How the council’s planners help developers dodge conditions

The case of 158 Purley Downs Road is an object lesson in what lengths some senior council staff will go to in order to help property developers circumvent building regulations and bamboozle councillors on the planning committee. By STEVE WHITESIDE

The builders move in: there used to be a family home on this site in Purley Downs Road. Until, that is, Croydon’s planners worked closely with developers

The last few weeks, on a suburban road tucked away between Sanderstead railway station and Riddlesdown, have witnessed the demolition of yet another detached family home, making way for two terraces that the developers describe as comprising seven “units”.

How did we, in 2023, arrive at a situation where 158 Purley Downs Road came to be bulldozed in the interests of “intensification”? How did the council’s various planning processes perform? And what lies behind the flashy computer images and planners’ councilspeak?

There was what I would call “fabrication” within the planning documents and a lack of proper scrutiny by council officials, as well as intellectual dishonesty within reports and presentations to the councillors on the planning committee. It’s all here, more of what has helped allow so many often poor-quality homes to be dumped around Croydon over the past five years or so.

Going…: 158 Purley Downs Road two months ago, before it was demolished, with the blessing of the council

The developers at Purley Downs Road are New Place Associates, a firm which has worked on a plethora of building schemes around the south of the borough, and which has had some connections with subsidiaries of another development company to feature regularly on these pages, Macar, which has a director who enjoys intimately close relationships with certain members of the council’s planning department.

Having been around the block a few times, in Kenley, Coulsdon and Woodcote, and then knocked some of those suburban blocks down for profitable developments, New Place might be expected to have a close understanding of what the planning officials and committee at the council might expect. But with 158 Purley Downs Road, the directors of New Place, together with HTA Design – the sometimes favourites of Brick by Brick – nonetheless applied to the council for pre-application advice. Not once, but twice…

Pre-application advice, or a “pre-app”, is the service where council officials meet with the developer and advise them (in writing supposedly) of any improvements to the scheme that would need to be made before submission of a full application. For a scheme such as this one, the fees for such helpful steers from council officials is £2,400 (including VAT), paid to the local authority.

This is the stage at which planning staff once took the opportunity to tell an applicant to ensure that any full application included the requisite information regarding the existing and proposed levels of a building – especially important around the often undulating hillside sites in Croydon.

In the kind of laborious exercise in which Croydon Council has developed a speciality in opacity and secrecy, over the course of nearly two years we asked for copies of any comments and advice provided by staff as part of these applications.

The council told us that, “We have kept no notes following the meeting.” This, of itself, might strike any reasonable member of the public as unusual, if not downright suspicious.

Short-changed: what the council’s own website says that you should get for your pre-app fee

But they also said, “There are however some notes provided by the applicant’s team which we agreed were an accurate record of the meeting and this has been made public.”

So for £2,400, instead of providing a formal letter setting out the planning department’s official advice – which according to the council’s website is what they should expect if they paid the required fee – they settled for a note from themselves, produced after they had submitted the full application.

This self-drafted “advice” included “The proposal now achieves an appropriate setback along North Down [a neighbouring street] being increased to 3.5m… and creates a more transitional relationship with No1-3 North Down.”

The houses at Nos 1 and 3 North Down are in fact set back around nine metres from the street, and this very obvious non-conformity with the road’s established building line, would become one of several issues, one that has never been satisfactorily resolved.

According to their notes, the applicant’s team at that stage consisted of HTA Design, New Place Associates and Harp and Harp (the architects). Representing HTA Design at the meeting was Jan Slominski – the former Croydon planning officer who would, not long after, re-join the council’s planning team in a senior role.

So the writing was already on the wall for 158 Purley Downs Road.

Jan’s the man: Slominski attended the meeting on behalf of the developers. He would soon be overseeing the council’s planning team in the south of the borough

The officer report to the planning committee on July 29, 2021, recommended approval for New Place’s proposed development at 158 Purley Downs Road.

Immediately after the council planning official’s presentation, Councillor Joy Prince asked for clarification. “Is there going to be level access from North Down on to the site?” the councillor asked.

