Town Hall correspondent PEARL LEE on the seismic shift going on in the council’s planning department
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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 the official report to tonight’s cabinet meeting recommending the scrapping of SPD2
- Check out the “hated” SPD2 (© Chris Philp), Part One, and here’s SPD2 Part Two
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