Those who are familiar with the workings of council planning committees - and I speak as Chair of the local one in Isleworth and Brentford - will know pretty much how they work.
An application is made, consultation takes place amongst those concerned and an officer will produce a report which will conclude with a recommendation either for Approval or Refusal depending on his or her expert opinion based upon the available facts.
At the planning meeting elected members will discuss the report and form their own opinions on the strength of the information presented to them on the night. In doing so they will place much import on the expert opinion of the officer but will, on occasions, see things differently and vote accordingly.
I would like people reading this article, particularly those familiar with the planning process, to consider a completely fictitious scenario. Mr. Bloggs wishes to build an extension to the rear of his house. The proposed extension is hideous, too tall, out of sync with the street scene and will block out all of his neighbour's sunlight. He discusses his application with officers who feel that stringent conditions should be imposed before approval can be recommended. But Mr. Bloggs doesn't accept any of the conditions. He is in a hurry to build his extension because he wants to sell his house.
So when the application comes to Area Committee officers inform members that they should approve this clearly inappropriate development subject to the few conditions that Mr. Bloggs is prepared to accept. They acknowledge that the proposed extension will be the cause of great anxiety to his neighbours, but urge members to approve it and approve it quickly all the same because Mr. Bloggs wants to sell his house. He needs the money.
Anybody who has witnessed a debate at IBAC or any other Area Committee will know that such a conversation would never take place. Our officers, professionals to their fingertips, would urge the Committee to reject the application on the grounds that it was inappropriate, and that the actions of the applicant in refusing to accept conditions were unreasonable. The importance of the development to the applicant would not be a consideration. It would be a dereliction of duty to the neighbouring community were the officers or the members to proceed in any other way under such circumstances.
Now, imagine the applicant is called Thames Water. The date is 4th March 2009. The planning body is the Sustainable Development Committee. The full debate can be witnessed on the webcast by clicking here (you will need to download Real Player from the site if you don't already have it). The applicant, Thames Water, has refused to accept conditions suggested by our officers to protect the quality of life of those residents who will be affected by the proposed expansion of Mogden Sewage Treatment Works. And yet those same officers plead with elected members to approve the application and to do it now on the grounds that the applicant needs to get on with it "urgently".
As we know, after a few fine words had been uttered the majority on SDC cravenly kowtowed to Thames Water and to the officer recommendation to approve. The applicant, uniquely, had been allowed to dictate its own conditions and could now progress with its "urgent" expansion project and make lots more money for its shareholders at the expense of long-suffering residents of Isleworth and Hounslow South.
Odd then that, more than five months down the line, the same applicant has yet to put pen to paper and agree terms!
The reason? Because, emboldened by the unconditional co-operation of the local bureaucracy and the cowardice/gross stupidity of most of the members who took the decision to approve, it now feels confident enough to challenge even the feeble conditions which it had earlier condescended to accept. Comfortable in the belief that the officers will bend over backwards not to bring the application back to SDC for a third time, and that even if they do the members will gratefully adopt doormat status again, Thames is quite shamelessly trying to extract every last buck from a situation in which it probably still can't quite believe its luck.
So it would appear the "urgent" decision taken in March was not really quite so urgent after all. Culture change? Oh yes - believe me - it's coming!