The Putney Society, Wandsworth Society and the Clapham Junction Action Group have complained to the government inspectors for not being invited to attend the local plan examination hearing at the end of November.
A few weeks ago, two of the four main amenity societies in Wandsworth borough and a community group representing a large part of Battersea learnt that the hearing for the Local Plan examination already occurred at the end of November, without them being notified and invited.
The Local Plan examination procedure is complex and according to people involved with the planning Inspectorate, guidance lacks clarity.
As the three groups discovered very recently, the fact that they did not respond once again to a new consultation in January 2022, stripped them of their right to appear and be heard by the Inspectors at the official hearing session.
No matter that they were involved in all the previous consultation events organised by the Council, and had submitted an unprecedented volume of comments up to the one called Regulation 18… For Wandsworth officers, they had failed to respond to the last one, labeled ’19’, and that removed all their rights to be invited to official hearings!
There has never been a more detail submission and a stronger critic of the officer’s work
There had never been a more detailed and more important response to any previous local plan consultation than that submitted by the Putney Society, Wandsworth Society and the Clapham Junction Action Group (see 2010, 2011 and 2015).
They all participated in the consultation process which started at the end of 2018. The Putney Society and CJAG were amongst the three main contributors (along with the Battersea Society) to the 2021 consultation. The Putney Society submitted a 21-page contribution in 2021, CJAG sent a detail response of 37 pages. Previously, CJAG contributed a 5-page submission following the workshop organised by the Council in 2020 and a 17-page document in 2019.
In response to the unprecedented effort made by voluntary members of these groups, the council submitted at the beginning of 2022 a 1274-page document as a statement of the consultation. In this document, the vast majority of the hundreds of comments made by the three groups were ignored with the label:
“No changes to the Local Plan are considered necessary”.
Based on their experience of previous Local Plan consultations, the groups were looking forward to the hearing organised by the Inspectors, which was in their experience the only real possibility to challenge the officer’s work.
Misleading information submitted during the consultation
In the Council email dated 10 January 2022 announcing the following and last part of the consultation, there was no mention of any “Regulation 19” procedure and the text of the email did not include any section mentioning the hearing sessions organised by the Inspectors.
On the contrary, the email said:
“If you would like to continue hearing from us, then you do not need to do anything.”
In addition, the email contained a statement asking participants to consult a webpage on the Council’s website for more details about “What happens next”.
The Council webpage stated explicitly:
“The ‘Publication’ Local Plan – along with the evidence that underpins it and all of the feedback received in the various public consultation events – is submitted to the PINS, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State.”
In reality, this information was false: only the latest submissions under regulation 19 consultation have been submitted, as the Programme Officer confirmed.
And later it says:
“The Inspector will invite relevant individuals or organisations to participate in the hearings”
There was no information on the link provided in the email for “more details” that led the different groups to understand that failing to contribute to the 4th and latest Local Plan consultation was preventing them from participating in the hearing.
In addition, Adam Hutching (Principal Planner – Policy) made a series of misleading or incorrect assertions. He responded to their recent complaint, stating that
“the Policy Team sent you both a Reg 19 consultation email”, and, “which contained a section to indicate whether or not respondents would like to participate at the Hearing sessions”.
Both parts do not explicitly appear in the email we received. He later referred to a guidance note in the January letter, which is in fact not existent in the original correspondence.
A consultation period minimised
Formal consultation on the Local Plan must held in accordance with a series of rules and guidelines that Local Planning Authorities are required to do in relation to the preparation of a Local Plan.
Although there is no specific duration for such consultation, the common practice is to allow a 12-week period (sometimes more). For example, the draft new London Plan (525 pages) was published in December 2017 and was followed by a three-month consultation; the draft Local Plan for the London Borough of Haringey was initially set to last for 11 weeks, however, due to the pandemic, they notified of an extension of the consultation period of an additional 4 weeks (for a total of 15 weeks).
Wandsworth Council has refused to consider the constraint expressed by CJAG and seconded by the Battersea Society at the Planning Forum meeting on 20 January 2021, clearly stating that even with the pandemic and lockdown affecting the country, only 8 weeks were allowed for unpaid volunteers in community groups to scrutinize the dense 416 pages of the Local Plan (Reg. 18), the 163 pages of the new Sustainability appraisal and the 26 policies maps. And not even considering the 152 pages of the dense Issues Document Consultation Statement that need to be compared to seek responses from the planners to previous comments.
