Planning chief’s position untenable as developers’ charter axed

Town Hall correspondent PEARL LEE on the seismic shift going on in the council’s planning department

Cabinet polish: Mayor Jason Perry will have tonight get his planning plan rubber-stamped by his Tory colleagues

Croydon’s part-time Mayor, Jason Perry, will deliver on one of his key promises tonight when, at his first council cabinet meeting since his election last month, he will bin SPD2, dubbed by Inside Croydon as the “developers’ charter”.

The notorious “suburban design guide supplementary planning document”, or SPD2 for short, ha been blamed by thousands of residents for the destruction of dozens of family houses and the concreting over of their neighbourhoods with hundreds of often ugly and usually over-priced flats. The antipathy towards SPD2 is, perhaps more than any other single factor, the reason that Croydon now has a directly-elected Mayor.

The proposal to revoke SPD2 is contained in a report that has been drafted by three senior council officials, including the council’s director of planning, Heather Cheesbrough – who was one of the main forces behind the implementation of SPD2 in the first place, and whose position at the council becomes more untenable by the day.

During the mayoral election campaign, one of the candidates – not Perry – called for Cheesbrough’s immediate replacement. With the junking of one of her prized pieces of handiwork, and following the conduct of the first planning committee of the new administration last week, Cheesbrough and some of her senior officials might soon be deciding that they really do need to consider their positions at Croydon Council.

Time to go: exec director Heather Cheesbrough’s position is looking increasingly untenable

In a tortuously slow committee meeting last week, under the new chair, Tory councillor Michael Neal (a long-time ward colleague of Perry), all three applications under consideration were refused planning permission.

All three of the applications had come forward with recommendations from council officials – Cheesbrough’s staff – that they should be granted planning consent.

After years of watching often mediocre blocks of flats passed by the committee almost on the nod, when Labour councillors Paul Scott, Toni Letts and “Thirsty” Chris Clark, were planning chairs, Nicola Townsend, the head planner, and her colleagues sometimes appeared to be in a state of shock as, in case after case, their “considered”, professional recommendations were dismissed.

“SPD2 remains adopted guidance,” the committee had to be reminded more than once, as the Tory members began to get over-excited about the prospect of their new Mayor ditching Scott and Cheesbrough’s devious piece of local planning policy, which gave profit-greedy developers, and their family and friends in the planning department, carte blanche to build whatever and wherever they fancied.

‘Developers’ charter’: Back in 2019, Cheesbrough’s name was one of three who drafted and recommended adoption of SPD2. She is the only one remaining at the council

At the committee meeting, dire warnings about possible costly appeals to the government’s planning inspectorate and – worse! – even fines being handed out to the cash-strapped council were dismissed by Neal.

“We shouldn’t worry about costs,” Neal, more than once, told his committee, in an almost cavalier, and very unConservative, manner.

“Costs can be significant, and they should be a consideration,” Townsend contradicted.

Not that the committee – comprising five Tory and five Labour councillors, but with the chair’s “golden ticket” of the casting vote in Neal’s hands – always voted along party lines.

One scheme, at 62, The Ridge Way, in Sanderstead, drew the sort of 5-5 draw that might be expected, with Neal using his casting vote to reject. But when it came to a proposal to bulldoze two bungalows on Firs Road in Kenley to squeeze on to the plot eight four- and five-bed family houses, this was rejected by a 9-0 vote (with one abstention).

Busted: planner Jan Slominski had his recommendations refused

This scheme had been recommended for approval by none other than Jan Slominski, a senior council planner who this time last year was working for property developers. What the disappointed developers, Indigo Scott, must think after they spent about nine months and tens of thousands of pounds working up their proposals with the “help” of Croydon Council planners in the pre-application process can only be imagined.

Crest-fallen Townsend, Slominski and their colleagues will have spent considerable time this week doing a 180-degree U-turn over each of the applications that were considered at the meeting, now putting forward what needs to be a legally water-tight case for refusal on applications which just a few weeks ago they were lauding in official reports as schemes that should be approved.

The seismic shift from the previous planning regime was quickly greeted with a bit of dodgy triumphalism from Chris Philp, the Tory MP for Croydon South, who emailed some of his constituents the following morning with his customary truth-lite and fact-free approach.

