Demolition shows how council’s planners have no ‘red lines’

The way we were: the family house at 158 Purley Downs Road, before the developers sent in the bulldozers, and despite the demands of planning conditions

STEVE WHITESIDE on the developing (geddit?) saga of a house-builder who manages to ignore planning conditions laid down by elected councillors, thanks to some considerable assistance being provided by council staff

The sad saga of 158 Purley Downs Road, where the demolition of a family home by a developer has gone ahead without key conditions laid down by the borough’s planning committee being met – or even close to being met – is an object lesson in how the council’s professional planners seem to go out of their way to assist some development firms.

What is happening at 158 Purley Downs Road, and with so many other developments, is not just about the perverse and unprofessional behaviour of certain council officials. It clearly goes much deeper than that, into places that even the Mayor’s promised “major transformation programme” will never reach… even if it were to try.

Before the original building could be demolished, there were four “pre-commencement (including demolition)” conditions that needed to be “discharged”, in the jargon of the council planning department. One of those was the “levels” condition, which had been added by councillors at the planning committee which considered the application.

The first application by the developers (22/01027/DISC) to discharge Condition 18, relating to the levels, sparked a 128-signature petition, which listed some of the many significant and material changes to what had been approved by the committee.

Plans that don’t fit: part of the objection papers submitted to council planners which demonstrated that the developers’ scheme could not fit on the site

Among other things, there were obvious changes to the site layout and introduction of substantial retaining walls, as well as the implied changes to the street elevations and confirmation (to those who chose to look) that some of the housing units to be built would not have the promised step-free access.

It was highlighted that the developers’ “red line site boundary” was not accurate and that the site wasn’t as large as had been made out. The development, as approved, just wouldn’t fit.

The MP, Chris Philp, councillor Lynne Hale and the Sanderstead Residents’ Association were among those who objected. All agreed that the applicant should be told to submit a new planning application to be determined in the proper manner.

The council planning official handling this case was Demetri Prevatt. In his report, he agreed that at least some of the matters raised in the objections were relevant to his consideration of the application.

When we had previously objected on similar applications, high-handed officials had usually told us that, “Objections hold no material planning weight on discharge of conditions”.

On September 30 last year, the application to discharge the planning conditions was “not approved”.

The decision notice said: “The applicant’s attention is drawn to the fact that the plans include changes from the planning permission.” Our italics. Because this kind of stuff is important.

“The applicant is encouraged to engage with the Local Planning Authority through the pre-application service to discuss the way forward with regards these changes.”

We never found out if the applicant did “engage” with the council, or if officers provided any advice on “the way forward”.

What we do know is that the second attempt (22/04457/DISC) to discharge the levels condition was handled very differently by Prevatt and his bosses at the council planning department.

On October 24, a single drawing was submitted by the developers’ representatives as they sought council approval for their designs. The drawing showed the same, very feint (existing) ground levels and scattering of proposed finished ground levels, but the site layout was back to that which had been approved and the locations of retaining walls were no longer shown.

The red line site boundary remained, as inaccurate as ever.

Red lines in planning applications are just that – red lines that must not be crossed. The red line is supposed to include all land necessary to carry out the proposed development, such as land required for access to the site from a public highway, visibility splays, landscaping, car parking and open areas around buildings. So if a developer and their agents get this wrong, you’d really expect the experts in the planning department to notice, and do something about it.

On the level?: more diagrams submitted with the objections to the application to the planning conditions, which showed that the developers’ scheme could be more than 30ft higher than had been approved by the planning committee

In this October re-submission, the levels information indicated that retaining structures of up to two metres high would be required, to hold up the neighbouring properties if nothing else.

This time Prevatt decided that, “As ensuring accessibility and M4(2)/M4(3) compliance were not included as reasons for the subject condition, such matters are not material considerations in the assessment of the subject application”, and “details on retaining walls are not material to the assessment of the subject application”.

Had Prevatt been got at?

This barely altered application, with inaccurate site boundaries, was pushed through by the council planning department on February 2, along with the other remaining pre-commencement condition relating to tree protection, about which there had also been concerns raised. Planning officials had thus ignored perfectly valid objections and given a green light for the latest demolition job.

