The Democratic Deficit

Nicky Coates: Camden suffers from a democratic deficit, as shown by the recent decision by an unelected official to overrule elected councillors.

The democratic deficit at the heart of Camden Council was thrust into the limelight last week by the six councillors who wrote to the CNJ (100 Avenue Road will have huge repercussions on the local area100 Avenue Road: respect the very real concerns of residents; and Undermining local democracy) about one paid official overruling elected members on an important issue adversely affecting residents.

One letter from our elected members asked: “Our residents and community groups are wondering who really runs Camden? Is it the elected representatives that they voted for in 2018 or unelected bureaucrats in the planning department?”

These councillors – from across all three parties – expressed deep concern and strong opposition to one officer, the director of regeneration and planning, defying the wishes of elected members and taking a unilateral decision to alter a highly controversial construction management plan for 100 Avenue Road in Swiss Cottage.

The officer decided it would be all right to allow three times as many construction vehicles than previously voted for at full planning committee, to pass immediately next to an open space, greatly increasing noise and pollution for the children and other residents using this precious green area.

The officer appears thereby to have decided to act in favour of the developers, and with a careless disregard for the negative impact on the health and wellbeing of residents, which is now a familiar story in Camden planning lore.

The examples are legion; the building of an office block within a once peaceful residential courtyard, within Derby Lodge (between Britannia Street and Wicklow Street) being one of the current more viciously injurious instances.

The council will no doubt argue that their constitution allows the officer to override elected member decisions. Indeed it does in paragraph 5.14.

But this should not be used as a justification but rather as an admission of shame, that Camden has deliberately devised a constitution which facilitates the overriding of elected councillors and ensures the voices of local people are not heard.

What motivates such damaging planning decisions is a mystery and worth further scrutiny. It is certainly not the wellbeing of residents.

On August 29 last the New Journal reported the leader of the council as saying: “Camden will not stand by and watch an unelected prime minister trample on our democracy to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit”.

This apparent concern about the avoidance of democratic procedures should be refocused on to Camden itself, which is increasingly being seen as out of democratic control.

Originally written for the Camden New Journal.

Nicky Coates is co-chair of Bloomsbury Residents’ Action Group, whose core beliefs are summed up in their motto ‘Residents Matter!’ They have been working over four years to protect residents of Bloomsbury and the surrounding areas from destructive decisions from Camden and TfL.

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