The Local Green Space fiasco

Local residents have been led up and down the garden path in the past week over planning protections for local green spaces.

Croydon Council wanted to give local green and open spaces more protection in its draft planning policy, called the Local Plan. But the Planning Inspector, who can propose and even require changes, has recommended deleting all these additional protections.

Alison Butler, the deputy leader of the council, weighed in after being lobbied by the friends of parks, woodlands and green spaces. She told Inside Croydon that the council would be responding to the Inspector’s consultation in support of the Local Green Space designations, and “have encouraged local residents and communities to do so.”

(Those Friends groups noted that she never raised the issue with her residents and communities until they lobbied her about it, along with Croydon Green Party.)

The Inside Croydon article and some other publicity gave the misleading impression that the Inspector (or even the council) was trying to remove all protection for green spaces.

Understandably, this impression created uproar. Local people scrambled to respond to the consultation and alert their neighbours to the issue.

What has the response been from our councillors and MP?

Not to thank people, and celebrate this outburst of civic pride, but to try to damp down any concern with misleading statements.

Cllr Butler went from proposing the Local Green Space designations to making this incredibly inaccurate statement:

“There is no threat to any of the green spaces in Upper Norwood. All remain fully protected. This includes Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, Beaulieu Heights, and all the other green spaces in the area.”

But the very reason she first proposed the Local Green Space designation is that some spaces enjoy no protection, and many could do with stronger protections.

In our area, Stambourne Woodland Walk is one example of an unprotected green space.

Incredibly, this lovely patch of woodland loved by locals and used by the London Wildlife Trust doesn’t have any specific planning designations. Giving it Local Green Space status would fix that problem. Shouldn’t our local councillors be encouraging residents to make this point to the Planning Inspector?

Brick by Brick, the council’s building company, is itself building on pockets of green space throughout the borough, including unprotected green space around Auckland Rise and Sylvan Hill. Cllr Butler cannot pretend that all green space is automatically safe in the Labour council’s hands.

Residents of the Central Hill Estate are also worried that plans to demolish their homes and rebuild the estate will result in a loss of green space and trees.

Even protected open and green spaces are occasionally built on.

We’ve seen off repeated attempts to build on Crystal Palace Park, a grade II* listed park designated as Metropolitan Open Land.

The GLA publishes monitoring reports on the London Plan, which show that planning approval was granted across the whole of Greater London to build on 16 hectares of protected open space in 2015/16, on 30 hectares in 2014/15 and 20 hectares in 2013/14. So in just three years the planning system allowed the loss of the equivalent of 66 football fields of protected open space across the capital.

Protected natural habitats are lost as well. In those same three years approvals were granted on almost 29 hectares of important local habitats.

Croydon doesn’t always show up in these statistics, but 2014/15 was a particularly bad year. Then, Croydon’s planning committee approved plans for development on just over 27 hectares of protected open space and 1.5 hectares of protected natural habitat.

Now there can be good reasons to build on some open space. For example, sometimes pockets of unloved grass on council estates are built on in return for nice new gardens in the remaining open space. From nature’s point of view, building on a bit of pesticide-soaked golf course might be better than building on the next-door brownfield site that is rich with wildflowers and insects. Buildings with green roofs can also sometimes provide better habitats and better flood protection than compacted lawns.

But residents should be fully involved in the process, any loss should be compensated elsewhere, and if anything we should be increasing the amount of green space for people,  birds, insects and other species.

The council made a big mistake by trying to designate so many of its green spaces in the borough as a Local Green Space in its draft Local Plan without sufficient evidence.

This designation is a way to provide special protection against development for green areas of particular importance to local communities. It’s really intended for spaces that don’t yet have any protection, and for spaces that need extra protection because they’re special in a way that isn’t recognised by their existing designations.

Steve Reed MP has circulated Cllr Butler’s misleading statement along with some very helpful factual background. But he has sought to deflect blame by implying the Inspector – appointed by the Government – is some sort of Conservative stooge. The Inspector is no more party-political than teachers appointed by our council. He was simply pointing out that the council has misapplied the Local Green Space policy.

The Council should have worked with community organisations such as the Friends of parks and woodlands groups to identify spaces that could benefit from Local Green Space protection. This fiasco has shown that if they put some effort into consulting the local community on any proposals they’d get a huge response.

Croydon Council has mishandled this whole affair. It should have done a better job of proposing targeted Local Green Space designations, and it should have supported and congratulated residents standing up for their local green spaces.

[This article originally stated that Cllr Butler first raised the alarm. We’ve since changed it to reflect that it was the Friends groups that did so, and caused Cllr Butler to herself warn about the Inspector’s recommendations.]