Residents allowed to speak at committee meetings - as officers given more powers

Oxford St buses

Oxford Street in Westminster

Westminster city council is to give residents a bigger say in the determination of major planning applications by allowing them to speak at committee meetings for the first time in decades.

Council leader Nickie Aiken said the change, which is aimed at boosting participation and transparency, would come into force next month and give residents a direct opportunity to offer their opinions in decision-making meetings. Currently residents’ views on schemes must be relayed via a councillor.

The measure follows a review of the way Westminster determines planning applications that was conducted by the Planning Advisory Service (PAS), which offers support to councils and is part of the Local Government Association.

Other reforms are expected to see the number of planning applications put before councillors for decision reduced.

A report to members of Westminster’s top-level cabinet in October said the PAS review found planning officers should be empowered to take more delegated decisions – in consultation with neighbourhood councillors.

It said the move would free up time at committee meetings for more in-depth discussion of bigger schemes “involving substantial impact on the city as a whole or those schemes with a strategic importance for the city”.

Renzo Piano's Paddington Cube

Renzo Piano’s Paddington Cube

The report said that examples of Westminster’s current processes being unnecessarily bureaucratic included cases with no objections that were recommended for approval being referred to councillors for a decision.

Other unnecessary requests for decisions included elements of the council’s own regeneration schemes being put to meetings when they could have been dealt with by officers.

In her New Year message to residents, Aiken said she had pledged to lead a transparent administration and “put the people we serve in the driving seat in a way not seen before” when she was re-elected as council leader.

“We’re acting on that pledge in a number of ways,” she said. “Next month we will hold the first planning meeting at which residents will be able to address the room directly, rather than through a councillor.

“This is the first time in half a century that this has been possible. It is part of a new drive to make sure that planning really serves the interests of local people, and is and is seen to be transparent.

“At the earliest stage, local people will have a more powerful voice in what is built on their doorstep. Of course we want developers to invest in Westminster, but with the caveat that if you build in Westminster, you build for Westminster.”

Aiken did not refer directly to other aspects of the Planning Advisory Service review on the city council’s planning operations. 

Members of Westminster’s planning and city development committee are due to be updated on proposals for revising the call-in and delegation processes for applications later this month. Additional measures also include plans to live-stream planning committee meetings.

Evelyn House

Hopkins Architects’ proposals for 66-68 Oxford Street, which will replace an existing Edwardian building and a later 20th-century structure. The Victorian Society has long-standing concerns about officers’ recommendations on the scheme.

In her New Year message, Aiken cited Westminster’s approach to the redevelopment of the Oxford Street district, which covers the shopping street and its immediate neighbourhoods, as an example of its drive to listen to residents more.

“We turned down an earlier version of proposals for this site precisely because we didn’t believe it had listened enough to the views of those who live in the surrounding neighbourhoods,” she said.

“It is easy to court cheap popularity by approving something; but when our residents express genuine and widespread concerns, we are going to say no.

“One area where we heard local people loud and clear was on housing. That’s why we took the decision to bring our housing arm, CityWest Homes, in-house simply because it’s failing to look after our residents.

“Repairs were slow or non-existent, and tenants didn’t feel we cared. Over the coming months, they will see a transformation of that service as our estates are regenerated and CityWest Homes is revolutionised with our tenants and lessees at its heart.”

Aiken did not specify when in February residents would be able to participate in planning committee meetings.

The last meeting of the planning and city development committee – which does not decide applications – was in November.

It received an update from the head of planning, John Walker, who pointed to a significant decline in major applications subject to planning performance agreements being submitted to the authority.

_index Bell Phillips Architects_Cosway Street residential_Marylebone

Bell Phillips Architects’ Cosway Street flats in Marylebone