Planning Committees are a major function of government. In theory they are required to work on the basis of an extensive set of national, regional and local guidelines. Its members are supposed to go for regular training and to take an interest in matters of architectural design, a lot of advice on which is designed specifically for them.
There is a general presumption in favour of development. In other words a proposed development is deemed to be good unless specific faults can be found with it in terms of planning guidelines. Not only that but the guidelines are only that, guidelines, so it can always, and often is, argued that there are reasons for not adhering to them in specific instances.
The seeming tight constraints of the guidelines can therefore, when there is a will to achieve a result irrespective of them, dissolve into background words to which the majority of those involved have no knowledge and or no interest. This was certainly the way things looked in the case of the Planning Committee that determined that there were no significant problems requiring resolution before approval in the case of the application to build a new school, the Bolder Academy on Metropolitan Open Lane at the end of MacFarlane Lane (next to Osterley Tesco).
OWGRA demonstrated that a number of key claims made by the applicant and by the planning officers were either false or misleading. Thus, for example
(1) The officers claimed that Tesco had entered into an “informal agreement” that parents of Bolder pupils could use the Tesco car park for park and stride purposes. OWGRA gave evidence that there was no informal agreement and that Tesco had said no more than that they would not, as matters stand, actively seek to prevent parents doing that. The answer to our evidence? Nothing.
(2) The applicant made no mention of using Grant Way in their application and yet the officers made a great deal of its use without saying that this was not in the application. We pointed this out and asked how it was that arguments which had nothing to do with the application were being used. The answer to our point? Silence.
(3) OWGRA asked, and a couple of councillors asked, what efforts had been made to contact Sky about using Harlequin Avenue. We even pointed out that it could not be out of the question because Transport for London was thinking of using it. The answer from the developer and from the officers? Total silence, not even an attempt to pretend that things were otherwise.
(4) OWGRA argued that TfL had withdrawn its objections to the application for no apparent reason since all the reasons for its original objection remained in place. Requests to TfL brought no explanation. The officers and the applicant did not feel that this was important enough to express any view.
(5) OWGRA used the applicant’s own papers to show that the estimates for the extra car journeys along Syon Lane which will be generated by the Nishkam school was “optimistic” and that, using data from the Nishkam school, it was clearly wildly optimistic. Therefore, OWGRA argued, there was a need to consider realistic figures for the cumulative effect of both schools. To this the planning officer at the meeting (Marilyn Smith) had an answer. She said that Nishkam should not enter into the consideration because it had already been approved.
In all this the chair of the meeting made not the slightest attempt to ensure that questions were answered or that when they were the answers should be such as to help councillors come to a sensible judgement. Half the councillors present showed no sign of having entered into the detail of the application or of the objections raised to it.
The officers’ report was presented as if no previous discussion had taken place. Thus time was spent to argue the need for the school even though that was not in question. Similarly time was taken to repeat what was written in the officers’ report about the design of the building even though that too was not the basis for any sustained objection (one councillor had said she didn’t like the design). No time was given to making any effort to answer points such as those above. Moreover inaccurate and misleading statements in the officers’ report were repeated while ignoring objections which had been raised to them.
After a few contributions from councillors following the presentation of the officers’ report councillor Shantanu Rajawat moved that the officer’s recommendation for approval be accepted and 12 out of the 15 councillors voted for his motion.
In my view OWGRA made an excellent presentation. That from the applicant was notably weak, especially on transport matters. The officer presenting the application made no attempt to answer the objections raised by OWGRA. The chair of the meeting made no effort to ensure that such answers should be forthcoming. Some councillors, including Toni Louki and Sheila O’Reilly from Osterley and Spring Grove ward, asked substantial questions but these had no impact in a meeting which was seen by the majority of councillors present as a matter of approving a new school whatever the details i.e. irrespective of any planning problems.
OWGRA was not opposed to the school and even made positive proposals (which were ignored) as to how access to it could be improved.
It is through meetings of public bodies like this that democracy is brought into disrepute. One had the sense of a juggernaut for which the direction had been decided in advance and for which no objections from mere voters could make any difference. Most people do not follow the detail but they get a general sense of people in positions of authority making decisions on the basis of schemes of their own (the school was part of a never disclosed master plan for the creation of the two schools and the transfer of the Grasshoppers’ Rugby Club) with no concern for views coming from the local electorate. The same people bemoan the low participation in elections and in political affairs generally. In my view decisions made in manner of this meeting of the planning committee are what bring local democracy into disrepute and are a strong discouragement to anyone inclined to show a sense of civic responsibility by trying to contribute to local decision making.