A Lewisham councillor revealed that he and his colleagues are being cautioned by council officers to vote in line with their recommendations before public planning meetings.
Councillor Liam Curran, who sits on the council’s main planning committee and represents the Sydenham Ward said councillors are not told how to vote but are often warned not to go against officer recommendations.
Curran said: “If they go against an officer’s recommendation and the applicant appeals and wins at planning appeal, then the council will have to pay costs. This is one-sided.”
A spokesman for Lewisham Council denied that that officers advised councillors on how to vote.
If an applicant’s planning application is refused planning permission then the applicant can appeal and a planning inquiry is held.
Curran said that a former head of the Planning Committee had admitted to him that when councillors went against an officer’s recommendation, they got it right more often than they got it wrong.
In the future, he said that he wanted the Council to make it clear to planning committee members that they were not obliged to always follow the advice of 0fficers.
He added: “We expect our officers to do their professional best in coming to a recommendation for decision. However, the reason why applications come to planning committee is because they are contentious for one reason or another.
If you think that, on balance, there are sufficient reasons for you to vote against the recommendation, you are entitled to and should do so, having weighed up all the evidence.”
Curran explained that councillors, especially new ones are not used to the system. As long as there are good enough grounds to vote against officer’s decisions then councillors should be able to.
Curran added: “The word of the officer isn’t gospel- but we do appreciate that they put a lot of work into their decision.”
Mayor of Lewisham, Damien Egan, said councillors did not have to agree with council staff’s recommendations.
“No members of the planning committee should feel an obligation to give judgement based on what is presented,” he replied.
A Lewisham Council spokesperson said: “Council officers attend meetings to advise councillors and answer questions. Councillors then objectively determine facts and draw conclusions from them without interference from anyone.
“Planning officers are discussing with Councillors about how to present information on the outcome of appeals.”
Curran had also submitted a member’s question asking how many appeals against planning committee decisions had been upheld and refused, but the information would not be available until the full council on January 23.