|Residents Groups Unconvinced By Ealing's New Planning Policy|
Consultation period extended but guidance on methods of informing residents ignored
Ealing Council have announced new arrangements for planning applications in the borough during the coronavirus outbreak. More time is being given to respond to applications but residents groups have criticised them for failing to address the issue of people finding it hard to learn of plans submitted that may affect them.
Previously the council’s primary means of notifying householders that a planning application had been submitted in their vicinity was by yellow site notices placed on lampposts and a press ad in the Ealing Gazette.
There have been a number of complaints that this is no longer a viable way of keeping people informed because of the lockdown which means that lamppost notices are unlikely to be seen and most residents are unable to get a copy of the newspaper in which notices are printed.
Ealing Council has doubled the consultation period for all major and most residential and small scheme planning applications from the statutory three weeks (21 days) to six weeks (42 days) but residents groups in the borough point out this is pointless if it is close to impossible for many residents to find out what is going on.
This new longer period is effective on all applications received from 14 April 2020 onwards. The council say new 42-day consultation date will appear on site notices, press adverts and in the council’s regular communications with the borough’s conservation area groups and resident associations. They claim they are committed to ensuring the public still have input into the planning process and that it remains as transparent as possible but local groups with an interest in the planning process dispute this.
Will French of Ealing Matters, an umbrella group for resident organisations in the borough said about the document published by the council on the issue, “Many problems exist with the publicity given to planning applications, and this document really doesn’t address them. The complaints about the 5G phone mast in Blondin park are a recent example. Local resident groups exist across the Borough who would like to help and the Council needs to work much more closely with them.
“It might be better to suspend planning committees entirely during the period of the epidemic rather than run them as proposed as live-screened virtual meetings. The economic slowdown will continue for a number of months and I can’t see the need to rush into introducing totally untested meetings now. The risks of things going wrong look pretty significant as when it comes to planning, Ealing is not exactly at the forefront of digital technologies. I am also concerned that those without the right equipment will be unable to view the meetings. They will be shut out of the debate completely.”
A spokesperson for the Bedford Park Society said, ““The Bedford Park Society has been consulted by Ealing Council about the proposed arrangements for planning applications and we are in the process of bringing our concerns to their attention. Whilst we are pleased that LBE will be continuing to post planning application notices on lampposts, which we believe is a key element in alerting neighbours to new applications, we are concerned that the Council’s proposals are not sufficient to fulfil their obligations to inform residents. We would like to see both Ealing and Hounslow councils using local online news media such as ChiswickW4.com to ensure that planning applications are effectively communicated to residents who are affected by them.”
The law states that for most planning applications a notice must be placed in a ‘newspaper in general circulation in the area’ but the Ealing Gazette has not been available in large parts of the borough for some time and residents’ groups had already been complaining that the council was not fulfilling its statutory obligations fully by relying on this publication. Concerns had been raised that planning applications could be vulnerable to a judicial challenge because of a failure by the council to comply with the law. Since the coronavirus outbreak the Ealing Gazette no longer appears to be being published. Copies of ‘The Gazette’, which previously covered other London Boroughs such as Hammersmith & Fulham, now seems to have had its coverage area expanded to include Ealing and copies have been placed at a distribution point in an Ealing Shopping Centre.
The government has issued guidance to local authorities on what they should do if a local newspaper is no longer being distributed. The advice relates to transport orders but is believed to be applicable to all public notices. It states, “Where all local papers for the area have closed down, the authority should consider what steps it can take in mitigation to ensure compliance with the intent of the legislation to inform members of the public through their local paper. The use of other media should be considered.”
Neighbour Net, the publisher of this site, has been arguing for some time that their sites are digital newspapers and, as the legislation does not specify that the publication used should be printed, they could be used for the publication of statutory notices. The intention of the legislation is to ensure as far as possible that residents are kept informed and therefore using the most effective means of doing so should be a higher priority than the type of media used.
Cllr Gary Malcolm, who represents Southfield ward in the borough said, “I have contacted the Director of Planning to ask whether the Council will agree for local websites covering areas like www.ActonW3.com, www.ChiswickW4.com to publish the weekly planning applications so more people can be encouraged to make their views known. Given Councils often use paper based newspapers alone and many have now either folded financially or are not publishing a paper copy of their newspapers it makes sense for Councils like Ealing to move to a more online method of informing residents.”
Ealing say they will be holding planning committees using digital technology which all members of the public will be able to watch in real time. A recording of the committee will remain accessible after the committee as an additional record . They also promise virtual forums with the Planning users’ group (PUG), an association of resident representatives and a ‘how-to guide’ for residents and the public to make more use of the council’s planning portal .
The council will now asking applicants to let their immediate neighbours know about their application and encourage them to notify them with the official site notice on the council’s website. If the application has been submitted by an agent, they will be requested to contact their client to advise them on the above procedure .
They have also committed to working with developers of major applications to look at how they can increase engagement with local communities. These initiatives could include developing digital platforms to inform, engage and consult with the widest range of local residents and groups.
Consultation letters will continue to be sent to conservation area groups and residents associations on all planning applications in their neighbourhoods and they will be asked to forward these on to their contacts in the local community.
The only planning procedure that will remain unchanged will be prior-approvals on larger residential extension proposals. Neighbours will continue to receive the statutory prior-approval application notice letter for these on properties that immediately join their developments. The existing 21-day consultation will remain unchanged on these ‘prior approval’ applications*.
Cllr Peter Mason, cabinet member for planning, housing and transformation, said: “Despite the restrictions imposed on us by the lockdown, the council is going to even greater lengths to ensure that we capture and take on board the public’s views about the planning applications being put before us. That’s why we’ve doubled the consultation period on the majority of applications, including large schemes, we’re going out to residents’ groups to get their views and we’re making more information available online.
“This will include using our online technology to help us reach a wider group of residents and groups who may not have been able to attend a committee meeting in person or who may be shielding. These virtual meetings will, I hope, help us to connect to a wider audience, get a broader input from our communities and be another tool that will hold us to account.”
When we asked Ealing Council for comment on the suggestion that sites like this one could be used to better inform the public ,their spokesperson said that if it was possible to use digital media to publish public notices they would use their own site instead.
May 3, 2020