“Labour… still voted in favour of the proposals last night,” Philp lied.

In his email, sloppy Philp even said, “The four applications were all turned down”, when there had in fact been only three.

“This is a huge and very welcome change,” Philp said. “At last planning policy is being properly applied and residents are being listened to.” Give it nine months, and let’s see whether the planning inspector, when considering the appeals which will inevitably follow (the Firs Road project could probably generate at least £6million in sales), agrees that planning policy, as Philp claimed, was given “careful consideration”.

Philp, as you might expect, is “also supporting the new Mayor Jason Perry to scrap Croydon’s hated SPD2 planning document”.

As one observer of last week’s planning meeting told Inside Croydon, “It’ll be interesting to see if he is as noisy about the developments in the south that are do win planning permission (as some inevitably will be) and how he explains those away.

“Perry and his committee can’t magic away planning law.”

On the way out: Mayor Perry’s junking of SPD2, as it is introduced in tonight’s cabinet papers

But Mayor Perry can make SPD2 vanish, and he will take an important step towards that move tonight when his pliant cabinet is expected to approve his decision to do just that.

Given that the council is in the middle of a pre-election purdah period – for the South Croydon ward by-election that Perry himself caused – the council’s propaganda department issued an unusually party political press release which talked of Perry “taking forward his manifesto pledge”, in a potential breach of the supposed impartiality of council officials.

Junking SPD2, and Scott and Cheesbrough’s inflated housing targets for the borough, will also require the Croydon Local Plan to be “revisited”. Again.

“Removing SPD2 will mark the start of a reset of planning within the borough, with future design guidance being developed with communities to help protect the character and aspirations of local areas,” read the note from the propaganda bunker in Fisher’s Folly.

“Croydon is a fantastic place and each of its neighbourhoods come with their own unique local character, which new developments must respect and enhance,” Mayor Perry said. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in recent years, with rapid over-intensification across the borough.

“Residents have raised clear concerns over this erosion of local character, which is why I promised to remove SPD2 on my first day in office, another step towards restoring pride in Croydon and preserving our borough for years to come.

“Housing demand across Croydon and the capital is a real issue but it is important we meet this with solutions that work for our residents and our communities. I will also look at our Local Plan to make sure we have the right plan in place for sustainable growth in Croydon over the coming years.”

Read more: Purley residents outrage over planning’s ‘husband and wife act’
Read more: Questions tower over council’s husband and wife planning act

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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
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10 Responses to Planning chief’s position untenable as developers’ charter axed

  1. Lewis White says:

    It will be interesting to see how this revocation of SPD 2 …. er…develops.

    My own view is that the principle of APPROPRIATE intensification is still not only valid, but 100% necessary.

    I say APPROPRIATE because in my view again, it boils down to fitting the right scale of new buildings to the plot, leaving room in front and to the sides for retention of trees.and hedges and meaningful new landscaping.

    Height and bulk relative to the overall local context need to avoid the bully-boy, pushy developments that loom over neraby homes of average size, or come out to the street.

    It cannot be easy being a planner in development control, but their aim must be to avoid cramming quart sized buildings into pint-sized plots.

    We need to avoid developments that squeeze out the green. The problem to avoid is a design with few or no trees, and wall-to wall buildings and seas of block paving .

    I do hope that a much more scaled approcah operates from now on, but without a replacement policy, the developers will have no guidance to go on

    We need developers –99.5% of us live in homes developed by a developer.

    We now need a really well -thgought out policy for what is and isn’t OK to build.

    I also hope that we dont end up with favoured areas and dump areas.
    Everyone needs good development. That means good planners, good planning, and good developers.

    And, while they are at it, can someone please look at re-introducing the concept that Community Infastructure Levy funds generated for the council should be used locally as ell as go into a borough “pot”.

    For example, developments in Purey should be used in significant part to compltete the improvement of the street scape of the public realm of the town centre.

    • Susan Mortimer says:

      Why don’t you write your own planning guidance document – but please don’t make it too complicated, it doesn’t need to be.

  2. Liz says:

    At last some good news. The sooner that awful thing Cheesebrough follows Negrini and Mustafa down the road the better!

