A WORRIED Windsor group has called the council’s move to scrap two planning panels for one overseeing panel ‘undemocratic’.

The Windsor and Eton society (WES) – a group set up in 1946 which represents the interests of Windsor and Eton residents especially in planning and development– has protested the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM) Council’s controversial decision to opt for a Borough-wide planning panel with nine sitting members.

The ruling Conservative’s voted in favour at a full virtual council meeting on May 26 to scrap both the Windsor and Maidenhead Development Management Panel for the Royal Borough Development Management Panel – which will be chaired by councillor Phil Haseler (Conservative: Cox Green).

This move will supposedly allow decision-making on planning to continue virtually during the coronavirus pandemic and save RBWM over £6,000 per year.

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In a statement released by WES, they stated: “We consider the proposals within the report and the small modifications agreed to be undemocratic and not in the public interest, nor will the proposals respect principles of best practice in planning procedure and decision making by elected members.

“It is difficult to comprehend how a single planning panel would work in an acceptable manner, given that Windsor and Maidenhead and their respective surrounding areas, have vastly differing townships in relation to size, social fabric, environment, history, heritage, etc.”

They added the two panels had 11 voting members each whereas the new overseeing panel only has nine – calling the reduction “undemocratic, lacking in transparency and an appropriate level of scrutiny, and unacceptable.”

The lead member for planning, councillor David Coppinger (Conservative: Bray), who drafted the proposal, said he fully intends to restore democracy and planning decision-making via virtual meetings after all decisions on planning were delegated to officers for three months following the lockdown.

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He said: “A councillor is not appointed to a Development Management Panel on the basis of representing a ward but to become a member of a quasi -judicial panel making decisions based on rules set locally and nationally

“In fact, rather than a few residents attending meeting it is now possible for every single resident to observe the meeting.

“The latest meetings software is not perfect because it relies upon internet connections and local systems. I have yet to attend a meeting where a number of attendees have not dropped out at some time. If a member drops out of any meeting they cannot vote on that item.”

He added: “Local knowledge is important – but it does not override planning law. If members were to make decisions which did not comply with the law the decision would be overturned at appeal.

“The panel will have nine members which enables representation from every political party and from every area of the Borough.”

The Windsor and Eton Society also stated RBWM have ‘failed’ in making a legitimate case for not keeping the panels and used other local authorities such as Oxford City Council who maintained their two planning panels for virtual meetings.

Anne Taylor, chair of the heritage and environment committee of WES, said: “There used to be 11 councillors on the Windsor panel and 11 on the Maidenhead panel. Then there was a Borough wide development panel with 13 and now they have reduced and collapsed all of these to nine councillors which we think is totally undemocratic and unnecessary.

“Local knowledge is important – but it’s the fact that they reduced them to this very small number as well and, as far as we are concerned, have no necessity and we created examples other council’s which are managing to continue and we think it’s undemocratic to have such a small quorum.”

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The group recognises the changes will be reviewed this December – but believes a review should be brought earlier with a possible return to the old two-way system.

Cllr Coppinger said a review of the Royal Borough Management Development Panel will take place in September with an all-party group and parish council members depending on the situation at that time.

He also noted the one planning panel can finish earlier but will require a decision of full council.

The panel is due to have its first virtual meeting on June 17.