Elected councillors being overruled by faceless civil servants sets a dangerous precedent for the future
Note: We have heard from Camden that contrary to reports, the panel did not make a recommendation and was therefore not ‘overruled’. We are seeking clarification of the facts of the matter. Although Camden wrote a letter to the Camden New Journal in explanation, they chose not to publish it.
The article as originally written follows:
The decision by the Director for Regeneration and Planning to overrule elected councillors simply confirms what we have all suspected for a long time – Camden is fundamentally undemocratic, and councillors have little control over civil servants supposedly working to carry out their will.
The director, Mr David Joyce, overruled the Members Briefing Panel recommendation to put alterations to a planning application before the planning committee. The resulting backlash highlighted just how little influence councillors have over their civil servants, when councillors were led to write to the Camden New Journal to express their concerns.
What has Happened?
The Members Briefing Panel is a group of three councillors, from three different political parties, all senior in planning matters. About 90% of applications are not heard by the planning committee, but decided by a senior civil servant, an unelected member of Camden’s staff experienced in planning matters, but supposedly subservient to the councillors. This process is called determination by ‘delegated powers’, as the power to make decisions is delegated from elected councillors to their underlings. However if an application receives significant opposition, it is referred to the Members Briefing Panel, and they decide whether it should indeed be decided by delegated powers, or scrutinised by the full planning committee.
The Director for Regeneration and Planning, David Joyce, overruled the Members Briefing Panel lately after they passed an application to the full planning committee. He intervened to overrule the decision of elected councillors to refer an application to a panel of elected councillors, so that he or his staff could decide it themselves.
Why Mr Joyce has intervened in this way is unclear, although many have speculated. Not only does it mean that elected councillors are unable to decide the application, the outstanding concerns highlighted during consultation will not be addressed in public. It is entirely possible that he has intervened so that he can make the decision himself. This would suggest that he expected councillors to vote against his intention.
Why does this Matter?
Although Camden is often described as undemocratic, this is the first well-publicised incident where the will of councillors has been overruled. The principle of democracy is that if we disagree with the decisions that politicians are making, we vote for different politicians at the next election. This is commonly regarded as an expression of the will of the ‘sovereign’, or in simpler terms, that the people of an area are the ones who hold the real power. The problem with Mr Joyce’s decision is that being unelected, it is not possible to vote him out. In principle, he can begin to start deciding on all planning decisions that he disagrees with, completely subverting the democratic system which we take for granted in western civilisation.
Making an analogy to the national stage, it is as though Boris Johnson had been overruled by Dominic Cummings.
Although it is unlikely that Mr Joyce will begin a power-grab, a worrying precedent has been set. Whilst councillors are subject to declaring their interests so that there should be no conflicts of interest, directors such as Mr Joyce are hidden behind a curtain of unaccountability. We cannot check whether Mr Joyce has any interest in the planning application, despite his actions suggesting that he does. We can only speculate and hope that it doesn’t happen again when it matters to us.
Owen Ward | Originally written for the BCAAC