Lewisham Council has agreed and endorsed the final report on its local democracy review, intended to make it more accessible and transparent. 

The backing came just a week after a High Court judge ruled that the council had misled a planning committee by withholding information.  

See more: Sydenham Hill Estate: High Court orders consent quashed

It also came a week after a meeting of the constitutional working party failed to be broadcast to the public, though this was put down to a “glitch” - a recording may or may not be put online.  

In 2018, the newly elected mayor of Lewisham, Damien Egan, announced that there would be a review into Lewisham’s local democracy. The main aim was to become more open, more transparent, and more accountable.  

A local democracy working group was established, made up of eight councillors. Since then, they have consulted with the public and come up with a set of 57 recommendations. 

The final report, presented and agreed at Lewisham’s AGM on May 26, goes into how those recommendations were and should be implemented.  

Presenting the report LDWG chair Cllr Kevin Bonavia, cabinet member for democracy, refugees, and accountability, said: “In short, by making the council’s work more accessible, we can better represent Lewisham’s people and make better decisions for our whole community.  

“That is what makes for good democracy.” 

But just over a week before on May 18, Mrs Justice Lang found a number of failures in the way the council handled a planning application last year. 

These included that the committee making the decision was given an incomplete picture and was “materially misled on some aspects of the heritage issues because of the withholding” of the conservation officer’s comments from them. 

It was the result of a judicial review sought by campaigners against development on their estate.  

City of London’s application to build 110 social homes was approved by a Lewisham planning committee last August, but locals argued that the plans were an overdevelopment of the estate, that the consultation was inadequate, that the council had not provided relevant background papers, and had not listened to its own conservation officer.  

One resident trying to get information was even unsuccessful after submitting a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.  

The High Court agreed with campaigners and ordered the permission to be quashed. Mrs Justice Lang said not enough weight was given to heritage assets.  

In response to how this can be squared with being open and transparent, Cllr Paul Bell, cabinet member for housing and planning, said the council is “committed to upholding the highest possible standards”. 

“In considering the Mais House planning application, the council followed standard practice and previous case law in terms of the information provided to the planning committee and the consideration of Freedom of Information requests.  

“We are committed to upholding the highest possible standards in terms of openness and transparency,” he said.  

The local democracy review  

The LDWG was tasked with making recommendations about how the council could “enhance openness and transparency”, “further develop public involvement in council decisions”, and “promote effective decision-making” 

According to the report, the council’s online communications have improved, “including a refresh of the council website, the introduction of targeted e-newsletters and the use of new social media platforms”.  

Webcasting was introduced for all council meetings. Though this was the case for all local authorities during the pandemic, it’s likely to continue.  

Council documents were made more accessible, with a council-wide template for all reports.  

The LDWG also worked to improve engagement with younger and older people, liaising with the young mayor’s team and staff the council’s education service to design and pilot ‘councillor question time’ sessions for secondary school pupils. 

The latter aimed to “strengthen their understanding of local democracy by giving them an opportunity to raise issues directly with councillors in a place where they felt comfortable and confident”. 

The group also researched how the council could better hear from “seldom-heard voices”. They held a conference in May 2021, led by the voluntary sector and hoped to be the first of “several”, to explore how to address barriers.  

The LDWG’s recommendations specifically to do with planning and licensing included updating communications policies to include “effective” digital communication. 

The group recommended exploring the most appropriate way to provide professional support and guidance to councillors responsible for planning decisions. 

It recommended implementing a “consistent, proportionate approach” with regard to submissions and objections to planning and licensing committees, and that providing them with suitable redactions “should be the standard approach”.  

Comments on planning applications currently cannot be viewed by the public, unlike many other boroughs.  

According the report: “A key message from residents throughout our review was that information about decision-making processes within planning, particularly the legal basis on which decisions can be made, was not clearly and widely communicated, leading to significant confusion and frustration.  

“As a result, we worked closely with planning staff to undertake a major review of the service.  

“This included assessing current processes and protocols, meeting with local amenity groups and other stakeholders, making a ‘secret shopper’ planning application, benchmarking our performance against other London boroughs and visiting Brent Council – Local Planning Authority of the Year 2019 – to establish best practice.  

“We also analysed the learning from the emergency Covid-19 measures that we had put in place at the start of the pandemic.  

“We then used this information to develop a set of options for how the service could work differently in future, which were focused on three key areas – decision-making, communication and consultation and engagement.  

“We discussed these options as a working group and confirmed a number of changes, including improvements to the planning webpages, the introduction of informal written protocols for committees, a revised programme of member training and better use of the current IT system so that residents can monitor the progress of their applications.  

“We will be consulting with councillors and residents about potential changes to the structure of planning committees during the summer as well as working with amenity societies and community groups to explore the best way of formally recognising their role.” 

Cllr Bonavia is set to continue overseeing how the recommendations are implemented.