Development Management Panel Review
To consider the above report
Members considered how the Council’s Development Management Panels should be structured, and related changes to the Council’s Constitution
Councillor Coppinger explained that in May 2020 the Council agreed to establish a single Development Management Panel because of lockdown restrictions. Furthermore, all meetings were held virtually so that all residents had the opportunity to attend. He believed that this had worked exceedingly well and in some ways it was a great pity it could not continue. Many residents and Parish Councils had said that for the first time they could clearly see the maps and plans that were shown.
All good things must come to an end, and the council had now returned to physical meetings. A group of` Councillors from both the Borough and Parishes had been formed to discuss the future arrangements and it was important to note that their views had been fully incorporated into the proposals. The group had agreed that the purpose of their deliberations was to:
· Ensure defensible and sound planning decisions which support our placemaking agenda.
· Ensure public visibility and transparency of the decision-making process on applications of local significance and strategic importance to give the public confidence in the decisions
· Ensure public engagement in and understanding of the process
· Ensure robust and simple procedures which were adaptable to changing circumstances.
The council had also received a petition with some 197 signatures which had been taken into account. The choices that were discussed and debated were to stay as was, move to two panels, or keep one but with a larger number of Councillors.
The main criticism of a single panel was that it did not allow the decision-makers to be held accountable by those affected by their decisions, although of course it was not possible to have every ward represented even with two panels. The main concerns with two panels was that it increased the risk that policies would be interpreted differently by the panels and of course it increased the cost in terms of officer time.
There had been benefits of running the single panel; the main one being that it had reduced the risk of different interpretation of policy and of course lower cost. However, given the views of the working party and the feedback from many residents and individual Parishes the proposal was to return to two panels
If the proposal was supported, the move to two panels would occur from 1 August 2021 albeit with a number of very sensible procedural improvements
However there had been concern over the choice of names for the panels. Officers preferred to no longer be town-specific but wished to have more general terms. He had supported this but had met with concern from Members. He was going to propose that the panels made their own decisions but quite rightly it was pointed out that this could cause total confusion especially to residents.
Councillor Coppinger proposed an amendment to amend the names of the two committees to Windsor and Ascot Development Management Committee and Maidenhead Development Management Committee
Members noted the procedural changes:
· Written copies of the proposed speeches be submitted by 5pm on the day of the meeting and at not at the time of registering
· Require that those wishing to speak to register by 5pm two working days before the meeting. This would allow time for officers to liaise with speakers should there be more than one person wishing to speak
· To increase the time limit for Parish and Town Councils from 2 to 3 minutes, in line with other speakers
This showed that the council had listened, especially to the Parishes, but also everyone who wished to join in the democratic processes. Councillor Coppinger recognised that there were still a number of concerns about the paper and to ensure that they were monitored, he intended that a review took place and be brought to full Council before June 2022.
Councillor Walters commented that he was glad there would be a return to two panels. The current panel had worked well but had been unpopular with the public. He felt that Members should have sufficient knowledge of the local content and issues for different areas of the borough. He was also glad that the names had changed, and the parish councils were to get equivalent speaking times. Councillor Walters commented that before the 2019 elections there were four Panels including a Local Plans Panel where all parties in proportion met to discuss what would go in the Local Plan. Unfortunately that Panel was not reinstated therefore Councillors had been denied proper input. He referred to page 17 of the report which seemed to suggest that the panel was being reinstated by giving Members the ability to make decisions on inclusions in the local plan; he requested an explanation of this point.
Councillor C. Da Costa welcomed the return of the two committees and the amendment of the name change. She was glad the petition had been listened to and the residents had been heard.
Councillor Werner commented on the great cross-party work that had been undertaken by the working party. He was glad the boroughwide panel did not longer exist; he had had suspicions that it had been created to get controversial applications through.
Councillor Davey commented that getting back to two panels was a good start.
Having just one panel may save a few pounds but implying multiple panels increased the risk of making indefensible and unsound decisions was offensive.
Watching a planning meeting the other day, five Conservatives had been persuaded to challenge the officers’ decision. Thankfully the panel had not been compromised into making an indefensible or unsound decision, although two panel members did follow the leader and not the NPPF or officer guidance.
Councillor Davey commented that while having more panels made for a much more democratic process, he was heartened to hear that Parish and Town Council representatives were to be given a little more time. If he had his way, Parish Councillors would make up the panels and there would be 20 across RBWM so as to better protect the interests of local residents.
Councillor Hilton stated that he had been amongst the sceptics when a single Development Management Panel of just nine Members had been proposed in May 2020. At that time, he had held the view that the status quo of two panels, where panel members were more likely to have knowledge of the location of applications and their impact on that local area, would be more effective. It was at Council on 26 May 2020 that a proposal for a Boroughwide Development Management Panel, to meet virtually was presented by the Cabinet Member for Planning. At that meeting he advised that the number of applications that had been determined by planners under delegated authority in the preceding two months was 10 major applications and 46 minor applications. Tellingly he also told Members that no Councillor, no Parish, no resident group had raised any issue with that process.
