Westminster Council approves shake-up of planning service to 'give residents bigger say'

Westminster City Council has backed plans for a shake-up of its planning service that includes allowing members of the public a right to speak at planning meetings and a clampdown on hospitality from developers.

Westminster: council backs plans for shake-up of planning service
Westminster: council backs plans for shake-up of planning service

The move follows a review of the central London authority's planning service in the wake of controversy around the level of hospitality that former planning committee chair, Sir Robert Davis, had received from developers.

Earlier this year, the council's leadership commissioned a review of its decision-making processes as well as an investigation into the claims concerning the conduct of Davis.

The review of the council's development control service was carried out by the Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service (PAS).

The council said it hopes the changes will "usher in a new era of openness" and put "residents at the heart of the decision making process".

One of the key changes is the introduction of public speaking rights at planning sub-committee meetings so "residents’ voices are heard", according to the council.

According to the cabinet report by officers, the aim is to "make it easier for residents to engage with the planning system".

A target date for the introduction of public speaking rights is set for 1 December 2018, the report says.

Another key change is the creation of a new "place shaping and planning directorate", which would involve merging the current roles of director of planning and director of place shaping.

"This new post will have overall responsibility for the council’s development management function, including development control and policy implementation," the report states.  

It adds: "The review recommends that development management, planning policy, delivery and regeneration be more closely aligned. The planning function has become development control-led and a largely reactive rather than proactive service."

In addition, the cabinet agreed that members and officers should be reminded of the council's rules on gifts and hospitality.

The PAS review found that the council's "practice of accepting hospitality from planning applicants, landowners and community groups" was "significant and unnecessary" and was "in contrast to the practice of most regulatory planning services". 

Other changes include: 

  • insisting that developers engage with interested parties at the pre-application stage
  • allowing officers to make more delegated decisions "without the need for escalation to sub-committee, thereby speeding up the process"
  • improving the way planning policies and decisions are explained
  • a greater emphasis on place shaping to be achieved by working with ward councillors, amenity societies and neighbourhood forums to "scope out what they want for their areas and then reflecting that in planning". 
  • recording planning sub-committee meetings and making coverage available as well as providing a live stream when possible

Further details of some of the changes, including public speaking rights and delegation of decision making, would be worked up following "further engagement with ward councillors, amenity societies and residents’ groups", the report said, and would then be subject to a further cabinet decision.

Westminster City Council Leader, Nickie Aiken said: "We have put planning under the microscope and made changes which put local people at the heart of decision making. We want a bottom up and not top down system.

"When I became leader I took immediate action, opening up planning decisions to more scrutiny, making sure all meetings about planning applications take place in council offices with officers present, and launching an independent review."

The separate internal investigation into Davis, published earlier this month, found that he breached two aspects of the council's code of conduct. 

The committee report and the PAS report can be found here.

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