‘Ludicrous’ and ’embarrassing’ planning expertise: a Lewisham councillor’s view

“You might as well have spoken to people at the bus stop”

Lewisham Gateway
‘Build at greater density and greater pace’, says Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock

The London School of Economics held an event earlier this week exploring the shape of the city’s development.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan attended the “Good Growth by Design” evening as a speaker, before a panel discussion and question and answer session.

Topics ranged widely, from issues such as diversity within architecture firms (limited), to London’s rising skyline, the stretched resources of council planning departments and the crucial topic of affordable housing.

There was also an interesting insight into the planning process in Lewisham and the expertise of council members.

Suzannah Clarke, a Labour councillor for Grove Park since 2010, revealed she had only had “about two hours” training before joining a planning committee.

It was “ludicrous” and “embarrassing” she said, recalling one meeting where an attendee criticised the expertise of a planning committee as worse than that of “people at a bus stop”.

In response, Sadiq Khan said he had served on planning committees for 12 years as a councillor in Tooting with no training at all. Talking to people and using common sense was enough, he suggested.

Lewisham, in common with many London boroughs, has been pursuing an ambitious building programme.

In a speech at the Lewisham Council AGM in March, the Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock outlined his council’s large-scale building ambitions. Citing the needs of 1,800 families living in temporary accommodation in the borough, he argued the need “to build at greater densities and to do so at a considerably greater pace than heretofore.”

“I was shown an email from a local resident recently bemoaning what had happened to Lewisham Town centre and urging us to rein in the planners,” he said.

“I do understand that seeing the borough changing as we accommodate London’s growing population is frustrating for some but if London is to deliver the 50,000 new homes each year far from reining in the Planners we need to give them the green light to use their skills and imagination to work along with their colleagues to find ways to build more not less – even in a borough as crowded as Lewisham.”

Other residents argue it is not development they oppose but the manner in which it is approved and executed.

The council’s sole opposition councillor John Coughlin of the Green Party believes the current administration is guilty of “kowtowing to major developers and failing to take proper account of the justifiable concerns of Lewisham residents.”

Several projects in the borough have caused considerable controversy in recent years, among them the Lewisham Gateway, the stalled New Bermondsey development and Leegate.

Further details

Read Suzannah Clarke’s contribution at the Good Growth by Design event (lightly edited for clarity).

“I’m Suzannah Clarke, I am a councillor in Lewisham. I have been seven years on a planning committee – I’m now chair of planning there and on strategic planning as well. You’ve talked about having expertise. The officers are the first port of call,  but the members are the last port of call… we’re there to scrutinise but we’re never given the tools to scrutinise.

I went on a planning committee with about two hours of training and it’s absolutely ludicrous. After the last elections for councils in our area we had a planning committee meeting and a lady walked out and said ‘well, some of those members had less idea than the people at the bus stop. If you had taken a selection of people from the bus stop you would have had a better decision.’

It was a embarrassing and I do feel that councillors should have much better training.”

A podcast of the “Good Growth by Design – A Vision for London” event can be heard on the LSE website. Ms Clarke’s contribution is 1hr 9 minutes in.

With thanks to the Guardian’s architecture and design critic Olly Wainwright whose Twitter coverage of the event alerted me to the comments.



Author: lewishamlately

I'm Jolyon and I started Lewisham Lately after fretting about the lack of news coverage for the borough. I have lived in south-east London for the majority of my adult life, including Camberwell, Peckham followed by the leafier realms of Hither Green from 2009. Now on the fringe of Lee Green and Lewisham Central. Feedback, story ideas, corrections, disagreements are all more than welcome. Please do keep it civil, though - the world's an angry enough place as it is.

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