Planners’ unconditional love for developers is unchanged

Controls freaked: council planning officials have 22 conditions linked to the development at Arkwright Road, without any guarantee of any of them being fulfilled

One of the arguments put forward for a change to a directly elected mayor was that they would be able to end the questionable practices of the council planning department. But as STEVE WHITESIDE explains, strategic ignorance and intellectual dishonesty continues under Mayor Jason Perry

In June 2020, Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, wrote to me saying: “The current planning situation in Croydon is enormously frustrating: it feels undemocratic and unfair and I strongly disapprove of this Labour administration’s approach.

“Conservative councillors and residents as well as myself all regularly lodge material policy-based objections as well as raising issues with defective or inaccurate officer reports. However, they are all ignored by Labour who control the planning process and the planning committees.”

“A Directly Elected Executive Mayor will have control of the planning department, so could stop the poor report issue… This is why I am pushing a DEM, to fully address the issues you are raising.”

In another letter, Philp has said, “Residents feel strongly that the whole planning system is biased against them with officers [by which he means council staff] delivering the reports which are expected of them by their council employers”.

In May 2022, Philp got his wish, an elected mayor in the form of Jason Perry, a fellow Conservative. One year since the election of Croydon’s first democratically elected mayor, are all “material policy-based objections” now fully and properly considered? And has that “poor report issue” been addressed?

More applications are being refused, that’s true, with Conservative councillor Michael Neal now chairing the 5-5, Conservative and Labour split planning committee.

But from what can be seen in at least one planning department report heading for the  committee this week, things are still far from being “right” with how council staff manage certain planning applications.

Reduce conditions: Pete Smith made a promise in 2018

In December 2018, Pete Smith, the then head of development management, sent a round-robin letter to the borough’s developers, applicants and agents.

“We acknowledge that the Government is very keen to reduce reliance on the use of planning conditions, with a firm expectation that full details need to be submitted for approval at the planning application stage. The overall objective is to render our processes more transparent whilst at the same time reduce reliance on the use of planning conditions.”

Later in his letter, Smith wrote, “The NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework] does indeed advise that conditions attached to grants of planning permission should be kept to a minimum… developers are required to provide sufficient detail (at planning application stage) to ensure compliance with the various planning policies that underpin consideration of the related details (for example, design and external materials, refuse storage, landscaping, privacy mitigation, surface treatment, boundary treatment, sustainable drainage).

“These details need to be properly worked up at application stage… to ensure the appropriate level of detail is provided (rather that [sic] falling back on the imposition of planning conditions).” Our italics.

‘Waste of time’: deputy mayor Lynne Hale

That was almost five years ago.

Mayor Perry’s deputy, Lynne Hale, who is now the council cabinet member for housing, has, more than once, criticised officials for the overuse and ineffectiveness of planning conditions. When addressing the planning committee meeting on July 29, 2021, for instance, Hale described conditions recommended in the case of 158 Purley Downs Road as “a waste of time”.

At the time, she said, “We have seen over and over again the weakness of this, with developers, having secured the consent they wanted, whittle away at the conditions, which at the time of decision the council say are vital for consent to be given, but appear to become just discussion items as time goes by.”

In the saga of 158 Purley Downs Road, as we have outlined previously, Councillor Hale has been proven to be extraordinarily accurate in her prediction.

Accurate prediction: what Lynne Hale was saying about the planning department in 2021, when Labour was in power. Now she is in charge, nothing has changed

Back in 2018, when Pete Smith was writing his letter promising to abandon all the fiddly conditions in favour of a more transparent system, it was clear that even then the council’s planning decisions were dependent upon too many conditions.

At this week’s committee, the council planner’s report on application 22/04130/FUL (34, 34A and 34B Arkwright Road, Sanderstead), recommends 22 conditions and 10 “informatives”. There could yet be more.

Contrary to the expectations of government, and even their old boss Pete Smith, Croydon’s planning officials persist in deferring decisions on almost all of the detail, so that they can be agreed (or not) later, by them, and with no need to pay any attention to representations from the public.

Croydon’s officials clearly remain intent on hiding as much as they possibly can, for as long as they possibly can. A year into the bright new world of having an elected mayor, and their “council employers” seem intent on doing nothing at all to stop that.

Given the role Jason Perry was playing in the sickeningly “choreographed” planning committees from 2017 onwards, this really should come as no surprise.

The Arkwright Road application was submitted and validated in October 2022, with further documents added to the planning portal this February and April.

I have lodged four objections, in November 2022 and February, March and April 2023.

In the toilet: objections to the application demonstrated that the proposed build would not be suitable for wheelchair users. The council planners say that it is

My objections include clear-cut, factual evidence, showing that the proposals as to be presented to the planning committee do not comply with several policies within the council’s agreed development plan.