Richard Freeman was the member of planning staff making the presentation that evening. Pointing to a site plan on screen, Freeman earnestly assured the committee, “Yeah, there is no need for steps and it would be step-free access and we attach a condition to secure that.”

Freeman must have forgotten that within one of the computer-generated images that had been submitted as part of the application, and shown at the committee just a few minutes earlier, was one picture showing two figures standing at the top of quite high steps leading to the front door of one of the new units.

So much for Freeman’s “step-free access” as a condition of planning consent, then.

Lynne Hale, the Sanderstead councillor, made a three-minute presentation to the committee on behalf of residents in her ward. “I have very serious concerns about the lack of information with respect to the land levels,” Hale said.

Stepping up: the developer’s CGI showed that claims that the build would be ‘step-free’ were false

“Without these details, we have no way of checking the accuracy of the submitted drawings and can have no confidence that the relationship, between the development and the adjoining properties and roads, is as shown.

“This is important because it throws into doubt the claims about level access and compliance with disabled accessibility criteria.” All reasonable enough points to make.

But according to Freeman: “Levels. Yeah… This is something which we considered really carefully. We have conducted a site visit, we have made an assessment. We are satisfied that these street scene elevations clearly show you the relationship with the neighbouring properties and that you can take step-free access.”

It is worth noting that planning committees have a quasi-judicial status, where the expectation, especially on the council’s professional planning staff, is that the evidence provided is true, reliable and based on rigorously checked facts.

The street elevations are the drawings for 158 Purley Downs Road that were relied upon by the council to show that (a) the development’s relationship with neighbouring properties would be acceptable; and (b) that all the proposed properties would have “step-free access”.

As part of the deliberation that followed, Councillor Leila Ben-Hassel, the committee’s vice-chair at the time, expressed concern over the proposal’s disregard of the established building line in North Down, the lack of subservience of the rear block (Block B) and the total lack of landscaping detail. The councillor told the meeting that she was “on balance a bit 50-50”. She went on to suggest deferral of any decision.

But Freeman advised that the changes required to overcome the councillor’s concerns would mean that Block B “would need to be significantly redesigned” and that that was “not suitable for deferral”.

On the level?: the street elevation plans provided with the developer’s application

Freeman’s boss, Heather Cheesbrough, the council’s director of planning, was in attendance at the committee that night. She agreed with Freeman. This was too big a deal for deferral.

The application was still heading for a refusal by the committee until, at the suggestion of Chris Clark, the committee chair, the recommended planning conditions were amended, supposedly in order to overcome the concerns of Ben-Hassel and those of Councillor Humayun Kabir, who was worried about privacy and boundary treatments.

Freeman confirmed that the conditions to be added would be that “details of the finished land levels of both the proposed dwellings… and the levels of the amenity spaces and routes throughout the site are to be submitted for approval and the landscaping condition 13 gets amended to be a pre-occupation condition requiring details to be agreed.”

I had reminded both officers and councillors before the meeting of what it says about landscaping in the notes under London Plan Policy D4 (Delivering good design):

“The scrutiny of a proposed development’s design should cover its… landscaping (3.4.7).”


“Assessment of the design of large elements of a development, such as landscaping… should be undertaken as part of assessing the whole development and not deferred for consideration after planning permission has been granted (3.4.11).”

But Cheesbrough, who was exposed as lying about her qualifications in respect of landscaping, insisted that, “The items around boundary treatment and landscaping is something that can be easily dealt with by condition.”

It was obvious that those additional conditions would not address the concerns raised about the building line on North Down or the lack of subservience of Block B that had almost got the application refused.

When the vote was taken on the substantive motion to approve (with those “additional” conditions), Councillor Kabir was clearly not convinced and voted against. Councillor Ben-Hassel voted in favour, leading to a 5-5 tied vote. The application was approved on the casting vote of the chair, Chris Clark.

From that point, the power to make further decisions on related applications was back firmly in the hands of the planning officials, using their delegated authority.

