What goes on at Town hall planning committees these days? In theory it works like this. A committee of about a dozen councillors, politically balanced to match the composition of the council as a whole, assesses planning applications based on recommendations from professional officers about what to refuse and what to allow. Councillors hear the evidence, listen to objectors and the applicant, and then decide. They must base their decision on “planning grounds” only – in other words whether the proposed development conforms with local and national planning policies in terms of its size, scale, design and environmental impact.
Ideally, councillors who sit on planning committees will have received some training in planning law, design, and the right way to handle the public and each other. Most of them – possibly all – will be backbench councillors, who will leave their party colours, tribal loyalties and manifesto pledges at the door. Even when a large application could benefit the council financially – either through planning gain (money from the developer, given to the council to provide services to new residents and mitigate the impact of what they’re building) or through the disposal of valuable council land – financial considerations, the identity of the applicant, or whipping (parties telling councillors how to vote) should play no part.
In most authorities the process works well. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1949 is one of the most under-rated achievements of the post-war Labour government and has been used as a template as countries around the world have set up their own planning systems. Planning decisions in Britain are “quasi-judicial” – rooted in decades of case law – and are remarkably free of the graft and corruption apparent in many southern European countries. This is partly because the British have always ostracised those who commit bribery: the reputational risks to politicians, and developers, are simply too high. But another reason is that in many councils – though not all – corruption and bribery are not necessary. Politicians often bend over backwards to appease large-scale developers in the interests of nebulous “regeneration”, investment and jobs, or even just out of vanity.
Although most planning committees will allow objectors (and supporters) to speak at the meeting before a decision is reached, a planning decision is not a plebiscite or an exercise in direct democracy – councillors can’t turn an application down just because local people are opposed to it. If applications are turned down for spurious reasons, applicants can appeal to the Secretary of State (or in London, the mayor) to get a refusal overturned, and the council may end up having to pay the applicants’ legal costs, as well as losing any power to add conditions to mitigate the impact of an unwelcome development.
The trouble is that the traditional planning committee – a fixture of local government that has its roots in Victorian times, and whose legislative framework (the Town and Country Planning Act) dates back to 1949 – is totally ill-suited to modern expectations. Most people in the public gallery don’t underrated what “quasi-judicial” means, and don’t understand why councillors can’t just do as their constituents wish. Excuses about not wasting taxpayers’ money by recklessly turning down applications which will then be lost at appeal cut little ice. In the days of Facebook groups, Twitter and 38 Degrees petitions, decisions being made by a committee of councillors – who sometimes only consider objections in writing, not in person – on arcane “quasi judicial” grounds seem like analogue relics in the digital age.
In practice, then, several common problems arise. At one end of the spectrum, councillors can play to the gallery and turn down harmless applications simply because they want to reflect the kneejerk NIMBYism of their constituents. I once had to be a fly-on-the-wall at an excruciating planning committee meeting at Winchester Guildhall. An “energy recovery” plant (in effect a compost heap inside a metal shed) was proposed for a brownfield site at Micheldever, previously used for oil storage tanks. In a deep cutting just by the main London-Southampton railway line, and very near the busy A303 (the main road between London and the southwest), the shed would be invisible to surrounding countryside and its only emissions would be odourless water vapour.
But despite this minimal impact a mixture of Lib Dem and Conservative councillors spent an hour competing with each other to see who could make the most absurd and pompous speech of objection. They all argued that the site would result in unacceptable noise, traffic movement and visual impact, and even that the emissions might endanger planes using an airfield a mile away.
If such an application for a green technology, emitting no carbon monoxide or other unwelcome fumes, on a brownfield site right by a major road and rail line, could elicit such hostility it was clear that such a proposal on a Greenfield site would go nowhere (in fact, despite all the hot air at the meeting, Winchester City Council did not have the final say: as a “strategic” decision approval could only be granted by Hampshire County Council). Given the rampant NIMBYism in places like Winchester it’s easy to understand why both Labour and Conservative ministers have argued for years that vital infrastructure projects must be decided by a centralised Planning Commission – set up in 2008, abolished in 2012 and now to be revived by George Osborne – rather than stymied by ignorant NIMBYs like these.
The second common problem is planning committees that are tightly controlled by the council’s ruling political group, which steamrolls through applications despite objections from the public and some committee members. Such committees often split on party lines, with most or all councillors of the ruling party voting to approve an application, and opposition councillors voting to refuse. I chaired such a planning committee (or planning board, as the London Borough of Greenwich’s is rather grandly called) for four years, from 2006 to 2010. The officers who advised us in Greenwich were generally sound, and I helped organise training sessions for councillors on design, transport, heritage and ethics. The planning committee would routinely do site visits for large scale applications so it could then make an educated decision, having seen the site and heard from grassroots objectors.
There was nothing overtly corrupt about it: not once was I offered a financial inducement from a developer to approve a planning application, or threatened by a developer to approve their application or else. But what did go on was almost as concerning. Some – though not all – cabinet members on the committee would often threaten councillors who might not vote the “right way” on certain applications, telling them there’d be adverse consequences for services in their wards, or their own career progression – or even exclude them from the meeting in the first place.
