Croydon Council struggles to defend its Local Plan

By - Tuesday 30th May, 2017

We seek to hold our council to account over planning decisions

Unless I have interpreted the proceedings at the Croydon Local Plan Public Hearing wrongly, council officers are struggling to defend large sections of the proposed revisions to the Local Plan in terms of soundness, sustainability, evidence and effectiveness. These are the four main criteria upon which inspector Paul Clark will judge the plan.

Paul Clark has decided to run the hearing sessions on themes, so several people, including the Conservative councillors group led by Jason Parry, its planning spokesperson, residents’ associations, and I, on behalf of Croydon Trades Union Council and the Norbury Residents’ Association’s Joint Planning Committee, have attended several sessions.

We have been trying to hold the council to account, especially over the way in which it dismissed large numbers of recommendations for changes without acknowledging that they encapsulated important issues that need to be addressed in other ways. While some of the (very few) modifications they did make in response to the consultation in the autumn of 2015 were welcome, others appear to be directly responsible for some of the weaknesses in the council’s case, because the evidence base does not match the new conclusions.

The proposed Purley high rise could set a dangerous precedent

Because of the multi-session attendance by residents associations, it has become apparent that there is considerable common concern across the borough about the dangers that growth required to meeting housing targets will damage the local characteristics of different parts of the borough. The Plan is supposed to protect these characteristics. The same problems are being experienced in the town centres over to the strains on infrastructure (transport, services), car parking, multi-occupied houses, the conversion of family homes and the threat to green spaces. One example is the Purley tower, (a proposed sixteen storey building at Purley Cross) which if approved by the council, could become a dangerous precedent for inappropriate towers in other district centres.

The other aspect of attending the sessions is that the easy dismissal of residents’ concerns in the South as ‘nimbys’ is unfounded. Their associations made it clear that they were not against growth, but it has to be is tune with the characteristics of their local areas with all the necessary supporting infrastructure.

The Conservative councillors have been very careful not to be party political, to address the concerns from the communities they represent and tp support the residents’ associations’ presentations. They have made it clear that they have reservations about the way in which market forces can change areas with unwanted and inappropriate developments. They clearly see the role of the plan as modifying market forces. That means there is no fundamental party political difference about that role. The difference is about the detail around the four tests the inspector has to make judgements on.

The plan must be robust to stand up to developers

Apart from cabinet member Alison Butler introducing the council’s case, stressing the vision of the plan and the importance of the Growth Zone agreement with the Government to deliver it, Labour councillors have been noticeable by their absence at any session, not even sitting in the public gallery to get a feel for how the hearing was going. That is, until Andrew Pelling (Waddon ward) attended the last session of the week on Thursday and spoke about the gypsy and traveller site issues.

I feel sorry for the council officers led by Steve Dennington. The inspector has been very forensic in his examination, which has required them to agree to provide a lot of evidence to support sections of the plan, as well as making it clear to them which aspects he regards as weak and ambiguous. They are part of middle management and clearly do not have much freedom to agree modifications. It has been particularly noticeable that they are more keen to discuss with developers’ representatives making changes than they have been to discuss with representatives of residents’ associations. I assume that on most issues they have to consult higher up the management structure to find out whether modifications can be suggested to the inspector.

I have tried to argue that the Plan needs to be robust to stand up to the demands of developers and builders, which are likely to be to reduce affordable flats provision, to allow building on the Green Belt and to weaken the protection of office and other employment sites. Similarly, robustness is needed with the representatives of take-away food outlets and bookmakers to reduce the proposed limits on their concentration of premises in shopping parades.

I have noticed there is no written record of the proceedings

Hyde Housing Association found itself having to argue for some relaxation of the plan, which has led me to suggest that registered social landlords be treated differently in it from private developers. Their role is to provide affordable housing, and they need to be helped to develop small sites. They could also buy houses from elderly owner occupiers who wish to downsize, and offer them housing in small units in the same locality so they can keep their social and family network connections. The lack of recognition for the need to assist elderly owners in the plan had been drawn attention to by Charles King of East Coulsdon Residents’ Association.

The inspector has been very willing to let people into the public gallery who had not pre-notified that they wished to take part. Several important points have been made as a result. There are two procedural matters of concern. There appears to be no written record of the proceedings. This means those taking part either have to make very detailed careful notes (as the inspector is doing), but also do not have time to give considered responses to what the council is saying. There is also no final session which allows people to offer the inspector their final assessment of the overall views about the four tests across the themes or to clarify the next steps in the plan process, or to allow the council to publicly up-date on the actions it agreed to undertake and outline any other modifications it wants to suggest.

The inspector is very open to continuing to receive, via his efficient and helpful programme officer Chris Banks, further representations in writing after the end of the formal sessions. It would probably be best if that was done before the end of June as he hopes to finalise and present his report in early August.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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