Local residents in east Greenwich are demanding council leader Denise Hyland stands down from the borough’s main planning committee after it was revealed she is the only council leader in London who is regularly directly involved in taking decisions about major new developments.
The East Greenwich Residents Association has made the call following Hyland’s role in pushing through plans for a controversial cruise liner terminal in the area.
Hyland, who has led the council since June 2014, told the planning meeting that the terminal’s planned 31-storey residential tower was “nothing”, criticising residents for not bringing up air pollution fears when the proposals first came before the planning committee some years back – even though plans for the terminal have substantially changed since then.
She also said that on a trip to a cruise terminal in Southampton, she could not “see” any air pollution there – despite the fact that it is usually invisible. Her performance at the planning board earned her an appearance in this week’s Private Eye magazine.
The planning board shrugged off air pollution concerns about the London City Cruise Port, and the lack of any comprehensive, timely environmental assessment. It accepted developers’ claims that it would be too expensive to install on-shore generating equipment which would reduce the impact of ships spending extended stays at the terminal, despite European guidelines recommending this system is used.
Local MP Matt Pennycook and councillors Stephen Brain and Chris Lloyd were among the objectors, along with Tower Hamlets councillors and Isle of Dogs residents.
Research by EGRA – independently verified by this website – shows no other borough in London allows its leader such a prominent role in taking planning decisions, a role where politics should play no part.
Large or contentious decisions across Greenwich borough are usually taken by a committee of 14 councillors, called the Planning Board.
Most boroughs operate a similar system – though using different names for the committees – which usually see less high-profile cases taken by area committees.
But Denise Hyland is the only one of London’s 28 council leaders (a further four are run by elected mayors) to regularly sit on her council’s main planning committee.
The only other council to permit a formal role for its leader in planning decisions is the controversial Conservative-run authority in Barnet. But even here, Richard Cornelius is only a substitute member of its planning committee, deputising for his fellow Conservative councillors where necessary – a role he hasn’t carried out since June 2014.
Indeed, 13 out of London’s 32 boroughs only allow backbench councillors to take major planning decisions – removing any suspicion that may arise from having high-profile councillors taking sensitive formal decisions.
Of the 14 planning board meetings held since Hyland became leader, she has attended nine of them.
This continues a system which began under Hyland’s predecessor Chris Roberts, who started sitting on the planning board in 2007. Roberts did not take part in the 2011 meeting which gave the terminal its original green light, after appearing on TV promoting the scheme.
But Hyland – then regeneration cabinet member – did take part in that meeting, then praising the scheme as “world class”.
In May, ahead of the planning board’s decision, the London City Cruise Port’s chief executive Kate O’Hara was invited to the council’s £20,000 private mayor-making ceremony, attended by Hyland.
Advice from the Local Government Association says that “members of a planning committee… need to avoid any appearance of bias or of having predetermined their views before taking a decision on a planning application or on planning policies”.
Hyland’s successor in that role, Danny Thorpe, has inherited her position the board. Just six other boroughs – Barking, Camden, Harrow, Lambeth, Newham and Richmond – allow his counterparts to assist in making planning decisions.
In an open letter to Hyland, EGRA’s executive committee says:
“We are concerned that your presence as council leader alongside the regeneration cabinet member could make the planning board susceptible to political pressure and decisions made on policy and party lines rather than in the wider public or community interest.
“This concern is reinforced by your tendency and Councillor Thorpe’s tendency to sum up and make your positions known before voting takes place. The recent decision on the cruise liner terminal is a good case in point.
“Our community feels extremely frustrated at the way in which our attempts to raise legitimate concerns over the development of our area are not being taken seriously and are being batted away through a process that is less than scrupulous at times and is susceptible to what we perceive as potential political interference.
“We call on you to restore our confidence in the borough and the decisions it makes and we formally request that you step down from the Planning Board. We need to have confidence that our borough is making the right decisions for the right reasons and operating in the same way as other London boroughs as part of the statutory process.”
Residents are now pinning their hopes on London mayor Boris Johnson “calling in” the application to decide himself – a move supported by Liberal Democrat, Green and Conservative members on the London Assembly. Tower Hamlets Council has since backed away from its opposition to the scheme. A decision is expected soon.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that European money could have been available to help fund the London City Cruise Port fund on-shore generating equipment.
Trade publication Ship Technology, which accuses the developers of “cutting corners”, reports that the EU can fund up to half the costs of research and 20% of the costs of installation if a member state opts to use such a system. But councillors were not told this before they made their decision.
7pm update: Former Greenwich councillor Hayley Fletcher, who sat on the planning board alongside council leader Chris Roberts, responded to this story…