Planning in Greenwich: “What about democracy?”

Politics is about choices. At its most basic, it is the process of debating alternative courses of action and deciding which to follow. Do you raise taxes or lower them? Go to war or not? Grant the planning application, or refuse it? The issues can be profound or mundane, but from observing local and national politics, it is the last example that I find perhaps most illuminating.

Planning policy has a reputation for being rather dry, even dull – but it is in fact politics at its most fundamental. Passions run very high indeed. Think of the recent local controversies over plans for IKEA on Greenwich peninsula, the proposed demolition of the Woolwich Grand, the Lovell’s Wharf development… the list goes on.

Every planning application sets up a clear choice – it can either be approved, or not. There will be a winner, and a loser. The decision on which side will prevail is a classic balancing of liberties – the freedom of the applicant to build what they want, against the freedom of others not to suffer its consequences. On the need for arbitration of such disputes rests the whole basis for the state, systems of government, and democracy. Our acceptance of such decisions as legitimate is essential to the rule of law. To stretch that argument to its full extent, we are only ever one misplaced conservatory away from the slide to anarchy.

Having spent my whole nine years as a Greenwich councillor in opposition, I never got to wield real power – except in planning. As a member of a planning committee, my vote could make a real difference. The genuine emotion of the objectors (and less often, of the applicants) was very moving indeed. When an unpopular decision was reached, a wave of upset and anger could be unleashed from the public gallery – accompanied by cries of “what about democracy?”

So, what about democracy? In planning, that’s a rather tricky question. In theory, the democratic control of these decisions is clear: We elect the councillors, they consider the application, then vote. The majority carries the day, and, well, that’s democracy. Isn’t it? Well, up to a point.

Planning decisions, unlike others taken by the Council, are not supposed to divide on party lines. Despite suspicions (often caused by the sight of Cabinet members sitting on the Planning Board), there is no ‘whip’ for these meetings. This sounds attractive – like “free votes” in Parliament, where members exercise their judgement and conscience to come to a wise decision. But these planning votes are not really free. They are in fact hugely constrained by the reams of policies and guidance – local, regional and national- with which the decisions must, by law, accord. It is this fact that leads to such an understandable feeling of injustice by campaigners when a decision doesn’t go their way.

However loudly the protesters shout, however sympathetic councillors may be to their case, there is a shadow hanging over the process. Members know that if they turn down an application on anything less than rock solid planning grounds, the applicant can appeal to the Planning Inspector, and is likely to win. Defending these cases can be very expensive, and this led the previous Leader of the Council, Chris Roberts, to say in public on a number of occasions (most recently over the Woolwich Grand application) that he would rather vote through a proposal than subject the Royal Borough’s taxpayers to a losing battle against it.

This comment throws light on a very troubling aspect of local democracy, in Greenwich and elsewhere. Development decisions arouse huge passion, and provoke vehement protests. But too often, the decisions taken bear little relation to the weight of local public opinion. This isn’t just obstinacy on the part of the councillors (well, not always) – but the looming fear of a costly appeal, reinforced by advice and recommendations from Council officers. To discharge their duties responsibly, members have to take a decision that is legally defensible, whether it is popular or not.

This system casts elected politicians in an uncomfortable role– somewhere between an impartial bureaucrat and a judge. They aren’t acting as local representatives – instead, their job is to assess the application against the web of planning policies and decide the correct legal outcome. And if they are swayed by the weight of public opinion, their decision can be overturned. So – as I found myself asking on some occasions– what is the point of having elected members in the process? Indeed, I heard one prominent local figure suggest that fewer decisions should be taken by members, as the decisions taken under delegated powers by Council planning officers were quicker and less prone to be challenged at appeal.

How have we got ourselves into a situation where elected representatives seeking to represent local opinion are seen as a costly problem? It is perverse. Either Councillors restrict themselves simply to implementing the letter of planning policy – in which case the decision may just as well be taken by Council planning officers – or they take a political stand, and find themselves overruled. The shouts of “What about democracy?” contained more truth than even the protesters knew.

One of the implications of this most unsatisfactory state of affairs should be to put more focus on the planning policies adopted by the Council. If they are the framework against which applications are to be tested, they assume huge importance. This is why the ‘Masterplans’ hurriedly drawn up under the last administration in Greenwich are of such concern. If they are flawed (and I would say they are), the negative results will be played out in a succession of unpopular planning decisions in the years ahead. I will leave discussion of specific cases for another time, but if you want a warning from history, I would commend this excellent blogpost by former Chair of Planning Alex Grant. If we don’t want to see similar regrets expressed in future, the new administration in Greenwich should revisit its policies now, and consider how it can best engage the Borough’s residents in revising them. That would be democracy.

Nigel Fletcher was Conservative Councillor for Eltham North from 2005-2014, and served as Deputy Leader of the Opposition on Greenwich Council until May 2014.


