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Objectors, you have just five minutes

Councillor calls for a rethink on helping residents express their views in planning decisions

29 November, 2016 — By Dan Carrier

Cllr Sian Berry: ‘It is time to seek new ideas’

THE Town Hall’s sole Green Party councillor, Sian Berry, is calling for an overhaul of how planning committee meetings, which decide some of the borough’s most controversial developments, are run.

The Highgate ward councillor says objectors often feel their views are not adequately considered and that the five-minute time allotted for them to speak at committee meetings is too short to effectively plead their case.

In a letter to environment chief Labour councillor Phil Jones and chairwoman of the committee Labour councillor Heather Johnson, Cllr Berry calls for a number of changes.

Stating that planning meeting procedures have not been changed since 2002, she wrote: “It is time to seek new ideas for how to hear contentious applications, based on some of the new approaches being taken by the Planning Inspectorate.

“At planning committees I have attended, residents have to limit their views to a maximum of five minutes between them. This is incredibly difficult for residents without experience of public speaking, and especially difficult when groups of objectors share this time, often to cover different aspects of a problematic application.”

She cited a day-long planning appeal heard in October by a Whitehall planning inspector over the future of the Mansfield Bowling Club, which Cllr Berry believes had procedures the Town Hall should adopt.

She said: “Residents with different perspectives and expertise were able to follow up written representations with short presentations, and then the hearing was divided into sections to cover different topics in more depth.

“Residents were able to make additional points, provide evidence, and challenge assertions by the applicants at appropriate times.”

She added that while officers’ reports – drawn up for councillors to see before the meeting – hold summaries of objections she does not think they are always sufficient and that it matters to residents to feel their views are heard in person.

Cllr Berry’s suggestions include:

• Key issues to be defined before in a Planning Forum meeting and applicants to be given a written summary of objections for them to respond to. Objectors would then be given a further opportunity to respond in writing before the meeting.

• The committee asked to consider each key planning issue in turn.

• Short resident representations should be heard under each key issue rather than in a single deputation.

• The opportunity for objectors to raise their hands and contribute evidence to support or refute key points.

Councillor Jones said that due to the number of applications Camden receives, mimicking Whitehall appeal hearings that can take a week might not be plausible.

He said: “Camden receives over 5,000 planning applications per year and it’s vital that residents can have their say and influence decisions. However, I don’t think Cllr Berry’s well-meaning proposal to make the planning committee like an appeal hearing is realistic given that these often take a day or a week. “

It’s a misunderstand­ing to think that all objections have to be communicated in five minutes. It’s much more important to supply written comments in advance so these can be assessed properly and councillors will read them in the officers’ report ahead of the meeting.

“Councillors are very understanding about residents with limited experience of public speaking and will ask questions to allow people to fully express their concerns.

“Residents’ input directly impacts the decision on a large number of cases so I think it’s more important to help people to use the existing processes rather than to make meetings even longer and more complicated. By contrast, some local authorities, such as Westminster City Council, don’t even allow residents to speak at their planning committee so overall Camden is very open.”

Swiss Cottage ward Conservative councillor Roger Freeman, who has served on the planning committee since 2008, said he believed the current system was fit for purpose.

He said: “I think it works well. Chairwoman Heather Johnson has been flexible with complicated cases by giving more time. If residents objecting are coached by a councillor not on the committee, they will word their deputation to invite the committee to ask supplementary questions.”

He added that people wanting to state their cases in person had to apply to speak by 9am on Wednesday before the meeting on Thursday evening – and a hard copy of their argument was distributed for councillors to read by 2pm that day.

“Councillors are given the facility to have read in-depth statements before the start of the meeting,” Cllr Freeman said.

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