Home owner’s victory after four-year battle with planners

The planning department at Croydon’s dysfunctional council has been caught out yet again after the collapse of a developer’s appeal – but only after incurring huge and avoidable costs.
Our housing correspondent, BARRATT HOLMES, unravels a saga of deceits and delays

Heights of contempt: a private developer’s scheme to replace a bungalow, in a street of bungalows, with a four-storey tower, was encouraged by Croydon planners

Last month, a four-year battle by residents to stop an ultra-high-density, monolithic tower block came to an end when developer Silverleaf Developments Ltd finally withdrew its appeal to the Planning Inspector.

This planning saga had its beginnings with an earlier development in 2016, when the same developer applied to Croydon Council for planning permission to build a bungalow in the rear garden of an existing property on Brownlow Road, in Park Hill.

Planning permission was granted, the bungalow was built and sold, and in 2018 the new owners moved in.

Not long after, Silverleaf prepared to submit another planning application. This time they wanted to demolish the original property and replace it with a block of flats just seven metres away from the new bungalow. The flats proposed were four times the size of the rear bungalow, and twice the size of the neighbouring property to the left and, being on a hill, a looming four storeys over its neighbours to the right.

The developers’ plans included the provision of just one (disabled) car parking space for the expected 19 residents in the flats, no access to parking permits, and an expectation that those living in the flats would use the driveway belonging to the rear bungalow, with all the access problems that would entail.

“I received a backdated letter from Silverleaf in October 2019 telling me that they were submitting a planning application,” the owner of the new, rear bungalow told Inside Croydon.

“It turned out that the application had already been submitted that September and validated by the council, even though it included my land and I had received no Certificate B notice or consultation from the developer.”

A “Certificate B notice” is a requirement of law when someone applies for planning permission using land that is owned, or part-owned, by someone else. The applicant has to submit the certificate to say they have served notice when submitting the planning application.

In this case, Heather Cheesborough, the council’s director of planning and “Sustainable Regeneration”, took a view that the notice “must have been served”.

Busy builders: Silverleaf have been building often large blocks of flats, mostly in Croydon, with the approval of the council’s planners

Cheesbrough and the council’s chief planner, Nicola Townsend, considered that Silverleaf’s back-dated letter was correctly served.

The case of the Brownlow Road tower would show Cheesbrough, Townsend and their planning team to have a bit of a problem with dates, and with their ensuring that developers comply with the proper order of things as required by the law. It appeared that in Croydon, developers were being given carte blanche to submit planning applications on other people’s property without them knowing until after the application had been made.

Once they were given the belated notice, Brownlow Road residents submitted objections on the grounds that the development did not meet required separation distances at any point, that it was overbearing, there was excessive site coverage, it was overdevelopment, caused harmful enclosure, was at odds with the rhythm of the street and it breached the privacy of the rear bungalow, with rear windows and a rear-facing balcony providing direct views into the bedrooms, living room, garden and down into skylights over the bathrooms.

In 2019, the council’s planning documents stated that a light study had been conducted – to assess how the tower block might overshadow neighbouring properties. According to these documents, there was no light impact to neighbours.

Residents tried for a year to access this study, without success.

More than a year later, a document did appear on the council’s planning portal. It showed there would be loss of light for affected neighbours.

Let there be light: according to the council planners, this light study, produced in 2020, had been submitted to them in 2019…

The date of the light study document – September 2020 – did not match with the original planning documents.

And it showed that the study was hastily completed because “this is again being brought up by neighbours” and they could not proceed to committee without it. Ha! Pesky neighbours, eh?

Despite all the objections, Cheesbrough and Townsend’s planning team recommended that the application should be approved, and submitted a glowing planning report. When the application came before the planning committee, Labour councillor Paul Scott told the committee members to follow the advice of the council officials. Chris Clark, another Labour councillor and Scott’s puppet chair of the committee, repeated this, disregarding not only the objections and evidence from residents, but also the requirement for the committee to act independently as a regulator.

Freedom of Information requests to the council were ignored, and the law broken, until the Information Commissioner had to intervene.

Only then, when the council was forced to release its planning report, were documents released that actually showed the planning officials considered the development to be “overbearing”, to have “excessive site coverage”, to be “overdevelopment”, to cause “harmful enclosure”, to be “at odds with the existing rhythm of the street”, and which confirmed that the planners knew that the privacy issues raised by neighbours had not been resolved.

