The London Assembly Planning & Regeneration Committee held an open meeting earlier this week to hear from community groups on how they perceive the Mayor’s call-in process for planning applications in the capital and to explore how this process could be improved.
Listen to Locals was one of several groups participating in the discussion. You can watch the proceedings here.
This was a welcome initiative, having been discussed with candidates in the mayoral and London Assembly elections earlier this year when together with Just Space and FtWork we held several candidate hustings focused on community engagement in planning.
Discussion was in three parts:
1. How the call-in process is perceived by local communities
2. How can community groups be better engaged
3. Other concerns that need to be addressed
There was near unanimous agreement amongst participants that the process was perceived poorly, and as Michael Bach of the London Forum commented it is perceived by his membership as an automatic path to planning approval.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The call-in process could be a signal to London’s community groups that they have an opportunity to engage in a renewed discussion about the impact a planning application will have on their local communities; a recognition that planning reviews vary considerably amongst London’s 32 local planning authorities and the call-in process gives them assurance that issues that were missed at the local level are given full consideration.
Rather than a path to approval, the Mayor’s call-in could be a process that scrutinises evidence and provides a route that offers local communities constructive engagement, fairness and equity in decision-making, and ensures the promotion of health and wellbeing for all Londoners through the planning system.
No one disagreed with that.
Two contributions to the second and third parts of the discussion are noteworthy.
The measurement and assessment of impact – we discussed health, transport, environment and culture – is both a problem and an opportunity for the Mayor’s planning team.
It’s a problem because the majority of impact assessment reports which inform the Mayor’s decision on a given planning application focus on identifying risks and demonstrating how to mitigate them, and are undertaken as remote exercises by professional consultants. As a consequence they rarely reflect the actuality of how residents experience what is being assessed. Moreover, by the time the planning applications they support get to the Mayor’s office, they are often out of date. This is certainly the case with health impact reports which were produced pre-pandemic.
It’s an opportunity because planning impact – whether it’s health, transport, environment, culture, whatever – is what residents care about and the process of undertaking impact assessment could be a powerful channel to engage them and build consensus among stakeholders. We’ve seen how community engagement in the Health Impact Assessment builds trust between developer, local planning authority and local community. We’d like to shift the current approach to impact assessment from risk mitigation to a more active assessment of opportunities to improve local conditions through redevelopment and regeneration.
Lastly, we’d like to see far more transparency in the Mayor’s call-in process. Quite a few stories were shared in the discussion about the need for community groups to use the Freedom of Information (FOI) route to access information about a planning application once called in by the Mayor. Not only did these requests reveal activity that should have been made available openly and freely to all stakeholders (eg meetings between the mayor’s planning officers and the applicant) but they are also a time-consuming and costly process, requiring capacity and resource to pursue which is of course not available to most community groups.
We believe that improving the call-in process along these three lines will lead to better, fairer and more consentual planning decisions, and set the stage for delivering the housing that Londoners so desperately need.
Listen to Locals
11 November 2021