How many flats can fit into Croydon town centre?

By - Monday 28th September, 2015

Sean Creighton on shishas, central Croydon’s housing and the fight for oversight

A prestige shisha bar with pool is proposed for the roof top of one of the towers in a two block scheme on the Croydon College car park site. The scheme is backed by the owner of Aroma Shisha on the site of the old Royal Oak pub, Brighton Road, South Croydon.

The design will of course have to ensure that it complies with the anti-smoking laws in public places. As with cigarette smoking, it is illegal to smoke shisha in an enclosed public space, or a space that’s mostly enclosed. For smoking to be permitted in any public premises with a roof, at least half the wall space must be open.

Shisha bars operating in Croydon therefore appear to infringe upon the law, but the council has not been taking enforcement action. Norbury Labour councillor Maggie Mansell and local residents associations expressed their strong opposition and pressed for enforcement action in their area earlier this year. Councillor Mansell is rightly concerned about growing evidence of the dangerous health effects of shisha smoking.

The number of applications is increasing, particular the complicated ones

The lack of enforcement action by the council in respect of certain premises, and hundreds of other types of planning infringements it has identified, highlights the growing pressure faced by planners. The number of applications is increasing, especially the complicated ones in the town centre, whilst their financial resources have been drastically cut back.

A further complication has been the growing number of schemes on which it has to keep an eye to determine whether they come under government approved ‘Permitted Development Rights’ (PDR).

One of the biggest PDR concerns is the conversion of Croydon’s empty office blocks into residential use under government-allowed PDR. Astral and Winston Houses in Norbury and the former BT Delta House on Wellesley Road, central Croydon, are currently being converted. One of the main developers of such schemes has made a bid to do the same to Lunar and Apollo Houses even though the Home Office still occupies them. Ambassador House in Thornton Heath is likely to be next to go. Loss of employment buildings near railway stations makes it more difficult to stimulate the development of new businesses.

Developers are packing in one and two bedroom flats, not building family homes

The council is particularly concerned that many of these office conversions do not comply with minimum size standards for flats under normal planning permission rules. It is bringing in a special exemption from PDR for the town centre in order to require developers to go for planning permission which will require them to meet those standards.

The developers of these schemes are packing in one and two bedroom flats, meaning that most new homes are not meeting the council’s goal: 60% of new housing stock should have three or more bedrooms, to meet the needs of families. In other words, the schemes are not contributing to meeting Croydon’s residents’ housing needs.

Local authorities need to protect important retail provision

But it is not just office blocks which are under threat from PDR. The government has extended PDR to enable non-office premises to be converted to flats. Residents and other groups in Croydon have been increasingly frustrated by PDR allowing houses to be made larger through extensions, only to be converted to small flats, losing larger family-sized houses. This PDR has been extended by the government to 30th May 2019. The only people who have a right to object to to PDR extensions are the neighbours on either side, on the basis that these affect their amenity. Most of the new PDR package makes it easier to change the type of use of shop units, for example to financial and professional services, to assembly and leisure uses, and to food use (restaurants and cafés).

The ‘right’ is also subject to a prior approval process covering transport and highways, hours of opening, noise impacts of the development and undesirable impacts on shopping facilities. Shopping impacts will be assessed in relation to the effect of the development on the sustainability of important shopping centres and the provision of services. This is intended to enable local planning authorities to protect valued and successful retail provision in key shopping areas, such as town centres, while underused shop units are kept in use outside those areas’.

These changes to PDR came into force in the weeks leading up to the general election, and further plans were announced as part of the post election budget. The PDRs do not apply in conservation and other special areas. Government rationale for these changes is ‘to support growth in the economy’, ‘to make it easier for businesses to make the best use of their premises’, including to deliver more homes, and to support high streets and retailers.

For full details of these new permitted development rights and the caveats around them, you can consult the government’s explanatory memorandum. On 19th August, the House of Commons library published a full guide to the budget’s raft of new planning changes.

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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