Strict rules: but the council’s guidelines, based on national planning law, appear to be ignored by developers, without the planning department taking any action

Yet a week before the planning department formally approved the start of demolition at 158, representatives of the developer had gone door-knocking at adjoining properties to tell the owners that demolition was due to start “immediately”.

In fact, the developer has a legal duty to submit a demolition notice – a Section 80 notice – and method statement to the council at least six weeks before the work was due to start. The developer should by law have given a copy of that to the owners and occupiers of “any building adjacent to the building”.

That notification to the neighbours hadn’t arrived.

Some of those living nearby made repeated attempts to get hold of the legal paperwork, either directly from council officials or through their ward councillors and MP.

Croydon Council’s “private sector housing team” (shown on the authority’s website as the contact point for those wishing to carry out any demolition works) told residents on January 25, “The planning team authorises the notices and we issue them out.”

On February 11, I wrote to Councillor Leila Ben Hassel, the deputy chair of the planning committee which had applied various conditions to the planning application for 158 Purley Downs Road, conditions which the council’s planning team were allowing the developers to ignore, such as Condition 18 on levels.

“What the information provided in order to discharge Condition 18 demonstrated was that (the approved) ‘streetscenes’ were inaccurate and would need to be revised, and that the proposals would not be step-free and that in approving them the council again failed to comply with its Public Sector Equality Duty,” I wrote.

“On behalf of the residents who would be most affected by this particular development, and those who could or would suffer similar detriment in the future if current practices within development management are allowed to continue, I ask that you urgently find the time to review this case.”

I wrote to Councillor Ben Hassel again on February 13, providing her with a copy of what I had sent to Harp and Harp, the Sutton-based architects working for the developers on the scheme.

This included irrefutable evidence to show that the development site as approved by the planning committee relies on pieces of land that the developer does not own.

On message: council director Heather Cheesbrough uses elected councillors to deliver her communications to residents

Later that day, after three weeks of chasing by residents, ward councillors Hale and Yvette Hopley relayed a message from Heather Cheesbrough, the council’s planning director (that’s how it works in Croydon).

“I have spoken to Nick Gracie-Langrick in Environmental Health who is responsible for the S80/81 processes,” Cheesbrough had told the councillors.

“He has informed me that the developer has submitted the S80 Notice and fee on February 7 and Environmental Health responded with the S81 Notice.”

It wasn’t until the following day, February 14, however, that a S80 notice and method statement finally arrived with neighbours, as is required by planning law. The notice was dated January 31 (not February 7, as Cheesbrough had claimed), with the method statement dated February 6. The notice was unsigned.

Does anyone really think that this was actually prepared and submitted by the developer?

On February 16, Councillor Ben Hassel responded, telling me that “disputes over site boundaries are not planning matters but civil matters”, thereby completely missing the point.

The councillor explained that she would need “to do more work on comparing minutes/amended conditions approved at committee with what is now being set out for discharge by the local authority” and that she would get back to me once she had been able to “review original/revised conditions in more detail”.

Harp practice: architects Steven and Kayleigh Harp, whose designs for seven houses appear to exceed the size of the site

More than two months later, we have heard nothing from her.

February 16 saw the start of demolition, with the majority of the house torn down by February 22. That demolition was in breach of planning Condition 8, which required tree protection to be in place, prompting the third complaint to be submitted to planning enforcement.

I suspect that the council’s procedures over demolition is deliberately shambolic. They can’t really be so incompetent, can they? I also suspect that demolition just “happens”, as far as Croydon Council officials are concerned, with or without the planning conditions being met.

While all that had been going on, and while they waited for Councillor Ben Hassel to get back to them, residents had been making their own comparisons of what was approved at committee with what is now being allowed by council planning officials.

Using the existing and proposed levels approved to discharge Condition 18, it was shown that the street elevations relied upon by officers in February 2022 were in fact a fabrication!

