Over the course of three months Camden’s planning department has breached the local authority’s constitution three times, illegally approving planning applications without the mandatory scrutiny of elected councillors.
The controversy again surrounds the Members’ Briefing Panel, an unusual panel of three councillors set up explicitly to stop officers approving problematic applications behind closed doors.
The planning department had been embroiled in what was perceived as an attempt to claw back power from the MBP only last year, bringing in costly legal advice in order to overrule their decision on a highly controversial application.
The panel, seen as a vital part of maintaining proper democratic involvement in smaller planning applications, is weakened by the departure of Flick Rea from the council earlier this year. It currently consists of only two members, Heather Johnson and Andrew Parkinson.
When objections are received from relevant societies such as the Bloomsbury CAAC it is mandatory for officers to refer an application to the panel if they intend to approve it. But over the past three months, Camden’s planners have violated their constitution three times by ignoring objections and approving the application without making a referral, even falsely claiming that no objection had been made in legal documents.
Planners have complained in response that they ‘get too many emails’ to notice the objections in their inbox.
On one occasion the approval was swiftly withdrawn in time for the objection to be taken into account following an urgent complaint. But now a controversial ‘glass box’ has been erroneously approved at the rear of a Grade II listed Georgian terrace, with the officer report falsely claiming that ‘no objections had been received’.
While some officers have expressed regret at their mistakes, others have admitted to not knowing the constitutional procedure at all, while yet others have expressed indifference or not even responded to complaints whatsoever.
But far from seeking to resolve these problems, Camden intended to breach yet another clause of their constitution in the coming months by pushing a highly controversial application through a weakened Members’ Briefing Panel before a new member is elected. Only the threat of legal action from the Bloomsbury Association pushed Camden to delay the decision.
Comment: Amenity Societies are the Only Thing Holding up Planning Standards
Over the past decade Camden’s planning department has focused its energy almost exclusively upon large redevelopment schemes that bring in the money necessary for the cabinet’s housing and traffic schemes.
But along the way the standard of decision making for the 95% of typical householder and commercial planning applications has hit rock bottom. One only needs to look at Choppaluna on Marchmont Street to see just how depraved the quality of decision making can be.
Half of Camden’s planners seem to not understand what a listed building or conservation area even is, while the other half simply couldn’t care less.
And as COVID delays have taken hold over the past year, planning applications seem only to be refused when the relevant amenity societies make an objection. It means the only thing holding up standards at all in Bloomsbury and Covent Garden is the small array of conservation societies across the three southern wards.
While this admittedly represents a real level of democratic involvement, it only takes a single error in communication for an inappropriate application to be approved. And once one is approved, it significantly lowers the overall standard that other applicants need to achieve.