The changes in May 2020 were not just about Member involvement in determining planning applications but the delegation to planning of all decisions other than major applications, leaving about 40 applications a year to be determined by Members. Councillor Hilton explained that he had been one of the Councillors selected to sit on the panel that, consisting of Members from all parts of the borough, had within it the necessary local knowledge. The panel took its responsibilities seriously, Members made an effort to establish an understanding of the setting of applications and listen to the views of those who presented at panel including ward Members who were free to address the panel. Moreover, Members of the Development Management Panel understood that planning was a quasi-judicial process guided by the National Planning Policy Framework, the Borough Local Plan and, increasingly, Neighbourhood Plans. They made decisions within that context, taking account, but not being driven by, the public view. The Panel did not always agree but he had been struck by the coherent arguments that had been presented on all sides. In the past 13 months the Panel had determined 42 applications. He had not been in agreement with all the panel decisions but differed in very few and could understand the reasons behind a majority view. He was converted to the concept of a single panel, as it worked.
The paper told Members that the principal concern of the Working Group was that a single panel would not allow for local residents to hold the decision-makers accountable through subsequent democratic processes. He found it telling that no evidence was presented to suggest there would have been different outcomes had the applications been considered by two panels. It was argued that the benefit of a single panel was consistency of decision making, reducing the risk of loss at appeals. There may have been some substance to this assertion, but it was not significant. There would always be appeals, they were a cost of doing business, and in his experience there were just as many, perhaps more, variables and inconsistencies in the decisions made by the Planning Inspectorate as there were recommendations made by Panel Members.
Councillor Hilton commented that the overriding reason for a single panel was in the most efficient use of the council’s scarce Planning resource. There was a nationwide shortage of planning officers and he felt this should be recognised. There were no business grounds for adding a panel. The current panel determined 43 applications in the past 13 months, comfortably managing just over three applications per meeting.
The Working Group’s recommendation related to just 40 major planning applications a year; they were content that all other planning decisions were delegated to planners. No reasons other than a perception of democratic accountability and need for local knowledge had been presented to support the view and no account was taken of the additional strain two panels would add to the Planning Department’s workload, particularly the senior members of the team who presented at Panel.
Councillor Hilton commented that he understood that in considering the paper Members were dealing with perception, and to some extent emotion, which was challenging. He had been convinced that having two panels was important but experience over the past year had changed his view. The paper offered no evidence to indicate two panels would have led to different outcomes, there was no business case for the proposal, the Boroughwide Panel included Members from across the borough who had local knowledge and ward members were free to address the panel so there was no demographic deficit. There was nothing of substance in the paper that changed his view that two panels to determine just 40 planning applications was illogical and wasteful of planning resource.
The Mayor considered a point of order by Councillor Bowden but determined that no point of order had been raised. Councillor Bowden stated that the two members referenced earlier by Councillor Davey had been himself and Councillor Shelim.
Councillor Knowles congratulated Councillor Coppinger for doing what he said he would do and leaving the Working Group to get on with it. He welcomed the increased speaking time for parishes. There had ben a very long debate on the issue of accountability. Training was very important and he had been surprised it had fizzled out since the sessions immediately after the elections. Effective monitoring of decisions and any divergence would be important. The public response to one panel had been surprising. The Nicholson’s decision had been run through properly but there had been comments accusing non-Maidenhead councillors of some sort of conspiracy against Maidenhead. He had sat on both a two-panel and one-panel system. Panels operated under the control of officers and the law. The Working Group had discussed every possible outcome. He felt it was a very defensible report. He thanked the officers for their support.
Councillor Shelim commented that sitting on a panel should be about what the Member thought, not necessarily the officer’s recommendation. Training was needed for all councillors to understand why they were sitting on a Panel.
Councillor Cannon commented that Members were elected to represent their communities and it was important to listen to them. This was a good example of where that was happening.
Councillor Coppinger concluded the debate. He commented that the Panel suggested by Councillor Walters could be considered when the next Local Plan was written. The only changes that could be made to the current plan were the ones requested by the Inspector. He agreed that more training was needed to ensure decisions were based on planning law.
It was proposed by Councillor Coppinger, seconded by Councillor Cannon, and:
RESOLVED: That Full Councilnotes the report and:
i) Delegates authority to the Monitoring Officer to amend the Constitution from 1st August 2021 as set out:
a. in Appendix A to establish a Maidenhead Development Management Committee and a Windsor and Ascot Development Management Committee to take effect
b. in Appendices B and C to amend details of speaker’s rights and require Members of the Committees to undertake annual training
ii) Requests the Head of Planning to bring a report reviewing these new arrangements to Full Council by June 2022
iii) Requires Group Leaders to inform the Monitoring Officer by 19 July 2021 of those Members and substitutes from their respective Groups to be appointed as the Members and substitutes of the two Committees