Author: Cyril Richert
After waiting several months, the Council has eventually responded in a formal letter to our criticism on Wandsworth planning process.
At the beginning of April, the Putney Society, Wandsworth Society, the Clapham Junction Action Group and Friends of Putney Common community group all wrote to the Prime Minister to express their concerns at the way Wandsworth Council has dealt with a number of important planning applications, in the context of published planning policy documents and guidelines.
Within the following weeks, we received an official acknowledgement from the Prime Minister’s Office, from the Mayor of London’s office (GLA) and from the Secretary of States for Local Government (Eric Pickles received a copy of our letter). Despite a letter being also sent to Wandsworth Council, the only response we had received from the Council was a spokesperson calling us “NIMBYs” because we dare feeling concerned about planning procedures in the borough.
During a hustings meeting organised by the Wandsworth Society, Cllr Ravi Govindia, leader of Wandsworth Council, told the audience that he considered that statutory planning policy could be treated as loose guidelines.
However, due to the failure of Wandsworth Council to give us any formal response to our letter addressed to the leader (which seems to be the trend as they have also ignored our planning application request of information on the former Granada building sent… 9 months ago!) the Wandsworth Society wrote again to the Council at the end of June, saying:
“We wrote at length to the Leader of the Council on 3rd April together with a copy of our letter to the Prime Minister. To date we have received no acknowledgement of receipt – it was delivered to the Town Hall by hand – nor response to it. A copy was sent to the Borough planner also as it concerned this department. We attach a copy of the letter together with the resume of our detailed report which listed our concerns about how the planning authority performs.
We believe that the substance of the letter and the report to the Leader warrants a serious and detailed response. Should this not be forthcoming very soon we will heed the advice of the Mayor of London, to whom a copy of the report was also sent, and approach the Local Ombudsman to ask for his consideration of the Council’s handling of planning policy in the Borough.”
Is calling us “Nimbys” and saying that they value our input compatible?
This letter triggered eventually a response from Paul Martin, Chief Executive and Director of Administration, that was received on the 17th of July. His letter said (read in full HERE):
“I had thought that the press statement that the Council released within days of our letter set out the Council’s position”
Some would consider here that right from the beginning the Chief Executive of Wandsworth Council is on the hedge of insult, as we all remember that the Council’s statement called us Nimbys (and the press was prompt to highlight that, HERE and THERE), and beside the bold statement we publicly said that we were looking forward to receiving a proper response. We would refrain on that thought, to think that Mr Martin was mis-informed.
“[…] we do value the input from local amenity groups as well as local residents and businesses.”
And indeed showing their values by calling the Nimbys…?
Policies have to be considered as whole, not individually
Basically the line of defence of Wandsworth Council is to say that policies and objectives have to be considered “as a whole” (repeated tree times in the letter).
The letter says:
“The purpose of the planning system is to take into account of national planning policies and the local development plan ([…]) as a whole when reaching a planning decision. […] It is not the case of “ticking off” every policy as “complied” or “not complied”, but reaching a decision that a proposal overall is in accordance with the policies and objectives of the development plan as a whole.”
“I is not the case of local opposition in itself being a reason to turn down a planning application; any decision needs to be based on sound planning policy.”
We would not disagree with the observations that deciding planning applications can be difficult and that decisions need to be based on sound planning policy. And he is right in saying that local opposition is not in itself justification for refusing an application. Although they could be better at explaining how the significance of opposition has been assessed.
He said that officer’s report is central to understanding how a whole raft of planning policies have been applied:
“We have thorough and full officer reports in order to ensure that our decision-making is robust and compliant with national policy and the development plan as a whole.”
However as he suggests that this is the case if the proposal has been agreed, his response does not explain the case if the proposal has not been agreed by the planning committee and moreover there is no analysis of how a decision is reached when the committee disagrees with the officers’ recommendation in the minutes of the meeting.
Does that mean that when the Planning Application Committee (PAC) disagree with the recommendation of the officers, that decision is not compliant with policies? The truth is that there have been no officer/Committee disagreements for a good while now. The PAC is firmly under the control of the pre-meeting party decisions, which in turn are controlled by the Cabinet. Long gone are the days when the mantra of ‘officers guide, councillors decide’ was the case. Any councillor showing a consistent questioning attitude soon loses a place on the committee. If it was the Chairman that would be a considerable financial loss.
Paul Martin brings up the issue of the legality of planning decisions as a reason why they are / have to be robust, a good point. However, we think it is likely that anxiety about challenges to refusals has too great an influence on approving applications and is a contributing factor in what we consider to be poor decision taking. On the other hand, any judicial procedure including starting a Judicial Review process would cost dozen of thousand of pounds to any individual or Societies and therefore challenge by residents is considered as always very unlikely by the Council (although it may happen…).
Based on those elements, it’s easy to appreciate which of developers or residents interests the Council might have in mind when reaching a decision!