Statements were made in the planning report, for example, that there would be no issues of noise, nuisance or obstruction. Freedom of Information requests were made for the evidence on which these statements were made but the council was unable to provide anything. It seemed statements made as fact were simply conjecture.

Pulling the strings: Paul Scott told the planning committee to ignore objections from residents of Brownlow Road

The documents were raised as part of a Stage Two complaint under Croydon Council’s complaints procedure over the conduct of Cheesbrough and the planning department.

According to the Stage Two response letter, the investigation was carried out by Shifa Mustafa, the council’s “executive director of place”. The only problem with this was that, at the time, Mustafa was been suspended from her job.

The signature on the response letter was Heather Cheesborough’s. It was an actual case of a council director who really was marking her own homework.

The Stage Two response neglected to address the statements made in the documents that the council had been forced, very reluctantly, to release. Emma Johnston, the council’s corporate resolution officer, explained in another email that the investigation would only address points raised in the Stage One complaint, not anything new that had not already been considered. This, though, appeared to be in direct conflict with the council’s actual complaints policy.

Jade Appleton, the relatively new ward councillor, made numerous requests to speak to Katherine Kerswell, the council’s chief exec, to try to better understand why the council’s own documents showed such a different view from the planning report.

Councillor Appleton was directed to… Heather Cheesborough.

Cause for complaint: how Heather Cheesbrough marked her own homework over a Stage Two complaint

When Cheesbrough finally did agree to a meeting with the councillor, the six-figure salaried council director failed to show up.

Cheesbrough did send an email in which she once again appeared confused over the actual sequence of events, claiming that council planners had made comments “in relation to the pre application proposals”, when the comments came from emails dated after the final application had gone in.

The council also claimed to be unaware that diagrams submitted by the developer were inaccurate, even though residents had raised this with the planning team multiple times.

When asked why the development failed mandatory policy, Cheesborough replied, a tad more incoherently than usual, that “Planning policies are not tick box exercised [sic]”.

Eventually, the owner of the new bungalow, their patience exhausted, served notice on the council that he would be making an application for Judicial Review. The council called up its expensive firm of solicitors, Browne Jacobson, who wrote warning against any action on the grounds that it would be “academic”. The council, with its deep pockets funded out of the public purse, played its trump card, threatening the resident that they would seek all their legal costs.

Unexpectedly, in January 2022, the Brownlow Road planning application was returned to the committee, though again with a recommendation from the council officials to approve.

Judging herself: council director Heather Cheesbrough

Former planning official Steve Whiteside has become a thorn in the side of Cheesbrough’s planning department, scrutinising in granular detail their conduct, and doing so to greater effect than any of the borough’s 70 elected councillors, or its new elected Mayor.

Whiteside wrote objections to the Brownlow Road application, outlining the eye-wateringly long list of council policies that the development failed to meet.

In one example of the sheer gormlessness of the council planning officials, they had responded to neighbours’ objections over privacy issues by suggesting that the tower block’s balconies would be shielded from neighbouring properties by the addition of some planters. Now, the council had reworded its report to say the planters would protect privacy only if the residents of the flats were “inside the flats”.

Handling the application was council planning official Ross Gentry who, when asked for clarification, effectively admitted that after more than two years, he and his council colleagues had not requested from the developer any dimensions of the balcony planters.

Visualisations of the development had never been uploaded on to the council’s planning portal and were not released in response to the neighbour’s Freedom of Information request. But Whiteside had managed to obtain the visualisations, and they clearly showed that privacy of the neighbouring properties would have been badly compromised, planters or no planters.

Gentry, of course, is well known among Croydon residents’ groups, notorious even, for having a close, very close, relationship with some developers operating in Croydon – including one firm where his wife is a director.

Gentry, as a senior planning officer, went on to tell the committee that the site qualified for further intensification under Policy H2 despite the site meeting neither the distance from town centre nor Public Transport Accessibility Level requirements – as confirmed in the planning report. A Freedom of Information request for the evidence on which Gentry based his statement remains outstanding after eight months. The FoI Act requires local authorities to respond to requests in no more than 20 working days.

