The Croydon Plan fails to let the public participate in strategy

By - Wednesday 7th September, 2016

Robert Ward takes the council to task over their ‘Croydon Plan’ for housing 

There’s a housing problem and pretty much everyone agrees that it’s a supply issue. We need more houses, the sooner the better. But where?

That’s a question for our planning process, whose purpose is to “ensure that the right development happens in the right place at the right time to benefit communities and the economy”. But this isn’t development at any price. Housing need must be balanced by the need to retain the character of our towns and conserve our valuable natural and historic environment.

The planning process works, in broad terms, by the government making rules, councils (and the London mayor) then applying those rules and devising policies to meet local needs. Thus, our Croydon Plan (currently in the process of revision) must align with the mayor’s strategic plan for the London. These plans then guide decisions on planning applications.

A key restriction is if land is classified as Green Belt, Metropolitan Open Land (‘MOL’) or Local Green Space. The Green Belt safeguards the countryside from urban sprawl, preventing neighbouring towns from merging into one another. We benefit from access to open countryside for recreation as well as protecting attractive landscapes and nature conservation. It’s near impossible to build on Green Belt land.

Croham Hurst, previously classified as Green Belt, could be reclassified

Greenbelt’s little brother, MOL, exists only in London. It has similar objectives, but takes into account London’s different geography. MOL, for example, does not have to be a contiguous ‘belt’. The Mayor of London and boroughs like Croydon have pledged to protect MOL from inappropriate development, so it is also largely out of bounds for development. Local Green Space is much less restrictive.

But these classifications are not cast in stone. They can be changed, which is what is happening now with the revision of the Croydon Plan. Some land such as Croham Hurst, previously classified as Green Belt, is proposed for reclassification as MOL. This change should be largely academic since the protections are broadly similar.

Changes that make a big difference are reclassifications of Green Belt or MOL to unprotected status. This is proposed for land in Shirley, previously Green Belt and currently MOL. Suspicious folks might see the reclassification of Croham Hurst as a step on a slippery slope currently being trod by Shirley.

Unless we build, the housing shortage will remain

If confirmed, this does not mean that houses will immediately be built on the Shirley land. The owner is not forced to do anything and still needs planning permission, but with the greatly enhanced value of the land, the intention and consequences are obvious.

Yet it is easy to find reasons not to develop, but unless we build, the housing shortage will remain. We need to build somewhere.

Our strategic choices are large greenfield sites (which might include Green Belt or MOL); medium/small brownfield sites, or small infill sites (including the likes of ‘garden grabbing’). The cheapest and quickest to build is greenfield; the politically easiest is brownfield; small infill sites can be useful add-ins. A robust strategy is some mix of these.

But to make the strategic choices we need information. How many of each type of site are there? How many houses could be built on each and of what sort? How long to get through planning and construction? What’s the cost? What are the risks and opportunities?

We are being fobbed off with nebulous statements in the council’s policy

I can find little of this in the Croydon Plan. It may be there somewhere but the documents seem designed to be as opaque as possible, with barriers to readability including:

  • many separate pdf files
  • much context and high sounding words
  • heavy editing making the documents as long and as difficult to read as possible.

Yet this is the most important question. We need even more houses now that the borough’s housing target has been raised to 1,435 per annum (I think), although 1,565 is mentioned; yet we are denied the ability to participate in the debate in an informed way. Do we even need to build on the Shirley land, or is there so little brownfield land that we have no choice but to build on it? I don’t know and the Croydon Plan doesn’t tell me.

The public needs to be part of the discussion, to buy into the strategic choices

We are instead fobbed off with nebulous statements in the council’s policy. Discussion is sidetracked into the mix of tenures, when what we need is housing, quickly, without unnecessarily compromising our environment. That is the yardstick against which the council should be judged.

But to achieve that objective the public needs to be part of the discussion, to buy into the strategic choices. That way the rest of the planning process will go more quickly.

So let’s hear more of the options and less about the mix of tenures that might appear on drawing boards. A bit more of the much promised transparency on the facts behind the strategic choices wouldn’t go amiss either.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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