The Chair of the Panel, Councillor Bill Brown, informed the meeting that he had requested for the decision taken by the Mayor and Cabinet on 16 September 2020 relating to the “Review of Statement of Community Involvement during Covid019 Pandemic” to be considered further by Members. Councillor Brown outlined reasons from statements made in a joint letter submitted by local amenity societies in Lewisham.
In response to concerns expressed in the joint letter, the Director of Planning gave an assurance to the Panel that local amenity groups had a vital role in the Council’s democratic decision making process. However, the current measures were necessary to enable the Council manage the backlog of planning applications due to the temporary postponement of planning committee meetings as a result of the lockdown created by the Covid-19 crisis. It was stated that the length of time and resource-intensive process in organising and managing virtual planning committee meetings in public, including the uncertainty of risk associated with IT network failure during the proceedings were also considered in the decision making, as there would have been unnecessary delays if the temporary measures were not applied.
The Panel also received an assurance that the Council was in no way seeking to organise decision-making on planning applications in “closed” sessions on a permanent basis, as the measures were temporary. Also, the recommendations supporting the measures provided specificity as to the threshold of objectors for planning applications with significant impact requiring decisions to be made by planning committees, or ones that could be determined by a senior officer under the Council’s Scheme of Delegation. It was confirmed that the thresholds recognised that any objection or submission in favour of a planning objection received from amenity societies would automatically result in a Chair’s Review meeting for determination.
The Director of Planning continued with her response by acknowledging that not everyone would agree with the temporary measures in place, and that the concerns expressed by the local amenity societies were justifiable, particularly in seeking confirmation that Lewisham’s heritage would not be put as an unnecessary risk. It was also stated that that concerns relating to Members’ political manifesto commitments were also justifiable in the circumstance. However, measures would not form a precedent for dealing with planning applications in the future because the approved extended deadline was for another six months period to March 2021. The Panel also received an assurance from the Director of Planning that the Council’s would continue to support democracy, transparency, and accountability in its decision-making process, in particular that steps had been taken to ensure that Members’ “call-in” procedure remain during implementation of the temporary measures.
The Director of Planning’s views, and concerns about the election manifesto were echoed by Councillor Paul Bell, Cabinet Member for housing, and Councillor John Paschoud, Chair of the Council’s Strategic Planning Committee. Councillor Paschoud added that planning applications had to be determined in accordance with specific guidelines and policies, and the level and nature of public interests. Thus, it was unlikely that Members and/or officers would pre-judge the outcomes of planning applications outside of those remits.
Councillor Sophie Davies asked that it should be noted that the Local Democracy Review was ongoing, and the output from that would be subjected to scrutiny by Members.
In closing, the Director of Planning welcomed a suggestion by Councillor Joan Millibank in line four of the third bullet point on page 79 of the agenda, to amend the word “speeches” to “contributions” for enhanced community involvement in the decision-making process.
RESOLVED: That the report be noted.