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London's Planning Committees: What's changed?

Following the local elections, Four Public Affairs takes a quick tour of some new-look Planning Committees in London.

Few boroughs changed control last month, but new intakes and reshuffles mean change on planning committees. Already, from initial meetings, differences are evident. As new committee members gain experience and confidence, these differences are likely to grow.
 
Four Public Affairs has been taking the post-election temperature and provides some early conclusions.
 
Greenwich
It's all change in Greenwich, not just because there is a new leader in Cllr Danny Thorpe. His revamped Planning Board, covering major applications, has been shrunk to a more manageable twelve members. Also gone is the block of serving Cabinet members on planning, which was a contentious point within the Labour group.

Seven of the twelve members are new to the board, including five councillors first elected in May. Eager to express their opinions on schemes, even when these opinions are not particularly 'material' in planning terms, their first meeting overran. Amid lots of hand-wringing a 272-unit scheme with 35% affordable housing was deferred. By way of contrast, a strong officer recommendation to refuse a dialysis unit on an industrial estate was overturned. The new board chair, Cllr Sarah Merrill, seemed disinclined to steer proceedings, despite her experience as a member.

We expect this board to be far more cautious about development, with a focus on resident concerns rather than strategic principles or planning policy. With a queue of major, high-density schemes in Greenwich related to the Elizabeth Line, developers will be watching nervously.

Southwark
There are fresh faces in Southwark and the new committee members are still learning their role, including the new chair, Cllr Martin Seaton. Their first outing was relatively sedate, with just a single application to consider and members supporting the officer's recommendation.

Yet there were indications of a new tone. Labour and Liberal Democrat members were equally insistent about meeting the 35% affordable housing target, while Cllr Seaton set down a marker that he did not regard offsite affordable housing as acceptable. The relative inexperience of the Labour members was clear from their questions, with their Lib Dem counterparts showing them how to concentrate on meaningful planning issues.
 
There are ongoing convulsions in Southwark from the leadership challenge to Cllr Peter John, which may surface on the planning committee when the Elephant & Castle regeneration scheme appears again. Large or controversial applications will need careful handling.

Hackney
Some welcome continuity can be found in Hackney, with Cllr Vincent Stops continuing to chair the Planning Sub-Committee. Its knowledgeable members focus on planning matters and take their quasi-judicial role seriously, although they also have an independent-minded streak.

At their first meeting, all applications were determined in line with the recommendation. Nevertheless, newly-elected Cllr Clare Joseph raised eyebrows when she abstained on the final phase of the Council's own 160-home estate regeneration scheme for Marian Court. She is one of the few Labour members to openly support Momentum. The bulk of the committee are aligned with Mayor Phil Glanville and his objectives for the borough.

Brent
The committee's new chair, Cllr James Denselow, opened his first meeting by reminding members that Brent faced a housing crisis, with that evening's agenda able to contribute more than 100 new homes towards the local shortfall. This set the tone for a series of successful applications.

Cllr Denselow allowed much greater discussion than had become the norm, but moved proceedings along when he thought members were straying beyond the committee's remit. Parking and cumulative impact remain the largest concerns in Brent, among councillors and residents, with objectors present to speak on six of the seven applications. A positive start, but larger applications will test the mettle of the committee in coming months.

Harrow
There is a new leader in Harrow, but just a week after Cllr Graham Henson took the helm, it was business as usual at the planning committee. A lengthy, 17-item agenda included Barnet FC's controversial application for its new home at The Hive.
 
Despite an increased majority in Harrow, the administration hasn't increased the size of the committee, which still has three Conservative councillors facing Labour's four. The returning chair, Cllr Keith Ferry, ensures his side gives a fair hearing to recommendations for approval. After a long debate, the vote went along party lines, with a familiar majority of one.

Westminster
A planning shake-up in the City of Westminster brings a different structure and a new Chairman of Planning, Cllr Gotz Mohindra. He heads a 'Major Applications Committee' consisting of five Conservative and two Labour members, which has three planning sub-committees for less significant schemes. The sub-committees have four members and are chaired by Cllrs Tony Devenish, Robert Rigby and Iain Bott.

Each contains newly-elected councillors, some of whom will need time to familiarise themselves with policy. Despite a professional background in property, it's also the first time that Cllr Mohindra has chaired a planning committee and he has two newbies facing Labour's stalwarts. The influence of officers is likely to increase, at least temporarily, as will the influence of residents when objectors are allowed to speak at committees, which was a Conservative election pledge.
 
Four Public Affairs offers specialist planning advice on development across London. For more information, please contact managing director, Ralph Scott: Ralph.Scott@fourcommunications.com.

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