Exactly 13 months have passed since the last Planning forum meeting, and this delay is not due to Covid, but apparently due to the new administration taking place after Labour gaining control of the Council in May 2022. According to the chair of the meeting, Councillor Tony Belton, the delay has nothing to do with “the attitude of the new administration” but simply because he was not aware of how the meeting function. It was expected that the planning officers would brief the new councillors, but they must have missed this part.
The Planning Forum is an informal information-sharing group that meets every six months (in theory!). It is composed of community groups, forums, or societies that represent different areas of the Wandsworth Borough, along with some planning officers, and it is chaired by the Councillor who chairs the Planning Application Committee (PAC).
The forum is a place of discussion for officers to inform attendees about the planning system in the UK generally and update them on planning matters specific to the Wandsworth borough, without discussing individual cases (as they often remind attendees!). It is also (and this was implemented in January 2018 under Conservative Councillor Will Sweet after a strong request in July 2017) a forum for discussion allowing a large space for representatives of the community to bring forward specific topics. In other words, there is a shared agenda, with one hour dedicated to officer updates and one hour for topics from the organisations.
The meeting was chaired for the first time by Councillor Belton. As he explained, when he was also chair of the Planning Application Committee 45 years ago, this forum did not exist. He said:
“This is a peculiar position as the meeting is always chaired by the majority party, and therefore this is a first time for Labour”
This must be a political decision to cut down protected trees
The first topic of discussion was trees, with an overview from Mr. Pat Langley, the Arboricultural Manager for Enable, Wandsworth’s leisure and culture contractor. He explained that a small team of only four experienced tree officers, one admin, and himself are in charge of all the trees in the borough. Their task is to monitor, survey, respond to tree applications, trees in conservation areas, and comment on planning applications.
There are two rules: when applying to cut down a tree in a conservation area, an absence of response is considered consent. However, for trees protected by a Tree Protection Order (TPO), Wandsworth Council will always respond to let you know whether or not you can proceed. The Sutherland Grove Conservation Area Residents Association (SGCARA) is calling for an immediate overhaul of the policy regarding permissions for felling trees in private gardens.
Cllr Belton, who also chairs the PAC, refused to commit to tree protection. Although he acknowledged that the issue is much more sensitive now than 40 years ago when chopping down trees to allow property development was not a problem, he said:
“It is a political decision and will depend on the benefit”
Liz Walton, of the Battersea Society, commented that it was a matter of enforcement, and if trees have been felled, the PAC should ensure that extensive and high-quality landscaping is put in place.
The Local Plan is outdated as soon as it is published
The Wandsworth local plan is being modified after government inspectors considered it in a hearing last November.
Adam Hutching, the Principal Planner for Policy, has stated that the changes mainly concern tall buildings, where more flexibility should be allowed.
In response to a question from Cllr Belton, Mr Hutching explained that the council is allowed to refuse the local plan, but it could have serious consequences in term of planning and in effect the officers would have to go back to the drawing board.
Mark Poulter from the Putney Society questioned the validity of the local plan, as it was based on evidence collected pre-Covid, i.e. 4-5 years ago. Mr Hutching responded:
“Actually, one may say that the Local Plan is outdated as soon as it is published.”
There were also comments made on large planning applications, including on the Gasworks site, where Mr Poulter said it “drives a coach and horses through the local plan” and as such he wondered why a straight forward refusal was not expressed during pre-application discussions.
It seems that there is some disagreement over the nature of the pre-application advice given on the Gasworks site. While Jenifer Jackson, Assistant Director for Planning & Transport Strategy in Wandsworth, refuted claims that the advice was complacent, the Clapham Junction Action Group said that the EIA Scoping Opinion dated 2021, leaves little doubt on the nature of the comments.
It says, for example: “The Council agrees that there will be no significant environmental impacts […]”. The only disagreement expressed comes on commercial space where the officer suggests adding “pubs, restaurants, outdoor music events, and cafes with outdoor seating“.
The scoping exercise gives the overall impression that the development is already approved and that only details on transport plans and crossings need to be assessed: “discussions with TfL will be required to understand if there is scope to modify in terms of pedestrian crossings“.
Concerns were raised by Paul Dolan, representing a resident association in Putney, that developers may think they can simply go to appeal if they don’t get approval, suggesting that there may be a lack of teeth in the planning process.
