On 16th September 2020, Lewisham Council’s Mayor & Cabinet agreed to a six month extension of temporary changes to the planning procedures for public participation in town planning. In the report it says: “By June 2020 a backlog of around 40 planning applications requiring determination by committee had built up. The Government has brought in legislation to enable decision making to take place through virtual committee meetings and the Council has put in place measures to hold virtual planning committee meetings and has been holding these since June.” Planning committee decisions are described as “resource intensive”.
The virtual planning committees instigated due to Covid-19 were found to be “particularly resource intensive” as they meant additional officers to be present and fully briefed on every scheme as back up in case technical difficulties occurred.
The extension of the temporary changes had been examined at a meeting of the Council’s Strategic Planning Committee and approved on 3rd September. A number of amenity societies and individuals had commented critically. These were reported to the Mayor and Cabinet meeting in an addendum.
However, the day before the Mayor and Cabinet meeting a letter to the Mayor of Lewisham by Lewisham’s amenity societies collectively was sent. This says: “We feel the need to take the unprecedented step of writing to you with a collective voice” and details their concerns. The full letter is below:
Dear Mr Egan
At the start of this year you asked many of us, as representatives of Lewisham’s amenity and civic societies, to support your letter to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government asking for additional protection for heritage buildings. At the same time, in the article you wrote for Local Gov News, you stated that “it is vital that we preserve these heritage assets so that they can be enjoyed by current and future generations”.
Against such a backdrop, we are disappointed that we feel the need to take the unprecedented step of writing to you with a collective voice.
Lewisham’s voluntary amenity societies represent the views of many hundreds, possibly thousands of people who share a concern about our heritage and environment. The planning consultation process encourages good design as well as preservation.
But our role in the planning process has become increasingly marginalised and the latest move to further extend the scheme of delegation for planning decisions, and other changes relating to the statement of community involvement, represents a new low.
Untold damage to our environment and heritage can occur in six months and in these unprecedented times, scrutiny is needed more than ever. Council officers often lack the intimate local knowledge that amenity societies can offer; this is a time when the council should rely on and value our input more than ever before, not freeze us out.
Monthly meetings of the amenity society panel, chaired by a councillor and attended by a planning officer were suspended by the council several years ago, supposedly on a temporary basis, and have never been replaced as promised.
In the past three months with ‘temporary’ changes to the powers of delegation the situation has become untenable. Our members now each have to write individual objection letters to reach the threshold needed to stop contentious cases from being approved under delegated powers; cases which previously stood a chance of being considered by elected members, with objectors given the opportunity to speak against them in committee.
Unfortunately a common experience since the changes were introduced is that timely validation of applications has become erratic, while responses from planning officers are often cursory, communications unreliable and decisions random and illogical.
We accept that budget cuts have played a part, as have additional constraints on time and resources caused by Covid. But democratic accountability has been further weakened by this latest action, coupled with the lack of any online replacement for councillor surgeries where objections could be discussed.
As the council’s respect for our input has diminished, our volunteers feel that they are forced to fight against Lewisham planners, rather than working collaboratively for the good of the borough and its residents.
These changes place enormous power and responsibility in the hands of planning committee chairs. Great power requires accountability, yet the chairs’ decisions on which applications go before a planning committee take place behind closed doors and the minutes of the chairs’ case reviews with case officers go unpublished.
The proposal to extend the procedures for a further six months exacerbates and prolongs this unacceptable and undemocratic situation, and suggests that it is seen as a potentially longer term administrative change rather than a temporary emergency measure.
Many of us made detailed representations ahead of the recent strategic planning committee meeting, raising legitimate questions about how the council intends to ensure accountability, transparency and impartiality in cases that receive amenity society objections but are delegated to officers. These matters remain unanswered and unaddressed.
Apart from the challenge of supporting Lewisham’s role as Borough of Culture 2021, we believe the council and amenity societies should have common cause in addressing the major changes to the planning system proposed by the government, which could impact our borough significantly.
We request an urgent meeting with you to discuss the situation and we urge you to think again before supporting this extension.
Helena Russell & Mark Shackleton
Co-chairs, Deptford Society
Chair, The Brockley Society
Chair, The Blackheath Society
Chair, The Telegraph Hill Society
Chair, Brookmill Road Conservation Area
Chair, Lee Forum
Dr Ralph White
Chair, Lee Manor Society
Chair, Culverley Green Residents’ Association
Chair, Hatcham Conservation Society
Chair, Ladywell Society
Chair, Sydenham Society