    • SallyM says:

      It’s astounding that Heather Cheesborough and Nicola Townsend remain in post given not just the damage they have done to the borough but the damage they have done to the reputation of the Council and relationship with residents. It’s good that there is some light at the end of the tunnel but whilst they remain in post, the planning department will never have the trust of residents – especially given that they are still pushing forward unsuitable developments. Perry really needs to dig deeper to understand why…..

  3. derekthrower says:

    So we enter the phase where the local Conservatives run into the national Conservative Government of Chris “tape recorder” Philp. It will be interesting to see if party political interest overcomes the practical implementation of the rules that they introduced. We are also entering an economic recession with many commentators noting that the house price boom of the last decade is unravelling. Mayor Perry’s term may see a dramatic decline in planning applications rather than the wrong type of planning application, but this will be accompanied with further economic decline in blighted Croydon.

    • Lewis White says:

      Good points, Derek. I was just cogitating about what happens to new policies designed to improve the environmental impacts of planning, and farming, when the economic chips are down.

      Like ploughing up old meadowland.

      Inevitably, my thoughts then drifted to a vision of “Big Eric” Pic kles, now Baron Pickles. Imagine a fairy with a magic wand.

      Whoosh!- a large house extension appears over the course of a few days. The neighbour comes home from a fortnight in Ibiza to find their patio and living room plunged into shade by the new extension next door.

      And no-one knew about it, as letting people know under the planning process is nasty red-tape, and gets in the way of building a better (for some) Britain.

      That’s how Eric “cut red tape” and freed up people’s ability to trash their neighbour’s view and light, in the interest of stimulating the building industry–well– a small bit of it who were probably not in need of the work anyway.

      I am not sure if the relaxation of the rules was permanent or just for a few years. That was what he said. Just for a while. To stimulate the building trade.

      At this point I need to mention that it was the Labour council under Cllr Paul Scott as Chair of Planning that restored the procedure of the council writing to let the neighbours next door and across the road (and in then next steet in some cases) about proposed developments, and the posting of traditional A4 sized planning notices fixed to lamposts etc near a proposed development. He deserves a plaudit for this action which even in todays’ e savvy world, fulfils a real need for easily visible local information about proposed development.

      Why should we, the people, spend hours every week scanning the planning liststo see if there are any proposed local developments ?

      A typical building built today will be there 50 years from now, probably 100, or even more. Makes the case to have a planning sytem that does not allow for things to be rushed through under the radar.

      So I hope that tere are no such Pickles fixes in the offing under Boris’s government.

  4. Louise Pullman says:

    It’s important SPD2 changes or goes.

    This poisonous planning guidance document came about as result of a deep smouldering political hatred from Cllr Paul Scott and was very naively supported by Heather Cheesebrough who later tried to place the blame for it on her then head of planning, Pete Smith, now retired.

    It’s an ignorant, who-gives-a -shit piece of planning guidance which I can only compare to some grubby bomb-making instruction manual downloaded from the internet. It’s freakish, has no precedent, and reads like an essay written by an angry sixth former.

    Tony Newman was so thick he allowed Cllr Scott to to indulge himself with this knife twisting piece of planning bullshit and Newman’s political career is in tatters as a result.

    But other than SPD2 there are serious structural things going wrong in Croydon planning.

    Proposals are not being properly scrutinised before submission.

    Proposals are being validated when they should not.

    Developers are not providing accurate drawn information, planners fail to police this and things are getting built incorrectly, too close to the road or at the wrong height.

    Developers get away with lazy lying tactics.

    This is planning ABC and Croydon Planning is repeatedly failing to measure up to acceptable standards. This is wholly unacceptable. Croydon deserves a proper, diligent, accountable planning department.

    At the root of all this, the public has lost confidence in Croydon Planning and officers treat residents with disdain, they don’t reply to emails, they side with developers and conspire to limit public debate and consultation.

    The indignation of Nichola Townsend at Thursday’s planning meeting demonstrates this. Nichola is not employed to flippantly address the committee with questions of ‘ well you’ve gone against our advice to give consent and now tell me what you want us to do.’

    There needs to be root and branches change in Croydon Planning and that should start with the removal of Heather Cheesbrough. Cheesbrough should not be the person who rewinds back from SPD2 – she was too involved in contriving it.

  5. jackgriffin1933 says:

    With SDP2 presumably dead and buried by now, I broadly agree with Lewis, although I’m not quite as eco as he is, that appropriate intensification is the way forward – and distributed fairly across the borough.