Despite significant efforts from Gentry to push the committee to approve the application, last January the committee voted to refuse. In her decision letter to the developers, Townsend confirmed that the proposed tower block “would be overbearing and cause harm to the amenity” of its neighbour, “conflicting with Policy DM10 of the Croydon Local Plan (2018), Policies D3 and D6 of the London Plan (2021) and Croydon Suburban Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document (2019)”. All of which Park Hill residents had been saying for three years.

The developer submitted an appeal to the Planning Inspector, but following representations from residents, last month they withdrew their appeal.

Block heads: Silverleaf’s proposed block, housing for 19 people on the site that has only ever been a single household, was backed all the way by council planners

Nearly five years since they moved into the new bungalow on Brownlow Road, in which they have spent much of that time resisting developers and council officials’ efforts to permanently blight the property, the resident is beginning to gather his thoughts about the way he has been treated by the local authority.

“I naively thought the planning department would stick to policy, be open and transparent and act with integrity. I was wrong,” he told Inside Croydon.

“There is no first line of defence against opportunistic developers,” he said. “The gaslighting was astonishing.

“Residents’ questions were ignored, Freedom of Information requests were unanswered until the Information Commissioner intervened, and Heather Cheesborough would direct me to documents that didn’t provide the information I had asked for.

“The planning reports read like works of fiction, and I had to spend money on legal costs to defend my own land and my own home. Had the planning department just stuck to policy, the application would have been rejected four years ago.”

It was not just the resident who spent money unnecessarily. According to cash-strapped Croydon Council, from 2019 until August 2021, they clocked up £10,000 in legal fees on this planning case (with another 16 months’ worth of costs still to add on through to the withdrawal of the appeal in December 2022).

“It is another shocking waste of money by the bankrupt council on a development that had little prospect of success at Judicial Review or Planning Inspectorate appeal,” says the long-suffering resident.

“Then there’s the hundreds of hours of public servants’ time over three years – at both Croydon Council and at the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“Had it not been for the efforts of Inside Croydon in exposing the planning team’s disregard for the impact of overdevelopment on residents, and Steve Whiteside’s dogged work and support, Croydon Council would now be spending even more taxpayers’ money in the High Court defending the indefensible.”

Read more: Ex-porn baron strips Croydon’s planners of all arguments
Read more: Council delays and lack of enforcement cause residents misery
Read more: Director of planning’s bogus claim over Institute membership
Read more: Director refuses to admit conflict of interest over South Drive

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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17 Responses to Home owner’s victory after four-year battle with planners

  1. When friends in Sri Lanka tell me of the dreadful things that those in power do there, I feel happy I live here. Then I see what happens in Croydon and I have to wonder if there is really any difference after all. Only Pelling had the guts to promise to get rid of Cheeseborough, unfortunately the spineless and ….. were voted in.

    • Wayne says:

      Kerswell has been aware of the issues raised in this article since 2020 and Perry since August 2022. Both failed to respond.

  2. Ian Bridge says:

    If anyone was to wonder how the council have got in such a financial mess, this sorry tale tells you all you need to know. Well done to those that spent lots of money and stood up to them, otherwise I assume this hideous development would have been built by now

  3. Soonmixdin says:

    Could we henceforth refer to Heather Cheesbrough as “Heather Cheesforbrains”? Seem reasonable, having read all about her well documented incompetence at her highly paid director’s role at Croydon Council!!!

    • Wayne says:

      In addressing all those comments in Council documents (“overbearing”, “excessive site coverage”, “overdevelopment”, “harmful enclosure”, “at odds with the existing rhythm of the street”,privacy issues had not been resolved etc), Heather Cheesborough claimed that they were related to pre-app advice despite the dates of those documents being after the application had been submitted, and that “the plans were amended on a number of occasions”. When asked to substantiate Heather Cheesborough’s claims by providing actual changes in the height and width of the development, the Council admitted that ‘Maximum height and width remained consistent from as originally submitted with the planning application’. It took 14 months for the planners to respond to a Freedom of Information request on the actual height of the building (they ignored previous requests for that information before the FOI request) and three years on have never confirmed the actual height that the block would have been. With Heather Cheesborough, Nicola Townsend and Ross Gentry either ignoring questions, FOI requests, withholding documents, and making some dubious statements, I often found myself wondering if there was more at play that incompetence.

      • Wayne says:

        I should add that Ross Gentry told the Planning Committee categorically that the Balcony Planters would protect privacy. In response to a request for evidence, the Council stated that it was just his ‘judgement’ but refused to provide any other information other than “Members came to a different view, as they are entitled to do”. I assume the dismissive and blunt response was provided by the Planning Team.

