Councillor Daniel Morgan-Thomas (Wanstead Village, Labour) explains why legal obstacles forced him to vote in favour of the recent application to demolish a local Victorian house, despite his better instincts
Despite nearly three years on the council, joining the Planning Committee in 2021 was a daunting prospect. This meant consulting the local, regional and national policy documents that frame planning decisions for Redbridge and having a refresher on material planning applications. These are a narrow set of criteria on which planning decisions are made, defined by law.
At the core of the planning system, there is now a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and the council has additional limitations, imposed by the government in response to Redbridge’s failure to meet Housing Delivery Test targets. All this means applications for housing have a tilted balance in their favour when decided by either officers or committee; members must demonstrate adverse impacts which significantly outweigh the benefits of a housing development before considering to refuse such applications.
Nevertheless, sitting on the Planning Committee remains a quasi-judicial role and it is essential to approach applications with an open and enquiring mind. An overwhelming majority are decided by officers (following changes in national planning guidance) so those that come to the committee are of strategic importance or particularly controversial. Committee members must familiarise themselves with detailed reports from officers so we can make decisions based on material considerations defined by law in a transparent way. This is especially important as any suggestion of bias or political interference – voting on party lines is forbidden – can be grounds for an applicant to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate; if found at appeal to have refused permission unlawfully, councils (so taxpayers) must meet the developers’ costs, which can run to hundreds of thousands of pounds.
All this is very different from my usual role as a ward councillor, which involves championing residents’ views. Some applications generate relatively little opposition, but the recent case on Sylvan Road caused a lot of upset. As I said at the committee meeting, the concerns were justified: the proposal meant the destruction of a Victorian house for the building of flats, which in much of Wanstead Village would be far harder to receive approval for because of Conservation Areas. Unfortunately, the presumption in favour loomed over the committee: while residents spoke eloquently against the development, it seemed very likely that had it been refused, then it would have been allowed at appeal for failing to take sufficient consideration of the tilted balance. It goes against the grain to approve something that residents have protested, but joining the committee has shown me just how tightly national government has restricted planning powers in local government. Unfortunately, residents will continue to be short-changed by a planning system that places ever more power in the hands of developers.
To contact Councillor Daniel Morgan-Thomas, visit wnstd.com/cllrdmt