  1. Mary says

    Nigel – absolutely.

    With reference to planning policy being determined by masterplans, etc. – you are right, but even they can be overturned. You won’t have been involved in the Charlton Victoria way application – where a development is currently being built. The first Inspector who heard the case on that, following the Council’s refusal of permission, effectively said that the UDP (agreed by his department) should be overruled.

    On the Council I spent a lot of time talking through planning applications with residents who had issues with them – but always having to warn them ‘if the Council members turn it down, it is not the end of the process because you will then have to argue this case against expensive professional planning lawyers if the applicant appeals against refusal’.

    I could go round my old ward picking out many buildings which are unpopular, inrtrusive, ugly, inconvenient -and every one of them has been the result of an application turned down by the Council and allowed through by the Inspectorate.

    I understand that in some local authorities the public are not allowed to address the Planning Board and that decisions are nodded through on officers’ recommendations.

    I hear many national politicians making statements about the need for community involvement and local decision making – but never ever hear any of them question the role of the Planning Inspectorate.

  2. says

    Nigel, this is really interesting. I work for the Planning Advisory Service, (although this comment is my own opinion and not necessarily that of my employers) and spend most of my time visiting authorities and supporting them on their plan making. This often involves talking to Councillors.

    The planning system here in England is ‘plan-led’. That is, decisions must be made in line with the local plan (as well as in line with the London Plan in London, and national policy). Far from being some kind of straight jacket, these policies should be seen more as a comfort blanket.

    Your suggestion of putting more focus on planning policies is absolutely paramount. The trouble here is, it is a very ‘hard sell’. Local Councillors would, in an ideal world (‘ideal’ from a planners perspective perhaps) arm themselves with all the evidence they need to have sensible, rational discussions with their electorate. This would, in turn, smooth the process of plan making, where the policies are written, debated and finalised. There would, in short, be far more ‘buy-in’ to the process than currently.

    But it’s a ‘hard sell’ because you are forced into thinking more in the abstract. You are asking people to think about how they would like a place to function in 15 years time. Asking them to consider all sorts of competing demands. Asking them to consider large numbers all at once. “Can you support 15,000 new homes in Greenwich over the next 15 years?” is possibly not a question many would-be Councillors want to ask. In many London Boroughs, of course, the need for more housing is well understood and supported. We read about a housing crisis every day. Not just an absence of starter homes, but the lack of a ‘second rung’ opportunity for most as well.

    The ‘proper place’ for this debate is at the plan making stage. Once it becomes an application, it is ‘too late’, as you point out. The planning officers who are recommending approval are doing so based on applying the policies to the application. The single most important question is ‘where is the harm?’. The second is ‘does the benefit outweigh the harm?’ That is what all the relevant policies are there to assist you with.

    The message we always seem to struggle to get across therefore is ‘get involved in the plan, not the application’ (or at least as well as the application). Planning policy is not a black box presided over by a chosen few, but unless people open up to getting involved at the earliest opportunity, it will feel that way.

    I am not a Councillor, and take my hat off to anyone who is or has been. But surely, once elected, you would have a duty to represent the council in your ward, as well as representing your ward at the council? Helping the public understand the process of how decisions are made, how policies are made, and how evidence, not emotion, is king, would be a huge step.

    Neighbourhood plans have been set up to encourage more local involvement in planning. Time will tell how successful they are. But early experience shows that, at the very least, the local referenda required to adopt the plan bring out far more voters than any recent election has. So the appetite is there, the ‘food’ maybe needs better packaging.

    These neighbourhood plans, along with encouraging more involvement in the local plan, is perhaps more what the politicians Mary refers to really mean when they encourage more community involvement in local decision making.

  3. Patrick Gorman says

    Greenwich Council like many councils have taken the Localism Agenda to a new level of action without consent. The planning in Greenwich is geared to selling land and assets at less than best. I’m not surprised the Woolwich Grand is going to be turned in flats, which I doubt will be for social housing but I’m upset that the council have gone about it the way they have. The irony is that the things that made Woolwich and Plumstead special is that they weren’t to start with but thats no reason to rip it to pieces. I wonder how long before the Tramshed goes, then the old library building and lets not forget the old town hall and then…

    Yours with comtempt.

    P Gorman

  4. fromthemurkydepths says

    Whilst it is true that local authorities are highly constrained by national planning law, things can be done in a better way. I lived in Bristol for a while and one thing they did well there was consult closely with developers at preliminary stages. Thus by the time proposals went in for planning that generally met the council and councilors wishes. I wonder if this is happening enough in Greenwich?

    Secondly in Bristol the council did refuse quite regularly. One such example is the large scale harbourside development which was refused a few times. The developers did not go above them but each time worked with the council and re-submitted. Eventually the council got something closer to their wishes, particularly the most recent stage just finished. Not perfect by any means but better than earlier proposals. I always found the difference quite stark – Bristol council standing up occasionally and generally succeeding whilst Greenwich acquiesce almost every time.

