Nearly 40 per cent of the recommendations made to make Lewisham Council more transparent are still outstanding.  

The council voted to establish a local democracy review working group (LDWG) in July 2018 with a view to being more “open and transparent”, and to increase public involvement in decision-making.  

From October 2018 to January 2019, the group gathered evidence from residents, community groups, and local councillors. 

Its subsequent report on the findings identified 57 recommendations for change, approved by full council last year.  

However, the final meeting of the LDWG, including the presentation of a draft final report summarising the development and delivery of the review’s recommendations and outlining how the changes would be embedded, originally scheduled to take place in March 2020, was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The group has been extended until January 2021 to complete its outstanding work and review the impact of Covid-19 on the three themes of the review – openness and transparency, public involvement in decisions, and effective decision-making.  

Out of the 57 recommendations, 22 are still outstanding, 20 are complete, 13 are ‘implementation only’, and two are ongoing, according to a progress report presented to the  LDWG at a meeting on Wednesday (September 23).

Some of the recommendations that the report states are complete include engaging young people on social media, and better managing the council’s consultation and engagement “mechanisms, systems and processes to ensure that people directly and collectively receive appropriate feedback as to the outcome of the consultation exercise they have taken part in”. 

Another is developing civic crowdfunding and considering a model of citizens assemblies. 

Some of the outstanding recommendations include investigating a ‘citizens’ portal’ approach, “through which citizens can access relevant information and receive targeted communications”, developing and introducing a set of “practical democratic standards” across the council, and providing clarity about the roles and responsibilities of councillors, officers and citizens in decision-making processes.  

Members at the meeting stressed the importance of finding ways to contact people who do not have online access. 

Another outstanding recommendation is exploring how to “further diffuse power within the Mayoral model” by looking at matters that could be reserved to full council. 

Another is adopting a “consistent, proportionate approach to the provision of submissions and objections to planning and licensing committees”.  

“Full provision with suitable redaction should be the standard approach, with summaries also provided where appropriate,” according to the review.  

The LDWG also recommended that the planning statement of community involvement “should be reviewed in line with the democratic standards once developed”, and that the council “needs to develop and improve how it attempts to actively engage with seldom-heard groups”, which cabinet member for democracy, refugees and accountability, Cllr Kevin Bonavia, said is “tricky during Covid”.  

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the council made controversial changes to the statement of community involvement, which meant that fewer planning decisions are made in public, despite strong opposition from amenity groups.  

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.   

The amenity groups sent a letter to mayor Damien Egan last week, the day before mayor and cabinet approved extending the scheme for six months. 

Council officers often lack the intimate local knowledge that amenity societies can offer; this is a time when the council should rely on and value our input more than ever before, not freeze us out

In a joint letter signed by 11 amenity groups, co-chairs of the Deptford Society, Helena Russell and Mark Shackleton, said the role of amenity societies “has become increasingly marginalised” and the new changes “represent a new low”.  

“Untold damage to our environment and heritage can occur in six months and in these unprecedented times, scrutiny is needed more than ever.  

“Council officers often lack the intimate local knowledge that amenity societies can offer; this is a time when the council should rely on and value our input more than ever before, not freeze us out,” they wrote.  

They said: “Unfortunately, a common experience since the changes were introduced is that timely validation of applications has become erratic, while responses from planning officers are often cursory, communications unreliable and decisions random and illogical. 

“As the council’s respect for our input has diminished, our volunteers feel that they are forced to fight against Lewisham planners, rather than working collaboratively for the good of the borough and its residents.” 

They said the extension of the changes for another six months “exacerbates and prolongs this unacceptable and undemocratic situation, and suggests that it is seen as a potentially longer-term administrative change rather than a temporary emergency measure”. 

The LDWG is set to present its final report to full council in February or March next year.