While the street elevations presented to committee last year showed the difference in level between neighbouring property 1 North Down and the proposed Block A as being around 2.2metres, according to the levels now approved, that difference would actually be 4.0metres.

What this fabrication has done was to help conceal the lack of subservience of Block B to Block A. In reality, the two ridges of Block B would be around 1.5metres higher than those of Block A.

At committee, Councillor Ben Hassel had been correct – there would be no subservience here, just the opposite in fact.

On March 1, Mayor Jason Perry passed on to neighbours a letter he had received from the head of development management, Nicola Townsend (that’s how it works in Croydon). The letter is dated January 25 – just a day after the developer knocked on the neighbours’ doors.

Getting kinky: objectors found plenty of evidence that the developers’ plans were inaccurate and not what had been approved by councillors on the planning committee

The letter says, “Section 80 notices fall outside the remit of the planning team and are administered by the environmental health team. Yet on that very same day, January 25, an environmental health officer had told residents, “The planning team authorises the notices and we issue them out.”

They can’t both be right.

What the discharge of Condition 18 provided was an opportunity for anyone (including council officials) willing to take a proper look at all the information available, to see that some of the previously approved drawings were inaccurate and that the proposals would not be step-free.

My own objection had concluded: “Time after time, the council has approved development that does not provide the inclusivity required by the adopted development plan and the council has thereby repeatedly failed to comply with its Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) in this regard.

“This needs to stop!”

But it hasn’t stopped. The planners haven’t stopped, and it seems quite obvious that they haven’t been told to stop.

Senior planning official Richard Freeman had advised the planning committee and others watching: “…we have got an existing street scene and we have got a proposed street scene. These are submitted as drawings for approval and if they are inaccurate then that’s something which the developer needs to bear responsibility for…

“Ultimately if the developers have submitted the wrong information that they have got a permission which they can’t implement or significantly wrong information then that’s a risk which they need to run.”

It is now evident, that the developer in this case did submit the wrong information, and that the council’s professional planning officials are now helping them evade that “responsibility” and avoid any such “risk”.

Despite their acceptance of the relevance of our objections, council officials have gone on to discharge key, pre-commencement (including demolition) conditions in the full knowledge that the documents submitted conceal multiple changes to the proposals shown to the planning committee.

Croydon Council staff have thereby regularised what ought to have been unlawful demolition and condoned the implementation of a scheme that they know to be in breach of adopted planning policy and guidance.

Particularly concerning is the continuing disregard for accessibility and inclusivity, as outlined in Policy D5 of the 2021 London Plan.

On the basis of the information provided and approved in the discharge of Condition 18, at least four of the seven houses proposed to be built on the site will not meet access requirements. This is neither inclusive nor sustainable design.

Residents still wait for news from their elected representatives, Councillors Leila Ben-Hassel (Labour) and Lynne Hale (Conservative), about what they have done with the important information they hold and what happened at their meeting with officials.

Meanwhile on site at 158 Purley Downs Road, the works are allowed to continue. That’s how it works in Croydon.

Read more: How the council’s planners help developers dodge conditions
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

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17 Responses to Demolition shows how council’s planners have no ‘red lines’

  1. Don White says:

    When developers here started their demolition by bulldozing 3metre high concrete buildings onto my property (and me), despite pre-planning conditions not having been discharged, I was not informed.

    This was preceded by the removal of their asbestos roofs by people in hazmat suits, whom I discovered when I went down my garden one day. Chunks of this roofing were then thrown into my garden. There was no mention of a Section 80 notice then and I have failed to find reference to one since.

    But Croydon’s Planners have only known about this since it happened two years ago, so I guess they are still struggling to backdate or alter their dates of approval.

  2. Jason Perry promised to sort all this out. In his manifesto he said “I will protect local character and ensure that any new developments respect the local area”. How’s that going?

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    Steve makes a point – The letter says, “Section 80 notices fall outside the remit of the planning team and are administered by the environmental health team. Yet on that very same day, January 25, an environmental health officer had told residents, “The planning team authorises the notices and we issue them out.”

    They can’t both be right.

