Central Planning?

By - Tuesday 23rd July, 2013

Stephen Black asks how far Croydon Council will go to defend the town’s future and special character

‘picturesquely varied roof-lines with deep eaves’

Last month I wrote an article for the Citizen called ‘Croydon, the unique city?’. It drew conclusions about the future of Croydon from my unschooled observations of London over the last thirty years.

I argued that the nature of Croydon’s housing stock determined its relative position in the pecking order; and that good residential stock a short walk from a high street was one of my prerequisites for what might be call ‘Good Urban Living’.

One part of the borough which is blessed with several streets of decent residential housing right in the centre is Coulsdon.

Edward Road, Victoria Road, Station Approach, and Railway Terrace contain a hundred or so late-Victorian and Edwardian residential properties of real merit. They are not huge villas; but Station Approach, for instance, is praised in the London South volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England for its ‘picturesquely varied roof-lines with deep eaves’, and Croydon Council has classified the street as a ‘Local Area of Special Character’.

The fabric of this important part of the town centre is under threat

These fine houses are true town centre dwellings. There’s no need for a car to fetch the groceries or post a letter; buses are to hand (even in the middle of the night) and a five-minute walk in either direction gets you to Coulsdon Town or Coulsdon South, which together offer seven trains an hour off-peak direct to London Bridge.

So by my own ad hoc criteria (see my earlier article) these streets constitute the kind of place where a vibrant mixed community – which I believe is vital to good living in London – could flourish. Central Coulsdon has the potential to develop into a place where more people can enjoy a good life.

So why am I writing this paean to a few roads in the centre of Coulsdon? Well, because the fabric of this important part of the town centre is under threat.

If we’re serious about getting people back living in our town centres, our elected representatives need to make some robust decisions about how best to achieve this

This Thursday evening, 25th July, Croydon Planning Officers will recommend to the Council Planning Committee the approval of planning application 13/01221/P. The application, turned down by the Planning Inspectorate last year on the grounds of noise, is to turn the former offices of a veterinary suppliers at the end of the entirely residential cul-de-sac of Edward Road into a MOT testing station and workshop, requiring a change of use from B1/B8 (offices, light industry & warehouse) to mechanical repair, servicing & MOT testing to motor vehicles, B2 General Industrial Use.

‘General Industrial Use’ would occur cheek-by-jowl with residents in the heart of the town centre, creating noise nuisance and danger from the expected volume of vehicles servicing the site – in addition to the sound of pneumatic tools and diesel engines being ‘accelerated up to governed speed’ for the MOT smoke test reverberating off the buildings. An entirely irrelevant noise assessment at a garage in rural Witley has been submitted by the appellant. He claims that his operatives will work with the garage doors closed to mitigate the noise nuisance. ‘Yeah, right’, some might say and, indeed, local garage owners have remarked that their doors are closed only in the very coldest of weather. Despite these facts, approval is likely.

Here is not the place to argue the pros and cons of this particular planning application; however, I believe it raises issues that affect town centre planning generally. It raises the question of whether we’re serious about getting people back living in our town centres. If we are, our elected representatives need to make some robust decisions about how best to achieve this. Placing an industrial unit in an entirely residential area is not a step in the right direction.

It sets an unhelpful precedent that could be used to support other inappropriate planning decisions. The change of use is wrong, not just for the residents of Edward and Victoria Roads, Station Approach and Railway Terrace, but for all of us. There seems a reluctance to make the difficult decisions needed to ensure the success of our town centres.

Why would the council approve a planning application that is likely to drive residents out of the town centre?

Our relationship with the car needs to be re-negotiated. It’s not a coincidence, I feel, that the business being favoured in this case operates in the motor trade. But a reduction in car travel would do all of us good.

The Coalition’s recent idea to extend free bus travel to every child in the country is at least partly motivated by a desire to discourage parents from shipping their children around, inefficiently clogging-up roads when they should be using their feet and the bus.

One of Coulsdon’s problems is that so much of its population live an uncomfortable (and usually hilly) walk away and so car use is high. Coulsdon Neighbourhood Partnership meetings (of blessed memory) were notable for their seemingly endless debates about matters related to car parking. Encouraging more people to live in the town centre would shift the debate to more forward-looking matters. Part of the rationale of the Coulsdon Relief Road was to take traffic out of the town centre, so how can placing a business – whose existence depends on driving up and down a town centre cul-de-sac – make any sense?

Just round the corner from Edward Road, the Pinewood site is being transformed into residential accommodation, and there are other residential accommodations under construction in central Coulsdon. Why would the council approve a planning application that is likely to drive (sic) residents out of the town centre?

I have always believed that Town Planning has a vital role if we are going to improve the town environment and the quality of lives for residents. If this application 13/01221/P is approved on Thursday, it will do just the opposite. And it will call into question how seriously and sympathetically Croydon Council take the future development of the borough and its people.

Stephen Black

Stephen Black

Stephen arrived in Croydon from Nottingham, via Portsmouth, Leeds and north London. He’s taught English in secondary schools since 1990, after enjoying five years in the central London book trade during which he glimpsed the last throes of a Golden Age and shared a very small lift with Michael Foot (having joined the Labour Party under his predecessor) where they discussed Maynard Mack’s biography of Alexander Pope.

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  • Theo Clifford

    So the best way to regenerate town centres is to enforce a strict planning regime? To tell people who want to build things and start businesses that they’re not allowed to? To keep the area as tiny townhouses that don’t provide the density a town centre needs to thrive?


  • Stephen Black

    Thanks for your response to my piece, Theo. No, I don’t believe ‘the man in Taberner House really does know better’; and if my article appears to say that, I must apologise. My thinking was that in the light of the fact that the borough has (in my opinion – see my ‘Croydon, the unique city?’ article) far too little good quality housing stock in its district centres, it would be perverse to give permission for a business that would harm the quality of life of town centre residents, driving out residents and adding little or nothing to the town’s commerce (in this case, I believe there are at least nine MOT testing centres in the area). Like you, I think a problem we have in this country is that our housing is often low-density – though Victorian terraces are not the worst offenders. I’d like to see a mix of good quality old and new housing in our district centres: such housing would provide footfall for high street businesses and bring economic growth back into places like Coulsdon.