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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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