    Well they are – One decides the other administers and therin lies the actuality of this sorry council and why residents are enraged and Councillors are run rings around.

    Fundamentally Kerswell has made so many cuts there is no corporate responsibility at any level.

    So here is a point for Ms Kerswell, as CEO of the shit show you call an executive administration you are totally and 100% responsible for both Planning and Environmental health. So if you are unable to resolve the issues raised you do not deserve any pay rise at all. If Mr Perry as Executive Mayor is unable to bring you Ms Kersell to task for repeatedly allowing failures then he should resign and go back to his family business and let someone who knows how to lead and manage do so.

    IC is right a serious investigation into the cowboys at that area is well overdue

  4. Wayne says:

    The same Heather Cheesborough that allowed Silverleaf Developments Ltd to submit a planning application that included my land without me knowing?

    The same Heather Cheesborough who – along with Nicola Townsend – confirmed that she accepts backdated letters as correctly served notice?

    The same Heather Cheesborough who claimed not to know that the developers drawings were inaccurate despite it being brought to her attention several times?

    The same Heather Cheesborough who allowed planning reports to be written that made no reference to any of the planning policies (including mandatory policy) that the development failed and which contained statements that were untrue and misled the committee?

    The same Heather Cheesborough whose team withheld documents showing the development breached my privacy?

    The same Heather Cheesborough who made statements in a email to the local councillor that were blatantly untrue?

    If the development at 158 Purley Downs Road includes land belonging to another party then the Council ‘must not’ accept the planning application until correct legal notice (Certificate B) has been served on the owner of that land – it is against the law.

    No doubt Heather Cheesborough will accept a back-dated letter from the developer as she did from Silverleaf Developments Ltd.

    • Ade Nauseam says:

      Heather Cheesborough has been exposed time and time again by Inside Croydon. Perry has no power to get her under control and Kerswell is CEO in name only. She should have left when she was supposed to and salvaged something of her career but like the drowning man she’s dragging Croydon down with her. At least now we have the gaze of Inside Croydon. Great journalism.

  5. Lewis White says:

    It sounds like we need a reform of development control in Planning nationally.

    Clearly, there is a need for accuracy, on all planning application drawings, of land ownership and physical boundaries (typically, in the Croydon context, of the highway, the front, rear and side site boundary, and boundary fences and walls) , and the location of existing buildings on both the development plot and the adjoining properties.

    Ridge heights and lcation of all existing neighbouring buildings as well as the location of existing and proposed buildings on the development site need to be accurately recorded on survey, planning and construction drawings,

    Modern land surveying should easily allow such things to be plotted, without much expense, on all drawings.

    I think that an independent land surveyor needs to be appointed, just as for a Party Wall award, and paid for by the developer. The law needs to insist that there is a basis of fact about all proposals, and give adjoining owners a legal safeguard guaranteeing accuracy.

    The land surveyor would be obliged to sign off the survey as accurate.

    With regard to the project construction drawings, there needs to be a mechanism for ensuring that what is submitted for planning actually gets built.

    It seems that there needs to be a key single drawing which might be called existing line and levels, and proposed line, land levels and ridge levels, which after a certain stage, would not be modifiable without some significant additional fee.

    This drawing would give a baseline drawing against which the “as built” construction is always measurable.

    The developer–a named senior individual- would have to guarantee that the project will be laid out in accordance with the approved planning drawings and on the basis of the Land survey.

    The Chief Planning Officer would have to sign off the key proposals drawings and certify that the development is given permission on the basis of the key approved drawings.

    The costs of enforcement by the council in cases of infringement should be payable by the developer.

    This would tie in the people to the drawings and approval.
    They would all be beholden to the law to get it accurate. They would–if things went wrong–be suable.

    Maybe we should have a system requiring deposit of a bond of a significant amount, which would be rapayable only on satisfactory completion of the project in accordance with the drawings.

    If one can’t trust the Council to enforce planning properly, there is a need for reform.
    Morals and ethics are the foundation for everything. The Council also needs to staff enforcement properly.

