Probity of Merton’s planning decisions at breaking point

We have thought long and hard about whether to write this blog. Bear with us as it is a long one and it raises issues that go to the very heart of our charitable purpose. How can we care for and champion our neighbourhood if we cannot trust our local authority and the decisions it makes? The relationship between a council and its community is precious. Each depends on the other and not just at election time.

Planning decisions over new development regularly strain relationships and so they should. These are some of the the most important decisions a council can make, with consequences that last for generations. This is why their probity – the quality of having strong moral principles, honesty and decency – is so important.

Perhaps the most testing of all planning decisions are those which involve a local authority deciding on its own planning applications. This has been the case with four planning applications for housing development from Merantun, a development company set up by, run and staffed by Merton Council. The elected members and professional officers involved need to be seen to operate to the highest standards. At the Planning Applications Committee of 16 July 2020 in full public view on Merton TV and YouTube they fell short.

It’s important to establish from the outset that we’re supportive of Merantun being set up. It can play an important role in extending the ways in which Merton Council can improve the quality of development, provide affordable homes and generate resources for investment in public services. This requires it to be tasked to do more than generate income for the council so it can contribute to the full range of Merton Council’s public service objectives.

It’s also important to pre-empt critics who may suggest that as a local civic society we’re anti-development and disinterested in the affordable housing crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Merton Council’s latest planning policy review we put forward no fewer than nine sites for housing development within 900m of the historic cricket ground. We support a significant increase in the number of affordable homes being built in the neighbourhood.

This brings us to some of the planning policy issues about the schemes put forward by Merantun for the former Canons nursery and Raleigh Gardens car park. We have written extensively about these in previous blogs but the headlines bear retelling.

It is Merton Council’s planning policy for 40% of new homes to be affordable and that these should be provided on the development site unless there are “exceptional” reasons. Currently, only 17% of new homes being built in Merton are affordable. Merantun has the opportunity to close the gap. So far so good. The reality is different. Merantun’s four developments are providing 43% fewer affordable homes than policy requires, and putting them all on one site, Elm Nursery car park. Instead of setting the standard the Council’s own development company is bending the rules.

The other planning issues with Merantun’s schemes for The Canons and Raleigh Gardens are legion. More than half the windows of Glebe Court residents facing Raleigh Gardens will no longer meet official guidelines for daylight. Merton’s current Tree of the Year, a magnificent Pagoda tree on the former Canons nursery, will lose half its canopy and if it survives it will be hard pruned for the rest of its life. The quality of the study of how the development impacts on the The Canons and Park Place is so poor it failed even to address the key view from the Grade II* Canons house across the site.

These are just some of the reasons why the plans should have been refused. After all, the same Planning Applications Committee has recently stood its ground and turned down major developments on both Benedict Wharf and the Tesco site by the A3. It also has a good record with some smaller schemes, repeatedly defying its own officer recommendations to deliver a much better standard of development at the Cricketers flats and rejecting the “cattle shed” plans for a Mitcham market canopy.

Something was different at this Planning Applications Committee when Merton Council’s own planning applications were in the frame. Here’s how:

First, everyone watching must have been confused to hear councillors expressing their clear opposition to the plans but still voting for them. Councillor Dehaney could hardly have been clearer that he didn’t support the applications – “I am going to vote for the application but that is not because I entirely agree with it……that area in The Canons I go there regularly should not have been touched at all, the houses should not have been built there but I will support the application…..not because I agree” and “I think that’s a wrong decision mind you I don’t say I am going to vote against it but I don’t agree with it, building on Raleigh Gardens car park”.

Watch Councillor Dehaney say it, on The Canons and on Raleigh Gardens.

Councillor Henry made an impassioned plea to respect what she called “Mitcham values” in expressing opposition to the plans for The Canons – “Although I will support this application but to be honest with you I lived in Mitcham for 30 years, I really love Mitcham and I think definitely we are taking away some of the values of Mitcham. I know we desperately need houses……but I think we are over pressuring ourselves to find accommodation by using up very small spaces…..I will go along with this application but it is not something in my heart I think I really really want to do because, as I say, especially where The Canons is that’s a heritage that’s of value that’s really…..Mitcham value…..that should restore for our young people to grow up and see what Mitcham used to be like…I hope that what we are doing we will not regret it”.

Watch Councillor Henry’s passion for Mitcham values on The Canons.

Both Councillor Henry and Councillor Dehaney voted in support of both developments.

