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Interview: Cllr Richard Clifton at Sutton Council

Thu 21st May 2015, 12:33 pm

Liberal Democrat councillor for the South Sutton Ward and chair of Sutton Council's planning committee, Richard Clifton, spoke to Sitematch London about development in the borough and some of the things that make him tick.

Sutton councillor, Richard Clifton

What makes developers good partners? 

Since I was elected as chair of Sutton Council’s Planning Committee in May of 2014, I have seen developers whose behaviour is exemplary and others who are so bad they have astonished me.

The good developer starts with some sort of exhibition or open day at which local residents can see what is proposed and comment on it. When the planning application comes to the Planning Committee they are then able to talk at length about their strategy for community engagement and any areas where they have been able to modify their original thoughts to meet resident concerns. There is usually something they have done in this category. Some residents may still be unhappy, but everyone can see that an effort has been made.

But some developers do not do this and some seem quite indifferent to local opinion. A recent case that came to the committee was where the developer had changed the colour of the roof of a property to one that clearly clashed with the local style. Not only had he made no effort to even communicate with the neighbours, he did not even bother to turn up at the committee to explain himself. The committee took a dim view. 

Which projects are you most proud of being involved in? 

Since I was elected as a local councillor in 2010, my biggest achievement relates to a development project in my ward. A major international company has an office located in the ward employing several hundred people and was expanding. This company was looking at sites for a new HQ in neighbouring boroughs, and would eventually employ almost 900 people at that site. We needed these jobs in Sutton, so we developed a proposal to clear a site very close to its current office for its new HQ. Fortunately, their current staff liked working in Sutton, so they were more enthused about staying in Sutton than moving elsewhere. Eventually the deal was done.

Clearing the site involved demolition of a car park and my local residents were up in arms about the loss of parking. For my part, I believe that jobs are gold dust, and thought that this big office complex would provide jobs in less skilled occupations that the many local people in the neighbouring social housing estates would be well placed to compete for. We need jobs. I thought this issue might well lose me my seat, as I represent a politically split ward and the councillor from the opposition party campaigned against the proposal. I think I won the argument, and was re-elected with an increased majority in 2014.

When people find out you work in the borough, what are the most common things they ask?

One thing they sometimes ask is how it comes about that Sutton, the only one of the 32 London boroughs to be controlled by the Liberal Democrats, was a borough where the Lib Dems increased its majority on the council in 2014, while the party was slaughtered almost everywhere else. I say I do not know, but there has to be something the ruling party is doing right.

What developments or enhancements would most benefit the borough?

There is a long-standing project to extend the Croydon Tramlink to the borough. Transport links are vital and this could be of great benefit. So I have to say that for my residents, many of whom commute into central London to their work from Sutton station, an improvement to the train service would be a bonus. I have, in the last year, had an increase in complaints about its reliability. 

Just to the south of my ward, the NHS has abandoned what was at one time a large hospital site, making the Sutton hospital site available for re-development. A comprehensive development involving expansion of the adjoining Institute for Cancer Research – a world class research institution – and developing a new secondary school with a human sciences specialism, is an exciting prospect.

What was your first impression of the borough when you started out working there? 

I had previously had a career as a senior civil servant, including a spell working for one of the institutions of the European Union. I found some aspects of local government different and it took a while to get used to it. For example, one area where I found I had something of a different expectation from many of my colleagues is the involvement of members and councillors in some of the detail of management decisions. This includes, for example, personnel management issues and dismissal procedures. My reaction was to say that in the civil service, ministers would not be involved in these sort of issues. Ministers set policy. How the civil servants organise themselves to discharge these policies is a matter for the permanent secretary and his or her professional managers. Somewhat different traditions apply in local government. Certainly, councillors set policy, but they also get involved in some detailed aspects of how these policies are discharged. I have gotten used to this now.

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