        The Council’s solicitor later admitted: “I must say right away that I do not consider the 7 February 2022 response met the requirements of FOIA” and “judgement however is not a basis to exempt information”

        It is an odd judgement for Ross Gentry to arrive at anyway, if by his own admission he did not know the dimensions of the balcony, he was in possession of visualisations that provided privacy was breached, and that landscaping cannot be used to mitigate design failings anyway.

  4. Chris Gerlach says:

    It is a real travesty that people who work to provide a home for themselves find those homes threatened by greedy developers and a Council Planning Authority who act like yes men and women to the same developers. Croydon Council should be acting to ensure developments do not negatively impact upon residents close to those developments. We know that is not happening.

    Sensitive developments can and do enhance residential areas and the majority of residents would support such developments.

    Developers and council planning officers that ride rough shod over mandatory policies designed to safeguard not only the people occupying the new developments but also the people in the area, have no place in Croydon or anywhere. Perry needs to wake up to that.

    I hope that this resident’s courage in fighting the injustice gives courage to everyone to fight back.
    For counsellors on planning committees, don’t just agree to what the planning officer says. Ask that awkward question that you know will put them on the spot and challenge when you know the evidence presented is thin or non-existent. That’s why you were voted into those positions

  5. Mayor Perry must respond to the very serious allegations raised in this report by instructing the CEO to investigate the people named and see if there’s any substance to any of the complaints.

    If there are, then heads should roll. If there is nothing to any of them, no doubt Messrs Sue, Grabbit & Runne will shortly make all sorts of dire threats to the occupants of iC Towers.

    If Perry ignores the credible accusations of malpractice, the man on the Croydon tram will correctly think that council employees can carry on telling lies, breaking the law, bullying residents, wasting public money and ignoring the Council’s Code of Conduct and its very clear requirements on Declarations of Interest. And all that with the Mayor’s blessing.

    Are you going to tell him, Councillor Appleton?

  6. Steve says:

    Too many examples in last few years of borderline corrupt planners breaking own planning policies in cahoots with greedy developers. Need to sack the lot of them and start again with new officers and councillors with integrity

  7. SallyM says:

    Another week and another revelation about the Planning Department (not that any of it comes as a surprise). It will be dereliction of duty if Jason Perry does not order an independent investigation into Heather Cheesborough and her department. This cannot continue and his own reputation is at stake if he does not act. Now. Well done IC.

  8. The cabinet member for Planning & Regeneration has recognised that the planning department is “all but broken.”

    Publicly recognising the problem is a good, first step.

    I think, though, that voters will have expected the new administration to have moved Croydon council on from the questionable culture under Labour.

  9. Sarah Bird says:

    Journalism at its best.
    Jason Perry needs to address the problems urgently .Why are the staff still employed ?

  10. Lewis White says:

    I am not against appropriately scaled redevelopment, which in our area normally means inserting new buildings into the urban fabric, and sometimes demolishing small homes on large sites, but this model of the proposed flats looks very like a fat young cuckoo dwarfing the surrounding adult birds. A clear case of town cramming, not town planning.

    • SallyM says:

      That’s a very apt description! I just checked out the plans on the CC website and I am shocked that it ever got this far. It doesn’t even look like a residential building. It looks like a 1970s office block. We have enough of those in Croydon.

  11. Lewis White says:

    It can’t be easy being a Planning officer in Development management, seeking to bring about appropriate change –which means development– when the term planner is held such low regard by so many. In some cases, where flagrantly bad and overbearing developments have been justified by weasel words and unblanced policies, with justification.

    Some decades ago, Development management was called “development Control”. Then, people (architects, residents and developers) kept criticising planners for turning everything down, and micro-management when approving design details. I have experienced this on one or two occasions, but I also have to say, details are important.

    Government decided that this was stopping too much, and the “control” tag was dropped, replaced by “management”.

    The balance has shifted to a degree where many residents would say that the term could now be described as “Development promotion”. My guess is that every borough is different, with restraint in some areas.

    I have heard – once, from a developer – that planners have asked developers to actually to add more floors and more units.

    Planning officers must have a personal vision to create a better society. They spend many years training , both via professional qualification, and employed experience. The vast majority must care about the built environment – albeit that their personal views for and against “intensification” may vary considerably.

