The way Lewisham Council deals with planning applications has been changed. The number of objections required to trigger a public committee meeting has been increased from three to ten and the number of planning committees and their membership reduced.
Changes were made to Lewisham Council’s Constitution in relation to Planning Committees at the AGM of the full Council when a report on Wednesday, 29th March 2023 with wide ranging recommendations was agreed.
The constitution of a local authority is specific to that particular council and should abide by the law, reflect local demands and any issues that might be related to their geography or location. It states the governance arrangements: Lewisham Council has a directly elected Mayor who appoints a cabinet of executive members responsible for day to day decisions and there are non executive councillors responsible for formal scrutiny.
Interestingly, planning policy is an executive function, however the determination of planning applications is a function of the full Council – this includes both executive and non executive members. However, in practice, planning committees have delegated powers to exercise this functions on behalf of the 55 member council – all elected Councillors plus the directly elected Mayor – it is the sovereign body.
The new rules came into effect immediately and these have been published in the decision notice:
1. The deletion of the current four committees and the establishment of two main planning committees of equal standing;
2. The creation of a new Strategic Planning Committee, which only meets when an application falls within Parts 1-4 of the Schedule to The Town and Country Planning (Mayor of London) Order 2008.
3. That the new Strategic Planning Committee be constituted as follows: –
a. Chairs of the two Planning Committees;
b. Vice-Chairs of the two Planning Committees;
c. Two Cabinet Members nominated by the Mayor;
d. One other member from each of the two Planning Committees.
4. That the Chairs of both committees be paid a Special Responsibility Allowance of £10,216 (an amount equal to the current SRA payable to the Chair of Strategic Planning Committee) and the Chair of Strategic Planning Committee does not get a Special Responsibility Allowance;
5. That each main committee has a membership of 8 councillors;
6. That each main committee meets bi-monthly;
7. That the threshold for referral to a main Committee be increased from 3 objections to 10 objections;
8. That amenity societies must be formally constituted and meet the terms of the London Forum for Amenity and Civic Societies;
9. That any objection from an amenity society is not automatically referred to a main committee but suitability for referral to committee is determined by the Director of Planning in consultation with the Chairs of both committees (or Vice-Chairs in their absence) in a Chairs’ Briefing.
10. That the Chairs of Planning Committee A and Planning Committee B will be Chair and Vice Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, alternating roles for each meeting.
Moved: Councillor Oana Olaru Seconded: Councillor Susan Wise
By agreeing these ten recommendations this means that Lewisham Council has:
- Abolished one local planning committee with 100% non executive membership
- Reduced the membership of the remaining two local planning committees from 10 members to 8 members
- Reduced the membership and changed the terms of reference of the strategic planning committee – from 10 members to 8 members – but kept the number of cabinet members at two thereby reducing non executive influence
- Removed neighbourhood planning from the terms of reference of the strategic planning committee
- Removed the references to legal proceedings either in existence or contemplation from the strategic planning committee specifically
- Removes a separate chair of the strategic planning committee, paid solely for that role
The preamble says that four planning committees have been deleted and replaced with two but the practical effect of the changes is to create two local planning committees for the whole borough of Lewisham, imaginatively called Planning Committee A & B and to recreate a Strategic Planning Committee with a reduced membership but maintaining two cabinet members on this. That makes three committees in total.
The chair of the strategic planning committee will be one of the local committee chairs, to be decided. It could be said that the chairs of the local planning committees are both responsible for strategic planning across the London Borough of Lewisham now. Either way, they will be chair or vice chair of that committee.
Changes have been made to the threshold of objections necessary to refer a matter to members – that is for a contested planning application to go to a hearing in public to be determined by councillors were made.
Now ten objections will be required, up from three beforehand.
Previously, an Amenity Society – like the Blackheath Society or Sydenham Society – could have objected as an organisation and this would have triggered a public hearing. However, these changes mean that this is not automatic but will be decided at a “Chairs’ Briefing” by the Director of Planning in consultation with the Chairs of both committees (or Vice-Chairs in their absence).
In answer to a Freedom of Information request, Lewisham Council confirms that there was no consultation about the changes to Amenity Society objections.
Lewisham’s amenity societies expressed their collective concern about the administration of the planning processes during the covid pandemic when they wrote on Tuesday, 15 Sep 2020 saying that they felt that their role in the planning process has become ‘increasingly marginalised’ and that this represented ‘a new low’.
It should be remembered that all local planning authorities including Lewisham Council must have a Scheme of Community Involvement in planning. This is a separate statutory requirement. The changes to the status of Amenity Societies will cut across the current Scheme of Community Involvement in Lewisham.
The SCI is a helpful document setting out how the public can get involved in the complexities of the planning process. Lewisham Council’s SCI is under review but the substantive document in still in place. It dates back to 2006 with some amendments.ReportSCIfinalJuly2006
Including a “Chairs’ Briefing” in a legally binding constitution is problematic. By definition, the planning applications will be controversial or substantial. Constitutional arrangements do not operate outside the wider framework of public law and they will have to conform with all the tenets of natural justice. I would argue that these meetings are now formal meetings and should abide by the requirements applicable to all council meetings in an open and transparent manner but I am sure that this will be something for the lawyers to argue about in due course.