Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Got a planning objection? If you live in Lewisham you can SoD off!

Changes to the way Lewisham Council makes decisions on its planning applications, which favour reducing the council's backlog of cases at the cost of transparency and public scrutiny, are now proposed to be retained until at least February 2021 - nearly a year since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

The special measures were brought in three months ago when councillors agreed to temporary changes to the 'scheme of delegation' for planning applications; the reason being to clear a bottleneck of applications caused by the lockdown. 

Under these changes to the appropriately-acronymed SoD, 75% of applications that would previously have been scrutinised by councillors are now decided by officers under what is called 'delegated powers'.

Without being brought to committee there is no opportunity for objectors to argue their case; no scrutiny from elected councillors or the general public; no debate or questioning of applicant or objectors; decisions on permanent and long-lasting changes to the borough's estates, streetscapes and public realm all made behind closed doors by council officers.

The council's formal constitution states that any planning application with three or more objections - or just one if it comes from a recognised amenity society such as the Deptford Society or the Brockley Society - has to be scrutinised by a committee if officers are recommending it for approval. 

Under the new powers, five objections are needed just to get your foot in the door, and even with as many as nine objections, applications only get a 'case review' by the committee chair. The chair will decide - in discussion with the very officers who will be landed with the increased workload associated with a committee hearing (#justsaying) - whether an application should go before a committee or not. 

When the changes were first discussed in June, strategic planning committee members were reassured that they would be able to review these changes after three months, and the review 'would provide an opportunity for [them] to assess success in terms of the quality of the decisions that would be taken, and the transparent and fair processes that would be applied.'

Officers now want to extend it for another six months, but the report they are putting before the committee on Thursday that claims to assess the success of the measures only states the number of cases resolved as a measure of success; it neither offers any insight into the quality of the decisions, nor does it list the cases that have been decided in this way, to enable interested parties to make their own assessment. 

Reading between the lines, officers are clearly delighted to have binned all the tiresome parts of the job like writing committee reports, negotiating with applicants, and spending evenings in meetings (even online ones) and they want to ensure that this joyous situations persists as long as possible. 

Recently heavyweights such as RIBA and the Town & Country Planning Association have been raising merry hell about the impact Tory planning reforms could have on our built environment; but  Lewisham has proved we don't need the tories to fuck up planning scrutiny - the ruling Labour group can do just as efficient a job, and get it under the wire without anyone batting an eyelid! 

We have lost scrutiny in one fell swoop and it's now at risk of being extended from a three month temporary measure to almost a year. An open invite to bang in that application for a badly-detailed conversion that you sketched out on the back of an envelope when you were in the pub the other week.


4 comments:

Whealie said...

Strange then that planning applications for 5G phone masts are being turned down due to the NIMBY conspiracy theorists objecting. These cowards put anonymous scaremongering letters through neighbours' doors and get a swell of objections and Lewisham council buckles. We will be left behind if we don't get 5G and it requires large and tall masks.

dirch blewn said...

I made 120 biscuits the other day, 110 were inedible but I'm still chalking it up as a success.

Anonymous said...

I think to describe the ruling group in Lewisham as "Labour" has long been a misuse of terminology. Self serving elitist cabal would be closer to the truth.

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