The planning committee must make its decision based on the application before them, and not on what might be proposed or built sometime in the future.

Yet in this case, the “full details” that the government expects to be submitted at the planning application stage are largely missing. These details should have been submitted six months ago.

All that the planning committee is being asked to approve is the “principle” of a development with this number of houses, of this size and shape, in this layout, and on this site.

Almost all the essential details of the development are set to be provided later, as part of discharge of conditions which will be decided by planning officials alone. As part of this “delegated” decision-making process, any areas in which the applicant’s plans do not meet with current planning policy can be conveniently ignored, while planning enforcement looks the other way.

Planning staff rely on strategic ignorance and intellectual dishonesty to construct their report. There are a good number of examples, but I will concentrate on just three here: accessibility/inclusivity, landscaping and street scene.

Stepping up: the application’s own drawings show ‘step-free’ access homes with… steps

With regard to accessibility/inclusivity, my objection submitted in November said: “According to 6.2 (“disabled considerations”) of the Planning, Design and Access Statement, “All units will be M4(2) compliant… This satisfies policies D5 and D7 of the London Plan 2021”.

There are no M4(3) units proposed! Not one of the proposed units is large enough to be a wheelchair-accessible or wheelchair-adaptable dwelling.

“For M4(3) compliance, there would also need to be a wheelchair-adaptable WC/cloakroom (1.65×2.20m approx) and space dedicated for wheelchair storage and transfer close to the front door, but none of the proposed dwellings are shown to include such facilities. The plans would also need to show that the furniture, access and activity space requirements relating to the declared level of occupancy and the furniture schedule set out in Approved Document Part M could be accommodated. But they don’t.

“To make matters worse, as shown the internal layouts do not in fact even meet the requirements of Building Regulations M4(2)”.

In my objection submitted in March, I reminded the case officer of what it actually says in the London Plan with regard to “disabled considerations”.

“Inclusive design is indivisible from good design. It is therefore essential to consider inclusive design and the development’s contribution to the creation of inclusive neighbourhoods at the earliest possible stage in the development.”

I also raised the issue of step-free access. Once again, an applicant has provided inadequate detail with regard to existing and proposed levels, but once again the images provided indicate steps up to the main entrances.

Yet in the report going to committee this week, at para 8.28, the officials falsely claims, “1 dwelling would be built to M4(3) accessible standards with the remaining dwellings built to M4(2) standard”.

There is absolutely no justification for this. I’ve asked the case officer whether there has (ever) been anything submitted that shows this. I’ve had no response so far.

The report is silent with regard to step-free access.

The report lists “Development in accordance with accessible homes requirements M4(3) and M4(2)” as a “Prior to above ground works” condition.

So rather than all these details being looked at and agreed by the committee, they would (again) only need be agreed when construction is well underway. Or never.

Dog’s dinner: the access roadway, and street scene off site, are a mess. But Croydon’s planners are silent on the matter

In the circumstances, I cannot see how any reasonable person could suggest that officers have considered inclusive design at the earliest possible stage in this development.

This is not what is expected by the government, or the Mayor of London, or by residents who need a wheelchair-friendly home for themselves or relatives, or may need one in the future.

With regard to landscaping, as part of my objection in March, I reminded the case officer of what it says within and in the guidance beneath London Plan Policy D4 (Delivering good design):

“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.”

Yet the report lists “Landscaping in accordance with plans including specification of mature trees to be planted on the rear boundary, details of retaining wall” as another “Prior to above ground works” condition.

So rather than all these details being looked at and agreed by the committee, they would also only need to be assessed when the development is already under construction. When foundations have been laid, drainage installed and spaces left for planting (especially trees) has been limited.

With regard to the design of what would be a dog’s dinner of a much-enlarged, shared access from Arkwright Road, my objection in November 2022, included the following: “We need to see the details and/or a CGI of this now, so that we are all fully informed and in a position to properly consider the likely implications.

“The junction proposed would… require significant changes to the ‘central island’ and the details of those highway alterations should be submitted now, so that their visual impact on the area can also be properly considered.”

In March, my objection included: “The new access/junction would have a significant impact on the streetscene and would necessitate the further loss of grass verge. Full details of hard and soft landscape should be provided now, so that they can be properly assessed at this stage, by the appropriate officers. This should include information on paving, retaining structures and lighting.”

I have asked the case officer if there has been anything submitted yet that shows this. But again, I’ve received no reply.

The report makes no comment about the design of these new access arrangements or about the likely impact they would have on the streetscene.