Of the 14 councillors on my committee, 11 were Labour, of which five were cabinet members, including the council’s Leader, deputy Leader and cabinet member for regeneration – not quite a majority, but more than a third of the board’s membership. What’s more, the council’s Labour chief whip was the board’s vice- chair, often deputising for me when I was not around (he succeeded me as chair of the board in 2010, while continuing to hold down the chief whip job). There’s no rule against the chair of an impartial committee also being the “enforcer ” of the council’s ruling political party – but perhaps there should be. In Greenwich, the usual convention that the council’s planning role was separated from its political leadership was ignored, and my efforts to encourage such a separation were in vain.
This intimidation could take place before planning committee meetings, or at the meetings themselves. A very senior councillor once threw a public wobbly and shouted that I was “abusing my position” when I disagreed with him on the detail of one application. Under his breath, he added that as a result he would make sure an empty building in my ward – whose neighbours wanted to see sold or reoccupied – remained unoccupied as a result of my disobedience. When I complained a few days later my concerns were dismissed, and later covered with whitewash, but the threat he had made was carried out. The building stood empty for another 18 months and was squatted twice, much to the fury of its neighbours, before finally being sold off to a developer who sold it on at double the price just six months later. Most people who heard this tale weren’t surprised: such conduct was considered normal in Greenwich at the time.
On another occasion I was told I could not take part in a planning decision because the MP I worked for part-time had commented on it – even though when I had started working for him, I had been assured by the council’s top lawyer that this would not be a problem as long as I had not ghost-written the letter (which I had not). But when a strong objection to a Berkeley Homes planning application in Kidbrooke did arrive from Nick Raynsford, then MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, this legal advice suddenly changed. As I arrived at the Town Hall a few minutes before the planning board meeting started, the council’s chief executive told me that I had an insurmountable conflict of interest and sent me home like a naughty schoolboy.
When I pointed out that one councillor who did take part in the planning decision had been photographed receiving a charity donation from Berkeley Homes only a few weeks before, I was told that this was in their cabinet role, not in their capacity as a member of the planning board. It was argued that other councillors could fraternise with developers making planning applications, but my connection to an objector ruled me out: one rule for one, one for another.
Five years after I stepped down as chair, a few things have changed in Greenwich. The planning board today has an able new chair, Mark James, and only two cabinet members sitting on it: the council’s Leader Denise Hyland and Danny Thorpe, cabinet member for regeneration. But the continued presence of two such senior councillors, and the suspicion that they are leaning on others to approve controversial applications for high-rise flats and a cruise liner terminal on the Greenwich Peninsula, has raised the hackles of the East Greenwich Residents’ Association, who have written an open letter to Cllr Hyland asking her to step down from the planning board.
It’s also attracted the attention of last week’s edition of Private Eye (see image right). Private Eye’s story is spot on, but the problem they have highlighted is only the tip of an iceberg. Wobblies being thrown by senior councillors, legal advice that keeps changing, and an over-concentration of cabinet members on a committee that is already dominated by the council’s ruling party, are a recipe for poor decision making. I’ve worked closely with both Denise and Danny and won’t accuse them of any wrongdoing. But their presence on a planning committee is a reminder of bad old days in Greenwich and other councils, and letting backbenchers take their place would send a powerful message that times have changed.
It needn’t be this way. When I worked as a public affairs consultant in 2012-13 I often went to other London boroughs’ planning committees to see how they made decisions. Hackney, Lambeth, and Camden were full of backbenchers: mostly 20, 30 and 40-something men and women from diverse backgrounds. The committees weren’t perfect (I once witnessed a chair ordering an elderly objector to move – twice – to a different part of the council chamber because of a pointless seating plan). But other boroughs’ committees were a lot less pale, male and stale than Greenwich’s planning board, where I was almost always the youngest person in a room full of fifty and sixty-somethings, some of whom had served on the committee for decades. By contrast, most councillors in other boroughs weren’t around long enough to get institutionalised or settle into bad habits – many of them would be councillors for one or two four-year terms as a stepping stone to a good job in the civil service, the charity world or business (or sometimes even as an MP). A steady turnover of backbench councillors wanting to make a name for themselves rather than just toe the party line made for better – and less predictable – decision making.
A well-functioning planning committee is still the best way to make planning decisions. Avoiding the NIMBYism I witnessed in Winchester, and the control-freakery I witnessed in Greenwich, depends on well-trained councillors who don’t serve on committees for too long, and the right balance between localism and centralism. But making sure that councillors who serve on the committee are backbenchers is vital as well. Planning committees often have to make unpopular decisions: either because objectors are vexatious, or central government will allow the application anyway, or both. It’s much better that these decisions are made by councillors who are not also the council’s political leaders.
With all the political earthquakes of the last few years – the MP’s expenses scandal; phone-hacking, corruption and cover-ups in the print media, the BBC and police; and the recent Corbyn revolution in the Labour party – it’s no longer good enough just to reassure the public that planning decisions are made fairly, transparently and impartially. You have to show that they’re being made that way, too.