independent Mayor, not one linked to a party. Who will revisit the past as well as take Croydon forward.

  3. WayneM says:

    My home is a single-story house built in the back garden of another bungalow. I found out by way of a backdated letter that a planning application had been submitted by Silverleaf Developments for a block of flats to be built just over 7 metres in front of my home and to include my land. Heather and her team withheld visualisations from the planning portal, the planning committee, and in response to an FOI request and Ross Gentry told the planning committee that my privacy would be protected. However, those visualisations showed my privacy would have been breached. The Council’s solicitor had to apologise stating “there was no basis to exempt the visualisations and that it ought to have supplied them to you”. They also apologised for Ross Gentry’s explanation that he used his ‘professional judgement’ when asked for the evidence base for his statement to the committee stating that “Professional judgement however is not a basis to exempt information”.

    Documents released under the FOI Act showed that the planning team considered the development to be overbearing, overdevelopment, causing harmful enclosure, would lead to access problems for me and that the privacy issues had not been resolved (amongst other things). None of this appear in the planning report. In response to questions from Councillor Jade Appleton, Heather wrote that these statements only related to the pre-application and that I had been provided with copies of the pre-application advice. Neither was true. She has refused to provide a proper explanation as to why mandatory policy was waived despite the statement in her complaint that she adheres to “parameters that are set by national planning guidance and regional and local policy.” The ICO has now given the Council 10 days to respond. They failed to provide responses to even simple FOI requests such as the height of the development for over a year. I could go on – but there are too many issues to cover here.

    Reputation – at least a good one – is earned through acting with integrity. Taxpayers have a right to expect openness, transparency and objectivity but that is not what is happening. There are residents and residents’ associations across the borough battling just for planning policy to be adhered to and for their homes and home lives to be protected. I have been truly, truly shocked by what I encountered and it is because of Inside Croydon that these very serious issues are making it into the public domain.

    • Jessica says:

      So the public, their democratically elected councillors, local MPs and the courts all find problems with Heather Cheesbrough’s running of the planning department and the Silent CEO does what?

      How much more of this does the borough have to take?

      Heather should do the right thing and resign or Kerswell should take action. If not, her inaction will come back to haunt her. She cannot ignore the overwhelming concerns – and anger from so many quarters.

  4. john chandler says:

    Perhaps it’s time to rename Fisher’s Folly as the Kroydon Kremlin.

  5. Anita Smith says:

    When I studied Gulliver’s Travels for A level, we were told it was both a parody and a satire. I thought it was a rollicking good read spoilt by having to understand what parody and satire were. What is coming out of our Council is beyond satire, you couldn’t make it up if you really really tried. The words ethics, Heather Cheesbrough, Planning, and Croydon Council don’t sit well together. A prospective Mayoral candidate is within his rights to say what he or she will do if they win. To start shouting ethics ethics just because someone has had the guts to say what many people want to hear is pathetic.

    Where was the referral to the ethics committee at bad tempered council meetings, or when Labour were making outrageous claims about the cost of a Mayor, or any of the other examples of appalling displays of behaviour witnessed over the last 8 years and regularly reported on Inside Croydon?

    I suspect the Ethics committee sits on a shelf next to the Scrutiny committee, just waiting to leap into action when someone like HC feels threatened. Katherine Kerswell would do better to rein in such displays of spite and devote herself to sorting out the mess that is Planning.

    Remember what happened to Gulliver, he was tied by ropes and held down by the collective might of the little people……..

    • Ian Kierans says:

      I will hold fire on commenting on Ms Cheesbrough at present, but having also studied Swift and his works (more for pleasure than exams though they came into it later) have a think on this Swift wrote – ”When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

      Now what does that remind everyone off?

  6. miapawz says:

    Heather needs to go.

    She has presided over the destruction of hundreds of family homes with the net outcome of no affordable homes being built, and devleopers, some with partners working in the planning department, which is dubious at best, getting rich at the cost of the environment, rich at the cost of infrastructure overload and urbanisation of areas that need to be kept low density.

    Heather needs to go because she does not listen to the voters or anyone who says they don’t want this planning policy. The SPD2 plan was over development and appears to be designed to punish voters in South Croydon, Purley, Sanderstead and generally the owners of family homes.

    Croydon planning department needs a rethink, and to ask Ms Cheeseborough to leave. Thank goodness for the elected mayor.

    I will vote for the candidate who says she’s going.

    • Mike Harling says:

      Only one mayoral candidate has called for the removal of HC, hence her ‘complaint’. Those of us who have had enough of this incompetent woman and her useless department will be voting for Pelling!

    • Chris says:

      Planning Committee members – except Chris Clark who picked up where Paul Scott left off – are now starting to turn down developments (there’s an election on the horizon). So planning officers now have to write decision notices citing the policies that developments fail. The same developments where they ignored those policies and recommended the developments. You couldn’t make it up.

  7. Sam Wright says:

    This article talks about Heather Cheesbrough’s war on Croydon’s leafier suburbs but once upon a time she was head of planning in St.Albans City Council.

