When I attended a planning committee meeting in Lambeth recently, at which the redevelopment of a local library was on the agenda, I was expecting a relatively quiet Tuesday evening. It turned out to be quite the opposite.
Arriving at the meeting I was greeted by a crowd of determined protestors in Halloween witch masks holding plastic axes and banners saying 'Save Carnegie Library' and ‘Exercise Books not Exercise Bikes’.
With all this opposition and security personnel it felt more like being at a local derby football match than a committee meeting but as I sat there listening to the debates and the ‘panto style’ boos and cheers, I considered three things:
1. What does opposition really amount to?
Well it is fair to say that in this circumstance, the old saying ‘strength in numbers’ does not apply. The persistent pressure of some community groups, members of the national press and 313 written objections did not sway the decision of the committee. What can be understood from this application is that when a council has put time and funds into a library redevelopment project – a project in which the leadership has invested significant political capital - and has a large majority, there is little that is going to deter a committee from towing the line. This may therefore be an argument for prohibiting a planning committee from determining an application that has been submitted by its own local authority.
2. Do officers make an impact?
The quality of the officers can make a difference. Officers who are fully informed on all aspects of the proposals and enthusiastic to contribute thorough responses will mean that councillors have all the relevant information and can be assured their questions will be answered professionally. This allows more time to ponder an application’s merit and avoids uninformed or disinterested councillors heading towards a refusal, particularly when the proposal brings a wave of opposition. To hedge against a poor officer performance, we recommend distributing a concise and compelling brief to councillors on the committee at least a few days beforehand.
3. How does the Chair affect the result?
What was starkly obvious from the meeting is the deciding role that a strong Chair can play. In the face of such vocal opposition, there is always a risk that the Committee’s hearing of an application will be disrupted – with applicants shouted down and councillors unwilling to speak frankly. The Chair of Lambeth’s Planning Committee, Clair Wilcox, held a strong grasp throughout the evening and made it clear from the outset that no amount of shouting and protesting would interrupt or impact the result of the application. This gave a clear signal to those attending the meeting, and left members free to debate the application on its own merits.