    Falsification of planning drawings, and building things bigger and higher and nearer to adjacent buildings and the highway than approved– like personal corruption- stinks, and should be subject to serious legal consequences.

    • Gordon Thompson says:

      I sit on a conservation area advisory panel. My colleagues are often appalled at the low standard of plans and drawings lodged. In addition, the developer seems to have no conception of the wider context and not to be interested in any land outside its own plot. Given the Council’s addiction to building/intensification as an end, what hope of sensible development? Precious little, I would suggest!

      • ” …. the developer seems to have no conception of the wider context and not to be interested in any land outside its own plot. …”

        Unfortunately Gordon, it is not only the developer that’s not interested!

        When we complained that the development at 12 The Ridge Way was higher than approved in relation to the neighbouring property (creating dreadful overlooking issues), we were as delighted as we were surprised when Planning Enforcement Officer John Penn MSc told us that an ‘independent’ survey was to be commissioned by the developer.

        Mr Penn later relayed the news that “the appointed surveyors are adamant that the current works at this stage are correct … as regards the height”.

        HOWEVER, Mr Penn went on to tell us that “The two properties, either side are not surveyed by the developer and are a “representation” about what is there. The developer only has to submit accurate plans for what is being constructed inside the red lines of the submitted site plan, which in this case is the curtilage of number 12”.

        In the end I arranged my own survey (at a cost of £900), which showed that the approved streetscenes were a fabrication, just like those at 158 Purley Downs Road!

        The development at no.12 was in fact almost 1.5 metres higher (in relation to no.10) than was approved when planning permission was granted. And yet works were allowed to continue … just like at 158.

        I am quite sure that these are not the only examples of fabrication that officers have ‘missed’ on their way to recommending approvals.

        • Gordon Thompson says:

          QED to what I was saying!

          Raise these matters and you will be replied to in such illogical terms as “So you don’t want development/ houses built?” or the like.

          How did we get here? Where are we going next?

          • “How did we get here? Where are we going next?”

            Perhaps those are questions (particularly the last one) that should be put to our ‘local’ Conservatives and/or MP, so that they can pass them on to whoever it is that pulls their strings.

            In September 2020, with Labour in charge, Cllr Lynne Hale told residents that she didn’t like to complain about officers because they were ‘frightened of losing their jobs’.

            So what’s holding the Statutory Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Homes back now do you think?

        • Heather says:

          You’re absolutely right, it’s happening just up the road from 158, on North Downs! The house being built there is shown on all plans as being built in line with the neighbouring house. In reality it’s being built a metre further forward.

          In any other line of work, submitting misleading drawings would be fraud. Missing obvious errors in planning documents would get you the sack for incompetence. Elected representatives are as useful as a chocolate teapot. What are residents to do?!

  6. David says:

    Nicola Townsend and Heather Cheesborough have been an absolute disaster for Croydon. No other planners in the country have their reputation. How do they get away with it? I don’t believe anything Perry says. There’s been enough evidence of their transgressions and he’s done nothing.

  7. Gordon Thompson says:

    “Dunno, Steve” must be the honest answer. All I know is that it stinks.

    The MP will usually trot out the usual spiel (“It’s all the Tories’ fault”), as well.

    Are we really mature, independently-minded or sensible enough for democracy when all we can do is fall for all the same old partisan contests in porkies and promises and elect the same folk to take our money and be in charge of us? I was an anarchist, in an earlier incarnation, and I may have been right.

    How could it be worse?

  8. John Kohl says:

    Hello, can anyone help please?

    There is a 2006(?) Croydon planning document called “Croydon Council Designing for Community Safety Supplementary Planning Document No. 3.” Does anyone know if this document is still relevant now that the Council’s 2019 document “Suburban Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document” was revoked in July 2022?

    Sorry, what, precisely, is supposed be taken into consideration is as clear as treacle to me.

    Thank you!

  9. I can see nothing on the Council’s website to suggest that SPD3 (Designing for Community Safety) has been withdrawn, so I would say that it SHOULD be AT LEAST as relevant now as it was before SPD2 (Suburban Design Guide) was revoked …

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