Deferral deterred: Block B stands nearly 6m further forward towards the road than neighbouring buildings, and needed to be pushed back. But that would have meant refusal

The following day, Hale wrote to her residents, “I was concerned last night about the approach taken by one Labour councillor who was vocally very unhappy about significant elements of the scheme… all reasons for refusing the scheme – but still voted for it!

“Words fail me – and I’m so sorry for the local residents who will be adversely impacted by this decision.”

Nicola Townsend, the council’s chief planner, would sign the decision notice in February 2022. By this stage, Slominski was back working for Croydon Council.

One of the planning conditions attached to that permission requires that all of the houses must be “constructed and fitted out” to comply with “the Building Regulations requirements for M4(2) and/or M4(3) dwellings”. Those requirements include that access to all the houses is “step free”, or if ramps are necessary that they are designed to the specific standards set out in the regulations.

Full frontal: the developers’ own ‘visualisations’ show their new build 6m closer to North Down pavement than existing homes

This had now become the responsibility of the council’s planners, to ensure that the regulations were properly complied with.

Only by ensuring that the development would fully comply with these regulations would the council ensure that it meets the relevant, adopted development plan policies (London Plan D7 and Local Plan SP2.8). And only by doing that could the council say that it had complied with its Public Sector Equality Duty, by giving all due consideration to how its decision(s) would affect people who are protected under the Equality Act 2010, which of course includes wheelchair users.

Even so, applications submitted since permission was granted (to discharge conditions) have included the same CGI, with the same figures, standing at the top of the steps beside the main entrance to the corner house.

Just who are these people trying to kid?

Then there’s that landscaping condition (13B), added because of the concerns of Councillors Ben-Hassel and Hale at the committee. Contrary to what Freeman said at committee, this still reads as a “compliance’ condition, rather than one that has to be discharged “pre-occupation”.

“The proposed landscaping and amenity spaces shall be fully implemented and provided in accordance with the details shown on dwg. 20.045.101D and, thereafter, retained and maintained for the life of the development.”

Landscape expert: Heather Cheesbrough

But to this day, with the builders on site, there are still no landscaping details shown on the approved application drawing. There is nothing to be assessed or enforced. No details whatsoever!

Ben-Hassel had told the committee “I do share … concerns with regards to not having a detailed landscaping plan. I think that’s quite important because it would mean whether or not we get a good finished product.”

There is more to come in this sad tale, of how the developer, with the “highly professional” assistance of council officials, manoeuvred around a petition, material objections and the Building Act 1984, to discharge pre-commencement planning conditions and make way for demolition.

Read more: Suspicions over secrecy surrounding Slominski’s return
Read more: Council in cover-up over planning’s husband and wife act
Read more: Director of planning’s bogus claim over Institute membership
Read more: Buyers beware: High Court judge puts planners in the dock

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26 Responses to How the council’s planners help developers dodge conditions

  1. Phil Hickman says:

    Yet another blatant example of the cronyism, the insider relationships and lack of integrity within the Council. Surely the relationships both past and present should be properly documented and formulated to provide a major document at every planning meeting. Is there a standards committee or independent compliance team that have oversight into these dealings?

    Croydon must be in line for the top award for Rotten Borough for 2023 but when will it all stop!

    Once again the Croydon residents deserve much better and have assurances that this corruption is being driven out and the relevant parties brought to account with the appropriate sanctions applied

  2. James says:

    The usual suspects Heather Cheesborough, Nicola Townsend and Chris Clark. Still claiming an income from Croydon residents whilst we pay the cost for their machinations.

  3. Only Pelling wanted to get rid of Cheeseborough, why. Just looking at a couple of blocks inflicted on Shirley confirms that planning in Croydon stinks.

  4. Kevin Croucher says:

    “Units” just about sums up many modern developments, particularly the high rises in central Croydon. They no longer seem like homes, they are little more than human storage units.

  5. Mary Jones says:

    Landscaping at several developments in Purley just hasn’t happened at all or not as per planning consent. 94 Foxley Lane is a good example. 11 trees were meant to be planted plus shrubs front and rear. None of this has been done. I’ve submitted 2 enforcement queries. No response. Is there a planning enforcement officer?

