Yesterday, communities secretary Robert Jenrick gave his approval for the construction of what some know as the “Purley skyscraper”. The decision seemingly brings to an end four years of determined local resistance to a redevelopment project at the centre Purley, not least by local Conservative MP Chris Philp.
The decision and the background to it form an instructive case study of conflicts between conservationist sentiment in London suburbs and property development designed in large part to meet housing demand – conflicts that might grow stronger if Covid-19 intensifies London’s traditional patterns of migration from Inner to Outer London. It also sheds a little light on deeper political tensions within the Labour-run borough of Croydon.
The project in question concerns land adjacent to Purley Baptist Church and the application has been jointly made by the church and residential developers the Thornsett Group. They call the project Mosaic Place. The plan is for buildings on two sites to be demolished and replaced by new mixed developments. On what is called the “Island Site”, there will be 114 dwellings, shops and spaces for church and community use. Heights there will range from three to storeys to 17 – hence the “skyscraper” appellation by opponents. On the other site, termed the “South Site”, the proposal is for 106 dwellings, ranging in height from three storeys to eight.
Croydon Council gave permission for the scheme in late 2016, but in April 2017, amid already-determined opposition, the then secretary of state Sajid Javid intervened, “calling in” the application so that he would determine it instead. A public inquiry ensued and in late 2018, the government, by this time in the person of James Brokenshire, refused permission. But that decision was overturned following an early 2019 High Court challenge. The application went back to the the government and a second public inquiry took place in December last year. The inspector for that inquiry has recommended that the application be approved, and now the current secretary of state – the lately besieged Robert Jenrick of course – has accepted his advice.
The inspector’s report addresses core concerns of the scheme’s opponents, who include several Croydon residents’ groups. These are summarised in a letter on Jenrick’s behalf to Nexus Planning, consultants to the developer.
The letter says Jenrick has “paid special regard” to the scheme’s likely affect on nearby listed buildings and the overall character of the area, but agrees with the inspector that the plans for the South Site would cause “no harm” in these respects and that although the Island Site tower “would change the character of the town, it would not unacceptably dominate it or the surrounding residential area to the extent that any material harm is caused”. The letter also praises the architectural quality of the scheme overall, saying it “would be beneficial in terms of character and appearance and would greatly enhance the public realm in Purley District Centre, as well as regenerating a long term disused site”.
Philp says on Twitter that he is “gutted” by the decision, and in a sub-tweet adds the following: “At least a Directly Elected Mayor would write a better Local Plan that does not allow skyscrapers in suburban areas.”
That is not a reference to his fellow Tory Jenrick, but to Croydon Council, whose development rules allowed the Mosaic Place, tower and all, to progress in the first place. Philp has been a strong supporter of a campaign to introduce the mayoral model of local government to Croydon, These already exists in the (also Labour) London boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Newham. A referendum on the issue is likely to take place next year, the necessary support from five per cent of the local electorate having reportedly been secured through a petition.
Much of the pressure to bring in a mayoral system has been coming from Conservatives and local bodies and individuals with concerns about the planning system and its implications for the built environment in the south of the borough in particular: anxiety about changes of character, incursions by buildings taller than the local norm, “overdevelopment” in general and perceived threats to quality of life has been very evident in the opposition to the Purley scheme.
But champions of the mayoral system also include some Labour Party members and allies at odds with council leader Tony Newman and hope the Labour candidate in any future contest to become Croydon’s first directly elected Mayor would not be Newman but someone more to their taste. More on all that to come.
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