Tony Belton commented that recent decisions made by the Planning Application Committee to refuse officer recommendations to grant permission may indicate a change in attitude from Wandsworth Council in planning decisions; although it remains to be seen how this will affect pre-application discussions.
The Council is still promising to upgrade the IT system… soon!
It seems that Wandsworth Council has been struggling to upgrade its planning web portal for a long time. The issue was already discussed in 2011, and a new website was promised back then. In January 2019, the council stated that a new IT system was in the works, with a potential implementation of Richmond’s more user-friendly system, but nothing was expected before 2019-2021. It looks like that the planning portal was left aside during the website update.
Now, Nick Calder, Head of Development Management, has promised that a new planning web portal should be available within the next 6-9 months.
Planning officers are still dedicated to a specific borough
Shared staffing arrangement between Richmond and Wandsworth has saved a lot of money, but raised questions regarding the way officers can deal with applications.
The situation is complex, as were the explanation from Ms Jackson. Although the general management is shared spending time in both boroughs and some services such as enforcement officers are also in charge of cases covering Richmond and Wandsworth, planning officers are still specifically allocated to one borough.
This is partly due to the completely different IT system. Mr Calder, in charge of Wandsworth planning, said that they have several vacancies and difficulties to recruit, which he explained as a conjonction of Brexit and the fact that a number of Australians and New Zealanders that they previously employed decided to stay in their country following the pandemic.
Social housing have shrunk so much that inversing the trend is difficult
From the 40,000 social accommodations that Wandsworth had 40 years ago, only 17,000 are still owned by the Council according to Tony Belton. Building 1000 more social housing, which is currently a commitment from Labour is an effort from the Council, said Cllr Belton, but it will bring in turn more revenue when they pay rent.
Officers said that new emerging policy should also help in putting more weight on affordable accommodation.
Cllr Belton wrapped up the meeting by inviting feedback and suggestions for improving the organization of the forum. Attendees agreed that the current format was effective, but suggested that additional speakers, such as the manager of the Enforcement team, could be invited to participate in future meetings.
Additionally, there was a proposal to invite the Planning Committee’s Opposition speaker to attend Planning Forum meetings, to prevent opposition group(s) from being absent from these discussions.
Finally, the chair suggested that the Planning Forum should now meet every year in late September and late March.
Disclaimer: Cyril Richert was representing both the Wandsworth Society and the Clapham Junction Action Group at the meeting.
UPDATE 14/03/2023: We have received a response from Jenifer Jackson, Assistant Director, Environment and Community Services (Planning & Transport Strategy)
Following your attendance at the Planning Forum last week I note that you have placed your own report on the CJAG website […] It is regrettable that you have quoted a number of items which were discussed out of the context of that discussion.
Noting the comments you made during the meeting regarding the pre-application discussions on the Gasholder site it is clear why you think there was a different position than I: simply put the document you reference below is not the Council’s pre application advice to the applicant but a formal response to request for scoping the proposals with relevance to the EIA Regulations. As such your commentary is misleading as it is nothing to do with pre-application advice but a technical assessment of the likelihood of the proposal having significant environmental effects such that an environmental statement is a. required and b. should cover matters highlighted in the response i.e. the scope of the environmental statement hence the name Scoping Opinion. At no point in the discussions at the Forum meeting did you explain that what you were referring to was the Scoping Opinion leaving me no opportunity to explain to you the differences, which I would happily have done. I do appreciate that you likely do not understand the differences between the two, I trust it is helpful that I have now provided that explanation. […]
Equally with regard to the discussions in relation to the single software project: this is not about upgrading either the website or the planning portal but about bringing together back office systems which are used to process/record/handle applications. There may be some consequential changes to the public facing website and other changes as Mr Calder highlighted, although the majority of applications the Council receives are via the Planning Portal which is an entity external of the Council over which the Council has no control.
OUR RESPONSE: We agree that we could have been more precise in using terms such as “pre-application advice” and “scoping opinion”. Our statement is based on discussions with the applicant and the content of the scoping advice.
Indeed, a scoping opinion may also provide advice to the developer or applicant.
The advice provided in the scoping opinion can help the developer understand the planning policies and constraints that need to be considered in their proposal.
While a scoping opinion is not intended to provide comprehensive guidance on all aspects of the proposal, it may advise the developer to consider alternative locations for the proposed development to minimize or mitigate potential environmental impacts.