    • Ian Kierans says:
      John Penn MSc

      Planning Enforcement Officer

      Planning and Sustainable Regeneration

      Bernard Weatherill House

      Floor 6, Zone B

      8 Mint Walk

      Croydon. CR0 1EA

      020 8726 6800 Extn 62046

    • Heather says:

      I wish you luck – six months and counting and still waiting for them to enforce a clearly obvious and easily remedied breach of conditions regarding windows. Do they assume people will just give up?

      But put in planning permission for a residential extension and they’ll clutch their pearls and imply you’re trying to concrete over the garden of Eden!

      • Sad&dejected says:

        I live in a road of ‘linked detached houses’. Imagine my anger and surprise when I read the Committee Report regarding the development of one of these houses in the road when I saw that it had been reported that the road was primarily made up of terraced houses! In my mind this would have given the Committee members a totally inaccurate idea of the appearance of the street scene. And Heather Cheeseborough has the cheek to describe her Planning staff as being very professional!!
        I hope if I ever sell my house it is not described as a terrace house by the estate agent!

        • Ian Kierans says:

          Seriously despite being advised of wrongdoing and with evidence from the outset three years later they are looking at retrospective planning and it is still awaiting a decision. Even after failing building regulations it was allowed to be occupied.
          I am sure theey have good and legal reasons for doing this but if so then it is clear the planning process along with Building control and enforcement process seem to be –
          1. being interpreted strangely and weighted in favour of developents
          2. Not giving due consideration for disabled and vulnerable neighbours and activelyt endangering them and thier lives.
          3. The laws need a complete overhaul across England and Wales
          4. Someone(s) are being dishonest – bearing in mind that the Developer has already admitted on record that his architect put in two other applications just to enable the third to go through and Croydon Council were made aware of this as were Councillors
          4. Alll the above?

  6. Ian Kierans says:

    I laugh whenever I hear those two names mentioned – For some strange ”perfectly legal development” reason that was anything but. It was then subject to retrospective planning permission and many of the issues are unresolved even now three years later and both have never ever justified the despicable behaviours and sanctimonious rationale.

    Perhaps the reason they are still there is that clearly they have created a system whereby anything they want to have happen – can. They can continue with impunity ad nauseam and it is all within the law. And even when judicial decision go against them and they are found by judges to have not really been forthcoming and have not disclosed the real evidence they are still apparantly not taken to task by their superiors. That severely undermines all public trust permanently in not just then – not just there department but this Council and Katherine Kerswell.

    Frankly the minute they open their mouths any person seeing the outcomes they have promoted and sanctioned would be requesting external and independent advice and full evidence of every single syllable they ever uttered.

    One has to wonder about the gullibility of Councillors so many years and published evicdence later?

    So there are always other sides to situations but frankly I would dearly love to hear in detail how and exactly what there side is – if not voluntarily then in a public inquiry

  7. Sally says:

    Croydon planning doesn’t work on any level. Then there are the mistakes covered up by lies, absenteeism, non existent communications and over familiarity with developers and associated perks.

    Normally when planning is this bad and has been so for over 5 years, you look to the Director of planning for an explanation.

    Of course, Heather Cheesbrough believes it has nothing to do with her. Hundreds of Croydon residents think differently.

  8. Wayne says:

    I suffered personally and financially as a result of the dishonesty of Heather Cheesborough, Nicola Townsend and the team, so nothing here surprises me.

    Both Kerswell and Perry are aware that documents were withheld, that there were statements made in planning reports and in emails that were blatantly untrue and policies – including mandatory policy – were waived to push through a development that they finally had to admit was harmful.

    There is a statutory duty to prevent harm.

    It is Steve Whiteside and IC that now provide the only line of defence on behalf of residents.

  9. Sally says:

    Mis-representing your credentials in order to get a job is fraud. If Katherine Kerswell had done her job properly and addressed the very serious conduct and competence issues in the planning team, Heather Cheesborough could have been moved on quietly.

