Tony Newman, leader of Croydon Council, spoke at a Labour Party conference fringe meeting in Manchester today, about the borough’s anger at centralised planning controls introduced by the government last year.
EastLondonLines spoke to him just after he got off the train back at Croydon.
“Eric Pickles is sitting in a government office in Whitehall, able to take old office blocks and turn them into cheap, poorly made private housing,” said Newman, describing the government’s new Permitted Development Rights, introduced last year.
These give the government the power to transfer building usage – for example from business use to residential use – and give the green light for development.
“Post-Scotland’s referendum, devolution is something we’re all talking about,” said Newman. “These planning and development powers are a complete dictate from Whitehall, and an attack and affront to local democracy.
“We want mixed tenures, 30 per cent social housing,” he said. “Where the government’s only motivation is profit.”
And according to Newman it is not just the local authority that is frustrated with the controls. “Private developers in Croydon are also unhappy with these powers as it means they have no idea what is going to happen in an area,” he said.
“They can invest lots of time and money into creating attractive, well-built homes, and then suddenly what was an office block next door will be turned into poor quality, ugly housing, changing the look of an area they have invested so much in.” Newman also expressed concern that these powers could have an impact on Croydon’s extensive regeneration plans.
Another issue for Newman is that officials at Westminster have less knowledge of local infrastructure, and therefore are not best placed to make decisions about housing potentially hundreds of people in particular places. “We want to see all types of homes – social, affordable, private – but also to make sure that the infrastructure is there to support new residents: the trams, schools, buses, roads.
“We are a very significant town in terms of population and size, so we have to plan responsibly.”
The leader took his concerns to the council, where he says there was unanimous cross-party support for the motion that planning powers should be handed to the local authority.
“The point is that it should be up to local people, who have elected members of their council, not up to Eric Pickles in Whitehall. At the moment his ‘Localism’ is just an empty phrase.”
Newman says he has received a polite response from Pickles, but that it basically says nothing will be done.
The next step is perhaps a surprising one: “Apparently Boris Johnson – a Tory – actually agrees with what we’re saying, so we’re going to be taking the issue to him, and hopefully have it discussed in Parliament.”