Croydon Council has finally caught up with the advice from the government and public health organisations over the coronavirus pandemic and cancelled all Town Hall public meetings “until further notice”.
Even at the start of this week, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, the council’s £220,000 per year chief executive, still had a planning committee and sub-committee meeting listed on the council website as going ahead tomorrow evening.
But it means that Croydon residents may soon discover that there is one thing worse than the council’s planning committee, and that’s no planning committee.
A new notification has appeared on the council website. It reads: “Following on from advice from the Government and Public Health England to enforce social distancing and prevent the spread of coronavirus, it is no longer possible for meetings in groups of more than two to go ahead.
“For this reason, committees ‘held in public’ are cancelled until further notice.
“Currently, there is no provision in law for these decision-making meetings to be held virtually although it is hoped that this might become available shortly. We will continue to monitor this situation and will provide updates here.”
Yesterday, the government’s chief planner, Steve Quartermain, was actively encouraging councils to adopt “an innovative approach, using all options available” to continue with the planning process, and “to explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead”.
Here in Croydon, Negrini and her senior officials had already decided to use the covid-19 pandemic as cause to exclude the public from attending public meetings, including the planning committee, at which residents and their elected representatives, MPs and councillors, would normally expect to make presentations on some of the more controversial applications.
Now, Town Hall sources suspect that after cancelling public meetings altogether, the council intends to use this as an excuse to hand delegated powers to the council’s planning officials – who already have a well-earned reputation around the borough for being overly accommodating to developers.
They will have Quartermain’s note as an excuse for doing so.
In his note, issued from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, under the heading of “Covid-19 advice: Decision-making”, Quartermain wrote: “We understand that some councils are concerned about the implications of covid-19 for their capacity to process planning applications within statutory timescales.
“It is important that authorities continue to provide the best service possible in these stretching times and prioritise decision-making to ensure the planning system continues to function, especially where this will support the local economy.
“We ask you to take an innovative approach, using all options available to you to continue your service. We recognise that face-to-face events and meetings may have to be cancelled but we encourage you to explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead.
“We also encourage you to consider delegating committee decisions where appropriate. The Government has confirmed that it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period, which we expect will allow planning committees to continue. We encourage you to be pragmatic and continue, as much as possible, to work proactively with applicants and others, where necessary agreeing extended periods for making decisions…”.
Quartermain’s note also seemed to suggest that, if developers would not agree to delaying consideration of their applications because of the covid-19 emergency, that could be used as grounds to refuse permission for their scheme.
He wrote: “… In these exceptional circumstances, the authority can, if necessary, seek to agree an extended approval date with the applicant. Where agreement cannot be reached an authority may need to consider whether prior approval is refused if the application cannot be considered with the requisite attention.”
But as a Katharine Street source said today, “With powers delegated to the council’s planning officials, they are unlikely to refuse applications submitted from some of their more favoured developers.
“They could use the coronavirus emergency to push through more schemes, completely by-passing residents’ associations and local councillors.”
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