    Instead it has was left to Inside Croydon to expose these issues – which means that any potential employer can see exactly what she has been up to.

    I don’t know how she goes into work every day knowing her colleagues read IC. Her own team must know their careers are being stymied and their reputations damaged while she is in post.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      I am taking a punt here, but if Cheesebrough is not responsible for the instigation and cultural environment leading to misconduct, wrongdoing and incompetence issues in the planning team after seven years in post, then she has failed spectacularly in rooting them out and regaining high professional standards, competence and at least some credibility with residents.

      But again Sally is right if Kerswell has not done anything about that, either, then one more reason for McArdle & Co to take over, and one less reason for her to have a pay rise.

      • Wayne says:

        Heather Cheesborough has tacitly endorsed (perhaps encouraged) a situation where planners make statements to the Committee that they present as fact but which are not. Ross Gentry told the Planning Committee my privacy would be protected by planters. When asked for evidence of this in a follow up FOI request he said it was his ‘judgement’ as though that was enough (the Council’s own solicitor admitted this was an inadequate response). That is not what he told the Committee. He also did not tell the Committee that he was sitting on visualisations from the developer (that had been withheld from the public and unlawfully withheld from a FOI request) that proved beyond doubt that residents of the development would have been able to see into my bedrooms, bathrooms, living room and most of my private outdoor space. The planning report was littered with statements that the team was unable to provide evidence for. Cheesborough herself statements in an email to our local Councillor that were untrue. If planners are making misleading, unfounded or untrue verbal or written statements that could be considered perjury if made in court, then she should be held to account. Kerswell knows all of this.

        • Ian Kierans says:

          Kerswell knows all of this. And ignores it and never responds. Then her executive officer leaves and no one can find the emails and letters. Yep been there got that!

      • Claire says:

        It’s Heather Cheesborough’s supercilious and dismissive attitude towards residents has created the situation we have now. The town crammers now have little regard for the people they are supposed to serve. It’s seen in the committee meetings, their answers to questions (or lack of) and the absolute disregard of any planning objections. We have suffered huge cuts in service along with a massive rise in Council Tax to fund some hefty salaries – not least Heather’s. It’s a disgrace.

  10. John Kohl says:

    Can anyone confirm how many individual objections Croydon Council’s planners need to receive before it will pass a planning objection over to the Planning Committee to make a decision?

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Does not matter how many – if they want to ignore it – they will. They do not even tell anyone that the decision will be made by delegated authority prior to that decision being made and posted online. Even when you request verbally and in writing that you want to present information to be taken into account they ignore it and carry on.
      Adjoinging residents are supposed to get letters and notifications of developments next door – but not from this sorry bunch. You find out after the fact unless you scan the Planning portal every week.

    • It is never a matter of quantity of objections in the planning system.

      Usually, objections from ward councillors or the MP will trigger an application being called in to committee.

  11. John Kohl says:

    Thank you to everyone who answered my question.

    Looks like we are about to get steam-rollered over by another unnecessary development (but of course I would say that, wouldn’t I!).

    • Have you got your ward councillor(s) (who are they) on the case?

      • John Kohl says:

        Yes, thank you, we know who our councillors are and will be contacting them.

        Still in despair about the entire process however, based on the articles I’ve read in Inside Croydon. The 2018 Croydon Local Plan reads like one of the most one-sided, most pro-developer documents ever written (assuming one can even understand what it is meant to convey other than “if you file a planning application for it, we will grant it”).

  12. This is set out at 2.31 of Part 4K of the Council’s Constitution.
    (2.32 explain ‘The application will only be reported to Committee under these Criteria where the recommendation by the Director of Planning and Strategic Transport is for
    approval’.) The number currently stands at 12.

    • John Kohl says:

      Thank you! I couldn’t remember whether 13 separate objections were needed, or only 12.

      The Croydon Local Plan really is an impenetrable document to me. I understand that usually such documents are supposed to strike a fair balance between demand for new buildings and the need to avoid overdevelopment and preserving local amenity. Every time I read it I can’t find anything in it that tries to strike that balance.

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