By Grainne Cuffe, Local Democracy Reporter
A councillor who said discussions during planning meetings are a “charade” and ‘NIMBYs’ should have less sway has been criticised by locals.
Councillor Leo Gibbons, vice-chair of Lewisham’s strategic planning committee, wrote a blog about a planning decision which was just about approved last December.
GS8 and Vabel plan to build 63 flats – 14 of those London Affordable Rent and six shared ownership – and a four-storey workspace building on the Blackheath Business Estate.
To do this they will demolish the current commercial units, along with 36 mature trees.
Members were tied four against and four in support, but the casting vote from the chair approved the plans.
Locals, along with members who voted against the development and a local councillor, voiced concern about disabled residents being plunged into darkness, the impact on the nearby brain injury recovery centre, and the loss of trees, particularly as the site is next to the A2.
The chair of the Blackheath Society also spoke against the plans, while the council’s own tree officer said the proposals would be “detrimental” to the area.
At the end of the meeting Cllr Gibbons put forward a motion to approve, citing ambitious housing targets.
In February he wrote a blog post describing the meeting, the reasons behind his decision, and on “whether hyper-local Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) opposition perpetuates the generational inequality we should all oppose.”
He said he became concerned during the meeting that the development would be rejected.
“On a usual night, I would sit in faint bemusement as colleagues act out a charade — we ask for clarification, we look again at that the cross-sections, we offer apologetic looks to objectors and we firmly ask our officers to make sure all planning conditions are enforced.
“It is a charade because we know the application is policy compliant before the night begins […] After the usual impassioned rant on immaterial considerations or a pained lament to our hands being tied, councillors will grant planning permission.
“But tonight is different. This application has not only generated considerable opposition, but the application itself has (potentially) solid grounds for refusal,” Cllr Gibbons said.
He went on to argue that the country is in a housing crisis, with many homeless people “trapped” for years in temporary accommodation and squalid conditions.
He said that sacrifices need to be made and councils should be honest with the public about that.
“While a few flats would have their amenity impacted, were we really going to act for the few and not the many?” he said.
He said planning committees never hear from homeless families who would benefit from new developments, and went on to criticise the current system for being hyper-localised and “tilting unfairly towards the well-to-do”.
Cllr Gibbons said the Government’s new planning reforms, which include scrapping S106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levies (CIL) in favour of a flat-rate levy, were positive.
The Government intends to have much more control after the reforms, dictating how many homes are built in an area instead of councils.
It plans to categorise land into protected, renewal, and growth – in the latter planning permission for housing would be automatically granted.
Critics, including the Labour Party, say the reforms will benefit developers and create a “generation of slums” from greenlighting potentially shoddy developments.
But Cllr Gibbons said: “Moving away from our ‘one-shot’ approach to planning engagement is good for democracy.
“By ‘front-loading’ or ‘up-streaming’ planning consultations, we can help achieve a more representative and democratic planning process.
“Less time-rich demographics can provide feedback at a single point when it is necessary. All in all, it will mean that planners and politicians will get a more holistic view when drafting their local plans, in an environment that offers them the space to see the bigger picture.”
Locals who opposed the Blackheath development were furious after reading the blog post.
Eamon Dyas said it was “laudable” that Cllr Gibbons “feels so passionately about the homeless problem in Lewisham”.
But he said: “While agreeing with Councillor Gibbons-Plowright that many objections to planning applications could be characterised with the soubriquet NIMBY, I feel that this unfortunate fact should not be used as part of an argument for abolishing the already weak powers that objectors to planning applications currently possess.
“The systematic reduction of the central Government grant over the past few decades has stripped the resources of local councils to the point where they struggle to maintain essential services.
“In the area of housing, where previously councils had the resources to directly build homes for those in need, they now find themselves reliant on profit-driven property speculators.”
Mr Dyas explained that he does not live directly by the site, but near it, and initially objected because of concerns about his asthma.
But he got more involved after meeting with disabled and vulnerable people who would be negatively affected.
He questioned what it would take for the committee to visit a site before making a decision and added that it “crucial” that local people’s input continues playing a role in planning decisions.
Cllr Gibbons told the local democracy service that he believes there needs to better consultation in planning and that he takes his role on the committee very seriously.
He said: “Local democracy in planning is extremely important, that’s why I would like to see consultations […] ‘up-streamed’ and work put in to ensure a wider spectrum of voices are heard in the process of formulating local planning policies.
“Any planning application should be thoroughly checked and examined in line with those democratically formed planning policies.
“I want a system where if you comply with those policies, you get planning permission.
“Given the current housing crisis, I welcome the inclusion of as much affordable housing in new developments as possible.
“But I also recognise that new developments can cause inconvenience for nearby residents and so I am always keen to see if concerns can be met or at least mitigated – unfortunately sometimes that just is not possible for applications that are policy compliant.”
In response, Mr Dyas said if the wider spectrum of voices Cllr Gibbons referred to included homeless families, they would be “just another tool in the developer’s armoury”.
He said: “It would only be natural for a homeless representative to agree to any development that promises them homes irrespective of the quality of the proposed development or the impact that it might have on the people living in the immediate vicinity, some of whom may have previously been homeless until housed by the council through the social housing programme – as is the case with the Blackheath Business Estate proposal.”
Mr Dyas said current planning laws “already hugely weighted” in favour of the developer.
“The development at Blackheath Business Estate is the result of the desperation which Lewisham Council now finds itself and the decision represents a new low in terms of what they find acceptable,” he said.
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