    Those who know this delightful cathedral city will know it’s one huge leafy place. In St Albans you couldn’t change the screw on a letterbox flap without Heather’s planning department coming down on you.

    So, what changed?

    Is Heather’s stint in Croydon about letting her hair down after St.Albans?

    At the beginning of last year Heather resigned from Croydon Council to move to Redbridge Council (this was reported in The Planning Resource) – I wonder what her planning persona would have been in her new position? From forensic Miss Marple in St Albans to ‘developers, do what you like’ in Croydon. The residents of Redbridge never found out as leaders at their council changed their mind about employing Heather and Katherine Kerswell invited her back. None of this was explained to residents.

    Kerswell too likes to be unaccountable, keep things from residents and council tax payers.

    See a theme emerging here?

    • SallyM says:

      Jan Slominski and Ross Gentry with their (undeclared) links to developers whose applications the team approves and Nicola Townsend who seems to be another Heather Cheesborough, should also go. Until then the Planning Departments and its decisions will have no credibility. Kerswell’s silence enables them. This has gone on for far too long.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Perhaps the theme is
      1.That she follows instructions to the letter (box) for performance related pay?
      2. She does not mind being a scapegoat on a six figure salary?
      3. Residents comments/concerns do not affect her pay – so why should she give a s**t?
      4. Councillors are viewed as an irritation to be endured?
      4. All the above?
      or
      5. None of the above and something even more sinister?

  8. Chris G says:

    The only person responsible for Heather Cheesborough’s desperately bad reputation is Heather Cheesborough. She has never shown the slightest bit of concern for residents and that her main concern is for how future employers might see her says it all. Future employers can walk around the borough to see what she, Pete Smith and Nicola Townsend have done. Or they can ask tax-paying residents if they feel the planning department takes into account their concerns – a resounding ‘no’. Their names will forever be associated with damage to the borough. Destroying family homes for flats without affordable accommodation in a borough short of houses and affordable homes whilst flats sit empty has only benefited greedy developers. Every day she is paid from the public purse is a kick in the teeth for residents. She reaps what she sows.

  9. Susan Pearson says:

    Let us not forget the role the now disgraced Cllr Paul Scott had in the planning mess we now see in Croydon.

    He contributed hugely to this ‘stand-off’ between residents and planners. He baited residents in planning meetings with his three-minute dog whistle. Hugely stressful for those doing their utmost to communicate their worry about overdevelopment in their streets.

    Tony Newman (who holidayed with Paul Scott) gave planning to him as political plaything to ratchet up the division between North and South in our borough. But Scott’s inflated ego couldn’t be constrained and he couldn’t distinguish between North and South, he thought it’d be cool to impress his architect buddies in central London if he morphed into a kind of Mussolini Chair of Planning and concreted over everything. I’m sure he had a good laugh in the architecty Clerkenwell bars he probably frequented recounting tales of squirming residents in his planning meetings. It was all a big game to him.

    Scott was never sacked from the planning committee for his flagrant abuse of power- directed at residents and fellow committee members.

    The huge mistake Newman made was not seeing this and stopping it; he may still be in power now if he had.

    I feel for Heather Cheesbrough as the planning tone and ultimately the ugly mess we now see in our borough was very much set by Cllr Paul Scott – everyone who has been left behind now has to deal with it, including residents and planners alike.

    • WayneM says:

      I agree on the points about Paul Scott. His conduct at committee meetings was shocking. However, it was Heather who put forward planning reports that recommended developments that did not meet policy and stubbornly refuses to explain why those reports make no mention of mandatory policy being waived. It was Heather who allowed her team to withhold documents, unlawfully. I suspect there’s collusion in the system that has led to it being so broken. Let’s hope a new Mayor will conduct the investigation that Kerswell has avoided.

      • Susan Pearson says:

        Yes, the withholding of information, the ignoring of residents emails, the lack of transparency, the poor planning practices, the turning a blind eye to developer transgressions, the lack of careful checking of planning submissions, the misrepresentation of housing targets, the using of planning enforcement to cover up officer mistakes all amount to a failure of planning in Croydon.

        And let’s not forget, our neighbouring boroughs have similar housing target figures to Croydon and they don’t have a damaging planning guidance document like SPD2, nor do the treat their residents who are impacted by development with the discourtesy and disdain you see in Croydon.

        I’ve had developers say to me “I suggest you support this approach if not I’ll do this and I know planners will back me”. Yes, developers are using the breakdown in relations between planning and residents to their advantage. That’s outrageous. That was instigated by Paul Scott and Heather Cheesbrough has regretfully made it worse.

        • SallyM says:

          Summed up perfectly Susan.Let’s not forget the developers who are miraculously able to predict the outcome of planning recommendations and planning committee decisions.

  10. Colin Cooper says:

    What else do we expect from the ‘snouts in the trough ‘ brigade allegedly running Croydon ?

  11. LauraJane says:

    Woah. I came late to the party on this one. Heather Cheesborough making a complaint about damage to her reputation is the funniest thing I’ve read since Heather Cheesborough claimed the planning officers have the highest levels of integrity.

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