    What I fear at the moment is that the current reverse policy may turn out to have its own problems, although perhaps less severe than the previous nonsense.

    Let me say quite plainly first: I am against the demolition of existing houses and I am not in favour of more flats, which have been massively overdone and when research shows that the greatest need in Croydon is for three and four bedroom houses.

    But there’s a machismo in Chris Philp’s huzzahing that leads one to worry that we are moving from the far-from-sublime of Scott’s ‘anything anywhere’ (and a lot of it is horrid) to a less-than-sublime Perry/ Philp/ planning committee policy of ‘nothing anywhere’ (unless it’s in the poor, high density areas of the borough).

    I understand why that might be psychologically necessary for the Conservative group at this time, but I hope they calm down a bit when they realise the enormity of the task in hand and that there’s more to it than yah-booing Scott and the numpties.

    “Future design guidance being developed with communities to help protect the character and aspirations of local areas” may also come back to haunt them as, first, the RAs boroughwide – all of whom are now activist thanks to Scott – don’t want anything anywhere and, second, those communities/ RAs will be pretty annoyed when they get landed with stuff they don’t want (which is everything) as they will. And there’ll be no Scott/ SDP2 to blame then.

    Brownfield is great, but often problematic because of issues like access, contamination, clearance and Lewis’s wildlife parks. Small sites (if not too small) are also fine. But we will not find enough of these in Croydon centre (as Philp wants) or north or west to meet our London Plan targets and alleviate local need. It needs more flexible solutions and contributions like subdivision and backland development to achieve the right mix and the three- and four-houses desired.

    One hot potato is the large plot issue (mostly down south and over east); but one that wouldn’t be recognised by our forebears.

    When the greenfield land on which my house sits was sold to its first purchaser in the 1920s, the landowner applied the following covenant: nothing “other than 5 detached or semi-detached houses and stabling, domestic offices, greenhouses and other outbuildings appurtenant to such houses” shall be built on the land.

    No more than five houses! Stabling! Domestic offices etc etc!

    I’d never want this, or anyone else’s, house to be demolished and so prefer the idea of small, discreet mews-style developments of houses pepperpotted around the area, tucked behind and between houses on long/ large plots than flats on whole sites.

    Such infills (or rather backfills) preserve the streetscape, are not obvious or obviously detrimental to the character of neighbourhoods, lend themselves mostly to houses and save the retained properties from future development/ demolition too.

    We have to have something and when almost anything is better than more flats, that’d be acceptable to me.

    As Lewis says, “I hope that we don’t end up with favoured areas and dump areas”. Ultimately, it’s about fairness to all the residents of our borough, not just the most vocal or best educated or socially advantaged.

    Chris and Jason might also call to mind that research has long shown that homeowners ultimately tend to vote Conservative, while tenants tend to vote Labour. Not only would houses – not flats – offset the blatant ‘gerrymandering’ of Scott, it would further entrench Conservative strongholds for generations to come.

    PS/ Lewis is also dead right about CIL, Purley having enjoyed none of it derived from development down this end. It is a perennial complaint from my RA when objecting to development and, while it’s not a valid planning objection and they’d still object to everything if Purley were showered in CIL, it does have a point.

  6. Obviously Croydon should play its part in dealing with London’s housing crisis, but I don’t detect any sensible strategy. Ex-Cllr Scott’s rush to build in all sorts of inaccessible places seems to revolve around building the council tax base, not dealing with the biggest crisis in the lack of affordable homes. Here’s a prediction – Cheesbrough will go with a bung and possibly after am protracted ‘constructive dismissal’ appeal, perhaps quoting IC. Bring it on, I’ll contribute to your crowd funding!

  7. Jess says:

    Oh dear. Heather Cheesborough (Croydon’s very own Boris Johnson surviving controversy after controversy) still clinging to her six figure salary propped by mini-me Nicola Townsend. If they had any integrity they would move on. SPD2 and those two are inextricably linked – as evidenced by their continuing support for ridiculous planning applications – so they cannot stay. Kerswell, The Invisible Woman, turned a blind eye so let’s see if Perry is brave enough to root out the rot. Which other organisation or Council would tolerate such incompetence?

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