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— Surprising news from Redbridge Council

Last night, Redbridge Council abolished Regional Planning Committees.

By way of recap, all planning applications go to a designated officer - ie a council employee with training in town planning. They assess the proposal, gather responses from consultees and write a report - with a recommendation to grant consent or to decline. Most small applications are decided at officer level, under their ‘delegated powers’. However, in certain circumstances, usually as a result of an objection, the case is referred to the Regional Planning Committee.

Now council committees are comprised of elected members. They are not trained planners, but local politicians. Some are excellent, while others are less so. I have witnessed meetings where one councillor is struggling to keep up, unable to understand the drawings in the time available, while their political opponents are sniggering at his or her ineptitude. If they fail to make a point about parking provision on one case, they will roll their hobby horse over into the next case. Needless to say, the decision making can be variable.

Of course we do need the scrutiny of our elected members to provide checks and balances to the system. This proposal changes the parameters so, for example, it will require three or more objections (or a council member, or a conflict with policy) to call the application in for a hearing at committee. That in turn should reduce the number of cases, meaning that the mid-tier of Regional Planning Committees can be abolished. Instead, cases will be heard by the Regulatory Committee.

It sounds like a good idea to me. It has been promoted as a way to save money (£45k pa on committee time), but I think there are other hidden benefits. It should enable the members who are more expert in planning matters to concentrate their time on the important applications. It will reduce the number of cases going to committee, thus removing delays and reducing uncertainty for applicants. It will reduce the time spent by officers in preparing cases for committee, and significantly will reduce the cost the council incurs in defending poor local decisions at appeal.

Our planning system is not great, partly because the system is clogged up with thousands of minor applications. Anything that will streamline the process, and reserve skills for the important stuff, is to be welcomed.