Croydon’s sustainability challenge

By - Tuesday 21st August, 2018

How can Croydon ensure that the pressure of rapid change does not override sustainable development?

Photo public domain.

The Croydon Constructing Excellence Club recently discussed ‘sustainability’ in Croydon. The organisation is open to non-members to attend. But interestingly, when this topic was raised, there were no speakers expressing the different perspectives of residents and community organisations.

‘Sustainability’ was also a key issue in the debate on the new Croydon Local Plan. It is more than just about construction of new buildings: it is also about jobs, the green environment and biodiversity, resource use and wellbeing. The concept of sustainable development is about integrating social, economic and environmental factors. In planning, there are inevitably conflicts between its different aspects. The Local Plan is supposed to be a key tool to moderate these conflicts.

Major challenges have faced Croydon Council and the different types of communities (for example communities of place, of ethnicity, of shared interests and of faith) since the recession in 2008. These challenges are also key impediments to achieving sustainability. They are:

  • the estimated increase in population
  • the housing shortage
  • increasing levels of deprivation
  • the loss of jobs in the borough available to local residents
  • the increasing stresses being experienced in many neighbourhoods undergoing a fast rate of change, and reaching higher densities of population.
The Local Plan increases emphasis on Croydon’s districts

The recently published figures on housing approvals and completions in the last three financial years show that of 8,699 approvals, only 4.9% are for so-called ‘affordable’ housing and 2.1% for social rent. Of the 1,848 completions, only 77 were ‘affordable’ and 23 were for social rent. With growing social deprivation in Croydon, this is not proof of sustainability.

A council review for the Local Plan preparation in 2014 contained recognition of some of the challenges, but did not adequately address the mounting difficulties:

  • the anticipated further cuts in council expenditure required by national government
  • the further loss of owner-occupation housing (other than in new blocks) and its takeover into the private rented sector
  • the decisions taken by employers as to whether to move into or out of the borough
  • the decisions of property developers seeking to maximise profit, regardless of whether their developments contribute to meeting the borough’s needs
  • the increasing ‘dormitory’ trend, in which many residents in work do it outside borough boundaries
  • the lack of an alternative plan if the Westfield/Hammerson development does not take place or is late in completion
  • the absence of any reference to the role and potential contribution of the community and voluntary sector.

While there is a need for overall borough-wide policies, the challenge of applying them differs not only from ward to ward but often between the different neighbourhoods in each ward. The council’s 2014 Growth Plan recognised the need for more emphasis on the districts and local centres and this is enshrined in the new Local Plan.

Meaningful community engagement is lacking in Croydon

A key issue in relation to new developments is their impact on the surrounding area and the need to evaluate what these may mean in the process of drawing up plans. For very large schemes, this means a high level of sophisticated and meaningful community engagement. This has been sadly lacking in Croydon. It is also important to learn lessons from each exercise to assist future ones. If this does not happen, then each scheme is dealt with in isolation, and this does not help sustainability.

This can be countered by involving local residents and businesses and their organisations in planning and decision-making, in order to meet their needs and aspirations in the light of the differing circumstances in each area.

In a debate I facilitated for the British Urban Regeneration Association’s Sustainable Development Forum in the early 2000s, I drew attention to the criticism of the bigger type of regeneration schemes that affect town centres. Their benefits are mainly for incomers into an area, without insignificant benefits for existing residents in neighbouring disadvantaged areas. The council does not appear to have undertaken any analysis to show how the big new town centre schemes have impacted on existing residents in neighbouring disadvantaged areas.

The vision set out by the Local Plan is worthy, but what will be its outcome?

The obsession with meeting centrally and regionally imposed housing targets distorts the integration of the different aspects of sustainability and increases conflict. It is unfortunate that the inspector found that the limited modifications proposed by the council were acceptable enough for him to approve the Local Plan, despite its inherent weakness in terms of ensuring effective moderation and mediation during conflict.

The Residents’ Associations at the Local Plan examination hearings voiced concerns about how practical decision-making departs from existing policies and feared that that would continue once the revised plan was adopted. While the vision behind the Local Plan is worthy, the fear is that there will be a retreat in practical terms from that visioning.

There will be compromises and trade-offs, as there are no absolute answers. It is therefore crucial that the people – applicants, the council, affected residents and special interest groups – sit around the table (i.e. participate in, to use that horrible phrase, ‘stakeholder dialogue’.) Unfortunately the appointment of Paul Scott, the controversial chair of the Council Planning Committee, as a joint Council Cabinet member, is unlikely to ensure that this will happen.

Developers want fast decisions, but this should not be at the expense of robust sustainable planning

Partnership working is a challenge to everyone, as was discussed in the Local Government Association’s two sets of advice on Local Strategic Partnerships which I was involved in drafting in the early 2000s. It is all too easy to do it in a tokenistic way, as a tick-box exercise. 

There is a conflict in that market and technological changes can happen very fast in unexpected ways, such the large scale demand for office space in Croydon’s central Opportunity Area, and rapid changes in consumers’ shopping behaviour. Developers expect fast decisions, but these must not be at the expense of  ensuring their plans are robust and sustainable and meet the wide aspirations of the plan.

Where the developer goes for outline planning permission, the requirement to discharge very detailed sets of conditions is vital, but under the present decision-making process, the discharge applications do not go to the planning committee. Therefore there is no publicly transparent accountability over discharge. This is particularly a problem with large complex developments. The only exception to this rule appears to be discharges relating to the Westfield development. Perhaps there should be a second planning sub-committee whose job would just be to look at discharge of conditions applications.

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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  • Ian Marvin

    Interesting article Sean. I’d like to point out that the Constructing Excellence event referred to in the first paragraph (which I organised) was not about sustainability but was in fact on well-being in the built environment. My aim was to bring speakers from outside Croydon and to get a spread of topics of interest to both professionals and interested residents. The final speaker of the four is however a Croydon resident and his presentation was exclusively about Croydon.