This minimised consultation period was later further reduced to 7 weeks only (Monday 10 January – Monday 28 February 2022) for the final Local Plan consultation. In addition, the groups noticed that officers submitted an incorrect statement to the Inspectors in their Consultation Statement saying:
“The Regulation 19 consultation ran for 8 weeks from the 10th January to the 28th February”.
Seven, not eight weeks indeed.
A “tick in the box exercise” with no efforts made by officers to interact with community groups during the consultation
“We would welcome a better dialogue with officers.”
In January 2021, Andrea Kitzberger-Smith (Planning Policy and Design Team Manager) explained that due to COVID 19 restrictions, officers “have drafted the document mostly internally, without the possibility to go out and visit sites”.
Have they taken this opportunity to dedicate time liaising with local groups and community activists who have expertise in their area and could provide useful feedback in advance? Not at all! Usual interactions were cancelled, and in Wandsworth Council it also resulted in a loss of any connection with and between officers working in isolation.
As a result, the document referred to as Regulation 18 attracted huge criticism from societies and community groups. They commented :
“the Plan as currently drafted is poorly structured, inconsistent and incoherent”, it “does not represent a proper basis on which to determine policies and strategies for the next fifteen years” or “there is no attempt to relate the 23 policies for the area to the fourteen principles and themes set out in the overall Placemaking Strategy [and] there is huge overlap and repetition across the 23 policies”;
CJAG said that it “appears to be a mix of political agenda and wishful thinking”.
However, at the Planning Forum meeting in July 2021, Jenifer Jackson, Assistant Director for Planning & Transport Strategy in Wandsworth, dismissed the critics, commenting that “nothing significant” came out of the comments they received.
In fact, the latest presentation sent by the Battersea Society reiterated the same comments:
“We are disappointed that few of our comments were accepted, and that the substance of the Plan remains largely unchanged. […] In our response below we have had to reiterate many of the concerns we expressed a year ago.”
Until very recently, the community groups were unaware that due to the fact that the Putney Society, Wandsworth Society and Clapham Junction Action Group did not submit, once again, dozens of pages of comments to reiterate the same concerns that we previously expressed, they were automatically denied the possibility to present their arguments to the hearing.
Absence of help and support from the Labour administration
The only help received by the community groups has been from Charlotte Glancy, Programme Officer, acting on behalf of Jameson Bridgwater and Graham Wyatt, the two government Inspectors, who requested Wandsworth officers to respond to us and liaised with the Inspectors on the matter.
Unfortunately, despite the circumstances, the inspectors refused to allow additional representation after the closing of the hearing on Friday 23rd December. They responded:
“Whilst we accept that the Wandsworth Society, Putney Society and Clapham Junction Action Group have taken an active part in the Council’s preparation of the Wandsworth Local Plan including representations at Regulation 18 stage, […] it is not possible, appropriate, or fair to allow for further submissions to be made either in writing or in person as the hearing sessions have now closed.”
They added that for further questions on the matter, these should be directed to the Council.
Thanks to Ms Glancy, they already received several emails from the officers, who denied any wrong doing. They wrote to the group saying:
“the Council’s engagement duties have been met as was agreed at the relevant Hearing session by the Inspectors. “
However, a source close the Inspectors said that it does not mean that they are happy with the quality of the consultation and the level of engagement that the officers have done. We will have to wait for their report to see the comment that they make on the Soundness of Wandsworth officers’ work on the Local Plan.
Tony Belton, chair of the Planning Committee in the Labour Council, was contacted but he has refused to say if he attempted to liaise with the officers to support the local community groups request. In any case, whatever was tried had absolutely no result, which put a doubt on the reality of the community engagement meaning.
In 2014, the Putney Society, Wandsworth Society and the Clapham Junction Action Group joined forces (already!) to write to the Prime Minister to express their concerns at the way Wandsworth Council had dealt with a number of important planning applications, in the context of published planning policy documents and guidelines.
In the autumn 2021, Simon Hogg (now leader of the Council), cited the above letter to criticise the policy on planning promoted by the Tory administration. In December 2021, he made a speech in the Council Chamber to call for planning reforms and a new planning approach.
After Labour gained control of Wandsworth Council in the local election last May, the immediate result was the cancellation of the Planning Forum (the bi-annual meeting between the Chair of Planning in the Council, officers and community groups). The last meeting was organised on the 9th February 2022. Today the only thing certain is an absence of any specific communication with local groups involved in planning.
Disclaimer: Cyril Richert signed the letter of complaint sent to the Inspectors on behalf of the Putney Society, the Wandsworth Society and the Clapham Junction Action Group.