From the scant details that have been made available, if it is to be safe for all users, it is inevitable that the scale of engineering works required and the extent of additional hard surfacing, road markings, signs and lighting will lead to a significant change to the street scene.

Which may explain why no CGI has been provided: it certainly isn’t going to be pretty.

At paragraph 8.27, the report states that, “All dwellings would meet or exceed internal space standards.” This, too, is not true.

London Plan Policy D6(F8) requires that floor-to-ceiling heights are a minimum of 2500 for 75% of the gross internal area (GIA). But on the submitted sections, the ground and first floor ceiling heights are noted or scale 2400 or less.

Untrue: claims made about the applications by the planning official are blatantly untrue

So, judging by this, the “highly professional” officials working in Heather Cheesbrough’s development management team have not changed their bad old habits since the arrival of Mayor Jason Perry.

Planning staff are again asking that the committee trusts them to ensure everything’ gets sorted, hopefully, some point in the future.

As the residents know all too well, and as councillors on the planning committee must surely realise, there have been too many applications approved where their trust has been cynically abused by developer-friendly officials.

The council’s planners and some councillors have helped turn its planning procedures into a farce, just one that not at all funny.

Listed among the objectors to the proposals for Arkwright Road in the report going before the planning committee is MP Chris Philp, as well as Yvette Hopley, the ward councillor colleague of Lynne Hale. The very same people who described granting planning permission with conditions as “a waste of time”, and who promised it would all change under a directly elected mayor.

I have seen nothing since May 2022 to persuade me that anything has really changed in the way applications are handled by the council’s planning department.

It remains to be seen on Thursday whether committee members might this time dare ask any of the questions that they should. Starting with: “Where are all the details?”

Or will they simply continue to put their trust in the same “professionals” who have pulled this same stunt so many times in the past?

Read more: Key document withheld from planning scrutiny for 21 months
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

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9 Responses to Planners’ unconditional love for developers is unchanged

  1. Councillor Jeet Bains is the Cabinet Member for Planning and Regeneration. Why isn’t he stopping this nonsense? What is he doing to earn the £27,503 we pay him to take on that responsibility? That’s on top of the £11,961 he gets for representing the good people of Addiscombe East.

  2. Roy Don says:

    I wait with baited breath to see whether all those skyscrapers up for planning permission get approved by the planning department or whether they are just as helpful as the previous lot.

  3. John Dent says:

    Let’s cut to the quick.

    SPD2 has gone and greedy developers can now be told to fuck-off.

    And these fuck-off’s are being upheld by the planning inspectors when refusals go to appeal – all that’s good.

    The other structural problem is the planning department itself. It’s not able to transition from it’s pathological disdain for residents. It’s too deep and too longstanding.

    The cause of that is the author of the original hugely damaging planning document, SPD2, the head of planning, Heather Cheesbrough.

    Every piece of recent greedy, substandard, poorly designed, crappy, overdevelopment you see in Croydon has happened on her watch. And the culture of the planning department is set by her.

    I can’t see any meaningful planning change if she is still physically sitting on the department.

    Time for Perry to grow some big balls and address the real planning issues; less of his poncy window dressing.

    • SallyM says:

      Heather Cheesborough should have gone years ago. She’s an embarrassment to the Borough. I assume she sticks around because no one else will employ her. Only Katherine Kerswell was dumb enough to let her withdraw her resignation.

  4. “… The cause of that is the author of the original hugely damaging planning document, SPD2, the head of planning, Heather Cheesbrough …”

    But from what we can see in the article below, I don’t think we should give ALL the ‘credit’ to Ms Cheesbrough. This was obviously a team effort, including councillors.

    Paul Scott is quoted as saying:
    “It was very much a joint effort and the two teams (placemaking and policy) worked very closely, holding workshops to discuss the plan …
    A lot of people don’t engage with the planning system and we hope that they will appreciate the difference this document has made.”

    Oh, we sure do … and maybe that’s one reason why Scott’s no longer a councillor!

    Steve Dennington also told us:
    “The guidance is about how you can achieve good design, but it is a design guide, not a design code. … It is all about placemaking rather than cramming homes in.”.

    You just have to laugh, even though it’s really not at all funny.

    Unlike Scott (and Guy Rochez), Dennington is still there, helping ‘placemake’ (and things). So keep a close eye on what comes out of that Local Plan Review.

  5. Lewis White says:

    At the risk of rage from some fellow readers, I have to say that in my view, the concept of increasing density is not automatically “a bad concept”. It is how it is worked out on each site. The results can be good, bad and disastrous.
    To not coin a phrase, “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it”.

    If we stuck with everything just as it is already, all we would be doing is to accept blindly the suburban development of speculator developers and builders in most areas of the borough, varying from Victorian times to the interwar period and all decades since. Good and bad. Green and grey. Some, really grey.

