Westminster Council goes transparent

Westminster, the council covering the administrative centre of the nation as well as the principle retail and entertainment areas of central London, only lost the title of ‘largest planning authority’ due to council mergers in the south-west. It remains the most important single council for the property development industry, which is why many have looked at it with concern over the last two years.

In keeping with its status, Westminster’s old approach was that development was generally good and the council wanted to help make it work. A political and planning committee lead was provided by Robert Davis, who was readily accessible to developers at formal and informal events. He kept close control on committee decisions – with only four members, the chair needed only one other to agree with him to get his own way. No members of the public could speak at committees.

Retrospectively this approach looks a hostage to fortune. Residents thought their views counted for nothing while the council ‘cooked up cozy deals’ with developers. It seems to have been partly responsible for the Conservatives’ loss of a seat to Labour in West End ward – which includes Mayfair, Soho and Fitzrovia.

So things are changing at Westminster. Out went Robert Davis, removed from committees and moved to a different cabinet role; he has now resigned as a councillor after a standards inquiry found his extensive gifts and hospitality amounted to a breach of the Code of Conduct. And this week the council said what it would do to “place residents at the heart of the planning process”.

Developers may be reassured that council leader Nickie Aiken heralded the changes in a speech to the Westminster Property Association, the group of major landowners and developers. She told them she was “setting an ambitious policy direction and freeing up those who know how best to deliver it”.

Westminster had called in the Planning Advisory Service to do a review. The council has accepted most of their recommendations (some, such as allowing public speaking at planning committees, were already the subject of pre-election pledges). But it is the non-tangible recommendation that is possibly the most important: the council has been faulted for being too reactive to development and doing too little to give developers a vision.

Oddly, one part of the review is finding that too many applications have been going to committee rather than getting delegated decisions. The Planning Advisory Service recommend councillors are directed towards major schemes, and allowed to get involved at an earlier stage with pre-application presentations. They also recommend a design review panel, although the council does not seem keen.

The review is short on detail, which will be decided by the Planning and City Development committee in November. Public speaking is promised to begin no later than 1 December.

Further change is coming. The council’s new City Plan is slated for next month, with Nickie Aiken saying her cabinet member is “ready to revolutionise what the City Plan and a reinvigorated planning service can achieve”. Development planning had been subsumed in a directorate also including housing, but with Westminster having separately decided to take housing management back in house, will now be in a separate Place-Shaping and Planning Directorate.

Developers need to react to all the changes in Westminster. While the council leadership wants to stay close to the development community, the first few months of the new major applications committee in Westminster have shown it is a far more unpredictable committee than its predecessor.

Now public opinion will be far more important than the ability to lobby the councillors.  Time to change your approach to Westminster Council?   Need help with public opinion in Westminster – ask us here.