Councillors raised concerns last night (June 9) about changes to the planning application process in Lewisham that would mean fewer decisions go to committee.  

Lewisham Council – blaming lack of resources and a backlog of planning applications due to Covid-19 – is proposing to up the public objection threshold that automatically sends an application to committee. 

The move, to be reviewed after three months, means that more decisions will be made in private by a planning officer rather than heard in public at a meeting. 

Currently the council’s planning committee must decide on an application if certain thresholds are met, such as three or more valid objections, if there are one or more objections from a residents association, or an objection from a council member. 

The new proposals could see the public objection threshold go from three to ten. 

The council is proposing to raise the threshold from three to five objections, but when there are between five and nine objections, the chair of the committee can still decide to refer the decision to a planning officer after reviewing the application. 

The strategic planning committee approved the plans on Tuesday, but wanted assurances that the changes would be temporary. 

Members also questioned whether the changes were necessary, with one councillor questioning the backlog figure of 40, saying it was a “bit surprising”.  

Cllr Kevin Bonavia said he wanted to know “why we are doing this”, and “that it is absolutely temporary”.  

“I’m a member and chair of the local democracy working group, and as part of the democracy review one of the recommendations is considering ways in which we could reform our planning decision making process so that is it more engaging with our residents and it is more efficient in the way we make decisions. 

“One of the things we wanted to look at is how we go about dealing with objections and what’s the threshold that brings them [to] committee”, he said.  

Cllr Bonavia said what the group wants is “full public engagement”, and asked that it be given evidence from the review. 

He also asked how often officers will engage with the relevant chairs on deciding which applications go to committee.  

Cllr Suzannah Clarke said reviewing is “different to saying that this would be a temporary measure and would finish at a certain point”. 

“My concern is that a review would be thorough and would not […] lead to permanency. 

“I’d like to know how it’s going to be reviewed, and by whom, and how we would decide whether it was successful or not because there’s quite a lot of detail there that I would like to know.  

“It says we have a backlog of 40, which seems an awful lot, considering we were taking planning committees until the end of March. 

“I’m a bit surprised that we’re that far behind because that’s being used as an argument to push this forward when we really have only missed April and May which shouldn’t be more than a small number of committees.” 

A planning officer said “we have been working really hard on the local democracy review and that is still the intention”. 

“Obviously, none of us had planned for this event, this in unprecedented, but I want to give you that commitment that the full review around democracy and meaningful engagement is something that the planning department still very much wants to continue with.  

“People will still be able to object in the normal way [and] irrespective of the route when a decision is made, objections are still fully considered.  

“I want to again reassure that the intention is that this is in place for a three-month period.  

“The reason that it’s a review […] is that we just don’t know where we will be in three months’ time, whether we’ll be able to meet in person, so that was seen to be a reasonable time period to help us make decisions […],” she said.  

The officer said the most complex decisions will still be made by the planning committee, and that the changes will be brought back before the committee and mayor and cabinet for review.  

The exact nature of the review is “not set in stone”, but will likely be about “the quality of decisions”, she said.  

She added that the backlog “has really grown during lockdown, surprisingly, and is now sitting at about 45”.  

A number of amenity societies submitted their concerns in writing, and said the changes “must be temporary”, and the process “transparent”.  

The Deptford Society questioned why an objection from one society, which generally represents more than 10 people, does not hold more weight.  

Speaking at the meeting, Howard Shields, the Blackheath Society chair, urged that the process “be made as clear as possible, whether it be on the website, or agendas for meetings, so that people like ourselves can see exactly what our rights and opportunities are to participate”.  

The proposals were unanimously approved by members and will go before Mayor and Cabinet on Wednesday (June 10).