    It’s things like that that have led to some fantastic redevelopment schemes in Bristol, some good public areas and the public realm is generally of a very good standard and well maintained. It’s the whole package though – an informed public not afraid to protest or campaign, press that reports issues, councilors who listen and act (in a city where the balance of power often shifts and not a one party state) and a council that had officers and departments that seem to working well.

  5. fromthemurkydepths says

    Patrick Gorman – The site of the Tramshed is earmarked as the new leisure centre so is likely to go. The old library and town hall are great assets but yes, in all probability Greenwich council will let them rot even more and be demolished. You have to wonder whether its incompetence or design.

  6. fromthemurkydepths says

    Final post I promise! In terms of masterplans to use as guidance and to support decisions, I have wrote today on my blog, on the 853 comments section and also twitter about why Greenwich council (and Bexley) have not come up with a master plan for Abbey Wood. There’s the new crossrail station, lots of land to be developed, and developers looking to move in. 5 years ago the local SPD recommended it, and a crossrail report out this year criticised why nothing had happened and how it will hamper development and planning.

    Yet still no word or action despite the need being known for years. This is a classic example of Greenwich council failings. There’s no framework for what will be major changes as a result of a major infrastructure project.

  7. says

    Thanks for all the comments – many very good points, to which I’ll try briefly to respond. I probably need another blogpost to do the issue justice, but for the moment…

    Mary – I hadn’t quite appreciated the fact the Masterplans and UDP themselves can be overturned, but the very fact an unelected Inspector has the last say on interpretation is troubling. There is also the issue of cost, with developers much more able to pay the expensive legal costs of fighting a refusal, whilst objectors are unlikely to be able to afford to fight a case against an approval. This is a fundamental unfairness.

    Adam – a “plan-led” system it may be, but I’m sure many Councillors will tell you that they do not feel adequately involved in the drawing up of local plans. Certainly the public consultations on them often do not properly engage the electorate – I suspect because they are, as you say, dealing with big, abstract issues. Rightly, communities only become passionate when a specific application is proposed, and for it to be “too late” then for them to have an influence creates understandable and justifiable anger.

    Of course those on Planning Committees (and in all Council decisions) must take account of the wider interest of the Council, not just their ward. This is why I never sat on a sub-committee covering my own ward. But ward Councillors who then appear before a meeting to represent the local community view are playing a legitimate role, usually highlighting what they see as the “harm” you describe. For those representations to have to be entirely disregarded if they don’t fit with the plan, can make it seem a futile exercise, adding to the wider problem in executive-led Councils of ward Councillors (and through them their electorate) feeling disenfranchised.

    Deborah and Patrick – your points rightly highlight the concerns over the influence of large corporate developers, and the way they often seem to get their way despite local objection. This causes anger when people see they are doing so in collaboration with the Council, but as ‘fromthemurkydepths’ says, consultation at an early stage can help make plans better. However, behind-the-scenes negotiations are not democratic, and hanging over those talks is the prospect of what will or will not be defensible to the Planning Inspectorate, rather than what the local community will accept.

    All of these things combine into a system in which people who have voted for local ward Councillors then find those representatives are often unable to influence planning decisions, for reasons which can appear less than transparent. People are quick to cry that Councils are secretly in league with developers – but the more worrying truth is that Councils find themselves trapped by their own (possibly out-of-date or misguided) planning policies, and forced to approve plans their communities clearly don’t want. That isn’t good for faith in democracy.

  8. DS says

    There are over 120 of us from various parties in the local immediate area who have objected legitimately and within the bounds of planning laws over the last year (2014-2015) regarding imposing plans for Woolwich Central Phase 4.

    There are several unfair and overpowering tactics at play:
    1) We sent in over 160 objection letters during 2 objection cycels, both of which were sent within a 21 day response period which the developer and council conveneiently set (both times) over summer and December holiday periods. Deliberately to ensure less people were around to send their letters in.

    2) We went to the offcial decision meeting last night at the beautiful town hall facility and sat through 4.5 hours of other development decisions, only to be told by the chair of the meeting (with no explanation), that the Woolwich Phase 4 session will be deferred until further notice. I want those 4.5 hours back as they must have known they were going to defer before the evening started.

    3) The developers have an open communication channel with the council at all times until the building is complete – we only have a window of 21 days to send objection letters in, half of which get ignored. We believe the decisions are already made on whether to approve or not, based on closed door offline constant communciation that goes on with the developer and councils/planners. Therefore the committee meeting is merely a formality to keep up the appearance of democracy. We may as well live in Africa where dictators rule with an iron fist and democracy is but a dream. We smell corruption.

    We are all totally appalled.


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