    Why is Croydon Planning “broken”?

    It is clearly invidious for the corporate muscle and resources of the Council to be broufght to bear to bully individual residents.

    It is clearly totally wrong when developers build without planning permission, or more frequently, build buildings higher, longer, or closer to the street , or extending out backwards , more than the drawings show, and get away with it.

    My feeling is that there are many very acceptable blocks of flats throughout the borough which have replaced much smaller buildings, and am happy to send Insixde Croydon numerous photos of what I personally consider to be “good development”.

    There are sadly, many poor designs and buildings from every decade, and it would be informative to see if there are any common factors – such as the same development management planner.

    We shouldn’t be into witch hunts, but if there are “rogue planners”, they should be brought in line or move on. The problem is when the policies are inadequate, or when good policies are not enforced, such as those relating to retention and protection of existing trees, and provision of new trees and soft landscape..

    In addition to highlighting over-large bully-boy blocks which dwarf their settings, Inside Croydon has mentioned and shown photos of many new blocks which are fronted by car parking with pathetically small amounts of planting to offset the big expanses of hard-surfaced car parking.

    Bad developments set precedents. Before long, a once green road frontage with front gardens can be paved over, a radical change in character, and hardening the environment, which can never be re-changed to green once the green has gone. It’s bad enough anyway, with off-street park–in many ways a “good thing” – but very bad indeed as it replaces front lawns and hegdes with saharas of paving– in every suburban street.

    I would not want to abandon the concept of intensification…. there are, in reality, many areas of poor quality housing, and still many individual buildings that were never that great, and , for many reasons, whether layout, insulation, or cost of upkeep, are poor use of the scarce land resource they are standing on.

    Kenley, Purley and others have many really good developments where modern but contextual “traditional Surrey style buildings built in good materials of mellow brick, tile hanging, with pitched roofs and proper insulation have replaced both big Victorian properties and 20th century small houses on big plots. There are also many modern buildings which use good brickwork in soft colours and with balconies.

    An example of the latter that I saw the other day was a new block in High Street Purley, built in a red-brown brick, not too many storeys, modern in look, and just right for the scale of the street, which had balconies with very attractive metalwork fronts– perforated with geometric designs. This had a locally well-known restaurant downstaris, and flats on top.

    In my opinion, it has replaced ugliness and meanness of small shops and houses with a simple and well-proportioned new building, which has really raised the visual quality of waht has been and sitil is in parts, a depressing and dead street.

    More such buildings are needed in this street, including a really good redevelopment of the long-derelict Purley Pool/ Leisure centre and the ex supermarket and sad multi-storey car park.

    How can the thoughtful and caring public be involved in the planning process without having to take over development in the form of a community local plan.

    There is a charity called “Planning aid” where the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) can provide advice and assistance to community groups and individuals.
    I quote…

    “Planning Aid services operate in England, Wales and Scotland, providing advice and support to help people engage with the planning system and get involved in planning their local area. 

    Planning Aid England (PAE) is part of the RTPI. Launched in 1973, PAE is built on the principle that that everyone should have access to the planning system, regardless of their ability to pay.

    PAE has been helping individuals and communities engage with the planning system for almost fifty years and our services are guided by the following principles:

    Being clear and knowledgeable 
    We aim to explain what is and what isn’t possible in relation to planning.

    Being collaborative and supportive
    We aim to understand your needs and always try to address them in relation to planning.

    Being volunteer-led
    Our work is delivered by over 300 dedicated volunteers who are supported by a small staff team. All our volunteers are members of the RTPI and have a range of skills, interests and expertise.

    Being independent
    PAE is funded by the RTPI, a registered charity. It is separate from both central and local government and provides completely independent and impartial professional planning advice.”

    Sounds good– it would be great if the Council could pay for “Local planning groups” to be set up where local people (not just the resident assocations, but they would be key members), supported by Planning Aid, would engage with the Planners to look at their areas when the Borough’s local plan is revised.

    Are the communities and planners and local politicians willing to engage and work together ?

  12. I, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens offered devolutionary local community control of planning including such local plan input at the May elections. To be fair, those proposals did not win majority support at those elections.

  13. Jess says:

    The names mentioned in this article are quite the roll call of incompetents.

    I shudder to think how many millions have been spent on their salaries and allowances – and continue to be – whilst services in Croydon are being cut. We deserve better.

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