We’re not naive. We understand how political whipping works. We understand that councillors, like MPs, generally vote according to political loyalties and are frequently told how to vote in return for their political allegiance. Except, that what might be accepted practice in a Council meeting is forbidden when it comes to planning decisions. These must be based only on planning issues. As the Local Government Association’s guidance to councillors states “The process should leave no grounds for suggesting that those participating in the decision were biased or that the decision itself was unlawful, irrational or procedurally improper.” Watch the clips linked to above and judge for yourself whether it appears that behind the scenes influences are at play.

We invite readers to ponder what might lead someone to say one thing and then vote in another way.

Second, these planning applications were not prepared by disinterested professionals. Merantun’s Director of Design and its Head of futureMerton are one and the same person. The same is true of Merantun’s Managing Director and Merton Council’s Assistant Director, Sustainable Communities. These are Merton’ Council’s most senior officers responsible for both planning policy and planning decisions. They have a patchy record in separating out their roles and have appeared badged as one when performing the role of the other. The Assistant/Managing Director also chairs the Steering Group for the £5m Lottery funded project for The Canons.

Despite clear tensions between the project to open up and restore The Canons grounds and Merantun’s development plans to close off and build over parts of the same historic landscape there were no comments on the planning applications from Merton Council’s Greenspaces team. We wonder why. As we spoke at the meeting we are also aware that both these officers were present in their Merantun roles behind the scenes of the Committee on Zoom. This is despite Merantun’s views being publicly represented by two consultants. No other developer is offered the privilege of fielding four people at a Committee discussion. Zoom also offers the facility to privately message other participants during a meeting.

Third, the role of Merton’s planning officers is to support and advise the Planning Committee. They should not be advocates for the development. This is central to their professional integrity. Merton Council has a variable record on this front but the performance on Merantun’s scheme was a masterclass in steering thoughts in one direction. Seemingly at every turn and in response to seemingly every question we observed the officer accentuating the positive on behalf of the development. Even Merantun’s own consultants were more up front in acknowledging tensions and issues with their plans.

Listening to the Planning Officer it was as if Merton’s Design Review Panel was aching to give both schemes a green light and that Panel members would be the first to move in.

In reality both schemes were subject to their sharp criticism – “too busy, intense and slightly military in feel” (The Canons) and “overdevelopment” (Raleigh Gardens) – and were rated amber.

Time and again the Planning Officer justified significant breaches of planning policy – including on trees, affordable homes, parking and building mass – as if they were everyday minor breaches which are regularly permitted. Other breaches were simply ignored.

Fourth, it is a tenet of planning law that each planning application must be considered “on its merits”. Yet, with Merantun the Committee was presented with a special note explaining that the provision of affordable homes on one site was dependent on the success of all four applications. As Councillor Southgate rightly noted, this “web” made it hard to separate the decisions. The contradictions were laid bare in the Planning Officer’s somewhat threatening Alice in Wonderland observation that “each scheme must be considered on its merits but there are consequences if one of the schemes falls at this evening’s Committee meeting” – watch here and ponder.

Fifth, the agenda of the Planning Applications Committee generally adapts on the evening to the level of interest and controversy about the proposals being considered. Those with the most go first. Except when it comes to Merantun things appear different. More than four hours after the meeting began, approaching the witching hour and after consent had been granted to three of the four Merantun schemes, the Committee turned its attention to Raleigh Gardens car park. This was the most controversial scheme of the evening and had attracted three times more objections than any of the other Merantun proposals. The inevitability of how a decision on the fourth Merantun scheme would go was palpable.

Shock, dismay, anger and despair are just some of the emotions that have been shared with us by local people who have followed these plans and been in touch.

On the immediate issue of whether Merantun’s plans should proceed we are exploring all avenues available to us. The Secretary of State has powers to call in the applications and make a final decision. We have asked him to do this. There are also legal questions over how these decisions have been made and questions about the performance of some elected members and professional officers.

But these are details. The real issues raised by this sorry tale are more profound. Trust and probity are essential to the vital relationship between a council and its community. In the way it has handled planning decisions on its own housing developments Merton Council has lost acres of ground on both. It is going to have to work hard to recover and demonstrate itself fit to work with its local community in the important planning and other decisions which lie ahead.

You can read a summary of our call-in request here.

You can view the full discussion of both schemes on Merton TV via the links below. Let us know what you think of what you see and hear.

Former Canons nursery discussion

Raleigh Gardens car park discussion