What has been the impact of Manchester’s delegated planning decisions and why did it take 20 weeks to move committee meetings online?
On 30 July, Manchester City Council will hold its first full planning committee meeting since 12 March. Ahead of the meeting, chief executive Joanne Roney admitted that the delegation formed to make decisions during lockdown was “not ideal”, but defended the process and said the panel did not “cherry-pick” applications.
Speaking to Place North West, Roney said: “The emergency Covid-19 arrangements in accordance with Government legislation were not ideal, and not a system that I would want to see continued for longer than necessary.
“The emergency planning delegation was instigated as a necessity because councils were obliged to follow national regulations around social distancing. Only a small number of planning applications were determined during this period and always with as much transparency as possible.”
The temporary three-person panel was made up of Roney, planning committee chair Cllr Basil Curley, and deputy chair Cllr Nasrin Ali. Perhaps its most contentious decision was the approval of developer DeTrafford’s Gallery Gardens, the latest phase of the developer’s Manchester Gardens residential scheme on Chester Road.
Plans for the 366-apartment project had been unsuccessful at two previous planning committee meetings, including the last one to be held before lockdown, having drawn criticism from local residents and councillors.
On 12 March, the committee could not reach consensus and Cllr Curley, who had the deciding vote, moved to refuse the plans. However, when the proposals were put before the three-person panel in April, they were approved.
Other major applications approved by the panel were:
- Alumno Group’s application to convert the former Church Inn pub into student accommodation
- One Manchester’s 140 affordable homes in Newton Heath
- An 11-storey building comprising 62 flats at Bowlers Yard on the corner of Pollard Street, from Scarborough International Properties
- The final phase of Rowlinson’s development of the former Stagecoach depot, comprising 40 apartments
- Forshaw Land and Property Group’s 25-storey residential tower on Great Ancoats Street
- Salboy’s 17-storey office block in Shudehill, which had previous approval as residential
- Ask Real Estate’s 22-storey, 300-bedroom Staycity hotel in Deansgate
Roney said: “These applications have not been cherry-picked, but rather they were the planning applications ready to be determined at the point of the meeting, as is always the case.
“The decision making process for these small number of applications has followed the arrangements agreed by full council prior to lockdown.”
She added: “Much of the usual process remained intact. The application reports were publicly available, the consultation process has still been in place, representations from the public were still received and considered by the delegation as normal.”
Dan Mitchell, director of planning consultant Barton Willmore, said it would be “naïve and cynical” to suggest that developers had been trying to “get applications through during lockdown on a less scrutinised basis” and have an “easier ride.”
Mitchell, who had praised the speed at which Manchester City Council adapted its planning processes at the beginning of lockdown, added: “You have to remember that before applications even go to committee, they are subject to a great deal of scrutiny from planning case officers and statutory consultees.
“It is not just a case of three people deciding, there is a rigorous process of assessment by chartered town planning professionals.”
However, some commentators, including Labour councillor Sam Wheeler, have been more critical of the three-person approach.
Piccadilly Ward councillor Wheeler, who opposed Salboy’s scheme on more than one occasion, voted in favour of the delegation committee when it was put to the council at the start of lockdown but has been outspoken about what he describes as its failings since, including how slow the council was to implement virtual committees.
“I don’t think [the panel] is what people thought it was. We thought it was going to be in place as an emergency measure while we got other systems set up,” he said.
Wheeler added: “Tameside managed to do virtual planning committee meetings and so did Westminster, which is a comparatively sized council [to Manchester] in terms of the amount of work it has to do and yet we couldn’t do it and the question is, why?”
Wheeler thought it was wrong that the chief executive, “who has no background in planning law” was making planning decisions.
Roney responded that it was “unfortunate” that the council was unable to pivot to virtual planning committees before now, but said it had been “working diligently” to get them up and running.
Several other councils across the region, including Tameside, Liverpool, Cheshire East and Wirral, were able to operate virtual meetings as early as April.
“We could only agree to a move to a virtual meeting when absolutely convinced the system worked, it was safe and secure, and that committee members had the training necessary to ensure they were ready for the change in process,” Roney said.
She also explained that Manchester’s virtual planning meetings would include “real-time representations from the public” – something that other authorities have not been able to implement.
Wheeler said the council had been told prior to the final set of delegated decisions, which included Ask Real Estate and Salboy’s proposals, that no more decisions would be made by the panel before the reinstatement of full committee meetings.
However, a further meeting of the panel did take place – although Cllr Ali was absent – and the Salboy scheme was approved by Roney, in line with officers recommendations, despite opposition from Curley.
Curley said it would be “wrong and unfair” to ask Roney to make a decision on the development when a virtual planning committee was so close to being organised. He worried that by deciding on the project the chief executive might be subjected to “unfair and adverse comment in the media”, according to the minutes of the meeting.