    I want to see renewal and a better environment, not freezing everything “as was and is”.

    I do understand the reality of developments that dwarf their neighbours, but what if the neighbouring properties are tiny, and on big plots that could take a resasonable amount of development mass? What about when the existing properties are much less dense that the general context development? .

    I understand the concept of building lines, both front and back. Generally, the more expensive the houses, the bigger the front gardens and the greater the distance from back of footway to the frontage of the buildings.

    But I have to admit that buiding lines can be terriby boring, and end up with monotonous streets. Some variation must be OK under certain circumstances, but when new buildings are built many metres further forward than the existing, there are consequences, such as blocked light, and crowded . It needs to be handled sensitively, on a site by site , contextual basis, but the term “context” should mean the wider area, as well as “next door”, in my considered opinion.

    A new bigger building at the bottom of a sloping street would not dominate the smaller buildings in the hilly street above. The same building at the top of the hill, rising well above the row of houses might well be a bully-boy of a building, dominating all the ones downhill. This is really pwertinent to huge areas of our hilly borough.

    I wonder if Steve, who I know was once a Town Planning officer at Croydon, has suggestions about how we can acheive a regenerated Croydon , with approprate densification, but without “Town Cramming”, many disgraceful examples of which he has shed light upon, in articles in Inside Croydon?

    It would be a challenge to write a new policy, whether document or design guide, but surely would not be impossible?

    I think it should be attempted as a matter of urgency.
    Bad development is –almost–for ever. The new Local Plan needs to have a well-worked out policy on density and mass.

  6. “… a new policy … about how we can achieve a regenerated Croydon … without “Town Cramming”.

    There are many policies within the existing development plan, that IF PROPERLY APPLIED would, in my view go a considerable way to prevent “town cramming”.

    My objections, complaints and articles over the past five years, have in the main aimed to demonstrate how Croydon’s planners have repeatedly misinterpreted or plain ignored those policies or (when they thought they might not get away with that), expressly (and dishonestly) stated that they actually don’t exist.

    In the main, I have steered clear of the ‘subjective’ matters of ‘character of the area’ and (to a lesser extent) impact on adjoining occupiers. I have concentrated on clearly identifiable and ‘measurable’ breach of policy and guidance within submissions and the way in which officer reports have ‘hidden’ those breaches.

    The way in which Croydon’s “town planning officers” hide any/all non-compliant detail behind recommended planning conditions is contrary to the guidance within the adopted development plan AND Government expectation AND the interests of existing residents AND sustainability.

    This article was meant as a call to ALL our elected representatives to finally put a stop to this misconduct. They DO have a voice in this and it’s long past time they used it.

  7. Wayne says:

    If you want to submit a planning application that includes someone else’s land – no problem. You don’t need to consult them or serve a Certificate B (as required by law) as Heather Cheesborough and Nicola Townsend will accept backdated letters after the application has been submitted as they did for Silverleaf Developments Ltd.

    If the development fails local, national and mandatory policy, no problem as the planners will make no reference to them in the planning report.

    If visualisations show that a neighbour will lose their privacy (including to their bathrooms and bedrooms) in breach of policy and the Human Rights Act, no problem, the planners will withhold the visualisations from the public.

    If residents in the 3 minutes they are given at the Planning Committee, list the polices that a development fails – again no problem. The Chair will tell Councillors to vote in favour of the development, and use their the casting vote to push it through as Chris Clark did on a development that was ultimately turned down – for failing policy. And Ross Gentry will mislead the Committee by presenting ‘facts’ that are without basis.

    If the developer uses images that are inaccurate – no problem – the planners will continue to use them in their report and Heather Cheesborough will claim she didn’t know the images were inaccurate despite it being brought to her attention multiple times.

    Heather Cheesborough and Nicola Townsend won’t deign to respond to residents’ questions so residents are forced to submit Freedom of Information Requests which also go ignored. In 2020, 149 FOIs related to planning were made but only 1 was responded to within the legal time limit. In 2021, 164 FOIs were made and only 16 responded to within the legal time limit. In 2022, 30 of the 138 were responded to within the legal time limit.

    What Heather Cheesborough, Nicola Townsend, Ross Gentry, Chris Clark (and Paul Scott) have done goes beyond incompetence and even misconduct. The impact of their actions (perhaps intentionally), removes the right for public participation – the right of involvement and for the voices of people directly affected by their decisions to be heard.

    Public participation is critical in a democracy and it has been eroded to an extraordinary extent. As Steve Whiteside and IC have shown time and time again, policies, law, and process designed to protect residents are waived.

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