A move to extend the changes Lewisham Council made which mean more planning decisions are made in private has been approved, despite objections in the “strongest terms” from societies.  

In June, blaming lack of resources and a backlog of planning applications due to Covid-19, the council upped the public objection threshold that automatically sends an application to committee.  

Previously, a planning committee had to decide on an application at a public meeting if certain thresholds were met, such as three or more valid objections, if there were one or more objections from a residents association, or an objection from a council member.   

The changes raised the threshold from three to five objections, but when there are five to nine objections, the committee chair can still decide to refer the decision to a planning officer after reviewing the application.   

It was agreed that the changes would be reviewed after three months.  

The strategic planning committee rubber stamped a six-month extension unanimously on Thursday (September 3), leaving the changes in place until March 2021. 

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Committee members vote in favour of the extension

Speaking at the meeting, development manager Chris Dale said: “The temporary measures have enabled the planning service to continue to issue decisions, engage with the public and reduce the committee backlog that had grown at the beginning of the lockdown.” 

Members at the initial meeting asked for assurances the changes would be temporary, but this was not raised at Thursday’s meeting.  

Cllr Kevin Bonavia, the cabinet member for democracy, refugees, and accountability, asked how Lewisham compares to other boroughs and how the council will engage people at the start of the process.  

Mr Dale said Lewisham is “one of the authorities that has one of the lower levels of threshold” so raising it “brings the borough more into line with the general picture across London”.  

In nearby  Southwark the threshold is five valid objections that relate to material planning grounds, Greenwich eight or more, and Lambeth only one unless it can be overcome by a condition. 

In Tower Hamlets applications that go to committee need 20 or more objections.  

Chair Cllr John Paschoud said he didn’t “see why anyone, including those who want to lobby us about planning applications, can’t access us by email, by telephone, and if necessary have an online meeting with ward councillors”.  

The council received no support from amenity societies, who objected “on the strongest terms”.  

They raised concerns about a lack of transparency and engagement, and the impact of reduced scrutiny on heritage assets. 

They also said the changes would mean a lack of incentive for developers to improve schemes, and that they risk “undermining the appearance of accountability and democracy and therefore confidence in the fairness of the planning system”.  

This is regrettable as it makes a mockery of the Statement of Community Involvement and the Democracy Review, causing the ‘consultation’ to be a tick-box exercise

Ladywell Society said the changes should be “kept under constant review” rather than extending for six months, and urged the council to restart physical planning meeting with safeguards in place.  

“From the minutes of the June SPC, it appears that none of the points raised by amenity societies to the initial scheme of delegation document were discussed, despite a presentation by the Blackheath Society.  

“This is regrettable as it makes a mockery of the Statement of Community Involvement and the Democracy Review, causing the ‘consultation’ to be a tick-box exercise,” a spokesperson said.  

The Deptford Society said the move “obscures the decision-making process and is unconstitutional” and “leaves the planning process wide open to abuse by unscrupulous developers”.  

Lee Forum said: “The success of LBL’s temporary measures was always going to depend on good quality execution, transparency and feedback.  

“Unfortunately, performance in these areas currently leaves much to be desired and so Lee Forum must object to the continuation of these temporary measures in the strongest terms.” 

The Blackheath Society said: “Lewisham is one of few councils that have felt it necessary to reduce consultation/representation in this way.  

“Neighbouring Greenwich, of which we do have experience, seems to be following earlier procedures (with online meetings) satisfactorily.  

“We are aware of concerns expressed by other amenity societies near us, based on their actual experience.  

“Their examples of failure to keep objectors informed about the progress of individual cases are highly regrettable. If they were to be typical, we would be very concerned,” a spokesperson said.   

The Brockley Society raised concerns about public notices for applications, and pointed out that the council’s website “still shows that the last logged report was September, 25, 2019”.  

Mr Dale said: “Officers acknowledge the concerns raised and consider that the time-limited proposals being made have the appropriate safeguards built in to ensure continued transparency and democratic accountability in decision-making.”